By Aminah Sheikh


Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?

I write because I have stories to tell. Because I want to tell these stories in a particular way. Some characters, and a vague, blurry indication of their predicament just pop up inside my head and I have no idea how they got there. Together, my characters and I, we embark on this journey to find out. This entire process – unpleasant at times but mostly exciting – provides me with the rush of air that keeps me going.

Sometimes though, I meet my characters in the real world. I may have heard about them from someone, so I go and meet them and find out their stories. I am talking about my non-fiction and reportage work here.

Basically, I am quiet, introverted and a loner. There’s silence all around me. Writing helps me to survive because I can’t talk much. I like to dwell in my own world in the company of my books, very few people I can relate to, and, the only way I am able to give vent to what’s buzzing inside my head is through the written words – whether it is published or what remains in the closet.

Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?

My recent book, Out of War (non-fiction), published by Speaking Tiger Books, is about the narratives of surrendered CPI (Maoist) cadres. I spent two years travelling through different parts of India – Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal. I located them, talked to them for hours, and I’ve remained in touch with many for four years now. I tried to understand their lives and stories. In my book, I look at the Maoist movement, its successes and failures, the passions and sacrifices, through the struggles of individuals – their individual needs, personal longings, sufferings and self-respect.

How do these foot-soldiers themselves view the Maoist movement? Is the movement free from hierarchies and compromise? Are the soldiers free to visit their parents, partners, children? What about those that trust the police with the promise of a safe life and opt out? I visited their homes, heard their stories – stories of abuse, poverty, suffering, hurt, deceit, joy, love…

I worked hard to get these stories. The research was also emotionally taxing for me. It wrung out all my energy. These people and their stories deeply influenced me. Now I know why people turn to the Maoists for support, I know why they become Maoist cadres.

Professionally, I’ve achieved only that much – I’ve written the book, pouring my heart into it.

But personally, I’ve achieved much more. Without expecting to. It was incidental. There was a time when I worked full-time with a reputed newspaper, earned a fairly decent salary and felt happy about certain material comforts. I quit my job to write this book, but the cravings for material things had remained. Bit by bit, in the last four years that I worked on this book, the attachment to material things has gone, and I hope for good.

out-of-warToofan Sahu

‘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.