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How much land does a man need?

Within 40 years, the population of Tirupati has increased more than 20 times which reminds me of Thomas Carlyle’s comment on contemporary London, “It is not growth. It’s elephantiasis.” The story is similar everywhere in India, just the geography is different.

A writer is one who lives his life and at the same time becomes a spectator as well as a commentator of the world around him. I always find it atrocious to search for the themes to write stories as it would be the nature of a careerist. I try to transform something that haunts and challenges me into a story or a novel or a play or even a poem after some time.

I have observed that there is a struggle that has been going on between the ‘life’ and the writer. The writer makes a valiant effort to grasp the entire truth of the life with all its facets. And the moment he thinks that he wins the race and celebrates his victory, life unravels a new dimension which the writer couldn’t foresee earlier. By the time the writer captures the new truth, many other novel and unexpected truths get unfurled. So finally the writer realises that his craft can help him to understand only a part of the multidimensional truth of the life.

How Much Land Does a Man Need, Thomas Carlyle

Then he tries to win the contest by analysing the instability of a fraction of time comprehensively which successfully reflects every aspect of that time symbolically. And that instability of a phase would be easier to grasp in the common, ordinary and down-to-earth people than in the elite and affluent people. I realised it when I had the opportunity of observing the workers involved in the construction of a house from close quarters. The owners who build a house complain that the workers are dubious, notorious and even treacherous. But I found them otherwise. Some of them might not be honest but the reasons for their nature are easy to be noticed as they lead a life comparatively transparent than the so-called cultured people. A slice of their life, to quote the words of TS Eliot in a way, is sufficient to visualise the grandeur of life.

I wrote a series of stories about the house construction workers like the mason, carpenter, coolies, watchman, electrician, painters, and marble stone pavers and so on. One of those stories dealt with a person who sold a plot in a street called Krishna Nagar in Tirupati to a bank manager. It became a long story but one of my editor friends, Sasisree of Sahithya Nethram published it benevolently. Singamaneni Narayana, the doyen of Rayalaseema short story, read it and suggested that I shouldn’t have stunted that theme into a story. With an alarm I began to rewrite the same.

“If I go to the market and come back, it is story. If I take up a voyage, it is a novel,” said a poet. “If the novel is like a voyage into an ocean, the story is like sailing in a boat alone near the beach,” said a Latin American critic. The story of the land owner of Tirupati refused to be a boat floating near the coast, snapped the rope tied to the banks, transformed into a ship, took up a formidable voyage and finally the novel ‘Bhoochakram’ evolved. One of the people who got into that ship was a historian and also a sociologist who helped me to trace how Tirupati grew into a city within four decades.

When I came to Tirupati as a student of intermediate in 1972, its population was only 25,000. From a pilgrim town it grew into an educational centre and soon it beat out its district head quarters Chittoor in every aspect. The number of pilgrims coming to Tirupati also grew by many times gradually and it has attained the status of the Vatican of Hinduism. The small town quickly swelled into a city by annexing many suburban villages, entombing the tanks, dissipating the rivulets which flowed from the hills and driving the green fields to the horizon.

All the fields and gardens which enveloped it in the past were transformed into residential colonies and the land from there to scores of miles turned barren as it was not ploughed and became a mere commodity bought and sold by the real estate agents. Within 40 years the population of Tirupati has increased more than 20 times which reminds me the comments of Thomas Carlyle on contemporary London, “It is not growth. It’s elephantiasis.” The primary factor which propelled this urbanisation was nothing but the economic liberalisation in India which took place after the fall of Communist government in Russia. It has created a neo-rich class which made a fetish of making easy money obliterating all human values. As a means of inflating the money which they made in all inhuman ways they resorted to real estate business that has transformed the lives of the middle class people, an ordeal.

Most of the land surrounding old Tirupati belonged to a number of big and small matts established by various religious groups and sects. The kings, zamindars and the rich merchants who visited the divine shrine of Lord Venkateswara donated lots of land to those seers of the matts who in turn employed the local farmers to cultivate those lands on lease. But many a seer misused his power over the lands and many smart and crafty farmers grabbed the fields through many dubious methods.

When the real estate business had a boom and many people plunged into it as a business enterprise as well as an employment, the situation had become more muddled. The courts were flooded with litigations and many atrocities were committed in the name of justice. A village revenue accountant was murdered when people found out that he treacherously manipulated to sell the same land to two or three parties. A few real estate brokers who had become awfully rich overnight are looked at as idols by many ambitious people and it has become a cruel game in which lot of money is staked. This is not the story of Tirupati alone as it is going on in different shapes and modes in all towns and cities in India at present.

“The lands laughs boisterously at the man who claims it his own,” said Vemana long back. Tolstoy asserted, “How much land does a man needs? Only six feet!” But today, no man heeds them. A neem tree in the novel ‘Bhoochakram’ which was a witness to a drama of greed, lecherousness and land grabbing for nearly a century finally bids farewell to the world with the following words:

“My salutations are to the land which bore me for a long time. My salutations to the sky which sheltered me, the clouds which quenched my thirst, the sunrays which joined my leaves to provide me sustenance and the ground waters which flew into my roots. My salutations are to the Time which lapped me. My salutations are also to the beings and the non-beings, movables and the immovable things which were with me beside these seven hills throughout and finally to the mother earth which bore me.

This land, water, air, sky and fire are mine.

No…No… I belong to these land, water, air, sky and fire. I bid farewell to them.”

(The writer is a bilingual short story writer, novelist and poet, who writes in Telugu and English)

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