Thursday, 24 July 2014

Dare to Dissent. Dream Different...part I


A coal blackened board welcomes us as we drive through "Desh ki Koyla Rajdhani - Dhanbad". Coal and Capital. Our country's current obsession. Just a few people shy of complete coverage of human rights issues in all of Jharkhand's 24 districts, a colleague (at the time snoozing on the back seat) and I were Travel-Tripping across the state, reconnecting with the many friends and associates we have acquired in our many years of IndiaUnheard in Jharkhand. The road from Ranchi took us through Hazaribag, onto the broken roads of Bengal, past the "prestigious" Maithon dam (which by the way, displaced thousands of the native people, most of whom are still homeless migrants), right on through the steady, stoic hills of the Santhal Pargana, into Dumka.

Dumka is one of many Coal Cities across Jharkhand, complete with its unique kind of inadequate infrastructure suffering from wave after wave of migrants. Every chai tapri at the main bus stop has filthy, malnourished little boys serving up chai and sweets to tired, daily wagers. The usual labourers trudge through their daily drudgery, as the heat adds to the tentacles of nausea creeping through your stomach...the eyes acclimatize to garbage choked gutters, packs of scrawny, scarred dogs narrowly tottering out of the way of speeding, careless cars, their tails tucked under, much like human shoulders, cowering under the relentless sun.

I think of 'Kalyug', Bengali tongue and wandering mind loosely translating the words as 'Black Age', and I have to smother a giant giggle loop[1], as I easily imagine a giant hand sweep the entire town a sooty, coal black...just another Coal Capital...

Work, is love made visible ~ Kahlil Gibran

These ten days I've been tripping on Bubble. They've sampled Kahlil Gibran into psy-trance! But I digress. It's been ten days. Roughly two thousand kilometres of travel, and I see Jharkhand's Coal Capitals reluctantly give way to green fields. The highway swings dangerously through Reserved Forests. Railway lines meander through elephant corridors of the dense, rocky jungles. I feel a little lost in this world, a world so different, yet so alike the world I live in, high on the hills of rain soaked Goa. As we steal moments of silence, (to balance the relentless public personality required by recruitment drives), the solitude is marred by glitches in radio, hushed tones, forbidden words, and autos with "bhojpuria dabanng" scrawled across the back, reminding us where we are. I think of an old man's stories of a forgotten Bombay where Malad was once overfull with orchards, the age prior to the vulgarization of democracy and before the beginnings of bourgeoisie politics. It's now Mumbai, with a glass cased airport, the epitome of bustling modernity, queues snaking into the buses that roll a few hundred metres, up to the aircraft, as baggage handlers catch their breath on the steaming sidewalks, while on the other side, children clutch coke bottles in their small hands as their press their noses to the glass walls, air-conditioning condensing their breath into little droplets. The music on the bus wails 80's Bollywood laments of times a-changing, and the doors of the bus sigh open, almost in agreement. The aircraft bounces on to and off different tarmacs, Goa > Mumbai > Patna, and finally, Birsa Munda International Airport, Ranchi. Funny, they named it after the tribal icon who led his people to freedom. And I wonder how many of his people were displaced forcibly to build this airport.



Jharkhand has been on my mind a while. The people have a fascinating history and intriguing culture, much akin to our good ol' Goa hippies - a pragmatic reverence of the delicate balance of the environment and the necessity of our dependence on that balance. Embracing the Earth and her elements has been a long-loved lifestyle for these people, and the current race to capital has shattered many a fragile forest, home to many. I'm discovering these similarities during multiple meetings in the midst of mind-boggling confusion of circumstances.

We find ourselves slowly driving down the same stretch of National Highway multiple times looking out for a man in a "pink shirt, carrying a plastic bag". Driving back and forth, we realize he's wearing a white shirt, pale pink stripes barely visible to our tired eyes, and the plastic bag is actually rolled up under his arm. We bump across broken fields, which are pretending to be roads, to come up to a peepul tree, the farthest any vehicle is allowed to go. We're in Chhittarpur. A murmur of Johar, and startled smiles are returned as we step out of the car. Frank, open eyes stare at us as we troop through the village, with solemn sows ensconced in the mud. Children stop frolicking on seeing us. The broken school building meant to host our meeting is stuffy, and plastic chairs pulled out in our honour are uncomfortable, and we prefer to move to chatais under the sprawling  Banyan tree at the centre of the village. Curiosity overcomes the general distrust of 'outsiders' as we start pulling out our laptops and ask details about their protest against mining in their Bauxite rich land. Curious cows and children join the rag-tag bunch of shepherds and farmers as we balance a laptop on a broken chair. They carefully arrange a gamcha to shield the laptop from direct sunlight, and we settle down to watch some IndiaUnheard videos. Approval shimmies through the crowd as two young teachers tearfully thank Chunnu Hansda and the local District Magistrate for helping them receive arrears for many years of dedicated work. Children perch precariously on the tree, and Nirmala didi tells the people of Chhittarpur of her experiences as a Community Correspondent in fluent Oraon. Hesitant questions soon turn tumultuous as they recognize Mohan Bhuiyan on the screen. They know of him, have met him, and greatly respect his untiring efforts to raise awareness about his development damned village in Ramgarh. Sumren's slow style of speaking thinly veils the determination in her voice, and Anastasia's eyes sparkle at the prospect of representing her people. Quickly recognizing kindred spirits, Nirmala convinces the village to do a baithak to decide who should be their Community Correspondent. We take their leave and move further north. We are denied access to other villages where outsiders are simply not tolerated, and drive on towards Daltonganj in disappointment. Subsequent meetings include squatting outside a lota-paani (a marriage ritual) screening videos to the bride's brother, who is the village chief. We cannot disturb the ceremonies, but he's intrigued by our work, and calls some of his companions to meet us. It's hard to believe that many of these people have been attacked, beaten, arrested and some have even been killed as they have protested for over a decade against attempts to usurp these very fields we're squatting in. My knees ache, and I marvel at their tenacity, slow smiles that reflect in their eyes, few words that always translate into action. I learn a lasting lesson: the tribal way of life is to keep a low profile, and ensure that necessary work is completed as required.



