On the 15th of March at 7:05pm I sent my wife Sapna a screenshot of the medical report I had received. She responded, “What the fuck”.
The day had gone by rather smoothly.
My request for a documentary profiling the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) Garud commandos had been approved. Thus I spent the day at Chandinagar, an air force base in Uttar Pradesh’s Baghpat district, lost in what unfolded before my eyes. (See photo)
Later in the day, a call I missed from the hospital reminded me of the unfinished agenda.
The lady at the other end wouldn’t tell. She’d rather email.
When she did, we had an explanation for a lump on the left hand side of my neck which ordinary medication couldn’t shake off. I’d read up and suggested to my doctor the worst-case scenario only to be chided for ‘over-enthusiasm’. However, my guess turned out correct. Mine was a case of Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of blood cancer, they ruled.
At Sapna’s reply, I smiled. On my forehead was cold sweat. The mind was agitated. And my day still had work left in it.
After realising that this no longer was a nightmare from which I would wake up to a ‘normal day’, I wrote in my diary:
“We will deal with this and deal with this well. There is one thing I promise now – my zest, my love and my humanity is only going to grow stronger. And I swear to whomsoever it may concern that I am going to beat the shit out of this. Cheers”
Over the next few days we worked with doctors to understand the full picture. It was heartening to see my organisation standing by me. The leadership granted me concessions I had not granted myself.
Of everyone, I was most nervous about informing my mother. Living on her own in Mumbai, I did not want her alone and worried at the same time. But her response, when I informed her in person, left me relieved.
As television journalists, our acquaintances see us even if we don’t see them. It also is our job to stay in touch with as many as possible. This ailment forced upon me a hiatus from which I did not know when I would emerge. Some who were concerned began asking why they weren’t seeing me. Every time someone asked about my health, I told them the truth. People offered assistance, advice, personal stories or simply their best wishes. That so many felt so strongly was almost therapeutic.
I was also lucky in that I did not suffer a single symptom associated with my ailment. The disease was at an early stage of its existence revealed the tests and consultations.
A slower but testing experience was to begin.
By the middle of April, I embarked on six cycles of chemotherapy under the soft-spoken and tireless Dr Dinesh Bhurani of the Rajiv Gandhi Cancer Institute and Research Centre in the capital. Those undergoing chemotherapy are warned about multiple side effects which include but are not limited to pain, sleeplessness, mood swings and nausea. For me, it was a period of observing the resilience of one’s body and mind. I was impressed how well my body faced up to regular doses of controlled and targeted toxicity. There was discomfort yet it never got quite as bad. It also was a period of seeing oneself in a new light quite literally as chemotherapy took most of my hair away!
With time on hand, I read, wrote, saw and learnt as much as I could. Sleeping without an alarm and meditating daily helped restore my health.
News about cancer fatalities broke my heart. They also filled me with fear. The words, ‘what if’ never really left my side. In many ways, struggling with cancer is akin to climbing a difficult mountain. Sad as it may sound, not everyone who begins necessarily completes it. I came across many whose situation wasn’t as comfortable as mine. I hope they experience a turnaround soon.
Fortunately by the middle of September, scans could no longer find cancerous cells in my body.
This would not have been possible without the person I, even before my cancer, referred to as my ‘Rock’, my wife. If one moment she was my loving companion, the next she could be a cop knocking sense into me. She went to maddening lengths so that I ate the right food and stayed away from infections. All of it came at a price – her stress levels were peaking and it showed. I’ve promised to not make her worry about my health. Also, being a far better writer than yours truly, she has penned a perceptive (and shorter) piece on this experience which I’d urge you to read (https://goo.gl/Szzf7C).
Cancer can make one’s knees buckle, to begin with that is. It’s a dreadful disease but one from which we are at a safe distance or so we all would like to believe. Cancers associated with habits aside, the disease can affect anyone. After all, it is a cell which goes rogue and increases its tribe. Having said that, I must add that cancer is weak in its early days. It is made weaker by a spirit that is both, happy and strong.
Why did it happen to me?
Science does not offer an explanation. But the fundamentals for a healthy and stable existence were not in place in my case.
