'But why?' 'Why shouldn't I catch a cobra?' So opens dramatically Mahasweta Devi's story of Moina, the little girl who constantly asks questions. So many questions, that the village postmaster calls her the 'Why-why girl'.1
Moina's life is a paradox of freedom and constraints. Freedom is what she enjoys roaming the forest and being close to nature. Moina is born into the Shabar community of tribals, who consider themselves 'children of the jungle'. For centuries, they have strived to preserve their joyful, carefree, equitable and sustainable ways of life against the continuous onslaught of 'civilisation'. Never acknowledging any king or ruler, they have fled from forest to forest, just a step ahead of its destruction by settlers who followed them.2
Moina's life contrasts sharply with that of any of us who may be privileged to read her story. Catching and cooking snakes, trapping birds, tending to goats and eating the leftovers of the 'Babu' who employs her, these experiences are very different from those of most school-going children. Moina's autonomy in the forest and her dependence on a feudal master are both far more intense than the freedoms and restrictions in the life of any middle class child.
Moina may not know, as yet, of the persecution suffered by the Shabars after the monstrous act of the British in 1872 declaring them to be a "criminal" tribe, a label that still leads to discrimination, now in more subtle, yet powerful ways. Perhaps she's heard of Chuni Kotal, the Shabar girl who dared to aspire to an education. In Moina's story, her constraints come from family circumstances which force her to work for a living as a goatherd. Moina is quick in noticing the injustices in her life: 'Why do I have to walk miles to the river for water? Why do we live in a leaf hut? Why can't we eat rice twice a day?' And then, 'Why shouldn't I study too?' Moina's questioning about the world leads her to the realisation that some answers at least can be found in books, and so she demands to be admitted to school.