The camaraderie of those years was something special and a memory to cherish. There were few material possessions in the early years, and these too were freely shared among the activists who gathered. In 1980–81, the workers had just managed to lift their heads out of abject poverty and gain a minimum level of comfort.
Many of them used their time and gains to build and improve the homes they lived in, to landscape the hillside, start kitchen gardens, dig wells and plant fruit trees. The random landscaping, land filling and changes in natural slope and drainage led to serious monsoon floods in 1986, but in 1981–82, everyone was happy to settle well.
None of the activists who came to work in and around the union were paid; however, food was available for all at Chowkidarji’s kitchen at the union office. In theory, the idea of full-timers depending on community resources to sustain themselves sounded fantastic – the stuff of romance and dreams. The reality was somewhat different.
The monotony and drabness of the fare at the common kitchen were compensated by the generous invitations to workers’ homes for evening meals, and on an average, we were invited out around three times a week. Many of the workers who lived in the camp area made it a point to invite us for all important social events in their families, or simply when there was a special evening meal cooked. In the process, we got to know many families fairly well, and our lives were enriched by the love and companionship the workers provided.
In almost all the families, the husband and the wife both worked in the mines, and in some, two generations worked together. Through the official union channels and through personal interaction, interesting bits of family stories and jokes were shared with us. Our friend Barsait worked in JKMS society, and lived in the Bilaspuria dafai, closest to the worksite of his agency. His first wife had been the daughter of Jamunabai, a woman mukhiya of the union.
After the wife’s death in childbirth, Barsait married a second time. Jamunabai, in mourning for her only child, hated him for this, and he always faded into the shadows whenever he saw Jamunabai. Barsait doubled as a health worker in the hospital in the evenings, and generally slept late and often arrived at the mines at the last minute before the hajri (attendance) was taken. His father always made it a point to remark loudly on such occasions, “O dekh hamar ghar ke kamaiya avat he.” (Look, the earning member of our family is coming!)
Over the years, various people passed through Dalli, but our flat in the BSP township and the house that was built for the doctors next to the Shaheed Hospital remained centres of our shared life. Niyogi, other mukhiyas, health worker friends, and many workers routinely dropped in, and there are many memories of shared meals, of music and laughter.
Suresh Babu, a clerk at one of Dalli’s worker cooperative societies, farmed four acres of land at the edge of the township. Our first experiments with organic farming was there, accompanied by a delicious lunch on many afternoons. Later, when we became collectively aware of the work of Dr RH Richharia from Vandana Shiva’s article on him in the Illustrated Weekly of India, the idea to increase rice production through the judicious selection of native seeds, it seemed a much more wholesome option rather than try to increase production using inorganic fertilisers and pesticides.
We learnt that the Indian agricultural research establishment around the time of the major food crisis of the sixties had been deeply divided on the ideological options to tackle the crisis. Dr Richharia favoured selection of indigenous germ plasm, which he had researched for many years, and the other group of scientists, who won the tussle, favoured adoption of imported high-yielding variety seeds, which in the case of the rice crop were developed with funds from seed and pesticide corporations at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines.
After Dr Richharia’s research was discredited, his research station at the agricultural university at Raipur was shut down, but his seed collection from the farmers of Chhattisgarh continued to be kept there. The doctor resigned from his job and retreated to his farm in Bhopal, where he continued his work quietly on his own fields.
I went to Bhopal to talk to Dr Richharia and convince him to train the small farmers of the area around Dalli to work with the selection of indigenous seeds. He came eventually, but by then, I was no longer at Dalli-Rajhara, although I got a chance to interact with him and take his ideas forward after moving to Raipur. Suresh Babu was the first to offer his land for the conservation of Chhattisgarh’s indigenous rice varieties. Dr Richharia’s death later was mourned by the entire lal–hara community.
Our daughter Pranhita came into our life while we were at Dalli. She was born in Pune, and when we returned with our six-week-old baby girl, the workers welcomed her with great affection. Both Binayak and I had bicycles and used to travel up and down to the union office and hospital, strapping her to ourselves with a harness. The little girl on her parents’ cycle became famous quickly, and to this day, when we visit Dalli, people stop to ask about her.
Pranhita’s arrival was celebrated by Niyogi, the union leaders and activists with a big fish party at our home. Aso arrived one afternoon with her children with a large 5 kg fish, took over my kitchen, and prepared the meal for guests who arrived some five hours later. Pranhita’s early years were spent in this milieu in which she called many of us “Ma” (mother). I was addressed as Ilanama, Aso as Asoma, and our dear friend Shivvati Sahu, who generously cared for the little girl in her home whenever we were busy, as Sheshuma, after Shivvati’s youngest daughter, Shesh.
One remarkable person who crossed our path was Halal Khor, the Arrejhar dokra (old man from Arrejhar). We first met him on an unusual lazy afternoon, when Niyogi suddenly invited us to go on a drive into the countryside. The environs of Dalli were heavily forested then, and as we traversed through the forest roads, Niyogi instructed the driver to turn for Arrejhar.
The old man we visited lived at the edge of the settlement, and sat on a charpoy in the courtyard as we drove up. He held each one’s hands and greeted us, turned to me and said “Mera umar 150 saal” (My age is 150 years), before inviting us to sit. Niyogi was obviously an old friend, and as we chatted, between Niyogi and the dokra, bits of his life story were tossed our way.
He was born in this village, went to Assam when he was seven with a band of tea garden workers, crossed the “sea” (perhaps he meant the river network of present-day Bangladesh) en route to Assam, lived in several “gardens”, until suddenly, when he was 100, he wanted to return home to Arrejhar.
He spoke fluent Assamese and Bangla, in addition to Chhattisgarhi, and demonstrated his command over these languages. When he returned from Assam, he travelled partly by train, and walked home from Durg station over several days, unaware that the railway now reached Dalli-Rajhara.
Once at the village he found he had no immediate family any more. He then built a little house with money and skills he had brought back from Assam, stayed on, made friends, and claimed to have been living in the village for close to half a century.
When Shaheed Hospital was built, Arrejhar dokra was invited to inaugurate the new building. He made a dignified speech about the need for the hospital, given the rampant health problems and ailments people suffered from in the area, and in the months afterwards, often came in to supervise the activities of “his” hospital. When he was finally too old and decrepit to walk from village to hospital, he sent messages of inquiry, and sometimes commanded the doctors and senior health workers to visit him and keep him informed.
Conversations with him were always interesting. His stories ranged from travellers’ tales to accounts of his life in the tea gardens of Assam, and discussions on mythology, magic and spells. Arrejhar dokra is gone today, and I know there will never be anyone else like him. More than any other person, he gave me a glimpse into the world of the unwritten history of the people of Chhattisgarh.
In later years, when I was researching the history of out-migration from Chhattisgarh, I met many other much-travelled people including Sadhinbai, an unlettered midwife from one of the villages near Tilda, who grew up in the Assam tea gardens with her plantation labourer parents, and who once travelled on a ship to China together with her father, carrying tea chests for export.
These encounters exposed me to the cosmopolitan culture of Chhattisgarh’s working class, in which migration played a major role. Out-migration following droughts, famines and food shortages was part of the landscape in Chattisgarh since at least the 1890s. I later wrote a book, Sukhvasin, on this issue.
Excerpted with permission from Inside Chhattisgarh: A Political Memoir, Ilina Sen, Penguin Books.