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Scaling the invisible walls of the Red Corridor to singing his way back from “certain death” in Iraq with an Arabic ditty, Rahul Pandita shared many anecdotes and insights with a select audience in Calcutta on July 19. The young author of Our Moon Has Blood Clots and Hello, Bastar: The Untold Story of India’s Maoist Movement and co-author of The Absent State was in conversation with former top cop of Bengal Dinesh Vajpai at An Author’s Afternoon.

Presented by Shree Cement along with Prabha Khaitan Foundation and Taj Bengal, in association with Jaipur-based literary consultancy Siyahi, it was an afternoon of real stories and reality checks.

Dinesh Vajpai: You have written a very unique book (Hello, Bastar), where you have personally verified whatever you have written....

Rahul Pandita: I have friends who work with TV channels and newspapers... they often talk about journalistic neutrality. But I tell them, when one goes to Bastar, all these fancy plans, neutrality... look like hopscotch.

For me, this country is going through a dark time, and it is very important for a journalist to take a stand. And that stand he cannot take from Delhi or a state headquarters like Calcutta. While travelling to these places I found that what had happened was directly opposite in many cases to what we got to hear in Delhi.

My interest in Naxalites stems from the fact that I come from Kashmir, which is a conflict zone. At the age of 14, I was driven away from the land where my ancestors had lived for thousands of years, so I know what homelessness is all about and am very well aware of it on a day-to-day basis.

I started as a journalist in 1996-’97. That was the time when most journalists would go to Kashmir as it was called the “sexy insurgency”. But I chose to go to Bastar (in Chhattisgarh). In 1998, I was travelling through what was known as the hunger corridor of Kalahandi-Borandi-Koraput (in then Orissa). I came across this middle-aged Adivasi man whose son had died the previous week. He spoke a broken Hindi, so I spoke with him directly.

‘Maine suna aapka beta mara?’

‘Haan saheb.’

‘Kaise mara?’

‘Usko bimari tha.’

‘Kis cheez ka bimari tha?’

Then he said something that left me shaken. I still get goosebumps. ‘Usko bhookh ka bimari tha.

DV: There are two theories: one is that unless you remove the root causes, a military solution won’t help; another that they are common criminals and should be put down. What do you feel?

RP: I have a very simple formula to explain what lies at the heart of this war in central and eastern India. Take a map of India and look at the areas with the natural resources — and we are talking about natural resources worth billions of dollars like aluminium, iron, bauxite. Now take another map that shows the poverty-affected regions. Then take a third map showing the Red Corridor. Juxtapose them — these three maps are the same.

So what has happened over the last six or more decades of Independence? Poor Adivasis, who have billions of dollars of natural resources under their feet, are still dying of hunger and malnutrition.

Politicians say no, we can’t bring in development there as the Naxalites are already there. To which I say, there are so many other areas where there are no Naxalites, even in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. What did the government do there? Nothing.

I have been to a village in Jharkhand, where the last time a block development officer visited was in 1967. The villagers have never seen the face of the Indian government, they don’t even know who the Indian government is!

The other argument I make is that the CPI (ML) is a big organisation — 15,000-20,000 hardcore guerrillas and sympathisers numbering hundreds of thousands. Out of these, let’s say some 200 or 300 are those young and not-so-young men and women who come from urban areas. They are there because they believe in this rosy notion of a Utopian Maoist state, where they could overthrow the Indian government. But look at the grassroots soldiers. They are men and women like that Adivasi whose son died of hunger. They only pick up guns when they are pushed against the wall.

I was once talking to a senior IPS officer and he said, “I have got this basic list of demands from the CPI (ML) — it has 38 demands… but 37 of them are already guaranteed to the citizens of this country under the Constitution.” Right to food, healthcare…

DV: Do you think it is bad governance that is at the root?

