Letter From Brussels

Twilight in Delhi and ‘Red Ant Dream’

Julie Robert

Going to India… A journey that I’ve been dreaming of since my first reading of Arundhati Roy’s1 ‘Walking With The Comrades’, a journey that I've been looking forward to since I plunged myself deep into the history and the study of the social, political and economic conditions of this vast country. There are books, videos and interviews but I know that there is nothing like field experience, the face to face encounters and discussions. Thanks to the wholehearted support of my two loved and dear ones, this travel could materialise and strengthen the dream that has filled me for all these years... This first trip has stirred my desire to learn more, and particularly to share with readers the opportunity I got to understand of the daily life of the Indian people and of the militants' work there.

Arrival in Delhi in the middle of the night, an old ramshackle taxi, traffic more than heavy, the rain, an exclusively Hindi-speaking driver... I woke up at dawn to the sound of car horns, monkeys' screams and noise of engines in a city that never stops, of life that never stops. Landing, upheaval, internal chaos, distress, fear, abandonment, loss, all these feelings, all these sentiments haunted me during the first several hours, several days after my arrival. Left to myself in this 'other world' —Partho, my fellow traveller, only rejoined three days later—I remember telling myself several times: 'If a plane to Brussels takes off now, and if I am offered to jump in, I will board!'. Fortunately, this plane never showed up, and I am glad I grinned and braved it when this country offered me no points of reference. Talking about points of reference, on the second evening, coming out of the metro station nearest to my guesthouse on Delhi University campus, I hailed a rickshaw and gave him my destination. He started his vehicle looking confident. Before having done fifty meters, he stopped to ask his way. That's a good start! In the end, we went around for 45 minutes before reaching the guesthouse. Going downtown the next morning, I realised that the metro station is just five minutes away on foot!

The travel was extremely well planned, thanks to Partho, with whom we—the secretariat of ‘The International Red Help'—have been collaborating for the past few years, particularly to coordinate an international campaign for the release of the Maoist political prisoners. He had managed to take leave from work to accompany me during most of my journey. I had my route chalked out, and a long list of personalities whom I wanted to meet. Delhi, Dehradun, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Sanjay Kak, Varavara Rao, Arundhati Roy, Sumanta Banerjee et al, no less! Of course, when one prepares for such a trip, one sets demanding standards: it's the chance of a lifetime and one has to seize it. I was hoping against hope, imagining that all these cherished encounters, all these expected and meticulously prepared discussions will all come to be.

Delhi, a city chaotic, in never-ending motion, vast and labyrinthine (as all the cities I went to). The distance between two metro stations is at least two kilometers. I was very glad that a friend with whom I was having a drink interrupted me and ticked me when, on my first day and guided by my Brussels habits, I wanted to go for an appointment on foot, saying: 'I have time, I'll go for a stroll, there are only five stations!'

