Story Of Larai

‘Development’ and Displacement

Bharat Dogra

As the development model implemented in India in recent decades has involved the displacement of a large number of people, millions have faced eviction and displacement. As the suffering people and those who have come close to them know only too well, the overwhelming majority of displaced people have been denied justice and their rehabilitation effort has been extremely unsatisfactory. In addition the displacement saga has also been a deeply emotional experience for almost all evicted people, as they had to abandon the home of their ancestors with all its memories and ties; in fact in several cases they had to abandon a way of life, leaving the lap of nature for city slums.

A two-part novel in Hindi which has captured very vividly the various aspects of displacement should be more widely known. This award winning novel has been written by Virendra Jain, an extremely sincere and talented writer. The first and longer part of the novel titled ‘Doob’ (Submergence) deals with the main village Larai, set in Bundelkhand region. The second part titled Paar (The Other Side) deals with a rather distant hamlet of this village inhabited by a tribal community, parhaps a primitive tribe.

Although the time period is not indicated clearly, it appears that roughly the three decades starting with the early seventies or the late sixties are covered. The Rajghat dam has been approved and the early stage of its construction has started. As a result a great shadow of uncertainty has spread over Larai and nearby villages. They are not sure when they will be displaced, if at all, and what rehabilitation has been planned for them. But meanwhile the very process of dam construction leads to water submerging several villages stealthily. In other villages the dam authorites dig up so much land and fell so many trees that it becomes difficult to communicate with the outer world. As crops cannot be carried out for sale, the economy is disrupted. Those who have some money, particularly the traders and moneylenders, start settling in cities. Others await an uncetain future. People of Larai later learn that even if their village is not submerged, they will be displaced to set up a wild life park.

The impact of all this on various sections of people, the dominant sections as well as the weaker sections, the oppressors and the oppressed, men and women and children, is the subject of this two part novel. No effort is made to romanticise rural life; it is presented in all its manifestations—good, bad and ugly. Yet while avoiding idealisation or romanticisation of rural life, the reader nevertheless becomes deeply involved with the well-being of villagers as the plot unravels. With some characters the reader becomes very deeply involved.

One of these is Maate, who is accepted by all sections as traditional head of Larai village. He leads a simple life which is based on being involved without discrimination in the welfare of all sections and all people in the village. It is in the personaliy of Maate that people have the closest understanding of the village as a community. Any assault by anyone on ethical norms of village community is resisted by him, and he can effortlessly rise above prejudices and hierarchy to achieve this. He can ask his own family members to break norms of tradition to come to the rescue of someone (for example a raped woman) who has been deeply wronged.

While he has been trying his best to protect the community from internal assaults and injustices, he finds himself rather helpless in front of the assault from much more powerful outside forces pushing the village towards displacement and ruin. So he seeks and finds some other friends to help.

Both the internal and external systems of exploitation as well as their linkages are exposed all the time. How simple villagers including tribals are affected and respond is another important part of the story. It has its humorous moments as well, in fact quite a few. Humour is also found, in meaningful ways, in how the simplest characters try to form some understanding of the complex and cunning ways of the rich and exploiting sections.

This is a story of many people trying to lead simple lives and trying to find happiness in very simple things, yet being overwhelmed time and again, increasingly so, by forces beyond their control and pushed towards even more uncertainty, marginalised even more. The reader becomes deeply involved in their journey through more and more uncertain times, which even in these remote villages are increasingly linked to wider events.

[The writer is a journalist close to social movements. His recent books include Man over Machine and Protecting Earth for Children.]

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Vol. 54, No. 22, Nov 28 - Dec 4, 2021