At an academic seminar, well-known Malayali writer Sarah Joseph first heard about ‘Budhini’ from noted poet and political activist Civic Chandran, who wrote a sensitive poem on it. It was a subject that shook Sarah Joseph’s mind and soul and touched her soul. Civic Chandran urges Sarah Joseph if she can elaborate on this sensitive topic in the story.
Chandran found Budhini’s story in an article by Chitra Padmanabhan, ‘Recovering Budhini Mejhan from the silted landscapes of modern India’, published in ‘The Hindu’ on June 2, 2012. Sarah Joseph also read this article many times. The information related to this was collected in detail.
The incident was such that on December 6, 1959, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru went to Dhanbad district to inaugurate the Panchet Dam on the Damodar River. A fifteen-year-old girl ‘Budhini’ was also invited for the formal inauguration of the dam. In the course of the inauguration, Budhni put tilak on Nehru’s forehead and wore a garland of flowers around his neck.
Budhini was from the Santhal tribal society. According to Santhal traditions these ceremonial signs were interpreted as an act of marriage and eventually the fifteen-year-old Budhini was excommunicated by her society. Budhini was banned for ‘marrying outside her community’. She was also fired from the project where Budhini was working.
Budhini Mejhan is a very painful story of a ruined life in the history of independent India. The story teller of this unspeakable story in the novel is young journalist Rupi Murmu who is determined to bring the events related to him to the world.
In this reimagined history published from Penguin Random House India, author Sarah Joseph in her novel ‘Budhini’ reveals Budhini’s character as a woman with a distinctive attitude and struggle for authority and indomitable vitality, Which connects her to a strong and effortlessly simple feminine character at the same time. This book is translated from Malayalam by Sangeeta Srinivasan, daughter of Sarah Joseph. Sangeeta herself is a well-known novelist.
Writer Sarah Joseph went back and read more and more about Budhini. Collected information related to them. He decided to visit the place where his heroine ‘Budhini’ lived. It was told to them that she (Budhini) died many years ago.
However, her journey took an unexpected and dramatic turn when she met the living Budhini herself. It all felt like a fairy tale to Sarah Joseph.
This is the memory of a rare meeting that has never happened before in the history of the literary world. Writer Sarah Joseph with her scintillating craft writes all about this elusive moment when she met a heroine in her novel.
Rupi Murmu told freelance photographer and friend Suchitra, “Our people would like to believe that the woman who committed suicide years ago is alive!” He was talking about Budhini Mezen on his way from Kolkata to Dhanbad. Rupi had received a message from her cousin Mukul Murmu, who worked in a crockery shop in Dhanbad, that Budhni was still alive. This message really shook him.
“Rupee had read the report of Budhni’s death as the headline in an important newspaper in June 2012. The article indicated how pitiful her last days were, how poverty and infirmity had treated her with cruelty. and how he had to die being denied justice.
Budhini was a distant relative of Rupi. Since, Rupi did not maintain any emotional connection with her, her death did not affect her emotionally. Rupi had not even seen him in person. Nevertheless, the fact that Budhini was alive impressed her greatly.
Rupi Murmu started research in her village and many nearby villages due to her grandfather Jagdeep Murmu. He was disappointed when he had to introduce Budhini’s story to the editor. This name had not caught his attention till now. ‘Who is he?’ He had asked.
Sarah Joseph further writes in the novel, ‘When Rupi had described Budhini as the wife of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the editor burst into laughter. “Illegal?” He had protested.
Roopi did not smile, but his associates joined the editor in laughter out loud. She didn’t want to make it a laughing stock. She knew that blood was running down her face, causing her cheeks to burn.
“How many years of Indian history do you know about?” he asked the editors. Ultimately, she opted not to share more details with them. The newspaper was from Delhi, obviously the journalists were also from there. They did not even need to accept a small Santhal village called Karbona, which is located close to West Bengal, near the eastern borders of Jharkhand.
However, despite being a journalist, if he was unaware of Budhini living there, it was unacceptable. Budhini was not a minor subject for Rupi. Now the object of Rupi Murmu was – of course – to inaugurate the so-called death and life of Budhni. Sara Joseph has portrayed the character of Rupi Murmu in an excellent manner.
When Budhini returned to her village Karbona, the village elders told her that she had married Nehru by garlanding him at the ceremony. Since the prime minister was not a Santhal, she was no longer part of the community. He was asked to leave the village. The community’s unwritten rule ensured that the boycott was complete.
Budhini Mezhan was probably the first laborer in the country who got the opportunity to inaugurate a dam. It would have been a priceless moment for anyone, but it turned out to be a sad one for Budhini. The story of Budhni is a cohesive story of the history of India, the history of India’s development and many different subjects.
Fifteen-year-old girl Budhini Mejhan was given shelter by Sudhir Dutta, a resident of Panchet, who was said to have had a daughter, who, like her mother, was born in the destiny of exile. In 1962, Budhini was fired from the job of DVC and was forced to do odd jobs. In the 1980s, he traveled to Delhi. She met then-prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, the grandson of the same prime minister she had garlanded, with one request: she wanted to be reinstated in the DVC.
Writer Sarah Joseph gave an in-depth look at the loss caused by the development of the country at various stages. She also talks about the people in the novel who were thrown out of their homes. Various studies show that since 1947 about six and a half crore people were evicted from their own land.
What has been the concern of the government in this matter – has there been any way to solve such problems in independent India?
Land acquisition was easy during the British rule. Their policy was oppressive, they used to beat, throw people out of their homes and take over the land.
Now the question comes that land has been acquired for many big projects in independent India. But what will happen to those who have been evicted from these lands? This is the reality of today’s India.
Sarah Joseph writes in the book, ‘We were familiar with floods, because floods used to happen every year. The rushing stream of Damodar used to rapidly enter the houses and settlements. Between a flood and a flood, we farmed our fields, grew rice and prepared for the coming wave. But things changed with the advent of dams. The water put us out forever.’
Rupi Murmu began her research to get to the bottom of her grandfather’s story. Nehru was excited about dams because he felt that they were huge structures that would determine the destiny of the nation. Was there any other place more sacred and sublime than this?
“On the contrary, I ask if there are any other places more devastating than this, the wave of protest that Rupi’s grandfather had created.” Dreaming of the day when the dams would be broken.
Politicians can envision a project, but don’t care how it should be implemented. About seven or eight thousand families were evicted for this Panchet dam project. Where did they go, so many aspects will emerge from Budhni’s story.
‘Budhini’ is a novel based on a news article. This is not his biography or historical novel. ‘I started writing it as the story of Budhini who was dead. While writing this, I kept in mind how to combine history with fiction and how to mix news and fiction. The life of Budhini in my novel may not be the life of the original Budhini. The life of the original Budhni was not essential to my character. I left it to imagination and possibilities. My assessment is that the power of imagination will help make historical facts true,’ Sarah Joseph mentioned in her interview at the Kalinga Literary Festival (KLF) Bhava Samvad.
It is a wonderfully researched and widely read novel with the history and present life of the marginalized people of our country who build the story and characters. It was Budhni Mezen, who was labeled as the bride of India’s first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and later boycotted by her community. Modern India should never forget that.
Book- Budhini: Sara Joseph, (Translated by Sangeeta Srinivasan)
Publication- Penguin Random House India
Price : Rs 599/-
(Reviewer, Ashutosh Kumar Thakur lives in Bangalore. A Management Consultant by profession and a consultant to the Kalinga Literary Festival.)