The Ways the Plateau Yields, Feels: Reading Mihir Vatsa’s ‘Tales of Hazaribagh’

Twice in his recently released, earnestly written book Tales Of Hazaribagh An Intimate Exploration Of Chhotanagpur on his titular hometown-district in Jharkhand, Mihir Vatsa alludes to the generic Indian classroom to note its oversights and silences on our understanding of geography. Scanning a hilly outcrop, Vatsa remarks that we are programmed to “view hills as physical geography.”

But if his travels reveal a basic truth, it is “that hills are also important cultural entities,” for they carry within themselves the markers of human meaning-making, from naming to building. Some pages later, another comment on the paucity of geographical awareness occurs: “As I was trained in literature, I knew the words context, critique and problematic. I did not know the words topography, terrain and undulation. The land for me was still up and down.”

Tales of Hazaribagh
Mihir Vatsa
Speaking Tiger, August 2021

I was struck by these observations because they deftly revealed the unimaginative tendencies that our education system and everyday perception acutely suffered from. In spite of possessing virtually all kinds of natural terrains, India’s collective, popular regard for literature observing and narrating the same remains scant. Even as books by M. Krishnan and Jim Corbett from the older times, and Ruskin Bond, Yuvan Aves, Neha Sinha, Sumana Roy, Janaki Lenin and Prerna Bindra in our own age encouragingly point otherwise, their numbers pale in comparison to what goes by “nature” or “landscape writing” in other countries.

Thus, in a 2018 article for The Caravan, Shashank Kela shrewdly observes “the curious absence of contemporary nature writing in India”. One is also reminded of the disdain with which disciplines like Environmental Science, Geography and Geology are viewed at the school level (as well as later), as compared to “other” important subjects. 

By contrast, in the tiny UK for example, the genre’s stunning proliferation has been hailed as “the new rock and roll”, which is remarkable, given that the majority of its wild cover has been lost in the last few centuries. But Vatsa’s second statement also gestures towards another point: while literary analysis is usually centred on “problematising” the world, there is something inherently generous and more capacious about geographical affinity that resists the deterministic energies of literary assessment. Thus, even as Vatsa himself attempts a critique of his beloved Chhotanagpur Plateau’s diverse landforms, he ends up ascribing the land a higher value than his own intellectual prowess. This is achieved through a neat, poetic telling, that echoes the form of the undulating plateau itself, making Tales of Hazaribagh a joy to read. 

Vatsa’s compact work of 200 pages, seven chapters and one epilogue has the young author exploring his homeland for a few years, after his return from Delhi at the onset of depression. Infused with a lasting sense of childlike wonder and an escalating commitment to know his turf better, this is the first prose work by the author, who has already established himself as one of India’s leading poets in English (he is the winner of both the Srinivas Rayaprol Poetry Prize and Toto Funds the Art Poetry Award). Divided into titles viz. “Sanitorium”, “Hill”, “Lake”, “Forest”, “North”, “South” and “Territorial Trespassing”, the book intimately introduces the reader to the Chhotanagpur Plateau in a stylish and physically astute treatment, which is wholly novel and warmly compelling in equal measure.

Traversing nature and landscape in an effort to overcome a troubling disposition has many precursors in Anglophone nature writing, most recently being Richard Mabey’s Nature Cure (2007), Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk (2014) and Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun (2015). In India, however, where even the mention of mental health issues continues to be frowned upon, Vatsa’s acknowledgment and desire to do something about it emerges as an act of courage and eventually, of revelation. It is whilst seeking newer connections with this erstwhile sanatorium-town for the British and its surrounding vistas (some near, others distant), that the author comes to attain a fresh, kinder understanding of his own self. But even as this therapeutic trajectory slowly works its way via Vatsa’s maturing powers of observation, another trajectory – that of the narrative texture itself – rivets the reader, with its multifaceted configurations and motifs. Here, sal forests, laterite roads, wavering contours, cloud patterns, village-folk, friends, farms, lakes and most crucially, waterfalls, serve as the most abiding elements. 

Also read: On Embracing the Hills: Reflections on Himachal Pradesh on Its 50th Anniversary

In a book devoted to the study and celebration of his homeland’s healing powers, discussions on beauty naturally intersperse the narrative, whether through the author’s appealing descriptions or his intermittent critiques of the very notion of aesthetics. Thus, while on the one hand, he spends numerous paragraphs admiring the particularities of the escarpment, its unique sense of gradient and its pact with a zigzagging directionality, on the other, he keeps returning to the failure of “sundarikaran” (“beautification”) as carried out by the dull, corrupt practices of the government and private-players alike. In its earthy pristineness, the land is a source of joy and ecstasy, pushing the limits of feeling: “To say that I was growing fond of the [sal] forest would be an example of language trivialising an emotion.” Coming across such fierce regard, I couldn’t help recalling the great American writer Aldo Leopold’s observation that “our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty.”

If there is one idea that comes to layer and hold together the writer’s plateau-perspective, it is that of the contraries. For in its essence, this is a land that ensures the meeting of opposites. Despite his clear proclivity for the natural, the man-made is never far from Vatsa’s lively discourse. He is a big fan of Google Earth, smooth roads, Instagram chutzpah and tripod-photography, all of which assist him in appreciating his terrain better. Opposites inform the name “Hazaribagh” itself, since “bagh” stands both for a tiger and a garden – the wild and the domesticated. And opposites literally feed into the geography too, particularly through the binary of land and water. While Vatsa thrills in discovering the land through driving, it is his encounters with fluidity that especially enchant him. Thus, the majority of the book is immersed in the search for rivulets, rivers and waterfalls, all brimming with an aliveness of their own. Here again contraries are at work, for how can water fall if the land does not break

Along with technology, the other markers contributing to the plateau’s modern identity are the Naxals and the coal mines, which constantly maintain a foreboding presence and sharply highlight the terrain’s tense actuality. Yet, it is to Vatsa’s credit that he doesn’t let his notes of fear and caution spin into cynicism or paranoia. And it is this careful, honest emotional balancing that flowers into the fine facet of self-reflexivity, impressing the reader every now and then. “Earlier, I would say, ‘Look I have found these many waterfalls,” but gradually, the sentence changed to ‘Look, I have gathered these many waterfalls.’” While Vatsa tries hard to grasp a specific language of the plateau, he realises that his analytical vocabulary itself “borrows” from the already existing language of earlier travel writing. In this, therefore, his narration is original and hybrid at one and the same time.

With all of these multiple aspects, Tales of Hazaribagh evolves into a wonderful, warm-hearted portrayal of a place that doesn’t usually enter our national touristic circuit. The book is also a lovely object to hold, finely printed and designed with a sheaf of photographs inserted in the middle (which are expectedly dominated by water sources). The first photograph of the Tilaiya Dam reservoir also serves as the inspiration for the book’s animated cover jacket, colourfully capturing the peripatetic, gratifying spirit of the words inside. Sometimes, you can judge a book by its cover. 

Siddharth Pandey belongs to Shimla. His first book Fossil, a geo-mythological exploration of the Himalayas, has recently been released by A Published Event, Australia, as part of the global arts “Lost Rocks” project.