During the first few days, I had the opportunity to meet some of the persons on my list, and in particular the person 'responsible' for my journey. On my first afternoon in the capital city, I worked with her companion Sanjay Kak on the subtitling in French of his latest film, 'Red Ant Dream'. We had been working together for several months with the idea to release a French version of the film when I came to know about his relationship with Arundhati Roy. When we arranged our meeting to finish the work together, I dared to ask him if he could arrange an appointment with her. Kind enough, he did it. She welcomed us the same evening, in her flat situated in a residential area in the South of Delhi. Cheerfully, she offered me the book 'Annihilation of Caste', a new edition of B R Ambedkar’s2 texts she has prefaced, and we sat down in her kitchen to chat. During the few hours she spared me, we could exchange a lot: I asked the questions, and she agreed to answer them. I could bring up her struggle against the big dams'3, her legal situation (there are still several cases registered against her), her view of the Indian politics and her next book, a work of fiction after ‘The God of Small Things’ written almost seventeen years ago. After dinner, offered by her in a restaurant of a posh neighbourhood near her residence, she called a taxi for me, and thanked me for my interest in her work and my involvement in sharing it. I sat in the car with mixed feelings, feelings which still fill me today. I left a bit disappointed. It is obvious that sitting in my sofa, in Brussels, I had idealised her a bit, as one idealises a person who puts a lot into a cause which one shares. I had imagined her to be in the middle of the people, struggling with them on a daily basis. Now, I met a woman living in a flat situated in the smartest part of Delhi that is three times bigger than my own in Brussels. A lady who can call at her service a person dedicated to chauffeur her in a taxi. All those little things straightened a bit the image I had built up in my mind. Finally, what has surprised me the most is the fact that she is far from winning unanimous support amongst the Indian people. Some of them consider her to be a petit-bourgeois waging her battle standing comfortably within the system she exposes but with which she easily puts up. I quickly felt that I should not broach the subject with her that night. Later, I told Sanjay about it. He told me that she was very stressed out because of the coming press conference for the publication of her book. As a result, she was all on edge. In brief, she is a fighting woman whose work is exceptional. Her work is fruitful, and above all, it is necessary because in India, the public image is, and will long remain, I think a forceful weapon. Beyond this controversial view of mine, I remain full of admiration for her.

During these three weeks, I realized that militant methods in India are very different than the ones used in Europe. Indian revolutionaries tend to favour the direct questioning of authorities, by means of petitions, open letters, official mailings and public queries. Consequently, the involvement of public personalities such as Arundhati Roy is of primary importance, because it gives weight to the action. During my stay, I could follow the process through an open letter written by Sanhati (www.sanhati. com) and sent to the political parties contesting the election. This letter posed many questions to the politicians, in particular concerning their positions vis-a-vis the political prisoners.

Sanjay Kak is one of those public personalities less renowned but steadfastly working to circulate his opinions. A self-taught filmmaker, he has scripted three films forming a triptych. The first one, 'Jashn-e-Azadi', deals with the issue of freedom in Kashmir, while the second, 'Words on Water' tells the tribal struggle against the big dams on the Narmada river, in Central India. The third, 'Red Ant Dream’ is filmed deep in the jungles controlled by the Maoist guerrillas. Very modest Sanjay travels the world to show his documentaries and to share his filming experiences in order to make public the situation of the poorest of his country, and to expose the explosive situation of his native Kashmir I would have loved to talk to him about Kashmir, about its history, about the reasons for the never-ending civil war. I think that he would also have liked sharing with me his thoughts about all this, about the role played by the Indian security forces, about the involvement of Pakistan. A the time of my departure, he offered me the DVD of 'Jashn-e-Azadi' and a copy of a book in which he has compiled various essays recounting the global context and the history of the conflict. The book is named ‘Until My Freedom Has Come—The New Intifada in Kashmir’. But, a little self-conscious of my ignorance, I didn't dare ask any question... I regret it now. 

1.    Arundhati Roy is an Indian writer. After the international success of her first work of fiction (The God of Small Things), she began writing political essays while getting involved in several mass movements against globalisation et imperialism in India. In 2010, she spent a few weeks in a 'guerrilla zone' in Central India where she met guerrillas and also their families and comrades. 'Walking With the Comrades' is the story of her visit. Translated by me, the French version of the essay is available on
2.   Jurist and politician born in 1891, he drafted the Indian Constitution. During all his life, he campaigned against social discriminations and struggled for equal rights for women and members of lower castes.
3.   Since 1947, thousands of dams have been built on Indian rivers, submerging thousands of square kilometres of cultivable lands and displacing millions of people. More than 3300 dams have been built with a view to improve the irrigation and the water supplies to the countryside. Yet, millions of Indians still don't have drinking water at their disposal. On the other side, these dams have cost thousands of millions of public funds and are regarded by the anti-dams activists as worst examples of national and international corruption. Arundhati Roy devoted one of her essays to this subject, 'The Greater Common Good'.

[The author travelled in India from 11 to 27 March, 2014]

Vol. 47, No. 20, Nov 23 - 29, 2014