Kalahandi: A commentary on the social and political apathy in India

A poet, playwright, fiction writer and art historian of erudite stature, Jagannath Prasad Das also known as J.P. Das, has assimilated his literary collection in Oriya and English. His poems emanate the themes of love and loneliness and explore the existential aspects of mortality and despair. His early poems are poignant and pessimistic but then shifted to write poems celebrating love, life and death in their omnipresence. His stories essentially deal with the complexity of relationships and ordinary people caught in the vortex of everyday life with its hope and disappointments. The chief themes under conflict are the illusions that people hold about life and their incapacity to cope with reality. In his stories , Das shows us the vignettes of the ethos and more of contemporary Indian society: poverty, untouchability, dowry and the position of women. Prominent among his works are, Prathama Purusha, Love is a Season, Timescapes, Diurnal Rites, Loneliness: Poems of Longing and Despair, and Dark Times.

The poem ‘Kalahandi’ appeared in Das’s collection: Diurnal Rites. Kalahandi is a district in Orissa that has witnessed more than a century of misery ever since it was hit by the first drought in 1856. Kalahandi has been at the receiving end of a drought with alarming frequency and has become a metaphor for hunger and penury. This poem is a vociferous imputation of the social and political apathy that marginalizes and ignores that unit of the population, which is impoverished and is cruelly victimized by natural calamities. The heart wrenching picture of the anguish of Kalahandi’s people is portrayed as nightmarish in their brutality, which sweeps the readers with pity and distress. This poem is a tell-tale expression for the bigger picture of the suffering and plight of those economically ostracized people spread over the world. Kalahandi and its inhabitants are metaphors for the poverty ridden population; a synecdoche for the victims of destitution on a universal level. The dehumanization of these individuals occurs when they are reduced to statistics in government records and become subject of seminars and headlines in national and international press; unfortunately the outcome of decades of misery.

The poem opens with a fervent mandate to put away the road maps- Kalahandi does not need any helicopter or map; Kalahandi is where hunger thrives. The poet probably is trying to take us back to the time when the then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi visited the famine-stricken village of Kalahandi in a helicopter. News of this kind were scarcely promoted but after the Prime Minister headed to the land, thousands others did and Kalahandi made it to the big headlines. Now, Kalahandi does not need a helicopter to pay a visit to or maps to lead the way to. Kalahandi has become a metaphor for the adversity that one can encounter all too commonly, for myriad villages in India have become dens of hunger and famine.

The poet says that the government officials have chalked out many plans and schemes and the bureaucrats have assessed the circumstances but what remained unmaterialized was the implementation of these plans. The poverty line has made new benchmarks, has ebbed further, which the government and the press are least bothered about. The poet entreats us to have a look at Kalahandi from which we have distanced ourselves with apathy. Maybe the overexposure of such scenes in the media has made our hearts calloused but the poet implores us to empathize with the destitutes. It is an indictment of the politicians, the bureaucrats, the media who are unmoved by the horrendous privation, rather exploits their plight of abject penury for their own selfish gain.

The politicians visit Kalahandi and shed crocodile tears and the media promotes them, seeming to pull the strings of the people’s hearts and successfully causing an increment in the politicians’ vote-banks and the media’s TRP ratings. Their pretentious false promises are just stunts to gain public support and sympathy. The exaggerated assurances of the planners are just sugar-coated words which are never meted out to the sufferers. While they get away with their furtive intentions, Kalahandi still remains ramshackled. The poet concludes by interrogating us a very pertinent question as to how we can walk into the age of progression leaving Kalahandi behind, which reminds me of John Donne’s poem, “No Man is an Island”: whatever one goes through is afflicted on others as well.

It took me aback to know that to refer to any place which is inflicted by natural catastrophes and needs state intervention in the form of minimal food and money to combat the consequences of the calamities, sociologists and economists call it “Kalahandi Syndrome”, and somewhere my mind quests for explanations to questions which are never answered.

An amateur writer who is in a constant dilemma between accepting reality and drowning in her surrealistic reveries.