A professor of Malayalam at the Nehru Arts and Science College Kanhangad, Ambikasutan Mangad has been closely involved in the fight against the use of the pesticide endosulfan. The pesticide’s usage in the cashew plantations in the Kasaragod district of Kerala, run by the Plantation Corporation of India, adversely affected the biodiversity and the health of those in the region. Residents of Kasaragod experienced severe health issues, ranging from sores to respiratory disorders, as well as conditions such as infertility and congenital deformities. Various others died due to the poisonous effects of the pesticide. The Supreme Court banned endosulfan in 2011, but the struggle against it has continued in the region—both for the recognition of the damage caused and for rehabilitation to the affected. Though several court-appointed commissions of inquiry have looked into extent of the damage and the involvement of the PCI, few have found in favour of the affected residents. In December 2010, the National Human Rights Commission took cognisance of the damage caused by endosulfan, and recommended that the state government pay compensation to the victims. In January 2017, many of these payments were yet to be made, and the Supreme Court directed the government of Kerala to compensate those affected within 90 days.
Swarga has been translated from Malayalam by the historian and researcher J Devika, and is based on Mangad’s observations of the struggles of the endosulfan victims. It is the story of Neelakantan and Devayani, a couple residing in the forests in Enmakaje, in north Kerala—in what seems to be “swarga,” or heaven. But after Devayani brings home a baby whose health has been affected by endosulfan, their lives become intertwined with the struggle against the use of the pesticide. The following is an extract from the novel.
Darkness enveloped the Jadadhari Hill.
Neelakantan lit the lantern and placed it on the veranda. He had a pamphlet to read: Jayarajan had given it to him that morning in Swarga. He read the title again: “Endosulfan: Problems and Facts.”
He was opening the handbook by S Usha on the subject to read it a second time, when Devayani got up from where she sat, a bit nervous.
Neelakantan put the book down and stepped out.
A head emerged through the darkened vegetation. “Who is it?” Neelakantan asked.
The figure entered their yard.
“Jayan? You didn’t go?” Neelakantan asked, relieved.
“Srirama and I stayed back at the clinic to make sure we were there just in case the commission came late in the day. The doctor was there too. We chatted and time flew. By the time I got out, the last bus had left.”
“And where were you all this while? It’s night already?”
“Oh that? Devappa was with me. We saw people carry chickens on the way . . . they said that the yearly Kozhikkettu at the Bhagyathimaarkandam is today. I haven’t seen it, so I went along. We were there for some time.”
Not letting him finish, Devayani addressed him, anger and sadness intermingling in her voice.
“Why do you wander like this, caring not for dawn or dusk? Didn’t I tell you this morning not to come here? What if something happens to you?”
Jayarajan did not pay attention to her words; he turned towards Neelakantan and said: “It happened just like we thought. The commission just held a namesake meeting at the guest house and left by the Mangala Express. That’s what we found out when we called the guest house. We were fools to wait for them.”
“A report without even seeing the patients?” Neelakantan was baffled.
“That’s what I said in my speech this morning. This is a huge hoax. Didn’t Srirama tell you about commission members who didn’t dare to drink not just water but even the coconut water we gave them? And what did they report? That there were no issues in Pedre! Another commission’s chairman told Dr Sripathi when they were in front of a water tunnel that he was getting the stink of endosulfan. But when they were at the railway station ready to return, he declared that the cashew nuts were more important! Really, we ought to pour endosulfan into the mouths of these blasted fellows! Chechi, I want something to eat, I am very hungry.”
Devayani lowered the flame as much as she could and said, a tone of warning ringing in her words: “You don’t have to shout so much. Talk softly.”
She went to the kitchen and got him a bowlful of unripe jackfruit cooked with crushed coconut, chilli and spices. As he ate it, he said: “Another shocking fact has come out. I forgot to mention it in my speech. About the Dube Commission—remember, the one which gave endosulfan a clean chit? The Frederick Institute of Plant Protection and Toxicology apparently found very dangerous levels of the pesticide in all the samples collected from here. Apparently, the Dube Committee doctored the reports to declare endosulfan innocent. The director of the Centre for Science and Environment, Sunita Narain, just revealed this in a press conference the day before yesterday.”
