O, city!

Leaving behind their homes,
Their soil, and bales of straw
Fleeing the roof over their heads, they often ask:
O, city!
Are you ever wrenched by the very roots
In the name of so-called progress?

Till the time Jacinta Kerketta went to a missionary boarding school in Jharkhand's Manoharpur at the age of 13, she was witness to her mother Pushpa Anima Kerketta being beaten up and abused. This was at home in Siwan in undivided Bihar, where her father worked as a policeman.

In her book Angor ("embers" in her language, Sadri), Kerketta, an Adivasi, says: “For a long time, it was my mother's sobs that resounded in the silence of my heart.”

Kerketta gets angry even now when she speaks of watching her mother walk behind her father in public, or having to wait till he finishes his meals before she can eat. It is this anguish that the 32-year old expresses in her poem Bawandar aur Dishaayein, talking of a tribal village being blown away like chaff by “development”, because “someone ought to make a sacrifice” – and this time too it is the turn of the Adivasi village.

The book, a collection of 41 Hindi poems, published in Hindi and English by Adivaani and co-published in German by Draupadi Verlag, was released on May 20. The poems are Kerketta's attempt to express the struggles and hopes of young Adivasis of Jharkhand, within the state and outside in big cities while they look for jobs. Kerketta speaks Santhali, Sadri, Hindi, and understands Ho, Mundari, Khariya, and English.

The poems deal with issues of displacement, violence against women, hunger, apathy of governance.

A Madua Sprout On The Grave

On a little mound of mud in the village
Has emerged a tiny madua sprout.
Not a mere mound it is, but a grave,
In which lies the dead remains
Of Sugna, perished of hunger and starvation.
Having soaked in the life-giving dew
That madua seed cringing in fear hitherto
Has now emerged from hiding.

His children squirm about
Watching seedlings of paddy sprout
On the long unlit earthen stove
In the cow dung smeared courtyard.
And his widow, famished and distraught,
Stares at the blackened bottom of the rice pot
Kept upturned, empty, unfed,
As if by fire of hunger charred.

Sugna's wife and children
Will this time not starve to death.
They will take their own lives instead.
For dying of hunger, they know too well,
Stirs up no storms, does not sell.
A suicide, on the other hand,
Guarantees their corpse will make headlines,
And probes into the whys and wherefores
Will lead them to many more doors
With stoves unlit and ovens gone cold.

Several poems tell the story of Saranda forest, the largest sal (sakua) forest in Asia, holding a quarter of India's iron ore, where Kerketta's Oraon tribal village Khudposh lies. The forest that served as a Maoist “liberated zone” till 2010 is now the site of an intense conflict over its forest and mineral wealth.

Kerketta's poem Laal Nadiyan traces how the forest's sal trees, rivers and earth have turned a toxic, infertile red with mine dust, even as the youth are enticed by crumbs of Corporate Social Responsibility Programmes setting up football leagues and youth clubs (Saazishon Ki Six Lane).

The Six-Lane Freeway Of Deceit

Emerging from the forests of Saranda,
Gathering are people in a certain village.
Women with infants in slings on their backs,
The aged scaling the valley leaning on their staffs,
The young leaping over the hills,
And children counting the sakua trees as they walk.
They gather not for a protest march,
But a football tournament to watch,
Where a goat is to be the winner's trophy.

No sooner is a child
From her mother's milk weaned,
Than he is made a member
Of some youth club in Saranda,
While something else goes on behind the scenes.
A football instead of books is places in every hand
That may someday join in protestors
Against the illicit mining of their land.
To win goats as tournament trophies
Kicked to the curb are books and studies.

Slowly but steadily the child inhales
The addicting opium of football.
Eyes, dazed and deadened by the game,
Fail to see beyond victory and loss
Their strife and struggle for survival.
Agents of mining corporations
Knock on every village door.
And no sooner is uttered a desperate sigh of hunger,
Than disease, unemployment and helplessness,
Are shoved down their throats
Grains, medicines, utensils, and clothes.
And the family carried away
As labourers, for a pittance pay.

