Journalist and author Siddhartha Sarma’s fifth novel Year of the Weeds is set in a village named Deogan in the Balangir area of western Odisha. Inhabited by Gond Adivasis, the area is home to the Devi Hills. The government, prompted by a corporate house that wishes to mine bauxite in the Devi Hills, tries to displace the Gonds, for whom the hills are sacred.
The plot of the novel is reminiscent of the Niyamgiri movement of the Dongria Kondh Adivasis in Odisha who fought mining company Vedanta’s attempts to exploit their land and emerged victorious. It is the story of a people’s movement and has a terrific punch, but what stands out the most in the novel is how Sarma spells everything out so explicitly – how the nexus between the corporate houses and government works and how an already disadvantaged group is made more vulnerable by the actions of the police, the judiciary and the educated and salaried middle class.
Although published as a Young Adult (YA) title, this is a book that everyone should read. Seen through the eye of a young Gond boy named Korok, Year of the Weeds is insightful, eye-opening, and very important and timely.
Sarma, a journalist based in New Delhi is the author of an earlier YA novel, The Grasshopper’s Run, for which he won the 2011 Sahitya Akademi Bal Puraskar and the 2010 Crossword Award for Best Children’s Book. He has written two more books for children – 103 Journeys, Voyages, Trips and Stuff and 103 Historical Mysteries, Puzzles, Conundrums and Stuff – and a non-fiction book for adult readers, East of the Sun: A Nearly-Stoned Walk Down the Road in a Different Land. In this interview, Sarma spoke about his newest novel and why he wrote it.
The manner in which Year of the Weeds explores the working of corporate houses, the judiciary, the condition of jails, and most importantly, the life of Gond Adivasis and the day-to-day life in Balangir, makes it seem like it could only be written by a journalist or an activist. Which of these are you? Where do you your earlier novels fit in?
I used to be a reporter and have covered insurgency (mainly in the North East), crime, law and very briefly, external affairs. I am an editor now, but my reading of current events is still, and perhaps will always be, from a reporter’s perspective. I studied economics for my graduation and have a pre-doctorate in military history.
My previous novel, The Grasshopper’s Run, was set in 1944 during the Second World War in East Assam, in what is Nagaland today, and Myanmar. I have written two non-fiction books: 103 Journeys, Voyages, Trips and Stuff, which is about the great travellers of the world (including plants and animals) and 103 Historical Mysteries, Puzzles, Conundrums and Stuff. My fourth book was a travelogue, East of the Sun, about the Northeast.
What inspired you to write this story? Give us a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of Year of the Weeds.
I follow people’s movements and issues related to land rights, communal and caste conflict, ecological exploitation, conservation movements and corporate activity in vulnerable areas. I have been following the Niyamgiri agitation in Odisha practically since it first began in the early 2000s. These issues gestate or pass through multiple phases. The May 2018 shooting of protesters against the Sterlite plant at Thoothukudi was not part of a new agitation: it had been going on since 1994. Mostly, it has been an exhausting experience reading about the fate of these movements; following relentless campaigns by really powerful forces which are designed to win.
And then Niyamgiri happened, and the gram sabhas got the opportunity to vote against the bauxite mine. It was an unexpected victory, and although I knew it was provisional, it was still a victory, and I wanted to hold on to it. Sometime afterwards, the Right began its election campaign for the 2014 General Elections. I was familiar with the personality and policies of the leaders of that campaign, so I knew what was going to happen in the country. I was thinking of a story to tell about the country’s systems and processes, because these stories have become even more important than earlier. My wife said: “Why not Niyamgiri? You were happy about what happened.” So I started on it. In the process – the story took a long time to finish – I included other aspects of India I wanted to talk about.
Was there a reason to make the novel so detailed? Why is an exact, true-to-life description of a jail in small town India (down to the mention of beedis) given? Why do we read about the tin shed outside a court where lawyers sit with their typewriters?
