Through my window

‘Paraja’ reborn

Print edition : September 06, 2013

A protest by tribal people in 2010 against the forcible acquisition of their land, in Biramitrapur in Odisha. Photo: Ashoke Chakrabarty

Hrusikesh Panda being conferred the Sarala Award in Bhubaneswar in October 2012. Photo: Lingaraj Panda

THE Maoist movement in India has inspired a lot of poets, fiction writers, playwrights and film-makers in diverse ways. There is a whole corpus of literature, especially in languages like Bengali, Odiya, Hindi, Punjabi, Telugu and Malayalam, that identifies with the movement in terms of its cause, though many of the writers do not necessarily approve of the tactics of the Maoists or accept their violent forms of struggle. Most often, their sympathy stems from their understanding of the plight of the landless peasants and tribal people whose cause the Maoists advocate, or from a general despair and frustration with the system and dissatisfaction with the established political parties.

It has generated some interesting fiction and poetry and inspired—even if for a while—some significant poets like Dhoomil in Hindi, Siva Reddy in Telugu, Surjit Patar in Punjabi or K.G. Sankara Pillai in Malayalam, to take some examples from the Indian mainstream. There have also been excellent fiction writers like M. Sukumaran, Pattathuvila Karunakaran or U.P. Jayaraj of Malayalam who sympathised with the movement in the 1970s. V.B. Manohar’s Marathi novel, Eka Nakshalwadya cha Janma (The Birth of a Naxalite), about Juru, a Madia Gond tribal turning a naxalite, and Mahasweta Devi’s Hajar Churashir Ma (The Mother of No. 1084), published in 1974 (which was also produced as a movie directed by Govind Nihalani in 1998), are two serious novels based on the movement. Several English novels by Indian writers, like Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English August, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance and Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger, too have characters or situations linked to the movement.

There are, too, many films like Sudhir Mishra’s Hazaron Khwaishein Aisee (Hindi, 2005), Krishna Vamsi’s Sindhooram (Telugu, 1997), P.A. Backer’s Kabani Nadi Chuvannappol (Malayalam, 1975), John Abraham’s Amma Ariyan (Malayalam, 1986), Goutam Ghosh’s Kaalbela (Bengali, 2009), Sudhansu Mohan Sahu’s Swayamsiddha (Odiya, 2010) or Prakash Jha’s Chakravyuh (Hindi, 2012), to take some stray examples, not to mention several films where the movement is part of the background, as in Sayajit Ray’s Pratidwandi (Bengali, 1970) or Mrinal Sen’s Calcutta 71 (1972) besides many thrillers that trivialise the politics of the movement. Like Thalappavu in Malayalam (2008) or Ko in Tamil (2011). Sanjay Kak ( Red Ant Dream) and Gopal Menon have made meaningful documentaries on the movement.

In English, the trend is more recent, with novels like Dilip Simeon’s Revolution Highway (2010), which is essentially a novel of ideological interrogation that, in the process, also turns the movement into an analysable thing of the past or Nabina Das’ Footprints in the Bajra (2010) that presents an incisive analysis of the social divide in Bihar in telling the story of the Maoist rebel Muskaan and her city friend Nora. One may also recall here works like Hari Kunzru’s My Revolutions (2007) and Farrukh Dhondy’s London Company (2012) that too are set in the turbulent years depicting the life of the young in London stimulated by similar socialist dreams.

Here I am looking at an Odiya predecessor of many of these novels, Hrusikesh Panda’s Sunaput ra Loke (1991), published in English as The People of Sunaput (Authors Press, 2013). Any reader of this novel even faintly acquainted with Odiya fiction is sure to recall Gopinath Mohanty’s classic novel Paraja (1945), from which it seems to take off in more than one way. Both the novels deal with the destiny of the Paraja tribe that has its home among the mountains and forests of Odisha. If Paraja is set in Koraput, the present novel is set in Sunaput, a village in southern Odisha with a forest at its edge. Both are tragic tales dealing with the exploitation of men and women and the devastation of nature prompted by the greed for profit. Both show a close understanding of tribal life, rituals, myths and culture and employ tribal songs as part of the narrative. Both are born out of passionate social commitment and awareness that border on indignation. They are powerful indictments of social oppression, forced servitude, the deceit practised by the exploiting classes and the abuse of nature and of women. In some sense they are also a critique of the whole ethos of a materialistic civilisation seeking to surround, choke and destroy a primordial and elemental way of life where human beings and nature live in harmony.

While anthropology, history, sociology and economics inform these novels, they rise above these to become moving human documents with intense moral concern. The tragic yet brave battle here, while being between the predatory classes and the oppressed, is also between man and destiny, thus raising the whole narrative to a symbolic level where the novels embody the complexity of the human condition in all its diversity, its romance and hope, its acceptance and adjustment, its struggle with its ephemeral victories and more lasting defeats. There is nostalgia here for the patterns of the old life getting lost in the influx of modernity but there is also the doubt about how far the naïve innocence and ignorance of the rustic simpletons are going to save them from ultimate destruction.

