Book Review: A novel for our dark times

Rarely has fiction covered the contemporary reality of <i>Adivasis </i>in India with such candour, says the reviewer, who marvels at such a slim volume covering so much ground with such forthrightness

Photo courtesy: Facebook\Ganesh Tiwari
Photo courtesy: Facebook\Ganesh Tiwari

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar

It would be an understatement to call Lords of the Global Village, the novel by Ranendra, important. Because of the outspoken truth that it narrates, it makes this book a necessary read.

With the development of a new India becoming the new religion, and dams and factories becoming the new temples and shrines, Adivasis, ironically the indigenous first people of this huge landmass called India, were the ones who were sacrificed on the altar of progress and development,. Since the novel being reviewed, Lords of the Global Village, is set among the Asur people in the state of Jharkhand, I will cite some examples from Jharkhand itself.

Building of dams by the government at Massanjore, Maithon, and Chandil, and a reservoir by a private corporate house, the Tata group, at Dimna displaced thousands of Adivasi villagers. Adding to their troubles was the inadequate or no compensation—something that was promised but not delivered. Another example of “temples of modern India” killing the original inhabitants of India is the uranium mines at Jadugora. The mutation and diseases radiation that the Adivasi villagers have been subjected to is not a secret anymore. Just beyond the border of Jharkhand, in Odisha, the multinational mining company Vedanta is already creating havoc in the lives of the Dongria Kondh people of Niyamgiri, while the Tata group has already conducted a massacre of Adivasis in Kalinganagar.

In just a little over 150 pages, Lords of the Global Village presents some uncomfortable situations and asks some discomfiting but utterly relevant questions. The narrator of the novel is a 20-something single, non-Adivasi young man who has, so far, lived a cushy, urban, middle-class life in the security of his home, with his family.

Master Sahib overcomes his misgivings

When he lands a government job as a teacher, he is delighted. But his delight soon turns to disappointment when he learns that he has been posted to a village in the heart of Jharkhand. This village, Bhaunrapaat, is in a forested area where bauxite mining is rampant, and our narrator – known only as “Master Sahib” – has to teach science at a residential, all-girl school built for the Asur community who have been placed in the PTG (Primitive Tribal Group) category.

The nearest near-urban settlement, Sakhuapaat, is 5 kilometres away from Bhaunrapaat. If the shock at having been posted so far away from urbanity and the disappointment at no political connection being able to help him get transferred to a relatively better place were not enough, the thought of having to live among the Asur people drives Master Sahib out of his wits. The reason for this being: Master Sahib is a Hindu, and according to Hindu myths that Master Sahib has grown up hearing, Asur are demons—“dark-skinned giants with protruding teeth and horns growing out of their heads.”

However, after meeting some members of the Asur community, like, Lalchan Asur; Etwari, the peon at the school and her husband Gandoor; Lalchan’s wife and their daughters, Kavita and Namita, and son, Ramesh; educated Asur youngsters, like Rumjhum and Lalita, Master Sahib is finally convinced that the Asur are as human as he was and that all that he had learnt from the myths was an elaborate lie. In fact, Kavita and Namita were students in the very school where Master Sahib worked.

Master Sahib gets intimately involved with the Asurs. He learns that, according to the myths, the Asurs “first discovered fire” and invented ore-smelting and creating tools and weapons made of iron. He learns of their history:

The silver city of India

‘In the ancient Assyrian-Babylonian civilisation, Asur meant “a strong man.” In [the Indian] civilization too, Sayanacharya (an important commentator on the Vedas who lived in the Vijayanagara Empire of South India) has called the Asurs mighty, enlightened foe-slayers and protectors.

Around 150 shlokas in the Rigveda treat the Asurs as gods. Mitra, Varun, Agni, Rudra—all of them are called Asur. Later on, the meaning shifted and the Asurs began to be equated with demons”.

Not only does the narrator learn of the class divide caused by the bauxite mining in Patharpaat and Sakhuapaat, the places where the Asurs live: “The place where Patharpaat’s bauxite is carted away to be processed into aluminium, around 200 kilometres from Patharpaat, is called the Silver City of India. There is a beautiful, lush green colony full of flowers and parks. Wonderful schools, glittering malls, club house, yoga centre, library, sports fields and endless other facilities. Gorgeous women walking with cute dogs, and kids, fair and cuddly like snowballs, and colourful cars. On the other hand, Asur women in Patharpaat and other Asur villages ravaged by mining waste halve their lives fetching water and wood. There are troubles during the rains. The hundreds of ditches formed by the abandoned mines become large lakes. It becomes difficult to differentiate between Asur children and pigs wallowing in the mud. There is an array of sumptuous dishes in the bauxite mining company’s guest-house in Patharpaat. But in the huts of the Asurs of Patharpaat, even a dish of rice and pulses is nothing short of a festive delicacy.”

