Monthly Archives: October 2018

The Thing About Bishto…

Bishto is the same age as Korok, and is the conductor and handyman of the only bus that comes to Deogan village. It is a decrepit vehicle: some sheets of metal hammered over an engine, with a few dozen seats. This bus travels from the Gond villages around Devi Hills to Balangir town and back, an uncomfortable journey because of the state of the bus and the roads in the district. There are no fixed timings, partly because the villagers don’t have watches, and partly because the bus follows its own rules. So it passes through the villages when it chooses to, and on some days just does not arrive. But every Gond knows the bus will appear when it is needed.

The vehicle has not been known to have come to a complete stop in the living memory of any villager. Nor has it ever been seen with its engine shut. The villagers, who seem to have thought a lot about the bus, say that if it were ever to come to a complete halt, or if its engine were to shut down, it would fall to pieces and lie scattered on the road, while Bishto would immediately turn into a parrot and fly away.

There is no reason why Bishto is specifically expected to turn into a parrot. Perhaps this is connected to his immense love for guavas, but neither Korok nor the villagers know where the story started. Bishto has one hand. The other ends in a stump. There are, again, different tales about how he lost his hand. One of the stories goes that he had picked up a bomb on a railway track on the other side of the river Tel. But this is unlikely, because Bishto has never been known to step out of the bus. There is even a legend that he came to life with the vehicle, but that would make him very old.

Bishto is among the most interesting characters I have come across in a while. He is much wiser than Korok about the larger world, and his responses are swift and definitive. When the Gond agitation against the mine starts, politicians become interested in the group of villages, and top leaders begin trickling in. Some arrive to be seen eating with the people. Others come with speeches. When a party begins requisitioning vehicles for a rally, Bishto (who is the spokesperson for the bus instead of the largely invisible driver) promises to bring his bus around to fill it with attendees, as happens at political rallies in India. He then takes the bus down the road and disappears. Nobody in the entire district sees Bishto or the vehicle again till the rally is over, and nobody can quite understand how he pulled off the trick.

Bishto is there when the Gond elders travel to Balangir to meet Collector Behera, and he gets the driver to be careful on the road because some of the elders are frail old men. The guava fan is also the only person immune to the havoc created by young activists who arrive at Deogan. Many of them travel on his bus to Balangir, but the journey is too harrowing for them, and there is little they can do to bother Bishto afterwards. And of course, whenever Korok needs to go to Balangir, he only has to walk to the main road. He knows Bishto will appear.

So who exactly is Bishto? I wish I knew, although I have a few theories to explain his mysterious bus and him.

The Gonds of Deogan revere pens, which are small gods bound to specific places by rituals. One of my theories is Bishto could just be a pen of the bus, an entity created from the combined hopes of the Gonds and their relation with the world; somebody apparently as young as Korok, but wise about the ways of the state, politicians and policemen. That might explain some of the events in Year of the Weeds. Only a Gond pen would be so politically astute.

Some years ago I watched a Japanese Chanbara movie called 13 Assassins, a story as multi-layered as it is violent. One of the eponymous thirteen is Kiga Koyata, a man the other questing bushi find in a forest. He seems to have a supernatural ability to survive and healing powers which are not quite human. The implication is he is a yokai, a capricious spirit creature in Japanese mythology. Yokais appear in numerous folk tales, and although seldom major characters, bring an element of mystery into even prosaic tales from the countryside.

Bishto could just be a bit of a yokai. A small god, a pen of the bus who’s coming and going is apparently whimsical but might actually not be. But at the heart of it, even a small god’s loyalties can lie with its people, the folk mind from which it has emerged.

On the other hand, Bishto could just be a clever, cynical handyman on a battered old bus in a small corner of Odisha. I really wish I knew.

Korok’s Arete (Part II): When a Garden Is Not Enough

The second of a two-part post on Korok, one of the two central characters in Year of the Weeds:

Here is an interesting exercise for Voltaire readers: young Candide, after numerous trials and disappointments, realises how wrong the optimist Pangloss is, and decides to cultivate his own garden.

What next?

Korok, unlike Pangloss, is no optimist. He does not need to experience the world to be convinced of the merits of cultivating his own garden, or living a complete life among his own people. He knows who he is, and where he belongs. All he wants is to continue in his garden. And then the weeds turn up. So what is Korok to do?

Pangloss in ‘Candide’ declares that everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds. This is a position that Korok can never be lulled into agreeing with. He lives alone, is dependent on state largesse for food and rations, or the kindness of his neighbours. He is most certainly the poorest of Deogan’s residents. He lives in a single-room house which has so few possessions that they can be bundled up into one of his friend Anchita’s bags and carted away in minutes. His father’s bicycle is ‘under arrest’ at Balangir police station. He has no ambitions, but his days are haunted by Superintendent of Police Sorkari Patnaik, by the government and the Company’s machinations, while the nights are menaced by Maoists who drop in and eat up his dinner, forcing him to sleep hungry under a tattered blanket on a bed with no mattress. Pangloss wouldn’t stand a chance, because his illusory optimism would hold little attraction to an illusion-less boy.

One of the principal responses to inordinate optimism is, philosophically speaking, a guarded realism and a return to the small act, the intimacy of tending to the humble plant or flower, the numerous tasks of gardening, the security of enclosed activities. But weeds do turn up, invading personal spaces and even the most intimate of tasks. They take up the recesses of the mind; they clutter the daily routine, siphon off nourishment and kill all growing and green things.

