The Language of “Issues” by Narendra

This month Little Toller publishes Paul Kingsnorth’s new book, Savage Gods. For this series on The Clearing Paul invited poets, writers and artists from around the world to respond in their own way to a simple, one-word theme: transformation. The result is a series of explorations, in words and images, of the alchemical cycle of change: breakdown, rebirth and renewal. This piece, by Narendra, is one of a series of dispatches from the tribal, Adivasi, region of Bastar, Abujhmad, India, written over the last several decades.


It was late evening. Birds were returning home, while children of the village played, raising clouds of dust noiselessly. They played as noiselessly as the birds overhead, or the rustle in the forest. Despite plenty of sounds, one often wonders at the absence of noise and dissonance in the deep interiors of Bastar; at the absence of the disagreeable.


Ever uncomfortable with ‘issues’, I was trying hard to explain to my friend Nureti what climate change is about. I had run into such difficulties earlier too, with many I had spoken to on other issues as well. How does one explain an ‘issue’ to an Adivasi or, in the first place, how does one make an ‘issue’? How does one explain ‘issues’ to people when the ethos and resilience of different languages are at variance?


I am not sure, but in my experience, it was probably in the 1970s that language began taking these strident turns. Like capital, language too began to be modulated by the few. As an example, when the word ‘environment’ came along sometime in the 1980s, it was difficult to explain to my father, though he was an educated man. That was about the first time I discovered the emerging dissonance between me and my parents. We spoke the same language, but differently. In my time, ‘issues’ had begun replacing languages. These ‘issues’ – these abstract notions, unrelated to experienced things – have guile and deception. I remember a friend’s house in New Delhi had remained a ‘seminar room’ for so many years as I visited. Over time, it had acquired a language that characterized discontent and disapproval, if not hostility. That language did not come from home, a proud landscape, or from memory. It had very little of endurance to it. One could suspect strains of much precision and efficiency; and little of resilience.


So, I struggled to explain climate change to Nureti as I had heard and read of it. Increased carbon emissions, carbon footprint, climate not as a social but economic issue, carbon market, carbon sinks, changing crop patterns, rising sea levels, impending disasters and catastrophes, etc. Yet, there was a hesitation. I was doing to Nureti quite what I had done with my father about thirty years ago. Hesitation also stemmed from the focus and idiom that a global debate has as against the plane of ordinary human collectives – their experience, wisdom, nurturing institutions and agencies. How was I to explain ‘climate change’ to one who does not wish to step beyond his village; for whom the beyond is a pursuit futile and foolish; a transgression? He has a persuasion different from mine; and, in my experience, much more healthy, reassuring and honourable.


After listening patiently to me, Nureti urged, ‘Do not spread falsehood, it shortens the life of earth. When our gods and goddesses were living they had vitality to shape the world and do things good for us. Now they are stones. The patient stone, however, speaks if we heed it. What you say are words. Your word has replaced the vitality and the promise; but like our gods now, it is not living either. Now vitality and promise have left your living word, too. That which is without promise is evil and dwells in darkness, causing depravity. Your word is fickle, it keeps making and breaking. It leads astray the passing wayfarer; it may give some joy but there is more grief. The Marin Tan Podela[1] betrays one into psychosis and amnesia, for then one remembers neither home nor hearth, nor the ways to them – that is how your words are is, touched by the Marin Tan Podela. It is of the netherworld; soulless; born of a spectre, mortal and perishable, here today and gone tomorrow. Don’t spread such word. It is falsehood and shortens the life of earth.’


As against the language of healing and correction, how often and how unwittingly we do celebrate the language of malady and impairment! Such is the abstract power of ‘issues’, their language and currency. It precipitates distress and suffering amongst those that do not speak thus. In its wake people suffer loss and grieve over ways of life; rituals of celebration; healing and correction lose significance too.


Has the Marin Tan Podela betrayed us into psychosis and amnesia? For now, we seem to remember neither home nor hearth, nor the ways to them.




[1] A plant that causes temporary amnesia or illusion if one brushes against it; also known as Tondemara.






Narendra’s association with tribal communities began in 1980 when he began living in the deep, pre-agricultural, tribal lands of the Abujhmad (‘Inscrutable Land’) region of Bastar, India.

The two photographs from Bastar are by the author.


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