Young people have a lot of empathy and willingness to consider other perspectives than most grown-ups do: author Siddhartha Sarma
Siddhartha Sarma’s Year of the Weeds is one of the best books of 2018. Set in a village called Deogan in Balangir area of Odisha, the place is inhabited by Gond adivasis. The story is reminiscent of Odisha’s Niyamgiri movement, where the people fought against Vedanta group’s attempts to use tribal land for industry. Year of the Weeds is a young adult (YA) novel that everyone should read! Through the plot Sarma brings up issues such as corporate greed, the nexus between corporate houses and the government, bureaucratic red tape, the brutality of the government, the condition of prisons, police’s treatment of the poor… Excerpts of an e-mail interview with author and journalist Siddhartha Sarma:
Year of the Weeds is set in a village of Odisha, and most of the young adults reading the book hardly know about these so-called remote places in India. How do you think they will view the young Gond boy Korok and his village – as reflections of themselves or as the Other?
SS: Ideas about the Other emerge when people become so-called adults. People start looking at the world and themselves through narrow definitions and perspectives. Although this begins with indoctrination at an early age, young people’s ideas of the Other are still flexible and open to scrutiny. Besides, they still have a lot of empathy and willingness to consider other perspectives than most grown-ups do. So if a young adult unfamiliar with tribal life in Odisha were to pick up this novel, they would find in the story several points which are directly relevant to their lives: Korok’s friend Anchita’s ideas of teenage autonomy, her awareness about social and gender issues (Anchita is the daughter of the local DFO and lives in official accommodations near Korok’s village). But Korok too is not that different: his relationship with his parents (and the particular circumstances in which his father and mother are), his hopes and fears, his joys and sorrows. The specifics of his life might be different, but the common points serve as an introduction for urban readers. I hope they will then examine those parts of Korok’s life they are unfamiliar with.
The book brings up very important and serious issues before young adults – it is reminiscent of the Niyamgiri agitation. There is corporate greed, people’s movement, role of the Naxalites, activists, condition of jails and so on… Why did you want to tell this story to children? Do you think they need to know these stories in order to be kind, responsible and sensitive adults?
SS: The idea for the book came at a time when I was becoming increasingly disillusioned with my generation and what they had become. This was in 2013. I was dismayed by how people I had known all my life and had grown up with had so easily bought into corporate propaganda, sectarian political ideas, communalism, casteism and misogyny. It seemed there was no box they were not about to tick. I started wondering what had gone wrong with our education and the values we had been brought up with. I concluded that our understanding or engagement with the liberal democratic ideals of this country had been inadequate. The Supreme Court verdict on Niyamgiri came out around the same time. I was thinking of writing a story which would talk about some of the problems of the country and the failures or misdeeds of the apparatuses of the state. I wanted to write this story for young adults because I hoped, as you mention, that they would become kind, responsible and sensitive adults, which my generation failed to become.
I want to ask you about your portrayal of Naxalites in Year of the Weeds – and therefore this also applies to the larger context of land agitations in different parts of India where the rebels have played a significant role. Do you think Naxalites “use” disadvantaged groups such as the Gonds for their movement? Is your portrayal of the Naxalites in the book a reflection of your stand against armed rebellion? Isn’t it true that the tribal people are often friends of the Naxalites and that the Naxalite movement is also a movement of the tribal people?
SS: I do not support violence as a general rule and I have a problem with armed rebellion. I have covered some of them as a journalist and have been disappointed with what usually happens to them. Sometimes the leaders become tired old men and cut deals, sometimes they forget why they were fighting, sometimes there are provisional truces and so on; sometimes these rebellions are led by weekend warriors who think ideology or some other abstract notion alone will help them win battles. The human cost of conflict in any of these scenarios is immense, and little is achieved.
But the portrayal of Maoists in Year of the Weeds has more to do with the geography and realities of the story. Balangir district, where Korok and his fictional Gond village is set, is not a hotbed of Maoist activity. In the event of a popular movement like the one shown in the novel, Maoists can hypothetically try to co-opt the movement for their own ends. I am not saying that is what happened in Niyamgiri. I am saying such co-option has happened elsewhere. It is true that the Maoist movement today is confined to traditional tribal land in central India, and a significant number of Maoist cadre and leaders are tribals, and Maoists are considered to be fighting for the cause of tribals. We can even understand the reasons which compel tribals to take to Maoist insurgency. But militant groups follow their own agendas and these might not necessarily coincide with the needs of a vulnerable community all the time. In the novel, the Maoists who visit Korok’s village might or might not be on his side, but they definitely do not understand him or his people. Provisional allies, perhaps, but not friends.
You have done such in-depth research on the lives of the Gonds. Tell us about the research process.
SS: Most of what I have written about Gonds is based on works of noted ethnographers. I have tried not to give too many details about Gond traditions, myths and culture because I wanted to focus on specifics of rural life, particularly those aspects of this life which are common to communities across the country. So, problems of infrastructure, the apathy of the local administration and problems in executing policies on the ground were more directly relevant to the kind of story I had in mind.
Did your experience as a journalist help in writing this book? Or, did you find something entirely different, and did you look at the whole picture differently when you started writing as an author?
SS: The incidents, realities and conclusions I experienced or arrived at as a reporter form the basis for most of what I have written in the book. While writing the story as fiction, I had to be aware of how I was interpreting these experiences. So I was essentially narrating the insights I had as a reporter to myself as a writer, and this second version of me was trying to fit these ideas and situations into a fictional story. I think the two ‘me’s were working together on this. Certain matters which are important for a reporter but not for an author were given less space, or conversely. It was an interesting and instructive exercise. Humour, for instance. As a reporter I would not have used humour to the extent the novel has.
Tell us about some of the responses from your readers.
SS: I have had some discussions with young readers, where I have talked about land rights and the lives of Adivasis, and also about the ideological basis of the Constitution and Indian democracy. One of the best points about interacting with young readers is how focused they are on their questions and how honest they are in their feedback. So discussions go from one topic to the other and I have to try to be really nimble to explain the Constitution, democratic values, caste and gender privilege and other complex subjects properly to their satisfaction. At one discussion we started with Ambedkar and I found myself a few minutes later trying to explain to some very keen young people how patriarchy evolved over its six-thousand-year history. It is gratifying, but sometimes they really grill you.
What are you writing now?
SS: At the moment, I am writing posts for a blog I have, in which I talk about the characters, themes and ideas in Year of the Weeds.