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Interview with author Mihir Vatsa: It’s humans who help other humans in the end

Mihir Vatsa, whose earlier work included two collections of poetry, Painting That Red Circle White (2014) and Wingman (2017), has turned to prose in his new book, Tales of Hazaribagh: An Intimate Exploration of Chhotanagpur Plateau. It combines his love fwor his hometown with a narrative about battling depression on riverbanks and forest trails, and insights into environmental destruction in Jharkhand. A doctoral fellow and teaching assistant in Humanities and Social Sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi, he edits and publishes the poetry journal Vayavya

There are many ways to approach Tales of Hazaribagh – as a book about road trips, about self-discovery, about nature, about returning home, and about local history. How do you see it?

I am happy that you saw these many ways to approach the book. Personally, I wanted to write something which I could have read during my exploration of the plateau. For that reason alone, I think of Tales of Hazaribagh as a book that tells the reader how to approach Chhotanagpur. It explicates the plateau through forest, rivers, waterfalls, hills and escarpments as nodes of entry into a landscape whose sensitive, personalised articulation has eluded many writers in the past.

It seems inaccurate to call Hazaribagh merely the setting of your work. Isn’t it at the very heart of your public persona?

Hazaribagh is, indeed, the heart of me. We stand synonymous to each other. I am not a city writer, but a dweller of the plateau, the land itself. The people of Hazaribagh, in my sense of dwelling, are my flatmates, and as it happens, some flatmates gradually become friends. I forge kinship easily with trees, forests and rivers. As the town expands, finding the plateau amid humans and concrete has become more of a chance than a routine. This loss is being felt in Hazaribagh today, and I am not the only one feeling it. Extending your heart metaphor a bit further, I often think if a heartbreak too is imminent. Perhaps that’s why I wrote the book, you know, with the heart still intact.

You describe yourself as a “riverwalker”. When and how did this become an identity?

In my term “riverwalker”, walking is not an act that covers a distance spatially. Going from point A to B is a consequence, not the motive. It is the river which is important, the many types of distances it creates and resolves. I am speaking of Jharkhand here, where many districts come under the “Red Zone”, a landscape fraught (or was until recently) with Maoist insurgency. Forests are particularly sensitive in this regard. Riverwalking in a forest, for example, births a complex emotional ecology. My riverwalking carries fear, not so much of nature which is a given, but primarily of the legacy left behind by the terror which is imprinted in our perception of the plateau. The fear of nature alone should have been primary, and not existing as an afterthought. The fact that it does points at a unique violence that humans have done upon the plateau. Even in its “purest forms” of rivers, forests and waterfalls, nature is pushed back against the foregrounding of human fear. This profound violence is marked across the land, and it has altered the way in which we respond to nature.

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Yet, as my many experiences and the book too show, it is humans who help other humans in the end. Tales of Hazaribagh has an argument at its core, and it is to perceive the plateau as a mediator of love. This is the counter narrative which riverwalking has given to me, a personal revelation. A riverwalker in Jharkhand must believe in love to continue walking. I think of rivers as occupying the chasm existing between fear and love. Certainly, the coal, the iron and the bauxite won’t heal us or the land, but the river, graceful and complex like human feelings, just might. When I call myself a “riverwalker”, it is not to codify the leisure in experience, but what walking entails. It opens up a reality, empathetic and suspicious; one of affection and insolence, hope and failure.

People in India’s metros often think of the Chhotanagpur Plateau in terms of its mineral resources. Why does this colonial, utilitarian, extractive mindset persist? Do you see your work as a corrective to those attitudes?

It is only fair, considering that Jharkhand, for long, has peddled this story of being a mineral-rich state. We are conditioned to think of this richness as an achievement, but I wonder that if mineral resources, given by nature, are an achievement to us, then what did we do? Our royalty from mining is dismal, and what the industry has done to our environment is shameful. In his recent interview to Mint, Jharkhand’s Chief Secretary made a nuanced argument against the idea that minerals are wealth. It is a significant shift in perception, which takes into consideration both the environment and economy. Clearly, a different paradigm is needed to conceptualise the Chhotanagpur plateau. As a writer, I see my work as initiating a discourse that approaches the land sympathetically, through an alternative way of perception. It tells the plateau, “I know you have been through a lot, but I’ll come to you correctly this time.” Jharkhand owes it to the plateau to come correctly now.

