Book Reviews

Forest Interludes

Hardly "interludes"! The reader who picks up this book for a relaxing read, looking forward to poetic pieces on verdant forests and lilting brooks is in for a shock. Why does an eminent economist spend over a year making a careful selection from all of Anita Agnihotri's Bangla writing, transcreating it lovingly into English and then taking the trouble of writing an elaborate introduction running into 20 pages? Perhaps it is the passion that throbs in every line of Anita's writing-whether it be an economist-turned-administrator's despatches from the field, poetry, or fiction-which attracted Kalpana Bardhan. The burden of Anita's song can perhaps be summed up in Madame Roland's anguished outcry en route the guillotine, with a word altered: "O Development! Development! how many crimes are committed in thy name!" In her case, too, it is very much an "ekla cholo re" scenario, but she trudges on obstinately, carrying fire in her heart-a fire that is contagious.

The book is made up of six despatches from the field dealing with the angst of tribals displaced ruthlessly from their native forests and fields for the "nobler" cause of development benefiting the "haves"; four short stories, of which two depict the anguish of the bureaucrat-be he a lowly block development officer or a high-placed civil servant-and two superb vignettes of the agony of an old village woman and of a lady bank officer; and, finally, a novella, Mahuldiha Days. This shimmering necklace of sixteen gems and a pendant is strung on the living thread of empathy with the have-nots, the downtrodden, the deprived-both in terms of class and gender.

Anita's blunt criticism of "the local administration's iron hold of accumulated economic and administrative power" that callously countenances the villagers' "getting jailed for being unable to pay interest on loans, getting beaten, sued on false charges" and outsiders "for entertainment thrills'(grabbing) women from advisai home at the slightest opportunity," is all the more astonishing coming from a senior civil servant. It is a measure of the depth of her commitment and of her courage to speak out in writing against the system to which she belongs. The perversity of government in refusing to allow the adivasi women's samiti to earn something by selling brooms, forcibly seizing the chataran grass that they had painstakingly saved, bit by bit, and how "the grass-loaded truck'in Hindi film style, skidded and braked close to the women as though it was going to simply run them over", raises one's hackles. On the one hand government throws open the country to foreign capital, and on the other when villagers assert their birthright they are shackled in a thousand rules, their private lives ransacked on the pretext of law and order. Tunnels and dams are built, land snatched from the poor, and projects left incomplete benefiting only the well-off, while marginal land-owners are pauperised, turned into grossly underpaid labour. As for the women, here is a vivid picture of their plight: they plant rice seedlings, weed the fields, cut the sheaves, winnow the grain, husk it, bring in the wood for cooking, wash the utensils at dawn, cook, attend to the children, serve food to the men, go up the hill slope to sort the grasses, cut shrubs, burn bushes, scatter the seeds for shifting cultivation and at night go for wage-work in the tunnel, all this while the males go to town, get drunk, and on returning beat up the women if they do not part with their petty earnings that keep the household going. And what do the women think of the men? "He comes home, he finds water ready and the rice served. Has he ever fetched water? If you can get us a tubewell, do it, we will pump the water. Walking for wood and water for two and a half kilometeres is tearing the skin of our feet to shreds." The water they drink at the site is muddy, reddish-brown, foul-smelling and they present the District Magistrate (Anita) with a bottle of it so that she remembers to get them a tubewell. Where the division of labour is so grossly lopsided, a displaced woman suffers far greater loss than a man since she is the one who has to cope with greater economic pressures within the family. In the course of her interactions with these miserable tribals of Lanuga Bera she finds herself unable to demonstrate what she had accepted as an axiom: a son and a daughter are of equal value. She cannot even respond positively to the old Juang woman of Keonjhar who had started learning to read and asked, "Can you get a lantern for our class?" (her self-respect prevented her from asking for the kerosene too). But the officer could not oblige, for the superiors respond, "Those goatherd boys and girls and that old woman, are they going to show your country the light of heaven?" Where contractors flaunt eight gold rings on ten fingers and technical professionals play with millions of rupees, free of accountability, Anita chews her knuckles in frustration at being unable to get a lantern for a tribal literacy class. The state policy itself is shown up in all its heartlessness: "The rehabilitation policy talks of giving land. But where is the land to give? 'Or at least the money? But money was precisely what they did not have. So the government sat quietly, doing nothing at all'Why did it rush in to fill the barrage and inundate the land? Evicting communities and people without rehabilitation is totally illegal. But with the excuse of industrialization, even that was made possible." A barrage-bridge is built, shortening the distance between the steel town and the capital, but despite this the bus owners pass on the burden of the toll tax to the passengers, hiking their own profits. So Basanti, pregnant, carrying an infant in arms and a load on her head, has to get off at one end of the bridge and trudge across the distance in the blazing heat of 47 degrees centigrade because she cannot afford the toll tax. Whose greed is her unborn child, her infant and she paying for? None of the displaced can re-establish themselves elsewhere, because the compensation is inadequate since technically only three fourth of the village has been inundated: "As a result, Basanti and others like her will have to stay suspended between water and land, between life and death." Projects for which the people were uprooted are left unfinished. Since villages have been wiped off the revenue records after the land has been requisitioned, no government relief is available to the inhabitants even though the habitations exist, the work of the barrage having stopped. If there is a fire, an epidemic, no help will be forthcoming! Old Giribala exclaims, "Well, if it is so much trouble for you, why don't you just kill us off with a bit of poison? With no money even for food and clothing, why live any longer?" How terribly reality has aped Orwell's 1984! These dams have become as a mighty Juggernaut, crushing everyone in the villages down to the least common denominator: field labour. No wonder Anita bursts out: "O Dam Project, O Forerunner of Equality!" Uncompromisingly she states, "the most reprehensible aspect of the inflated project spending is that society's richest income group has pocketed 99 per cent of it...big business, big industry, the suppliers, the contractors and a large section of government officers and technical professionals, in whose indulgent care a five year project isn't done even in fifteen years'delays in project work are entirely handcrafted by a handful of the wealth-hungry." Anita can be bitingly sarcastic too. A visit to Maharashtran and Gujrati farmers would teach far more at much lesser cost about how to farm with limited water and irrigation cooperatives than travelling to Israel, Turkey, Brazil or Argentina, "But of course, doing that would mean they would not get these trips abroad!" Again, even in the novella she explodes, "They're like wolves, or jackals, who live on the blood of human beings, not of inferior creatures, they thrive, they multiply." She protests, but is never shrill or strident.

