Dahl and dams

Barwani, India, 1991

Wander through a village bazaar, or through the ancient quarters of any city or small town in India, and you will be subjected to a barrage of odours, some exquisite, some foul, a few neutral, each in some way distinctive and indicative of past and present human endeavour; of walking and working, farming and slaughtering, cooking and creating, abluting and polluting: the warm, whiskery breath of a buffalo and the goaty smell of scavenging goats; unwashed feet and open sewers; the perfume from a passing woman; the wet, green tang of freshly cut animal fodder; the woody smoke which rises from charcoal braziers; acrid clouds of diesel fumes that splutter from backfiring rickshaws; the crisp, alpine smell of freshly laundered linen; a sudden whiff of jasmine from a garland; and, almost wherever you go and whatever the time of day, the ever-enticing smell of cooking: of cumin and other seeds sizzling in oil; of fresh-cut coriander; of ginger and garlic and chilli, of lemon and garam massala and fenegruek.

You can eat badly in India, just as you can anywhere else; and you can eat dangerously too, though the risks nowadays of typhoid and other water-borne diseases are fewer than they were when I first wandered around the subcontinent in the 1980s. But for every bad (or health-threatening) meal I have had in India, there have been hundreds which not only fulfilled their primary purpose of assuaging hunger but provided real sensory pleasure. And many of the best meals, and the ones that linger in the memory, were the simplest, often eaten in the most modest of places, and at the heart of the simplest meal in India – like the core of a religious belief – is dahl.

Somewhere on the Deccan Plateau

Somewhere on the Deccan Plateau

If you want to summon up the idea of India, just head for your kitchen. Wash whatever pulses you’ve chosen – lentils, beans or peas, split and stripped of their outer hulls – then bring them to a boil in cold water and skim off the scum that rises to the surface. Add garlic, fresh ginger, green chilli and turmeric and leave it to boil for an hour or two, stirring every now and again to make sure that the dahl doesn’t stick to the pan. Once the pulses have been reduced to a yellowish slop, make the tarka. Heat some oil or ghee – clarified butter – in a pan, fry some sliced shallots or onions, then add a good quantity of cumin seeds, mustard seeds, crushed chilli and a pinch of asafoetida (which is also known as devil’s dung or food of the gods, which suggests strange habits on the part of the latter). This leads to an explosion of smells which will take you straight to India; and in my case, plucked from the encyclopaedia of memory, to a brief encounter with Baba Amte.

In the early 1990s, as I travelled around India researching a television series for Channel 4, I kept hearing the name Baba Amte. He was widely known, not just in India but far beyond its shores, for his work with lepers and the blind. However, he’d recently developed a new interest. He had become a leading figure in the battle to prevent the damning of the Narmada River and he was encamped, much to the fury of the authorities, on the river bank near the town of Barwani.

While I was in the state of Gujarat, I heard a fair amount about the Narmada project, which was going to involve the building of 30 major dams and some 3000 minor ones. Gujarat was one of the states which would benefit from the power and irrigation water which the project would supply. I met some people who were in favour of the dams; others who were implacably opposed. Now seemed as good a time as any to visit Baba Amte. I took an overnight train from Ahmedabad to Indore Junction, the nearest railway station to Barwani. As soon as I arrived, I ate a quick breakfast of masala dosa at a cafe next to the station, booked myself into a modest hotel, then telephoned Om Prakash Rawal, a former state government minister who had become an influential opponent of the Narmada project. He suggested I take a rickshaw to his home.

“The World Bank and the government say they want to develop India, but develop for whom?” said Mr Rawal, a handsome, imposing-look man in a white dhoti. “And at what cost? Hundreds of thousands of people, most of them tribals, will lose their homes and forest because of these dams. What we are talking about here is not just lost forests, submerged temples, drowned wildlife – we’re talking about the right to life.”

As I was leaving Mr Rawal’s house, I surmised that I’d probably learnt as much from him, and from others I had spoken to in Bombay and Gujarat, as I was likely to learn about the case against the dams. “Yes, that is true, but you must still see Baba Amte,” he said. “You must definitely see him. Most definitely.” I think he thought I was looking for an excuse not to make the journey to the Narmada River.

