The time: 10 pm. The place: Nisarpur (a village of 10,000 by the Narmada in Madhya Pradesh). The mood: euphoric.
The streets are decorated. Almost every man, woman and child is out; the rest are leaning precariously out of their windows. Drums are beating, flutes are trilling, young men are dancing. They have been waiting since 4 pm.
At last, the convoy emerges out of the rural night: Six buses and some Sumos. Novelist Arundhati Roy’s Rally in the Valley has arrived to express support to the people resisting the proposed dams across the Narmada. Nisarpur is due to be submerged.
The crowd goes delirious. Festively dressed girls rush forward to apply tilaks. Flower petals rain. Pablo Routledge of Glasgow emerges from Bus No. 1 with his clarinet and joins the drummers. Slogans rent the air. And the women go wild when they spot
The rallyists and locals spontaneously form a procession that dances and drums its way around and through the village. It is stirring and infectious. It takes a full hour to reach the market square. The rallyists range from Mumbai socialites to Rajasthani
labourers, Delhi students to Kerala activists, French environmentalists to American scholars. They sing, recite poems and make speeches. The locals respond. It continues well into the night.
The media veterans present agree that the village’s enthusiasm contains a message. Not that this is a political rally. For that matter, Nisarpur and indeed the entire Narmada belt is of no consequence politically.
“But the nation must take note. This is a time bomb,” says Cmdr (Retd) S.D. Sinha, a rallyist from Delhi. In Pathrad village, thousands of villagers, half of them women, sit through a daylong programme, not moving even when it pours for an hour. This
village has spent four days readying for the event, and individuals invite groups of rallyists home for lunch.
Anjad too gives a tumultous welcome, with shops left deserted as the villagefolk rush to greet and hear the rallyists.
The novelist is clearly the star of the show. Every villager has heard her name, and crowds wait to see her. As the buses rush past roadside hamlets, people cheer, wave and throw petals.
At some places, Ms Roy is forced to alight and receive gifts and garlands. A political campaigner would be envious.
Ms Roy is not spared even on the train back to Delhi. At Ujjain station, local functionaries barge into her compartment with bouqets, gifts and refreshments. At a smaller station, a group enters looking for “Madam Roy”. Unable to find her, they leave a
gift in the custody of co-passengers.
Asked to explain her popularity, she says: “The people, seeing a famous writer unequivocally and fearlessly on their side, know their whisper of protest is being heard.”
(To be continued)