In her debut novel, Nabina Das writes about an India where social divides stand taller than multistoried shopping malls. Footprints in the Bajra, inspired by what she saw while touring the interiors of Bihar as part of a travelling theatre group, inquires into why the Maoists have an influence over a large section of Indian society. Das talked to Uttara Choudhury in New York about her book, and its protagonist Muskaan.
What prompted you to take up such a complex issue in your debut novel?
On a primary level, my interest in socio-political movements with a current portent, especially in India, goaded me to tell this story. The complexity is not regarding Maoism per se, but the state’s inability to offer a cohesive system for its people.
On a deeper level, I am interested in lives. The novel is really just a slice of life story, about Muskaan the young Maoist rebel, and Nora, her friend from the city. Maoism is mentioned in the background only to paint these lives. In no way is the book a primer on Maoist philosophy.
As a journalist and NGO worker, I have had access to lives affected by Maoism and the state’s actions. Bloodshed and killings were the only gains these people came home with. Those stories stayed with me as examples of harsh reality outside the TV screen and disposable newsprint. I felt compelled to let these characters speak in my book.
Your novel delves into the life of a Maoist recruit — a teenage girl named Muskaan. Did your research for the novel point to the fact that young women are drawn to the Naxalite movement?
It is a fact that in ‘modern’ India young people from regions with little development find themselves on the sidelines. Their anger with the system has percolated upwards. The recent mining claims in Orissa sparked off huge protests, not just in the villages but also among city folk who until recently had no idea about the Kondh people — Dongria, Kutia and Jharania — and their ways.
Generations of caste and class atrocities together with government apathy has helped mobilise ranks on the side of the extreme left. Sometimes these young rebels don’t know what being a Maoist means. I had once asked a person in jest who proudly called himself a Maoist, whether he was happy not to be called a Stalinist. He promptly said if being a Stalinist helped avenge his people, he’d happily be one.
These are my characters in Footprints. They live in Durjanpur, Banka or Patalgarh — names that are linear views, hence negative in connotation.
For the marginalised, the situation is stark. Muskaan is a Maoist recruited as a child soldier at 13. She is an example of how these ‘renegade’ movements use young people as a staple for propagating their adventurist tactics. We have examples of such far-left movements in other parts of the world, like the Shining Path in Peru.
Would you say the Maoists are a greater threat to India than global or cross-border terrorism from Pakistan?
Sadly, what gets lost in the debate is the plight of a huge chunk of people. Maoism or Naxalism does appear to be an option for the disadvantaged, especially Dalits and tribals, although I am aware of people who are striving for alternative movements away from guns and gore.
When it comes from the government, the word “threat” certainly is the key operative here. Whether Maoists are delighted at that labeling I have no idea, for I’m not a practitioner of the movement. But calling Maoism a “threat” helps situate the public view about this far-left movement. Threats justify the forming of counter-attack groups and human rights negligence. This precludes any investigation into how the poorer swathe of India eats, works, sleeps and dies.
The threat works well for the government in distracting the people. Meanwhile, deaths and displacements continue in the middle plane whether in Kashmir, Manipur, Orissa or Chhattisgarh.
Do you think American audiences will be able to relate to Muskaan and a story about a slice of rural India?
American writing is rich and diverse. Jhumpa Lahiri, Junot Diaz and Nam Le have successfully drawn readers into worlds outside their own familiar confines. Muskaan’s India may not be familiar to a lot of readers even in wealthy, urban India.
Since you live two lives, shuttling between the US and India, will your second novel be cast in India or America?
I plan to work on a book based on Assam, my home state, and the upheavals it has witnessed. Tentatively, it’s called “The Boatman of New York.” It would be a generational story across continents.