Requiem for a lost world

A Srinivas | Updated on January 19, 2021

Through the looking glass: By modern indices of development, the adivasis of Abujhmad are backward   -  V SUDERSHAN

Writer Narendra’s latest book, rich with vignettes from Bastar and his native village in Uttar Pradesh, questions the State’s mission of corralling people into the so-called mainstream

A Sense of Home, read along with Bastar Dispatches (published in July 2018), is a unique account of adivasi and rural life alike, based on the lived experience of Narendra, the writer. It is written in essay form — not anthropological, not political, but as an utterly self-effacing participant-observer who submits himself to a milieu; in this case Abujhmad in Bastar, a hilly forest area in Chhattisgarh, and his native village in Western Uttar Pradesh, Ramala. So, it’s a work whose genre is removed from the self-conscious baggage of academia and journalism. Nor is it the account of a ‘sensitive’ intellectual who paratroops into exotic Bastar and takes in all in a whistle-stop tour. It also calls into question categories such as ‘adivasi India’ and ‘rural India’ by observing that their sensibilities have a lot in common.

A Sense of Home – Abujhmad and a Childhood Village; Narendra; HarperCollins; Non-fiction; ₹399


The people live with the same aimlessness, lack of rush and ambition and relish life precisely for its exquisite slowness. There is a strain of RK Narayan’s Malgudi in Narendra’s description of his childhood experiences — the uncles and aunts in his house, Bhullan Baniya (a shopkeeper in the author’s village who kept “four or five tin canisters of salt, turmeric, red chillies, vinegar and jaggery-mixed tobacco for the hukka”), the open fields, unassuming places of worship that exist without purpose, canals in which boys dive in to take a dip, the sparseness of the fields, the hush of emptiness... In short, the quintessential ‘Indian’ tranquil before the ‘developmental’ State stepped in, in Bastar and elsewhere in rural India. In Bastar, the State has stomped into remote, pristine Abujhmad in the form of paramilitary jackboots, Maoists’ dangerous ardour, Ramakrishna Mission’s reformism and the welfarist bureaucracy, democratic institutions, rations, new homes, propertied agriculture and, perhaps by now, education. The writer sees them as one singular proselytising force of modernity, with no inclination to understand or respect the richness of ages of adivasi living. What, like in the case of the indigenous people in Africa’s Kalahari Bush, the reformists of various hues cannot grasp is that adivasis of Bastar are in many ways more ‘developed’ than those who seek to change their ways and bring them into the so-called mainstream. They do not understand, like the English never did, why Indians prefer to go slow.

Green revolution ruptured that ambience, introducing pace, electricity pylons, chemicals, fertiliser — and fistfuls of unease and impatience, no doubt. And, there are obstinate zones of stillness right in the periphery of the metropolis, in the sparse grounds around Ghaziabad in Delhi NCR. But as dogs loll around (the writer is fascinated by their role in human existence) and children play in a space all their own, the modern world, of speed, noise and money, seems to creep inexorably closer, its tentacles reaching out to consume kabadiwallahs and tea sellers who, like the children, live in a zone of distinct quietude.

The works of Narendra describe India — adivasi or rural — in metaphysical, philosophical, sociological and economic terms, which make them different from most narratives of places, which either tick the first two or last two boxes. There is vairaagya in the India he loves and has ended up spending time with — an instinct for renunciation and a feel for stillness, unfathomable darkness and silence. In Bastar, animals and people live in quiet communion, there is ‘logic’ even in healing and witchcraft, and spaces are imbued with spirits whose writ must be respected.

Narendra engagingly says that for all of us ‘places beckon’. After aimless wanderings that took him to Puducherry, Vinoba Bhave’s Paunar Ashram, Sevagram and Chambal, he ended up in Bilaspur and finally in utterly inaccessible, densely forested Abujhmad. It was in Abujhmad that he stayed on for over three decades with an adivasi community that had no use for the world outside them. He went without an agenda; Abujhmad drew him into its ‘web of life’. Later, it would ‘write’ for him. The idea of places beckoning us has been an intrinsic part of our spiritual tradition.

Have we lost our instincts in honing limited intellectual skills over other sensibilities that make us human? Narendra is philosophically close to Gandhiji in his exploration of human existence in all its sentient dimensions.

Does a stateless society need to be disrupted and regarded as ‘primitive’, when its people live in harmony with the forests around them, as well as with each other and seem innocent of power and malice? This is a benign utopia, not one for which wars have to be fought, violent revolutions enacted and the unworthy (enemies by whatever name) banished. By modern indices of development, the adivasis of Abujhmad are backward — they don’t produce any surplus for the market, they are not excited about trade or property. Isn’t this happiness amidst a lack of want, a utopia we instinctively regard with scorn? These are questions that an increasingly modernising world has little patience for, despite the rapidity with which an environmental crisis is engulfing us — questions that flow like a quiet stream in Narendra’s narrative.

Meanwhile, the noisy chorus of State, corporates, Leftists, Rightists have hit the development highway, perpetually squabbling with the other, without even for a moment reflecting on their fundamental consensus against the unmediated individual, says Narendra. It is now important to be ‘aspirational’, to grow the economy, to produce limitlessly in perpetuity. It is a model for a restless people, who cease to stop and wonder at what they are doing and why they are rushing about.

It is also a way of seeing life that the ongoing farmers’ agitation has implicitly questioned. A roti cannot be ‘googled’ and eaten, as a poster at the protests points out pithily. Yet, the farmer gets less izzat than a software engineer, because the latter is considered more knowledgeable. The markets do not recognise the intrinsic value of goods and services.

This brings us to the idea of whether there can be a golden mean that reconciles development with the grace and charm of a pre-modern way of life — a question that Marx refused to entertain by harshly dismissing the early socialists as Luddites. Is ‘development’ inherently violent, destroying the dignity of an ancient people, or is it possible to control the juggernaut?

Narendra’s works are descriptive and reflective, rather than prescriptive. In his disdain for political actors of every stripe, he implicitly underscores his basic concerns — modernity’s preoccupation with skewed notions of knowledge and progress. However, it is as a product of a modern education that he has penned these thoughts, even as he writes about the semiotic limitations of the written word.

Published on January 19, 2021

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