RP: Absolutely! Nobody is interested in development. Everybody is interested in loot, in terms of money, in terms of kendu patta (leaves), which is a billion-dollar industry. And insurgency, as I had said in my first book, has become like an excuse for no governance. So nobody is doing any work.

In Dantewada (Chhattisgarh), which is a huge district, there is a population of 70 lakh people but there are only 12 government doctors. Out of them, nine are in administrative jobs. So, for a population of 70 lakh you have just three MBBS doctors!

Between the state and the Maoist leadership, it is the innocent Adivasis who get killed. Just to narrate an incident to show how people get involved in this kind of a thing. A few years ago, there was a village in Chhattisgarh that had no Naxalites. Then government officers came along with police, security officials and a corporate house. They wanted to take the land. A whole village was forced to give their thumb impressions and their land was gone. The same night, around 11, the Naxalites came. They said, ‘Do you want to live a dog’s life or live a life with dignity?’ Quite a few said this is our karma. But 10 of them signed up that night and they are fighting somewhere, for all we know, even as we speak.

DV: The government’s armed campaign has been going on from Chidambaram’s Green Hunt, which started with 10-20 battalions and now there are one lakh paramilitary forces there. But they have not been able to make any difference...

RP: Both sides are not interested in any kind of engagement or talks of ceasefire. The government is not at all interested, and what the Maoists are doing is trying to buy time, regroup and re-strategise. But having said that, you are still putting up hundreds of thousands of paramilitary forces in this area.

But consider a CRPF soldier who has been sent to the middle of Lalgarh. In June, the temperature in Lalgarh goes up to 48 degrees, the relative humidity is about 98 per cent. The jungle is swarming with all kinds of insects, snakes and the biggest enemy: mosquitoes. He’s flummoxed, he doesn’t know what he will be dealing with, there is no idea of a visible enemy. He goes to the nearest village with hundreds of half-clad Adivasis and he can’t even talk to them. And the barracks have absolutely no facilities, not even a fan. That’s the kind of war that the CRPF and BSF keep fighting.

The other thing is, compared with a Naxalite, the CRPF soldier has no motivation at all, he’s just doing his job. He wants to get out of the area as soon as possible. But the Naxalite guerrilla? He knows the area like the back of his hand. He can go without food for two to three days. And he’s absolutely motivated. In many cases you find him better trained than an average CRPF soldier. The fight is very uneven.... We keep telling this to government officers, that even if you have eliminated the important people, the basic reason will never go. That is hunger, lack of development and access to healthcare.

DV: You have been a victim of communal cleansing in Kashmir, but there is no bitterness either against Pakistan or Muslims in Our Moon Has Blood Clots...

RP: This was the first book that I wanted to write, as my friend Patrick French [who was sitting in the audience] knows. While in college I was thinking of writing this book and one day I was reading Sir V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River. It begins with a sentence: “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.

This particular sentence sort of motivated me and I decided that I had to write this book one day. But I was very young and my language was raw. I started writing seriously 2000 onwards. But I had to give it up, since I found certain portions very personal. In between, the other two Naxalite books happened. I am quite thankful, they sort of took my mind away from Kashmir. Later when I came back to it, I was not sure how to write it — should I write it as a memoir or should I create a few characters and tell the story through them?

The problem was because the truth as it is said would be quite unpalatable to many, not only in Kashmir but also in other places.

But I was not worried about that since I had already played that role through Bastar, where there was this particular section of people who thought I was a Maoist sympathiser and called me a Pakistani agent. I was quite comfortable with both, in fact. Like a friend of mine said, I would rather have a label on my forehead than blinkers on my eyes.

 

Nayantara Palchoudhuri, honorary consul-general of Norway:

You have travelled a lot through Iraq and Sri Lanka...