In the name of progress, now
There are to be four and six-lane roads.
But those labouring away on concrete and asphalt
Are unaware. They know not
How many more free lanes of deceit
Run through the forests of Saranda.

Kerketta saw glimpses of the fight over land and natural resources up close while growing up. “My uncle and his mother were killed in a land dispute with a powerful non-tribal family of Manoharpur,” she recounted. “I watched in disbelief as the local newspapers reported the killings blaming my family for performing human sacrifice. They never even bothered to even report our version. The entire village remained suspicious of outsiders for years afterwards.”

With her mother's support, Kerketta studied for an undergraduate degree in mass communication in 2009 at St Xavier's College, Ranchi and worked as a reporter for the Hindi national dailies Dainik Jagran and Prabhat Khabar. Taking time off from her newspaper job, supporting herself and her two younger sisters over three years through fellowships, Kerketta traveled extensively in several districts and found herself beginning to understand the processes unfolding in tribal villages.

“In Simdega, I stayed in villages where there are four dams nearby but no irrigation for the village,” she recounted. “Those who lost their land had to pull rickshaws in cities. Even those who had not been displaced from their land can no longer cultivate in fields because the water collects and floods the area. In Sahebganj, villagers can no longer cultivate their land because fly ash from coal-fired plants collects at the edge of their fields. Are tribal villagers goat or sheep that government thinks it can treat them like this?”

Ears Of Paddy Tied Bound By The Dam

Yet again Phulo's heart
Is a sweltering, blazing desert
Burning within on its own hot sands
As she watches the sowing of seeds
After a light drizzle in the fields.

Holding on a few scraps of paper,
Standing helpless on the banks of the dam,
In every rain, Salo's mother
Searches frenziedly for her lost farmlands.

The city dazzles with lights shining bright,
All thanks to the building of the dam,
While she startles at the very sight of her own shadow in the dark night
Cast by a flickering earthen lamp.

Today Soma starves,
For his fields are now massive reservoirs.
The cage of his ribs protrudes through his skin,
The innards shrink and shrivel within.

Now a dam to hold back the welling tears,
Now a dam to contain the seething rage.
These dams shall burst one day for sure,
When the boughs of sakua
From the hilltops in rebellion roar,
Sweeping out powers that destroy and displace.
And once again in the breeze will sway
The ears of paddy in their majesty,
Enclosed by mud mounds, no more by dams.

Kerketta thinks that several Adivasi youth join the Maoist movement because the current model of industrialisation poses a threat to their livelihood and pushes them into economic insecurity. For some, picking up the gun offers a route to money and power. “But in several other instances, tribal youth are jailed on petty offences, or are mistreated by paramilitary forces, and joining the movement becomes an act of self-defence,” she said.

In her poems Hul Ki Hatya and Dombari Ki Awaaz, Kerketta recreates the revolt of 1855 of tribal leaders Sidho Kanho in Bhognadi village of Santhal Pargana through the voice of a tree that bore witness to the uprising. She says that new forms of resistance will emerge when affected village communities are able to better organise themselves. "Right now, several young people who have got educated are not interested in public issues, and the poorest are pressed for survival."

Closed Door

Through the cracks
In the closed doors
She peeks every day,
As her dreams
Slip through the gaps
And sprawled in the courtyard lay.

And through these very cracks
Light finds its way inside
An in her quiet room idly lies.

Through the door left slightly ajar
By the night's soft breeze,
She often sees
The darkness growing within,
The darkness unflooding without.

At dawn when the sun
Comes knocking at the door,
The darkness suffocating inside
To escape through the holes writhes,
And through those chasms she sees
A piece of the open sky
And the rays of the sun spread out to dry
In the courtyard
Like a bundle of paddy golden ripe.

Planks nailed and hammered together
That once formed the door
Now lay fallen on the floor,
Flat on their faces, brought down by her in a single blow

And she wonders –
Which of them was weaker,
The closed door, or her volition?

The poems have been translated into English by Bhumika Chawla D'Souza, Vijay K Chhabra, and Father Cyprian Ekka.