“Central India’s Ugly Fight for Environmental Justice.” That’s the title of my report from Bastar about a meeting organized by Soni Sori.
If you threw a dart at the heart of India but your aim was off, a little low and to the right, you would hit the village of Matenar, in the administrative division of Bastar, in the state of Chhattisgarh. Though the region’s lush forests once found mention in ancient Sanskrit epics, Bastar now evokes for many Indians the threat or fear of the Naxalites, Maoist guerrilla groups that have waged a fifty-year insurgency against the national government. But Bastar also represents the ugly side of India’s Janus-faced democracy. The place where your errant dart fell is fabled for its mineral wealth, especially iron, coal, tin, and bauxite, and yet its inhabitants, most of whom belong to India’s indigenous population, the adivasis, are among the poorest in the country. Visitors to Chhattisgarh see dense jungle, small huts, and immense mines, but few schools, health centers, or hospitals. New construction seems devoted mostly to four-lane highways—the better to transport government troops into the state and minerals out of it.
The excellent Indian magazine, Caravan, has published a report I wrote on the repression of journalists in Bastar:
“Yeh raat mein sapna dekh raha tha sarkar ke khilaaf,” Kamal Shukla, a veteran reporter said. I was travelling with him for a few days in Bastar, in December, and Shukla was describing the dire conditions journalists work under in the district. “If the police claimed this about a journalist they had arrested,” he said, “the courts in Chhattisgarh have no right to ask whether the police had proof.”
His younger colleague, who wanted to remain anonymous, added: “If a journalist were to tell even 5 percent of the truth in a newspaper here, black clouds will begin to gather over the individual’s head, prison gates will creak open, and a gift of jan suraksha will be made to him.”
“Jan suraksha,” or, more properly, the Chhattisgarh Vishesh Jan Suraksha Adhiniyam, also known as the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, refers to a piece of legislation passed by the state assembly in 2005. It allows the police to detain anyone who displays a “tendency to pose an obstacle to the administration of law.” This is the legislation that Shukla was talking about when he said the police has the right to divine one’s dreams and crush dissent. The state of Chhattisgarh has used the legislation to create an atmosphere of fear and repression for journalists, and punish those who dare to stand up to it.
Forthcoming/Monsoon, 2017/Indian subcontinent only/Aleph Book Company
The review I wrote of Mohsin Hamid’s latest novel, Exit West, appears in the new Bookforum (Feb/Mar, 2017). My thanks to the model in the top picture–he was home the day the magazine arrived because school had been cancelled due to snow.
Post-election, my thoughts from a writer’s notebook in The Margins:
Early on November 8, I cast my vote for Hillary Clinton at my son’s school. The school was closed for the day and my children were at home. Then the wait began.
That evening, the writer Chang-rae Lee was doing a reading on my campus. It was a pleasant night and as the two of us walked to the venue, Chang-rae expressed some disquiet. He feared that Trump might win. I tried to calm him down, telling him that it was unthinkable. We will raise a toast when Florida is called for Hillary tonight, I said.
There was no toast that night, only tears. But the morning after felt even worse.
Truth be told, I thought back to the French soldiers during World War I who bleated like sheep as they marched past the generals.
I had read about the soldiers in an essay by Geoff Dyer. The event described took place during the early months of 1917. The French regiments had borne the brunt of the destruction: thousands mowed down each day by German machine-guns; poor food and unremitting war without leave for three years. The French replacements marching to the front were baa-ing because they were being led like lambs to the slaughter.
But we weren’t there yet—although, hadn’t we acted like sheep in choosing Trump?
Below is my response to Trump’s election in clippings and photos from my notebook.
These are hard times and they call for hard work, not least from writers and artists. I’m thrilled to report that have I just been awarded a literature fellowship from USArtists. This year’s other literature honoree is the truly magnificent Claudia Rankine. Look at the list of past winners in the photo above–the complete list here. Thank you for this honor, and I’m now going back to work.
The testimony of a disappointed but not resentful Indian fan. My essay for NewYorker.com:
Not long ago, I discovered that I could own a piece of my childhood trauma if I shelled out sixteen dollars on eBay. The August 22-28, 1976, issue of the Illustrated Weekly of India, which came out just after the Montreal Olympics, bore the following headline: “600 Million Indians—Not One Bronze!” The men’s field-hockey team, which had won the World Cup the previous year, finished seventh in Montreal. It was the first time since 1924 that the team had returned from the Olympics without a medal. I was thirteen then and do not remember whether the report in the Illustrated Weekly offered me any consolation. It probably didn’t, since the headline is the only thing that has remained in my memory. Which is all to say that, if for the rest of the world the Olympic Games represent glorious achievement through sports, for many urban, educated, middle-class Indians, they offer only a ritual wallowing in a feeling of failure.
I’m thrilled to report that my essay “Pyre,” published in Granta 130, will appear in Best American Essays 2016, edited by Jonathan Franzen.
My mother died in Patna on 7 January 2014. We cremated her two days later on the banks of the Ganga at Konhara Ghat near Patna, more than 150 miles downriver from the burning ghats of Benares where Hindus have cremated their dead since at least the middle of the first millennium bce. I took notes. During the long fourteen-hour flight to India I dealt with my sorrow by writing in my notebook a brief obituary for a Hindi newspaper that Ma read each morning. I was paying tribute. But once I had arrived in Patna, my reasons for note-taking became more complicated. Grief makes you a stranger to yourself and I was struck by this person that I saw pierced with loss. I was taking notes so that I could remember who I was in those days following my mother’s death.
In the latest PEN AMERICA journal, with this issue organized around the theme of “hauntings,” I have the following piece:
My elder sister was working as a doctor in a hospital in the small town of Darbhanga, in Bihar, in the mid-1990s. I met this boy there. He had fallen from a tree and broken his hip, and also his arm and leg. His parents sat beside him. Some days back, they had brought him to the hospital from their village, but it was already too late. The doctors had to amputate the boy’s right arm because the gangrene had begun to spread.
I think of that boy sometimes. What became of him? I was still young when I took this picture. I didn’t have a family. I have two children now. That boy I had met in the hospital’s general ward must now be a grown man. Does he, too, have a family now? I’m certain that despite his disability he is enormously skilled at what he does, perhaps farming or herding animals in a village in Bihar. One day the thought came that he could be driving a three-wheeled scooter, an auto-rickshaw, that are used to ferry passengers on the crowded Indian streets. I had actually seen a disabled man driving an auto-rickshaw in Delhi and I recalled the boy from two decades ago.
For the most part, I’m haunted by his smile.
In my final The Bookist column I write about the testimonies offered by Dalits and others.
A letter came from Los Angeles. It had been written by an upper-caste Marathi chemist. From this letter, an untouchable poet in Maharashtra found out that Indians in America were treated like dogs. This, I imagine, was in the 1950s or early ’60s, before Ravi Shankar had played with the Beatles or Hollywood had used Gandhi to sell popcorn to millions.
The poet reading the letter was Daya Pawar. Beside a dusty rose bush in what was then called Bombay, with the news on the radio close by, our poet read the letter. His joy made him cry. He sat down to write a reply. “I feel so damn good,” he wrote in Marathi. “Now, you’ve had a taste of what we’ve suffered in this country for far too long.”
I received the story I have told above nearly 30 years ago. I was a new graduate student in the States. The friend who told me the story, a white woman from Minnesota, was translating Dalit writing into English. That is how Daya Pawar came into my life. I put his story into a long poem I was writing and didn’t read Pawar again till, just last week, I devoured with great hunger his autobiography, Baluta.