Chotti Munda and His Arrow

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“All’s a story in Chotti Munda’s life,” we’re told near the beginning of Mahasweta Devi’s Chotti Munda and His Arrow, a novel that tells of the eponymous Chotti and his Munda village across seven decades in colonial and postcolonial West Bengal. “Munda language has no script. So they turn significant events into story, and hold them as saying, as song. That’s their history as well” (18). But this is a history that has often gone untold. The Munda people are among the so-called Tribals or Adivasi, the indigenous groups that make up almost 10% of India’s population but remain at the margins (at best) of the country’s national imaginary. Devi’s novel thus rescues an alternative history that troubles and even subverts the official narrative, revealing its blindspots and silences.

Not the least of this book’s subversions is the fact that it forcefully refuses any gesture towards national allegory. Whereas, say, Saleem Sinai, protagonist of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, is born symbolically at the precise moment of India’s independence, Chotti Munda is born much more prosaically sometime at the beginning of the twentieth century. Which means that he is almost fifty when the Indian state comes into being on August 15, 1947. But the event hardly enters into his story; independence is a matter for the “Dikus,” the Hindu majority who impinge on the Mundas’ world as landowners, merchants, and shopkeepers. “The August movement did not even touch the life of Chotti’s community. It was as if that was the Dikus’ struggle for liberation. Dikus never thought of the adivasis as Indian. They did not draw them into the liberation struggle.” Yet on the other hand this makes the Tribal perspective a rather good one for assessing the achievements (or otherwise) of the nation-state, given that the adivasis “stand at a distance and watch it all” (96). Among the stories told here, then, is the story of India; what the novel refuses is the way in which allegory enforces an identification between character (and reader) and nation. However much it imitates the myth-making tendencies of folklore, and despite (or even because of) its keen interest in the workings of culture and power, the history told in Chotti Munda and His Arrow is posthegemonic.

Chotti himself has an ambivalent relationship to the story-telling and myth-making that surround him. As a teenager, against family warnings, he is drawn to Dhani Munda, his sister’s grandfather-in-law, who has fame as a rebel (he passes on the history of Birsa Munda’s late nineteenth-century revolt against the British) and as an archer. No one else wants to hear the old man’s stories, so Chotti becomes their guardian when he asks Dhani to teach him to shoot arrows; and by doing so he also “becomes a part of the epic” (7). When Dhani dies, killed by the colonial police for breaking an order expelling him from the region, Chotti takes on his legacy and earns a reputation as an archer with a magic arrow who wins tournaments at every local fair. He finds he now has the “responsibility of keeping alive the legend that is growing up around him as he wins stake after stake. But he hadn’t wanted to be the hero of legend” (32-3), and he resists the notion that there is anything supernatural or magic about his prowess. The secret, he tells anyone who asks, is simply repetition, practice: “That practisin’ is t’spell” (25). And this is the lesson that he later passes on to a younger generation in turn, that they can reshape their bodies through practice, habitual adaptation to the bow: “Spell, spell, all see me spell. Look at me hand man, hard wit’ pullin’ t’ bowstring. I practice all t’ time. Will ye?” (50).

(Devi’s translator, Gayatri Spivak, renders Munda speech in English with an odd patois that seems to be half African American, half Yorkshire. This works in so far as it is a constant reminder of linguistic and cultural difference; the reader–this reader, at least–is always set slightly on edge. But much fluency is also lost, especially given how much the novel relies on dialogue. It is as though the Mundas are perpetually either slightly taciturn or strangely stuttering, even when talking among themselves.)

Chotti thus becomes an agent of continuity and tradition over a seventy-five year period (three generations) in which everything changes and yet nothing changes. Everything changes in that, beyond the departure of the British and the transition to independence, modernity and economic development also transform even this relatively remote landscape of rivers and forests. The railway comes, and even if the train doesn’t always stop, it means “modernity, power, machine” (49). The station is enlarged and Chotti notes that “everything seemed to be changing with the Mundas” (107). Eventually, the arrival of motorcars and movies confirm that the village enters “the modern age” (222). Meanwhile, “the Mundas and lowcastes of Chotti village enter the national economic pattern of independent India” (140) and capitalist relations of commodification and wage labour replace traditional communal ties: “The day is coming. Mundas will not be able to live with their identity. [. . .] Then there’ll be a shirt on his body, perhaps shoes on his feet. Then the ‘Munda’ identity will live only in festivals–in social exchange” (110). Not that the Tribals are simply unwilling victims of these transformations: when feudal, bonded labour is banished it is the landowner who finds himself stuck in the past as his workforce demand that the new law is enforced, and refuse to collect the harvest otherwise, much against his wishes.

