Barefoot and wearing a langot , a little boy scurries across the baked red earth, his eyes and mind fixed firmly on the path ahead. Then the camera zooms out to give us an ominous view: “In the distance, silhouetted by the now bright sun, stand some large, menacing, sharp-edged machines.” It’s in these visual descriptions, with the feel of a screenplay, almost, that Devashish Makhija’s Oonga shows itself to be The Book of the Film. The young adult novel is an adaptation of Makhija’s 2013 film of the same name, which never got a commercial release.
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The little boy is our hero, the eponymous Oonga, who belongs to the Dongria Kondh adivasi community. Their village is located in a hotspot of conflict between Naxalites and the CRPF, with a corporation manoeuvring malevolently in the background. Makhija gives us perspectives from each camp and succeeds in humanising most characters, from Hemla the tribal teacher who tries to thread the elusive needle of the non-violent middle path, to those driven to outlawry as a result of (graphically described) state-inflicted violence, to the sons of farmers trying to make a living in the security forces. Even those who inhabit the darker shades of grey, like Pradip of the CRPF, spring surprises.
In the midst of all this is Oonga, who wants nothing more than to metamorphose into his hero, Rama. Only, this Rama is the prince of the forest, fighting to rescue his bride, the daughter of the earth, from a ten-headed industrial horror. There is zero subtlety in how any of this is conveyed, but it serves as a timely reminder of the plural and occasionally subaltern Ramas who have always lived beyond the grasp of hegemonic beliefs.
One aspect where there is some subtlety is the air of the supernatural, around a certain character in particular. It’s done with enough restraint to avoid importing clichés about shamanism and closeness to nature.
The narrative prose achieves a healthy level of staccato. Overall, it’s a decent read that addresses urgent real-life problems and doesn’t shy away from depicting very real horrors.
Oonga; Devashish Makhija, Tulika, ₹295