Season after season, Korok has to be on the guard against the weeds, which keep returning. As he discovers, the world — or rather the government, the Company and the Maoists — are also relentless, like weeds, and will keep returning. The only option for a gardener is to be on eternal vigilance.

Cultivating one’s garden is, therefore, not the end of the story, but actually the beginning. Korok’s experience with the ‘weeds’ that threaten to take over his village, the sacred hill and his beloved garden convinces him not only of his responsibility to his craft, but the necessity of this eternal vigilance. Therefore as the seasons pass, and he battles the weeds in the garden of his life and the actual garden of the DFO, Korok’s determination to defend the very small corner of the world that is his own becomes stronger.

The final lesson for a realist is not the determination to cultivate one’s garden, but the necessity of defending it, if the garden is worthy.

Korok’s Arete (Part I): A Tale of Love and Focus

Korok, one of the two central characters in Year of the Weeds, spends most of his time in the garden next to the house of the Divisional Forest Officer in Deogan village. His life otherwise is bound within Deogan, an arrangement he appears to be comfortable with. He visits the sacred Devi Hills next door every day to tend to the hanal kot where his mother’s memory is kept in the form of a stone hanal, or wanders around the hill looking for wild flowers and plants for his garden. There is very little he seeks in the outside world, and he knows even less of the world’s vastness and complexity. Occasionally he has to go to Balangir town, which is the headquarters of the district, to meet his father in prison or to ask police if they could release his father’s bicycle to him. That is his life.

The centre of Korok’s existence, his life, is his garden where he tends to the flowers and plants with precision, care and a degree of focus which he would find difficult to articulate or defend, were anybody interested enough to ask him. What is this mysterious force that drives him? There is no real word for this kind of self-contained singularity of purpose. It is said that to master a craft, or an art, one needs to put in ten thousand hours of practice. The number is, I believe, arbitrary. What matters is the enormous amount of time and attention that any craft or art deserves.

But there is something that lies beyond mastery, that reaches into the heart of what it means to be a worthy human; that transcends a single discipline and acquires the form of magic, pure and unalloyed. One may, perhaps, call this ‘love’. It will have to suffice, I suppose: this frequently misused and misunderstood word. In this case, it could, perhaps, stand in for the hours and days and seasons that a Korok needs to spend in his garden, beyond sleep, beyond hunger, beyond the pain of orphanhood, to arrive at something approaching beauty, something approaching completion.

In Classical Greek philosophy, there is a word which comes close, though, and that is arete. Like the other virtues, such as patience and modesty, Ancient Greeks attempted a definition and later a personification of arete, and eventually philosophers engaged with the term in their own ways. It began with a folk understanding of ‘purpose’ or ‘effectiveness’. Therefore the arete of a dog was swiftness and loyalty, perhaps, while the arete of a chair was stability and comfort.

But what was the arete of humans? The complexity of the human condition is such that a single arete would not suffice. The arete of a Homeric warrior would be effectiveness in battle. This is an interesting concept, because Homeric warriors were accorded greatness not by bravery or ruthlessness, but by their ability to decide the course of battles. This, too, was an outcome, one imagines, of something more than a mere ten thousand hours of craftsmanship. Arete lay in practicing a craft to the exclusion of everything else, even time.

Aristotle was to extend this to defining what he considered the highest arete of all: if knowledge was a supreme human activity, the knowledge of knowledge, or contemplation of contemplation, was the greatest arete possible. And there is some merit in this argument.

For Korok, his life in the garden is the core of his existence. He is shocked when Anchita calls him a ‘flower-pen’, a pen being a small god, bound to an area by Gond rituals. And in his own way he is right. Godhood is mystical, even for small gods, and need not be the only explanation for supernatural devotion to a craft or art. Beyond the supernatural lies the human capacity for perseverance, for a certain extraordinarily resilient pursuit of something greater than oneself. Korok is fortunate to have found it in his garden, and to have the self-contained life that makes such pursuits possible.

There are no gods involved in this story, but in a way, Korok is among the truly blessed.

(Next: Part II, or Why a Garden Is Not Enough)

‘Our lost brothers’: Adivasis and the Hindu Right

This article was published in the Duckbill Blog on October 22:

The Hindutva experiment has been, since its beginning, an imperialist enterprise, as all forms of fascism are. The militaristic motifs and language, the public display of weaponry and reverence of militaristic historical and mythical figures, the geographic revision of the idea of India, the seeking of empire in its history and iconography are by now familiar in mainstream discourse. One of these imperialist elements is the mission of the Hindu Right to ‘civilise’ what it claims to be outliers of cultural and scriptural Hinduism — the Adivasis.

The traditional Hindu varna system — that is, caste as hierarchy — has placed Adivasis and other tribes of India, whether in the centre of the subcontinent or its peripheries such as the Northeast, outside the four major caste categories. Till the advent of the Government of India Act, 1935, and elections two years later, Adivasis were not considered significant enough to be engaged with by upper caste Hindu leaders, just as Dalits had not been traditionally included in the upper-caste definition of ‘Hindu’. But with elections came constituencies, and demographics, and other statistical measures. The Hindu Right and upper-caste Hindu leaders of other parties like the Congress, needed to include Adivasis in the Hindu fold in as many ways as possible, and through whatever means they could find.

