Ours is a life tangled in an unstable contradiction. Of what is and what should be.
As a woman in her twenties, who lives in the largest coalfield Lantenganj, a village beneath the shadows of ridges blasted and gorged out daily for coal, with my family of three and ninety nine other families, the observation above is my gut reaction to our coal village’s circumstance. Or perhaps to our destiny, of our stepping into suffocating blackness and being swallowed by it daily and sometimes for forever.
To understand the gravelly, almost counter-clock story of our lives, that is not rooted in an incident or a scene or relationships but in something far more intangible as a way of life, I need to tell you of our daily lives, of our struggles on a vast, hardscrabble land with its brutal geometry of line and angle, and of our daily terrors. Though I cannot describe any of them fully, however hard I attempt, because they cannot be interpreted easily and as I lack the kind of imagination that authors have, I will try.
And in the same breath, I need to tell you as much of our acceptance of what’s been thrust upon us by our hard-edged and dangerous world. Of our worldview of taking on with calm acquiescence the relentless misery of our manual labor, its drudgery, its extreme visceral discomfort, where hardship and death wait one step ahead of the other in a shape-once-a-shadow-next kind of way.
There is a danger that in the telling our story, my version of it will perhaps begin read like a frightening memoir of my family’s and my community’s involvement in coalfields, one that interweaves my thoughts with that of several others. Yet I know that a story should write itself out and not be the intent of the author or others. So I will try and tell it as the story of our village. Of our people. Of how we hold the tension of opposites. And I will use our very own gritty language, one that involves sight, touch, smell, taste, longing, fear and hope. Yes, hope.
Our village is located within the 280-square-kilometer coal stretch in Jharia, India’s biggest coal reserve belt, in the Dhanbad district of Jharkhand state. Coal belts here are separated from each other by Precambrian crystalline outcrops.
Our Lantenganj is black in its singleness with a uniform bleakness to the sky between the rising and the setting of the sun. I would go so far as to say it powerfully confronts one’s imagination as it nullifies everything remotely resembling beauty.
Though the sun blisters our world with rage, almost, always and sets our skin on fire, especially those of our bare-chested men in the summer months, the celestial explosion of its rays is never paraded. It comes to us through diffused light, shadowed as we always are by a black, billowing smoke haze. One that smells acrid, overpowering and of decay. And while we do escape the fiery-furnace effect of the sun in the monsoon and winter months, we are left with featureless skyscapes that kill our spirits in a million different ways.
“Our landscape is plainly uncongenial with debris, squalor and rutted dirt tracks all around and if you have a revulsion to ugliness, our poverty will offend you as a spectacle in a spirit-crushing and doom-laden way. It could very well exercise your extreme limit of control.” I have heard our village elder, Dinesh Oraon, explain our microcosm to an outsider with these words.
He is a man of our coal land, a man of the old world, who into his 80s pedals his rickety bicycle in and out of our village and seems to be working in the coalfield’s all day every day, into the fall of darkness and beyond.
“Against the privilege and comfort of the outside world, where you live, our world is a jarring contrast. It will appear to be singularly low, unclean, dark and obscure, where we are all grotesquely reduced to the physical constituents of our body,” he says. For me, as I am sure for the others, his words holds a fine fusion of all our differently weighted perspectives. A very recognizable and relatable one.
In our village, everyone, the young and old, men and women and the able and not-so-able, is involved in the surrounding coalfields, one way or another.
To access this black substance, some of us, like me, chip away at our hillsides with our axes with the delirium of treasure hunters at a striking distance from their gold. Others descend into existing, gaping, dangerous and deep pits blasted years ago by the government but have never been filled again leaving them open like large, lacerated wounds on the earth’s flesh. They extract coal from these caverns without safety equipment and I have seen many hurled downward and led to their afterlife covered in a rush of coal and rock, their grainy, growly death howls echoing in our ears for years.
A few more dig holes into the black-toned corrosions on the ground and there are yet others who dare to blast rock with gunpowder or dynamite and brave the rainfall of stones that burst upon them. Their corporeality disintegrates in a far more violent manner.
