Saturday, April 5, 2014

A Dirge for the Dammed - Vishwas Patil, translated by Keerti Ramachandra

This book is not for the faint hearted. If you have low capacity for pain, do not venture near it because it tells the story of the displaced people of Jambhli, a small village near Koyna, in Maharashtra, with such unsympathetic force that you soon realise that it is not the kind of fiction we are used to at all. This cannot be anything but real life. Vishwas Patil tells the story not as a person sitting amongst the ousted Jambhlikars but by being part of their very soul. Not for a moment do you find the escape one hopes for in a story, not one crevice left for that luxury, and he tirelessly drives home the nails, tightens the screws around the hapless Jambhlikars. Never before has a story touched me in the many ways this has - it has all that the 'Grapes of Wrath' had or 'A Fine Balance' and perhaps more because Patil never lets in a whiff of fantasy into the tale. Save the smallest hope that the Jambhlikars retain until the end that they may at some point secure land and cash and a future for their displaced families.

Jambhli is a small village that has been identified to be displaced to make way for a big irrigation dam, the Greater Jambhli Project. The village comes together as one, not understanding why they have to leave their homes and go to new communities like strangers, beggars. But that is the least of their sufferings. Once they are evacuated they are treated like pariahs wherever they go and face hardship upon hardship for their allotted lands, livelihoods, communities and even cremation grounds. Patil leaves no angle uncovered as he drives home the message clearly of how the system ruthlessly exploits the meek, how the ones in power harass and hound the displaced, and how everyone seems to gang up against the illiterate, unprepared villagers. (We do too, don't we?) The local politicians, their goons, their sons, the police, the clerks, the forest officers, the revenue officers, the courts, the locals, no one has any sympathy for the displaced. All they have are schemes on how to make life difficult for them, how to usurp their properties etc.

The stories of Avadai and her son Haibati are perhaps central though only marginally. Khairmode Guruji and his ideals of fighting for his people's rights despite losing all he has and living in poverty, the naive villagers who know nothing of the ways of the towns, uprooted homes, starving families, Raja Kushapa who slays a tiger in the hope of raising money for his daughter's marriage, Mhaku, Subhanji, Shevanti. The way Haibati is cheated out of his job by making the register go missing, the way his land is allotted to someone else and the way he hopes and pines for a happy day in his life for his young son Sada, wrench your heart. Or even Guruji's own love for his daughter Shevanti, his morni, who marries into a dowry crazy family, and who finally has to live on her own finally. You'd think the author will give some respite but he does not relent, does not create a hero, a false sense of hope. Their lives have been displaced and that is the truth. Life will go on. Jackals will prey, vultures will prey, the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer. Muscle power, money, bribes, castes and communities, progress and development, power and politics squeeze the life out of the Jambhlikars like juice out of the sugarcane, if I may use the words of the people themselves.

It is a man of low caste, the teacher Khairmode Guruji who becomes the leader of the displaced and he faces all consequences, takes on everybody's responsibilities, with a stout heart and an unrelenting will. But he believes in Gandhian principles as does Avadai, and they exhort the hot headed youth who are at the edge of reason not to resort to violence, though as a reader you wish you could take a chopper and wade through the homes of the local leaders and finish it off in one night of madness. (I sensed that urge coming on to me by the 200th page.) One wonders at the frustration that the many people deep inside India's belly feel at this systemic oppression, and one also wonders at the pointlessness of the battles fought in courts, on paper, through complaints and petitions. But Patil supports their patience, believes that the meek will inherit the earth one day, and one hopes they do. If that is justice, is it really justice, after whole generations have passed by? If the weak and the unequal have to suffer this way?

They are real. They are all there. One wants to go and meet them, hug them, hold them and let their sense of loneliness, despair flow out of the dam they have built within. One wants to protect them, stand beside them, tell them to leave it all and go away. There is no hero who will give them vigilante justice. There is only them and their desire to live on for their futures, for their children and grand children. 'The Dirge of the Dammed' is filled with a hopelessness that one cannot bear and there were breaks I needed to take as I read it because I could not handle it anymore. But the story had to be told like that only because that is reality. Lessening it would be injustice to all the displaced, all those who feel this pain, so I am glad Patil did not let go. It is life as they know it. As I read it I could see how their dreams got eroded, their illusions and pride dissolved, and how they could focus on nothing more than just basic survival each day. Patil leaves them though, with their spirit intact though their bodies are broken, despite the unequal war they are fighting.

Never will I be able to look at a dam again in the same way after I read this book.  I will always be reminded of Avadai, Guruji, Haibati, Gomya and others. Never will I be able to look at the migrants, the displaced people we see in the same manner again. The way the system is shown despite the few aberrations like Deshmukh and Pawar, who take it upon themselves to find some justice for the displaced is a reminder to us. We all live within this same system, one that supports the few one way or another, one that crushes dreams, spirits and rights so systematically. The majority are the victims yet they choose to be disparate, not together, in their fight. That is their biggest weakness, our biggest weakness. The few who cause trouble, who rule over the rest with fear, muscle power, bribery and corruption stick together. It needs an organised effort to deal with the system. One cannot do it alone. One cannot give up the fight either. One must fight, one must make the system realise that it is not above the people. It is for the people.

I can go on and on. Vishwas Patil is a much accomplished man. An IAS Officer (ironic that he  should write so ruthlessly about the system), an award winning author (the Marathi version of this book Jhadjhadati, won the Sahitya Academy Award in 1992). Other novels of his include Panipat, Sambhaji and Mahanayak. 'Not Gone With the Wind' is his critically acclaimed work on successful movie adaptations from literary classics. He has also directed a film 'Rajjo' with Kangana Ranaut. His case for smaller dams, for rehabilitation first and then the dam, for more empathy while displacing people from their homes, is made strongly and I fully endorse it.

I am most happy for my friend and editor, Keerti Ramachandra who translated this wonderful book into English. Take a bow Keerti, this is fantastic work. Not for a moment does the translation slack in energy as it courses through the story without a moment of doubt. It is strong, empathetic writing as if they came on their own, and Keerti's words bring these difficult lives and landscapes so alive that you cannot visualise anything but them and their surroundings, their feelings and their pains, their smells and their sights. Its compelling reading. The use of Marathi words is appropriate as is the way she used English in a manner as if the villagers are speaking. If 'Kanthapura' impressed me with the way the language was used, Keerti's effort is no less as it creates the world of Jambhli, its farms, its trees, its gods and cattle, its food and seasons, and spins it on and on. Wonderful work and I am so proud to see such fine work by my friend. This is not an easy book to read even, so I can understand what it must have been to write it for Vishwas Patil and even for Keerti, who must have imbibed it all before she translated it so fittingly.

This is a book everyone who has an opinion on people and the nation must read. The only condition is that you must have heart enough to read it.


Rajendra said...

Reserve a copy for me. I want to read it sometime soon.

Harimohan said...

Sure Raja. Done.

Hmmm said...

Hariji, I remember you once wrote a peace denouncing Arundhati Roy - for writing a piece against Anna Hazare, probably she might have won back a point here in your heart, for having at least raised a voice against a famous dam construction lead by a now even more famous P.M. wannabe. Will read the book definitely :)

Harimohan said...

Hi Hmmm, I do remember the piece. But in this context, I also remember reading her essay / book on dam construction, especially against building large dams and making a case for smaller dams which she pointed out, was the trend that advanced countries were following. It was very well written indeed and something you may want to read. Do read this book. You will surely enjoy it.