Over the decades, the Hindu Right’s co-option of Adivasis has been along two parallel lines. The first has been the ‘rediscovery’ of Adivasis in scripture. Therefore Sabari in the Ramayana, who has been hailed as an epitome of piety towards Rama. Therefore Guha, king of the Nishadas and friend to the exiled prince. Therefore Eklavya, the ‘good’ Adivasi who sacrificed his greatness as an archer because the Brahmin Drona wanted the Kshatriya Arjuna to remain the world’s greatest archer, in the Mahabharata. The sub-text was clear: Adivasis were to be accommodated as Hindus provided they knew the rules and were subservient to the caste hierarchy. The varna pyramid was not modified; only its base was expanded. In the Hindu upper-caste imagination, there has always been room at the base.

The second approach has been a relentless demolition of Adivasi identity, culture and religion. Co-option of belief systems where convenient, rejection by decree where not. This is not a new process. All religions, particularly polytheistic ones like Hinduism, have co-opted myths, beliefs and practices from cultures they have subsumed. Consider Manasa, a folk goddess of snakes who has been popular since the Middle Ages in Bengal and Western Assam. Her tribal origins are clear, and for Brahmins in the Middle Ages she presented a difficult problem: she was not a Vedic goddess, but by the 10th century she had become popular among the lower castes and needed to be accommodated.

The process by which this was done was bureaucratic. By the 11th century Manasa was considered a daughter of the Vedic and Puranic sage Kashyapa. In the next three hundred years, with the Manasa cult becoming even more powerful, she had to be ‘promoted’ and considered a daughter of Shiva. Symbolically, tribals could only hope for a subservient status to caste Hindus, just as their gods could, at best, be children of mainstream deities.

The modern Hindu Right’s methods are more direct. Co-option continues, but those elements of Adivasi life which make upper castes uncomfortable need to go. Consider the religious ceremony of ‘indal’ among Adivasis in Jhabua district of Madhya Pradesh. A celebration of their creation myths, ‘indal’ is an intimate ritual performed by individual families, involving spirit possession, alcohol and animal sacrifice. In its unfettered abandon, in its joyous celebration of fertility and life, ‘indal’ could very well stand for the directness and the simultaneously complex philosophies behind tribal rituals. But it is these elements — alcohol, animal sacrifice, spirit possession and dance which is not exactly staid and measured like ‘classical’ temple-mandated Hindu dance forms — which make upper-caste Hindus uncomfortable at an atavistic level. Over time, the pressure of co-option on tribal families practicing indal has been intense.

Consider the storm of abuse and threats which erupted when an Adivasi college lecturer in Jharkhand asked on social media, in June 2017, where he could find beef. Ironically, Jharkhand, a state created to safeguard and promote Adivasis, has been enacting laws which mirror upper-caste Hindu sentiments more than Adivasis’. Thirteen years ago, the state passed a law under which cow slaughter would lead to imprisonment for 10 years, the highest such sentence for this offence in any Indian state at that time. The process of co-opting Adivasis has only quickened with the rise and rise of the Hindu Right in the past few years. Therefore ‘shuddhikaran’ ceremonies in which Adivasis are formally adopted into the varna fold, regardless of the fact that there is no scriptural basis for such ceremonies. Therefore new temples in places where there hadn’t been any. Therefore, in Odisha’s Balangir district (where ‘Year of the Weeds’ is set) the indigenous Kondhs can’t practice animal sacrifice during the Mathkai festival. Upper castes, who also worship at the tribal temple, have claimed the Mathkai deities are Shiva and Durga, and have successfully prevented Kondhs from claiming their own gods or practicing their own rituals.

The Hindu Right’s message to Adivasis is thus: we will accommodate you, whether you want this or not, but on our terms, and whatever is ‘un-Hindu’ has to go.

In ‘Year of the Weeds’, Korok the gardener from a Gond village occasionally visits Balangir town, and comes to know of a new temple built by an organisation that wants to bring ‘the lost brothers’ back to Hinduism. New gods, new systems of coercion and co-option. There is very little difference between the methods of operation of the Hindu Right and predatory multinational companies which first create demand and then attempt changes in behaviour patterns. There is almost no difference between imperial entities of the past and proponents of Hindutva in their absolute conviction about the civilising mission of Hinduism.

One of the two political groups which attempt to parachute into the Gond movement against a mine in their sacred hill includes these people who built the temple in Balangir. Their prominent leader, a ‘grim fellow’ full of what the cadre call ‘purpose’ gives a speech at Deogan village, where Korok lives. The big leader calls the Gonds ‘his tribal brothers’. His speech is mainly about how some nefarious people want the Gonds to worship other gods, to eat beef and pork, and drink alcohol. The Gonds in the audience, including Korok, are puzzled and ultimately find the argument hilarious because these are activities they have traditionally done. The leader also promises a temple to the goddess of the hill, unaware — or unwilling to acknowledge — that there is no goddess of the hill as understood by a Hindu. The entire hill is sacred and its gender is incidental to the Gonds’ beliefs. But these are nuances that have always escaped the Hindu Right.

Ultimately, nothing much emerges from the big leader’s speech, as has happened in peoples’ movements in real life. Bulldozing of traditions and cultural nuances, of ways of life and identities of Adivasi deities continue. As the Hindu Right continues its agenda of undermining what had once been India’s experiment with modernity, the Adivasi ways of life too are at greater peril than before.