Baba Amte

Baba Amte

Late that afternoon I found what appeared to be a reputable taxi company and identified the car in which I would travel the following day. It was an Ambassador, the workhorse of the Indian roads, a descendant of the 1950s Morris Oxford, on which only minor improvements had been made. This particular car had relatively few dents, a good set of tyres and a pleasant, English-speaking driver, who assured me that if we left at dawn we could reach Barwani by mid-morning, spend a few hours with Baba Amte and return to Indore by nightfall.

It took me about five minutes the following morning to realise I was travelling with neither the driver nor the car I had chosen. The driver, a scruffy, little-washed individual who spoke no English, frequently spat out of the window; the car rattled like a tin of nails sent spinning along a stone floor. Within the first hour, as the rising sun cast an opaque, dusty light over the rolling countryside, we passed five accidents. One lorry was lying on its side, the driver’s inert and bloody body hanging out of the broken windscreen.

A few minutes after we had passed this gruesome scene, one of our tyres split like a ripe fig and we veered into a ditch. I climbed out of the Ambassador with some difficulty and said a few choice words to the driver, who remonstrated as though the whole thing was my fault. I grabbed my rucksack and began walking south. The road was empty and the landscape seemed to stretch out for an eternity, the distant hills merging seamlessly into the blue early-morning sky. I must have been walking for 10 minutes or so when a motorbike pulled up beside me.

The rider took off his jerry-can helmet and goggles. “Good morning, sir, may I be so bold as to enquire of your situation?” he asked in rapid, Indian-style English.

Once he had established the facts, Mr Shah insisted that we return to the taxi on his motorbike, that I pay the driver half of what had been agreed, and jointly sign, with the driver, a statement recounting why my taxi was now lying in a ditch, two wheels cocked to the morning sun. He spoke solicitously to the driver, assuring him that we would telephone his company when we reached the service station down the road. This we did. Once we were on our way again Mr Shah, who was a schoolteacher, talked knowledgeably over his shoulder about Shakespeare, Dickens and Hardy. He had a great love of England, he said; and the England he loved was a 19th-century England, similar in his imagination to the India of today, with its slums and its industrial towns, its local dialects and peasant farms.

At the end of a long bridge which traversed the Narmada River a group of some 60 or 70 women squatted in distraught silence. In the middle of the road there was a roughly constructed enclosure made of four wooden beds laid on their sides. Mr Shah pulled up beside them and inspected the body of a boy – he was no more than nine or 10 years old, I suppose – who had been almost sliced in two by a lorry, guts spilling over the oil-stained tarmac.

A cultured and intelligent man, Mr Shah seemed unmoved. Such deaths, he explained, were commonplace. “Now that I have helped you, you can do something for me,” he continued, giving the boy no further thought. “You will come to my school and give a short talk to the children.”

This prospect filled me with anguish for I have a terror of public speaking; in any case, I was unnerved by the morning’s events.

“How many children in the class?” I asked.

“Not a class. The whole school. Perhaps 2000. You can tell them why you love India.”

It seems a long time ago now. Mike Pitts took this photo of me in Bombay in 1991

It seems a long time ago now. Mike Pitts took this photo of me in Bombay in 1991

As we headed towards the school we passed many hundreds of children who were heading into town. This was the morning contingent, schools in these populous areas running two shifts a day. Intrigued by the sight of a white man, many turned round and ran besides us as we juddered towards the school. Mr Shah left me in a room of female secretaries, ancient typewriters and frayed files while he went to see the headmaster. He returned a few minutes later.

“Quick, we must leave now,” he said. Once we were clear of the school grounds he explained that the headmaster feared my presence might cause a riot.

I had to wait several hours for a bus to Barwani. Just before it left two policemen climbed on board with the driver who had been involved in the accident whose aftermath we had witnessed. He was either drunk or high on opium, and he cheerfully chatted away to the policemen, and anybody else who would listen, throughout the two-hour journey. Once, when I caught his eye, he held up his arms and clanked the heavy iron chains which restrained his movements.

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In those days – this was 1991 – faxes and phones were relatively scarce in rural India and I had made no attempt to contact Narmada Bachao Andolan, the organisation spearheading opposition to the dams. I eventually found its office, which occupied two small rooms above a shop not far from Barwani bus station. A couple of youths, lounging on a mattress with their exercise books, explained through gestures and sign language that the people who ran the office were absent. One of them then led me to a nearby shop and introduced me to a slender, quietly-spoken young man who offered to take me on his motorbike to Baba Amte’s ‘encroachment,’ as it was quaintly known.

