Medha Patkar's Fast - Live From Jantar Mantar, New Delhi
Mayank Austen Soofi
At first on reaching the not-so-visible venue at Jantar Mantar, I could not spot her in that thin crowd of colorfully dressed villagers and kurta-jeans and handloom-saree clad city activists. It was Sunday afternoon and there were not many people on the broad pavement adjoining this 18th century monument. (The pavement is the exact place where demonstrations are permitted by the administration. In 2005, my close friend had fasted there all alone for two days in pursuit of religious harmony).
After looking around and looking down, I finally saw Medha Patkar. She was lying on the ground. Covered in a crumpled blue-colored chaadar, with only her pale face and disheveled grey hair visible, I was seeing Ms. Patkar for the first time in real life and was quite shocked to see her in such a state and in such surroundings and in such temperature.
It was very unreal to witness Medha Patkar, listed by one of India's top weekly magazines as one of the 25 most influential figures of independent India in its 25th anniversary issue, lying on a New Delhi footpath without much of a ceremony or fanfare!
In the heat of the blinding afternoon, the only refuge was the shade afforded by a blue tarpaulin. Lazy weekend traffic was whizzing past in the adjacent avenue. The volunteers and activists were busy talking god-knows-what in separate groups. Villagers were sitting in clusters. Most were chatting, others were fanning themselves and some were dozing. They all had come all the way from their villages in Madhya Pradesh destined to be submerged under the Narmada water once the height of the damn is raised from 113 metres to 121.92 metres.
Ms Patkar is protesting against raising the height of the dam and is holding a fast-unto-death even at the time of writing this piece. She is demanding rehabilitation of the displaced people before the height is raised. This is in accordance with the Supreme Court ruling that ordered grant of permission for raising the height of the under-construction dam only after ensuring rehabilitation of the affected people.
It was Medha's 5th day of fasting and she had already grown very frail. Her body had started wasting off. There were two more fasting villagers lying on either side of her. All the three were being fawned over with Ms. Patkar being the focus. Some women were fanning them with newspapers. One was serving ice cubes and water to each of them from time to time. There was also a stall for books on Mao, Lenin and other outdated figures of the past.
It was an intense sensation on being so close to Medha. I had always admired her but with a bit of skepticism: I do not doubt the idealism of her intentions but am not completely convinced in the constructiveness of her kind of activism. However all of it melted down in that hot afternoon. I was forced to re-juggle my opinion from what I saw: a frail old woman, who happened to be one of the most admired and celebrated personalities of our time, lying there on a roadside! With no rented crowd! No fancy banners! Not even an effective sound system! I cannot imagine our present day air-conditioned politicians capable of making such a humble protest. Not Sonia Gandhi. Not A.B. Vajpayee. Definitely not L.K. Advani! In many ways it was like a scene out of Richard Attenborough's Gandhi with the old man stubbornly weakening himself during one of his fasts.
After an hour of sitting, staring, listening, observing and generally feeling awed by the utter simplicity of the scene, I noticed a strikingly beautiful woman, thinly-built but with a broad back, walking into the venue. Dressed in a very baggy like shalwar with a very scanty top, wrapped in a thin muslin kaftan-like garment, wearing an exotic necklace (the one which hippies wear and can be easily bought in Paharganj), she looked very familiar. She was Arundhati Roy! Dark, radiant, with her curly nest of (greying) hair. She looked at Medha with a tenderness that shone out of her very expressive eyes and then she sat down with the others.
At the other end of the pavement, lunch was being served from a big bhagona. The menu consisted of a yellow gravy-like moong-daal khichdi, the kind which is generally recommended during an upset stomach. Although aam ka achar was the accompaniment, the khichdi looked so unappetizing (and unhygienic) that in spite of all my comradely feelings towards the Narmada activists, I did not dare to sit down for this lunch. But Arundhati Roy, refusing a special lunch packet consisting of subzi poori, instead came over and served herself with this very same khichdi. She then sat down on the footpath and ate the whole thing with seeming relish and even licked the pattal clean with her fingers.
Meanwhile I saw another familiar figure in a crisp white kurta pajama entering the venue. He was SAR Geelani, the Delhi university professor who was arrested and consequently tortured by the Delhi police after the parliament attack in 2001. (He was later released by the courts). He too had come out in support of Medha Patkar.
Soon speeches were being made and 'revolutionary' songs were being sung and though Medha was very weak and though her eyes were closed, she did smile at some particulary fine slogan or on some particularly interesting rhetoric that was periodically burping out of the screechy loud speaker. She even tried to clap at times but it needed a lot of effort and she was drained of all the energy.
One feeling that was shared by many present there that day was the strange absence of media coverage. It almost appeared as if reporters were not covering the fast on purpose. Ms. Roy even commented that it would be foolish to expect any support from the 'corporatised media'. (Of course things changed later on. But remember, the Sunday I was there, it was yet 'only' the 5th day of Medha Patkar's fast. There was not much crowd; hardly any news channel crew was stationed; the fast still had not been featured in any publication except The Hindu; Ms Patkar's health had not yet deteriorated to an alarming level; and of course a major fashion event was in progress in Mumbai).
It was interesting to witness Ms. Patkar in action and though one might chose to agree or disagree with her, it would be very difficult to ignore the sincerity of her intent, the strength of her character, the courage of her soul, and the doggedness of her efforts. Though she was looking very frail and weak, there was radiance around her face and she looked every bit the hero. Sitting so close to her made me feel a close proximity to what must surely be greatness.
Medha Patkar's Fast - Live From Jantar Mantar, New Delhi
- » Published on April 05, 2006
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