If Chotti is not particularly sentimental about the transformations he witnesses (and in fact encourages) over the course of his long lifetime, it is perhaps because in other ways so little changes. In the final, violent showdown over the shift from bonded to wage labour, two agents of the Youth Congress who have been instrumental in repressing the Naxalite insurgency under Indira Ghandi’s State of Exception, the “Emergency,” are killed in the forest. One, named Romeo, had been especially brutal. But when he is killed, and as Chotti Munda considers the inevitable police reaction to come, “terror like we’ve never seen” (285), the narrator muses that “There are adivasis, there are subcastes, the Romeos kill them, it happens like this. But if one or a few adivasis kill the Romeos it is an unexpected event. The Romeos kill, they are not killed. This is the rule. Under all regimes” (283). And though this is in some ways a disheartening observation, in that there seems no end to the villagers’ subaltern status, it is also a source of some comfort: the adivasis will endure this injustice, as they have endured so many before. Or as the outcaste (“untouchable”), Chhagan puts it to Chotti when they go down to the riverbank to discuss the latest crisis, “All’s changed. [. . .] But t’ river’s t’ same.” To which Chotti, who himself is named after the river and is almost as unperturbable, responds: “Nothing’s changed. Just t’ pressure’s on t’ rise” (276).

At the novel’s conclusion, this identification between Chotti and the river becomes explicit, as does the notion that the subaltern is outside of history, not because history has left them behind but more because they see things from the perspective of eternity. At a village festival, in the tense aftermath of the killing of the Youth Congress members, Chotti revives memories of the past as he steps forward to compete in the archery contest. But first he takes a megaphone and, in front of the local administrator as well as the whole community, shoulders the blame for the murders so as to forestall further violence. Then he invokes his former teacher, who six decades earlier had taught him both the art of the bow and arrow and the language of rebellion, as he

says fast in the language of the Mundas, Dhani Munda! I’m raisin’ yer name an’ shootin’ yer arrer today. To stay true, meself to meself.

Chotti comes before the target with light and fast footsteps. And tells everyone, No fear y’all. Then he shoots, into the target.

Then he waits, unarmed. As he waits he mingles with all time and becomes river, folklore, eternal. What only the human can be. Brings all adivasi struggle into the present, today into the united struggle of the adivasi and the outcaste.

The novel’s final lines see Chotti still waiting to see the administrator’s reaction, as “a thousand adivasis raise their bows,” a multitude pronouncing “a warning announced in many upraised hands” (288), a declaration from outside of history that this time, perhaps, history itself may change for good, and a new story be told.

Contrabando

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Víctor Hugo Rascón Banda’s Contrabando tells the story of a playwright and scriptwriter living in Mexico City, much like Rascón Banda himself, who returns to his childhood home of Santa Rosa in the northern state of Chihuahua. He has to write a script, and what better place than this remote former mining village? “You’ll be able to rest, sleep in as long as you like, far from the hubbub of that awful metropolis,” his mother promises him in a letter. “You’ll have the time to write, uninterrupted.” And her son agrees: “here, where there is no electricity or telephone, I can stumble upon the ghosts that become characters and the rumors that turn into plots. All I have to do is go down to the river and listen to the washerwomen [. . .] or pop into the billiard hall and see how the balls run into each other on the green felt to break the tedium” (24).

What the narrator discovers, however, is anything but a rural idyll. It turns out that “death arrived in Santa Rosa, and now it doesn’t want to leave” (97). The place is full of ghosts all right, as well as characters, rumors, and plots. But whatever story he hopes to write is constantly interrupted by other stories, of violence, revenge, and betrayal, that urgently need telling but somehow cannot (yet) be told.

One after another, the tales that this book tells reveal a reality that has yet to make its way to the capital. “There they know nothing,” says one of the first people that the narrator meets, a woman called Damiana Caraveo, on the road to Santa Rosa. Caraveo is described as “the very image of a mournful death, or of the soul in pain of a woman still unburied” (12). Learning that she is talking to a writer (though disappointed that he doesn’t write corridos, the popular songs of the region), she bids his attention: “Just look, though they should know. Here in the Sierra, something bad happened, a whole lot of killing or whatever you want to call it” (12-13). And she proceeds to describe a skirmish in which twenty-four people (including most of her family) were killed, for which she was framed and then jailed as the putative leader of a drug-trafficking gang. Yet having told her side of things, Caraveo wonders why she has bothered: “As for my version of what happened [. . .] why am I telling it, what’s the point? Who’s going to believe me?” (22). And yet she carries on with her narrative, as though in the vain hope that there may be someone to hear her.

Indeed, the stories tumble out, twenty-three of them in total, like a chain reaction: each title picking up on a phrase from the sentence of the story that precedes it. So the final line in Camaveo’s tale is “I remembered the reasons for my voyage,” and the next story is “The Reasons for my Voyage,” which ends with the declaration “I am Jacinta, Jacinta Primera,” in turn setting up the story “Jacinta Primera.” And so on, until the last word of the final tale, which is “contrabando,” looping us back to the title of the book itself.

