Spotlight on a Santal Tribe Member - Meet Durga Mardi

Prianca Sharan | March 24, 2023

My home of America is often described as a melting pot, where different cultures swirl and sludge together into one emulsified entity. In my experience, America is more a land that lets you celebrate American values while allowing you the freedom to follow your unique ethnic culture and traditions. Growing up in this environment as a child of Indian immigrant parents, you realize how important this idea truly is. While participating in my American community, I take pride in my heritage. I derive comfort and joy from practicing my culture.   

As a teenage girl from California, it was hard for me to find much in common with the Santal community living in India thousands of miles away.  But recently I had the opportunity to speak with Durga Mardi, a member of the tribe, and was at once surprised, inspired, and brought closer in spirit to the Santals than I ever thought possible.

Durga is a young man who grew up in an area near the city Jamshedpur, Jharkhand (where my own family is from) called Birsanagar. He works as a driver at Tata Steel — his main job is to transport officers around the industrial complex of their steel plant. He’s also a part-time driver for my grandparents. This past summer was my grandparents’ 60th marriage anniversary; Durga helped our family travel around the city and to and from the venue. That was when I first met him and learned about his involved membership in the Santal community.

Durga’s eyes were bright as he told me about himself, his childhood, his community, and his values. He described to me the house of mud and clay he grew up in, their staple meals of “maad bhaat”, and showed off his “dhoti” or the traditional clothing he wore. Most enthusiastically, he told me about their Baha festival in the spring, the Santal community’s vibrant flower festival celebrating the gift of nature.

Durga’s voice carried an overt and unapologetic sense of pride for his Santal culture. The sight of Durga’s great love and connection to his roots was touching to witness. I noticed that in many ways, Durga’s situation is the same as mine — he left his place of origin to live and work in the city, but still closely retains the pride and practice of his Santal roots. In this way we have a connection — one that helped bridge the gap between me and the Santal community that I once thought was insurmountable.

This experience was also notable to me considering its context in Indian culture. In India, tribal communities like the Santals are not fully assimilated into the rest of Indian society. There is a lack of celebration of their unique culture, which can cause members of these tribes to feel hesitant expressing their identities. This is why it was so inspiring to see Durga so proud of his Santal membership without reservation. It’s incredibly important to encourage Durga’s mindset in all of his peers, especially from childhood — the more we support them and lift them up, the more they will grow to be strong and proud Santalis who feel comfortable celebrating their roots. In giving them a voice and raising awareness about their way of life, we can create a space where all Santal people thrive.


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