Written in 2000, shortly before the author’s 75th birthday, this book is an account of Mahasweta’s childhood experiences at the celebrated Visva-bharati school, founded by Rabindranath Tagore in Santiniketan. Her studies took place between 1936 and 1938, under the supervision of India’s most celebrated poet-playwrightcomposer-philosopher-environmentalist, and the book is a record of a magical, Hogwarts-type experience, with the fantastical factor upped by Mahasweta’s uncertainty over facts and truths as a result of her advanced age. ‘Am I recounting all the details accurately? Who knows?’ she asks.
In a sense though these are her truths. Even if she constantly doubts them. And the suggestion throughout is that any history will be constructed in this manner – not exactly subjective in the strictest sense, but a product of both the mental and physical circumstances in which a narrator finds themselves at the moment of writing. A friend made her do it, the author points out, before lamenting, ‘Alas, the occasion for writing this book has come at a juncture when, what with my advanced age and frustrating challenges of my activism [championing the causes of India’s women and marginalised peoples], I don’t get time to write’. This is shortly before conceding that even in the twilight of her life (she died aged ninety in 2016) she writes an awful lot, but not what she would call ‘literature’. Although others would.
If this book is in part a meditation on the process of ageing, it is also an explanation of the idyllic experiences and philosophy on which
Tagore’s education system was based. Classes were intense but mainly outdoors. Animals listened in. Students were required to learn the names and the uses of the plants that surrounded them. Class and background counted for nothing. Work was not graded (as far as Mahasweta remembers). Physical education was part of the core curriculum, as were music, and theatre. All this, Mahasweta asserts between lyrics from schooltime songs remembered correctly or incorrectly, prepared her to embark on the literary and activist career that made her famous. The overall impression, however, remains one part fact and one part fairytale. You had to have been there (as the author continuously and mischievously hints) to know which is which. Mark Rappolt