travel Reviews

‘Tales of Hazaribagh’ review: In search of Hazaribagh

Literary Review
Neha SinhaJanuary 29, 2022 16:49 IST
Updated: January 28, 2022 13:51 IST

Profiling a Jharkhand hill station, not too beautiful nor too popular, but always interesting

A poet is a prosaic lover, writes author Mihir Vatsa in his debut non-fiction, Tales of Hazaribagh . “Talent lodges itself, useless, against love’s gaze,” he says. Love is an important way of understanding Vatsa’s gaze on his hometown and Jharkhand’s hill station, Hazaribagh. This book is all about Hazaribagh, a place that does not occur much on lists of places to see in India.

Vocabulary of love

In this self-assured debut, Vatsa is possessive about his Hazaribagh, yet refusing to do the obvious — to romanticise or prettify it. In resisting the travelogue trope of rose-tinted glasses, he chooses not to condescend on the present. His gaze is not just his view of the landscape — plateau dotted with a town, lakes, waterfalls and rocky escarpments — but is also responsive to how the area changes him. What we get in this frequently surprising book is a vocabulary of love for a home which cannot always stand steadfast to the forces of change.

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One such change is the naming of Hazaribagh as headquarters of north Chhotanagpur division — now seen just as HQ, and not as a plateau or the place with a thousand gardens. He writes: “I see an active erasure of history, an erasure of poetry too. The history of administration in Hazaribagh started because of the plateau, not in spite of it. Its recent identification as merely a headquarters town marks a fundamental shift in its perception. It tells me that Hazaribagh could soon be another tier-3 city with its made-up parks, ersatz ponds, token forest, shorn increasingly of its inherent beauty.” But towns and cities belong to many, not just to those who love them for their inherent, or integral beauty. The beauty of a fiercely personal love for public things (like places) is to look for the hidden, and to treasure it once found.

Tales of Hazaribagh has several quests at its heart — like finding waterfalls. Unlike other solitary male quests — much of colonial nature writing in India, for example — the author’s changing personas ensure that we are not hearing just one authoritative, all-knowing voice. He is at once a ‘Hazaribagh bro’, a ‘literature student fascinated by irony’, and a ‘millennial’. In effect, this means he takes the view seriously, but not his view of himself. This reminds me of another fine 2021 book, The Braided River by Samrat X, which also employs a lightness of touch in the narrative persona.

Gentle exploration

Like the Brahmaputra in The Braided River — and like waterfalls that swell with surprise in the monsoon — Tales is marbled through with a gentle notion of exploration which is not in a hurry to get anywhere. When we read a book, or watch a movie, we are often told it is action, or a thriller, or a romance. We go in expecting events . A memoir-travelogue like this one defies the idea of events, and instead relies on the way things actually unfold at their own pace. Thus, there are walks where nothing is found. The unfolding of a non-event is an important part of life — and this little book knows it. It is repetitive in parts, and I wonder if this is a deliberative narrative device. I would also be interested in reading such a narrative through the gaze of a woman, such as the author’s mother, who is frequently mentioned.

But read this book and enjoy a new form of non-chauvinistic, deeply immersive writing. Find a place in India that is neither too beautiful nor too popular, but is always interesting.

Tales of Hazaribagh; Mihir Vatsa, Speaking Tiger, ₹450.

The reviewer is a conservation biologist and the author of Wild and Wilful .

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