State and the snake

September 8th, 2010

It had been, admittedly in a rather off-handed fashion, pitched at the weekend meeting that is slowly beginning to define my journalistic week. But after gauging the response that it had evinced, I had silently left it to foment in my head, while working on a new angle for a renewed sales effort later.

That renewed effort, though, was never required.

The Mahindra Bolero, as I had climbed into it at dusk, had seemed rather robust. But as it sped through in complete darkness, the vestige of a metalled road under it put things in perspective.

 A local walks by the red mud ponds of Vedanta Aluminium's refinery

A local walks by the red mud ponds of Vedanta Aluminium’s
refinery, built immediately under Niyamgiri, in Orissa’s
Kalahandi district. (Photo: Devjyot Ghoshal)  

The car, along with the driver and I, lurched and lamented with near absolute devotion through the hours, as the plains of Kalahandi melted away. Ahead, just as the forests began clearing, the mountains arrived, barely framed by the bolts of lightening that momentarily lit the sky.

There was something vaguely unnerving about being driven, so quickly, into the near unknown; an unfamiliar terrain that had come to capture the imagination of millions. Some, from even as far away as London, had decided to paint their faces blue in support.

But I had to travel only some 20 hours from Kolkata to see that faint orange glow grow increasingly stronger. It wasn’t till another few minutes passed that I realised I had arrived.

The dimension, among others, was something I was unprepared for. I knew Vedanta wanted to mine atop a hill, but I had never thought Niyamgiri would be what it is.

The piercing lights of the refinery, situated immediately below the mountain, merely added to the drama. Because where their reach ended, the clouds moulded a wreath around the plateau that comprises the summit.

And the wreath refused to remain unmoved. Wave after wave of suspended vapour wrapped itself around Niyam Raja’s fabled abode. Then, the moon finally broke through. Niyamgiri seemed alive.

Sometime in the beginning of this year, Jairam Ramesh sat onboard a wobbly speed boat deep in the Sundarbans. As the craft jetted through the mangroves forests, he spoke of how the “unrealistically low rate of rejection” of environment and forest clearances given by the ministry of environment and forests had to be changed.

Subsequently, the discussion veered towards brinjals and remained there.

But at Lanjigarh, under the shadow of Niyamgiri, morning came swiftly. The Dongar, as hills are known in local parlance, continued to have its head stuck in the clouds. With the sun climbing steadily, the Bolero was revisited.

It gunned down the narrow forest track that winds it way around the sacred mountain. Bleary eyed, I danced with it, completely oblivious of what was coming. Abruptly, the tree line broke. The excruciating green of the Niyamgiri hills stood naked.

Deba, my driver, felt no such pain. Blankly, he stopped at Oolbali, where my guide wanted to introduce me to the medicine man. Laksa Majhi came in nothing but a white loincloth; his greying hair tied back.

The intensely dark eyes said he knew his world and when he raised his right hand, I believed them. A mangled finger drew the map of mountains that his forefathers worshipped; the corrupted digit supposedly the result of a Cobra’s fang.

I curved my hand to imitate the snake. He nodded plainly. Later, he said, “We have served Niyam Raja, and he has given us life. But if the government wants to save Niyamgiri, they should kill us first.”  

Laksa Majhi feared the state, more than the snake. I am sure he wasn’t the only one.

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