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Review: Imaginary Maps by Mahasweta Devi

Updated on March 8, 2008
Mahasweta Devi
Mahasweta Devi

It is common to hear about the extinction of species or the efforts to save endangered species when it comes to animals, but we don’t often discuss or read about the extinction of people. Yet, it is becoming more common to blame humans for the possibility of the mass extinction of animals, and even plants, in the near future. But it is difficult to talk about people enabling the extinction of other people. I recently rewatched the film Hotel Rwanda and couldn’t help thinking of everything I’ve read about the India/Pakistan Partition. I drew parallels between the two separate tragedies these countries faced because of the roles colonizers (the Belgians in Rwanda and the British in India) played. Different people, different issues, different motivations, but in both countries faced separation. What do we call it? Genocide? Ethnic cleansing? Mass murder? War?

Whatever we call it, it is difficult to watch, read, or hear about. It is even more difficult to realize that many people, rulers, countries don’t intervene until it is too late (which only brings up the question of when is it right to intervene and when it isn’t—however, this isn’t the topic I mean to discuss right now). Although it is rare, we still are confronted with movies and books and media discussions about these awful events. It is even more rare, however, to find as much awareness of the idea of the extinction of cultures when it comes to indigenous peoples around the world.

Mahasweta Devi writes about the indigenous tribes of India in Imaginary Maps, creating the opportunity for awareness and discussion about the likely possibility of their extinction. If you are interested in learning more about the religions and experiences of the indigenous tribes of India, this is a fabulous book to read.

Examining One Story:

Devi’s short story, “Pterodactyl, Puran Sahay, and Pirtha”, challenges the roles of outsiders in these tribes. It makes you wonder what can be done to save these people and their culture. The pterodactyl isn’t supposed to be considered a symbol, but it is difficult to deny that it is a symbol: a symbol of these people. An extinct bird symbolizes a group of people becoming extinct. Let’s say it is true—the pterodactyl was there, alive, the only remaining creature of its kind. Even then, it is a symbol, but not a simple literary one. The pterodactyl is a reminder that there are things on this planet people cannot control nor understand. There are many things humans do not have knowledge of. This pterodactyl, a supposedly extinct animal, has managed to exist on this planet without being discovered by people. When it dies, only two people are aware.

Rarely do most of us think about the indigenous people of the world. You are probably aware of the different cultures of India and Pakistan, the different religions of these countries that forced them apart. I’ve been moved and horrified while reading about the acts of violence, the oppression of women, the abuse of children, but I never thought about the indigenous tribes until reading this book. I didn’t even know they existed. If they were wiped out a few years ago, I never would have known. Like the pterodactyl flying over the tribal people in Devi’s story, Imaginary Maps has introduced me to the existence of these people. The undeniable truth is that they are going extinct.

I don’t know what can be done to save them—not only the people we read about in Devi’s stories, but all of the indigenous people around the world. What does it mean if they are gone? What does it take to make people care? I wonder whether a business man in his suit, walking down Wall Street in Manhattan, when confronted with the issue of these people, would care or not. How will these people he may never have even been aware of affect his world, the future of his family? Because the lives of these people have been affected and changed by the influences of mainstream cultures, it is impossible to leave them alone. Their survival rests in the hands of the mainstream cultures surrounding them. They need sustainable lifestyles, but can’t achieve them on their own—because they had sustainable lifestyles that were tampered with by outside influences. Now that I’m aware of these issues, what will I do? What can I do? It is a difficult question to answer because I can’t think of any solutions

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