A True Fairytale
An Eastern Ghats Tribe’s Struggle for Existence
The Ventriloquists and the Subalterns
When I came to know about the Dongria Kondhs of Niyamgiri and their battle for survival, a paroxysm of political violence had gripped West Bengal’s countryside. Grisly images poured out of newspapers and television screens everyday, of men lying murdered, of women wailing and beating breasts, of dazed eyes staring out of bandaged heads. In village after village, battle lines were drawn along political allegiances, red and green flags fluttered by the roadside, arms were stockpiled in grain stores and brick kilns, gun-toting motorcyclists - their faces covered in towels - patrolled rutted village lanes. As the spiral of violence and vendetta widened, rape and murder became the order of the day.
A year before, I had toured different parts of West Bengal on a University Grants Commission project related to primary education. In fact I had visited some of those very places that had suddenly become forbidding killing fields. Village society in West Bengal has for a long time been deeply politicized and fractured. On that tour, I had heard the usual tales of distress and frustration. But frankly, I had failed to sense the fury that lay smouldering, and now erupted like a volcano. What was really surprising, the people who took up arms against each other mostly belonged to the same social class: they were basically poor lower caste subsistence farmers and petty traders. They had been living as a community for generations, sharing rituals and livelihood practices, as is the norm in any village society. And yet, all the old ties crumbled as political affiliation became the only marker of identity, that turned even blood brothers into deadly enemies.
What was even more surprising, we didn’t get to hear the voices of the people caught in this internecine violence. We only heard the men who led them, the top leaders of the political parties. They, too, belonged to the same social class: urban upper caste bhadralok. We heard them debating furiously in television news channels, like ventriloquists speaking on behalf of the voiceless. We also heard members of the civil society – a motley group of artistes, painters, economists etc. – voicing support and sympathy for the suffering people. But they, too, belonged to the same urban bhadralok class. We never got to hear the subalterns, those who were at the receiving end. We only saw their silences etched on dead or shamed bodies, on photographs and telecasts: a bullet-punched chest, a gashed thigh, a mauled back, the sari gingerly drawn away, or a charred female torso lying on a paddy field, suitably blurred to protect the viewers’ sensitivity.
In the middle of this deafening silence, the voice of the Kondhs of Niyamgiri reached me. Here was a people who had not outsourced their battle to a political party or group, nor had they let anyone ventriloquize their voices. Here the battle lines were more stark: a colourful tribe, a powerful mining company, and a hill paradise that the company wanted to take away from the tribe. It had the shape of a fable, a fairy tale.
I felt an irresistible longing to hear the tale, to see it etched on a paradisal hill.
Dokra and Dokri
After killing the prime demon in a fierce battle and fashioning hills and forests out of his bones and guts, Dharani Penu, the earth god, created life on earth: animals birds fish insects, and then the first man and woman – a Kondh and his wife Kondhani. They lived in pure bliss, hunting and gathering in the abundant forest, and raised farm animals. They had two children, a boy and a girl; they named them Dokra and Dokri. One day, Kondh spotted a big stag near a forest spring. As he was about to aim his arrow, the deer spoke in a human voice.
‘Don’t kill me,’ it said. ‘Listen carefully if you want to save your children.’
Surprised , Kondh lowered his bow and listened.
‘In seven days there will be a great flood. All living things on earth will perish. Go home and put your children in a big gourd shell. Give them enough food to last a long time. After twelve years, waters will recede and life will return on earth. Your children will remain alive. A new human race will begin with them.’
Kondh returned home and killed all his animals. He cured the meat, put most of it in a big gourd shell and had a feast. In seven days, as the deer had promised, there was a great deluge. The forests and hills went under water and the earth became one huge sea. All living creatures perished; all, except Dokra and Dokri. They stayed afloat in a gourd shell.
When Dharani Penu found this out, he was taken aback. How could a brother and a sister beget a new human race? They knew each other since birth! After much thought, Dharani Penu devised a plan: he split them up. He created two islands from the dirt under his fingernails and put Dokra and Dokri on these islands.
Twelve years is a long time and the memory of their origin faded in the minds of Dokra and Dokri. They grew into young adults, leading solitary lives in the two islands separated by a creek. Life had returned on earth by this time. Dokra hunted in the forest, caught fish in streams, picked fruits and roots, and had a contented life. He saw the seasons change: saw how the flowers bloomed, how the forests became a riot of colours and echoed with bird songs and the humming of bees. He saw how the deer mated in the sun-dappled shade of putush bushes, and how the doe’s waiting thighs quivered in the presence of the ardent stag. Dokra would lower his bow and watch in amazement. He would bathe in a pool and see his reflections in water; he would see his own body bloom. The muscles on his chest would quiver like a doe’s thighs, would go on quivering through the day. Dokra would cast aside his bow and arrow, climb a tree and would lie on his back upon a tall branch all day long. A strange longing would consume him like slow forest fire.
