What Fun!

As an archaeologist Shereen Ratnagar has been long involved in studying the enigma of early kin-organized, small-scale and non-specialized societies, which lack private landed-property and are free of a money economy; societies that we call tribal. Having conducted ethno-archaeological research amongst tribal people in eastern Gujarat, she spent a few months living with them to investigate how, in spite of their miniscule land holdings, they are able to raise crops regularly, year after year. Far from being abject or primitive, tribal people schedule their subsistence in a rational way, which is diversified in more ways than one, and families are self-sufficient to a considerable extent. That households think years ahead, is also abundantly clear from their provisions for the storage of food.

Being Tribal attempts to define tribal society, traces tribal migrations in history, and examines their modes of agricultural production. This book also comes to the conclusion that tribal culture is robust, and that Indian society owes it to the tribal population-repeatedly displaced and marginalized in the interests of the powerful-to give them full scope to live out their destinies in their own way.

The brief biography that accompanies the book says that Ratnagar gave up her Professorship in Archaeology at the JNU when it ceased to be fun and has since been researching and teaching in various places. The effusive praise for the book- a recent review appeared in The Hindu, by Vinay Srivastava- suggests that Ratnagar has combined scholarship with empathy while indeed having fun.

Srivastava's review concludes with a recommendation (emphasis his): In a chapter that provides a sensitive account of the institutions and practices of the people, the author rebuts several typecasts and shows that tribes have historically evolved ‘safety nets'. Kinship and marriage ties are among them. Neighbours join hands and form informal groups to help a person in carrying out a task, and the recipient reciprocates by pitching in with his effort on a different occasion. This makes for solidarity among the people. This, however, does not mean that the world of tribes is closed. They do interact with the market, but do not acquire from there objects they need for their living. Their economy is not oriented towards ‘producing for the market', and this gives the tribespersons autonomy and robustness. The book is aptly titled and, refreshingly, it not only acknowledges its key respondent profusely but also carries his photograph. The book argues that “modest land allocations” should be made to tribal households so that they could eke out their livelihood by adopting their time-tested traditional methods of cultivation.

From Primus Books, in our Tribal Studies and History sections, Rs 825, 112 pages in hardcover. ISBN: 9789380607023

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