The view from Canary Hill in Hazaribagh. (Shutterstock)
The view from Canary Hill in Hazaribagh. (Shutterstock)

You had worked on another book project about Hazaribagh before this one, and it was commissioned by the district administration. Could you tell us more?

It happened so out of the blue. There were three coffee table books which were made. The first was a collaborative effort, steered by my friend Shubhodeep who worked at the collectorate at the time. When he left the town after finishing his term, I was called one evening to meet Hazaribagh’s Deputy Commissioner at his residence. He already had an assignment ready for me. I had to make a book on how Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) had worked in Hazaribagh. I would need to travel to all administrative blocks, observe the work done, at times do inspection, take photographs, write the content, design the layout, take the book to print and get the copies back. The creative freedom lured me. Besides, I was free too. But I was candid in sharing my observations with the DC. I think he appreciated my frankness.

I travelled with the SBM team across the district. One day, we had to visit Keredari block and we decided to go to one of the far-off villages. The village was called Bundu, and close to it was Koti Jharna, a cluster of natural water springs. Though it had already gotten quite late in the evening, the mukhiya insisted that we see the springs. So we went and saw the place, just close to nightfall. I don’t think I would have had that particular experience of seeing the gushing waters at dusk if it weren’t for the assignment. Then there was the third book on the 2019 Lok Sabha Elections. I remember going to Dadi block, to the mining township of Giddi, and I was looking at the barren, disconcerting landscape from the window of a Tata Sumo. It was summer, the heat heavy on the body. I remember Giddi in this particular, summer-noon way; 42 degrees centigrade. It is a sensory remembrance. There are plenty of other memories too.

In the book you write about moving from Delhi to Hazaribagh seeking a “sanatorium”, and now you have moved back to Delhi to pursue your doctoral studies. How would you describe what Hazaribagh has given you? What made you move back to the city?

Returning to city life was incidental. There is some serendipity here. For all my running away from Delhi, it was a Delhi institute that called me back for PhD. Technically speaking, I am still not in Delhi but attending classes online from Hazaribagh, but when I do return to the city, I will be carrying some emotional grounding, the security that the plateau contains me and my mind. Also, I somewhat grudgingly feel that Delhi is home too. I spent seven years there, it too has shaped me as a person.

You mention that the Chhotanagpur Plateau, which was once “an area of travel” for you has now become “an area of research.” How has this shift changed the way you see things and record them?

This was it, wasn’t it, the emergence of thought, the intellectualization of landscape as the exploration happened. Yet, all of this was — is — rooted in the heart. Some incidents stand out. For example, there was the demand for a respectable road by the residents of Puranpania, a secluded village located north of Hazaribagh. A road does exist to the village, but it is prone to erosion in monsoon and the inclines are too sharp. When I talked with the villagers, they listed their inconveniences: trouble finding grooms for girls, trouble getting pregnant women up the plateau and to the nearest health centre for delivery, just the overbearing detachment of the place. I had not gone to Puranpania to know these things. I had gone there simply to “enjoy the view”. Yet, I was not a tourist also. I was a resident of Hazaribagh, and Puranpania is a village in Hazaribagh district. There was a clear complication of the very ideas of “solitude” and “scenic”. For me, solitude was desirable, the scenic an aesthetic concept available for the camera. For the villagers, the same solitude was a curse, and what I considered scenic — sharp escarpment — was for them a challenge, economic and social. How does one recover from this divide? Another example is from the book itself: Tiger Fall, and the existence of both industrial and natural landscapes at the same coordinates. How can something like this happen? At one gram sabha at Daihar village, there was a visible desire among the villagers for their village to be seen and recognised (this desire may well apply to the whole of Jharkhand) because several Pala period statues were unearthed there. There was the desire for their village to be located on the “Buddhist Circuit”, so that it might improve the village’s economy through tourism. These are material concerns that are never separate from landscape. So the question is, who is looking at the land, and through what perspective? These are the kinds of issues and stories that I also hope to take up in my doctoral work.

The excavation of a Buddhist site of the Pala era ( 950-1140 AD) in Bahoranpur, Hazaribagh. (Shutterstock)
The excavation of a Buddhist site of the Pala era ( 950-1140 AD) in Bahoranpur, Hazaribagh. (Shutterstock)

Was it this transformation from traveller to researcher that made you move from poetry to prose? How did you come up with the structure for this book?

