Some three decades ago, I decided to start working with adivasis and nomadic people. My workplace was Tejgadh, a village in eastern Gujarat. It is situated at the foot of a rocky hill and is skirted by the wide bed of the seasonally flooding Orsang river. The hill has hidden in it ancient caves with rock paintings from a period between 12,000 to 15,000 years before our time. The paintings in the caves should remind one of Mahasweta Devi’s classic, Pterodactyl, invoking a mythical bird and the agony of contemporary adivasi life.
It was here that I decided to create the Adivasi Academy. I chanced upon Mahasweta Devi a few years later, and she accepted my invitation to visit the Adivasi Academy. After having a dip in the stream of the Orsang river and visiting the caves with the rock paintings — like the ones she had visualized in Pterodactyl — the first thing she said to me was that she would like to breathe her last at Tejgadh. In my long years of work with her, she would often repeat this desire. A decade and a half later she passed away in her son’s house in Calcutta. In order to respect her wish, I brought her ashes to Tejgadh and created a modest memorial, made of interwoven arches positioned on a red-brick pedestal with an inscription which reads, “Every dream has the right to live” (picture). In physical height, this memorial may be the shortest among memorials one has seen. In a sharp contrast — about 70 kilometres south as the crow flies — is the Statue of Unity installed to remember Sardar Patel.
A few weeks ago, I had called young activists from many parts of India to meet at the Adivasi Academy. The purpose was to understand the situation in every state, going beyond reports one receives through the media. When all of us were seated around the Mahasweta memorial, I asked them to read the inscription and enquired what their unfulfilled dreams were. Those who came from Uttarakhand mentioned the melting glaciers, the fragile environment, its continuous degradation, the outward migration of the jobless hill people and the devastated social fabric. The friends from Nagaland complained about the lack of understanding among mainland Indians of the complex Naga history and society and about an increasing alienation. A friend from Meghalaya angrily added that unceasing mining has destroyed the legendary beauty of the Garo, Khasi and Jaintia hills alike. Kashmiri friends spoke with voices heavy with emotion about the complete disruption of normal liberties. Adivasi friends from the central states spoke about the plunder of their forests and rivers by big companies and the pauperization of folks going to cities in hordes in search of employment. Friends from Uttar Pradesh brought in the question of a deep social discord and the lack of opportunities. The Punjabi friends had a lot to say about the woes of farmers. Those from Maharashtra mentioned how the progressive ideas of Jyotiba Phule and Babasaheb Ambedkar had all been forgotten. The Tamil Nadu folks added that Periyar’s dream of an equal society has been entirely put in cold storage and big money and towering celluloid images have been dominating public life. The Karnataka friends highlighted nepotism, casteism and the decline of the egalitarian thoughts of Basavanna and Akkama. A Dalit leader from Gujarat said that he would like to collect small bits of brass and copper from every Dalit in India, mint a large coin out of them with Dr Ambedkar’s imprint and gift it to the president of India for laying at the foundation of the new Parliament building. Women present there spoke with great anxiety about how terrified they feel while expressing themselves in thought, emotion or costume. What Muslims and Christians said was not much different in tenor.
Our discussion continued for several hours. My simple question had resulted in unpacking a wide array of historical deceptions and injustices, a longing for creating a society with at least minimum decency and a sense of justice. The seemingly artless words of the inscription had opened up so many wounds. The yearning of my friends in that discussion made it difficult for me to have normal sleep that night. During it, I dreamt, and I am not sure if they were dreams, delusions or debates in my mind. I saw things not so easily to be seen in real life in our time: newly constructed shelters, all clean and with good toilets and drinking water for migrant labourers; ministers and government officials mourning for the dead among the agitating farmers, and farmers celebrating the repeal of the Acts; home ministry officials telling migrants in Assam that no certificate proving their religion is required for asylum and citizenship. In one part of the dream sequence, I saw lynch mobs asking for forgiveness from all the men and women they had ever lynched, and the police accepting FIRs from victims as per the law book. The courtrooms in my dream had entrances adorned with the words, “Justice shall be given equally to all”.
In another part of my long dream, I noticed religious fanatics of all shades drowning some books in the Arabian Sea. On asking them what those books contained, they said in many languages, “Oh, these were our books of hate words”. I also saw other books that probably were hospital registers, which showed no deaths of children for want of food or medicine. The National Crime Records Bureau records showed no new incidents of farmers’ suicide or the molestation and rape of women. I also saw a large gathering of mediapersons, but none of them looked scared and intimidated. Strange dream, indeed! I could see in it images, posters, statues and just empty shadows of martyrs who died for India’s freedom — scientists, thinkers, saints, artists, industrialists, sportspersons and mass leaders who made India a free and modern nation.
When I opened my eyes, I tried hard to recall if one of the statues I had seen was actually of Rabindranath. Or was it someone else trying to look like him? I concluded that it indeed was Gurudev, for the words inscribed on the pedestal were, “Where the mind is without fear…” These words would sound so hollow if said by any deliberately made-up look-alike. And I said, almost spontaneously, “Khela hobe”.
I am sure Mahasweta would have understood my dream. Her deep Bangla compassion for all lives and celebration of freedom, echoed by many Indians in an adivasi village in Gandhi’s Gujarat, are what the idea of India is all about. It has the right to live.
The author is a literary scholar and cultural activist; firstname.lastname@example.org