Outlining a Jharkhand hill station, not too beautiful and not too popular, but always interesting
A poet is a prosaic lover, writes author Mihir Vatsa in his first non-fiction,Tales of Hazaribagh. “Talent lodges, useless, against the gaze of love,” he says. Love is an important way of understanding Vatsa’s view of his hometown and Jharkhand hill station, Hazaribagh. This book is about Hazaribagh, a place that does not appear much in the lists of places to see in India.
In this self-assured debut, Vatsa is possessive of his Hazaribagh, but refuses to do the obvious: idealize or embellish it. In resisting the rose-colored glasses travelogue trope, he chooses not to patronize the present. His gaze is not only his vision of the landscape (plateau dotted with a village, lakes, waterfalls, and rocky cliffs), but also responds to how the area changes him. What we get in this often surprising book is a vocabulary of love for a home that can’t always hold its own against the forces of change.
One such change is the naming of Hazaribagh as the headquarters of Chhotanagpur North Division, which is now seen only as a headquarters, and not as a plateau or the place with a thousand gardens. He writes: “I see an active erasure of history, an erasure also of poetry. The history of administration in Hazaribagh began because of the plateau, not in spite of it. Its recent identification as a mere host city marks a fundamental change in its perception. It tells me that Hazaribagh could soon be another Tier 3 city with its invented parks, artificial ponds, symbolic forest, increasingly stripped of its inherent beauty.” But towns and cities belong to many, not just those who love them for their inherent or comprehensive beauty. The beauty of a fiercely personal love of public things (such as places) is to seek the hidden and treasure it once found.
Tales of Hazaribaghhe has various missions at his heart, like finding waterfalls. Unlike other solitary male quests, much of the writing of a colonial nature in India, for example, the author’s changing personalities ensure that we are not listening to a single authoritative, omniscient voice. He is at once a ‘Hazaribagh brother’, a ‘literature student fascinated by irony’ and a ‘millennial’. In effect, this means that you take the opinion seriously, but not the opinion you have of yourself. This reminds me of another good book from 2021,the braided riverby Samrat X, who also employs a lightness of tact in narrative personality.
Like the Brahmaputra inthe braided river— and like waterfalls that swell with surprise in the monsoon —Storiesit’s marbled with a smooth notion of exploration that’s in no hurry to get anywhere. When we read a book or watch a movie, we are often told that it is action, suspense, or romance. we are waitingevents. A memoir travelogue like this challenges the idea of events and instead relies on the way things unfold at their own pace. Thus, there are walks where nothing is found. The development of a non-event is an important part of life, and this little book knows it. It is repetitive in parts, and I wonder if it is a deliberative narrative device. I would also be interested in reading such a narrative through the eyes of a woman, such as the author’s mother, who is frequently mentioned.
But read this book and enjoy a deeply immersive, non-chauvinistic new way of writing. Find a place in India that is neither too beautiful nor too popular, but always interesting.
Tales of Hazaribagh; Mihir Vatsa, Talking Tiger, 450 rupees.
The reviewer is a conservation biologist and author of wild and stubborn.