Forget others, I used be extremely harsh on myself. No matter what one did or achieved, I’d always be unhappy, unsatisfied. In seeking more and better (not your healthy, motivated way, mind you), in punishing myself, I stand guilty of having caused my mind and body immense and undue stress. As someone who believed that life is all and only about work, I used to look down upon the very thought of sleeping beyond five hours a day. While I did find time to exercise but my eating habits and what they call ‘work-life balance’ consistently left a lot to be desired.
While stress is common, its impact on individuals is not.
My journey, for what it’s worth, has made me realise that our body and spirit have in them the keys to our wellness. We only need to cultivate the right environment.
Cancer came to me as a pause. Thankfully in leaving, it gave me the opportunity to reset.
WRITER WORKS WITH INDIA TODAY TV AS A SPECIALIST ON CONFLICT AND SECURITY ISSUES
The background score of The Dark Knight has graced many of our drives. Although it is a bore fest for me, for my husband it is exhilarating every time. In hindsight, I’m grateful for that; grateful to Christopher Nolan and Hans Zimmer, too, for that was the background score of our lives for the past few months.
My better (more resilient) half was detected with Diffuse Large B-cell Lymphoma – a form of cancer, neither peculiar nor familiar – in March this year. He was just 32 years old then, and was basking in the glory of having flown in two fighter planes, bracing and acing all its manic manoeuvres. He was on a high until curiosity got the better of him and he decided to get the seemingly harmless lump in his neck investigated. Ignorance is not a virtue for good journalists, impatience is.
I remember being not too bothered when he said the lump wasn’t decreasing in size despite the medicines he’d been taking. Our physician suspected TB or some sort of infection which may have just flared up the lymph node. But we pressed for a clearer diagnosis. An FNAC procedure was done on March 14. Report was due next day.
On the evening of March 15, while at my desk in office, I received a message from my husband. He had been out early morning doing what he loved – working his ass off on a short documentary for his channel. “The report is out,” it said. The cells had tested ‘positive’ for malignancy; ‘likely non-Hodgkin lymphoma’. My first reaction (and I’m not proud of it) was ‘WHAT THE FUCK’. That’s also my first reaction every time someone breaks a queue. But this broke my heart and my spirit. There was no time for a discussion or a false show of strength. He had a meeting scheduled with someone important.
I rushed to the loo to regain composure. The word ‘malignant’ kept playing in my head. I was bogged down by doubts and fears. All I wanted to do was hug him and never let go.
It was frightening… it hit me that our world was about to change for the worse. Having lived an extremely protected life, I had little courage or conviction to face what lay ahead. Or so I thought.
When we met at the parking lot, both of us had awkward smiles, tears hiding behind them. I had to revoke my ‘no PDA’ policy and crash into him right there. It’s amazing what a hug can do, especially a big, bear hug.
“It’s got the wrong guy,” he said, when we were back home, in his filmy demeanour, which is usually irksome. He said his body is Gotham, the cancer is Joker and he, Bruce Wayne. I sagely took on the role of Alfred.
What followed left us flustered. Myriad appointments with doctors, innumerable tests, hospital visits – a web of medical maze. We had put off informing family until the PET-CT scan was done, specifying the exact nature of the disease. There was a hint of happiness on our faces when our oncologist informed us that the cancer was in Stage 1A, and the probability of a cure was high.
Informing family about it was emotionally draining. Sounding confident, aware and in control – when the reality was a far cry from it all – was difficult. All of them gave us unstinting love and support. Our parents were especially pained by it, but remained positive throughout.
It has been six months since. We are six chemos down. The latest PET-CT scan has given us reasons to cheer. Our oncologist is satisfied with the outcome. Although one is aware of the fragility the disease brings with it, having emerged stronger is a great accomplishment.
The Dark Knight has risen. The Joker has fallen. Gotham is getting back on its feet. Meanwhile, Alfred continues to give unsolicited, albeit valuable, advice.
Many are surprised, some are shocked and the rest are silent.