RP: I was in Iraq in 2003. We landed in Jordan first because we didn’t have visas for Iraq. And this was the time when Saddam Hussein was still in power. There were about 2,000 journalists in Jordan at that time, trying to get into Iraq. We had a friend there who drove his Mercedes Benz as a cab. Every day I would hear him singing this funny ditty in Arabic, “Bosh bosh shini dakh hadul hachi mai fidah.” Out of boredom one day I asked him what the hell does it mean?! He said, ‘Bush don’t put your hands in Iraq, you will burn them.’

A journalist from Romania Radio bribed the Jordanian border officials one day to allow three of us to cross the Jordanian border and travel into Iraq. The moment we crossed the border we were surrounded by Republican Guards. “Safi, safi”, I said, which means “journalist”. But their commander came and he was very hostile. He started shouting abuses at us in Arabic and about 20-25 men started cocking their AK-47s. The Romanian woman had no blood in her face, it was all in her ears. I looked at the other man and his legs were shaking. I didn’t dare look at my own. Suddenly, by some divine intervention, I started singing that ditty “Bosh bosh” and the first response was the

AK-47s went down, the commander caught hold of his stomach and rolled. In the next few minutes, he made me sing it about 40-50 times. They would laugh every time I sang it.

They put us in a vehicle going towards Jordan and sent us back to Amman. In three days the Saddam government fell and we crossed into Iraq. I stayed for one-and-a-half months. We survived on Marie biscuits and water. When we entered Iraq, the whole city was on fire. There were people reduced to skeletons in their cars, burnt to death. It was a disaster. When I travelled back to Amman after one-and-a-half-months, I realised I was so stressed that I had forgotten the PIN of my ATM card. This would not be a big thing for you but I have a John Nash kind of fascination for numbers!

 

K. MOHANCHANDRAN, general manager, Taj Bengal:

The door for Kashmiri Pandits to go back, is that closed or open?

RP: Right now it’s not possible for us to go back. In the last few years the situation has turned from bad to worse. By 2014 you will see what I mean. There is a complete radicalisation of the majority community in Kashmir. I just came back a day before from Kashmir. That was my first visit after Our Moon Has Blood Clots and I didn’t tell my parents I was going. Now it’s easy to get a gun. Someone will come and shoot you in the back and you’ll be dead. Nobody cares about these things in a conflict zone like Kashmir. I don’t think it’s immediately possible but there are many of us who would like to return one day.

 

Pradeep Kakkar, of the NGO PUBLIC:

On the Maoist issue, looking at what happened in West Bengal and looking at it with some scepticism, one has to ask the question is there a set of things that the government can do? Are we seeing real peace here or is it fabricated?

RP: I don’t think what happened in Jungle Mahal or Lalgarh is very different from what happened in other areas. I have been to the houses, the small huts of Adivasis. I have seen Jyotibabu’s pictures along with their deities. But then the whole issue turned because the Left turned so authoritarian in these areas. In the mid-’90s, the guerrillas started coming very gradually and building a base.

 

Maina Bhagat, director, Oxford Bookstore, Calcutta: Do you see light at the end of the tunnel?

RP: I have no hope, especially in the Maoist areas. I don’t think the government is interested at all in bringing any kind of signature peace in these areas. So, we will always have one manifestation or the other. If the Maoists are not there it does not mean that peace will come to that area. There will be a temporary lull of two-three years and some other force will evolve. It will be a Chambal-like situation with small ganglords functioning in particular areas.

 

It was a reunion of old friends as Rahul Pandita hugged British historian-author Patrick French after the session. “I met Rahul while researching for my book India: A Portrait.... It was very interesting how in a single session he panned two conflict zones and spoke about them. Knowing about both the Naxalites and the Kashmiri exodus was an eye-opener,” said French.

“I had known about the Naxalite insurgency but not about the Kashmiri Pandits. The story of the Pandits has not been told enough and I think it’s a brave attempt by the author to do so,” said Tom Bell, who was in Calcutta for a writing workshop conducted by Patrick French and Amit Chaudhuri.