So no matter how we extract coal, each of our existence is strenuous and laborious in the extreme but equally fragile in that we are always a wisp away from death. It is as if life and death are on one thread for us, oftentimes just on the same line just viewed from different sides. It mocks our optimism, our luck and reminds us of our life truths: it is hard and it is one of suffering.
Deepika Tadu, my school teacher, from whom I have gathered the discipline of noticing, who has taught me to filter life through a mesh of both self-referential specifics and abstracted truths and has also incited me to jump way above the thinking our ill-equipped, rudimentary and decrepit school had to offer, has much to say of our lives in our regular school newsletter.
Though I have passed out of school, I keep in touch with her and her writing especially in moments when weariness weighs me down. With her pastel-coloured saris and soft curves billowing around her, to me she is music in the wind.
In one of her articles in Hindi, she writes, “Coal is everywhere in our community. There is no escaping it. As are contraries. There is no getting away from them either.”
In another, she says, “We live a life at its very primal with a fine dust of black soot on us from Monday morning to Sunday evening. The dust is in the lines of our faces, our broken nails, our feet soles, our clothes, inside its seams, and within our heart and lungs. You can call it our second skin, one that makes all our skins glow midnight-dark always. Yet we survive as we graft our tenacity to our second skins as a simple remedy to our human disorder.”
My mother echoes her and brings up yet another contradiction we live with.
“Our village land that nourishes and sustains us is also tainted with fissures and shafts that feed subterranean fires. The sight of gray-black pits dramatically belching fire and vapor, their alchemical and menacing presence, is not pretty. Nor is the sight of the earth pitching forward and teetering over. It is only the village children who find these smoking piles of rubble mesmerizing and sing “Red, red, red” in a chorus.
These lurking underground fires that create sinkholes have swallowed many a hapless walker as well as several homes whole, though we have never kept count of the dead or the destroyed homes.
This has been happening for over a hundred years and the only evidence of their deaths is in the ever-present, eerie spirals of black smoke, which blacken our air, swallow our sunshine, strangle our vegetation, ravage our air by coughing up gases laden with poison and slowly kill those alive with lung diseases and their putrid stench.
I have lost my eyes to the toxic gases and fires of these pits which are among the sixty seven others roiling beneath the other Jharia coalfields.”
For an illiterate, sightless woman, her reckoning of the sudden sinking of the Earth’s surface owing to its fiery and violent subsurface movements and the loss we incur on account of it, is clear-eyed.
A woman with lean angularity and an edgy demeanor, my mother has had a hard life like many others around her.
My father was like a thousand other miners in our area. The muscles on his arms vibrated strength and callous on his hands and the smell of his sweaty underarms were no different from theirs. The death car, a huge government truck that transports the gathered coal from open cast mines, came at him and four of his co-workers out of the gathering darkness, ten years ago. It wavered for a moment, crushed them indiscriminately beneath its wheels and disappeared around the next bend. They were shapeless, anonymous masses in life as in death. No compensation was given to my mother as these men were not supposed to be here.
This is, perhaps, why none of us at Lantenganj think it strange that photographers travel from across the world to cover our desolate landscape and our brutal lives. Our apocalyptic realism as it were, one that has remained unchanged ever since mining activities began in 1894. It is as if they want to capture the quintessence of an entire century caught in the dark, of life and death caught in a stranglehold and the fault of our births and our lives for their volumes inevitably titled “End of Life” or some such.
Another contrariety of our situation lies in the strange quandary that we at Lantenganj are caught in. We all know it instinctually yet somehow we have not consciously pieced together the stray parts of the puzzle. To me, the correct meaning emerges when the significance of its pattern and the real relationship between facts is made clear by my unravelling it thus.