In October 2015, DK Pathak, the former Director General (DG) of the Border Security Force (BSF) remarked how the ‘elite’ force he was ‘proud to lead’ had ‘very less’ number of corruption cases. Within 20 months, things have a turn for the worse or so it seems. In a two-page order issued last month by the current DG, KK Sharma’s office, almost all posts and appointments in the force ‘have been identified as sensitive posts and corruption prone areas in the BSF’. No justification, further explanation or course of action has been provided in the said order.
The order was issued by the Pers Section of the Pers Directorate which deals with personnel-related issues and can be equated with the Human Resource (HR) wing in other organisations. The order has been ‘approved by the competent authority’ (a reference to the Director General himself) and goes on to list six formations which it believes are corruption-prone and sensitive. Beginning with all appointments and directorates within the Force Headquarters, the order goes on to list Command Headquarters, training institutions, Frontier Headquarters all the way to the Sector Headquarters and Battalion Headquarters. A closer reading of the order reveals how even junior and functional offices have not been spared from the taint of being ‘corruption-prone’. For example, those dealing with ration and welfare at the battalion headquarters have been placed under this order’s ambit. Those dealing with recruitment, postings, construction, cash and accounts and even vigilance matters will have a tougher scrutiny over their work thanks to this order.
The exercise to identify such posts is a routine one but the broad sweep with which almost the entire organisation has been identified has led to raised eyebrows.
“The length and scope of this list is unprecedented since it almost covers the entire organisation. Some posts in the procurement department, because they involve dealing with external suppliers, may be considered sensitive and corruption prone. But how is the motor transport department for example being seen with the same lens? As I see it, pe
ople have failed in applying their minds”, said SK Sood, former Additional Director General of the BSF. It was believed that this list could also be used to justify transfers before the completion of tenures. Interestingly while the order states ‘all appointments’ for nearly all the formations, it also contradicts itself and specifies posts which have been brought under this order.
Many within the force are seeing this as a measure of the panic in the wake of the controversy involving Constable Tej Bahadur Yadav who had earlier this year alleged corruption leading to poor nutrition for lower functionaries of the force. To prove his point Yadav had uploaded on social media video clips in which he was seen displaying the allegedly substandard food being served on duty. Yadav was dismissed from service on April 19 this year by a Summary Security Force Court which heard the case from April 13. Serving BSF men who spoke to this correspondent on the basis of anonymity said the force was trying to improve and tighten its vigilance component.
Despite sending a questionnaire neither the BSF Headquarters nor the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) presented their viewpoint on the issue.
A discussion involving a trip to India’s north eastern region often stalls on two grounds – poor connectivity and the lack of availability of vegetarian food options. If you read this piece, perhaps you will raise your hand and beg to differ the next time you find yourself amidst such talk.
Meghalaya is known to most Indians as the Sanskrit term for ‘the abode of clouds’. Flanked by the state of Assam to its north and east and Bangladesh to its south and west, this cool, clean, calm and captivating destination needs no endorsement.
Our story begins differently. For us, Meghalaya was never the option.
Troubled by the unending strife in Jammu and Kashmir, we began looking for alternatives as the date came closer. While most destinations were ‘out of bounds’ because of the rainy season, Meghalaya was ‘open’ exactly on that account.
Since Meghalaya has no full-fledged airport (Shillong has one which does not operate regular flights), we took a flight to Guwahati. Upon landing, we hit the National Highway (NH) 40 which connects the city to Silchar (also in Assam), poking in and out of Meghalaya along the way. The joy in driving on a road like this was soon upon us – Assam was on one side of the highway and Meghalaya on the opposite. While at the former’s end there was nothing but homes and wilderness, the latter’s side brimmed with activity, petrol pumps, liquor shops and commercial enterprises to which people were flocking to. “Thanks to the lower taxes in Meghalaya, the Assamese cross the highway to make purchases,” explained our driver.
As the highway snaked out of Guwahati, chaotic streets, bogged down with vehicles gave way to a well-made, four-lane highway dotted with a sheet of tall, slender and distinct-appearing betel nut plantations on both sides. Cute, colourful stalls set up by locals selling organically-grown pineapple, banana and home-made pickles jostled for space in the lush landscape.
