AFTER THREE days of tumultuous welcome in the Narmada Valley’s Nimad plain and the relative comfort of bus travel, novelist Arundhati Roy’s rally in the Valley has trekked and boated to the remote tribal hamlets of Jalsindhi and Domkhedi.
These hilly villages, which will drown this season itself, are perched on either side of the Jalsindhi river in the Vindhyas in Madhya Pradesh, and Domkhedi in the Satpuras in Maharashtra. So far, Arundhati Roy has been the focus of attention. Now another
woman enters the frame.
Medha Patkar, the leader of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, has been camping at the two villages since June 20, leading a satyagraha and vowing to drown along with the villagers when the monsoon waters rise.
Dressed in a simple blue saree with the pallu tucked in at the waist, she looks, even in that pastoral setting surrounded by Bhil and Bhilala tribals, every inch the Mumbai suburban housewife. She embraces Arundhati at the Jalsindhi bank, and says: “After
14 years of struggle, another strength has joined us. Arundhati has brought us upper class support.”
Later, under a starry sky in a rough shed on top of a hill, the rallyists and locals meet. After the various participants have sung or spoken, Ms Roy says a few sentences. Then, Ms Patkar takes over. It’s nearly 11 pm, and many in the audience have nodded
off. But the NBA leader is such a superb communicator that soon everyone is awake and riveted.
She speaks simply and conversationally in the local dialect, and skilfully involves the audience, often she stops midway and gets it to complete her sentence.
A point is emphasised by presenting it as a question, and then naming each person who calls out the reply. Point made, it is quickly converted into a slogan.
Next morning, the two women cross over to Neemgaon and Domkhedi. Ms Patkar hails by name virtually every villager she passes. They worship the tribal deity and Narmada Devi, then take a pledge by the river to protect it. All through the rally’s tour, the
local Press has been haranguing Ms Roy about her equation with Ms Patkar. Some have even reported that the novelist has “hijacked” the movement.
But on the ground, it is clear that Ms Patkar is the leader, chief strategist and mobiliser. Ms Roy is an external sympathiser and a useful means of drawing attention.
Says the novelist: “Each person has to contribute according to his strength. Mine is writing. I’m no activist, and I certainly can’t do what Medha’s doing.” Later in the tour, when yet another journalist raises the question, she snaps: “Listen, Medha’s the
good one, I’m the bad one, and the bad news is we’re friends.”