by GUNJAN VEDA & SYEDA SAIYIDAIN HAMEED
HarperCollins Publishers India
Review by Devaki Jain
Boating into the Sunderbans, with Syeda Hameed and Gunjan Veda , I could not stop. I just had to go on reading,what next , what new encounters ? – the kind of experience one has when reading thrillers or what is called detective stories. You get into it and then you can’t stop reading as it grips your attention. The journey in the Sunderbans then going on to the tea plantations and other parts of Bengal ,was sufficient initially to reveal the value of Beautiful Country.
Beautiful Country , Stories from Another India is a collection of the experiences of Dr Syeda Hameed, a scholar , who is also a member of the P C , and her former associate in the Planning Commission , Gunjan Veda , as they travel on work , to the various states of India-I counted 18, but am not sure – to understand how their efforts to serve the people of India are working out , and to learn, to know, India .
While one might expect that narratives coming out of field visits by a policy maker such as a member of the Planning Commission,would be rounded up by ‘messages’, from development eminence, in Beautiful Country they are from Faiz Ahmed Faiz and other poets who, like the authors, are both exhilarated by India , and also grieving over its failures or frailties
Where I would like to take issue with the authors Syeda Hameed and Gunjan Veda is in their sub title namely Stories from Another India. No, No, this is not Another India. The other India is where the author, and earlier, the co-author sits, – namely the Yojana Bhavan,- to design India’s public policy. This is India. It is not that there is gross neglect and perhaps not enough change in the far flung areas of India as we see, as we travel along to the North-East and then to the South but what is striking is the accommodation and adaptation of the ‘diverse’ if not different communities, to each other and their surroundings. Muslim and Hindu and Muslim/Hindu does not seem to matter as we hear of deities whose name changes with nothing more than a boat travel. [Page 63] when Bon Bibi has other names as they travel. To quote:
“We were delighted at the mixed use of Bangla-Urdu-Arabic in the poem. We noticed that the book was written from the right to left as in an Urdu text. The Bengali verses were, however, written from left to right like in English. It was the strangest and most eclectic text we had ever seen. In her photographs, the goddess with a Muslim name looks every bit a Hindu deity; her brother looks like an Arab sultan. The universal acceptance of her power creates a bond among the people, a bond forged on the basis of a common fear, one that stretches beyond the realm of any single religion. [Pg 64]
Many myths, for example that the South is more advanced than the North are broken. Many agonies such as their visit to Sonagachi where they found that while the women were terrified of the cops, it was the children for whom they were the most concerned [Pg 230], are recorded with eyes wide open .
I have a particular love affair with the Ganga and identified myself with a sentence on Pg 235 with the author’s view:
As the boatman took us across a peaceful yet busy Ganga, it seemed as if time had stood still. This eternal, static quality is a distinguishing characteristic of Benaras.
Obviously , whether in the Sunderbans wetlands or in Barmer’s drylands, communities had fear, uncertainty and anguish because of uncertainty of the weather. Fortunately for us the authors do not pontificate, nor try to do an evaluation. But peering through the lines of 357 pages one cannot help developing the view that all is not well with India’s efforts to look after its citizens. Simultaneously we realize that India’s citizens have extraordinary capability to survive, to cope, fearless and driven by feelings of solidarity underpinned by an assortment, a huge multi-layered complex of beliefs, not religions. This is so whether it is in the heartland of the cities or rural areas, wet or dry, North or South.
Perhaps, though the authors deny it, there is a message here. There is need for inclusion of the knowledge, the stresses faced by our people and to capitalize on their strategies for coping and the detailed understanding of their needs and how then they can be met. In other words meeting the needs of people cannot be done by out outlays and the silo system of delivery. Meeting the needs of the people requires starting from them through investing in listening, creating the programme from that, listening, letting evaluation and accountability be constructed from them.
Amartya Sen captured exactly this view when he says in the blurb on the book cover :
“….The book may have been generated by Syeda’s frustration with distant planning….”
The imagination soars with the thought of the kind of game shift that could take place in development delivery, if this book of narratives is made compulsory reading not only for the IAS and related cadres, not only for the policemen and civil society personnel but for Ministers and Members of Parliament , for media news hunters , and the armchair commentators on the India story.
For me personally, having travelled on similar missions to the deepest villages in all the states of, India , in the 1970’s , it was both gripping , exhilarating to visit my India again, from the arm chair where age is keeping me, anguishing that we had left them where they were , after nearly 50 years, – but inspiring to see the rooted- ness, the grit as well as enthusiasm of our people. I love a statement that is attributed to one of the great FORTUNE formula drivers, “India is a country of happy people” , he is supposed to have said, in answer to questions on his reaction to the hair raising drive to Jaipur !
This volume, which I call a development travelogue needs to travel through corridors as well as streets and halls , and class rooms of India .
(Devaki Jain is a renowned feminist economist. She was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 2006 for her contribution to social justice and empowerment.)