For those who may want to schedule a meal along the route, wait for Byrnihat, a town along the NH40. Our driver led us to a restaurant called ‘JIVA’ which served palatable fare and hygiene standards were impressive. We’d happily recommend it to anyone.
As the sun was receding, we were inching closer to Shillong.
Whatever little we saw of it, we did not like. Narrow streets, endless traffic, littering and a town appearing quite worn down, it definitely was anything but love at first sight.
Meanwhile, our destination was a place few haven’t heard about – Cherrapunjee.
With the altitude rising, the road thinned out. The low-hanging clouds reduced the visibility. Does that cause a worry? Peek out of the window into the neatly-built colourful homes and the abundant fruit-bearing trees. For a ten rupee note, the locals will even allow you to pluck a few, juicy wood apples.
The chill was setting in. The rainfall, however, was nowhere around.
At the end of a seven hour-long road ride, we broke the journey 15km from Sohra, the name the locals use for Cherrapunjee. At the base of the town is a hamlet called Laitkynsen and in the wilderness there is the simple yet serene Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort where we stayed. All we needed was a warm wash, a simple meal and a bed to call it a day.
The next day was slated for ‘sight-seeing’ (not a term we fancy too much).
Sohra, by the virtue of its heritage, by now has a list of places to see which includes waterfalls, vantage points, caves, churches dating back to the 19th century and gardens. If you find yourself interested in these, make sure you do not venture out around the weekend as the rush can be immense as we found out. Of all the places, we enjoyed our time at the sprawling Arwah Lumshynna cave complex the most.
We gathered that the villagers in Laitkynsen were developing a bridge by entwining trunks of betel nut trees or bamboos with living roots of the Indian rubber tree (botanical name: Ficus Elastica). It isn’t as easy though. Apart from leaving matters undisturbed, it can anywhere between ten to fifteen years for even a small section of those roots to firm up. However those in Meghalaya aware of the state’s rising tourism profile are realising it is an investment worth the wait.
The locals, from the Khasi tribe are gentle though largely inward-looking. From our discussions with the resort owner (a Tamilian born in Meghalaya), we learned how they were initially against the idea of letting tourists come closer. “They were happy selling potato chips and waving good bye to tourists but we are trying to make them realise the worth of what they have here,” he said. He began his resort after fierce opposition in 1998 and has employed several villagers in full and part time roles.
We welcomed the cool evening with some wafers and coffee. As the colour-changing sky darkened and the rains arrived, we shifted indoors this time in the company of a shy lot of local musicians who strummed up some wonderful melodies only for us.
The next morning we bid the staff farewell and began our journey for Tyrna. This village was the starting point for a trek up to the wonder called the ‘Double Decker Living Root Bridge’. As the name suggests, it is a two-tier bridge made of living roots which spans a waterfall. Located in a village which goes by the name Nongriat, the route entails a three hour trek involving ascent, descent and a lot in between.
The villagers have built wide steps out of concrete which is good and bad – good since it is easier to navigate and bad because the rains can make the surface slippery. Along the way, we touched some homes which served us the local brew, witnessed butterflies of countless hues, felt our weariness disappear by sitting next to rivulets and waterfalls before starting again and crossed some mighty, roaring rivers by walking over a swinging bridge, made of metal strings! Our companions, apart from each other, were bamboo sticks – a must for hikers – which we rented from the “Bros N Two Sis’s Shop” for Rs 20 each. (This shop is closed on Sunday, by the way).
Once in Nongriat, where the locals utilised their time in making and selling honey, we couldn’t help but wonder at the spectacle before us.
To our advantage, we learnt our home-stay was hardly ten steps away from the double decker! Some hot ‘chowmein’ into our bellies, we spent the next few hours swimming in the gentle pool of the waterfall or reading and relaxing by it. The comfort and facilities on offer were minimal. There was another couple in there with who we exchanged notes about our exploration hitherto.