I became aware of poetry’s inadequacy as I started making my notes. It’s not to say that I couldn’t have written a poetry collection or a long poem out of the material I had. I didn’t want to. Firstly, poetry readership is specialised and limited. Secondly, as a writer from Jharkhand, I wanted the book to be read in Jharkhand too. It had to be written simply and sincerely for the readers in my state, many of whom, like me, are first-generation English speakers. It was this empathetic, linguistic responsibility towards Jharkhand which led me to prose. Yet, I didn’t want the book to be simplistic. The initial structure was in keeping with a regular travelogue: chapters short in length and many in number. I began writing with this idea but realized soon that the format wouldn’t work. It would have still been an exploration, yes, but it would have neither been intimate nor thorough. I was also wary of the ghummakadi tradition of writing and wanted each chapter to dwell in its own complete world, each chapter also carrying an argument to it. Rivers I wanted to privilege over roads, a different kind of route-mapping, so they flow everywhere in the book. These decisions caused the initial 15 chapters being trimmed down to seven. Finally, I wanted the book to be me. Not about me, but me myself. I wanted the reader to recognize me immediately from my voice, trust me as their guide. I struggled mostly with what to put in the book and what to keep out of it, sticking to the book’s scope. I must thank my editor Kartikeya Jain for keeping me focused.

What got you interested in “an intimate exploration of Chhotanagpur Plateau” beyond Hazaribagh itself? How has this exploration transformed your views about the place and the people?

The interest to see the Chhotanagpur plateau beyond Hazaribagh was always present, but there was also this anxiety of being charmed by another place within the plateau. How silly was that! An anecdote will help. It was January 2019. My friend and wildlife historian Raza Kazmi and I were at Palamau Tiger Reserve, about 200 km from Hazaribagh. It was my first time in PTR and I was awestruck at the extent of the forest and just the overhanging quiet of it. The rivers there are wider and many are perennial too. At midnight, after spending the day travelling, I had gone very quiet. Raza was quick to notice it. After some nudging, I finally confessed that I felt Hazaribagh could not match up to this… this richness. Outside, there was a mountain hanging over us, Huluk, and in the darkness, only its outline was visible. It was a very intimate moment between two friends.

Raza offered an alternative reading of my situation and led me to see that appreciation of a place should be not construed as disloyalty to another. It was an important nuance, which led me to look at the plateau in its wholeness. The book, you must have noted, is also about reworking of my territorialism over Hazaribagh. By the end, the plateau is no longer congruent with Hazaribagh’s administrative boundaries. As the subtitle reflects, it gets positioned within the larger Chhotanagpur.

Author Mihir Vatsa (Courtesy the subject)
Author Mihir Vatsa (Courtesy the subject)

You call your love of travel an inheritance from your mother. What are some of your earliest memories of travelling with her? What does she think of your work on/in Hazaribagh? How did she respond when she held this book in her hands?

An enduring memory I have of my mother and I travelling is us at Nainital when I was 12. It was one woman and a prepubescent boy in Uttarakhand. The hotel manager was so surprised, seeing just the two of us! We didn’t have much money, and ATMs had not picked up in India then, so we would ration our meals. 100-150 rupees a day. A luxury my mother allowed herself in Nainital was the five-rupee evening tea at Marino Hotel on the Mall Road. We were reminiscing about Nainital a few days ago and mother herself was surprised at her courage. When I got my author copies of Tales of Hazaribagh, she was happier than I. I had gone quiet, overcome with sadness. I touched the book, took photographs, but throughout the day I felt emotionally inadequate… the finality of the book being done — over. She was the one who said things like, “The cover looks so nice”, “Look, the book is finally here”, you know, cheering me up.

If you could take any author of your choice on a tour of Hazaribagh, whom would you pick? Which places would you put on your itinerary? How would you travel? What kind of music would you play on the trip?

Is this my fanboy moment? Mr Ruskin Bond, certainly. I grew up reading his stories — who didn’t? I read his novel The Room on the Roof at a time when I myself was living in a room on the roof in Delhi as an undergrad student. I would like to walk the lake circuit with him, at midnight. Hopefully, many ghosts would accompany us. I would also like him to see Bokaro River at Baratpichharwa Waterfall and my “creepy road”. I don’t see much scope for music in the Alto, simply because we would be talking the whole way!

Chintan Girish Modi is an independent writer, journalist and book reviewer

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