Dispossession

We’d just arrived, located a spot for pooje, and begun to lay about the prayer articles: a composite picture-frame of Ganesha, Saraswathi and Lakshmi, lamps, incense, vermillion powder, camphor, sweets, fruits, flowers, a pick-axe, a spade. A villager and his son soon arrived. We were a few: three promoters, two government officers, a team of four from the contractor, one from the architects, and a promoter’s wife. The villagers have been cultivating the land taken away from them seventeen years ago—not owning it, but tilling it, told by the government that when people come to build a factory, they shouldn’t make trouble.

The villager announced himself owner of the land and member of the panchayat. His face showed defiance and its impotence before government. He is strong from toil and from decent nourishment—uncommon for village-folks. He hadn’t come to fight. He asked the government officer to tell us to give jobs to all the youngsters in the surrounding villages. The officer explained how jobs are given, of merit, need, and qualification. The owner said the Deputy Commissioner had promised that all the villagers would get jobs when they acquired the land. He demanded a job for his son. What is his education? High school. I laughed. He protested tamely: what more can a villager study? I said I laughed because we hadn’t laid a brick and already we were talking about jobs. He was silent. All were silent.

It was a beautiful day. A cool December breeze played about this high ground, the sun shone bright in the early-morning hour. We had set out before dawn from Bangalore and arrived in three hours, enjoying a smooth drive. The pooje went exceedingly well; the poojari is apparently the favorite of film-stars Ambarish and Vishnuvardhan. The beautiful location captivated the whole party. It rolls down to the river which was dry when I first saw it; now in December we saw it full and in lazy flow. The man from the architects said we should build a resort by the river. The contractor suggested we build a guest-house overlooking it.

I wondered before this villager, he in a blue-check sarong, I wearing blue jeans, if we are worthy of his land which we now possess for no great effort but merely because of a shift in economic policy. His land has been taken away from him and sold to us. He would know its every inch, as did his father before him. He would know each undulation, every furrow, where water reached, where water didn’t reach, the whole nature of the ground, the character of its trees, all of which are beyond us. We will have a factory and a garden there. We will improve the supply chain and recruit and motivate people. We will install machines, jigs and fixtures. And accountants. The scent of the land before rain, the turning of the land with the seasons, the coming and going of crops, the ox and the plough, the surprised snake slithering away at the feet, pesky birds, good monsoons, drought, healthy crops, worms, plant diseases, husk in the wind, lunch come from home taken in the shade of the tree, the harvest festival: no one will ever experience this land as he did.

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