Can you hear the Subaltern speak?
Tracing the Trajectory of Choices
At the Barak Valley Annual Conference 2021 we have taken the first steps towards subverting the much ruminated question, ‘can the subaltern speak?’ We ask instead, ‘Can you hear the subaltern speak?’ The theoretical category of the subaltern has been framed by the Subaltern School in a way such that the very subalternity of the subaltern is crystallised in the subaltern’s inability to speak. The act of relegating the subaltern to a muted respondent denies her/him not only the agency of the participant but also that of the observer. Thus, to locate subalternity in the inability of the subaltern to speak already makes the subaltern an object of a gaze, ensuring that solely the owner of this gaze retains the ability to speak and ‘represent.’ The works produced from such a standpoint naturally obliterate a crucial point for the subaltern existence – choice. However, a keener observation of the subaltern existence reveals that not only are subaltern groups already speaking, observing, participating and choosing, the choices are often unnoticed and unheard unless brought forward through honest ethnographic or historical research. This Barak Valley Annual Conference 2021 aims to bring together such ongoing research that have tirelessly worked to reveal the various nuances and complex diversities breathing within the subaltern existence and manifesting in the form of choices.
The lecture by Prof. Piers Vitebsky was thus an apt beginning to this conference. Prof. Vitebsky has worked extensively among the Sora in Odisha, immersing himself in the field and thus making his ethnographic work truly empathetic and pathbreaking. The Soras are traditionally ancestor worshippers, living among the spirits of their ancestors, being fed and blessed by them. However, the recent drive among the young Soras to reject their ancestors and move towards Christian sects or a Hindu way of life has led to certain virtually irreversible changes in the Sora culture and living. Though for the young Sora this represents a release from spirits of the forest and their ancestors and a move towards literacy and modern democratic politics, the older Sora are in anguish over what awaits them when they will enter the realm of spirits. These sudden changes in the Sora life has led to ruptures that have left them floating, attempting to modernize on the one hand, and being called by the spirits of their ancestors on the other.