For all its allure, life in Nongriat was hardly as good. With no roads, no market or even a medical facility, just about everything in the village meant trekking nearly 5-6 hours in and out of Sohra. “Everything has to be carried on one’s back. If someone falls ill, things become really difficult”, said Charlie, who owned that home-stay.
There are trekking destinations further from Nongriat however our schedule did not permit us to undertake them. So we lazed around longer and then started back to Sohra. It was drizzling and it made our journey muggier. However, we were back where we started this time completing the route in less than two hours!
We were definitely hungry by now!
An ever-smiling Uttam Koch was the manager at Nalgre’s restaurant, a by-the-road eatery in Sohra. The first time we went in there was because it seemed clean and less crowded. The next time, in fact the next three times, we went there for its simple yet delightful food. Mr Koch’s staff dished out their standard egg and chicken thalis with hot rice, dal and potato fry which we devoured and the next minute, looked forward to. Mr Koch, on the day we were leaving Sohra, told us he was building rooms to stay in which would be ready soon.
Mr Koch’s staff dished out their standard egg and chicken thalis with hot rice, dal and potato fry which we devoured and the next minute, looked forward to.
The first time we went in there was because it seemed clean and less crowded. The next time, in fact the next three times, we went there for its simple yet delightful food.
Our journey thereon turned eastwards.
Heard of Mawlynnong? A Google search will tell you it is a known destination in Meghalaya because of the tag it earned – that of being, “Asia’s cleanest village”. None of the locals could explain the antecedents of this tag but more on that later.
Brightly-coloured bungalows, both big and small, neat streets, roads lined by pretty, flower-bearing plants – it looked like a postcard. We checked into a home-stay by which flowed a quiet stream.
About 2-3km from Mawlynnong is Riwai and its living root bridges. The reason Riwai stands out is because that is where we learnt that the locals would charge us money to enter the village and funnel a major chunk of earning into beautification and maintenance. “The government doesn’t come into the picture. The better we maintain, the more tourists come and better we earn,” said a villager.
The manager of our home-stay, a college drop-out named Khrew was a talkative fellow. At our request, he called in the newly-elected village headman of Mawlynnong. “We have 502 members here and sanitation is something we have believed in since over a hundred years. There cannot be a household built without a toilet, it’s our rule. While most people clean their homes and surroundings, everyday a fixed number of us also do community cleaning,” he said. When we quizzed him about the title of cleanest village, he replied, “Ah you can do Google search. Even I am not sure”.
It no longer matters.
Mawlynnong, which even found a mention in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s radio talk in 2015, already has its hands full. There aren’t enough home-stays to accommodate tourists. The road, Khrew told us, “Needs to be widened for so many vehicles coming everyday”.
Dawki is a border town on the Indian side of the Indo-Bangladesh border and located at an hour’s drive from Mawlynnong. Nestled within the Jaintia Hills, this town has nothing remarkable to offer. We particularly recall the pathetic state of roads, the resulting dust and catching glimpses of the people in the corresponding town across the border. Of interest to us was a village, 8km from the town, which went by the name Shnongpdeng. The village is located on the banks of the Umngot river which we heard flowed with crystal-like clear waters. The bumpy ride turned out fruitless as heavy sedimentation in the river ensured we did not see anything like what was told. It was the wrong time of the year to visit. Anyway, we hired a boat and the 30-minute exploratory ride even though under the 12 noon sun, turned out an enjoyable experience.
On our way back we crossed many posts manned by personnel from the Border Security Force (BSF). The name of one such post struck me and we stopped our car. Pyrdiwah was the first in a series of Indo-Bangladeshi border posts involved in skirmishes in the summer of 2001 which led to the loss of 16 BSF men. Back then Bangladesh forces walked in and claimed the post. Happy to report that today not only does an Indian flag fly atop but also the BSF reported very cordial ties with their Bangladeshi counterparts. One point to ponder about though – the BSF, raised in 1965 and stationed there for decades, still operates out of tin roofs and shanty-like structures. The government hasn’t been able to acquire land for them or build decent facilities. When we were around, the temperature in those tin-structures felt way higher than outside. Couple this with the earlier-mentioned condition of the road in such a sensitive region. Questions our nationalistic netas must answer.
