We spoke with Abhyudita Gautam Singha, author and Associate Professor of English in the Department of Higher Education of Government of Himachal Pradesh. Her book Submerged and Rehabilitated is about people striving to keep themselves grounded to their cultural roots while also embracing the new trends, creating a colourful canvas for them to live an all-encompassing life, shaded with the past and brightened with the future. The stories give a glimpse of the lives amidst the rivers and hills, pines and conifers while narrating breathtaking incidents and twists in them. The verses are spontaneous, emotional and multidimensional outlets that follow the conventional rhyming patterns. This book is a carry away miniature epitome of literary, social and cultural epics with illustrations that help the readers to replicate the stories vividly. Here is our conversation with the author about the book. Booknerds: Women played major roles in all your stories, be it Rutba contribution towards the reinstatement of the temple, or Kiran and Shama's rivalry. Was it a conscious decision to give these women the metaphorical voice? Abhyudita Gautam Singha: It wasn’t a conscious decision but undoubtedly the tales could have been narrated more convincingly only through the women protagonists. The grandmother and her bond with her granddaughter Rutba is the basic fabric around which the story “God’s Reinstated” is woven. The whole movement that Rutba started in her town was due to the grandmother’s unflinching faith in the temple gods that were submerged in the lake waters and were exposed during the summer when the water level went down. The nostalgia and pain of loss were revived every year as they lay desolate on the cracked and dried land. Only Rutba could comprehend her grandmother’s connection with the temples and the deity she had worshipped since her childhood. The grandmother was a widow which had naturally aggravated her desire to be religiously and emotionally more inclined towards the deity. The themes of pain, faith, devotion and conviction are metaphorically expressed through the grandmother and Rutba. About Kiran and Shama, the story takes a dig at the frivolous rivalry that exists between these two women. It was imbibed in their minds at an early age by their parents. Girls want to make their parents happy which led them to take the academic competition very seriously which further went along their lives in the other spheres as well, as the story progresses. If the story had male characters, the rivalry would have been of a grave degree that could have even resulted in physical scuffles. Booknerds: The book was very relatable, and would be, even for someone not from the mountains. Why is it important for you to share the stories from the mountains? Abhyudita Gautam Singha: It’s the cultural environment around you that formulates your thoughts and expression. The stories and the characters are deeply embedded in the cultural affinities. The themes are universal, yet it was important to bring the aesthetics and the ethnicity of the hills to the fore, allowing one to have a closer look at the lifestyle and customs of the people thriving in them. The subtitle of the book, Stories and Poems from Across the Mountains and the River indicates that the mountains have been like a natural divide that separates the folks living here from the rest of the world. The rivers form boundaries between the territories and split them culturally, creating a gap between them, also rendering the people withdrawn and inaccessible. The stories are an attempt to portray a civilization that otherwise seems intriguing and mysterious. Booknerds: The story of the well and the healing properties of its water in ‘Dried well on Ranipur', or the description of Naina's regional attire at the end of ‘Apple country' are among many regional terms or folk tales included in the story. Was it a challenge to align them in the stories’ narration or conversations within? Abhyudita Gautam Singha: The local myths, legends and fables constitute the common folklore culture in the hills. There is a story that has been narrated by our grandparents in every nook and corner of the villages and towns of the mountains. Literature is a reflection of society and I have tried to do just as much. The medicinal qualities of the water of the well have been added as a fictional figment to the age-old myth regarding the water source that already existed in a town. Being a native of this region, it was easier to write about the cultural nuances elaborately and convincingly. In the “Apple Country”, wisdom dawned upon Naina when she realised that it wasn’t shameful to adorn one’s attire. Her life’s journey taught her some lessons that led her to accept her roots and embrace her own culture that she had disdain for earlier. Booknerds: Throughout the book, we come across various anecdotes from the mountains. How did you choose what stories to include in your book? Abhyudita Gautam Singha: The story of the temples was very close to my heart and it was certainly an important issue that had to be taken up for the larger interest of archaeological conservation and the issue of environmental degradation. The rest of the stories have showcased the different regions of Himachal Pradesh, for example, “Dried Well of Ranipur” is based on the town of Chamba and the tribal area of Pangi and deals with the issue of sexual and economic exploitation of a tribal woman at the hands of a government official. The story “Apple Country” depicts the flavours of the apple orchards of Shimla inspiring the younger generation to nurture them and not run blindly after the city lights. The “Rivalry “shows the more urbanized and colonial side of Kasauli. Booknerds: Education has been a recurring theme in your book. Either as Vidya's ultimate dream of becoming a research scholar, or Rubta's journalistic approach to her mission. How do you think that impacts your stories? Abhyudita Gautam Singha: Education empowers women enabling them to take up challenges and take a plunge into the domains that were out of bounds for them earlier. The characters of Vidya and Rutba, though traditionally rooted in their culture, have embraced modernity and utilized their education for the culmination of the projects that they had taken up. The strategic planning was cemented by their