I also learn really fast the dangers of making romanchak[2] the sad little situations narrated to us. A preferential attachment to certain ideals obviously clouds my imagination, for Nirmala scoffs as I sentimentalize lack of electricity in a particular village we'd been told about earlier in the day. She echoes an old hippie spirit's pragmatic approach to life, that attachment often makes people forget their moral duties, sometimes even forget who they essentially are.

Keeping an open mind is my biggest challenge on this search for female correspondents. Actually, our biggest challenge is to find such women! While many women are engaged in different empowerment schemes, many are limited by their families. Many find it fascinating that Nirmala and I are "allowed" by our husband/father to be traipsing across the countryside, and I often have to bite back caustic comments in retaliation. People are late for appointments, and some of our meetings are scheduled only for 10:30 pm. There was a day when all technology simply gave up, just like Kayo and I have fantasized about while indulging in our nightly ritual of staring at the ceiling. It wasn't as fun as in our fantasies.  There were days spent gasping in the heat, and nights spent dreaming about a mosquito free world.

As we traveled through myriad and morose human habitations, what struck me the most was the general air of dissent. What is it that makes these people completely fearless to get down and dirty when working for their rights? It's not the money, because many do this without any kind of finances involved. It's not the recognition, because many told me how they are hounded by the police and politicians alike. Some have been issued death threats by the new-age Naxalites, who no longer believe in the age-old ideals of people first. Maybe it's the weather, or the air they breathe or the water they drink. Maybe I'm simply trivializing it to keep you guys reading so far. Perhaps it's just the culture. It's definitely different. And it's infectious.

As I chat with these "dissenters", I learn more about their lives and loves. I learn more about their love for their land, their forests. I learn that hunting is still prevalent, but only based on need. I learn that many tribal communities do not drink milk, believing that a cow's milk is meant only for its calf. I learn that when my beloved Chotu was bitten by a rabid dog, he'd been poisoned to spare him the ravage of rabies. It broke my heart, and yes, I sobbed silently in the bathroom in the dark of night, but it was the kindest way out. Of course, I heard some frankly ridiculous beliefs too, like the one where if a dog's saliva "infects" you, you will urinate puppies! *bites back caustic comment*

Dissent is necessary to relieve society from suffocating complacence. 

In that haze of sleepless nights and frenetic days, what I learnt, read and heard about dissent was mind-boggling. To hold or express an opinion at variance with those commonly or officially held is liable to have you arrested in most parts of the world today. By the definitions of our beloved, benevolent government, all of you who believe in freedom, all of you are dissenters. You, who writes music, speaking of the nature of democracy. And you, who draws cartoons depicting politicians in poor light. You are a dissenter. And a plague on our nation. And you, who speaks out or writes against human rights violations, did you know your work causes a massive loss in GDP to our nation? And you, you who dare to belong to a religious minority, or God forbid, don't believe in religion...you're nothing better than the woman who believes she deserves equal access. And if you are from a sexual minority, you my friend, are plain and simple illegal. And as for you, who believe that people are allowed to move freely, and have equal access to food, clean water and homes, stop indulging in ridiculous dreams and please begin to kow-tow to the Corporates. If you're still confused about whether you are a dissenter simply because you exist, do go check out this website which will tell you exactly what our beloved, benevolent state thinks of you.

Jokes apart, let me tell you this -- to dissent doesn't necessarily mean that you have to take to streets, brave water cannons or indulge in vigorous flag waving. Not that that aspect is trivial or unnecessary, but I believe that is best left to the more courageous ones.

(...continued)





[1] to laugh aloud in the most awkward, somber moments!
[2] a bastardized mix-up of the misunderstood meaning, romance and the actual meaning, mystery.

3 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. The longish comment I posted went into thin air and I just tested it again.
    The marvels of blogger.
    I wanted to say (I wish I could say the very same) that you have woven personal reactions as well as facts that we wouldn't otherwise be exposed to, into an intricate and compelling tapestry. It is hard to see this at first as a total picture but by staying and reading patiently, we can see it emerge clearly and powerfully. I love the way you are caught up between the instincts tugging at you in different directions and how you reconcile the whole.
    Keep writing. I am eager to see the direction you take as an author.
    This post needs to be read again and I will come back with more reactions.

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