Mahasweta Devi’s Chotti Munda and His Arrow expose the tribal history of the Munda community and others, with colonial and post-colonial history. Devi attempts to highlight tribal history to emphasize their social lifestyle and their struggles for their rights and livelihood. Besides, she also unfolds how they were treated and taken advantage of due to their simplicity by others. Devi says in her interview with Gayatri C Spivak, “I have seen with my own eyes what the Emergency meant, what was done. The criminalization of politics, letting the lumpen loose in the lower caste and tribal belts. Inhuman torture and oppression” (p. ix, Translator’s Foreword).
The bonded labour system limits them from practicing farming on their own, resulting in the loss of individuals’ rights and displaying their inability to raise their voices against suppressors. Devi brilliantly portrays the subjugation of tribal communities not only by the landlords of their community but also by those who work for the government in the interest of their benefits. She shows a huge gap between the rich oppressor and the poor oppressed. Thus, by projecting such a scenario, Devi brings to light the pictures of exploitation, corruption and hypocritical plans and laws. The novel, Chotti Munda and His Arrow, also presents the religious conversion among this ethnic group besides highlighting the political and historical background. While the historical references expose the benefits of the Mission offered to the Mundas community, Chotti’s disapproval registers the threat Christianity poses to adivasis’ cultural identity.
The novel acknowledges the timely help of the Mission during the drought in Chotti’s village while still counting the cost of that assistance. Chotti’s village was affected by drought and the people had difficulties in finding food. With the arrival of Missionaries at Chotti’s village, hungry tribes were fed with “free meals that carried on food distribution for nearly a month” (Devi, 2003, p. 41). The missionaries reached the village to rescue the hunger-stricken and desperate mass of tribes. Such unselfish nature of missionaries assisted in converting some tribes’ religion into Christianity. The lines, “Let’s survive now. If I go there, if I leave my faith, t’ Mission Gormen will gie us land, settle us. Whenever we run, we won’t be able to run from t’ king’s reach…If ye go to t’ Mission t’ King loses his rights” (Devi, 2003, p. 68) assert that the missionaries were able to win the trust and faith of this tribal community.
They are even ready to sacrifice their age-old religion and find refuge in a new and unknown religion. Firstly, they believe that the Mission provides them with land where they can farm without being bonded laborers. The other reason is for mere protection from the King and his people, as they firmly believe that Mission Gormen would protect them. Characters such as Sukha Munda and Bikhna Munda later converted and called themselves “Joseph Sukha Munda and David Bikhna Munda” (Devi, 2003, p.78). Kaushik Ghosh (n.d.) suggests that the nature of adivasi political form and identity, when taken on a pan-Indian basis, has important roots in that complex encounter called colonial Christianity that increasingly marked adivasi lives after the mid-nineteenth century (p. 207). The advent of missionaries in tribal community projects as an agent of molding adivasi modernity. The novel exposes the exposure of the tribal community when it states, “The special advantages of the new pahan is that, as a result of living close to a Christian Munda village, he too has learned to read and write Hindi” (Devi, 2003, p.96). The Mission introduced schools to teach the tribal to read and write.
Furthermore, in the article “Christianity and Tribal Religion in Jharkhand: Proclamation, Self-Definition, and Transformation,” Ekka discusses that the missionaries came to preach the gospel to the indigenous tribal people not by careful planning but by their encounter with the exploited and runaway indigenous tribal laborers (2010, p. 3). Moreover, in the novel, when Bharat comments, “But he won’t this market cut, won’t ask for bonded work, won’t say hard words, and beat us up f’r any and ever’thin'” (p.87), it clearly shows the Mission’s intention to spread their religion rather than exploiting the tribal. The historical background of the missionaries reveals that their establishment in the tribal community was not a careful planning but an unexpected encounter with exploited tribal people that became the cause of the missionary existence. Unlike the novel, which also talks about forceful conversion into Christianity to some extent;
“The Tomaru Mission sahib is buddies with Gormen at Ranchi. They make people Christian by force, and in this case, so many people are begging to become Christian…” (Devi, 2003, p.72), Ekka presents differently:
“Some writers have argued that it was primarily their concern to safeguard their land rights that the indigenous tribal people became Christians. The land was a prominent issue for the indigenous tribal community at that time, and it did have a lot to do with conversion later on. Yet, the first Christians were converted because they were seekers after the truth” (p. 4).