We found Baba Amte in conversation with around a dozen people who had arrived earlier in the day, having made the long journey from Anandwan, the settlement for lepers established by Baba and his wife some three decades earlier. As soon as I entered the modest shack all conversation ceased and there was some nervous nodding of heads and shuffling of feet. Baba Amte, clearly surprised, asked who I was. I said I was a journalist.

“If the police find out you’re a journalist, you’ll be in trouble,” he said. “If they’ve seen you arrive, they may stop you when you leave.”

The meeting broke up and everybody left the room apart from Baba and his son Vikas. Baba had been standing when I entered the room – a spinal problem prevented him from sitting, and he was obliged to either stand or lie down – and now the others had left I had a better view of the man. He was in his late 70s, but he had the physique of someone much younger. He was muscular, bow-legged and strikingly handsome, with a hawkish nose set in a broad face bordered by silver hair and thick sideburns. Although he was by no means in the rudest of health – he had recently had a heart pacemaker fitted – he had about him the air of a warrior.

Baba suggested that Vikas, a doctor at Anandwan, should show me round his encroachment while there was still a little light left in the sky. We were inspecting the vegetable gardens when a blue police bus pulled up on the riverbank a couple of hundred yards downstream. Thirteen policemen climbed out and stared towards us. Soon after we had returned inside the shack a brilliant light pierced the darkness. “They’ve set up that halogen lamp to upset Baba,” said Vikas. “It shines into his hut all night long.” On one occasion, the police had even brought loudspeakers and bombarded him with Bollywood music.

Baba Amte invited me to stay the night, but I declined. There was little enough space already for the new arrivals from Anandwan; and the longer I stayed, the more likely it was that the police would come to enquire about my presence.

“Well, you must eat before you go, and we can talk while you eat,” said Baba.

I was famished and I set about the quintessentially Indian country meal – rice, dahl, chapatis and a spicy dish of mixed vegetables – with relish. While I ate, Baba explained what would happen if the government went ahead with its plan to build a huge complex of dams along the Narmada River. The story was much the same as the one I had heard from Mr Rawal. The case against the dams, articulated by a growing number of activists, had already convinced the Japanese government to withdraw its financial support. Now, campaigners were hoping that the World Bank would do the same.

Later that night, on a bus back to Indore, I reflected on Baba Amte’s parting words. “I shall die here,” he said. “If the waters rise and engulf this bit of land, I shall drown. I shall not move – or they’ll have to carry me out in a coffin.” That never happened. The Narmada Dam project went ahead – in fits and starts, and often controversially – and Baba Amte eventually returned to Anandwan, where he was to die, aged 93, in 2008. So was all this talk of dying on his encroachment just bombast and bluster, designed to impress a visiting journalist?

No, I don’t think so. Everything about his life suggested great courage and fortitude: his contempt for cast and privilege; his habit of neither looking up to people – he had refused to call Gandhi ‘Mahatma’, or Great Soul, when he lived at his ashram – or look down; the creation of Anandwan, whose philosophy was based on the belief that hard work, in fields and workshops, can do far more than charity to restore the self-respect of lepers, the blind and disabled; and his bold opposition to the Narmada dams, despite all the state-sanctioned intimidation.

Baba Amte will be remembered long after his death. But what of those lesser figures, the foot soldiers in the struggle against the Narmada project? They, too, frequently showed great courage in the face of police brutality.

After I had had a second helping of dahl, and several cups of sweet tea, the young man who had brought me to the encroachment returned on his motorbike. Baba had told me that people who came to see him were frequently harassed by the police, and sometimes beaten, and yet here he was again. It was now getting on for midnight and it was a black, moonless night. To avoid the police we went a long way round, across the cotton fields, clinging to the hedgerows with the lights off. When we arrived at the bus station he presented me with a little notebook and a propelling pencil.

I thanked him for the presents, and for taking risks on my behalf.

“It is my duty,” he said. “You are our guest.”

I have lost count of how many times I have heard this said in India, just as I have lost count of the number of times I have eaten dahl and felt a deep sense of satisfaction.