He also learns of the dispossession that has already crept into their lives because of the evils of modernisation—whether in the name of something as destructive as mining or even something as benign as providing education: “More than 100 Asur families were uprooted to build a grand school in Patharpaat, where the brightest boys of the state came to study. They still inhabit the adjacent areas. They haven’t gone very far; the whole population of the Asurs, Birijias and Korbas is settled within a radius of 20 to 22 kilometres.

A study of the admission registers of the last thirty years shows that not a single child from a single tribal family has studied in this school. A graduate Asur man tried unsuccessfully his best for the last two or three years to get an appointment as a casual teacher at that grand school, wondering if they hate even the shadows of the Asurs. Brought up on rice and starch, in the care of semi-literate and illiterate teachers, the Asur children will be nothing more than skilled labourers, peons or clerks from the sham schools. This is the Asurs’ status. The government erects a Taj Mahal-like school on the bosom of the Asurs to show the Asurs where they stand.”

Parallel with Netarhat

It is quite clear from the description of Patharpaat and the school at Patharpaat that these have been modeled on Netarhat (the famed hill-station in Jharkhand) and the celebrated Netarhat Residential School for boys, respectively. The Netarhat School- opened in the 1950s, coinciding with the establishment of “the temples of modern India” – conducts a fairly difficult entrance test and its alumni have gone on to become successful professionals, administrators, and academics.

But one can’t miss the trend here.

Most students to this school are from the mainstream—Hindus, upper castes. Yes, there are Muslims and Adivasis too, but the Adivasis here are the “mainstream” ones—Santhals, Oraons, Mundas.

What about the so-called “primitive” Adivasis, the Asurs, on whose land this school was built? Did a young Asur boy ever find admission to this majestic school even as a gesture of compensation for the government having taken away the land belonging to his family?

Through the character of Ganeshwar “Gonu” Singh, the author has thrown some much-required light on the dynamics of caste and communities and the issue of non-indigenous people taking up indigenous identities for the sake of benefits of several kinds and indigenous people giving up their indigenous identity and considering themselves non-indigenous or upper caste Hindus on finding some privilege or social elevation due to money, politics, or some other reason.

The Adivasi Rajputs

Gonu Singh’s origin was uncertain. “Was he Rajput or Kherwar?” people wondered, though “Gonu Singh claimed the Rajput status and had married his daughters into Rajput families of neighbouring districts.”

The Kherwar, it would be helpful to add here, are supposed to be Adivasis, but they abandoned their animist faith long ago, perhaps in the 1800s, when the concept of “cleanliness” crept into their community, and they adopted Hinduism. The Rajputs, of course, rank second in the caste hierarchy of the Hindus.

Gonu’s father had been a dreaded dacoit who had converted his family’s “three-acre taand (a less fertile area of cultivable land at the top of a hill) into 30 acres of don (a fertile area of cultivable land in a valley) with his earnings from the robberies he committed, and it was Gonu’s turn now. Gonu transformed the face of robbery. His high school education came in handy. There were plenty of perks from accompanying the MLA to the block office, the police station and the district courts. Gonu used his brains instead of brawn. Gonu had become so cocky that when his son’s, nephew’s, brother-in-law’s and, not to mention, his own Bullet motorcycles appeared at the block office, the sternest of the officers would blanch in fear. Nobody but the Gonu clan could imagine touching a contract from any of the government departments in the panchayats north of the Koel River.” Such was their influence that “whenever their family sought help, the members of the other Babuani (a colloquial term for the Rajput community) families supported them with their fierce might.”

Money, power, booze and sex

In a sub-plot, the Gonu clan had their eyes on a land owned by Lalchan’s family, because of which they had, allegedly, “sacrificed” Lalchan’s uncle by cutting off his head. Quite obviously, the police couldn’t do anything, except lodge and FIR against “unknown assailants”.

This sub-plot affirms that corruption isn’t restricted to a particular group. Corruption pervades everything, and power and privilege corrupt. “There was a saying in this area that if a man rises, he turns Rajput, and if he falls, he becomes a Kherwar. The implication is that if a Kherwar grows prosperous, he acquires the stature of a Rajput and if he falls upon bad days, he becomes a simple Kherwar tribal.”

The earliest casualties, perhaps, of any social, economic, or political upheaval are women and children. The author presents this reality in a matter-of-fact, yet poignant, manner in the novel when he shows how Asur women, driven by poverty, are letting themselves be exploited by men of dominant groups.

“One night, Master Sahib was staying…at Sakhuapaat…Late in the night, a commotion in the other room broke Master Sahib’s sleep…and Master Sahib figured out that a contractor—Ansari Sahib—and his consort, Ramrati, were the reason. Their friends were invited every evening. Wine flowed freely. After everyone was drunk, the party broke up with such brawling. The routine continued the entire year. There were also arrangements for upgraded entertainment. A live blue film was shown after the commotion, with no ticket necessary! It was played under the full glare of the electric bulb, with the doors and windows flung open.”

This passage highlights the sexual exploitation of Adivasi women working as labourers at the hands of strong and influential Muslim men. Not only in the fictional Sakhuapaat, this trend is common in the stone quarries of Santhal Pargana in Jharkhand and Birbhum district of neighbouring West Bengal where there are several instances of Santhal women in physical relationship with their Muslim employers or other influential Muslim men.

