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Sunday, August 8, 1999

Meet Silvie, the NBA's passionate vocal cord

S PRASANNARAJAN  
NEW DELHI, Aug 7: The river has stolen her voice. The river has made her salwar kameez a declaration of noble dirt. It has untied her hair, flowing and whistling in the wind of liberation. She is the wandering minstrel of the Narmada, singing the beastly tales of river-haters.

She is Chittaroopa, Silvie for the Narmada Valley. A river-bank revolutionary. For the Arundhati Roy-led rallyists in the Valley, Silvie, her vocal cord mauled by passion, was the self-chosen humanising voice of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA).

When the bearded, media-savvy andolonists reduce the so-called demonic dam to a chronicle of years, numbers, names, committees, reviews, courts, revisions and heights, Silvie makes it a human interest story.

When the beedi-chewing andolonist loses himself in a labyrinthine text of arcane damology, Silvie, with a comb in her hand, lies down pleasantly tired in a tribal cot, talking shop with the men and women who according to the NBA will be submerged in the nearest future.

When a25-seater boat threatens to become a submarine in the Narmada, when the rallyist grabs the last lifejacket and talks safety, Silvie, ignoring the alarm, invites the awe-struck tribals to the boat. She is the human touch in the NBA's world of statistics and water-levels.

Her idea of refreshment is a press conference in a railway refreshment room. When the valley-tired rally returned to Indore on August 4, Silvie invaded the refreshment room and talked dam-nation to the press. This correspondent was forced to take notes on a local paper's front page blackened by the rail tragedy. That day for Silvie the accident didn't matter. She was flooded with other forms of mortality.

``Will you define yourself, Silvie?''

``It is the journey of a middle-class Bengali girl.''

She was an economics graduate from IP College in Delhi. The river called her. She didn't hesitate. ``It was emotional, it was romantic, it was intellectual.''

``What is Arundhati Roy doing here? I overheard someone saying it is like AishwaryaRai going to Kargil.''

``No. no. Maybe it's like Nana Patekar going to Kargil.''

``Really?''

``Also, it's the continuation of a progressive tradition. The writer on the street.''

``Have you read her?''

``The God of Small Things was the best book I read after How to Kill a Mocking Bird.''

The early evening lunch was delicious. So was the conversation, Silvie acknowledged. It took place in Chotta Barda last Sunday.

The day she wore clean clothes, the day the rally was returning to Delhi, Silvie was reading a back-of-the-book piece on gay pubs in London in a Delhi magazine, in a moving train, between press conferences. The world beyond the Narmada for a middle-class Bengali girl. That night, this correspondent should have read a particular poem from Vikram Seth's The Beastly Tales, Silvie recommended it.

Was Silvie making the tale autobiographical? The real author of the beastly tales of the valley is NBA, engineer of the Narmada soul, mobiliser of the tribal mind, spokesman of land and water.``NBA's greatest contribution is information,'' said Sanjay Kak, who was shooting the valley as part of a documentary on the state and people. ``They changed the vocabulary of the valley''. New words of the Narmada valley: cost of production, S. Kumars, World Bank, Supreme Court, Arundhati Roy ...

The tribals of the valley are unlikely to read George Orwell, NBA is safe. They are condemned to unread the newspaper cuttings hanging from the walls of Satya Grah (The House of Truth), the hut that is the headquarters of the andolan in Jalsindhi, the ``lowest'' land on the Narmada, overlooked by Vindhyas and Devan Moothi (the grain basket of the gods). The house that may commit Jalsindhi along with Medha Patkar.

``Are you ready for martyrdom, Madam?''

Patkar was walking uphill, led by a lantern, towards the meeting ground. The answer was ironic. One of her toes struck a stone. She bent down. There was no blood. It was not an auspicious night to talk martyrdom with the bare-footed, suicide-ready Patkar.

Itwas all too fictional, too Royistic. An abandoned page from the valley-struck novelist. If ever the water-level touches the danger mark, Silvie may go back to her beastly tales, Medha may or may not go down under, the rallyist may sell more T-shirts and ...

And the novelist will be there to write The End of the Valley.

Copyright © 1999 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.


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