December 12, 2006

A Nomad Called Thief

The Hindu carries my review of GN Devy's recent A Nomad Called Thief today (Tuesday Dec 12). Here's the text as it went to the editing desk. Comments welcome.


Early in this book, GN Devy offers what he calls "a random list of what we have given the adivasis": through 60 Independent years, but perhaps going back centuries. Here's part of that list:
    "Forest Acts depriving them of their livelihood; a Criminal Tribes Act and a Habitual Offenders Act; ... existence as bonded labour; forest guards and private moneylenders; mosquitoes and malaria; naxalites and ideological war-groups; ... and perpetual contempt."
Sobering reading. What did this country's original inhabitants -- its "adi-vasis" -- do to deserve this? And does it explain the "silence" of Devy's subtitle?

This is an uncommon book from an uncommon man. I've always felt that to fully understand Devy's writing, it helps to know him. (Full disclosure: I do know him, and he wrote a foreword for my first book). Because if you know him, you see his footprints all over his words.

Devy has an air of calm melancholy to him. I don't mean this as criticism, because to me this fuels the whole-heartedness of his work. His is the deep sadness of disillusion in love. Devy is passionate and forthright about issues. For various reasons, that has brought him recent serious anger in Gujarat where he lives, but that's just gravy. Devy's passionate sorrow defines the man.

You can read this book as an articulation of that sorrow, so profound has been this country's betrayal of its adivasis.

The title comes from his essay about denotified tribes, once defined as criminal by the colonial Criminal Tribes Act. In 1998, the writer Mahashweta Devi, the activist Laxman Gaikwad and Devy started the Denotified and Nomadic Tribes Rights Action Group (DNT-RAG). It is, I believe, the only initiative from a so-called "civil" society to address the rights of these forgotten people.

But perhaps you think, like so many do, that these are mere thieves? Well, try this about Banjars:
    "The way they organize themselves ... and shine in several newly acquired professions shows that the Banjars have an innate intelligence. … Their grace of manner and their natural wisdom show that theirs is a civilisation as old as any other in India."
How many of us acknowledge the "grace of manner", "natural wisdom" and ancient civilization of less-privileged communities? Yet this spirit is routine with Devy, and nicely complements his scholarship. It suggests: to deal with these communities, you start with a measure of respect. If you don't, you miss chunks of lives and experience.

Across different chapters, Devy reflects on his efforts in Tejgadh. This is where his Bhasha Trust set up an Adivasi Academy, designed for tribal students. ("I have not been good at inventing names," he writes, "so I always choose simple words [like] Adivasi Academy.") Apart from conventional subjects, students there do a "Tribal Studies" course, exploring "how adivasis perceive the world." You wonder: might other Indian universities do well to offer their students such courses too?

In a chapter titled "Development", Devy's reflections on Tejgadh turn into an examination of the nature of development. When he suggests that what we call development is flavoured with greed and exploitation, you might say that amounts to boilerplate rhetoric that many others peddle too. But here, Devy goes further. Linking development to the unfashionable Gandhian idea of self-reliance, he recommends a different mindset:
    "Development means thoughtfulness ... good sense ... to distinguish between good and bad. [It] means an increase in self-confidence, thought and ideas."
Simple ideas? But this book is a call to find space for those simple, yet profound, ideas again.

The book's weak link is a curious chapter called "Reaching Out". On the surface, but also deeper, it has nothing to do with adivasis. It is really an exploration of Devy's philosophy, his thoughts about the meaning of spirituality. But this chapter lacks the anchor in what I believe is Devy's great strength as a writer and thinker: the way he connects with people he writes about, working with them and understanding their fears and hopes. That is what gives his writing its power. I struggle to see how this chapter fits.

Yet it doesn't take away from the passion -- the melancholy passion -- of Devy's writing. Despite the subtitle, this is no silent book. It is serene, yet also a deeply-felt cry from the heart. It is designed to make us reflect on who we are and what's important to us. It does that not by whacking us relentlessly and inducing guilt -- that useless emotion -- but by making its arguments gently, yet firmly.

That's why it succeeds. So despite the sorrow, you're left hoping that 60 years from now, another list of "what we have given the adivasis" might read differently.


Anonymous said...

Hope so !

"His is the deep sadness of disillusion in love." that was so well written , in our kerala there are a few erstwhile comrades who have this same feeling for soviet union :) *different context*

Ravi Ramanuja said...

Interesting post.

This brought to mind an article i read recently about Farmers and them not being able to sell their land. Here's the link -
I thought there are many similaritites