Time to Leave a Planet
‘Now we are standing in the middle of the river,’ Sudhir Panda said.
Waves of pink-grey stone stretched under our feet, broken by thorny bushes and green pools of water. The late afternoon sun cast shadows of the giant boulders all around us. For thousands of years, a mighty river had sculpted strange shapes on them. But now it all looked dead: not a sign of motion, except the deep furrows on Mahanadi’s basalt bed.
‘Local people call these boulders asur-haria, bones of the demon,’ Sudhir informed. ‘There is the myth of a great fight between a god and a demon.’
One needs only a little imagination to discover upon these weathered stones the knots on a spinal column, socket-shaped holes, protruding knobs of the femur… But they brought to my mind the image of a dead planet. Hindalco’s factory loomed in the distance against a line of low hills, belching smoke. It resembled a spacecraft: crashlanded, and on fire. We were like a pair of astronauts stranded forever on an unknown planet. The sun was setting.
Sudhir’s voice roused me.
‘You know, a few years back a team from the Geological Survey of India discovered fossils of marine animals in asur-haria. It proves that once upon a time there was a sea here.’
But that must have been millions of years ago. The vast Mahanadi delta was formed of the silt carried by the rivers of the Eastern Ghats hills. The flatlands were formed, the sea was pushed back. But what about the river that had once spawned great towns, brought commerce and travellers from faraway lands? Where did it go?
I already had the answer. Before coming here, Sudhir had taken me to the Hirakud dam site. Between that endless watery lake, the largest man-made one in the world, and this bleached skeleton of a famed river, there were tales – hundreds and thousands of them: tales that had been pulverized to swirling dust, tales wrenched out of their homelands and thrust into the slums of Cuttock and Bhubaneswar, tales that had gone to the laterite quarries of Bolangir for work, tales whose flesh and bones had gone into building the factories of Kalinganagar, the port of Paradwip, the mines of Talcher…
Harrowing tales: I had had enough of them these past few weeks. I could now feel the weight of asur-haria in my chest, could taste the slimy pool water in my mouth. I couldn’t take any more. Now I yearned to return home. Before that, I just wanted to spend these last few minutes in Odisha on this stony river bed and watch, without a word, the swift death of a pale winter’s day.
Sudhir sensed my mood and fell silent. We stood side by side, facing the western sky. As the sun dipped, the boulders turned ashen pink and cast elongated shadows shaped like strange animals. A light veil of smog lifted slowly and over it, upon a patch of waxen sky, the smoke from an airplane scratched a line of blood. As the siren of Hindalco’s factory rang, countless crows appeared from nowhere and stirred up the evening darkness. The lights of Sambalpur came out in the distance.
‘I think we should leave now,’ Sudhir said, looking at his wristwatch. I had a train to catch.
Mahanadi had lost its former glory, but the town was still there. In fact it had grown since Hirakud happened, and was bursting at the seams. Near Sarak Ghat, the river’s side had been taken over by sqalid tenements, cow sheds, scrap godowns and automobile repair shops. Like all major Indian towns, Sambalpur too had turned its back from the river that had borne it – literally: most of the town’s sewage drained here. The air was fetid and thick. We picked our way under the fading light among rocks and watery pools. Pigs and crows kept up a racket among heaps of garbage. Shadowy women moved about and stooped behind the boulders; they had emerged from the Ring Road slum to take advantage of the cover of darkness to attend nature’s call. There were many Hirakud dam oustees in these slums, Sudhir had told me, yet to be relocated after more than half a century. A community of fisherfolk too lived here. Small fishing boats lay upturned on large boulders, like reptiles sleeping away the winter, waiting for the monsoon tides. Life in the urban slum hadn’t been able to take away livelihood skills honed over generations. This thought came to my mind as I noticed a shadowy boy at the mouth of a drainage canal, with a net.
‘What types of fish do they get here?’ I asked.
Sudhir chuckled out loudly. He said something to the boy and sent him into peals of laughter. It echoed behind us. I turned around to find a pair of thin naked children, rags wrapped around their heads, almost dissolved in the darkness. They were sitting on their haunches, sorting plastic bottles and packets, their teeth glowing across their dark faces. They had now idea why they were laughing, it seemed; they were only following their leader’s cue. The boy picked up crushed aluminum foil from the folds of the net l and showed it to me. The silvery catch of a river!
As we walked up the flight of steps leading to the Ring Road, I turned to take one last look. Darkness had gathered on the river bed, crows were flying into the crimson sky, the pools of water shone like pieces of a broken mirror. I could not see the children, but their voices continued to echo in my ears: young voices, delicate but unusually tart – a fitting music for a place like this.
Again the image of the dead planet returned to my mind. Lights on the Hindalco factory glittered in darkness. By some miracle, the spacecraft had come back to life and would take flight in a moment. Time to leave this dry toxic planet had come.
Entombed in Memories
‘There was a time when work meant planting green saplings into soft black mud by the canal side … and waiting for the paddy to ripen. During Sohra festival, every household would be festooned with golden corns hanging from thatch eaves… We climbed the watch post on top of the peepal tree and basked in the warm green of the fields all around…In winter it would become a yellow sea of flowering mustard… After the harvest, we smoked out the fat field rats and roasted them. There was a time…
‘There was a time when from top of the giant peepal one could see as far as Mahanadi, and how the monsoon clouds were born from its pink-grey womb…Heavy monsoon, as if the heavens had burst open…we lured the crabs from under the stones with sticks. Or went to the jungle to pick mushrooms. There was a time…
‘…there were leeches, fat as a finger, and frogs croaked in the bamboo grove through the night…sometimes elephants strayed in from far-off Chandaka forest…
‘There was a time…at the crack of dawn we took Sahu’s cattle to the edge of the forest. We feasted on mohua flowers, and stretched under a tree, and let the cattle be by themselves and gorge on sweet sabu grass…or we entered the forest to pick ripe kend fruits, or followed the flight of bees in search of the hive…in the forest we never knew hunger …when thirsty, we would dig the rocky fissures for water and drink, lying on on our stomach, like rabbits…There was a time…’
Meet Mangal Gagarai, the father of Shaym Gagarai who, along with 12 other tribal men, was killed during the police firing in Kalinganagar on 2 January 2006. Since then, Mangal has lost his senses. He sits on the stoop of his mud hut, wearing a tattered tweed jacket over a dhoti, a gnarled walking stick between his bare dusty knees. Chicks skitter around his legs, a sparrow lights on his shoulder. Mangal is cross-eyed: his one eye is fixed on the past, the other remain unfocussed. As he reminisces, a strange pure smile breaks upon his lips from time to time. His wet pink gums sport three tentative teeth, three incisors.
I met Mangal when I went to Champakoila village in Kalingnagar Industrial Area, to research a book on Odisha tribes and how they are being crushed under the Juggernaut of ‘Development’. It was in November 2010. A wide freight corridor was being built for a Tata steel plant, upon fertile tribal land, and there were policemen all around the 13 villages affected by the land grab. Nearly five years after the brutal police firing, there was raw terror on the faces of the people gathered at a village courtyard. They were recounting their days and nights of horror that has continued since. They were speaking an Odia dialect, peppered with Mundari words and phrases. Dinu Mohanty, social worker and my local conact, was translating them for me; also, a voice recorder was on.
In the record book of the local police station, many of these thin worn men and women were enlisted as criminals and absconders. Some of the names had been etched on police bullets, others carved on memorial stones. Some, like Mangal Gagarai, had forever escaped the unbearable present by getting themselves entombed in nostalgia. It was a living mirage…