Alive? Yes. Life? No.

Review of Jangalnama: Travels In A Maoist Guerilla Zone; Satnam; translated by Vishav Bharti; Penguin Books; pp 206; Rs250

– Shana Susan Ninan

Adivasis all over India have many things in common, whether in the jungles of Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka or the northeast. But one characteristic demarcates them from city folk: they are all simple people. And it is this very simplicity of the Adivasis that the politicians and schemers exploit to the core. Satnam, a Punjabi activist and a published writer of national and international issues, travelled across the tribal regions of Bastar at the beginning of this millennium and recorded his first hand experiences of the lives of the tribals as well as the Maoist guerrillas who’ve set up camps in the jungles. The guerrillas comprise mainly of Gondi boys and girls, and a mixture of Telugu and Bangla leaders.

Jangalnama, translated by Chandigarh-based journalist Vishav Bharti, is a dense, heart-touching and authentic series of events that Satnam encounters and lives through for two solid months. The Maoists started their work in the Bastar jungles ten years before Satnam stepped into the area, and their work has been super slow. But the gradual and patient work of the guerrillas paid off. The guerrilla camps that Satnam visited and stayed at were meticulously planned and its activities carried out with vigour. Once the whistle is blown at five in the morning, people run around for their daily chores – cooking, cleaning, exercises, studying, etc. – and rest only by sundown.

The guerrillas are like glow-worms in the dark jungle. They might be few and far between now, but with a systematic network and good facilities they can provide the light in the lives of the tribals that they so need. The government teachers in the village schools “visit” them once in three months, but grab their pay check regularly. No doctor comes consistently to the jungle to treat the tribals. The guerrillas have taken upon themselves the tasks of treating, educating and caring for this hapless lot. Gondi tribals can barely count up to five; they often make mistakes in their morning roll calls, as Satnam noticed. But willing guerrilla leaders teach them numbers, a little science and languages such as Hindi, Telugu and bits of English.

Politicians and entrepreneurs come to the jungle with fat proposals of development. In the name of development they cut off the trees, construct dams, wipe out whole villages and render the tribes incapable of living. And so the tribals in turn, with explainable rage in their hearts, take to extreme measures. The guerrillas who advocate for them, too, join and organise the protests, rallies and other measures. When a tribal boy steals from the city shopkeeper or a tribal man robs a traveller, cops are more than eager to term it as “a heinous crime committed by spurred tribals, or worse, terrorists.” The fact that they steal because their very livelihood was first razed down by the government or agency-sponsored goons is definitely omitted. What comes out in the news is just a fragment of the actual truth, a very tiny fragment that puts the tribes and the Maoists in bad light in the eyes of the society.

Police atrocities are plenty – one of which was an instance where seven adolescent girls of Karimnagar were supposedly raped, killed and mutilated at a lake shore where they were drawing water, all in the name of “terrorist encounters”.  After the establishment of Maoist camps across the forests and tribal villages, the authorities have stayed away. This has resulted in the reduction of crime, and women and children can now walk without fear, even at night. Even in the camps, you can see that men and women guerrillas are treated equally. Where the government turns a blind eye to the cries of the tribals, the guerrillas provide them a balm for their wounds.

The tribes have been living a certain pattern of life for centuries. Change, for them, is very slow. According to the guerrillas, change should be gradual and meaningful. Tribals have no use for posh schools, highways or cinemas. What they first need are jal, jangal and zameen. There are scores of elephants, tigers and leopards that will tear them into pieces if they cross their paths, but none so ferocious and heartless like the “two-legged beast”.

Analysing the work of Vishav Bharti, I’m sure he has done justice to Satnam’s account. The words are poetic and simple but full of meaning. Just as the author had meant it to be, I guess. Each word is measured and precise. Like the arrow of the tribal, it’s directed to convey the meaning in the best way possible. His words evoke emotions – the guerrillas, in spite of a long and tiring day, gather together at sunset to sing folk songs and catch up at the bon fire. Their dedication and perseverance does rub off on the reader.

The presence of humour in the book is attributed to Satnam himself, especially when he’s trying to learn Gondi and also when he experiments his newly-learnt sentences.

Satnam conducts many small, informal interviews with the guerrilla leaders. All of them are positive that their voice will be heard beyond the jungles and far into the cities and that the strength of their revolution will increase subsequently. Others in the villages, too, echoed the same sentiment. But in a world where cutthroat is the norm, where does one have time to care for a near-naked, illiterate, malaria-infected tribal?

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Rating: 8.7/10 (10 votes cast)
Alive? Yes. Life? No., 8.7 out of 10 based on 10 ratings

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011 at 11:50 pm and is filed under Communism, Non-Fiction, Reviews, Travelogue. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.


  1. February 23rd, 2011 | RAJENDRA KUMAR says:

    Great review. Comments – apt.
    Tempo – in tune with content.

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