Enmakaje was once leopard’s country. The big cat was a deity in the village along with the snake. There were bees, butterflies and birds here. As were many languages like Tulu, Kannada, Malayalam, Arabic, Marathi and Urdu. Adivasis and Brahmins lived together in Enmakaje. There were no wells in the village because water flowed in a thousand streams. The people were happy and thought it was heaven. Then all hell broke loose, literally from above. This is the story of Swarga, Malayalam author Ambikasuthan Mangad’s new novel. It’s about people and pesticides. It’s also the story of politics and pesticides. Mangad retells the spine-chilling tales of a rural community in the northern district of Kasargod in Kerala that paid the price of human greed and corruption. The story goes back to the 70s when the Plantation Corporation of Kerala resorted to aerial spraying of the pesticide, endosulfan, to eliminate the tea mosquito bug it said was killing cashew. The spraying continued for two decades, polluting the environment. The consequences were disastrous. Mangad’s recreation of the human and environmental disaster from endosulfan begins in a biblical fashion.
Two people, Man and Woman, live on a hill inside a forest. If they step outside the forest and take a short bus journey, they can reach Swarga, the nearest civilisation. After living in self-induced isolation for six years, Man and Woman (they have names, Neelakantan and Devayani) are suddenly exposed to the world of others. There they find children with deformed bodies, calves with three limbs and two heads, ponds with no fish and a sky with no birds. And they realise that Swarga is no heaven after all. Swarga is a local tale. The novel is full of local legends and folklore linking the living beings to their land. The stories, however, turn universal when a tragedy befalls the land. The author juxtaposes the culture of a place with its fate, using fiction to unravel reality.
Mangad’s main characters, Man and Woman, are two people who have renounced the world. They have agreed to have no interaction with other human beings and banish the memories of their past. But the world comes back to them when the land is stretched to its limit and the legends are in peril. Mangad lets the story, so far driven by imagination, get taken over by the reality of the suffering caused by endosulfan at the point Neelakantan and Devayani realise what is happening in the world they didn’t want to be a part of. From that moment, Swarga becomes a chronology of suffering of the victims of endosulfan in Kasargod. Mangad keeps several names, of the protagonists and villages, intact.
Enmakaje, one of the villages that bore the brunt of the tragedy, is revealed as itself. There is ESPAC, the Endosulfan Spray Protest Action Committee, that is borne from a defunct kabbadi club. A doctor, who was part of the protests, retains his surname, Kumar. The agencies, which investigated the tragedy, appear as themselves, like the Centre for Science and Environment, which conducted a study on the health effects of endosulfan and the progress of rehabilitation of the victims in 2011. First published in Malayalam as Enmakaje in 2009, the novel is an important entrant into the world of literature that reminds us of the mindless crimes against humanity by ourselves.
The Bhopal gas tragedy—which continues to wreak havoc on people in the city in Madhya Pradesh, just like the residents of Enmakaje and other villages affected by endosulfan—was the subject of Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2007. In 2015, Malayalam filmmaker Biju’s Valiya Chirakula Pakshikal (Birds With Large Wings), based on the endosulfan tragedy, won the National Award for Best Film on Environment Conservation. Swarga is a tribute to the victims of the endosulfan tragedy and those who came together to fight a vicious mix of politicians and industrialists, and scientists who allowed it to happen.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer