I met poet Jacinta Kerketta in a conference in Goa. It was April, Goa was already hot. Nikita Sud, a professor at the University of Oxford, had brought academics, artists, writers, activists and cartoonists together for discussions around the subject of land. Kerketta and I had been put in a session together — we would read our poems. Land of the Roots , her 2018 book of poems, is a bilingual edition, in Hindi and English. I’d have to read them later, for in front of me was Kerketta, reading the poems and taking us through her journey, literal and figurative, moving between the two languages, annotating every metaphor with explanations, with an admirable mix of anger and passion.
As I read the poems later, Kerketta’s voice still in my ears, I began to see — and feel — that this was the anger that came from having been rendered invisible. The author’s bio in the book tells us that she was born in “Khudpos village of Manoharpur Block adjacent to the sprawling Saranda Jungle in the West Singhbhum District, Jharkhand, bordering Odisha”. It is of this invisible region that she writes. The ‘roots’ in the title of the collection is therefore a play on two things: The invisibility of roots, and also Kerketta’s attachment for her land, its people and its non-humans. The foreword explains this attachment: “I always wonder why my mother does not wish to leave the village. Every day she travels all the way from Manoharpur in Jharkhand... to Rourkela (Odisha) to sell vegetables. Despite these hardships, she does not want to leave her village, her homeland... If she were to leave her home, her land, what would bring us, her children, to visit our grandparents’ home? Her self-esteem is rooted in her village soil. And I see this as the very essence of the struggle of the vast Adivasi society — the struggle to preserve their rivers, their jungles, their land, their soul, and their languages.”
The sound of “self-esteem” stayed with me as I began reading the poems. As someone who has, on the level of imagination, identified with roots, with invisibility, with things growing away from the eye, the underground in this case, it made me look at roots differently. Then the first poem arrived. It is about invisibility — No one ever saw me .
No one ever saw me
As the soil of the courtyard
Was shrouded in the armour of cement
I tried to make the soil see
That it was necessary
For it to die, to make way for a strong foundation.
But then I saw
Even the flowers
Perish one by one.
The rest of the poem tells us about what is now a recognised natural disaster — the disappearance of “honeybees” and “birds”, “the rain and the breeze”. It’d be a mere ecological tale if it was only about the flora and fauna. But nearly every poem in this angry collection links the “destiny” (a word that occurs repeatedly in the book, as in the first poem) of the Adivasi with that of the land, its plants and animals. This refusal to see humans separately from what we — after our conditioning in European thought — now see as ‘nature’ is the lifeblood of these poems, and, indeed, of Kerketta’s voice.
Only the sleight of my hand knows
How far beyond my sin goes.
These are the last lines of this poem, and they come after the accusation of the ‘torment’ of ‘soil, rain and breeze’. This is, of course, not sin as we understand it after Christianity. The sinner is not given a name, but as we read through the poems, almost in the manner of bees — for such is the structure that Kerketta gives her collection, a structure that is as loose or tight as flesh — we realise that the power cheating the poet’s land and its inhabitants, both human and non-human, is the government, drugged by capitalism, fuelled by greedy corporations.
Land of the Roots is filled with the pain of disappearance — “the eyes of a disappearing sparrow”, “death sentence for rivers”, “graves of butterflies”, “death of the mother tongue”, of people like “Salen”, who ask —
What is my crime?
This is all Salen had asked,
And the room had reverberated
With just the sound of a bang.
Killed inside his own hut
He died without ever knowing
What his crime was.
Like Salen and hundreds of other Adivasis from whom life, livelihood, land and language are being snatched away, the plants and animals in Jharkhand and Odisha ask the same question — “What is my crime?”
There will come a day
When every girl from the jungle
Will write poems.
To dismiss them what will you say?
What will you say, pray tell, Sahib?
That this is no poetry
But a news report, a story,
These poems, while trying to do the work of petitions and PILs, also ask this aesthetic question of our times — that while a news report can be poetry, can poetry read like a news report?
Sumana Roy is the author of How I Became A Tree;