Anita rams home the enormity of the injustice with plan facts: in India as a whole 10.5 million people, 75% of those displaced, have not been rehabilitated. Of these 4 million are adivasis. The vast majority of the displaced are marginal farmers or landless labour, the weakest section of society whom government is pledged to uplift! Michael Cernea's "Impoverishment Risk Analysis Model" shows how the displaced lose their land and home, the right to a livelihood, the links to forest resources and their voice of protest is extinguished. Socio-economically they become totally dispensable; they are cornered. The National Commission for SC & ST under Dr B.D. Sharma enunciated five conditions for living with self respect, none of which have been ensured by the state: personal freedom; equal wages; right to one's own production; the group's collective rights to natural resources; local self-government. Is displacement of people inevitable? And why does the government never consider that the marginalized communities may have something to say in the matter? It is still a government by colonial masters exploiting us and not a national government tendering to its weakest members.

The anguished reader finds sustenance for his parched soul through two despatches concerning Annasaheb Hajare, whose approach in Ralegan-Siddhi village Anita finds to be sustainable, pro-people and non-exploitative: no liquor shops, gambling, idle men playing cards; everyone is busy working. And it all started with rebuilding a temple with his provident fund of Rs.20,000! For these hollow people needed a place to meet and rediscover themselves. The government wants to make 300 such villages, but where to find so many Annasahebs? Anita gives a fascinatingly different solution that would occur only to a poetic sensibility: "To me it seems the opposite! Everywhere there are gem-like human beings. What's missing is the wake-up silver wand." It is here, most of all, that the poet in Anita comes out--simple lines like, "Daughter of a land of rains, if only I could somehow share the clouds with this village!" Her passionate commitment is succinctly conveyed through a gesture: holding the soil of the village in both hands. But, even in the other pieces, her prose breaks into passages of lyrical beauty that come as a sorely needed revifying petrichor amid the pitiless glare of callousness and cruelty. Even the metaphors she uses are home-spun and unique: "The great big kite of project implementation keeps flying in the sky, but who holds the spool of its string?" "He has hidden his bit of discontent like an enamel covered tooth. People address him as mahajan, while they address Dehuri-babu as 'president'. Peeled, both onions are quite the same." One of the most moving passages is the gift-deed of Saheb Murrey Baske of Sonarimara, the Nation of India, to his grandson, "witnessed by Cloud, forest-covered Earth and Soul, the giver of life's birth," strongly reminiscent of the Great Chief Seattle's apocryphal speech, but much simpler and heart-piercing: "It is hoped that the words of this deed of gift executed by Saheb Murrey Baske will be written for all times by the light, the air, the colours, the smells, the clouds and the crops of the universe." In the midst of the heart-rending misery of the young kandh women the poet's eye catches a burst of colour and the artist swiftly sketches a vivid picture in words: "in the hazy daylight from a clouded sky, the flowers on the squash and pumpkin vines spreading along the roofs seem to glow," or "a strangely magical forest-dense, its air scented musk, full of saal, teak, arjun, piyal, mahua trees. In the deep shadows under the trees, an immense variety of vines, swaying in convoluted tangles. The chorus of crickets calling in the middle of the day. The heated air of a Bhadra noon blowing all around, yet this little stretch of the way cool and comforting, like memories from childhood'their green leaves vibrating like a million dragonfly wings'", or "All day