Notes from the Hinterland belongs to the Olio series of Aleph Books. It a miscellany of fictional and non-fictional texts, including short stories, extracts, reportage and opinion pieces. The collection aims at projecting the multiple hues of life in small towns and villages. Narrated from a humanistic point of view, the selections hold pointers towards development of societies in states of transformation and/or present the problematic of societies in transition. Rusticity, urbane values and value systems are at the root of some of the selections. While issues and questions regarding religion, caste, superstition, profession, and most recently, the politics of hate, rule from the forefront, change through every passing day—for better or worse—emerges as the most sustaining order in a multicultural country. Some of the essays, by virtue of their subject and the opinions they project, hold pointers at the shape of the future, of a people and of a country. They pose pertinent questions regarding binaries such as peace and anarchy, religion, class and caste bigotry versus a society based on ordinary, humanistic principles.
The twin foci in Mamang Dai’s quote from ‘Small Towns and the River’, at the beginning of the text are death and the lethargy that dominate small towns—these two ideas are seen at play throughout the text—as subject of the essays and also by means of the inner, black flaps inside the book and the black pages with which each selection begins.
Notes… opens with a sensitive extract from Shashi Tharoor’s India: From Midnight to the Millennium and Beyond (1997). Centring the grip of caste and community in southern India, a grip that holds the rest of the country also, it narrates about positions of power and entitlement, taken for granted, and their toppling, in the wake of governmental policies promising reservation and equality of educational and employment opportunity, and favouring lapse of land to the farmer. The extract foregrounds the smugness of feudal societies and their resistance to change, as against an untouchable’s rise to position of power. As urbane values contrast with moribund stereotypes, the urban-rural divide is humorously and perceptively depicted and education emerges as the greatest leveller—in fact, the game-changer.
Ruskin Bond’s ‘Night Train at Deoli’, is one of his well-known stories about a young man falling in love with a girl selling baskets on the platform at Deoli. The story explores the idea of first love, of love at first sight, of being in love, and of trying to move on, of lingering memories that prevent the protagonist from letting go, despite an absence of pro-active intent to seek out the object of love. RK Narayan’s ‘An Astrologer’s Day’ strikes a sinister chord when his phony astrologer, at the brink of being exposed, narrates the past of a man he had tried to murder, to the man himself—and gets away with his bluff. DBG Tilak’s ‘The Man Who Saw God’ depicts life in a South Indian village. It features the elopement of a young married woman and her acceptance later, by her betrayed husband, despite her pregnancy, as an act of supreme humanity and forgiveness—except the rest of the village cannot perceive the rationale behind this. The extract from Shrilal Shukla’s Raag Darbari depicts a people on the move—an emblematic village scenario where horizontal travel must be undertaken to ensure upward mobility. A most poignant depiction of child labour is to be found in Madhuri Vijay’s ‘Lorry Raja’. Vijay balances the precociousness of the young children in the iron mines at Bellary, with the abuse to which they are subjected by their employers and among their own. P Sainath’s narrative centring the octogenarian freedom fighter, Ganpati Yadav, and the realpolitik during India’s struggle for freedom provides a historical-political dimension to the landscape of small-town and rural India.
Two selections centre communal violence and/or anti-Muslim sentiment. Rahi Masoom Raza’s opening chapter ‘The Dozing Town’ from A Village Divided (2003, Adha Gaon) sets the scene for the violence that gains centrality in Abhimanyu Kumar’s reportage and Snigdha Poonam’s essay dealing with the appalling murders of Muslims, young and old, mostly on the mere suspicion of cow slaughter. Ostensibly, Raza’s extract is a narrative illustrating essentially, a village, and epitomizing historically, culturally and ethnically, the layered, rural, Indo-Muslim cultural legacy of the country. However, while on the one hand, it sets the tone for the laid-back lethargy that forms a central feature of several selections in Notes… on the other, it provides the undercurrents that threaten Hindu-Muslim divides that led to the Partition of India. That religion continues to be politicized is more than amply illustrated in Kumar and Poonam. Both pieces highlight that a certain kind of nationalist sentiment or a particular kind of vigilantism have grown rabidly since the coming into power of the Bhartiya Janta Party in 2014 and more particularly since its coming to power in Uttar Pradesh in 2017. While Abhimanyu Kumar’s ‘The Lynching that Changed India’, records facts surrounding the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq, Pehlu Khan and Junaid Khan, several issues probing the rationale behind unprovoked violence may be read between the otherwise factual narratives. Snigdha Poonam’s essay ‘The Man Who Lived’ (Granta 2018) highlights the grievous mischief caused by means of rumour circulating on social media sites, particularly, WhatsApp and Facebook, in spreading hatred and perpetrating violence against the minority community, and designating it as the ‘other’, the enemy. Citing the rumour of the ‘death’ of Rahul Upadhyay in the riot in Kasganj, January 2018, of the lynchings in Jharkhand and in Bihar, on account of similar mischief by mischief-mongers, Kumar recommends responsible usage.
In a country where religion and caste politics have always reigned from the helm, these pieces indicate how they are now threatening to irretrievably erode all notions of syncretic coexistence. Religious politicization and vigilantism emerge as the most significant factors evoking or threatening to evoke, most brutal, animalistic responses in the hinterlands of contemporary India and spreading fear and posing a menace to democracy.
A foreword or an introduction preceding the collection could have generated more interest in the text, which depicts twentieth century, and contemporary India over the years of its development and/or deterioration.
Fatima Rizvi is Associate Professor, Department of English, Lucknow University.