By Sukant Deepak
New Delhi, Aug 30 (SocialNews.XYZ) He invents a space where the nostalgic and contemporary are suspended in a single frame, almost completing each other. When Mihir Vatsa, who recently received the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar for his 'Tales of Hazaribagh: An Intimate Exploration of Chhotanagpur Plateau' (Speaking Tiger), a genre-defying intimate portrait of a small town on Jharkhand's Chhotanagpur Plateau, it did not really come as a surprise. It is a peculiar book that deeply yearns for magic in the 'ordinary' -- discovering secret waterfalls, visiting Karanpura Valley- home to prehistoric humans and more importantly discovering an angle to look at oneself, sometimes while walking, sometimes through the rearview mirror of the car.
He tells IANS the news of the award thrilled him, and left him dazed too. "The Akademi announced the results in the afternoon and it shot my adrenaline up... so much so that I could not sleep in the night," he smiles.
For Vatsa, it was poetry that happened first -- 'Painting That Red Circle White' and 'Wingman'. But the nature of the material he was working with this time asked for a different form. "Poetry is a much tauter form and the matter I had at hand was discursive. Besides my own story, there were historical findings, topographical explanations, river routes, and moments of meditation. I would not have been able to do justice to the content if I went purely down the verse route. Still, something of poetry has seeped into prose: some lyricism, short sentences as standalone paragraphs and frequent paragraph breaks."
Reading the book, one realises that the longing for Hazaribagh does not cease even when he is physically there. He thinks it is the non-human and mostly 'non-living' entities which he sees in and around Hazaribagh. "Rivers, hills, forest, dramatic and gentle escarpments, the sun and the clouds -- things like that. Here, I think is an idea of Hazaribagh, a model, and me running after that model. In this idea, there is me, there's the plateau, and everything else is in the background. Literature gives the freedom to imagine such dwellings. But the reality is different: It is not just me and Hazaribagh, but an entire history of people and events, the forces of politics and policy, things that are external to me. Whenever I think that I have come to grasp the idea, it slips away, leaving me a perpetual chaser."
Admitting that the thought of 'outgrowing' Hazaribagh does scare him at times, the author feels it is therefore important that the idea of Hazaribagh be dynamic. "A thousand and one nights of imagining and reimagining the place... I don't want to outgrow it," he says.
Much has changed in small towns in the last decade. Hazaribagh has a Dominos outlet now, Swiggy and Zomato deliver food, and groceries can be ordered on apps. It even has a cineplex. Yet, the old does exist. "There is familiarity among people, if not directly then indirectly. Local media and administration often play their love/hate game. The 'town' itself is a tight space, still. Usually, cities are considered the sites of aspiration, but I feel that aspiration emanates from small towns. There, the contrast between the old and the new, the regressive and the progressive, the pastoral and the urban play out both subtly and starkly. I find this aspect interesting."
While Vatsa may have never imagined that the book would become so popular, with people from Hazaribagh and those who have not even heard of it messaging him, he says that he still identifies himself as a poet. "Poetry has taught me to be reflective, meditative, lyrical. These aspects are present in 'Tales' too."
The author also warns of nostalgia that can be associated with places like Hazaribagh. It has to do with our understanding of nature and the beauty we associate with it- any place that has had a history of beauty. The trope is that the old days were nicer, they were calmer, greener, shadier, and gentler.
"We tend to locate such idealizations in the past because, unlike the present, the past is not disruptive. There is safety there. However, surrendering beauty to nostalgia frees us from conserving it in the present. Beauty as an artefact will demand merely an exhibition space. These exhibitions can be overtly nostalgic tales in literature, or token offerings like enclosed parks in place of forests, formulaic nature trails, 'beautified' ponds and tourist sites. Living beauty demands work. It demands political will, eco-sensitive policy orientation and an ecological mode of thought. Nostalgia may not allow such contestation over its tendency to be utopic, often simplistic- hence, the warning," he says.
Currently focusing on his PhD at IIT Delhi, the author enjoys the gestation period. When an idea pops up and sends him thinking, he does not immediately get down to write but takes his time with the data. "In the editing stage, I keep the writing and the editing some time apart, preferably a month, so that when I get to edit the draft, enough time has passed to be more objective with my own work."