Interview Authors

‘It is not just art but an act of protest’

Mangad: ‘When society suffers, writers suffer along with it.’   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Ambikasutan Mangad, professor of Malayalam at Nehru Arts and Science College, Kanhangad, is a novelist and writer of short stories. In his Malayalam novel Enmakaje (2009), a couple who retreat from their sorrows to an isolated paradise are drawn back into a community’s desperate struggle against the pesticides that have poisoned their water and land. As we read, we realise the photos and reports we see in the papers about the impact of endosulfan are only those that the public can “stand” to see. The novel has now appeared in an English translation by J. Devika as Swarga, and, in a phone conversation, the writer gently steers away from his own art and mythmaking to the daily nightmare of Enmakaje village. Excerpts:

In writing this novel, did you consider yourself more an activist than an artist?

In 2001, I became involved in the anti-endosulfan protest. I wrote a story, Panchuruli, which appeared in Mathrubhumi in 2002, about pesticides and their harmful effects. I became chairman of the Endosulfan Viruddha Samaram Samithi. Between 2003 and 2017, I have written 45 essays and protested about medical treatment for victims and about compensation. So, in this matter, I am an activist.

On the other hand, I am a writer. I question myself about writing a novel on this subject.

When V.S. Achuthanandan became Chief Minister in 2006, he came to Kasargod with compensation and help for the victims. I thought we wouldn’t have to protest any more. Still, because there were so many other places contaminated with pesticides, I decided to write the novel.

When society suffers, writers suffer along with it. Not only in Kasargod, but everywhere pesticides are used, the novel is for all those people. It is not just art but an act of protest. But when we write a novel we go into nature and myths, and for that I researched the area — not to look at the children.

What was your first encounter with endosulfan and its impact?

In 2001, I first felt the effects, seeing photos of the children. I participated in a survey of the environment and people in Periya village in 2002. It was one of 11 villages in which endosulfan was sprayed. I reached a house where there was a disabled child. He looked two to three months old, but the family said he was three years old. His limbs were full of sores, his hair was grey, and his throat was closed; he could not speak or swallow. I could not forget him. I saw many such children.

In the novel, the villagers believe that they have been cursed by a deity. Is that part of your fiction or were they actually unaware of cause and effect?

In villages, people are poor, without education, with no knowledge of how to protest, no idea that these were poisonous chemicals. They actually believed in Jadadhari theyyam’s curse, and that he was inflicting diseases on them. Even now there are some elderly people who maintain that it is his anger.

The story ends with the world still blind to the endosulfan tragedy. Commissions and politicians defend the plantation corporation rather than help the community. Was that the situation when Enmakaje came out?

No, it was well known by then. The events in the novel happen before 2003. By 2009, there had been strikes, been studies and reports in the papers. In Kerala, it became known that these deformities were due to endosulfan. Long before I got involved, Leelakumari Amma, Sri Padre, Dr Mohan Kumar and other activists had begun the fight. In the book, other than Neelakantan and Devayani, all the characters are based on actual activists and people committed to the villagers.

This month there were medical camps for endosulfan victims and, before that, a Supreme Court order to pay compensation within three months. Is there reason to be hopeful?

There is an administrative dishonesty. The Central and State governments have not shown justice, not to the extent that they promised. Out of 5,878 identified victims, 3,000 receive a pension of some ₹2000. Only 110 have been compensated according to this recent Supreme Court order. Will the others receive anything? They have already missed the three-month deadline. They were supposed to run a yearly medical camp, but last week’s camp was the first since 2003. After screening by health centres and the district hospital to send on only the serious cases, 4,000 came to the medical camp, 1,500 of them children.

With such acute problems, Kasargod district has no medical college. There is no neurologist, there are few doctors, patients don’t get the specialised treatment required for this rare situation. Some are still buying medicines according to three-year-old prescriptions.

After each strike there are assurances, but the people do not get what they need. The struggles will continue because the sufferings have not ceased.

How has this struggle affected you personally?

I was not an activist by nature, I am an introvert. But when I see what the people have experienced, I cannot turn away. This is not just one subject about which to write and make money. In local newspapers, almost every day, we read of a child’s death. When Sridhara Shetty — on whom I based one of the characters — died, I went to the village, two hours away. One small comfort is that any royalty or awards I get I can give to the victims. My aim is to give the royalties from this English translation also to the victims.

What has the novel’s impact been?

The novel is used as a textbook in seven universities. It has been translated into Tamil and Kannada and a Hindi translation is planned. Students write papers about it. Readers tell me how it touched their minds. It is not just a fiction. People feel something.

In the novel, the Cave says all our troubles —the fact that fewer children are born, people lose their land, they are not content — is because Man moves away from nature. We used to worship trees, rivers, hills. The Cave says cast off your clothes and come back to nature. That Cave is the voice of Earth. It is not for the novelist to say what will happen. That is for the reader to say.

In a place called Swarga, people brought in pesticides and made it hell. Man’s discoveries have destroyed nature. This is what I have attempted to express.

The writer is the author of Three Seasons: Notes from a Country Year.

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Printable version | Oct 28, 2020 8:15:40 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-authors/it-is-not-just-art-but-an-act-of-protest/article18302952.ece

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