This is power play—the man – powerful, physically; superior, as ours is a patriarchal society – forces himself upon the woman, but the woman has absolutely no agency, no voice to be able to protest. Madhusree Mukerjee has detailed this phenomenon in her review of Sonia Faleiro’s reportage, 13 Men, in Himal Southasian: ‘Khaleque , the older Muslim man in a physical relationship with a Santhal woman, was not only twice Baby’s [the Santhal woman in question] age, he was also her employer – a detail that 13 Men neglects to mention. ‘

Khaleque is a mason, and Baby served as his helper. Given the obvious power imbalance in such a relationship, what Faleiro portrays as a valiant love reaching across social boundaries may have less to do with romance and more to do with misuse of this position. Baby seems to love Khaleque: indeed, it is far from unusual for a girl or young woman to develop a crush on her sugar daddy. Predators typically commence the seduction of a minor or other vulnerable person with a period of feigned kindness and concern, technically described as “grooming,” in which they win the trust and affection of the victim.

To be sure, Muslims in Birbhum stand lower on the class scale than Hindus; but Santhals serve as an underclass to both.’ This is a classic case of one minority (or weaker) community, after gaining some power and influence, exploiting another weaker community.

But do the indigenous women have a choice? Lords of the Global Village says no.

“The lifestyle of the Asur girls who worked in the houses of the mine mates, munshis, clerks and officers altered. They would doll themselves up with snow-powder, face paint, alta and fake jewellery. Ramrati, the mistress of Ansari, the contractor of Sakhuapaat, was not the only one of her kind. The contamination was spreading through the paat (plateau) like an infectious disease. The Asur community was disintegrating. Hunger and poverty had hollowed their lives so badly that the social system had collapsed. The opinion of the baigas, pahans and pujars and the elders of the village were being taken ever more lightly.

If the food in the house was barely enough for three or four months’ survival, who could stop the sons from leaving the village and the daughters from turning into concubines in outsiders’ homes?”

The silver lining

Yet, Lords of the Global Village also tells us that not every Asur woman surrendered to her circumstances so easily. Like, Budhani, a woman from the Melan Asur community. “Budhani had left for Assam with her children and husband nearly five years earlier. She undertook various jobs there. And then maybe at Dibrugarh, or Sibsagar, her tea stall had struck gold…Her sweet voice, fastidiousness in hygiene and her irresistible, beautiful face pulled large crowds to her shop…Things were going fine until one gloomy morning, when the Hindi-speaking people were declared outsiders. Bullets rained on the tea-garden colonies at night…and Budhani abandoned everything in Assam to undertake a seven-day journey back to Sakhuapaat (in Jharkhand), her husband and children in tow.”

In Sakhuapaat, “Budhani overcame all hurdles and set up a tea shop…After all, she was an Asur siyani. The molten iron swigged by her forefathers coursed through her veins too.” There were doubts, initially: “What does an Asurin know about cooking dhuska and gulgula?”, and a smear-campaign led by a rival tea stall owner, Singhji, a non-Adivasi: “These Asur are always filthy; who would want to touch anything cooked by Budhani?”

Despite everything, “Budhani’s goodwill made the whole of Sakhuapaat market flock to Budhani’s tea stall…Cleanliness and sweet words reigned. Budhani’s stall was always chock-a-block with customers.” Budhani was a success.

The respect the Asurs give their women is beautifully expressed in the novel:

“In the Asur community, women were called siyani—worldly-wise—not janani.”

The word janani was parochial, binding them to the begetters of progeny; on the other hand, siyani symbolised their vast experience and wisdom.”

The modern concept of a “live-in relationship” – a concept that shocks many – “had been an accepted part of life in tribal communities since ancient times.

If there was some issue in a marriage, the boy and girl could live together. However, it was crucial to perform their own marriage rites before their own child was married off.”

Ranendra’s Lords of the Global Village tells the stories of such ancient wisdom and the contemporary struggles of the Asurs. The struggle of the Asurs led to the halting of mining activities “in thirty to forty mines on the paat.” With this, the Asurs challenged the Lords of the Global Village. Huge companies like Shindalco and Vedang, and smaller ones like Poddar and Rungta. The novel ends with destruction, but the author pins his hope on the future generations of the Asurs.

I have been fortunate to read both the original Hindi and the English translation of this novel-Rajesh Kumar has done a seamless translation and there is also a glossary.

What appealed to me were the several issues this novel tackles masterfully in such few pages, and the unflinching narration. Who cannot identify which companies are Shindalco and Vedang? This forthrightness makes Ranendra’s novel, Lords of the Global Village, such an important and timely book; and if capitalism goes on destroying our planet, this book might even become a classic, the song – remember Brecht’s words – that would be sung in the dark times.

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar is the author of several acclaimed books including The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey

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Published: 23 Apr 2017, 3:55 PM