By Sarah Joseph
IN 2015, an extraordinary seminar was conducted in Chalakudy under the aegis of the River Protection Forum. It was a seminar to discuss the impact of the proposed hydroelectric project at Athirappilly.
At the seminar, I heard about Budhni for the first time from poet and political activist Civic Chandran, who had written a poem on the same. He asked me if I could elaborate it into a story. It was a theme that touched me deeply. It stayed in my mind for long. Chandran found the story of Budhni in an article, ‘Recovering Budhni Mejhan from the silted landscapes of modern India’, by Chitra Padmanabhan, published in The Hindu on June 2, 2012. I read the article several times and went through a lot of studies related to it.
Crores of people have been uprooted from their soil for mega development projects before and after Independence. It was a disturbing thought that their stories had gone unrecorded. According to data with the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees, people have been displaced for development projects on a large scale in India. Since 1947, 60-65 million people have been uprooted, including 40 per cent tribals, and 40 per cent Dalits and marginal farmers, and activist Medha Patkar had sought UN intervention.
On December 6, 1959, then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had gone to inaugurate the Panchet dam across the Damodar river. A girl chosen by the Damodar Valley Corporation (DVC) welcomed the PM with a garland and tikka on his forehead. The 15-year-old girl was ostracised by villagers later, citing violation of Santhal tribal traditions. She was expelled from the village. Budhni was her name.
Nehru had made the labourer girl who used to carry bricks and mud for the construction of the Panchet dam inaugurate the dam. But after the photo session, she had ceased to be a story for newspapers.
DVC also dismissed her from her job, perhaps because of the talk among villagers that she was “Nehru’s wife”! How she lived her life after the incident wasn’t anyone’s concern.
Budhni started taking shape in my mind as a symbol of crores and crores of people who have been drowned in memory during nation-building, mega projects, including dams, and companies such as DVC and Bharat Coking Coal Limited.
Even now, people in 11 villages on the eastern borders of Jharkhand are fighting against the acquisition of their fertile land for construction of a thermal power plant by the Adanis. The realisation that the story of Budhni is also the story of uprooted people is what motivated me to write a novel on her. Her story should not have gone unwritten. I had to develop it into a story of the Santhal tribe as well — a population that lives peacefully in areas that are fertile and rich in resources, without exploiting them.
In her article, Padmanabhan mentioned her attempts to meet Budhni. “All this while, I had debated the merits of meeting Budhni. Last week, through a friend’s friend in Ranchi I got news that Budhni died last year, disconsolate to the end. She was in her late 60s,” she writes.
In the third week of November 2018, I reached Jharkhand. It was a pilgrimage through the memories of Budhni, who I believed was dead. Also to meet people related to her and gather all available information on her.
I felt Budhni had to be revived from the criminal forgetfulness of the country; she wasn’t just a mud block that was broken during the great nation-building process. I felt that she should rise again in the nation’s memory along with hundreds of villages, vast farmlands, forests and temple complexes that were drowned in the Panchet reservoir.
Budhni is a novel based on a news article. It is not her life story or a historical novel. I started writing it as a story of Budhni who was dead. While writing it, I took utmost care on how to blend history with fiction, and how to merge news and fiction. The life Budhni lives in my novel may not be the life of the original Budhni. Original Budhni’s life wasn’t what my character called for. That I left to imagination and possibilities. My assessment is that imaginative power will help make historical facts truthful.
In the course of researching the novel, I discovered that Budhni, now in her 70s, was alive. It was purely coincidental that I got to meet her as well. I could experience the same wonder and happiness I felt all through the writing of this novel.
(Sarah Joseph is a renowned Malayalam fiction writer. Budhni will be published in September. Translated from Malayalam by Yamini Nair)