Under my byline

Underground life

Posted in Books, Profiles by Rrishi on 14 February 2009

An unusual novel about coal mining breaks the surface

Sanjay Bahadur, The Sound of WaterThe Sound of Water
Sanjay Bahadur
Roli
pp 168

Visit an income tax officer in his office and, one way or another, you will come away poorer. Sanjay Bahadur, fortunately, is not one of those. He’s an OSD in the tax board’s Database Cell, whatever that is, so his office is clean, white and empty, airconditioned even in February, not full of dusty files and shifty-eyed people. He still wants your money — but only because he wants you to buy his book.

The book grew out of his four years as a director in the coal ministry, where he was responsible for miners’ welfare. It deals with events and characters surrounding a mining accident in which several people lose their lives, and was inspired, if that is the word, by the similar Bagdighi colliery accident in Jharkhand in 2001, in which more than a dozen workers were killed when river water flooded into a mine.

“The accident is really a hook,” Bahadur says. “I have tried to present a collage of what goes through different minds in the given frame of eight to nine hours” before and after the accident. “This entire conceptualisation was something like a painting,” he says, comparing it (rather grandly) with Picasso’s Guernica.

He takes three sets of characters. One, a group of miners, including the elderly, ganja-addicted but highly experienced Raimoti. Two, the mine and ministry officials who are present at the mine and are responsible for rescue and relief work, chiefly Bibhash, the mine engineer. Three, Raimoti’s family, consisting of his sister-in-law Dolly, brother Madho, and their children.

The three groups are anchored by the main protagonists: Raimoti, Bibhash and Dolly. Bahadur goes deep into each one’s history, to provide a backdrop to the decisions they make within the short timespan of his story. “The accident is not only the physical, the accident is also the kind of people who happen to be in that place in that frame of time.” His characters are “handicapped because of their histories, their attitude, the circumstances”.

Each individual’s story is built towards an end, a final choice willingly made — and it is this which makes it difficult to say any more about the actual story in this book. Amidst the fear and commotion of a disaster that touches each one so closely, Bahadur never submits to the tide of events, and safeguards to the end his protagonists’ own agency.

Yet, it must be said, the results are mixed. Bibhash, the lonely mine engineer, is finely realised, no doubt because Bahadur knows and can imagine what it is like for an educated, city-bred man to languish in the wilderness for years. (There are shades of Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August here, as Bahadur himself observes.) Raimoti, the elderly miner, is a remarkable character, but he works mainly because Bahadur makes him a little other-worldly, always high on ganja, sensitive to the sounds of his Beast who stalks him in the mines, and with a powerful mystic, even Sufi, sensibility. But greedy and self-centred Dolly doesn’t pop into three dimensions at all, nor can Bahadur muster up more than a few, stumbling words about her as we talk. Dolly is a weak point.

The group scenes — Bibhash with his GM (personnel) and a ministry official; Raimoti and the miners reacting to the flooding as it starts, how this reveals their relationships, how they navigate underground without being able to follow maps; Bibhash facing the angry miners; the local police chief facing down a mob — are brilliantly realised. Listening in on the officials’ mundane, heartless conversation is truly chilling.

How does Bahadur know what coal miners think? “It’s part of your job,” he explains. He offers an example. “They have this blasting procedure where before the blast takes place everybody has to go and stand at some place. So for half an hour to 45 minutes you are cooped up with your lot of people — there could be a couple of engineers, 10 workers. The choice is yours: you sit there not doing anything, or you have these 10 guys with you — you talk to them.”

Ordinary miners, being mostly tribal and not educated, are less inhibited. “They’ll talk, provided you listen. It’s the supervisor-level and the management-level people, they are the ones who (think) let’s not say this, let’s not reveal too much, portray the best picture. The first time I saw the blast there was this oldish guy next to me. I asked him that for an hour you’re supposed to be cooped up here, doesn’t it bother you people? So he started talking — ‘This is nothing, in fact I have not seen daylight for the last 12 days.’ He says ‘The longest I have gone is for three months. The supervisor was angry with me and he gave me continuous day shifts.’ Somebody will say ‘For the next month I’m off because I’m getting my daughter married’ — and then you start talking about their families.”

The miners’ humble origins have another effect: “They are tribals, they grow up in that area. For generations they go into that mine. For [the miner] it is basic instinct.” Like Raimoti, “He follows air currents, sounds, the feel of the slope, and he knows his way.” Even the engineers yield to the miners’ superior underground sense. “They have to, they are all down there.”

Not coincidentally, Bahadur’s next book will be about tribals, a historical novel about a revolt in Chhotanagpur just before 1857 in which 30,000 Santhals are said to have been killed. In the meantime, his first book is attracting notice. It will soon be published in an American edition, and European translations are on their way. If it highlights a minor trend away from the urban middle-class novel, it is more than welcome.

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