Last Friday, the winter sun turned lazy over the tribal district of and refused to get to work, sleeping late under a blanket of thin haze. The small town had the low bustle of an uncertain economy. Beyond it, in the villages, there is little work available. The sparse fields offer a single crop each year; the other seasons are a scramble, with hunger only an evening away. Unsurprisingly, the district has the largest migration of young men and women, seeking a solution to despair at any price. Often, the price is not pretty, particularly for young women. The government, if visible, walks on tiptoe, for — again unsurprisingly — this is Naxalite territory.
I am here to adopt a village, within the remit of the prime minister’s programme to make every member of Parliament accountable for development in at least one lost corner of our country. A sign greets me as we stop after three hours on the highway from Ranchi: “Paradise of Bears”. But the forest has been pushed back, and Matintoli, my destination, lies about five kilometres away, linked by an ankle-breaker path that is called a road in government books.
The rhythm, music, colour, cadence and warmth of the welcome from tribal villagers, dressed in smiles and the joy of affection, shall remain unforgettable. The rising hope in their eyes left me emotionally drained, and trapped in a lingering helplessness. The women, mothers and grandmothers, asked for basics: Water, electricity and better education for their children. This is the truth we refuse to acknowledge: Indians in the 21st century are still asking for water. In theory, water should have come some time ago, but no contractor is ready to make a bid for the project for fear of Naxalite violence. But that is an excuse: If there had been water, electricity and work, there would be no Naxalites. There are wires strung from pole to pole, as if placed there for some festive adornment, but no electricity.
The tribals laugh at these castrated symbols of “progress”.
For us, cynicism is not an option, and indifference is disaster.
There is one small way out, perhaps. For seven decades, we have extolled the virtues of bhaichara, or brotherhood; it is time to turn to behenchara, or sisterhood. It would be far more productive, for families and the nation, to make women leaders of economic empowerment programmes. The prime minister has said, in his speech at the United Nations, that we need to move away from the binary of public and private sector, and develop a third option, the personal sector. This is seeding and nurture of micro businesses through enabling loans at minimal interest.
Something has started. One-third of roughly 77 lakh Mudra loans taken so far have gone to women, but the sheer scale of this challenge is daunting.
Faith, we have been informed by reliable sources, can move mountains. Just outside Matintoli, a little finger can move a rock. The stone-scape of the region is marked by rock formations that stretch up to the Deccan, small or massive pieces of sculpture shaped by nature. By some quirk of subterranean forces, one such rock begins to shiver the moment you touch it. In a fairly obvious transition, the inexplicable has been converted into divinity. Maybe one day, this will become a spot for religious tourism.
Don’t sniff at god, or his realm in the afterlife. We have further proof that ghosts exist, this time from Soumitra Chatterjee, that superb actor who has appeared in more Satyajit Ray films than any other artiste. He told a story from his days as an announcer in All India Radio to a Kolkata audience at a book launch last weekend. AIR had makeshift studios then, on the upper floors of a house that had once been home to a deceased British sahib.
One evening, while playing a record, he was disturbed by an intruder, a white man. He left after a short while. Irritated, Chatterjee enquired how this man had got past the reception. No one else had seen any such figure. It was the ghost of the burra sahib.
The best travel companion is a book, and mine this time was The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius, a history of 12 Roman rulers, beginning with the great Julius Caesar, who flirted with dictatorship in a republican empire. The caustic Marcus Cato looked upon mighty Julius and commented, “Caesar was the only sober man who tried to wreck the constitution.” Judging by what is currently happening in Parliament, one opposition party seems to have surrendered its leadership to a Little Caesar.