Mihir Vatsa’s Tales of Hazaribagh: An Intimate Exploration of Chhotanagpur Plateau isn’t a memoir, although it makes frequent, strategic, un-self-conscious usage of the first-person. It isn’t quite Nan Shepherd-esque natural history either, although there are significant vibes to that effect (indeed, Shepherd’s The Living Mountain is alluded to in the opening chapter). What it is, is a hybrid entity that inhabits both of these moulds intermittently, while also incorporating elements of historiography and academic treatise. It reads like a gentle, preternaturally wise voice from the future, telling us about the perils and pitfalls of our flawed, helter-skelter modernity.
In 2016, the then-25-year-old Vatsa, a Delhi University graduate in English Literature, was living in Delhi (and later, Noida) and working as a copywriter. An up-and-coming young poet, Vatsa’s work had won him prizes and fellowships, but his anxiety was gradually turning into persistent insomnia. Towards the beginning of the next year, he had decided to return to his hometown Hazaribagh, in Jharkhand. He didn’t miss the people as much as the landscape itself.
In an interview to Lounge Vatsa recalls how as a literature student, he was conditioned “to find beauty in excess”, and how he realised that notions of beauty are, in fact, deeply informed by one’s socio-political positioning as well as the dominant ideologies of the day.
“When we’d study Shakespeare or anything else from the canon, for example, we were taught that there’s something extraordinary about these texts, and that their distance from the everyday or the ordinary is their ‘excess’, their beauty," he says. "Similarly, much of India’ s popular imagination still tends to revolve around the Gangetic plain, so anything that provides a sharp contrast to that—Himachal, Sikkim or Andaman—is perceived as classically ‘beautiful’. Nobody says ‘let’s go to Jamshedpur’ while planning a holiday,” he adds.
In Tales of Hazaribagh, Vatsa explains how Hazaribagh’s status as a ‘hill station’ or ‘sanatorium’ (also the name of the book’s opening chapter) was largely a creation of the British, who suffered through Calcutta’s humidity and were eager to escape to cooler climes. This framing would later also be adopted whole-heartedly by the Bengali middle-class and elite, who’d follow the British in making Hazaribagh a bit of a staple weekend getaway. And if attention-from-tourists arrives, can the neoliberal ethos of ‘beautification’ (the clinical removal of natural landscapes in favor of concrete) be far behind?
Where Tales of Hazaribagh excels is in bringing all of these strands together — the rugged beauty of the Chhotanagpur plateau itself, its colonial history, the way that history defines its current form and finally, how the drumbeats of impending ‘development’ often cloak the irreversible damage we wreak upon pristine landscapes, without thinking of its ecological and historical worth. There are 19th century Scottish soldiers in this story and there’s a delightful imam who doubles up as area historian. There are stentorian woodcutters and chatty bureaucrats.
The fact that Vatsa uses his own life experiences to tie it all together is significant, too — it lends a personalized narrative edge to Tales of Hazaribagh, gradually raising the emotional stakes for the reader.
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Vatsa’s instincts as a poet never leave him through the course of the book, too. Like the lovely passage where he explains the pun in the name of his hometown, and what that represents. Talking about this aspect, Vatsa says: “If you look at the word ‘Hazaribagh’, the ‘bagh’ part can be interpreted as either ‘garden’ or ‘tiger’, so the place is either the land of gardens or the land of tigers—or both. ‘Garden’ represents a space of human intervention, human love while ‘tiger’ represents the wilderness, the danger. So this pun creates a kind of duality …it’s a poetic name.”
At the same time, this is not a book that panders to nostalgia. In fact, Vatsa writes, towards the end of ‘Sanatorium’, “(…) a seductive, dangerous kind of nostalgia also attaches itself easily to Hazaribagh. Nostalgia may be a form of appreciation, but often it is also a convenient rhetoric, a condescending, detached gaze directed at the present.” This is an important distinction to make, especially for a book like this, not least because nostalgia is inextricably caught up with class and Vatsa’s too smart a writer not to factor that in his assessment.
During the second chapter, while describing a hilly road, he makes an interesting and timely segue. He writes: “What I am trying to say is that a hill may be a cultural entity, but that culture is grounded in class. There is a difference between those who come to see the hill for a few hours and those who come to, and can afford to, live by it.” Elsewhere, he pokes gentle fun at his Delhi classmates, “When the Delhi ‘bros’ were going to Kasol, this Hazaribagh bro would be walking in a random forest.” These are layered observations about class and what is deemed to be desirable, aspirational even.
“How do we detach beauty from nostalgia?” Vatsa asks. “One way is to study the history of that beauty, where it’s coming from. In Hazaribagh, people feel that every single structure is ‘natural’ or meant for sight-seeing. But the craters, the lakes et cetera were not dug up by the white people who came here ‘for their health’. It wasn’t their labour. It was done by the convicts imprisoned by them following the Kol and Santhal rebellions. That this was a site of punishment instituted by the colonizers is important to remember.”