Past as Present by Mallipuram Jagadeesh

Translated by V.B. Sowmya

(Author’s note: Destruction takes the same path anywhere, anytime. Every political decision in any country in the world first affects its indigenous peoples. All the development or change that happened in the world involves sacrifice from many indigenous communities. This is what I want to convey through this story.

Translator’s note: “Chief Seattle’s speech” is a response by a Native American Chief Seattle (who gave his name to the port city Seattle, in United States) to the American Government’s land treaty that intended to buy their tribe’s lands to build the state of Washington. It was supposedly delivered in 1854, and multiple versions of the speech exist. In this story, the author uses it as a background and connects it with contemporary issues around the relation between man, land and development. Although I felt the narration switched between different topics and time periods too frequently, I found the mention of that speech in a Telugu story interesting, and I liked the way the author connected that with local issues. That motivated me to translate it into English.)

The Pas As Present

“Is the pamphlet ready, bro?” a friend asked on phone.
“It will be done by evening”, I replied.

Our village is surrounded by green hills and fields. Rows of cultivated fields border the hills. It looks like a flowing green waterfall. My childhood was filled with this greenery. We played various games such as – climb and catch, tamarind seed game, marble hole and stick games, etc in these green surroundings. Today, those trees that held me in their arms and those bushes that hugged me all my life are still visible. What about tomorrow? Kannedhara, Bodi, Erramanti1- every green hill is vanishing one after another. The areas that now house Saluru hills and Bauxite Mines were all erstwhile Adivasi abodes. We were driven away in the interest of mining, wealth, and development. The union of Adivasi associations decided to blockade ITDA2 to protest this. The pamphlet is about this event.

I checked the watch – it is time to go to school. The pamphlet that is waiting to be written, and lesson that is to be discussed in class today were playing in my mind. I started waiting for the bus, and confirmed that it did not arrive yet, as my usual co-passengers are still around.

This area was once a desolate place. It is now an important commercial center in this region. Tall buildings sprung up along the road. There are now shopping complexes featuring cashew nut traders, general provision shops, clothing and departmental stores, Bajaj bike and Maruthi car showrooms, and what not? Everything is a business in these modern shopping centers, all owned by non-Adivasi folks. How is it possible if these lands are supposed to be for Adivasi people? Is the 1 of 70 act3 not implemented here?

There is even a special deputy collector’s office to protect these lands. The office building is ready to collapse though. That post had been vacant for years. In the past, there used be only one or two non-Adivasi families who eyed our wealth. But look at how it is now! How could all these buildings come up? How did this happen? Where do all these cars come from?

The arrival of our bus stopped my chain of thought and reminded me of the school. I walked to get on the bus and go to school.

Students’ eyes brightened up the moment I stepped into the classroom. They are all Adivasi children. It is a welfare school for tribal kids. Everyone, including me, are Adivasis here.

We are discussing the lesson “What is man without beast?” in “Environment” class. It is a speech delivered by the Red Indian chief Seattle addressing American people. He gave this speech when he had to reluctantly agree to cede their lands to White Americans, so that they can build the state of Washington. It is a moving speech. Its green message still resonates among many hearts even now.

How would Seattle have agreed to give away his tribe’s lands, even reluctantly? How could the Americans who migrated from Europe have tempted the local Red Indians to do this? Or .. how did they threaten? What made him cede the lands to build the Washington state?

“Who are Red Indians, sir?”, a student asked.

Yes.. who are they? They are people who lost their lands. Who are the Red Indians? Should I say they are like our farmers who lost their lands to build the new state capital4? Should I say they are similar to the Adivasis who were displaced in Polavaram5? How can I answer this question?

“They are Adivasis like us. A group of ancient and primitive tribes. They are simple people who worship nature as their Goddess. They are an ancient society that believes in the sacredness of everything on earth. They believe that the memories of their ancestors flow as life inside the trees. They see flowers as their own siblings, and all human beings as their own. “ – I told them.

“How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land?” – Seattle asked.

The classroom suddenly transformed into a forest. Seattle was sitting on a rock, addressing the Americans in front of him. Other Red Indians were listening to him intently, sitting on their horses and buffaloes. Some of them were also sitting on their desk benches. A closer look told me they are my students.

Who is talking, sitting on that stone? Is it me or Chief Seattle?

Is this the Red Indian soil or my classroom?

