‘Aj kal kya kar rahe ho?’ I asked him over the phone.
(What are you doing these days?)
‘Kuchh nahin…gaon mein ghumta rahta hai, khet mein ghumta rahta hai…’ he tells me.
(Nothing much…I keep hanging around in the village, in the fields…)
Both of us were terrible in Hindi, but he spoke mostly Odiya and my knowledge of the language is rudimentary. So we managed with a bit of Odiya, Hindi and Bengali. Once in a while, we had to take resort to interpreters.
Here then is the story of Toofan Sahu (alias Bangra), now 22 years old.
Toofan sported the hairstyle of a 1980s film-star—he was likely to remind you of Mithun Chakravarty in Disco Dancer. He wore bellbottoms and filmi, oversize, dramatic jackets with frills, buttons and multiple pockets. Only, he was reed-thin, with high cheekbones, sunken eyes and a lovely bashful smile. Looking at him, you would never imagine he could as much as hurt a fly. How does a person driven to violence and bloodshed continue to look so pure? How did Toofan manage to hide so much loathing, suffering and pain? Do cruelty and suffering not reflect on the contours of the face? Were the violent acts these young men committed justified because their purpose and vision were pure?
There are no answers, only fear that your own vision may have tricked you, that you had not been able to sense his suffering. These thoughts flitted through my mind as I sat in front of a quiet and withdrawn Toofan. He had travelled all the way from Ganjam district to Rayagada town. It is a beautiful town, 400 kilometres from Bhubaneswar, cradled by mountains on all sides. He had come to meet the police superintendent, Rajesh Pandit, who had, in fact, arrested him during his previous posting as Ganjam SP.
The boy shuffled his feet and spoke without looking up from the durries spread on the floor of an office at the Rayagada district headquarters. It was difficult to get Toofan to speak even a few words at first. But once in a while, when he talked through an interpreter, a police constable he had known for a while, he was more vocal. Perhaps at that point he felt he was not really talking to me, but blurting out his innermost thoughts to someone else. Once he was well into the story of his life, Toofan was charged with emotion. He looked up from the durries and began to talk directly to me, even while speaking in Odiya. Our eyes met, and from this moment onwards he spoke to me as if he had known me for years.
Some readers might find it difficult to believe that Toofan would speak the truth in the presence of a policeman (or, to a policeman). How could he tell me anything against the police if he is speaking to me through a police constable? In defence, I must say two things here. First, Toofan’s story as I narrate here, is based on several conversations with him. Only once—the first time I spoke to him at the Raygada office—were portions of the conversation translated to me by a police constable. Subsequently, it was only Toofan and I talking (in a mix of Hindi, Bengali and Odiya). On other occasions, his uncle acted as the interpreter when he was at home among his friends and family members. Second, a police constable comes from more or less the same socio-economic background as a Maoist soldier. Those who have witnessed their interaction will know that there is sympathy and understanding between the two on account of the similarity in their upbringing and constraints in life. Also, there is no tension or bad blood as long as the police constables figure out that the higher-ups in the police are taking a ‘sympathetic’ view of the surrendered/arrested Maoist. That had been the case with Toofan Sahu.
Toofan was born in Gangapur village of Odisha’s Ganjam district. The son of a poor farmer, he dropped out of school while in class seven. After a couple of years, his parents thought of setting up a shop for him. He had an older sister and a younger brother. Shops in remote, sleepy hill villages usually stock everything from rice and vegetables to washing powder, lentils, sugar, salt, batteries—so people from far and near dropped by to pick up all necessary provisions at Toofan’s shop.
Days went by. Nothing adventurous or untoward happened. The drudgery, poverty and monotony of the hard, uneventful life engulfed the boy with a strange sorrow. Everyone Toofan knew was poor—engaged in manual labour or working in their own fields—with little hope for a brighter future. He desperately wished that there could be a magical door which he could open and walk into a life different from the one he was leading for so long.
But even if that was too outlandish for a poor villager to even dream of, a certain strand of that wishful thinking did descend on him one day in the form of Maoist leader Sabyasachi Panda and some of his associates. They were at his door and they needed a favour. Panda and his men were travelling within the thick forested and mountainous terrain of Ganjam villages, and they needed to charge their phones and laptops somewhere. Toofan’s shop provided the solution. The boy was also, in a way, grateful that these men had walked into his life.
Excerpted from ‘Out of War: Voices of Surrendered Maoists’ written by Swati Sengupta, published by Speaking Tiger, New Delhi, 2016.
Over the course of two intense years Swati Sengupta spoke to dozens of surrendered Maoist soldiers. In this book she focuses on their complex individual narratives and examines the reasons for, and the methods and contexts of, their surrenders. The disquieting voices of these foot-soldiers of the Maoist struggle reveal a harsh, on-the-edge world.
Suman Maity gave up his family, friends and school at the age of thirteen to become an armed Maoist cadre. He quickly became a terror in the forested regions of West Midnapore but, ravaged by uncertainty and betrayal, he surrendered because he ‘did not want to die in an encounter’. Champa was shot in the arm when a police team swooped down and started firing while she was on sentry duty at her camp. She lost consciousness and woke up in a hospital under police custody. A portion of her arm is now simply a lump of flesh. When the police gave her the option of surrendering instead of facing arrest, she chose to surrender—and now survives with difficulty by running a tailoring shop. A disillusioned surrendered Maoist, whom the author met in Kondagaon, told her that the so-called ‘camaraderie’ displayed in the camps is often faked for the media and the real conditions—which are actually neither equal nor congenial—are hidden away like ‘family secrets’.
Out of War is an insightful, poignant and often disturbing book about an unrelenting conflict where, despite all the idealistic fervour, there is injustice, even brutality, on every side and the most vulnerable people pay the heaviest price.
About the Author:
Swati Sengupta studied English at Jadavpur University and then worked as a journalist for various newspapers in Kolkata. She now freelances for newspapers and writes fiction and non-fiction books. Her published books include Half the Field Is Mine, Guns on My Red Earth and The Talking Bird.