But, The People of Sunaput, written 45 years after Paraja, cannot but carry the theme forward, which it does in two ways. First, it targets the later forms of exploitation, this time not only by the traditional landlords and moneylenders but by real estate-sharks, greedy industrialists and corrupt bureaucrats who displace and drive the tribal people from place to place, drown whole villages in reservoirs created by dams or turn forestland into private property, both under the cover of “development” and with the connivance of the local or the Central government. Secondly, the novel also depicts people’s resistance in legally valid and non-violent forms as also in more violent forms that include the physical annihilation of the exploiters when all other doors seem closed. The novelist does not advocate violence but understands it in certain situations. He understands, like most of us do, that in a democracy, even if it is no more than a formal democracy, militancy has only limited scope and can be easily crushed constitutionally by the use of state force, which is always superior in terms of number and more sophisticated in terms of equipment. This is besides the ethical question about violence that Keshab, the main character, encounters every time an act of violence is committed by the “organisation” as, for example, when the landlord Shasanpuri Gobindarao is murdered by Swami Bhairabanand’s workers.

Thirdly, the novel has a great lyrical quality, especially in those parts where it deals with the old patterns of peaceful life, with the beauty and bounty of nature or with love and romance as that of Keshab and Dhanafula or Samabaru and Minita. Fourthly, though the narrative essentially follows the realistic mode, it is interspersed with fantasies where the dead may speak or beasts may enter a discourse. Fifthly, it displays a rare sense of humour verging on sarcasm, especially while dealing with the non-tribals, that turns parts of the novel into delightful spoofs.

Lives of the have-nots

I do not mean to retell the story here, told in the novel in 61 chapters, some long and some even as short as one page. It spans a period of more than four decades, from 1945—when Paraja was published—to 1985, when the first wave of the violent resistance movements of the tribal people and landless peasants that had begun in the mid-1970s had almost receded.

The novel begins in 1945, when Keshab, Ramahari and Shukra (one is reminded of Sukra Jani of Paraja) go for free voluntary labour—a euphemism for forced labour—whose wages are appropriated by the overseer of the government’s Public Works Department. Keshab, the son of the “big chieftain” of the village, is a school student, fired by a love of service and patriotic commitment. The novelist goes straight to the paradoxes of the lives of the have-nots: their gullibility and ignorance about the vile ways of the upper-class and upper-caste people, their love of colourful clothes and small sensuous pleasures of hooch or of vulnerable girls, their meek acceptance of abuse and disgrace, their victimisation by the bureaucrats, bandits, moneylenders and contractors whose dark conspiracy turns them into willing slaves for generations. The tale of resistance also begins at the very beginning of the narrative when 15 young men under Keshab’s leadership surround the contractor and ask for wages, leading to a scuffle and some aggression, making the chowkidar think Keshab is an underground terrorist, while Keshab had really been inspired by Gandhi’s battle for freedom. All the young men stop working after this. When questioned, Keshab admits to having burnt the records and thrown building materials into a stream, and he, along with four other youth, is sent to jail.

This very opening incident suggests the drift of the whole story. Shasanpuri Sannyasirao and his son Gobindarao represent the exploiting class that keeps on changing its tactics according to the times. They create starvation and sustain poverty so that the villagers are never self-sufficient and have to take loans from them which they are unable to repay so that they end up as serfs. They can never go to court even when they know that papers had been forged or false documents had been made in order that the moneylenders appropriate others’ wealth and land as they have neither the money nor the legal knowledge to fight cases in courts.

Then there are the illegal tax collectors, like the forest guard, who impoverish even the badanaik (the village head)—who empties his granary to save his people—and extracts goats and chickens from the villagers. Three young men, too, are taken by him and made to work so hard they run away emaciated.

Independence and disillusionment

India’s independence is greeted by the villagers who feel empowered now to interrogate their masters, but soon they realise to their chagrin that things have only turned worse as rules are distorted to suit the privileged and records created to cheat them of their rights. Now there is also the new threat of “development”, in the name of which the powerful can at any time appropriate their land, drive them away or even let the villages sink in the river and vanish into a nostalgic memory. The people of Sunaput are thus displaced many times and they run from place to place for refuge as if followed by the furies. As soon as they get reconciled to their fate and begin to grow roots in one place and fertilize the soil, they are again uprooted and turned into beggars. The priest has nothing to suggest but rituals and pujas and the policemen only add to their misery by obeying their new masters. In between, people disappear, some like Gurei, Shukra’s wife, whose toddlers are crushed by the bulldozer, go mad; some like Shukra are found years later in impossible circumstances, in his case as a leper watchman in an isolated tower.

