“The unfortunate part was that they knew she was pure. Those who punished her knew this. Nevertheless, there was a reason for the punishment, and the evidence was persuasive.”
— Malayalam novelist Sarah Joseph in her accomplished novel Budhini.
Almost a decade has gone by since eminent Malayalam writer Sarah Joseph first heard about the Santhal tribal woman Budhini Mejhan while attending a seminar organised by an environmental protection group opposed to the controversial Athirappilly Hydro Electric Power Project proposed in Kerala’s Thrissur district.
Activists said the project had the potential to destroy vast tracts of riverine forests and displace hundreds of families of the aborigine Kadar community.
A fellow writer in Kerala joined the seminar against the project by reciting Budhini Mejhan, a poem he had penned.
The poem was about a Santhal teenager in the 1950s who was expelled from her community for “marrying” then-prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
Budhini’s fated meeting with Nehru
On 6 December, 1959, Nehru visited Dhanbad, in present-day Jharkhand, to launch the mega Panchet dam over the Damodar river.
The Damodar Valley Corporation (DVC) had chosen the 15-year-old tribal girl to greet Nehru. While Budhini was overjoyed, she had no idea that her life was about to take an extraordinarily difficult turn.
During the ceremony, Jawaharlal Nehru gave Budhni a garland as a token of appreciation because she was the first young tribal woman to launch a dam.
He had wanted that someone who had been involved in its construction should inaugurate the dam.
The Santhali society’s Panchayat was convened that night to discuss these “developments”.
Budhini was shocked to learn that, according to tribal customs, she was now married to Nehru because garlands had been exchanged. As Nehru was not a tribal, the Santhalis ostracised her as per their custom.
Tracking Budhini after so many years
Sarah Joseph recalled when contacted by South First, “The poem and the girl deeply moved me. Budhini had been on my mind for a long time, so I began reading about the excommunicated girl and followed her life. The tribal woman began to take shape in my thoughts over the next few months as a powerful symbol of the thousands of people drowned in memory during nation-building and its megaprojects, such as dams and corporations.”
In November 2018, she travelled to Jharkhand to track down people connected to Budhini and began compiling available information on her. “I felt the need to revive Budhini from the criminal forgetfulness of the country after going through her life struggles since the garlanding.”
The English translation of Joseph’s iconic novel was published recently.
Sangeetha Sreenivasan, Joseph’s daughter, helped translate the deeply rooted work in cross-cultural relations into English a few months after the Malayalam original’s release. It is now one of the best-selling translated fictional works from Penguin India.
Joseph told South First how the book took shape. “Budhini was primarily a novel based on newspaper articles. But, in fact, it was not her autobiography or a historical novel. I began writing the novel as a story about Budhini, who had already died and faded from public memory. Blending history and news with fiction always involves complications.”
Meeting Budhini in person in Dhanbad
While researching the novel, Joseph discovered that Budhini was still alive and well into her late seventies. “That was a turning point for me, and I met her once. While writing the novel, I felt she should be remembered alongside the hundreds of villages, vast farmlands, forests, and temple complexes drowned in Panchet reservoir.”
Sangeetha recalls how her mother documented Budhini’s narrative and the many socioeconomic realities surrounding her by travelling across Jharkhand with the help of local journalist Rupi Murmu.
The English translation is now widely regarded as an accurate original representation. Furthermore, it excellently captures the pan-Indian novel’s tone, tenor, and texture, eloquently depicting the sorrows of both living and deceased “martyrs of development”.
According to Sangeeta, who accompanied her mother to Dhanbad and its environs, the novel vividly depicts how indigenous people are being forced out of their natural habitats, homes, roots, and culture for “the greater good of the nation”.
Playing with tribal lives and habitats
The book also accurately depicted the living conditions of Santhals in Dhanbad. “Budhini was only 15 years old when she was excommunicated for garlanding Nehru and applying a tikka to his forehead at the dam’s inauguration. The tribals claimed she broke Santhal traditions and technically became Nehru’s wife by garlanding him,” Joseph explained.
She stated that the novel did its best to expose the forced displacement and migration of less privileged communities forced to live under cycles of oppression from governments and administrations, private companies, and corporations that exploit their labour and then discard them when their health fails.
The Santhali way of life, religious systems, music, social culture, and link with nature are also discussed vividly in the book.
“Above all, this novel isn’t just the story of an ostracised girl called Budhini; it is the story of all uprooted inhabitants, all indigenous humans snatched away from their soil and made to teleport to a barren land to sustain themselves,” Joseph said.
Now, Budhini, presented from a journalist’s perspective, attempting to trace a Santhal tribal girl’s beginnings after learning that she is alive, is a story that nudges the reader to look at the ugly underbelly of ostentatious progress. It challenges readers to consider the cost of modernisation.
Critics say Joseph eloquently tells the account of Budhini in 272 pages, delving into the assaults, bruises, beatings, and discrimination she endured before being abandoned to fend for herself.
Bidding Budhini goodbye
Budhini died at the age of 85 on Friday, 17 November, at her home in Panchet near Dhanbad following a prolonged illness and was cremated on Saturday morning.
As the news spread, many literary enthusiasts and social activists in Kerala recalled Budhini’s complicated legacy and remembered how Joseph’s literary work ensured her a due place in history.
They have circulated an obituary of Budhini on social media as a tribute to her:
“Budhni was asked by then-prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru to turn on the flow of the Panchet dam, built on the Damodar river, on December 6, 1959. However, the ‘honour’ bestowed on her by the country’s first prime minister had fallen on her as a curse, as her community had never approved Nehru’s offering of flower garlands to her during the inauguration!
“Budhni, a local labourer at the dam building site, was among those present to greet the prime minister beside the podium. She’d garlanded the prime minister on the orders of Damodar Valley Corporation officials, and witnesses reported the prime minister had also garlanded her in return. Nehru eventually insisted on the 15-year-old worker pressing the button at the power station to indicate the commencement of operations.
“The indigenous group was indignant because Nehru was standing on either side of her. When Budhni returned to her hometown of Karbona, the village elders informed her that by garlanding Nehru during the function, she had effectively married him.”
Budhni’s chequered life had some interesting twists.
In 1962, the DVC fired her from her job. She was reduced to doing odd jobs. In the 1980s, she came to Delhi and met with Nehru’s grandson, Rajiv Gandhi, who was then prime minister. He gave her a hearing and directed her services in the DVC to be restored. She retired in 2005.
Joseph recalls she found Budhini alive through a chance phone call to DVC’s then-PRO Vijayakumar while working on the novel. “Why don’t you ask all your questions to Budhini herself?” he told her. She did just that.
“Now, she is a fond memory, and I do hope she will occupy a due place in the development discourses of the nation. She is also a forceful reminder about the need to assert the rights and privileges of women among the tribal communities of the country,” says Joseph.