Unheard Voices

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Harsh Mander’s Unheard Voices (published in 2001 by Penguin India) is a collection of twenty case studies that he undertook during his tenure as an IAS officer and some as Head of Action Aid
India. These are real-life stories of people that rarely enter into the public arena and if they do, are read and forgotten fast. Here are accounts of humiliation, denial of justice, of access to constitutional provisions, violation of integrity – physical, emotional, religious. These are stories where human rights have been cruelly compromised.

            Harsh Mander has put together stories from different places of
India, written at different times. From Anantpur, Bhopal, Bundelkand, Bangalore, Bhagalpur, Delhi,
Hyderabad and many other places come accounts of oppression and exploitation. There are destitute children from impoverished broken homes, HIV affected women from closed-down brothels, dalit youth crushed by the collusion between the babus and Caste Hindus, tribal peasants dispossessed of their land … people in the clutches of a system that leaves no space for the disempowered. Predictably, the victims are Dalits, tribals and women. They are from the lowest rung of the economic ladder as well, hoping to be able to climb it one day. What makes this collection valuable is that it presents success stories along with the sad ones, thus not reducing the book to a cheap tearjerker.

Mr. Mander presents straightforward narratives with only names changed and claims that he has retained the ‘voices and experiences of the people’. His access to these stories is first hand, though in most cases there are intermediaries. Some of the cases, we are told, are ones in which he was involved as a government official. But he has largely been able to be self-effacing with the ‘I’ rarely entering the narration. While this keeps the focus firmly on the victims, the style of presentation is objective enough to provide it a ring of authenticity. The adherence to specificity of details with dates, years, place of occurrence, official designations of involved persons and identification of groups responsible for certain actions, prevent these from being ‘fictional’. A real-life account presented without specifics risks being equated with literary text.

            ‘After
Bhopal’ is the story of Sunil rendered orphan along with two siblings after the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. His travails with the callous Company, corrupt officials, and demonic state power move us to rage. While the average middle class looks up to judiciary as the only sane institution, ‘Hounded like Criminals’ brings out the insensitivity of the judiciary and its class prejudices. ‘The
Land of
Jagtu Gond’ chronicles the ravages modernity brings with it in the life of tribals whose land and livelihood are taken away from them by the outsiders arriving with ‘development’. As a counterpoint to the hopelessness of victimization, an intelligent and brave attempt to improve ones life is the story of Anand whose story starts with rags and though it does not reach riches yet, ends with new horizons opening up for him.

            Shyam Benegal’s 1998 film
Samar was based on two of the stories of this collection. ‘A Short lived Revolt’ and ‘The Obeisance’ are stories of Dalits that recur with unflinching regularity in every part of
India. The unholy nexus between the state machinery and the oppressive caste hierarchy pushing the marginalized Dalit populace to the very edges of society has by now become a type. But the cruelty of it is still jolting to any who read these accounts.

            Woven into the narratives of these victims are the stories of some committed individuals and organizations. Mohammad Ali and Sathyu in ‘After Bhopal’, Wilson Bezawada of ‘Scavenger Narayanamma’, George Kollashany of ‘A Home on the Streets’ and a score of others along with their organizations bring some humane help to the helpless. The efforts of such agencies and individuals focus on the available means of change within the system. The stories are thus also a road map for possible alternative approaches. 

Mr. Mander’s prose makes easy reading, while it leaves our conscience disturbed. The author deserves appreciation for conveying the tragedies of the people he is writing about without ever sentimentalizing the incidents. There is compactness even when a story spread over years is related. But the intensity of suffering is ably communicated.

 This well-produced book is a testimony to how constructive such attempts can be. While it might also raise questions about the agency of the oppressed and whether ‘Unheard’ voices can be voiced at all, they serve some purposes. They contribute to the mobilization of public opinion and sympathy against violation of human rights. The mediation by an educated, upper class, government representative voice does beg some questions about what is heard.

This book is a must read for anyone concerned with the nature of our society and the direction it is taking. It is such a book that might remind the historically inclined minds the forgotten story of our ‘tryst with destiny’. It is a collection of narratives that remind us that we are not yet become a nation. The victims of sagas chronicled here are the backs on which a growing nation is building its tall dreams.

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