“I got a letter from the white man today” I can hear the depth in my own voice. It seemed as if people within a three square kilometer radius can hear me. “They want to buy our land to build their state6. Should we let them do that?” – I asked loudly.

“Why would I give you my land?”, a voice questioned. I looked in its direction to see my father. The MRO was standing in front of him, holding some papers.

“We are extending the nursery here, and need the land which bears this hut”, the officer said.

“I will not give”, my father replied.

“Sir, what are you talking about?”, one of the students brought me back to current reality.
Irrespective of country time period, history is full of such instances of making tribals homeless by taking away land. Is this only history? Isn’t it also our present?

Am I in the past or present?

“The white man says they are building a new colony for our rehabilitation and is requesting us to move there. It sounds more like an order, though. Shall we go?”- Seattle asked, sitting on a rock on the other side of the classroom.

“No sir. Don’t give our lands to build the capital city. This is our land. We shouldn’t lose our livelihood to build a grand, glittery capital” – children shouted.

Who is shouting? Is it the children or those farmers losing their lands?

Suddenly, there was a commotion in the classroom.
****
“We are preparing an attractive package for you. We will develop your lands with world class investments. We will give you a plot once this is done, so that you can set up your businesses there” – It was a ploy, like applying jaggery on a child’s hand7.

“Farming is not profitable these days. Business is a better idea. We are in. We are in. Your package sounds great.” – someone in the crowd got up and declared a willingness to give away his land. A few more followed him. The state representatives felicitated them, fed them well and bid them farewell. One could see them turn into skeletons as they moved further and further away.

“Hey, stop! Stop! Who will farm if everyone thinks like this? What will future generations eat? Even as the earth fills up with plastic, man can eat only rice. This is 50,000 acres -not a small amount of land. A whole generation is going to lose food. Thousands of families will soon be displaced. Think! Think and stop!” – a few others shouted. There were some people on this side too. To control this group, the state discharged two arrows from their quiver – land acquisition and land encroachment. Both mean the same – it is the government taking away land from people. Both these arrows came in the form of a khakhi uniform and engulfed this commotion. Confused public rapidly dispersed in all directions, screaming in fear.
****

Seattle closed his eyes. He could predict this happening in future. That is why he agreed to silently surrender their lands to the white man.

“Chief, what does this silence mean?” – someone asked.
It is just one question, but it played in the minds of hundreds. No..perhaps thousands or lakhs… or innumerable voices.

I opened my eyes again. I could see the children of the forest in front of me, wearing school uniforms and sitting at their desks. Each looked like a question.

It is true – they all lost their home and land. They are all perpetually displaced adivasis who lose their rights each time.

All our primitive tribal children surrounded Chief Seattle, with heads down.

Seattle began speaking again – “We have to leave our lands. There is no choice. Otherwise, our tribe will vanish from the face of the earth. We cannot fight with these modern, treacherous powers. This is a dark age. If we start a war now, we shall perish. I don’t like that outcome. Leaving our homeland is now inevitable. “Emigration is also a war strategy” – a poet said. Let us vacate our lands and move into the new lands they give us” – Seattle possessed me. I could hear my voice mystically, yet, clearly.

Tears in my voice resembled the voices of lakhs of displaced people.

“All these new constructions – they are just destructions that make people homeless. They need votes, and crore rupee notes. They need assembly seats. New constructions!” – my voice is heard through the classroom walls.

“Sir, is this poetry?” -someone asked me. Did the question came from the classroom, or from inside my heart?

“No, no. It is the voice of the people. I am just translating their tears” – I responded.

“We did not understand. Can you rephrase? Can you give an example?” – someone sat on my lap and asked, with their hand on my cheek.

I got ready to answer. There is so much excitement spread out right in front of me, sitting on these benches, holding their books.

“This is the age of displacement. This is a time when all people will be displaced. They are losing not only their lands, but also their lives. We are all becoming deportees without even realizing it. This is an era where we are forgetting our humanity. Mankind is just vanishing slowly. Yes. We are losing the connection from one generation to another.

“Okay, what are the reasons for this?” – a student who couldn’t understand my ideas and my poetry asked.

I pulled him closer to me, and started rephrasing what I said.

“Look at this. Another new construction” – I said, pointing to some old newspapers.

“Sir, this is Polavaram project. They say it is a garland adorning our new state” – a student shouted in excitement.

