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Friday, August 6, 1999

When the valley waited for the river child

NEW DELHI, AUG 5: It was the river-rafting novelist as a rainy revolution's pin-up girl. It was Arundhati Roy, the famous waif from the banks of the Meenachal, as the flower child of the Narmada. It was fiction garlanded by choreographed reality.

It was the Rally for the Valley.

For seven nights and six days, city-slick radicalism sang Hum sub ek hai with cowdung-smelling andolan, backpack brotherhood tangoed with bucolic solidarity, and the Narmada didn't give a dam to the bachao-barking invasion. As the well-meaning Martians landed in the Valley, the novelist alone stood apart, so conspicuous in her casual, curly smallness.

As more than 200 aliens from distant planets romanced through places like Pathrad, Maheshwar, Chotta Barda, Kasrawad, Nisarpur, Kakrana, Jalsindhi and Domkhedi, all zones of submergence, singing, dancing, sloganeering `Free the Narmada, Stop the Dams', curiosity number one was of course ``the anthardeshiya lekhika Madam Roy''. But condoms, crocodiles and Shivlingams providedunsolicited adjectives to the river yatra. Things so distant from the ``anger and sorrow'' of Roy.

When body fluid achieved metaphoric harmony with river water in Maheshwar, did Shiva, the presiding deity of the temple in the ghat, laugh? Used condoms, illuminated by a hundred diyas in the Narmada, in the shadow of Maheshwar's revered Shivlingam? The remarkable loudspeakers of NBA (Narmada Bachao Andolan) gave the answer in the language of a less-than-erotic revolution.

It all started with a middle paragraph in a local broadsheet. The Maheshwar SDM reportedly told the correspondent that used condoms were found on the jail floor occupied by arrested NBA activists, men and women. It happened more than a year ago. In the rally night of July 31, this exclusive revelation looked like a sleazy footnote to the salvation theology of the NBA. The sudden appearance of the district collector could only turn the erotic into the bureaucratic. And nobody bothered about the molested sacredness of the ghat.

``Deny it,deny right now'', demanded the Narmada revolutionaries.

``Let me explain'', said the collector, who incidentally represents a Government which is rather indulgent towards the andolan.

``Explanation? The condoms were there because of you and the SP. There are women police in the jail'', fumed a She Revolutionary from the NBA.

``How can a woman speak like this!''

At the end of it all, the collector, Bhoopal Singh (``It is a Sanskrit name'', he explained to this correspondent as a way of establishing his sacred credibility), didn't end up in the Narmada. He survived the fury, disentangled himself from the revolutionary, sat there sweating with the cops. And offered a chair to The Indian Express.

``You know, I can deal with all of them if it is one-to-one''.

``You're used to it?''

``Oh yes. In private we talk business.''

Later, in private, NBA activist Silvie revealed: It was an S Kumars (the private builder of Maheshwar dam) plant, this condom business. (But Singh thinks there may be an officialvideotape to prove it all.) Also in private, Ashish Kothari, an exceptionally quiet redeemer amidst the NBA loudspeakers, said: ``It was in bad taste. They forgot civilised behaviour''. In the din and darkness, nobody heard or saw the response of the Shivalingam. And the diyas have already travelled quite a distance in the river, as if they were running away from the pornography of the andolan.

Their destination must have been Kasrawad, the home of Baba Amte, the river father. He was waiting for the river child. She, in jeans and shirt, her fluorescent purple scarf like a beautifully convoluted sentence on a thin, spartan page, came to the Baba, sat at his feet and listened to the media-friendly Baba speak. ``Saraswati has come to the Narmada'', the Baba told a crowd fed on bananas and tea. ``She will stir the conscience of the people'', he said. Lying photogenically under a banyan tree, the Baba paused after every sentence, savouring the response from the cameras and the rallyists. ``My daughter has raisedthe conscience of the world'' ``Thank you Baba'', the daughter said, holding his hands. Even satellite dishes and cows of the ashram must have found the riverbank intimacy quite liberating.

Actually, liberation's last resort was an intimate remoteness called Jalsindhi, protected by mountains and caressed by the river. The end of the world, the nerve centre of the andolan, the passion of the andolan's highest diva, Medha Patkar. She jumped out of the boat, and melted in the cause. Roy came trekking, ignoring the boat and favouring the mountains. ``It was great yaar, the walking''. Jalsindhi was greater, in its beauty, in its defiance. The andolan's last romance. For the tribals, the romance of that day was Roy, a magnificent curiosity in a Medha-affected world. Even the solitary crocodile was curious.

Only the armed men from the Special Armed Forces deferred. ``The guns are for protecting her from possible crocodile attacks'', they said as the boat went upstream from Jalsindhi. But there was no one toprotect her when the woman MLA stormed into her compartment at Ujjain. The train was taking the tired rallyists back home.

``What happened?''

``A bearded woman who looked like a man came and abused me''.

It was the local member of the Legislative Assembly.

Garlanded fiction was not used to it. For MLAs don't read The God of Small Things. On that Wednesday night, the crocodile was not there to weep. The Narmada was elsewhere.

``Where is it at this moment?''

``I still can't comprehend it. In the next two days I may end up in a lunatic asylum''. The rally was such an emotional upsurge for her. It was too much beauty.

In the night train, the rally was not lyrical, not fictional, it was not poetry. It was as prosaic as the NBA's damspeak. For the novelist alone, it was a word in a beautiful sentence. Suitable for any T-shirt.

Copyright © 1999 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.


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