Interview by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar

This interview was first published in the Duckbill Blog on September 15, after which a part was carried in Scroll on October 21:

This book can easily be called the best book of the year. This is Year of the Weeds, the new novel by Siddhartha Sarma.

Year of the Weeds is set in a village called Deogan in Balangir area of western Odisha. The area is inhabited by the Gond Adivasis and Deogan is home to the Devi Hills, the hills which are sacred to the Gonds. The government, prompted by a corporate house that wishes to mine bauxite in the Devi Hills, tries to displace the Gonds so that the mining activity in the area could be done easily.

The plot is reminiscent of the Niyamgiri movement of the Dongria Kondh Adivasis in Odisha who fought the corporate house Vedanta and emerged victorious. Year of the Weeds is the story of a people’s movement and has a terrific punch, but what really struck me about it is how Sarma spells everything out so explicitly: how this nexus between the corporate houses and government works and how an already disadvantaged group is made more vulnerable by the actions of the police and the judiciary and also the middle-class educated and salaried people. Though this novel has been placed in the young adult (YA) category, this is a book that everyone should read. Seen through the eye of a young Gond boy named Korok, Year of the Weeds is an insightful, eye-opening, and very important and timely book.

Siddhartha Sarma is assistant editor with The Times of India. His YA novel, The Grasshopper’s Run, won the 2011 Sahitya Akademi Bal Puraskar and the 2010 Crossword Award for Best Children’s Book. He has written two more books for children – 103 Journeys, Voyages, Trips and Stuff and 103 Historical Mysteries, Puzzles, Conundrums and Stuff – and a non-fiction book for adult readers, East of the Sun: A Nearly-Stoned Walk Down the Road in a Different Land. In this interview with The Duckbill Blog, Sarma tells us about Year of the Weeds.

Q1: The detailed manner in which the working of corporate houses, the working of the judiciary, the condition of jails, and – most importantly – the life of the Gond Adivasis and the day-to-day life in Balangir have been shown in your novel, Year of the Weeds, that, I think, can be written either by a journalist or an activist or a keen observer. We would really appreciate if you tell us a little bit about your background. Are you a journalist or an observer? Also, you have written four books before Year of the Weeds – one of which, The Grasshopper’s Run, won the Sahitya Akademi Bal Puraskar and the Crossword Award for Best Children’s Book – so please tell us a bit about your previous works as well.

A1: I used to be a reporter and have covered insurgency (mainly in the Northeast), crime, law and very briefly, external affairs. I am an editor now, but my reading of current events is still, and perhaps will always be, from a reporter’s perspective. I studied Economics in graduation and have a pre-doctorate in Military History.

My previous novel, The Grasshopper’s Run, was set in 1944 during the Second World War in East Assam, what is Nagaland today and Myanmar. I have written two non-fiction books: 103 Journeys, Voyages, Trips and Stuff, which is about the great travellers of the world (including plants and animals) and 103 Historical Mysteries, Puzzles, Conundrums and Stuff. My fourth book was a travelogue, East of the Sun, about the Northeast.

Q2: Like I already mentioned in my previous question, Year of the Weeds is a detailed recounting of the injustices and atrocities that the underprivileged, the have-nots of our society – the GondAdivasis, in the case of your novel – have to face, the way they are exploited, how it is not easy for them to get justice. What inspired you to write this story? Please give us a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of Year of the Weeds.

A2: I follow peoples’ movements and issues related to land rights, communal and caste conflict, ecological exploitation, conservation movements and corporate activity in vulnerable areas. I had been following the Niyamgiri agitation in Odisha practically since it first began in the early 2000s. These issues gestate or pass through multiple phases. The May 2018 shooting of protesters against the Sterlite plant at Thoothukudi was not part of a new agitation: it had been going on since 1994. Mostly, it has been an exhausting experience reading about the fate of these movements; following relentless campaigns by really powerful forces which are designed to win.

And then Niyamgiri happened, and the gram sabhas got the opportunity to vote against the bauxite mine. It was an unexpected victory, and although I knew it was provisional, it was still a victory, and I wanted to hold on to it. Sometime afterwards, the Right began its election campaign for the 2014 General Elections. I was familiar with the personality and policies of the leaders of that campaign, so I knew what was going to happen in the country. I was thinking of a story to tell about the country’s systems and processes, because these stories have become even more important than earlier. My wife said: ‘Why not Niyamgiri? You were happy about what happened.’ So I started on it. In the process — the story took a long time to finish — I included other aspects of India I wanted to talk about.

Q3: This might seem like an extension of the last question. Why is Year of the Weeds so detailed? Why is an exact, true-to-life description of a jail in small town India (down to the mention of beedis) given? Why do we read about the tin shed outside a court where lawyers sit with their typewriters? What was the thought behind giving all these details? Were you sure that your target readership was prepared to accept all this?

A3: This is a story of corporate greed, but it is also a story of how the state structure has failed the people. Not just failed, but has preyed on the people. To explain this, I needed to not only talk about the human faces of this failure—Superintendent of Police Sorkari Patnaik and Collector Behera among others —but also about the apparatus. Giving these details was necessary for explaining the fundamental workings of the apparatus. The typewriters under the tin shed convert the words of the people into legal jargon, and the system swallows it up whole. Collector Behera’s air-conditioner defends him from the heat which grinds down people like Korok and his villagers. The jail is an eco-system with its unique rules and systems for chewing up undertrials and keeping them inside those massive walls while the apparatus marches on. The key is in the details. It is a system so massive that an individual standing next to the beast would not miss the pores of the skin, the curve of the fangs, the bristles on the head. Therefore the details.