convictions and determination. The professional and skilful training that they received helped them in streamlining their efforts that blossomed into a fruitful conclusion. Booknerds: In ‘Research scholar’, Nivedita reprimands Vidya for ruining her own life, for prioritizing her family over research. We come across a few other instances, where you have highlighted the different lives that men and women lead after marriage. Do you have any comments on some of these absurd expectations of patriarchy? Abhyudita Gautam Singha: The women have been brought up in a way by the families that condition them to embark on a married life with pre-conceived and already established notions regarding their familial duties and roles. They have even been asked to choose professions that would enable them to find time to raise their children. The men are not told to do so. The social construct doesn’t allow utilising their abilities at the right time. Their priorities have been well-formulated in advance and embedded in their minds at a very young age. The intention is certainly not to ask women to deviate from the natural role of nurturing the baby as a mother but to inspire men to share the responsibilities that would provide enough space for the women to grow professionally as well as a man does. Booknerds: Your boarding school years have been reflected in the book through most of the character backgrounds like Siddhartha and Trishna or Vidya, and even in a few poems. Would you like to share any memory from that time that has stayed with you even after all these years? Abhyudita Gautam Singha: The school hostel life has left an imprint on my mind that would last a lifetime. My favourite memory has been spending the time with my friends in the hostel dormitories and sleeping on the bunk beds, sharing our day’s experiences and narrating stories to each other while secretly eating tuck when the lights were turned out after 10 P.M. It so happened one of those nights that our most dreaded Principal Sister heard us chatting loudly and barged into our dorm at night with a cane in her hand. A pin-drop silence followed but thankfully she left after warning us. Such was the discipline in our school, needless to mention the respect and fear that we had for the rules of the hostel and our teachers. Having small chat sessions amidst such a strict environment was a luxury and this memory is what we cherish even today as we hostlers interact on social media platforms where we stay connected. In today’s world when people have no time to talk to their family members, those stories, especially the spooky ones of the hill stations are missed. Booknerds: Stories like that of ‘Girija the protector’ in ‘Dried well of Ranipur' and Rubta's grandmother’s belief in her gods, highlight the prominence of temples and spirituality in the book. How do you connect the mountains and the spiritual sanctity that you’ve experienced in life? Abhyudita Gautam Singha: Himachal is known as the land of Gods and the theme of devotion is justified in the stories through the characters that are spiritually inclined towards the local Gods and Deities of the mountains. People have grown up with faith in these Gods that has been ingrained in their minds since childhood. For the grandmother in the first story “Gods Reinstated”, the deity Ranganath is a part and parcel of her life, she pays obeisance to the deity every day. All the important occasions begin by worshipping the Ranganath and then the celebrations follow. The Grandmother is disturbed when she sees the Ranganath temple now stand desolate on the dried and cracked land stretched far away till the horizon. Similarly, Girija, as the name suggests, is the daughter of the mountains and has assumed the role of a protector like a deity of the hills. The supernatural powers depicted in the story are based on the strong belief system of the natives of this place. Booknerds: There was an instance in the book where it seemed that any administrative action will only come to fruition with political support. Was it a deliberate political commentary? Or was it just how the story naturally flowed, keeping in mind the reality of the situation. Abhyudita Gautam Singha: This is an important aspect that has been taken up in the story. Ours is a democratic country that believes in the power of the people. The demand is taken seriously if the majority supports it. The whole idea of starting a movement to reinstate the temples was to create a huge public awareness and to divert the government’s attention towards this issue. The social issue was infused with the religious sentiments of the people was the driving force for the government to take an action for the relocation of the temples to the new town. The practical implementation of the administrative decisions is depicted in the story through this narrative which incidentally showed a political twist as well which was necessary for the progression of the story and concluding it meaningfully. Booknerds: Your book does an excellent job at keeping a light tone while delivering significant messages about the coexistence of nature and our lifestyles. How relevant do you think, is climate change for the recent transformations in the mountains and rivers? Abhyudita Gautam Singha: The subjects of ecological imbalance and the issue of environmental degradation have been dealt with in the stories. The construction of the dam has long-lasting repercussions on the people, the environment and the ecology of the region where they are built. The stored waters of the reservoirs, which are not created naturally, result in the weakening of the mountains immersed in them. Besides, the rehabilitation of the towns and villages impact the people psychologically and emotionally. It also alters the cultural and social fabric as the neighbourhood and the settlements are changed permanently, forcing people to accommodate in the new environs. Climate change is impacted by these changes brought about by altering the natural course of the rivers and the formation of man-made lakes. The deforestation carried out to build high rise buildings and colonies have led to the depletion of natural sources and disturbed the natural habitats of wild animals and birds. All these factors have contributed to the climate change brought about through the years.
- Team Booknerds