In between there are conversions, vain meetings with officers and protests that bring only punitive measures from the authorities all of which contribute to the growth of a violent movement that tries to instil fear into the hearts of the exploiters. Keshab’s life too passes through many vicissitudes, joining the Alekha sect under the influence of Bhairabanand when he learns the Gita and the Upanishads, Bhim Bhoi’s philosophy, herbal medicine and yoga and also to analyse Gandhi’s thoughts and actions critically. Dhanafula, his beloved, vainly waits for him at Panasput village camp and grows morose and gloomy, unable even to send a message to Keshab while Keshab, who returns after a year, fails to find her village anywhere; there are only mounds of excavated soil where the village used to be. Sunaput too is taken over by the government for a hydroelectric project that only benefits the wealthy industrialists. And the compensation for the land is given not to the villagers but to Sannyasirao and the officials involved in the land acquisition. Keshab tries to stop the truck on the road: “Give me back my village, my father, my kin, my Dhanafula.” But nothing is given back to him; the villagers too are not given jobs.

Keshab wanders, unable to find his displaced kin, and hugs sago palm trees to save them from being felled and discourages workers from collaborating with the rulers, which leads to his arrest. Minita, who was his companion, now gets raped on the floor of the police station. Only Sannyasirao grows big and famous, “owning” 10 wives and many houses and shops. Keshab finds only darkness as he comes out of jail. Even Minita is lost, and he has lost too his faith in Gandhi’s non-violent methods. He even thinks that had Gandhi survived the bullet, he would have been with Sannyasirao now and not the villagers.

The villagers are driven out even from the new place they had chosen to settle in that they just called “Our Village”. The land inspector “finds” they have illegally occupied the land and cultivated it. The villagers pay him whatever they have towards tax, most of which goes into his coffers. Meanwhile, Keshab meets Minita in the Dunguriput weekly market: she is now a serf in that village. The two run away. Keshab knows Minita is Samabaru’s wife, and her husband has disappeared, so he is reluctant to express his desire for her, but she is bolder and less inhibited and the villagers get them married. The villagers are again driven out as they fail to pay the tax; they settle in another smaller village which too is submerged by the dam built on the Chittapriya river. The village where Keshab and Minita are settled is now claimed by one Ismail Khan from Andhra Pradesh who has the record of rights for the whole of the Chittapriya village. Keshab’s meetings with the Tahsildar lead to nothing except the knowledge that the end of colonialism does not mean the end of exploitation. Prasadrao, a leading member of the revolutionary organisation, finally kills Ismail Khan. Keshab does not approve of it even when Ramahari goes away with Prasadrao.

One day, after years of pining for her, Keshab has a movingly dramatic meeting with Dhanafula on a railway platform. He has lost touch with Minita and their child. Keshab and Dhanafula begin to live in a colony named after the Prime Minister. The colony stands in a place that belongs to Gobindarao, one of Sannyasirao’s many sons. He is the new age capitalist, much more cunning, ambitious, faster and more rapacious than his father. He acquires land in the name of projects. Every institution of democracy, including cooperative societies, turns into his tools. A petroleum tree plantation and company devastate the village; they first employ many villagers but gradually get rid of them. NGOs and eco-activists and tribal welfare societies led by the enemies of tribal people only add to the misery of the villagers.

Keshab grows frustrated and joins the revolutionary organisation to become its head. He instils confidence in the poor peasants, who now stop pleading and instead demand their rights. They understand that exploitation is impossible without the consent of the exploited. Ismail Khan’s son Sharif is also killed and so is Gobindarao, tried and sentenced by the people to death. Thus, the people get rid of their fear. The enemies spread lies about Keshab, that he is a bandit, sorcerer, traitor, terrorist, spy, communalist, even psychopath. Dhanafula is raped and killed, the police station is blown up, Keshab falls ill, his people begin to blame him for mistakes, he surrenders on condition of fair trial as he has never killed anyone. Meanwhile, the son of Keshab and Minita is killed by three men just for sport, announcing the arrival of another age of monsters. Keshab is taken to a dale and when he is about to be shot, the pretender of an officer who had taken him is surrounded by a sea of people. Thus, the novel ends in a note of hope.

The novelist employs many styles and tones that have survived even in the translated version: from straightforward realistic prose, lyrical effusions and parable-like narratives to enraged outbursts and incisive sarcasm. Gopinath Mohanty’s miserable Paraja is reborn here as a human being conscious of his rights and ready to fight the system without fear of consequences.

His movement from non-violence to violence appears natural in the circumstances, even if violence is destined to fail as a tactic for social transformation in a society which is at least formally democratic. It may not bring about a revolution but will certainly give back to the “wretched of the earth” their dignity and make them realise their potential to transform themselves from a class-in-itself to a class-for-itself.