“Hard to believe.”
Jayarajan continued: “I am not done yet! You must know how this Dube is. He was a scientist at the Central Plantation Research Centre when the permission to spray this poison was first granted. To appoint him to investigate its tragic consequences—you’d know easily what would follow!”
Neelakantan put his hand on his head. “Oh! It’s those who need to be most committed to people who’re most inhuman.”
“Many agricultural scientists are brokers of the pesticide lobby! This poison network is so huge—with money it swallows them all—politicians grown fat on public funds, intellectuals, officials in the department of agriculture, many doctors, the young scientists in the agricultural colleges. That someone like Leela Kumari Amma still survives among them is a miracle!”
“Who’s that? You mentioned that name in the morning?”
“She is an officer in the department of agriculture. She’s the one who fought endosulfan fearlessly.”
Devayani interrupted: “Your speech this morning was great. I’m still in shock. So this land has been taken over by crooks and criminals?”
Neelakantan let out a heavy sigh. “Enmakaje is the land of—no, was the land—of truth.”
Suddenly Jayarajan spoke up enthusiastically: “Oh, today I heard an interesting tale of Mahabali, the guardian of Truth. Devappa told me.”
“Didn’t I tell you the other day?”
“No, this is about Mahabali’s reign in Tulunad. He was not displaced by a single Brahmin midget, but two! Two Brahmin boys—who wore the sacred thread—brahmacharis.”
“What’s that story?”
“Two young boys set out from the land of Rayara Vijayanagar—to see Tulunad and learn Tuluvidya. They had risen up from the roots of the vellachekki tree. They walked on, trying to find the forest path which would lead them to Tulunad. They tied their waistcloths to the left, and wore their sacred threads on the right shoulder. They wore chains of white conch shells and black conch shells and carried carpentry tools.
“They went to the palace of Subba Raya Devar on the eastern hill. Saluting him, they told him of their wish. He said that it was not possible and that it was appropriate that they return. Kaveri Amma in the Southern Palace, Mahalingeswara Deva of the Northern Palace and Somanatha of the Western Palace told them the same. And so they walked on, and they chanced upon Balindra—Mahabali—himself, on the way.
“When he got to know of their desire, he invited them to his palace. He received them with honour, granting them fresh clothes for three times of the day. He told them, ‘No one leaves my palace with an empty hand. Food, clothing, money, land, cattle—you may ask whatever you want.’
“Then the young Brahmin boys said, ‘Food gets over when you eat; clothes are used up when you wear them. Wealth may be stolen by robbers. Cattle may become prey to a leopard. So we need just three steps of land.’
“When they measured the three steps, Bali became an exile. They gave him a canoe with holes below the waist and a paddle of wax, and told him to go beyond the seven seas. When Bali turned back and looked at his land in deep anguish, they allowed him to visit once a year, on the New Moon, the day of Deepavali in the month of Tulam. Bali still looked back with longing and they said: when the white stone bursts into bloom, the granite boulder bears fruit, when children run around playing under the tiny thumba herbs, when the barren cow gives birth, when the cow grows a handlebar moustache, when the old woman begins to menstruate, when the black part of the red-and-black kunni seed turns pale, you can return and rule this land! And then the two boys hooted in derision and pushed Bali’s canoe into the sea.”
When the tale was over, Devayani asked: “Why are there so many tales about Bali here?”
“That’s because Enmakaje is known to be the land of Truth and duty . . . But I am thinking . . . will there be such a time ever, when the black half of the kunni seed whitens . . . or when children grow small enough to run beneath the thumba?”
This is an excerpt from Swarga by Ambikasutan Mangad, translated by J Devika, and published by Juggernaut Books. Swarga is available in bookstores and on www.juggernaut.in.
Ambikasutan Mangad is a Malayalam language writer. He is the professor and head of department for Malayalam at the Nehru Arts and Science College Kanhangad.