A flow of problems

A flow of problems

The very mention of a ‘dam’ nowadays confronts the mind’s eye with images of displacement. Scenes of refugees and protestors rise from reports and surveys, refusing to go away.

Vishwas Patil’s A Dirge for the Dammed, translated by Keerti Ramachandra, filters the stories. The tales are powerful, but after a while, the narrative loses its potency. While the plot is well-crafted and the characters are striking, there is some cinematic melodrama in the narration that undercuts the novel’s grip.
The novel is a translation from Marathi, 22 years after the original won the prestigious Sahitya Akademi Award in 1992. In its English version, the indigenous Marathi idioms and metaphors endearingly come through, while the story flows along with a lot of tongue-twisting but delightful names like Vasanthrao Khairmode Guruji, Dattu Karvande, Gunvanta, Panduba, Subhanji and Mhaibu.

The issues that it deals with are still relevant to modern times. The Dalit schoolmaster Guruji, Avadai and her son Haibati, and their stories, are narrated at length along with related tales of other Jhamblikars, too, who oppose the building of the dam, and struggle to retain their homes, but are gradually felled by development.

The politicians, administrators, police and even their colleagues and villagers backstab them, as they lose their areas and are ultimately rehabilitated into places that do not live up to their expectations. Plundering, encroachment, social inequalities and raping the earth’s resources is the strand woven around the lives of the villagers. The peaceful, gentle village of Jhambli, one among several villages of Maharashtra that are threatened by the more than 1,180 dams in the state, becomes a victim of the modern Indian state.
The theme is simple and straightforward, and the main direction of the story is put across by Guruji, Jambhli’s leader: “We’re all Dalits, slaves of technology, victims of progress.” The book brings out what looks like the Narmada Valley anti-dam movement, in which victims are part of the collateral damage wrought in the name of development and growth.

As expected, the book brings together multiple voices of villagers who lose their homes and honour in Jambhli, near the River Vaghjai: “Kusharaja was close to 60, and the spirit had gone out of him. The dam had ruined him. As master of a hundred acres or more, his was the largest holding in the village. Of them, 40 fertile acres had gone under water, the remaining 60 were on the mountain slopes. The soil washed off with the rains every year.”

Hence, the narrative’s theme is clear: the bare underbelly of the displaced village is bleeding. Most of the stories are simply told, with problems that are normally listed — the biggest of them being refugees in one’s own country.

The characters seem realistic, even though they are case histories. There is a rootlessness and restlessness that settles in them, and also a loss of identity: “... a huge  swell (…) burying them up to their chins. Babu looked around. There was water everywhere. He noticed that his uncle was in a state of shock so he gripped his hand and carefully waded towards the old banyan tree. He climbed first then pulled Nana up. Both of them settled on a branch, temporarily safe. (…) the Banyan was tall but the dam bund was higher. Nana was terrified at the sight of so much water and let out a howl. ‘Babya, it’s all over. We are dead. Finished...’ ”

But too many horrors of the displaced village are piled up: a deluge, during which a villager is hanging on a tree, the lack of a cremation ground, an old woman duped by her stepson, a father desperate for dowry, and fighting a wild tiger to collect dowry... there are countless stories that are sharp and emotive, but pall when they are overdone.

 There are politicians, corporate sharks and even social workers who make them face the heartbreaking horror of an invasive world. There are inevitable tales of woe, heart-wringing scenes, the displaced, the distressed and the damned. The predictability makes the novel pallid. While the plot, the facts and characterisation seem realistic, the hype undercuts the depth.

The language almost feels weepy and strikes one as falling into melodrama at places. For instance: “The government had acquired his lands 11 years ago and what had it given in exchange? A paltry 6,000 rupees... For how much longer will I have to live like this, fluttering in the wind, drenching in the rain, living fearfully with the beasts in the forests? Free me from this prison, bring me among my people, re sarkara!”

Being a translation, the novel may have lost its original tightness. The reactions are repeated, clichéd, robbing the stories of their power. The reader, therefore, feels that the novel is intense at one level, and diffused at another.