Siddhartha Sarma’s YA novel Year of Weeds (published by Duckbill) is an unusual one for that genre. Based on the agitation of the Dongria Konds against the mining of the Niyamgiri hills, the book lays bare the ground realities: corporate greed and rapacity, the government’s indifference, bureaucratic red tape that strangles the people it is supposed to serve; the brutality of the law enforcement agencies... all issues that an urban child would probably be unaware of. In this email interview, the journalist and author talks about how and why he wrote this book. Excerpts:
Why did you choose to tell this story as fiction and not non-fiction?
I wanted to write a novel on some of the systemic problems in the country. The Niyamgiri agitation is connected to several of these issues, so it became the core of the novel. Fiction allows one the liberty of focusing on specific issues even within stories based on real events. In some ways, writing it as fiction has helped. The character of Ghosh and his real-world counterparts would have been difficult to represent in non-fiction. Most of the evidence and quotes would have been off the record and this would have made the treatment and tone somewhat uneven.
Was there any particular impetus that led you to tell this particular tale?
In 2013, when the campaign for the Lok Sabha elections started, we knew what was going to happen. But I was surprised with the extent of support for the ideology of the party which won, among people I have grown up with and whom I had known for a long time. I realised that our generation had not really understood what this country needs to survive. I wanted to talk about these issues and write a novel for the next generation because I still have hopes from them. I hope they will be better and kinder citizens and will understand democracy, will truly internalise liberal values better than my generation has done. Therefore this novel.
How did you select the characters of Korok and Anchita?
There are few human activities as intimately rooted in geography as farming and gardening. Almost everything else can be displaced and can still perhaps continue. But the nature of the soil, one’s connection with the earth, is too intimate to be easily transplanted. And a gardener’s emotional connection with the earth is perhaps more complex than a farmer’s. It is less transactional, in some ways. So for a story like this, I figured Korok would have to be a special kind of gardener. And therefore the metaphor of the weeds. The rest of his personality, his work, house, kitchen and the animal that lives under his bed (and doesn’t have a name) emerged after I had sketched in his character and his background.
Anchita was intended as a character to help outsiders get introduced to life in Deogan (Korok’s village). I think I spent more time working on her character than on anybody else. Anchita’s work as an artist also helps her get certain specific insights about the Gonds. Unlike Korok, she does not suffer fools at all and is willing to confront officials like Patnaik.
The bit about Anchita offering Korok cake and not noticing that he doesn’t like it … I saw in it a milder version of the general tendency to force what we think of as ‘good’ down their throats. I have heard young tribals complain that ‘You people enjoyed everything but when we want to do the same you tell us it is bad. Wasn’t it bad when you were using it?’ especially when we talk about the sustainability of traditional houses and modern vehicles. There is a sense that society as such is denying their aspirations. Comment.
Anchita loves cake and assumes Korok’s polite acceptance equals a similar liking for it. Korok is too polite to say ‘no’ to the daughter of an official, but this does not occur to her. She means well, though. The tribal youngsters are perfectly justified in their aspirations. You can compare it with the Indian state and middle class’ response when the West points out how consumption patterns in India are affecting the environment or are unsustainable. The difference is India has a complex society and a certain intellectual and scientific base, which can explore options for sustainable development. Small and vulnerable societies do not have this choice, so their aspirations will mirror those of mainstream urban people. But there is also a divergence in such aspirations. At Niyamgiri, the Dongria Kondhs mostly do not want vehicles, or even roads, because they go everywhere on foot.
Ultimately, it is not the eating or not eating of cake that is important. What matters is a community, no matter how small or marginalised, has to be accorded the dignity and liberty of deciding for themselves if they want to have ‘kek’. Nobody else should make this choice for them. Sometimes I think of the North Sentinel islanders and it makes me happy. It took the Indian government 59 years after Independence to understand their message and set up an exclusion zone in 2006. They don’t want our cake. We have to respect that. We should spend more time thinking about the health problems our cake is giving ourselves.
I find it interesting that both your YA books, The Grasshopper’s Run and this one, are about tribal people. How do you pick topics for your books?
I get ideas all the time, like a reporter is supposed to. Then I look at whether I should be writing about it, whether I have the competence for the subject, and how I should go about doing it. Most of the ideas are discarded. My principal interest and academic background is history (although I studied Economics for graduation), so most of my ideas are related to historical fiction. Year of the Weeds is a bit of an exception that way, being about contemporary politics.
Can you tell us about how you gathered information about how the system works? Also do you see this as a way of giving urban children an idea of the world outside of their own?
Details about the Niyamgiri agitation, which I followed since early 2000, were gathered from news reports. I have not visited the place, although I have travelled in western Odisha. The other details about how district administrations, police, jails and courts work were based on my personal observations as a journalist. I hope the book will be an introduction for urban children to issues and people they are not familiar with. I hope the story makes them interested in such issues and willing to learn more from other sources, perhaps discuss them in classrooms and at home. In the process, I hope they will also ask why these issues are unfamiliar to them.
When: I am a night person, so it is convenient that I work for a newspaper and return home past midnight. That is when I write.
Where: Anywhere I can find a quiet place. I do not have a specific spot.
How: I type on a computer. When I started writing first, for my school magazine and for newspapers, I used a typewriter. I miss that. A typewriter or long hand gives a certain clarity of thought and a certitude to the fingers. Perhaps someday I can return to a typewriter. I do not think I can do that now. I have to consider my publishers’ feelings.
What: Nothing in particular. Just a computer.