Q4: Year of the Weeds could very well be a novel for adults. Had Korok been an adult or even if Korok would have been our child guide to the story – like Lenny in Bapsi Sidhwa’s novel, Ice-Candy-Man, or Rahel and Estha in Arundhati Roy’s novel, The God of Small Things – even then Year of the Weeds could have been a novel for adult readers. So why did you write it as a YA novel?

A4: I hope alleged adults read it and respond to it. Yes, Korok and Anchita could have been protagonists in a novel for adults as well. I wrote this as a YA novel because I still have hopes from young people. Our generation has failed, mostly, and has bought into the propaganda, the bigotry, the greed and the depredations of corporate groups and the government. But I still have hopes from young people. By writing it as a YA novel, I was hoping young people would have access to this story, which I was not certain they would have if I had written it for an adult readership. Adults are good at hiding these issues from young people.

Having said that, these labels are provisional, so I hope everyone reads it and has a take on what I have written.

But there was another reason. I wrote this story for Sayoni Basu and Anushka Ravishankar at Duckbill, who are simply among the most wonderful people I have known — excellent and inspiring writers and marvellous publishers, but also the kind of humans who make you want to be better than what you know you are. So I wrote it for them.

Q5: Children in mofussil India could be familiar with how police and courts work and the contents of Year of the Weeds might not come as a surprise to them, while children in big city India might find the contents of Year of the Weeds shocking. Do you find it ironic that your novel caters, primarily, to that English-reading, English-speaking, city-dwelling YA which will have first access to your novel and which itself is a beneficiary of that corporate system which this novel intends to unmask? Do you expect this urban YA to fully appreciate your book?

A5: Yes, it is ironic, and I hope the book will spark discussions among some of the young readers in urban India. We have gone on for far too long with pretending there are two Indias, of which only one is legitimate and the other invisible. Even if there are two Indias, they shouldn’t be. So children in urban India should know, read about and engage with these issues. If they are shocked with what they find, I hope they will also ask themselves why they are shocked, and why these issues are unfamiliar to them, and what needs to be done. If that means they go to their teachers and parents and tell them: ‘You have not been talking about these things with us, but we are smarter, kinder and better than that, so let us start talking,’ I will be content.

Q6: My favourite part in the novel is this passage:

“It was strange, Ghosh would sometimes think. It was…ironic, that’s what it was. The most valuable resources were usually found under the feet of people who didn’t seem to need them. Even worse, these were usually people who needed the land more than more than what was inside it. And if that did not complicate matters, sometimes the land meant more to them than just space for farming and living. Sometimes it would be ancestors buried there, other times it would be gods and legends. But, and no less ironic, the best veins of these resources were under tribal lands. Take Chhattisgarh, or Jharkhand, or [this place in western Odisha where the Gond Adivasis live]. Invisible people who no one was interested in.

“[Ghosh] sometimes wondered what the people of New York or Delhi or Shanghai would do if rich veins of crude oil and iron ore were found under their houses and streets. They wouldn’t just get up and leave, even if the iron and bauxite would be needed to build their cars or aircraft, and the crude oil would be needed to run their cars or aircraft.”

I cannot say how much this particular passage has moved me and I wish people read Year of the Weeds if only to read this particular passage.

In this part of the novel, you have introduced the character Ghosh who is some kind of a middleman between the corporate world and the government. Ghosh is, of course, a shrewd and ruthless man, but he is also a thoughtful man. Only a thoughtful, sensitive, and understanding man would think the things that I have quoted in the passage above. But, as we would later see in the novel, and I am afraid I might drop a spoiler or two here, Ghosh is not what he seems to be. So what exactly is Ghosh? Why did you leave him somewhat mysterious and did not sketch him in as detailed a manner as you sketched the other supporting characters, like, Jadob?

A6: To answer the second part first: Ghosh is a vital part of the system, and I had to bring him into the story because he influences the course of events in a significant way. But he is so complex and alien to Korok and Anchita, the protagonists, that for them he would be an apparition, a mysterious entity. Patnaik and Behera they would understand, but not him. Therefore he is present in the story, but because he is not relevant to Korok and Anchita’s understanding of things, I have not sketched him in as detailed a manner as the other characters.

But yes, Ghosh is really important for the story, and I wanted readers to know about him. One could call him a middleman, I suppose. In real life, people like him are called different things, and some companies have specific code-names for them. Specialist, consultant, advisor, facilitator. There are different categories of people like Ghosh. Some are just middlemen who know the basic workings of the system. Some are very well-connected. But there are some, the really, really good ones, who are very different. They are extremely well-educated, very aware, informed and well-read. Their understanding of issues, systems and ideas is profound. You can find the personality type in other professions too, such as artists and academics. Very intelligent people who can think in abstract terms all the time, who can think in terms of continents and centuries. But Ghosh, despite all that knowledge, is a sociopath for who empathy is an unimaginable concept. He can frame a question, such as the one you have mentioned: what if people in big cities were thrown out of their homes because there were resources underneath? It is very difficult for a mere apparatchik like Behera, or a blunt instrument like Patnaik, to frame the details of this question: to examine the scenario, to understand the logistics, to consider the historical precedents. Ghosh can, but that’s about it. He does not have empathy at all. Nor does he do what he does for money, or pride, or power. He would find them amusingly trivial. He does what he does because he can. In a conflict such as the one in the story, Ghosh is the person you need to beat. The others can be dealt with; they have shortcomings, they become complacent, they make mistakes, they would spend three hours in the sun and make a stupid decision because of the heat. Ghosh would not. He is more, and less, than human.

