Book Review: Oonga

Book: Oonga
Author: Devashish Makhija
Publication: Tulika Publishers
Genre: Fiction

A 2013 critically acclaimed film now a novel

Devashish Makhija, a screen writer and director of Hindi Cinema, made the film ‘Oonga‘ in 2013 with actress Nandita Das playing one of the important characters of the story. The film though critically acclaimed was not released commercially for various reasons. The author has released the story now as a novel and the book Oonga was launched in the Jaipur Literature Festival 2021.

Few years ago before directing the film of the same name, Makhija, spent time traveling through the jungles of Odisha meeting and observing locals and their everyday fight for survival. He realized that the story still seemed relevant in current times and decided to bring the story in the form of book. The book ‘Oonga’ is inspired by the Dongria Kondh tribals and their way of life.

The Characters Of The Story

Unadulterated by the ways of city, Oonga, a young tribal adivasi boy, lives a carefree life playing in the jungles with his friends. Like others of his adivasi tribe who have only known the forest as their home among those trees and animals, he too knows the ways of the jungle, recognizing every rustle of the leaves and the sway of each tree. He and his tribe depend on the forest, for food, shelter and well being. It is the only land they know as their own. Oonga is however unawares of the struggle that adivasis like him go through every day to protect their land, their home and their identity.

A young woman, Hemla, having seen the other side of the world beyond the forests, hopes to familiarize the young children with Hindi language which will enable them to start a dialogue with the outside world to convey their misgivings, their hopes and understand the ways of city. She teaches the children and believes in finding a solution through conversation and legal system to retain the land for the tribals. Oonga idolizes Hemla and studies Hindi in her makeshift class under the banyan tree. While Hemla dreams of arming the tribals with a language and identity, the forest echos with clashes between ‘naxalites’, the tribals and locals who have taken up arms to defend their honour and land under guidance of Laxmi and the policemen of CRPF. And amidst all this the mining company ‘India Aluminium Inc’ continues to encroach on the forest land hungrily destroying trees and environment in the name of development.

The Story

But the story is not about Oonga. Oonga is just a medium to carry the story forward. The story is about the women; Oonga’s mother Oongamma, who worries about the safety of her children, of Hemla, the young idealist teacher who believes in the goodness of the system and ultimately pays the price for being on the right path, of Laxmi, the Naxalite leader, who has seen enough pain and sacrifice and is willing to shed blood to protect her tribe, of other women who have been raped and widowed in the entire struggle over the years. It is their fight for survival that the story is all about.

It also is the story of an unwanted war between policemen and Naxalites who have been pitched against each other because someone else is devouring the land of adivasis and rendering them homeless.

The story also takes reference from Ramayana. Little Oonga having taken a long journey to the city to watch a play about Sitaharan, considers himself to be little Rama and returns to his village to witness the chaos. He believes he has to defend his village, Hemla didi and his friend Idma.

Throughout the story, a filmmaker’s flair is evident in the beautiful imagery like “The smoke is black. It rises like a thick venomous snake rearing its head into the sky, almost obscuring the sun” when he describes the smoke emanating from mining company. Or when Oonga runs, his feet falling thuupthupthupthuup on the forest floor past the red flags “The red flags flutter in chorus, as if murmuring a s silent anthem of protest.” And also when he writes about the logo of mining company. The narrative makes the reader aware of the ‘India Aluminium Inc’, the mining company’s watchful eye; the image conjured by the author through the omnipresent sign board of the company. It is this ‘I’ of the company name that keeps an eye on movements of tribals and pitches policemen against innocent tribals.

Review

The story moved me and and made me feel sympathetic towards the plight of adivasi tribes and even Naxalites.

Devashish Makhija has managed to hold reader’s attention through a tightly knit gripping tale about the dilemma of adivasis; to go down the legal way and sacrifice or to pick up arms and die. Are we not taking away the rights of tribal people to peacefully coexist on their land in name of development? Are the naxalites justified in defending their people and their land? The adivasis have lived in forests since ages but they obviously do not have legal papers to the land, does that mean they have no rights? Where will they go if all forests turn to cities?

Do the policemen of CRPF want such a war, killing people, sometimes their own? Do they deserve symathy for being the victims of brutal killings by Naxals? Or are they the perpetrators who forced the simple bow-and-arrow men and women of jungles to pick up guns and explosives?

Are the mining corporations and those who facilitate their spread deeper into farm and forest lands the real culprits? Do we really want development on cost of sacrificing a section of the society?

Makhija hopes the story will start a dialogue and force people to think the pros and cons of a greedy society that we are slowly becoming.

A great well written story told with passion and conviction. I am glad I read the novel first instead of watching the movie.

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