this rocky ground had burned, the black granite rocks looking like wild buffaloes. The smell of the yellow sunshine trapped in their hearts now mixed with the smell of wild flowers and karanja plums'vines heavy with clusters of white flowers, swaying like elephant trunks; a batch of the endlessly shedding brown saal leaves flying ahead on the tarred road'the car rushed on like a breaking wave." Or the solitary Mahul tree, like Wordsworth's single tree in "Tintern Abbey", "bathed in moonlight, she is like a solitary woman in a pond with her tresses spread out in the placed water'.a dream in green and yellow, beckoning." Here is a true poet, sating her senses, steeping herself in nature's unalloyed beauty, yet with a eye that does not miss what man has made of woman and man and animal. Who would imagine a comparison between a forest bear and a child? Yet how effortlessly it occurs in the novella Mahuldiha Days. Watching the post-mortem of a famished bear killed trying to escape, leaving iron bars bent and twisted in his frenzy, "I was reminded of my childhood. How that little Babli, watching that red flood of the sunset, had wanted to bend the bars just like this and fly away. But she couldn't. And she still has her feet fixed on the ground, still nursing within her the wounds inflicted by various weapons."

The short stories are exemplary instances of the craft of writing, each ending with a superb twist-in-the-tale. In three the protagonist is female, and in one an aged block development officer peremptorily transferred. In each case the characters spring off the page, etched effortlessly in detail. Almost causally, without knowing it, the reader slips from a lazy description of a meal shared by two women into the gut-wrenching horrors of police torture, the demonic laughter of ruling powers and the crass physicality of a man. His superior civil service status makes no difference in regarding a female batch-mate as fair game for a one-night stand just because she is single.

The novella is written in a stream-of-consciousness style, effortlessly weaving in and out between the present and the past, the clashes in the outer life of the public servant and the inner struggles of the passionate woman, lover, wife, mother. It traces the journey from a childhood in outgrown canvas keds, worn belt, absurd tunic, faded saris with frayed borders, spectacles sliding down her nose, hair wet and tied up in two tight braids, through running away from a traumatic marriage to becoming a mature civil servant. Through it all the heart is ever hurt-full, sensitive to the nuances of deprivation, refusing to take refuge behind a wall of distance and class. She is vulnerable, willing to be hurt while her mind analyses the options for effective intervention. How far we are from the supercilious, clever, cynical writing of English August. It shows that where the heart is sensitive, the writing can concern the same environment of bureaucracy but be far more moving. The novella is treasure-chest stuffed with a experiences that are varied and profound. There is the administrator's anger against self-serving, exploiting politicians; the cut and thrust with the police boss who would rather listen to orders from above instead of looking at the injustice suffered by the have-nots, but against his better judgement gives in to the magistrate's social conscience and suffers a transfer to a remote place; the trauma of facing tribal women raped and beaten up by the police and contractors; the anguish of a woman's telephone number on the first page of her husband's phone book; the struggle between love and pride that leads to her taking her new born daughter with her on transfer without waiting for her husband and son to accompany her; the loving detail of a mother's concern over feeding her children and the torment of leaving them behind. Every character is living, every dialogue rings authentic. It is amazing how much has been packed into so few pages-a richly rewarding fare indeed. 

