Sunday, October 31, 2010

Goddesses of petty things

Arundhati “Booker” Roy is an interesting person. She does have some jaded techniques in her arsenal. Before we start with her, let me tell you a personal experience. I’m using one of Roy’s cheeky techniques here.

Somewhere in the early part of this decade, I was in Mumbai. Fresh from college days of student activism, I got an invite from one of my friends to go to a tribal village near Panvel with activists from an NGO based in the US. Boy, was I happy. So the crew was my friend, three Indian activists from the US - a haggard and intelligent looking man, two ladies, a student of Physics from IIT Powai, and me. All three of them had come down from the US. The two ladies, if I remember correctly (I have a bad case of dementia), were studying in US.

So we land in this tribal village late afternoon. The village was perched halfway on a hill, somewhere near the Mumbai-Pune expressway. Those were the days when the opposition to the expressway had been raging because of displacement issues. We just hung around, had some yummy local food, and just casually chatted with locals, and the day was over. Next morning, we started trekking through forests up to another village. One of these ladies had (in the morning) changed from her casual attire to what seemed to my fashion sense as a cotton Saree. On the way, we reached a nice vantage point, which offered a clear view of the expressway at a distance, snaking its way. And the Saree Lady remarked “what an ugly sight!” I could not see anything ugly about the expressway, but I knew she had the pangs of the displaced people in her mind when she said that. At that point I was wondering about the hypocrisy embedded in her statement. She goes to US for studies or whatever, takes advantage of the infrastructure there including (but not limited to) the Interstate, comes back to the tribal belt, looks at a similar infrastructure project, and says “fugly”.

She then climbs on to a rock and raises her hand up in a sloganeering posture, and asks someone to take a picture. And I was thinking, “dude, you have some cheap thrill issues here.” And we reach the destination village before noon. Now this is not a tribal village that you might normally envision. These folks have normal lifestyles, even though they have a tribal ethnic background, and they are perched atop a wooded hill. They had one or two shops, and stuff like that. We had a good lunch there. While lunching, the Saree Lady kept questioning people whether they regularly participate in morchas (sloganeering and stuff), and how many morchas have they participated in. From their reaction, I felt this village was cool to those questions, noncommittal in a way.

I learnt during the course of our discussions that this village was funky. They were self-sufficient because they brew booze, what is known as desi daaru (liquor made from fermented fruits and flowers) in local lingo. They supply to nearby villages and townships. Desi daaru is even available in Mumbai. No wonder, the folks were looking well-off.

And then we had this open ground meeting, where the whole village assembled. There was some rhetoric about the expressway and the loss of land. People were more or less indifferent. Our Saree Lady shouted some slogans in Marathi and asked them to repeat, which they promptly did. I take them to be staple slogans of the resistance.

Three or four villagers then took us to their source of water, higher up in the hills. All along this way, we had a projection in the ground on our sides, which they explained were pipes. After a few kilometers of walk, we reached the Adivaasis’ Dam. They had stopped the waterflow from a few streams and constructed a small dam of sorts from mud and stuff like that, laid pipes for kilometers at their own expense to make sure the water was there. I did not wear a hat that day, but I took one off for these entrepreneurs.

Walking back, I was a different person, in awe of these tribal folk, who identified their key competency. They had the resources of the forest for their brew, they solved the water problem, and they were making good money. The NGO was trying to convert them by telling them to grow/sell vegetables (and participate in morchas). Cmon, you don’t ask the Mallyas’ to grow cucumber!

Back to Arundhati Roy. Some people, (I'm borrowing some lines from a pal) are not happy with the oppressed joining the mainstream. For them, the oppressed have to be there facing further injustice, they have to fight, they have to take out morchas . The vigilante needs the so-called oppressed to remain where they are, when the rest of the world is running crazy just to play catch-up. If the oppressed dares to move on, the vigilante would have the potatoes to ask them to grow veggies. These are indeed the times for the goddesses of petty things.

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