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.

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