The writer states that the first indigenous tribal people who converted to Christianity were genuinely interested in what missionaries had to say about Jesus Christ and in safeguarding their land. Besides, the novel clearly exposes the intention of the Mission when Devi writes, “Otherwise the Mission cannot have settlement of villages as its goal” (Devi, 2003, p.95). Thus, the establishment of missionaries in the adivasis’ community came as a boon as well as a curse, as their identities were lost due to conversion to Christianity.
Mahasweta Devi’s plotline shows that the Mundas converted to evade oppression and exploitation from the Dikus. In the novel, Devi points out, “Diku import, Diku brings Gormen supports. We know Diku-Gormen’s father’n son. We ne’er saw Mundas live in Munda-property…” (Devi, 2003, p. 86), to emphasize that Dikus played a pivotal role in the conversion of the adivasis’ religion. The government’s support came as a boon for Dikus to take advantage of the helpless and simple tribal community. Moreover, in the novel, Dikus are portrayed as crooked and worthless when Chotti says, “But t’ Munda people don’ know thievery, cheater, don’ do that stuff…if they cheat now, it’s learnt from t’ Diku” (Devi, 2003, p. 85). Further, it was noted that Mundas joined the Mission due to the oppression of Diku, when Chotti utters, “P’haps they’re thinkin’ on goin’ ta Mission…They all go ta Mission wit’ t’ terror of Diku (Devi, 2003, p. 89).
Moreover, Diku always thought of adivasis as non-Indian which led to oppression, “Diku never thought of the adivasis as Indian” (Devi, 2003, p. 96). Even Ahmad Mukhtar Dar (2014) states that Devi raises questions of religious conversion in the novel due to the exploitation and oppression by ‘Dikus’ and blames them for the conversion of lower-caste Hindus and tribals to Christianity (p. 5). These oppressions from Dikus and other landlords led adivasis ultimately to agree to convert their religions as it would at least save them from the unbearable burden of bondage and exploitation, though most of the tribal initially opposed the move on the grounds that it would isolate them from the traditional ways of life. As Sukha, a Munda from the Kurmi village, says:
“T’ new manager has bound ever’one in bond labour. And then so many demands. Give’em stuff right and left. If someone dies in t’ office or his family, then either give labour or pay tax . . . He goes from one court to another. We carry t’ palquin, we take an’ we bring back. He walks and we must run with an umbrella. Life is hell” (Devi, 2003, p. 68).
Devi asserts that Mundas were heavily burdened by the manager with tax or labor, even to the extent that if someone in the manager’s house died, Mundas were levied either with cash or labor. They had to carry him on a palanquin whenever he moved from one court to another or an umbrella when he walked. So, taking refuge in missionaries, these tribals need not have to face further exploitation and bear the burden of bonded labor. Further, she elaborates on the missionaries’ role as saviors when she writes, “No zamindar’s brother-in-law can chase off a Mission Munda” (Devi, 2003, p. 87) and helps to provide a secure life free from this dominance. She also tries to emphasize that missionaries provide everything that one would require to sustain life when she reflects the line in the novel, “Chotti smiles bleakly and says, ‘Mission’s profit comes as soon as ye are Christians'” (Devi, 2003, p.87). Similarly, the writer Ekka writes:
“When the oppressor wants a horse, the Kol must pay; when he desires a palki, the Kols have to pay, and afterwards to hear him therein. They must pay for his musicians… Does someone die in his house? He taxes them; is a child born? Again a tax… And this plundering, punishing, robbing system goes on till the Kols run away.”
Ekka believes that adivasis’ acceptance of a new religion safeguards them from their landlords’ further exploitation and oppression. Thus, adivasis’ conversion to Christianity was merely to avoid heavy taxes and bonded labor imposed upon them by the landlords and the government.