Back in Mawlynnong, we noted the sun’s descent from the confines of an open to air wooden gallery, a part of a tree house where also greeting us were gentle strokes of cool breeze. To our amazement, the owner of our home-stay very casually shared with us how it was locals who’d built those tree houses.
Those in Mawlynnong have always lived a quiet and compartmentalised life, we were told. Notwithstanding the influx of tourists, six days of the week are alike even today. On Sunday, time is devoted to the church and community issues.
Something we had not encountered before – the place of our stay, (a home-stay by the name ‘Ilajong’ which means my own), had a lake in the middle. “Anyone can come, pay us Rs 100 and fish in this water”, said the owner.
Our stay in rural Meghalaya came to a close. Before we reached Guwahati for our flight back home, we wanted to closer look at the capital, the hill city we’d earlier crossed en route Sohra.
Rejecting the ‘to-do’ list, we gave Shillong Peak and Elephant Falls a miss and headed to the shopping zone of ‘Police Bazaar’, located in the heart of the city. The prices are negotiable especially where handicrafts are concerned and for about Rs 2500 we purchased a hell lot of material. Lots of restaurants offering varying cuisines, including the local Khasi, are co-located so the meals were taken care of.
Once done, we checked into an old, large bungalow in a quiet corner of the city. In addition to an affable air about it, Bo-ville also had a small garden and a fireplace.
At sundown on that Saturday evening, some research online showed Café Shillong Heritage, perched atop a hill overlooking the hill town, as the place to be. We did enjoy the fare but the ambience, the live performance left a lot to be desired.
Our last morning was meant to take us to a village by the name Laitlum outside of which was said to lay the most breathtaking place Shillong had to offer – the canyons of Laitlum. An hour’s drive from the city, we reached early in the morning, thanks to the humble staff at Bo-ville who packed in some hot parathas and tea for us.
Green, vast meadows, views of endless mountains emptying into a splendid valley, low-hanging clouds, plants and insects of a magnificent variety and a tiny village at the bottom as our destination, the trek at Laitlum could not have been more welcoming. The descent was thrilling at first. However, we were soon engulfed by clouds. A slight sprinkle made the rocky surface extremely slippery. A couple of close calls and mounting pressure on our knees, we decided to call of the trek. That was not the time.
Of course the villagers used that route daily for supplies. There was in fact a rickety pulley from bottom to top so as to lug their heavier items.
In a state known for its spices and condiments, a visit to Shillong’s Bada Bazaar, howsoever damp and filthy a place it may be is a must. And thus when we reached there, we returned with lots of spices and of course the famous Khasi red rice.
On our final evening, we did not want to leave the quiet environs of Bo-ville. Sitting in the porch with coffee and the puttering of raindrops on the roof punctuating the conversation, we relived the minutes, the hours and days we’d spent in the lovely state of Meghalaya.
This journey was made in August 2016
The essay you read is based on handwritten notes made along the journey
We’d reached out to GREENER PASTURES for organising this trip for us. Their service we found was reliable and flexible even to last-minute changes. Mr Bornav was our contact. (+918404002125/+919435747471/www.thegreenerpastures.com)
I worry too much. Perhaps it comes naturally to people with exposure to news, information and happenstance or may be its just me.
The month was April. We were in the hill town of Panchgani, located about 250km from Mumbai. My wife and I decided it was time to explore the forest in front of the villa we had rented apartments in. Earlier in the day I had spotted a fox or two and thought it would be good to look closely. With our trekking shoes on, we were on the go. I wouldn’t say it was the best time to go because the sun was on the top and there wasn’t much really to explore once we reached the place.
Anyway, while we were walking, a woman called out to us. She was standing in front of what looked like an under-construction bungalow by the hill-side. We’d seen the place from our villa and truth to tell, admired its location perched as it was on the edge of the hill, overlooking a gorgeous valley, several waterfalls, a dense forest and villages spaced out by several kilometres.
But what did the lady want?
