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An Opportunity Lost


Madhumita Chakraborty

ETHNIC WORLDS IN SELECT INDIAN FICTION
By Juri Dutta
Sage, Delhi, 2014, pp. 152, Rs. 695.00

VOLUME XXXIX NUMBER 8 August 2015

Ethnography can be defined as the systematic study of people and cultures—an exploration of cultural phenomena from the point of view of the subject of the study. By this definition, a large amount of literature that we read is indeed ethnographic and diverse, even though it may only be a documentation instead of a faithful and authentic representation. Juri Dutta’s Ethnic Worlds in Select Indian Fiction claims to be the ‘first of its kind’ study of ethnographic fiction from ‘different regional languages of India’. Yet, as the text expands, it ends up being a study of primarily writers from the North East region—Yeshee Dorjee Thongchi, Rong Bong Terang, Lummer Dai, Sishuram Pegu—with a few ‘others’ thrown in from outside the region—Narayan, Mahasweta Devi, Pratibha Ray and Maitrayi Pushpa. The latter category are obviously those writers who also write about tribal/ ethinic cultures, even though they may or may not be tribal themselves. And Dutta undertakes her study as a comparative one, although the points of comparison have no connectivity with each other. Although the book is an honest attempt to bring focus on a hitherto neglected area of Indian literature from the North East, and particularly from Assam, I feel that it doesn’t entirely succeed in its mission. However, there are some positives. It educates readers from outside the area on the historiographic and prevailing discourses on literature in Assam, beginning from the 12th century and till the present day. The whole idea of the Assamese language is of course crucially linked to the identity politics and linguistic identity of the state. Dutta then goes on to discuss the ideas of insider/outsider for the creative writer and the issue of ‘shifting identities’. The subsequent chapters of the books—‘forests, human rights and development’, ‘folkloristic’ ‘materials in ethnic novels’ and ‘feminist readings’— aim at various writings on tribal/ethnic communities, choosing a variety of writers from North East and Eastern India. The chapter on forest rights discusses, among others, Pratibha Ray’s Adibhumi, published in 2001 in translation, a work that was heavily critiqued by the Bonda tribe members and others for doing ‘serious damage to the moral ethics of the community’ (Dutta: 77). Dutta argues in this chapter that whether it is Thongchi, or Ray, or even Mahasweta, all of them express the fear of destruction of an ethnic way of life by a new ...


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