The novel emphasizes Chotti’s disapproval to show the loss of cultural identity as a result of conversion to Christianity. Devi stresses that the Mission will get its profit, and the cost of safeguarding was the loss of cultural identity. In the novel, she mentions, “T‟ Mission sahib will also raise profit in some way or other… A lot of Mundas and Oraons went to the mission after all… They praise t’ Gormen’s god?… so that brings worry… P‟raps our Haramdeo‟s also old, seein’ all this railway, motor-car, and pichers we hear of in town – that move, that talk – all this” (Devi, 2003, p.87). Devi elaborates on the profit motive of the Mission by exhibiting their success in converting adivasis into Christians that shows the gradual decline of their religion.
Haramdeo Chotti’s sentimental remarks on his religion highlight the adverse effect of the incursion of a new religion on their cultural identity. In the novel, Chotti expresses his concern over the deteriorating culture and their indigenous way of living when he says, “T’ Mundas’ mood is changing. When our kids grow up, who knows what words they’ll say, what deeds they do” (Devi, 2003, p.88). In this way, Devi attempts to depict that though Mission helped adivasis to overcome their problems by providing shelter and food at the time of needy hours and freeing them from bonded labor, the Mission also brought immense negative impact on their culture.
Moreover, the writer portrays the changing cultural identity of the adivasis community when she writes, “The story of Joseph Sukha Munda and David Bikhna Munda of Tomaru Mission is different” (Devi, 2003, p. 76). She emphasizes the addition of Western names such as Joseph and David in front of aboriginal names underscores the decadence of cultural identity and their failure to preserve their age-old culture and customs. According to Firoz, “The text, among other things, shows how the missionary activities led to the cultural uprooting of the tribal communities in India… Having left no option, the tribal were forced to seek shelter in the Missions, albeit their deep fears of acculturation” (2006, p. 144).
In the novel, Chotti feels dejected to see Mundas joining Mission as he utters to Bharat Munda, “It hurts in me chest, Bharat. T’ more Mundas go, an arrer goes through me heart” (Devi, 2003, p.88). Although Mission has brought some changes in the tribal community, Chotti still feels that it is responsible for alienating tribal people from their culture. Furthermore, people evacuating Kurmi Village to join Mission expand the notion of fast-diminishing identities among the adivasis. The “burning of the village” itself depicts the end of Adivisas culture in Kumri Village. Therefore, the writer asserts that changing names, leaving one’s own dwellings, and praising a new religion show the loss of one’s faith. She further adds that taking refuge in others’ faith highlights the steady loss of cultural identity.
While Christian missions helped Adivasis to survive and build solidarity, Devi’s novel insists on the cost of conversion that the missions demanded. Through this novel, one comes to know that missionaries have had a significant impact on the lives of Adivasis, culturally, politically, and spiritually. The Adivasis community gained independence, where they no longer had to work under landlords and moneylenders as bonded labor, and missions helped to build solidarity. On the other hand, the conversion of their religion from Haramdeo to Christianity led to the decline of their cultural identity, which ultimately altered their mindsets. Additionally, the old traditions and customs also became distant ideas, and people adopted new names to create new identities. Hence, the novel depicts both the positive and negative impacts of missionaries on the lives of the Adivasis community.
- Dar, M. A. (2014). Representing the Postcolonial Subaltern: A Study of Mahasweta Devi’s Chotti Munda and His Arrow. An International Refereed e-Journal of Literary Explorations, Vol 2(1), 5.
- Devi, M. (2003). Chotti Munda and His Arrow (Spivak, G.C. Trans.). USA. Blackwell Publishing Limited. (Original work published in 1980).
- Ekka, J.N. (2010). Christianity and Tribal Religion in Jharkhand: Proclamation, Self-Definition, and Transformation. Retrieved from www.edinburgh2010.org/fileadmin/files/edinburgh2010/files/…/5._Niraj_Ekka.doc
- Firoz, N. (2006). The Pedagogy of the Marginalized: A Study of Chotti Munda and His Arrow. In Writing for or with subaltern a study of contemporary Indian fiction with a focus on Mahasweta Devi’s works. (Doctoral Dissertation, University of Calicut). Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/10603/38570
- Ghosh, K. (n.d). Cross-Currents: Travelling Shadows of a Conversion in the Naguri Munda Region of Jharkhand. Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/9983293/Cross-Currents_Travelling_Shadows_of_a_Conversion_in_the_Naguri_Munda_Region_of_Jharkhand.