During the last twenty years, there has been a parallel discourse on the economic and social developments in India. On one hand, the votaries of economic ‘reform’ do not tire of singing paeans to what they perceive to be an economic miracle that has transformed India into an economic power. This hunky dory narrative has been consistently challenged by numerous counter narratives, in the shape of numerous studies and in a more accessible manner, by journalists, activists and writers who have reported heart wrenching stories from the ground- P. Sainath’s Everyone Loves a Good Drought (1996), Siddhartha Dube’s Words without Freedom (1998), my friend Rahul Banerjee’s ‘A Romantic among the Bhils‘ (2009) readily come to mind. To this literature Annie Zaidi’s Known Turfis a welcome addition.The book has seven sections, dealing with bandits in Chambal, chai, poverty in Madhya Pradesh and UP, contemporary Punjab, Sufism, the writer’s ruminations on what it means to be a Muslim in contemporary India and ending with the writer’s activism with an urban feminist group and an understanding of what feminism means for her. It is interesting that the the book should begin with fiction- the story of the Chambal dacoits, take the readers from fiction to fact as it were and end with the author’s discovery of her what she calls her turf.
The first section, Bantering with Bandits, is undoubtedly the finest part of the book. The author starts with her perception about Indian bandits- shaped largely by films and family folktales. She goes on to meet some of the survivors of the last generation of the Chambal dacoits and concludes:
There is a difference between Harshad Mehta and Phoolan Devi: both looted and both did so for personal reasons. but when a love of money is rooted in nothing but itself and a lack of respect for the law, it is called greed; when a lack of respect for the law is rooted in a sense of honor and the conviction that society will fail you again and again, and this is combined with money and guns, it is called rebellion.
The stories recounted in the third section are familiar, though anyone who lives amid the visible poverty in South Asia for some time learns to get desensitized to them. Yet, one shares the sense of appalling wonder when the author visits places named Patalgarh and comes across people named Ghamandi, who is the mother of a girl child Priti and according to the records of one anganwadi, gave birth to the same child seven times in a little more than a year! Just as the discovery of what the term ‘primitive tribe’ means and a visit to the weavers of Benares, now living on the verge of hunger brings a sense of sad wonder.
I hadn’t seen fireflies before, not in such glory. nor in such proximity. here, in this village where there was no electricity, where my own step on wet mud sounded loud, I had stepped bang into the center of shimmering web of pin- pointed, wimmy light. Like restless, warm diamonds. Like crystals of live poetry. It was like having the stars laid out at my feet.
Much later, as I thought about their magical web, in the same instant I thought of the old weaver’s tears. Shining deep into the night. Even today, I shut my eyes and memory fills me with quiet.
Zaidi’s discovery of Punjab is also fascinating as she manages to capture a number of facts of the state that are generally not so well known outside the region. There is the tale of Bant Singh, dalit oppression and resistance, the rise of deras, ‘kabootarbaazi’ and the corruption at Punjab State Industrial Development Corporation. Most of these topics have incidentally been covered on this blog, and the last one about PSIDC brought back memories of a study that this blogger had done at Punjab State Financial Corporation for their computerization program in the mid- nineties. It’s a murky state of affairs, to cut a long story short.
The author’s take on religion has a sufiana tinge to it, indeed, Sufism seems to have, for better or worse, replaced marxism as the religion of the educated and restless generation in India. She states:
My personal faith is a selfish one. It is tender and delicate but also, somehow, unbreakable. It is plastic and so solid that I feel it tangibly. my beliefs are marked ‘Kafir because the core of my faith is questioning, or dissent, which is what Kafiri means.
That is pretty much what Marx stated- de omnibus dubitandum, but well, that was in Latin, and in another era.
The last section deals with the state of the girl child that subsequently the 2011 census brought into sharp focus, women activists and ends with the author’s personal experiences as a young woman reporter. It is here that she also sees glimmer of hope- in the actions of Blank Noise and among the women panchayat and block officials invited to a meeting in Dehradun.
The trip (to the meeting in Dehradun) was charged with a sense of change, a sense that everything was not as dire as we’d thought, and that our cynicism might have been exaggerated.
The only quibble I have with the book is that for some strange reason the table of contents is missing. This makes keeping track of the book somewhat difficult as the book meanders through different stories, some of them as short as a page or two. There is also a minor factual error on page 126- Bulle Shah lived in the 18th century, not 15th. I also felt that there is just too much ground to cover, the narrative is pretty rushed at places, leaving little more than a blur in the reader’s memory.
Even some of the stories are familiar, and not just for those those who have followed the author’s blog by the same name as the book.
Yet there is an air of freshness about all these stories. This has to do not only with the literary flourish with which the stories have been recounted, but also the fact that it provides a woman’s perspective on pertinent issues and also tells an honest story about the coming of age of a young woman reporter traveling to what for her till then was an unknown turf. The reader realizes that while some of what appears in the book might be familiar and some of it will never be fully known, it is the process of knowing that matters, and in the hands of a deft writer, it can be an exhilarating journey.