The various segments of this tightly woven chain, however, often take very diverse forms, with a host of different narrators or none at all: there are first-person narratives, testimonio-style, in the voice of rural peasants; there are the diary-like accounts of the Mexico City scriptwriter, the apparently autobiographical presence of Rascón Banda himself; there is dialogue, stream of consciousness, an open letter “to whom it may concern” that turns out to be a suicide note; there is a playscript, and ultimately also a filmscript, apparently the text that the narrator came to Santa Rosa to write. Each one is laced with the fear, uncertainty, and tragedy of a world in which everyday life has been turned upside down by new flows of capital, new fluctuations of allegiance, and new forms of killing as the drug trade takes hold.

Running through the disparate vignetts are some narrative repetitions and continuities. In particular, we follow the disjoint mystery of the narrator’s cousin, Julián, the town’s mayor, who has disappeared a couple of days before the writer arrives. It looks increasingly as though he has been kidnapped. But by whom? The traffickers or the police? The problem is that it is hard to distinguish the two. Sometimes, in the aftermath of one incident or another, you cannot tell if those involved were “narcos with police ID or police disguised as narcos” (87). And whether for reasons of subtefuge, betrayal, or a pragmatic attempt to survive in an increasingly slippery social landscape, people shift between the different sides such that it is misleading to talk even of “sides” at all: “Nobody knew who was who, local or stranger, poor or rich, narco or authority” (103) But everyone is someone; nobody can escape. Though we never learn Julián’s fate, and he and the narrator never cross paths, at one point it is suggested that the writer’s arrival, even though it took place after his cousin’s disappearance, was somehow to blame:

Julián’s kidnapping, said my uncle grasping me by an arm, has to do with you and these papers. [. . .] Worse still, he added in a serious voice, looking me in the eyes, we could say that you are in part guilty of what happened to Julián. No, not in part, he corrected himself, you are the sole reason why my son is disappeared. Why the Hell did you have to come and screw us over, if we were at peace here. (112)

In the insistent chain of reasons and causes, the narrator suddenly finds himself bound fast. Like everyone else, he is unknowingly responsible in a world in which agency is everything, because you have to be continually on your toes, even as it is steadily annuled by force of circumstance. As Damiana Caraveo observes, “When things are going to happen, there’s no way to stop them” (17). Caught up in what is repeatedly described as a “nightmare,” Rascón Banda comes to partake in a generalized condition of responsibility without power, guilt without either intent or the possibility of redemption.

At the end of the book the final vignette is a coda, written (we are told) three months after the narrator has left town, having departed only by the skin of his teeth as his driver ran a roadblock and soldiers fired on their car. With his right hand in a cast, he has to write with his left, telling anyone who asks about his injuries that he’s been bitten by a caterpillar, “the kind they have in the Sierra” (208). Meanwhile he receives another letter from his mother, this one much less sanguine than the one that originally invited him home for rest and uninterrupted writing. “I don’t want you to set foot in this town again,” she says. “Here nobody knows who is who. [. . .] Damiana Caraveo is right when she says that you look like a narco or a policeman, which in any case is the same thing. What’s more, you dress like them. It’s not worth you running the risk.” Finally, she tells her son to “Forget what you saw and heard here. Pretend that it was nothing more than a bad dream” (209). And in response the narrator tells us that he “will burn everything that I wrote in Santa Rosa, that’s what I promised my mother” (210).

What is more, it seems that the person who commissioned the screenplay that first motivated the journey north does not much like it: he wanted a love story, rather than a narco revenge narrative. The playscript finds better success: the piece will be put on in Mexico City’s chic Zona Rosa, with a mechanical scenography that will produce “real waves” that the audience can actually touch. Yet the narrator hardly believes this will happen: “They say that in the theatre, plans fall through and never become reality” (211). So Rascón Banda ends the book telling us that, so he can “forget Santa Rosa,” all that remains is for him to type up (literally, “mechanize”; “pasar a máquina”) the lyrics of the corridos that will be played in the show. As Sophie Esch observes, “The man of letters is no longer a writer, just a copyist” (“In the Crossfire: Rascón Banda’s Contrabando and the ‘Narcoliterature’ Debate in Mexico” 172). The rest is silence. Except that the last word takes us back to the book’s title and the sequence starts up once more, like some hellish Groundhog Day replaying the dissolution of the letrado subject in the webs of drug war violence.

In the end, Rascón Banda does and does not keep his narrator’s promise to his mother (and himself) to forget all he has seen and burn all he has written in Santa Rosa. The manuscript of Contrabando won the prestigious Juan Rulfo prize for a first novel in 1991. Yet the book was not published for almost two decades, until after its author’s death in 2008. By the time it belatedly appeared, at the height of President Felipe Calderón’s ill-conceived war on the cartels, the level of drug violence in Mexico had exponentially increased, and the scale of the killing was such that it could no longer be ignored or denied. Perhaps stories like Damiana Caraveo’s could finally be told and find an audience. Or perhaps it is that now the entire country finds itself in the bind of disempowered responsibility that Rascón Banda describes, caught in a deadly cycle of causes and consequences that has no clear endpoint.