Spoiler alert! This post includes some details of the plot.
Year of the Weeds is an interesting book about a young boy who just won't give up on his home. He refuses to be cowed down by some very powerful forces. Like David in David and Goliath, he comes up with a catapult of an idea to reclaim what almost seems like a losing battle.
The story is set in the verdant hills of Odisha where the beauty of the hills contrast with the tough life of its original inhabitants, the Gond tribals. Once, a free tribe they are now caught in the crosshairs of the bureaucratic system. Once the guardians of all they surveyed, they are now marginalized and often mistreated. If dear reader, you are expecting a sombre tale of diffulties and tragedy, you would be mistaken.
Author Siddhartha Sarma based this book for teens and young adults on the land rights agitation of Niyamgiri. Several tribes based in West Odisha resisted the move to mine the hills for bauxite, an aluminium ore. The fight went on for years, but the author has encapsulated this in a shorter time frame for the story.
At the heart of Year of the Weeds is young Korok who is a gardener in the garden of the Divisonal Forest Officer's house. Here he tends to the rare flowering and medicinal plants. He knew each of them well and under his care they flourished. Originally his father worked there but now that he is lodged in jail in the town of Balangir for smuggling timber, Korok takes his place. It was an unproven charge and despite no evidence his father languishes in jail as an undertrial.
Korok is motherless. He stays in a hamlet of Gonds where he sustains himself and is a part of the community. Contrasting this is Korak's new acquaintance Anchita, the daughter of the Divisional forest officer and a child of urban India. She is intrigued by Korak and is a key ally to Korok.
This story stands out for being honest and authentic. The characterisations seem closer to accounts we read in newspapers rather than idealised versions we see in mainstream Hindi cinema. The author acknowledges this in the book when he says:
Now, if this was a dfferent kind of story, the kind where people's nature are seen in the bodies, Patnaik would be a fat man with three chins, an evil moustache and a squint. Not that a moustache by itself is evil, but some moustaches fit that sort of person. But this is not that kind of story, so Patnaik was as his mother expected him to be when he was growing up.
Korok who traverses two very different worlds that of his beautiful plants and peaceful community and a bureaucratic system that has no love or patience for the citizens they have vowed to protect. But Korok is a patient, determined sort of boy who tackles weeds and obstinate bureacrats alike. He is somewhat distrustful of the wheels of the modern machinery of development.
Korok and his community of Gonds treat Nature as a powerful and divine source. Like many pagan communities, the Gonds see God in the trees, the river, the hills and the streams. It was common to see a 'pen' or a minor god under trees. Very often these pens were not elaborate idols but a split branch of bamboo that was prayed to. The hill on which the Gonds lived was considered the most sacred. This is a very different way of looking at things. It meant that the Gonds saw themselves as part of something bigger. They saw themselves as keepers of the wealth that god had blessed their earth with. Nature was not seperate to them, they were a part of Her.
So when Korak sees a group of officers photographing and measuring the hill he is both intrigued and worried. He soon finds out that they are surveying the hill for future mining. He alerts the members of his community who quickly realise it is serious.
Do Korak and his fellow Gonds manage to save their hill? Is the fight peaceful or violent? How can a small community of tribals who live on the margins fight a large corporation? Is development always possible only by destroying nature? Are we all truly equal citizens of the Indian democracy? Is homogeneity of culture, food, clothes the correct and only way? These are some of the questions that sprung to my mind while reading the book.
The story has a happy conclusion for Korok thanks to the help of Anchita, his tribal family, sympathisers to their cause, the highest court of the land and his own wits. The author weaves all the different characters of the story into various situations that make our emotions go high and sometimes low. Korok's fight feels very personal and we cheer for him.
The book made me pause and shake my head in disbelief in many places because of the incredulous but true situations that the author throws light on. During the agitation Korak's hut is picked as the stop a politician would visit along with the media. Before the leader visits, his assistants visit Korok's impoverished hut which he often shares with his goat. Naturally they find that much has to change in Korok's hut for it to be leader visit worthy.
They also set about changing his house, or atleast his kitchen. First his goat was pulled from under the bed where she had been hiding as usual, and taken to Korok's potato field and tied up under a shrub.
...The old beaten pots and plates were taken away from the kitchen, but Korak managed to hide them under the bead. These were replaced with shiny new aluminium utensils bought from Balangir.
It seems like only optics matter, not a true understanding of Korak's circumstances and living conditions that he lives in.
The chapters are named after months and provide us a rough timeline. The book's title Year of the Weeds is a very important part of the story. As a gardener Korok knows that the weeds are very resilient. A novice gardener may assume by removing some weeds he is done with them, but many weeds can have very deep roots that are not uprootable. All weeds are not alike with some more aggressive than others. Pretty quickly the young reader will realise that the author is not speaking about weeds alone.
Korok understands this perfectly. His observation of weeds and the means to remove them assidiously is similar to the approach he uses to help his community to keep out vested interests.
This book is an introduction to an India we don't hear about or read about much. It introduces us to the people who live there, their lives and expectations. The story is layered, rich with so many details and is as fascinating as reading about superheroes and unknown galaxies.
The author makes sharp observations about many governmental institutions. Korok sees many of his villagers embroiled in long-drawn cases or false cases even. Court rooms, the unending wait for justice are not new for Korok. He sees them for what they are not what they could be. The justice system, the police establishment or the collector's office are not theoritical concepts for him.
After his father was arrested, Korak was introduced to the most complex machinery in the country: the legal system. It took ordinary everyday people and ground them down slowly. After years and years of a court case, a normal person could go quite insane. People would have to keep visiting a court while the case dragged on. They had to learn patience and spend money on lawyers, on documents which the court needed. It was a big, massive wheel that turned at its own pace, grinding the innocent and guilty alike. There was a blessing in these parts: May you never have to go to court.
A young reader will find many of the neat definitions they read in their civics book challenged. Year of the Weeds is a starting point of examination about what the lofty ideas of democracy, equality and community truly mean. Korok and his people stand for their home and in doing so evoke the principles of our founding fathers and mothers for freedom, against exploitation, for equality and the right of the people over their land.
All pictures are representative.