Our Santiniket­an

- by Mahasweta Devi, translated by Radha Chakravart­y Seagull Books, ®¯$10.99 (hardcover)

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

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