I have met some people like him. It was an instructive experience. He is a composite of these people, like the other characters in the novel.

Q7: The Grasshopper’s Run was set in an Ao Naga village, while Year of the Weeds is set in a Gond village. Are you fascinated by the lives of the indigenous people or is it just a coincidence?

A7: The historical periods and contexts of the two stories are different, but yes, it is significant that in both cases and in others, the most vulnerable societies, in any conflict in the subcontinent, are tribes. This is not a coincidence, and understanding why this is so will help us understand some of the problems with the structures we have today. There is very little space for the individuality of indigenous tribal societies in today’s world. Tectonic forces are at work, and, like the Gonds of Deogan (the place in Balangir area of Odisha where Year of the Weeds is set), these communities are extremely vulnerable. The other issue is how arriving at a common tribal movement, or platform, is difficult. The general problems —state apathy, ineptitude and persecution, or corporate machinations — are common, but specific problems are very local or regional. The interplay between tribal societies and more privileged classes is different in various parts of the country. This could be one of the reasons why the Dalit movement has charted a different course. There was an Ambedkar for the Dalits. I am not sure there has been an equivalent for Adivasis, because these local issues do not translate well across geographies.

Q8: Would you like to recommend any other book or written work like Year of the Weeds that readers – readers in general and not only YA readers – might read to know about the struggles of the Adivasis against land grab, rampant industrialisation, and atrocities committed by corporate houses?

A8: My understanding of these particular issues has been purely from my own experience or from interacting with other journalists and academics, or from following events. Unfortunately I have not read fiction about these issues. I hope to correct that at some point. I also hope there will be more translations of indigenous writers and poets, for those of us from other geographies.

Q9: Who is your favourite character from Year of the Weeds and why?

A9: I find all of them interesting, and would like to know more about them. There are questions I have to ask them. How did the Stringer take the photo? How did Bishto and his bus disappear when the politicians came? They are all interesting. But the two most significant characters in the novel are: first, bauxite, that sacred creature for which so much evil is done. And second: the state, which endures, which acts without remorse, and which, as Korok knows, will return.

Q10: What are you writing right now? Are you working on your sixth book?

A10: I am writing a series of blog posts and articles about the novel, its characters and themes at present. I hope to talk more about them in future. Deogan is a peaceful place, and Korok has a beautiful garden. I think I will stay here for a while.

What Schools Should Be Talking About To Students Today

This was published in the Duckbill Blog on October 16:

One of the subjects taught in Indian schools was till recently called ‘Civics’, earlier known in the Central and state boards as ‘Social Studies’. It is an evocative word, civics, deriving from the Classical Latin civicus, referring to a range of matters relevant to a citizen. The question is: what is relevant for making a good citizen? And what is good citizenship?

Ancient Romans, had they been taught Civics in school instead of Greek-inspired rhetoric, would have probably said: good citizenship is about good old-fashioned republican ideals (as long as you agree to class distinctions), belief in the superiority of Romans over other people and general piety towards indigenous gods. Civics, and therefore the idea of citizenship, in our times is more complex than that.

School curricula in India have traditionally focused on education as a transactional activity, where the study of certain subjects is to be done with the larger goal of securing particular types of employment. The sciences have suffered because of this, with the emphasis on technological education, leading to the popularity of engineering studies at the graduate level. In the process, a graduate degree in the pure sciences has come to be viewed as a lesser achievement than in engineering.

Meanwhile, for school students choosing humanities at the Plus 2 level or afterwards, the sciences as a subject of personal interest or study has ceased to exist. This has created its own set of problems, with graduate students in the humanities denied the opportunity to have an informed engagement with the sciences, to the detriment of everyone.

Meanwhile, the transactional relationship with the humanities has created a separate set of problems which need to be addressed urgently, because the subject formerly known as Civics is the only one in school which has a direct impact on the kind of citizens emerging in the country today.

The subject was introduced in Indian schools in 1953 by the Secondary Education Commission. The inspiration was the American school system, where Civics had been taught since after World War I. The American approach reflected flaws in their system at that time, such as subscribing to racial stereotypes. The Indian commission had some American members as well, and perpetuated long-standing British colonial ideas about citizenship in this new curriculum. Keeping in mind ‘undesirable tendencies of provincialism, regionalism and other sectional differences’, wrote the Commission, there was a necessity ‘to reorient people’s mind in the right direction’ in order to make citizens of Independent India ‘bear worthily the responsibilities of democratic citizenship’.

Education in the humanities was therefore to be based on a perpetuation of the colonial enterprise of morally uplifting citizens through the classroom. This line of reasoning, with minor modifications, has continued to define the Civics curriculum ever since. While Western school curricula adapted to changes in their societies, Indian curricula, as with our laws and other systems, have not been changed much, and the influence of colonial ideologies remains.

