ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Adivasi Protagonists in Alice Ekka’s Writings

Damsels Not in Distress

Alice Ekka’s protagonists are strong Adivasi women who have agency, choices, and dreams.

The upper-caste-dominated publishing industry and the privileged writers have written about the indigenous communities of India in multitudinous forms of media. Ranging from upper-caste social media influencers mocking Adivasi culture and thereby manifesting their own lack of merit to savour complex and privileged pens gazing at Adivasi women, there has been an intentional erasure of female Adivasi voices. In this context, the Hindi book, Alice Ekka ki Kahaniyaan (Stories by Alice Ekka 2015), edited by Vandana Tete, comes across as a revelation when, in fact, it should have been celebrated all along.

Born in 1917 in Ranchi, Ekka began writing in Hindi in the 1950s and was a regular writer in the weekly Adivasi founded in 1947 by the Bihar government’s Department of Information and Public Relations. Her first available work is her translation of Khalil Gibran’s work in the August 1959 edition of Adivasi, though Tete estimates that it is quite possible that she might have written in earlier editions. Unfortunately, a significant part of Ekka’s work has been lost—some misplaced by her family over time and some by the state. After the formation of Jharkhand following the separation from Bihar, the then public relations department officers from Bihar sold the old copies at scrap value, destroying not only salient works in Ekka’s oeuvre but also of all those writers from Jharkhand whose works had been published in the magazine. Being the first female Adivasi graduate from present-day Jharkhand and the first female Adivasi writer to be published in Hindi, Ekka’s oeuvre explicates complex contemporary realities and an innate, inherited connection with the environment through simple language. In her introduction to the book, Tete reflects that Adivasi women do realise that “a nation and its development” have deceived them, and yet they are striving towards “nation-building” with a focused vision.

In “Vankanya” (trans Girl of the Forest, 1961), Ekka describes the forest as the blissful habitat of the animals and insects, elaborating in detail and with affection on every entity that comprises a forest. She manifests the forest as a living being with agency and autonomy and not as a passive recipient of human actions with a manufactured power imbalance between the two. Ekka exhibits both the sides of nature, of the creator as well as of the usurper. And, in contrast to the casteist patriarchal gaze and control that leads to writers portraying men saving women even in 2022, Ekka’s story, written decades ago, has an Adivasi woman saving a man. When Phecho sees an almost dead body, she goes up to it instead of running away or asking others for help. Here, the organic interaction between an Adivasi woman and a privileged man from the city is not of colonisation or of chasms but of them coming close, only for the gate-kept boundary of civilisation to later tear them apart.

The story “15 August, Bilcho and Ramo” about an Adivasi woman in labour lying on a torn mat on the wet floor of a broken hut, on the night of 15 August 1947, as her neglectful drunkard husband returns after engaging in revelry is heart-rending and makes us question the meaning of liberation in a nation engulfed with layers of oppression. Written by Ekka in 1962, “Durgi ke Bachche aur Elma ki Kalpanayein” (Durgi’s Kids and Elma’s Fantasies) is one of the earliest writings on the confluence of the Scheduled Caste (SC) and the Scheduled Tribe (ST) (Adivasi) communities. Durgi, a woman from the SC community, has to carry “night soil” from the home of Elma—a woman belonging to the STs. Here, Elma’s vehement vocalisation against the practice is not of pity or patronisation but striving for the equality of people.

The Adivasi community has had a rich heritage of verbal poems and stories, but systemic neglect has relegated it to the margins and denied it documentation for posterity. Layered in terms of context but simple in narrative style, Ekka’s lived experiences are exhibited in the rich composition of her work, be it the intricate descriptions of the attire and jewellery of Jharkhandi women, the vivid illustrations of the forests, the animals, the farming and gathering tools, or the aura of the rice-sowing season. Her work does justice to the act of farming—a topic which upper-caste writers have either romanticised beyond relevance or, worse, denigrated into further devastation. Ekka is honest in her approach to writing on farming. She elucidates how the locals of Jharkhand love the act of cultivation and adore their animals. Her lived experiences make it natural for her to know every stage and traditional tool used in farming in complete depth and detail. However, she also does not shy away from narrating the ordeals owing to the massive agrarian distress caused by systemic issues. There is no deification or romanticisation but brutal hope.

The dialogues seamlessly switch between the regional tongues of Nagpuri, Khortha, and Magahi of the Chotanagpuri protagonists—not in academic, pedagogical language but in a language owned by the masses. This regionalisation of language is significant, for it neither shifts the narrative for elite “refinement” nor does it take away the rootedness of the protagonists. In their writings, upper-caste, upper-class writers wilfully relegate tribals to a duality of existence. The focus is either on the tribals being victimised or criminalised by the state or of them revolting against unjust violence—things observed by those at a distance. To say that Ekka’s writings are in contradiction to the elite upper-caste, the upper-class writers is to believe that the elites are the default. In fact, her writings are in absolute unison with nature and encourage an equal society. This innate ability to strive for equality is what is missing in the writings of elite writers who use language as an epistemological tool to gate-keep and not as an egalitarian medium to communicate, making their work a contradiction to the pen of Ekka as well as the environment. Ekka coexists with nature and does not commodify it. She contextualises labour. Her work is filled with life, for it is not limited to reading rooms and libraries. It is out there in the forests and the fields.

Ekka focuses not only on emancipation from the casteist capitalist patriarchal nexus but also on the agency of the self. Her characters make endearing friendships, dare to fall in love across barriers, sing songs against destituteness, and play games to enjoy their childhood. Ekka’s women have agency, choices, and dreams. They are not only victims of the state, neither are their identities only tied to a deified revolt. In all of Ekka’s writing, the female protagonists are evocative individuals who live in consonance with their immediate surroundings while retaliating against the structure of an oppressive society that continually denies them basic rights. They assert their roots but also do not romanticise the tribulations within the community. They toil hard, experience and extend pristine love and caring friendships with people across communities, and sing songs while sowing rice. They work hard at both home and school, but while the upper-caste male friends get access to opportunities, the Adivasi women do not. They are left behind.

Ekka does not gaze at the Adivasi community from a distance; she is not studying them, neither is she observing them. She is documenting what she has lived and what she has loved. Reading her today is surreal, for everything she has written continues to hold true, mostly despondently, and yet, sometimes, optimistically so.



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Updated On : 12th Jun, 2022
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