Rahul signs a copy of Our Moon Has Blood Clots for Sundeep Bhutoria of the Prabha Khaitan Foundation. “I am glad that Rahul Pandita could join us for An Author’s Afternoon. Sharing his own experiences is what made it unique,” said Sundeep.

“These are topics about which we do not talk about much in the open. It was great to be a part of a session where we discussed such issues,” said food writer Manjari Agarwal.

“Having Rahul Pandita with us was very enriching as this is a topic that is not spoken about much,” said Rita Bhimani, PR consultant.

bookworm, the PYB (pretty young bibliophile), brings you the news about books and beyond

Hope floats: Making dreams into reality always comes with its costs and Lavanya Sankaran captures it all in The Hope Factory [Hachette, Rs 550]. Well-written and in a lucid language, this is the story of Anand K. Murthy, an entrepreneur, and Kamala, his housemaid.
Set in Bangalore, a city bubbling with new opportunities and the unavoidable price of “development”, The Hope Factory takes us into Anand’s world. Rich, married and with dreams of taking his company Cauvery Auto to new heights, Anand’s life looks happy from the outside. But his marriage to the “socialite” Vidya is rocky at best. And he faces the crisis of being without land and money to make his dream factory bigger and better. Then there is Kamala, the housemaid, whose life depends on satisfying Vidya’s every whim. But secretly she hopes that someday her clever, mischievous and exasperating son, Narayan, will grow up to be a big man. The author, whose previous novel was titled The Red Carpet, paints a vivid picture of each character and brings The Hope Factory to quite a surprising end.

Hot stuff: If you’ve already read Lee Child’s A Wanted Man and wish August-end would come quickly so you can get your next dose of Reacher in Never Go Back, here’s some hot news. Random House will release a Jack Reacher novella only in e-book format in the meanwhile. Titled High Heat, the e-book will be available at book retail websites (which means only Amazon for India) from August 6, priced around Rs 120.
Set in July 1977, High Heat revolves around a young Reacher in the midst of a heatwave and a murder spree. Was he a hothead even then? Or did High Heat do that to him? Bookworm is hot with anticipation, not the least because Jack Reacher was recently played by Tom Cruise.

Get set for the joyride: Stephen King is all set to take us back to the pulp fiction novels of the early 20th century. Or so it seems from the cover of his latest, Joyland. Done up in paintbrush style with bright reds, yellows and greens, the cover brings back names like James Hadley Chase, H.P. Lovecraft and Raymond Chandler, where busty damsels were always in all kinds of distress. Published in the Hard Case Crime series (Rs 677, Amazon), Joyland is set in 1973. After a bitter break-up and still mourning his mother’s death, college student Devin Jones takes up a summer job in North Carolina at an amusement park, Joyland, where a young woman had been murdered in the House of Horrors. The mystery was never solved. Devin befriends 10-year-old Mike and falls in love with his mother, Annie. All that’s fine but the twist comes when Devin decides to investigate Linda Gray’s unsolved murder by the ‘Carny Killer’ and stumbles upon a string of similar deaths. A touch of the supernatural and lots of thrills, this is the coming-of-age story of Devin.

Catch ’em young: To celebrate the child in us, Penguin Books India has launched a website for young readers called Penguin Young Readers (www.youngreaders.penguinbooksindia.com). Fun activities, contests, favourite characters, a chance to get up close and personal with authors — the site has a lot to offer.
Like the Win your Own Library contest, which will gift one lucky winner up to 20 of his or her favourite books, while 50 others get Hamleys toys, Penguin books and Gini&Jony gift vouchers. In the favourite characters section, get to know more about Tenali Raman or Feluda, Marcus Atkinson or Tintin. And in case you have a character of your own in mind, just pen it down and send it with the subject ‘Young Writers send us your story’ and a chance to be published by Penguin awaits! Housing all the children’s book imprints like Puffin, Ladybird, Inked, DK and more under one roof, the website is a sure platform to catch ’em in the pages while they are young.