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Siddhartha Sarma’s young adult novel on the Niyamgiri movement as seen through the eyes of two adolescents is a compelling read, says Bijal Vachharajani

Niyamgiri has gone down in world history as one of the biggest land conflicts, as well as a triumphant story about what an indigenous community can achieve when faced with the might of a government and a huge private company. In 2010, a cluster of villages in Odisha came together to vote against a mining project, backed by a landmark ruling by the Supreme Court. Based on that strong people-powered movement, Siddhartha Sarma has written a compelling young adult novel titled Year of the Weeds published by Duckbill.

Building a resistance

In an email interview, Sarma, — a 38-year-old journalist — that he had been following the Niyamgiri agitation for over a decade and felt that a fiction re-telling was needed. “I wanted to tell a story about the systems and processes at work in the country: how government functions; how a large part of India, which has virtually disappeared from the mind space of the other part, survives.”

Told from the point of view of two children — Korok who lives in a village in western Odisha and Anchita who lives in the house where he tends to the garden — Sarma tells the story of the Gond resistance, which begins when the government tells them they will lose their sacred land because of mining. At one point Korok thinks about the inevitable loss, “And besides, when the hill was gone, there would be no more flowers for him to grow.”

As the government’s plans become clearer, Korok finds his village besieged by activists, politicians, journalists, each with their own agenda. Ghosh, one of the characters in the book, puts it succinctly, “It was… ironic… The most valuable resources were usually found under the feet of people who didn’t seem to need them. Even worse, these were usually people who needed the land more than what was inside it… Invisible people who no one was interested in.”

Invisible people

Inequalities too are marked in Year of the Weeds, and Sarma opens a window to an India that is often ignored. For instance, Anchita goes to school but Korok doesn’t — one day the schoolteacher packs up and leaves and no one replaces him. Sarma writes incisively, “So Korok hadn’t left school, if one looked at it. School had left him.” Sarma expands on the character — “Korok is among those young boys and girls in the hinterland or in the margins of urban India who, despite their numerous disadvantages, are talented people who could, under different circumstances, achieve greatness. In Korok’s case, he is fortunate that what gives him joy, what makes him feel love, the craft which he can work on relentlessly day after day happens to be gardening, and he has chanced on it, or been drawn to it.”

Cast of characters

Despite the challenges, Sarma’s writing is heavily laced with humour and insights. It is, ultimately, a story of resilience, resistance and of hope. There’s a cast of memorable characters that range from the aforementioned Ghosh — a “specialist” brought in by the mining company to ‘handle’ the agitation and liaise with the local administration to Sarkari Patnaik, whose word used to be law here but now finds himself watching his police force’s every step. All of them are very real. “A lot of the descriptions are based on what I have seen as a reporter,” explainned Sarma. “These include the structure of the state and its organs, and specifics about their manner of functioning. I kept those elements which were directly relevant for the plot. There were a lot more details which could have gone in, but by keeping only the directly relevant, I could write about the latter in more detail.”

Sarma’s research was based on news reports, public record material, and conversations with journalists and people familiar with such movements. “In the process, I also wanted to include other aspects of India that I have seen and reported on: how politicians and their PR apparatus functions; the police system, prisons and trial courts; the PDS mechanism and district administrations,” said Sarma. “The core of the story is a land rights movement, but it became a tale about other aspects of the country as well.”

Spotlight Northeast

Sarma grew up in Guwahati, Assam, during the high tide of insurgency in the state. He explained that his generation grew up under the shadow of political violence and that’s why he wanted to write on the state and society.

In 2010, his debut novel, The Grasshopper’s Run (Scholastic), won the Crossword Award for the best children’s book. “I wanted to tell a story from the Northeast,” said Sarma. “The Second World War seemed a good point in history to base my story in. I researched the China-Burma-India Theatre (1942-45), examined the archives, travelled in East Assam, Nagaland and Myanmar and wrote the story.”

Sarma’s books join a clutch of new titles — including Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s Jwala Kumar and the Gift of Fire (Speaking Tiger), and Reshma Thapa Gurung and Canato Jimo’s The Very Wiggly Tooth (Pratham Books) — that don’t typecast or stereotype narratives from indigenous and minority communities as folktales or historical re-tellings. “Writing only about folktales from the Northeast is not much different than the government making tribals dance for visiting dignitaries,” said Sarma. “There is more to these societies than just their cultural markers. It is such an undignified approach. The onus is on people familiar with regions like the Northeast, or those who approach rural, Dalit or Adivasi societies with empathy, understanding and objectivity without falling into the trap of exoticising them for narrative purposes…We need good storytellers, that is all. The stories are there, waiting.”

Expanding the discourse

Like his debut novel, Sama deliberately decided to write this book for young adults as well. “I have largely been disappointed with my generation,” explained the author and journalist. “Most of those who subscribe to the kind of bigotry, xenophobia, misogyny and communal ideas you see in public discourse today have no excuse for this. Most educated people have chosen to subscribe to such views, and to believe in propaganda [that is] against peoples’ movements, or movements by the underprivileged, or even feminist movements.”

As Sarma puts it — “his novel will have no impact on them”. “But”, he added, “I have faith in young people, so I have written this novel for them. If they read it, and start asking questions and taking an interest in the people of the margins; if they reach out to these societies and movements; if they bridge the divide; if they examine their own privileges and question their elders’ views; if they become kinder, more empathetic people, I will be content.”

Year of the Weeds by Siddhartha Sarma published by Duckbill is available on Amazon at ₹295.

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