Schools duly teach from textbooks which tick all the right boxes, or at least the ones considered necessary. Children are taught about Fundamental Rights (not to forget Fundamental Duties, in another version of citizenship as a transactional relationship). The correct technical terms, like ‘secular, democratic republic’, are explained. Marks are given based on how well these ‘salient features’ of the Constitution are regurgitated. And underlying all this is the conclusion that voting in elections is the primary, even sufficient virtue of a citizen in a democratic society.

The problem with this method, as is apparent, is students are not encouraged to learn beyond the letter of the Constitution, or engage in the constant debate that a democracy should have. The curriculum makes little effort at helping children internalise the spirit of democratic values, or understanding ideas such as secularism. One is therefore not surprised when even the most liberal of grown-up citizens, in an attempt at rebutting the growing chorus for a faith-based state, declare that the Constitution is their scripture, quite oblivious to BR Ambedkar’s strenuous objections to such a metaphor. The idea that laws and governing principles are not sacrosanct and need to evolve to address changing societies also needs to be internalised. The true spirit of democracy extends beyond elections and touches every aspect of a citizen’s life. The principle that democracy is based on ideological majority and not birth-based majoritarianism could have been easily understood if civics had been properly taught to young Indians.

One is not surprised that elite engineering colleges are trying to increase the quality and quantum of humanities study in their curricula. One is also not surprised that tech graduates and those from the humanities are speaking at cross-purposes regarding the tremendous political divides in the country today. From a mere flaw in school curricula, it has become a systemic faultline. One is also not surprised with the ease with which some in my generation can condemn people’s movements as ‘Maoist’ or somehow anti-national. Nor is one surprised to find deep veins of caste, religious and gender prejudice emerging among the discourse of the supposedly educated. Somewhere, in all that classroom talk about parliamentary democracy, Directive Principles and unitary versus federal government, the human elements of governance, administration and the responsibilities of the state, or the human face of poverty and deprivation, or issues such as the impact of economic growth on the marginalised were lost. We became poorer because of this loss, and never realised it.

School students in a country as complex as India need to be taught, and need to be encouraged to engage with complexities beyond the letter of the law, constitutional provisions and other ‘scripture’. It is not enough to know the theoretical structure of the legal system; we need to talk to children about the difficulties of legal redressal for the underprivileged, about legal pendency, about the masses of undertrials which choke our prisons, about archaic laws (and their historical contexts) and how they affect the lives of ordinary people. Classrooms need to encourage discussions on how democracy is practiced not just every five years, but every day. Children need to know by discussing with their peers and teachers that caste exists — regardless of how often well-meaning people claim otherwise — and endures like a resilient virus in the corners of even insulated urban lives. Students need to debate on how religious stereotypes have an insidious way of perpetuating themselves. Children need to understand, with a little encouragement from their teachers, that gender biases find refuge in pious euphemisms. That terms like ‘people like us’ have no business existing in a democratic society. Classrooms need to engage with the problems of the so-called ‘Other India’, a space which has disappeared from the media, popular culture and other spheres, and is therefore assumed not to exist. Children are not introduced, even briefly, to movements in the peripheries, such as in Kashmir or the Northeast, which might cause a re-think about the idea of India, or about how some organs of the state have behaved in these regions. But perhaps that would be too much to ask. At the very least, children need to be encouraged to embrace debate and even dissent. They need to be encouraged to discover the complexities of the country on their own, so that they can grow up to be tolerant, rational and perhaps even kind citizens.

Occasionally, those who set school curricula make attempts at ‘updating’ them. Therefore the change in name from ‘Social Studies’ to ‘Civics’ to, now, ‘Social and Political Science’ or ‘Political Science’, depending on board and class. The persistence of the word ‘science’ shows how deep the idea of the human condition as a quantifiable, predictable entity runs, although that is mere semantics. Terms like ‘sustainable agriculture’ or ‘sustainable development’ are introduced. Students about to choose between the sciences and humanities are taught what is claimed to be an analysis of political structures, and a justification for them. A recent class X book had a chapter explaining the need for democracy. But these will have little significance if students do not know about the complexities of Indian societies, of farming, or rural life, or the opposing demands and effects of development on vulnerable societies and ecologies. Updated curricula too do not address the impact of these state structures and laws on humans.

The role of the schoolroom in helping children become more aware, kinder and more empathetic is more significant today than ever before, particularly since we now acknowledge that bigotry in all its forms and types, xenophobia, classism, misogyny, communalism and casteism are being reinforced, accidentally or otherwise, at home. Even if some parents are not directly responsible for this, there is little families can do about the bigoted uncle or grandfather who sits like an inevitable trope at the dining table. But children spend substantial portions of their time with their peers in the classroom, and where the dining table has failed, or has attempted to subvert common sense and civility, the classroom must step in.

Teachers, at least the well-meaning ones, possibly fear stepping beyond the limitations of the Civics curriculum and following their conscience. There is a very genuine apprehension that they will be harangued by outsiders for trying to make activists of children. But these are the times we live in, and teachers must reach across to parents as well and make them understand that Civics is not merely a set of dry questions about laws and statutes, but is a lived experience. That a democracy in its truest form can only exist when its noble principles are internalised by its stakeholders, particularly those who have benefitted from its privileges.

There is also a small wish that I have. I wish that schools will start talking to little boys about certain daily activities in which, because of reinforced behavioural patterns, they do not participate. I wish classroom discussions would help little boys clean up after themselves at home, or learn cooking, and perhaps do a little sweeping and mopping. Surely that is not much to ask for, and yet consider how many Indian men carry this enormous gender privilege throughout their lives, and are utterly blind to it. This, too, is a part of civilisation, a word connected to civics.

