Poet and photographer Mihir Vatsa’s Tales of Hazaribagh: An Intimate Exploration of Chhotanagpur Plateau, which has won the 2022 Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar, is a genre-defying book. Combining travel writing with adventure, history, research, personal anecdotes, it is as much as story of the author’s individual development as it is of the Chhotanagpur Plateau region, specifically Hazaribagh, which Vatsa calls home. Visiting places in the plateau that form part of its natural and built heritage, Vatsa traces their histories in a way that is engaging and intimate.
Immediately after getting the Yuva Puraskar, Tales of Hazaribagh made it to Amazon’s bestseller list; Vatsa saysthat he has spent the days following the news of the win in a “dream state.” Incidentally, dreams play a part in the narrative, as returning to Hazaribagh from Delhi is part of his initial dream of escaping the big city. Some of the desciptions have a dream-like quality too, not surprisingly, given that Vatsa is a poet. Edited excerpts from an email interview:
You call yourself a “riverwalker from Hazaribagh, Jharkhand” in Tales. Can you please elucidate?
It happened in a moment of creative whim. The experience of riverwalking came first and it made the book. When it was time to send a bio-note, I wondered what to call myself. More accurately, I wondered what to call the author. Something like “a poet and a writer” was expected vocabulary, but the phrase sounded general, too general perhaps, and the book wasn’t general… in the sense that it couldn’t have been written by someone who was simply “a poet and a writer”. I felt that Tales was specific to a certain type of author, and that author was not a poet, a writer, and/or a landscape photographer. In concise terms, he was a riverwalker. That’s how I got the word, and I was very happy with it.
Has poetry got something to do with your riverwalking? Does one inspire the other?
I was a poet before I became a riverwalker, and I think only poetry could have led me to call myself one. Poetry is not just deep, descriptive or lyrical utterance of feelings, it works to encourage discovery. A new way of looking at things around us, including ourselves, and in that process discovering what was hidden, absent, unregistered before. A prosaic mind perhaps wouldn’t consider rivers an alternative to roads. Once riverwalking starts, a different, “poetic” map of a region is brought into being and it leads on to more poetry. Indeed, one inspires the other.
What kind of research did you have to do for Tales? Where did you find the books pertaining to Hazaribagh’s history?
I did a lot of research—especially for chapters Two (“Hill”), Three (“Lake”) and Four (“Forest”). My plan for these chapters was to ground Hazaribagh in history, especially since our small towns appear ahistorical, floating in timelessness. A good deal of material I needed was listed on Google Books: Thomson’s geographical survey, P.C. Roy Choudhury’s Hazaribagh Old Records, even letters relating to coffee and tea cultivation in Hazaribagh. I was actually surprised at how vast the collection was and how unexpectedly things appeared there. Some texts were available in full and some required institutional access. For the latter, my friends living abroad helped me with downloads.
I also accessed India Office Records at the British Library, where I read Samuel Solomon’s Garden at Hazaribagh. From my desk at the library I got connected to James Rattray in Scotland, great-grandson of Captain Thomas Rattray: Hazaribagh’s famous red building, Rattray House, is named after his battalion. There was a good deal of piecing information together from multiple sources to construct history in the book. The story behind the lake was put together with the help of a newspaper article, an obituary in Indian Medical Gazette, a 19th century army list, and a book by a missionary priest! In Hazaribagh town, the library of Bulu Imam at Sanskriti Museum and Art Gallery, and Imam himself (who features in the book as “Uncle”), offered tons of information.
While reading, I was wondering that with such a setting of forests, rocks, shades of the past, there has to be a ghost. And then I read the episode where your mother meets one. You have roamed the lonely tracks alone: have you met any?
Well… I haven’t met a proper ghost yet, but I have experienced eerie moments. I remember in 2017, I was walking alone in Salparni forest and suddenly everything fell silent. No birdcalls, no rustling of leaves, no movement of air—nothing, just dead quiet. It was about three in the afternoon. I was walking up an incline and the only sound I heard was that of gravel shifting under my weight. I got a sense that I shouldn’t be there, and with every step that I took on the incline, that feeling only intensified. My idyllic forest had turned frightening. I turned around, reached the Alto and just left.
The place names of the Chhotanagpur Plateau have always intrigued me. Lotwa, Deta, Ichak, Kevta, Juljul—the names seem to carry poetry in them. Do you know which language they come from or what they mean?
They are quite intriguing, aren’t they? I think about them too. At present, I don’t have an informed idea about how these names came to be, but I would love to understand someday. There are some geo-specific suffixes too which I love, like tanr (an often fallow clearing) and dih/diha (bowl-like depression in land), among others.