The Bharat Coking Coal Limited (BCCL), a subsidiary of state-owned Coal India, the coal company that runs the monopoly here since the nationalization of coal in 1971, will not have us for their workers. Caught in a bind, where we remain strangers in our own land, we illicitly scavenge coal to scrape a living, use devil-devious ways to extract it and then find even more underhand means to scurry away with our loot loaded on our heads in wicker baskets or on bi-cycles, our bones aching and our feet encrusted with mud.
Calling us ‘thieves’ and ‘tribals’, interchangeably, the BCCL, with their licensed coal operations, their cohort of hand-picked workers and their varieties of earth-moving equipment blast hundreds of 400 feet-deep pits to scoop out our coal. A wilderness of their trucks transport this coal, which we should own, to depots to be pulverized and sold across the country.
“To pave way for the rest of the country to live in a glow of economic reform.” Their words, not mine. Often referred to as the Damodar River Valley, the BBCL’s locally-mined coal comes from the forty four mines in the Jharia region. “We contribute to keeping the country lit up by producing thirty two million tonnes of coal every year and safeguarding twenty billion tonnes of coal in reserve,” they say. I guess they must be right. But the sardonicism of the situation should escape no one in our region. While we have come to be at the centre of the struggle for India’s energy needs we ourselves remain without electricity.
Neelkant Munda, another aged resident of our village, whose features drain into hollows beneath his cheekbones, just above his beard, tells us of yet another paradox that is our lives. Reading from the newspaper, he says, “Our area, with rich veins of the finest coal, generates such abundant resources that government has able to amass a corpus of five hundred and forty billion rupees last year.” He folds the newspaper and finishes by adding, “I am sure an irony greater than ‘our land, their fortune’ is not to be found anywhere in the world.” His hands, I see are covered with a fine coating of sand like sandpaper, rough and unfinished.
“The BCCL operations will not stop anytime soon as our Prime Minister has set the country on an energy growth path and called on them to double production by 2020,” cautions Amar Kumar Bauri. He is a member of the All Jharkhand Students Union (AJSU), and a young, skinny, political aspirant, whose opinions we listen to with care at noontime on a blindingly hot summer’s day.
We are huddled in a semi-circle and squint our eyes to see him standing on a naturally raised mound of dirt. As the sunlight sears through our eyes like hot iron we see complete blackness before some kind of light again, and then we hear him, rather than see him, say, “The BBCL will increase emissions by an estimated 60 percent by 2030.” We now feel the heat of the sun seep into our bones and rivulets of black sweat run down our faces and mingle with our eyes.
I am not surprised that everyone in our village understands him.
Just a week back we have all watched a film screened for us by him inside the only decent building in our village. It spoke to us of how whenever coal is burned, gases are given off in furiously whirling tempests and particles of ash, called fly ash, are released. Of how the sulfur in coal combines with oxygen to form sulfur dioxide, which can be a major source of air pollution if emitted in large enough quantities. After this we understand our health ailments so much better. And from my own readings I know that these emissions are a toxic mix of carbon monoxide, sulphur oxide, methane, nitrous oxide, particulate selenium and arsenic.
It does make us uncomfortable knowing we contribute to ‘global warming’ and ‘climate change’. We know these phrases now not only on account of the film but because of an environmentalist who comes regularly to our village to prophecy but as Kedar Nath Tudu, one of the villagers, reasons, “We have no choice in this matter and we have to sustain our life in whatever way possible.”
“From BCCL and our state government who promotes them, we understand the true meaning of extreme poverty and disempowerment in our resource-rich environment. Poverty that goes beyond monetary deficiency and is responsible for our poor health, lack of education, inadequate living standards, our living in areas that are environmentally hazardous and the poor quality of our work,” Bauri thunders on with a red-ruby passion.
We listen to his fluid flow words with awe and his arguments along with the heat rises through our cracked soil all summer.
Not only does the company often snatch away our paltry coal gatherings got through our wheezing and panting, but they work steadily to throw us out of our homes to expand their mining operations. We know this from social activists.