From the high branches of the trees the other island could be seen, an emerald line across the foamy blue creek: the sister island. One day Dokri fashioned a raft out of driftwood, rigged it with creepers and set sail for the other island. He found Dokri there, picking berries under a huge tree. Her long wavy hair fell around her shoulders and covered her body like a cloak. It seemed as if he had seen her somwhere, in a dream perhaps, or in the rippling water of a stream. For the life of him Dokra couldn’t remember. Seeing another human being, a woman, for the first time, his chest began to quiver again like a doe’s waiting thighs. Dokri came up to him, light footed, and touched the tremulous muscle with a finger. Dokra saw that her lips had turned violet with the juice of crushed berries.
They had twelve children. The firstborn was a Gond, next came a Kondh, the third one was a Bhunjia; and thus followed - a Paharia, a Dal, a Lodha, a Baiga, a Paraja, a Bhumia, a Koyea, a Binjhal and a Bheema. Each of these twelve children, a different tribe each, begot another twelve. The firstborn was a Munda, next came a Shabar, the third one was a Bonda ….and so on. Thus the earth filled up with numerous tribes. Each tribe had its own myth, its own tale. They lived in these tales.
Happily ever after? Well, not quite.
A Cursed Tale
Tales are inscribed in memories. They are handed down from generation to generation through folklore and songs. Sometimes the tales of a tribe are inextricably linked to a geographical location. They never write them on paper, palm leaves, stone tablets or government land deeds. And thus the state easily displaces the tribes from their tales, throws them out of the lands on which these tales are etched. Uprooted, they go seeking work in mines or as farm hands. They go to faraway places, to work in the laying of roads and railways lines. These roads and railway lines take them further away, in tea gardens and brick kilns. They go to live in unknown places, under open skies, in shacks made out of beaten tar drums.
In the evenings, after a hard day’s work, they gather around a small fire and exchange their tales. These are tales of misery, of displacement from ancestral lands, but also tales of a happy life in the middle of bountiful nature. Each tale has its own colour and smell, and yet they mirror one another. Thus they learn how people were uprooted when bauxite mining began in Damanjodi, how dozens of villages were buried under the steel city of Rourkela, how a tribal habitat was washed away due to the Indravati Dam Project, how the green valley of Talcher turned to charcoal when the collieries were set up there. They also learn about the resistance movements going on in Gandhamardan, Kashipur, Paradwip, Chandipur and Kalinganagar.
Everywhere, tales of the tribes are cursed. Pundits call this resource curse. Perhaps it is no coincidence that some of the poorest people live in the most mineral-rich areas in the world. Resource curse has wiped out vast tracts of hills forests and village lands, before and after the independence. One of the largest such destruction happened here in Odisha, due to the presence of a prime resource: a river. Hirakud dam has flooded two lakh acres of forest and agricultural lands, uprooted more than one-and-a-half lakh people. But that was long time ago, our country had just got her independence. So what if some of us had to sacrifice something ‘in the interest of the country’, as Jawaharlal Nehru had famously said during the inauguration of Hirakud? He spoke on behalf of ‘some of us’, like a ventriloquist, since those ‘some-of-us’ were poor voiceless tribals.
Yet resistance did take place even then. Mundas were fired upon and killed when their land was forcibly taken for the locomotive factory at Chittaranjan. But the gunshots and death cries didn’t reach us, the drums of nationalism were still ringing in our ears.
Times have changed. The drums of nationalism have decayed, they give out a hollow tired sound. It would be difficult to have another Hirakud now without a murmur. The suffering people have found newer ways of protest and resistance. The world, too, has shrunk due to the spread of telecommunication and the media. Recently the country has passed two new laws about the rights of the people who live in forests.
So now they brought another tale, the tale of Corporate Social Responsibility: a new tale to wrench out the old tale of a tribe.
After they occupied village lands on the foothills of Niyamgiri to set up a big alumina refinery, Vedanta Limited ‘adopted’ a few of the nearby villages. Signboards proclaimed ‘Our Vedanta Village’; buildings for free primary schools, clinics and midday meal center were erected. Free sewing machines were distributed among the women; workshops were set up to teach the tribal people saal leaf plate making. The company’s PR team even recorded Dongria Kondh folk songs and released the album with much fanfare at a five-star hotel in Bhubaneswar. (Where would the saal trees go, and how would the Kondhs sing their songs once the mining started on Niyamgiri, was another matter.) Through giant hoardings and colourful advertisements splashed across newspapers and prime time television, the company sang a litany of hope. ‘We bring smiles on the faces of the poorest of the poor,’ it went. ‘We mine happiness.’
At a place like Kalahandi, this litany rang out loudly: a super rich transnational mining company has come to usher in development in one of the poorest regions in the country. It had the shape of a fairy tale.
But the people for whom this tale was meant did already know how such tales ended.
To be continued
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