Do You See?
PIONEER, a newspaper from Delhi, has the latest word on my novel FOOTPRINTS IN THE BAJRA.
Footprints in the Bajra
Author: Nabina Das
Publisher: Pustak Mahal
Price: Rs 175
Shwetank Dubey says Nabina Das ably recreates the milieu of Maoist-infested regions of India
Reform is always good, especially when it concerns someone who has been misled, used, lied to and then forsaken by those who she thinks are her well-wishers. The only thing that such a person can do is give back what she got, albeit with much more intensity. Everyone has to wake up some day or the other and smell the coffee, and that is what Muskaan, the protagonist in Nabina Das’ novel Footprints in the Bajra, did. After feeling betrayed by her mentor, she finally took refuge in the advice given by her student-activist friend from New Delhi and decided to chart her own life, for once.
For anyone who comes from the rural areas of Bihar, Chhattisgarh and parts of West Bengal, Maoism is nothing new. It has been there as a part and parcel of their lives since decades. Illiteracy being a common curse in such regions, it plays a very important part in helping Maoist rebels build an army to fight against the administration and the Government. The simple villagers are made to believe that they are better off fighting the Government than supporting it. And that is what the main villain in the novel, the village teacher, Suryakant Sahay aka Comrade Suraj, cashes on. With the help of his second in command, Nirav Saxena alias Comrade Avadhut, they perform the most unsaintly acts of attacking and killing the Chaudharys of Chabutara, the upper class village, as well as devising strategies against the Government.
Since time immemorial, landlords have been touted to be major oppressors so much so that the divide created by the upper castes has led to even a greater help to the Maoists. As Nabina Das puts it in her novel, with the help of the Internally Displaced People (IDP), Maoists built a strong army. Such IDPs were made to fight for the “cause” and inducted in the Red Army. After a lot of investigative journalism, as well as the changed stance of the Government, it has now become common knowledge about how uneducated people in rural areas, especially those living in places where the Government and administration takes a lot of time to reach, have been cheated by the Maoist brigade since decades, in the promise of a better life and “revenge” from their erstwhile oppressors. Added to this is the fact that farming also underwent a drastic change wherein grain crops were replaced by poppy fields. This turned into a major funding device for the Maoists. All this has been quite prominently woven into the story by Nabina Das.
Everything undergoes change, and so does Muskaan’s life. The various upheavals in her life, right from being a child soldier, being held captive by the Chaudharys, being kept in a safe house, to joining the non-Government organisation Shaktishalini and pursuing higher studies and, finally, of closing the entire chapter by being an “emancipator” of the masses, are few things to be reckoned with.
Being betrayed is a very heart-breaking feeling and Muskaan faces this throughout her life, till she decides to hold the reins herself. Her first lover, Palash, decides to break up with her after she is abducted by the Chaudharys after an attack by the so-called Hunting Brigade formed by the upper castes with the help of the administration to quell the Maoist menace, the details of which are revealed much later in an emotional outburst to Nora.
Nirav and Sahay use her for their own interests in furthering their cause. After their group is disbanded, they find it in their best interests to tie-up with the Maoist brigade from across the border in Nepal. They realise the Red Brigade in India is mismanaged and there is no common thinking or a leader. Moreover, for their cause to survive, they decide that the best option is to adopt the stance taken by the Nepal Maoists — take to politics. Muskaan plays a very important role in this (as a pawn for Sahay and Nirav) after she joins Shaktishalini. The NGO is hacked by Nirav for his tie-up with the Nepal Maoists, while Rehana (who runs the NGO) thinks that she has found the perfect mentor for her cause of upliftment of women.
Nabina Das has chosen the first person account of narrating a story from the main characters of the novel, Nora the sheherwali (urban dweller), Muskaan the rebel, Suryakant Sahay the crafty clandestine planner and Avadhut the frontrunner of all the operations. While the narratives are quite detailed when read from the perspective of it being a scholarly article (footprints of good education and reading prowess among the main protagonists are inadvertently displayed), there are various other details that could have been made clearer. The motive of people like the headmaster and the businessman for joining such a cause is a bit muddled.
However, the book deals with something that no urban resident is bound to know on his own — the life and times of people living in Maoist infested areas and why do they give in to the temptation provided by the Red Brigade.