They come to us when our lands are soggy in the monsoons, filled with an unsupportable wetness and an entropic mess. They come when the intensity of gas and smoke emanating from the cracks on the ground surface increase manifold along with the risk of subsidence to tell us that “the BBCL keep these fires alive as a way to force you people out and open up new mines.” They tell us that when they confront the company it denies this fact saying “it is notoriously difficult and expensive to put out these fires that have been raging for over a hundred years.”
After one such visit by social activists, some company officials meet us in private to say they are making efforts at our resettlement through a body called the Jharia Rehabilitation and Development Authority. They ask us all to shift but we know that the habitations they have are dark, windowless holes, hovels hidden and jailed from the outside world as from the sun, wind, vegetation and human interaction. And that as livelihoods we will made to load coal from morning to dusk. As our physical struggle will be vulgar with our sweating, grunting and gritting of teeth, we know we will each be given a bottle of intoxication made of our local mohua flowers. This so as to dull our afflictions and funnel our aggression into wobbly drunkenness.
We know all this from people who have taken up the offer.
Our neighbors, the Bhuniyas, speak for all of us when they tell the company officials, “We are determined to stay on in our homes because we are bound by our kinship to coal. It speaks to us through layers of memory and meaning built across the centuries. It means as much to us as our community, our tight caring and compassionate circle, one that we can call our own and where together is our way. We won’t give up our coal or our community.”
Jitender Prasad Kesri, a journalist with a Ranchi-based newspaper, who comes to visit us often and write about our lives and the degradation in our lands, speaks in the same tongue as the social activists. He says our personal is unavoidably the political.
In his piece titled ‘The Dark Truths’, he writes, “In the violent conflict of interest between the government-owned, capital-intensive, open cast coal mining companies, the murky sub culture of the violent coal-mafia that has fought for years to control rackets that prey upon the coal industry, the cheating labor contractors hired to fire-fight raging fires and sand-stowing and who don’t and the compromised labor unions, it is the people of Lantenganj who stand dispossessed.”
He makes sense. Contracts are signed daily, money extended and work is declared done on paper. Except it isn’t.
I know what is running in your minds now. You wonder how we can be so accepting of our realities, which are not conducive to happiness, and our devoured future. After all, our lives make the idea of any possible happiness seem at best stupid, at worse willfully idiotic. How can we be so patient, keep the hubbub inside us dormant, and conduct ourselves quietly? After all, you may argue that patience is inextricable from monotony.
I wonder too.
Jamuna Sahoo, my ageing aunt has some answers for me.
She with her sharp mind and easy motion holds me in her black eyes, full of the ordinary wisdom of a well-lived life. A wisdom that has seen the many failings of our black world but also sees her brethren breathing and dreaming in it. When she speaks she incants her words in a quivering, ritualistic, sing-song voice. She is possessed by the spirit of her words, and in her mind she is speaking for all of us in this moment.
“When people in our village use lines like, ‘Darkness is one’s candle.’ ‘The question is not how to get cured of black lung but how to keep living.’ ‘What hurts you, saves you.’ ‘Our land is our land, no matter if there are fires raging underground or slides beneath your feet and’ ‘Dying is the inevitable outcome of living,’ they do it not as aphorisms but as experienced truths. As everyday phrases meant to express life as it is rather than as bleak forebodings,” she explains.
“In our dark and dense surroundings, consumed by fires and acrid fumes, we people in the collieries have become aware that our survival depends on focusing on what is essential rather than ephemeral. Our sufferings make us a more resilient, deeper and more compassionate people. I know human weakness and suffering are not meant to be ends in themselves but they help us understand strength in a different way.”
“Do you grasp what I say?” she asks. “I am not sure,” I stammer.
She looks at me with amusement and carries on. “We look with heightened receptivity at the incredibly blue skies far, far above, its fluid, shifting images, to keep our spirits even and to take us away for a few moments from our thin existence. Nearer to us, we listen and delight in the gurgles of newborn’s who keep our hopes alive as they do our desire for a better world for them. “I had a child born in the pits, and I brought it up the pit-shaft in my sari,” are the words of young Savitri, who strives for a better quality of life for her child from the day of its birth.”