Well, all she did was invite us into the bungalow and showed us the rooms! While we were reluctant, she enthusiastically showed us the basement then the ground floor then the floor above followed by the common porch. She wanted us to admire the beds they had specially sculpted using workers from Mumbai and Pune. The toilets and the marble flooring and on she went. I still wondered what was it that the lady sought? Was this a ploy to rob us? May be get us to taste something, get us unconscious and then take away our valuables (which they would later discover had little value)? Why would someone just take some strangers around their property like this? While my wife indulged the lady, I began mapping the exit routes. In fact, it won’t be an understatement to say I viewed the woman and the workers at the site with a heightened degree of suspicion. Out of nowhere, the lady summoned her husband and then her son!
By this time, we’d managed to wriggle out to the entrance of the building. Slightly better-placed to scoot should the need arise, we were at relative ease.
The husband later confided how he, an agriculturist, had emptied his savings into building that guest house for tourists. He owned the entire land and had decided to give into his son’s request to better utilise it. Apart from the room, they would rent tents, conduct guided treks, offer visitors a chance to soil their hands in strawberry farming among other things. The son told us of the difficulties they faced, the time they took since never before had their family of farmers had strayed into something ‘like this’. They spoke to us like we knew them since long. The son took our leave since he had to go someplace. We too were to depart when the father made a dash into his strawberry farm adjoining the property. He took, what we felt was forever in picking the best of strawberries and then came to us with a bowl full of them.
“I will not accept this free of cost”, the principled man in me thundered.
“You pay me tens of thousands but later on”, he shot back with a disarming smile before neatly packing all them into a box for us. “We just want your best wishes as my son starts a new life. If possible, you can tell your friends to come and stay with us when they visit Panchgani. We will open shop soon,” he said.
He had no visiting card ready so he gave me son’s mobile number and told me those interested can call him to book. Abhijit Parthe: 8888972345
My name is Standard Operating Procedure. You can call me SOP.
You will hear about me whenever something goes terribly wrong or a tragedy strikes. Many carry the impression that my tribe is the cure to all ills.
Now I am not simply called SOP. That’s too generic. I have a special number assigned on file but mentioning that may make matters too technical.
Well, I was born as a two-page letter on August 3, 2010, at the hands of a clerk who worked for the then special secretary (internal security) Mr UK Bansal. In my early moments, I recall Mr Bansal sending me from his chamber located on the first floor of the North Block which houses the ministry of home affairs (MHA) to the headquarters of the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs) like the CRPF, Border Security Force (BSF) and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP).
Why was I created and what was the message I carried?
Back in 2010, home minister Mr P Chidambaram was said to be serious in securing the Left-wing extremism (LWE)-affected areas. These were sizeable parts of central and eastern India where rebels from the outlawed Communist Party of India (Maoist) were wreaking havoc. Once when I was lying on the desk at an office I heard how four months before I was born, Maoist rebels killed 75 men from the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and one policeman in a single attack in Chhattisgarh’s Dantewada district!
The government’s efforts however hit a roadblock when they realised that the local police forces in their states had neither the training nor the numbers to take on the Maoist insurgents who called the jungle their home. So, till the police could build themselves up, the CAPFs would help them with numbers and fire power. It was to be a partnership.
As time passed, Mr Bansal, a 1974-batch Indian Police Service (IPS) officer from the Uttar Pradesh cadre, wasn’t very happy about how this partnership was progressing. The CAPFs, which did not belong there, did not know the region or for that matter even the local language, felt like foreigners. The local police on the other hand did not suffer these disadvantages but they did not participate enough. The Maoists exploited this. They killed many of our men.
On my two pages, Mr Bansal had written that for every one policeman participating in an operation, two men from CAPFs would do so too, thus maintaining a ratio of 1:2. He revised it to 1:3 later for “any planned operation”. Only in case of an urgent operation could reduced police participation be allowed. You see the point he was making?
Have you wondered how many policemen participated in the “planned” operations to support road construction in Bhejji on March 11 and in Burkapal on April 24 where the CRPF lost 37 men? Two constables in Bhejji and one in Burkapal! This despite the MHA recently stating that there are “over 20,000 state police personnel” and “45,000 central forces personnel” posted in there.
