I grew up hearing my father’s stories about his village where he spent his childhood and adolescence before lifting the responsibilities of a young man in a struggling family and later shifting to Kochi because of his occupation. Those stories included narratives of his daily routine of bathing in a river, taking their cow deep into the forest for fodder, running around with friends, going to community library at the evening to hear radio broadcast and more. Even though those stories were highly vivid, I could always see a common thread of nostalgia and a sense of longing at the end of every story. It was probably a time when people were more connected than how they are today.
Almost forty years later, in a time which I call present, I was sitting in a village in Odisha, trying to promote organic farming and making sense of things happening around me. Many of the surrounding villages were straight out of stories by eminent writers like Premchand, Basheer or a common man like my father. It was here that I saw a true sense of community, where one could safely leave ones child with the neighbor, where the entire village comes together for harvesting your crops, where everyone knows each other without being friends on Facebook. A kind of place that could attract those lost travelers who may want to finally settle down without the chaos of a busier world.
With each passing day, over phone calls, I’d tell my father about all the things that I witnessed here, and with that, his eagerness to visit these villages kept growing. I was curious about his curiosity when he told me something that brought a shift in my feelings towards this area. He expressed his doubts about the “developmental” changes in these villages, the ones similar to what he witnessed in his village and the subsequent transition that made him feel like a stranger when he revisited the place where he lived for 25 years.
Nine months is too short a time period to authentically speak about these changes but I will give it a try anyway. Everyone around me calls these changes as a much needed development but even in this categorization, the perspective varies from people to people. I was also introduced to a new scale of measuring this development – the availability of mobile network. According to the standard set by local politicians, a village here is said to be developed if mobile network is available there, which is considered a strong indicator since many of these areas have had poor connectivity with the outside world for ages.
The main shift happened in the last two years with JIO getting introduced. Today, there’s JIO network in a village where the school hardly opens for two days a week. In late evenings and at night, there aren’t many sources of entertainment or other work for people in the villages, partially due to non-availability of electricity. This has resulted in a common sight across several villages where one can see majority of youth glancing at their phones, sitting together at a point, where internet speed is maximum. I have always wondered what would these guys do in the evenings if there was no network. Would they come together and have fun like how my father experienced or would they spend good time with their families?
It wouldn’t be right if I start judging these people for their choices or their lifestyles but I’m keen to know how this generation thinks and feels about their village. At this point, I can only imagine a grim picture where they are talking about their home village in nostalgia. There are villages which I feel, have frozen in time, full of people who have never gone outside their locality and have never experienced any modern luxuries but are fully content in their life.
The questions behind introducing the 21st century ideas of development should only be answered by the population living here. It would be insane if we, of all the people, go there and shout out, “Bhai...you guys have access to a natural serene life. Don’t destroy it with mobile phones and modern education”. They have every right to decide the way they want to live.
This scenario is not short of any conspiracy theory especially when the people are living on mountains worth billions in bauxite market. A population culturally attached to their homeland is considered as a pest in modern economic terms. Detaching them from their home is the best way to prevent any kind of resistance which may arise when giant organizations take away their land for extracting aluminum from it.
This struggle has always been a part of southern Odisha’s history, especially in the Niyamgiri hills which witnessed a bloody fight between mining companies and local tribal people a few years back. These areas are now peaceful. Majority of the children here, are studying in residential schools run by the government or private parties. These schools follow a national curriculum and we hardly get to see anything that celebrates or even talks about the local customs and traditions. So, the young inspired minds coming out of these schools are indifferent towards their festivals and cultural history which can be attributed to a year long classes with no vacation that coincides with their festivals. The learning content speaks about everything but home.
Could it be a possibility that some of these guys will join a fellowship like the one I’m doing, essentially trying to understand home? The existence of fellowships that promise grass-root immersion sometimes make me question the direction in which we are moving. When majority of India consists of these grass-roots, why do we need a special program to understand how our ancestors lived or what problems they faced. If we trace back to one or two generations, our family members would also have been living in these villages with the issues we identify. They would have also written about it, but not in a blog.
What’s in store for the children in these villages? Maybe they will tell, again with a sense of longing, their nostalgic stories to their children, about a home and a life that once existed.