It is impossible to finish this book in one read. The intensity of the writer's pain is so well articulated that the reader has to grapple with it and take the book in small doses. This is where the editor-translator must be complimented on her selection, offering short pieces in varied styles, so that there is an illusion of difference at the beginning, but as one plunges in the realisation dawns that the core is the same: a profound concern for the human condition. Nor is it just an impulsive, passionate social activist that is portrayed. There is no frenzied political pamphleteering. Here is social activism at its basic best: exposing the intolerable plight-the reader wonders how they survive at all and no revolution sweeps away the vampires and parasites battening on their misery-unique in throb of the heart that runs through all accounts, pulsating with empathy, courageous enough to state the unpalatable truth, braving ostracism, anger, jealousy not only of the bureaucratic hierarchy but of all those benefiting from the prevailing rot she exposes. It is a seasoned administrator too who over-rules the heart's impulsive response to a tribal woman's demand for a lantern for the literacy centre, knowing that the rules did not permit that! The finger always points back at the system to which she belongs, there is no "other" who exploits, who turns away with a shrug from hands pale, wrinkled and cracked from day-long immersion in submerged paddy fields, bodies half clothed, shrunken stomachs. Where are the leftists, one wonders, standing up for the exploited of the earth? Instead, the bureaucrat herself becomes their spokeswoman at untold cost to herself. Is it possible to remain within the system and become a change agent? This is where Anita differs from Aruna Roy, who opted out of the system to fight and change it. Anita chooses to continue her struggle from within it. Sandwiched between these two pressures, one hopes change will occur one day. Her quiet yet fierce determination reminds one of "The Impossible Dream": "No matter how hopeless, no matter how far/To fight for the right without question of loss/And I know if I only be true to this glorious quest/That my heart will lie peaceful and calm/When I've made to my rest/And the world will be better for this/That one woman scorned and covered with scars/Still strove with her last ounce of courage/To reach the unreachable star."

A few remarks about the translation itself: what is the audience aimed at? Obviously, the English-only readers. In that case, what will they make of "fried karela", "date palm gur", "Bhadra", "seuli", "ketaki", "kundru", "piyal", "cherimoya tree" etc.? Once again, the need for a translator's credo becomes apparent. A glossary is one of those invariable requirements. Some editing is also necessary to amend phrases like "the inside of her chest jumps" (p. 106) and errors like "Shankaracharya" where "Shukracharya" is meant (p. 87). Better proof reading would keep Kali for Women's reputation intact. And why does Bardhan drop the lovely poem that is placed as the epigraph to the novella in the original? But for such minor flaws, the work reads smoothly, engrossingly, more like a transcreation than a literal translation, and therein lies the success of Dr Kalpana Bardhan's pains. It would be interesting to compare this with Dr Rani Ray's translation of Anita's first novel "Jara Bhalobeshechilo" as Those who had known love (Srishti, 1999) but space constraints preclude that. Undoubtedly, we have here a major writer and Forest Interludes is yet another proof of Salman Rushdie's sadly limited exposure in his selection of the "best" of Indian writing. Kali for Women is to be complimented for selecting this young writer for publication in translation. Macmillan's admirable attempt to publish English translations of important creative writing in Indian languages needs to include authors like Anita Agnihotri.


More by :  Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya

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Comment Pradip, can you lend me your copy to read?

09-Jul-2013 01:14 AM

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