People in power have no idea about my existence.
When journalist Jugal Purohit went about asking, here is what he found:
– Abhishek Meena, Superintendent of Police, Sukma: No such guidelines exist and no such guidelines can be adhered to.
– DM Awasthi, Special Director General of Police, Chhattisgarh: Such instructions can’t be followed.
– Sudeep Lakhtakia, Additional Director General, CRPF: I will have to check up.
– K Vijay Kumar, senior security adviser, MHA: You cannot have such rigidity.
– The spokesperson of the MHA did not offer any explanation.
This is my reality.
Someone sitting removed from the actual situation thought about me and pushed me down the throats of others who had their own ideas. Then when something went wrong, newer people came together and created newer SOPs. Lessons were seldom learnt. I remain forgotten.
Contrast this with our enemy who bears the name of a foreigner who died more than 40 years ago. That enemy deploys his tactics and remains guided by his doctrine even today. He hasn’t forgotten.
How should India grow? Does ‘growth’ have the same meaning for everyone whether in the cities or resource-rich hinterland? Do growth and displacement of natives compulsorily go hand in hand? For India to grow what is needed more – preserving tribal way of life of its natives or exploiting the resource-rich lands they inhabit? What if their grievances create hurdles in the path of growth?
Author Rohit Prasad in ‘Blood Red River’ has chosen the troubled landscape of Bastar in southern Chhattisgarh to understand how the Indian state is answering these questions.
Located in the heart of the country, the state of Chhattisgarh means many things depending on which side one is looking at. A politically and financially stable state, a state with perhaps the richest resources both in terms of mineral and bio-diversity in the country, a state with nearly 44 per cent of its territory covered by forests, a state which has over 30 per cent of its population coming from a vibrant variety of tribes or a state locked in a brutal embrace with a rebellion which refuses to ebb even after fifty years of its emergence.
The rebels, members of the outlawed Communist Party of India (Maoist), seek to violently overthrow parliamentary democracy which they believe is a sham. The response of the government hinges on quelling the rebellion with its armed might and addressing the needs of the masses by the means of development.
The armed struggle is visible and chronicled. In comparison, the politics of development, supposed to exemplify in myriad ways the healing touch of an absent state, remains hard to track, harder to grasp. Touted as ‘a journey into the heart of India’s development conflict’, the book stands out for its focus.
Divided into sections segregated by short chapters within, the book is a sincere attempt at providing the reader with the understanding of a topic which can hardly be termed easy. A largely smooth and uninterrupted flow does emerge as the author switches between anecdotes, damning data dug from a multitude of reports, the annals of history, regulations governing the relationship between tribes and their home, the forest, the vibrant hope of a promising economy, the industrial lure of exploiting a resource-rich territory, instances of flawed ‘development’ and a society eclipsed by the shadow of the conflict which has consumed over 12000 lives. On offer are solid glimpses into the unholy nexus that exists on the ground between the government, the insurgents and the private sector which works to perpetuate the conflict at the expense of the locals.
Interestingly, as the author, a business school professor based out of Gurugram, admits, he’d initially set out to analyse a different subject before stumbling upon something ‘far more complex’ and ‘fundamental’ which led him to write this book.
Rohit Prasad’s ground reporting from the affected region ensures the reader is exposed to the colour, the festivals, the customs as also the difficult path tribes find themselves treading and how there is corrosion of that timeless society underway as a result. Aptly captured case studies make the reader aware of the lost lives of faultless, promising youngsters in the region.
On the flip side, there are times when the narrative shifts from story-telling to either philosophy or sweeping generalisations. Then there are outlandish claims like where the author says the US Army special forces supported Indian armed police in 2009 offensive against the Maoists! There are also times when objective analysis turns subjective. However, the biggest drawback that book suffers from is the lack of a direct Maoist voice. Scrutinising their ‘developmental works’ in their ‘janatana sarkar’ (local government in areas they term liberated) and their model would have added to the book’s effort by making two sides of the divide clear and visible to the reader.
To conclude, ‘Blood Red River’ is an introduction into a less dimension in the debate over development. Few understand that it is also essential.