This is a story of corporate greed, but it is also a story of how the state structure has failed the people. Not just failed, but has preyed on the people. To explain this, I needed to not only talk about the human faces of this failure – Superintendent of Police Sorkari Patnaik and Collector Behera among others – but also about the apparatus. Giving these details was necessary for explaining the fundamental workings of the apparatus. The typewriters under the tin shed convert the words of the people into legal jargon, and the system swallows it up whole. Collector Behera’s air-conditioner defends him from the heat which grinds down people like Korok and his villagers. The jail is an eco-system with its unique rules and systems for chewing up undertrials and keeping them inside those massive walls while the apparatus marches on. The key is in the details. It is a system so massive that an individual standing next to the beast would not miss the pores of the skin, the curve of the fangs, the bristles on the head. Therefore the details.
Had Korok been an adult or even our child guide to the story – like Lenny in Bapsi Sidhwa’s Ice-Candy-Man, or Rahel and Estha in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things – Year of the Weeds could have been a novel for adult readers. Why did you write it as a YA novel?
I hope alleged adults read it and respond to it. Yes, Korok and Anchita could have been protagonists in a novel for adults as well. I wrote this as a YA novel because I still have hopes from young people. Our generation has failed, mostly, and has bought into the propaganda, the bigotry, the greed and the depredations of corporate groups and the government. By writing it as a YA novel, I was hoping young people would have access to this story, which I was not certain they would have if I had written it for an adult readership. Adults are good at hiding these issues from young people.
Having said that, these labels are provisional, so I hope everyone reads it and has a take on what I have written.
But there was another reason. I wrote this story for Sayoni Basu and Anushka Ravishankar at Duckbill, who are simply among the most wonderful people I have known – excellent and inspiring writers and marvellous publishers, but also the kind of humans who make you want to be better than what you know you are. So I wrote it for them.
The contents of Year of the Weeds might not come as a surprise to children in mofussil India, who could be familiar with how police and courts work while children in big Indian cities might find the contents of Year of the Weeds shocking. Do you find it ironic that your novel caters primarily to the English-reading, English-speaking, city-dwelling young adult who is a beneficiary of the corporate system that this novel intends to unmask? Do you expect them to fully appreciate your book?
Yes, it is ironic, and I hope the book will spark discussions among some of the young readers in urban India. We have gone on for far too long with pretending there are two Indias, of which only one is legitimate and the other invisible. Even if there are two Indias, they shouldn’t be. So children in urban India should know, read about and engage with these issues. If they are shocked with what they find, I hope they will also ask themselves why they are shocked, and why these issues are unfamiliar to them, and what needs to be done. If that means they go to their teachers and parents and tell them: “You have not been talking about these things with us, but we are smarter, kinder and better than that, so let us start talking,” I will be content.
The Grasshopper’s Run was set in an Ao Naga village, while Year of the Weeds is set in a Gond village. Are you particularly fascinated by the lives of the indigenous people or is it just a coincidence?
The historical periods and contexts of the two stories are different, but yes, it is significant that in both cases and in others, the most vulnerable societies, in any conflict in the subcontinent, are tribes. This is not a coincidence, and understanding why this is so will help us understand some of the problems with the structures we have today. There is very little space for the individuality of indigenous tribal societies in today’s world. Tectonic forces are at work, and, like the Gonds of Deogan (the place in Balangir area of Odisha where Year of the Weeds is set), these communities are extremely vulnerable.
The other issue is how arriving at a common tribal movement, or platform, is difficult. The general problems – state apathy, ineptitude and persecution, or corporate machinations – are common, but specific problems are very local or regional. The interplay between tribal societies and more privileged classes is different in various parts of the country. This could be one of the reasons why the Dalit movement has charted a different course. There was an Ambedkar for the Dalits. I am not sure there has been an equivalent for Adivasis, because these local issues do not translate well across geographies.
Who is your favourite character from Year of the Weeds and why?
I find all of them interesting, and would like to know more about them. There are questions I have to ask them. How did the Stringer take the photo? How did Bishto and his bus disappear when the politicians came? They are all interesting. But the two most significant characters in the novel are: first, bauxite, that sacred creature for which so much evil is done. And second: the state, which endures, which acts without remorse, and which, as Korok knows, will return.
What are you writing right now? Are you working on your sixth book?
I am writing a series of blog posts and articles about the novel, its characters and themes at present. I hope to talk more about them in future. Deogan is a peaceful place, and Korok has a beautiful garden. I think I will stay here for a while.
This is an edited version of an interview that earlier appeared on the Duckbill blog.