In 1953, when that Committee enunciated its principles for the humanities in Indian classrooms, the catchphrase in their deliberations was ‘nation-building’. That was the great task of that generation. They were trying to construct, much like engineers, the cogs and wheels that are essential for a great structure. But, much like engineers who have no familiarity with the humanities, a nation built by citizens with a peripheral understanding of the human condition can never aspire to greatness, or even claim to have a heart. We need to correct this design flaw.

Let’s talk about consent and consensus, shall we?

Ever since the latest accounts of sexual harassment in India emerged, I have been sitting here and waiting for something. I have been waiting for men to speak up. Not about the usual male response to such issues, which ranges from dismissive jokes which trivialise the matter to legalistic concoctions on the lines of ‘where is the evidence’ (funny how every male is a lawyer at heart, isn’t it?) or ‘what was she doing for so many years’. Not discussions on ‘the percentage of fake cases in sexual harassment complaints’. Not fears and anxieties about being ‘unfairly targetted’. I was waiting for some evidence, even the tiniest bit, that men were carrying out some sort of soul-search. That they were questioning the privileges which have led to a situation like this. Some indication that they were examining the problems with patriarchy or with the boys’ club. I was waiting for the tiniest hint of self-examination.

I have not heard anything. Therefore, for what it is worth, here are a few things.

The standard response of any power group to evidence of their privilege and suppression of the powerless is predictable. It ranges from denial to a fixation with trivialities to deprecating, even insulting, humour to violent reprisals. Therefore the standard urban upper caste response about caste discrimination is to deny that it exists, and to ignore instances of it in their own lives. Therefore the racist seeking refuge in euphemisms where the older discriminatory language no longer suffices. Therefore the male reaction to Me Too.

I used to think, till two days ago, that the male response this time is this standard reaction of an entrenched power group. That the virulence of the arguments against Me Too and the harassment allegations are a part of the male response to the idea of gender equality. I now realise that I was somewhat wrong. The renewed strength and virulence of the boys’ club is a symptom of deeply-held fears about the possibility of gender equality and justice at some point, a situation which males are simply not able to face with honesty or self-awareness.

This is why even the ‘nice’ men, those who worked with predators, often in powerful positions, and were witness to these incidents have not spoken up. This is why there have hardly been any male voices talking about the need for some soul-searching by their brothers. This, too, is a form of consent. The silence of these men, their inability to acknowledge or perhaps even realise how deep the rot runs is a symptom of their consenting to the evils of patriarchy. It is, at once, consent and a consensus: this unified response from men which is deafening in its silence.

So, men ask: please tell us what harassment is? How long should a handshake last? Now we will be scared of talking to our female colleagues or in social circumstances. We are scared of fake cases, we are scared of reprisals. Really? When did male fear become the issue? How did a movement about women being relentlessly preyed upon become about assuaging male anxieties? Why is the onus once again on women to be on the guard, to take steps, to pursue cases, to gather evidence? Why have women, once again, been tasked with ‘civilising’ the boys? When there is a viral infection, do we give counselling to the body or do we deal with the virus? Or is it that, by ignoring the truth that the problem lies with men, we are acknowledging that men are incorrigible; that individually they are irresponsible and collectively they have the moral qualms of a wolf pack? If that were the case, the implications should offend men. So why do these ‘nice’ men not speak up now?

So, men ask: what is harassment? When you tell a double-meaning joke or anecdote to your male colleague in the earshot of women, does that not harass her? When you know there is a predator in your midst, and will not speak up, is that not consent on your part? When your individual behaviours, in individual, everyday ways, lower the bar day after day, when ordinary, everyday behavioural patterns force women into silence and into corners, is that not a part of the problem? Or is it only outright criminal behaviour that is to be classed as harassment?

This deafening silence, this absence of an internal dialogue, this inherent dishonesty among men is the problem that they need to address. Or are they waiting, once again, for the women to call them out on this so they will come up with more retorts and trivialities?

What is needed is honesty by men, an acknowledgment that they are complicit. They need to speak up. It is very late, but they can still speak up. Because they might be complicit in ways they may not have realised.

Ages ago, when I still considered myself male and was in college, I found myself in front of a typewriter that a very close friend had bought. He wanted me to inaugurate it by writing a story. I thought: let me try a genre I had not written in before. So I wrote a small passage of erotica. I was complicit in my maleness, in my privilege, in my inability to understand what the egotistical male mind is capable of. I wrote the story, and in my stupidity I made the central characters my friend and a female classmate. The story happened to be circulated, and caused considerable pain to both these classmates, and infinitely more to the woman. Was that not a result of my male privilege and refusal to understand the responsibilities of a writer? And why was it that I did not realise this while writing it? Because I was a man, and was blind to the implications of male privilege. There has not been a day when I have not regretted this, and not a day when I have not rebuked myself for my actions, even afterwards when I stopped considering myself as a male.

The response from men need not be limited to acknowledging your own actions and words. That is an easy way out. ‘Oh, I have never harassed anyone. This issue does not relate to me at all.’ But it does. As witnesses, as participants, as enablers and as members of this boys’ club that grows bolder by the day. Examine your conscience. Speak up. Fix the disease. Get rid of the virus. It is your responsibility. It has always been your responsibility. Don’t con yourself into thinking otherwise.