In Ambikasutan Mangad’s acclaimed novel Swarga, translated by J. Devika, the real-life endosulfan poisonings in Kerala‘s Kasaragod district’s cashew plantations come all too alive. Here, he explains how he came to write the story of a pesticide expected to bring riches, but left death and destruction in its wake:
In Vyasa’s Bharatha, Pareekshit was the child killed in his mother’s womb. Born to Abhimanyu and Uttara, murdered by Ashwatthama’s Brahmastra, brought back to life by Krishna.
Pareekshit is also the name of a character in Swarga. A child who brings Neelakantan and Devayani back to life. Like most characters in this novel, this child, too, is a real person. The son of Krishnan and Shailaja, who lived in an Endosulfan-poisoned area, Periya, in a poor-folks’ ghetto, known as the Maalothumpaara Colony. His real name was Jayakrishnan – Krishna the Victorious. Pareekshit in the novel too has another name, a similar one. This infant too never cried; never called to its parents; never thrived. At his death at the age of three, he looked barely three months old. His body was covered with sores; his head had gone completely grey.
I was with a team of the District Paristhiti Samity that did a survey of the Periya village in 2000. This infant was the grandson of a labourer in the cashew plantations of the Plantation Corporation of India, Raman. The workers there favoured endosulfan spraying and were getting together to defend it. ‘There’s no affected child here,’ he shouted at us when we visited that home. But we found the infant inside that hut. I was shattered. Years later, when I wrote the book, he was reborn in it.
Gradually, his mother and other women began to speak: of how the rain of endosulfan made them gasp and struggle for breath, how it made the body itchy and sore, how it made them retch – and how the fish floated dead in the waters after the spraying. This child was named Jayakrishnan, but his short life was full of nothing but defeat. He was truly the Vanquished. A tiny body that had to bear the burdens of both Ashwatthama and Pareekshit. Cursed, even though completely blameless.
But not just him. So many others in the novel are real; their agony is real. Bhagyalakshmi, Kalesh, Sujith, Anju, Kittanna, Sreedhara, Sainaba…
From 1977 to 2001, endosulfan spraying in cashew plantations of some 6,000 hectares poisoned 11 whole panchayats in the Kasaragod District of Kerala. Supposedly a ‘war’ against a pest called ‘tea-mosquito’, it wiped out the biodiversity of the entire region and crippled many hundreds of human beings. The place resembled a deserted battlefield, full of the wounded crying out for help, the bodies of the decimated announcing the grim finality of death, wracked by terrible silence. All for a fistful of dollars from the export of cashew nuts. For a quarter of a century, the Plantation Corporation of India flouted all laws and concern for Nature just for that fistful.
The slow genocide sponsored by the state was not endured meekly; hundreds of protests have erupted in the Kasaragod district – first against the spraying, and later for rehabilitation.
Since then, we have seen minor victories and huge, huge betrayals. Victories in the forms of struggles first by Shree Pedre and Leelakumari Amma, then by local people coming together, and then with the support of state-wide organizations like the Solidarity Youth Movement and the DYFI. In 2011, endosulfan was banned in India; in 2017, the Supreme Court ordered that compensation must be paid in three months’ time.
Yet, the suffering of the victims continues unabated. The many betrayals include those by the several commissions set up by the government to assess damage, which were too often eager to rescue the Plantation Corporation of India and endosulfan. Luckily, not all. The evidence mounted against endosulfan. The National Human Rights Commission, however, did not turn a blind eye to the suffering, and ordered that compensation be paid within eight weeks in 2010. After that, the protests were all about the non-compliance to the Commission’s order.
The Commission’s recommendations still remain ignored. The mothers of the victims still protest and cry out for justice on the streets; politicians still make and break promises with amazing alacrity. However, now the government has announced a sum for compensation and medical camps for victims, and that has kindled fresh hope.
Yet, it is hard to be a writer of this struggle. Every day one finds in the local pages the faces of victims, announcing their deaths. The family that lives near the ‘truth-steps’ of Swarga has recently lost a son. One of their daughters, sickened by endosulfan, killed herself. Another son and daughter, both devastated by that poison, still hobble on along life’s bitter pathways. The son cannot face light; he is tormented by even minor sunlight. I went to visit the bereaved parents. How utterly painful is it for a writer to witness his characters wither and vanish, claimed by untimely death, by sheer callousness and injustice!