Pausing to sip water from a cup, she points to a batch of bleating of goats browsing on a patch of uneven, withering grass that is rough and scratchy, and the sight of a girl swinging on the leafless limbs of a tree, her swing made with rubber pipes. “We draw happiness from them and choose to find meaning in their lives,” she says.
“And most of all, we celebrate our sheer human endeavor us, our buffalo-strength to stay alive even though we are at the very bottom of existence. Our ability to not see lack as a great inconvenience but a necessary condition of life. And our kinship, its circles of inclusion and solidarity, which will span a lifetime and where we hold up lifelong traditions and memories,” she ends.
I understand now we have a kind of happiness. Something we can achieve within our bounds. And that our lives are not just about long, flat unhappiness that drains us but do have lifelines into the world of the living, into hope, however unremarkable. This, even if it seems that our scales of destiny do not budge and the needle still points to zero.
But I want more from my life.
I want to come into it more fully. Have the endurance to absorb joy fully, not in a kind of partial, half-hearted, off-limit sort of way. More important, I want a life without having to balance conflicting tensions and mismatches that pull against each other on opposite ends of a rope.
I scavenge coal to keep my connected-ness to my community, put food on my family’s table, earn between 500 and 700 rupees in a week (between seven and ten dollars) and chase a basic degree in the new township of Belgharia, an hour’s auto rickshaw ride from my village that will guarantee me some other kind of employment and a higher realm of existence.
When I go to college in the town as a student, I feel a sense of liberation. It is not as if Belgharia is beautiful. On the contrary, there are row upon row of squat, ugly and stained buildings, the town lanes have open sewage floating and the power supply is intermittent. Yet its sights are a cut above my village.
In my diary, I write with optimism, “I now have the power to experience town life and my own in a new way. I revel in my new, secret path that could take my life into a different track. And in my new world where I can breathe, live, laugh and learn rather than wither with a sense of inertia, of waiting and watching.”
In another paragraph, I say, joyfully, “This world propels me towards learning sensational skills, be they computers, accounting, spoken English, etiquette and social bonding with people my age. I feel engaged, curious and alive, with many points of interests and many ways of yearning. It is most of all, a world that allows me to wear clothes that are unstained with soot and experiment with a bit of dare and passion with fabric.”
On another day when the prosaic light of the day muddles my assurance, my tone is bone-sad. ”Living in a system that is indifferent to a population of five hundred thousand men and women turning into a sludge of substances, I have no illusions about the extent of the equality for the likes of me in society. I know that even in my college I cannot assert an intimacy towards my co-students or a sense of familiarity with their lifestyles. I will always stand at an ambivalent distance from them with a pervasive frustration that my freedom will never be complete. Or the world they have can be mine completely.”
I also say, “I also know that I will never be able to leave the black prisoning hills of my village or its flattened sites or its non-places, the brown fraying patches that the coal companies leave behind for us when they are done removing the coal for I know I contain my world within. A century of complex history.”
Struggling to find a balance between engagement and disengagement from my village is not easy.
But I think I have found poise when I say in my journal, “I do imagine a better future for me in my world. If I have a life to live, and I am keen to live it in the best way possible and makeup for my yesterdays. While I believe in my power to endure hardship, I now don’t intend letting it become a weakness that unjust systems can take advantage of. I believe I can get a job in town but also find time to ready people in my village to gain this power of self-assertion. I can begin by starting a conversation on our lived realities that will lead to small changes, and eventually larger collective actions ones, for our betterment. It is this possibility that will keep me going and I won’t look for guarantees right away.”
I believe that though life is under no obligation to give us what we expect, there is no excuse, no reason, no justification for a citizen in my village, seventy three years after our independence, to daily have to choose between living and dying.
I believe my people need to live a life beyond what they have, something more than their governments and systems give them, something a little more human and joyous and something less frugal and withholding and closer to what they see when they go to cities with eyes narrowed to dreamy slits.
I think my efforts to make my people feel like they have purpose, they have value and that they matter will carry me through in this life.