I was amused by this comment and laughed out loudly.

“Why are you laughing, sir?” – the student was confused.

I put my arms around his shoulder and started walking with him. The class continued behind me. “Poetry is not just about artistic expression. It is also about talking about reality without fear” – I explained.

“Sir, does that mean what I said is not the truth?”
“Yes. You can’t base your poem on information from news alone.”

“Why, Sir?”

“Newspapers don’t always give the true story”

“Then?”

“Poetry should reflect the reality. Truth is not only what the government says or what the news shows. This is why I laughed when you said Polavaram is like a garland.”

“How will I know the truth, Sir?”

“Polavaram is not just another irrigation project. It is also the curse of all those displaced Adivasis. We can’t know the facts unless we speak with them.”

“Yes, I agree. We have no right to talk about Polavaram without visiting the area and speaking to all those displaced people.” – a last bencher said.

“That is why we are here.” – I paused for a moment.

The students were behind me. Our classroom which is far away from their hometowns, with its metal roofing and cement walls, transformed into a village of displaced people. It is full of teary eyed people who lost their lands and have no work. The students were interviewing them.

Who is talking with them? Is it me? Or a displaced person from Polavaram? Or the Red Indian Chief Seattle? – we are just talking. That’s all.

“I am a displaced Adivasi who lost myself in losing my land. My land is my right.”

Students were listening intently.

“You have to tell your children that the land under their feet is full of our ancestors’ remains. A modern poet echoed the same thought – “Land is the life flower born out of our ancestors’ skin and bones”. Do you know the meaning of this? You send this letter and want to take away our lands. You think you defeated us and our land. But the land won’t feel that way. It will laugh at your madness. No one can defeat land. Land is the one that conquers us. Man belongs to his land, but land belongs to no man. I don’t know when you will realize this truth, because, in your mind, I am an Adivasi…a tribal from the forest … and a fool.”

“We demand our rights.”

“It is not our land that drowned. It is our identity. Our life. Our home.”

“We demand the rights on our scheduled tribal areas” – slogans, flags, and protests with rising hands seemed like a sequel to Seattle’s speech. These are the cries authorities never hear.

“Mr Seattle, do you know where we are? What place are we talking about?” a villager sitting in the third bench asked.

“Yes, I know. Land is the same, irrespective of its country. Life is the same in any human. Pain is the same wherever the cry is coming from. Look there if you don’t believe me” – I pointed them in that direction.

They could see all that heavy construction work going on in Polavaram. Tall, iron walls were being erected there. On the opposite side is the river Godavari, full of water. No, it is not actual water but the tears of Adivasis whose lives are being drowned for the project’s sake. On this side are the newly built towns for the rehabilitation of Adivasis. Here lies the Adivasi who is being cheated by middlemen. There they are, the political leaders, laughing, and throwing away paltry packages at the adivasis.

“Sir, the period bell rang a while ago” – the teacher taking the next class said, standing outside the classroom.
Oh yes, one period ended.
As I came out of the classroom, my mobile phone rang. “We don’t have much time. We should send it for printing”, my friend reminded me about the pamphlet I was supposed to prepare.
Yes. There is no time.
***
Glossary:
1.Kannedhara Konda, Bodi Konda, Erramatti Konda – they are all erstwhile tribal hamlets in Eastern Andhra Pradesh, which became mining hubs now.
2.ITDA: Integrated Tribal Development Agency.
3.1/70 act: Land Transfer Regulation Act 1 of 1970 by Andhra Pradesh state Government in India, which regulates the transfer of Tribal lands to non-Tribals.
4.Amaravathi: is a town in Andhra Pradesh state, which was proposed as the capital when the new state was formed in 2014.
5.Polavaram is a large irrigation project on the river Godavari, in Andhra Pradesh.
6.State of Washington, USA.
7.The original Telugu idiom is “maMDa mIda bellaM rAsinaTTu” (మండ మీద బెల్లం రాసినట్టు”). In author’s words: “To control a naughty child, a mother applies jaggery on the back of the child’s hand and gets on with her work. The child licks the jaggery and is happy. It won’t satiate his hunger, but it distracts him from mischief. In the mean while, the mother finishes her task”.
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(The Telugu Original, “gata varthamanam”, won first prize in Vizag Fest in 2018. Later it has been included in the author’s Telugu short story collection, “Guri”, published in 2019.)

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February 6, 2022

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