Rusty Smoke

The most enduring image I have of the town I was born in is of four metallic giants in padma asan, lotus position, exhaling rusty breath into the sky. In front of them is a smooth tree-lined road on which maroon buses approach the giants proclaiming »work is worship.« Around the buses are hundreds of cyclists. Amidst the traffic is the statue of a tribal man with a flaming torch in one hand and a bow in another. The image personifies what the Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru said in the 1950s: steel towns and big dams are the temples of modern India. Year after year calendars, diaries, and posters recycle this image. It contains the aspirations and contradictions of our nation.

The four giants travelled 8,500 km from the industrialized valley of the Ruhr River to this town close to the east coast. Krupp and Demag, from Essen and Duisburg, had set up the giant blast furnaces. The town was named Rourkela. It was the largest German settlement outside Germany in the 1950s. Like the Ruhr, Rourkela was the valley of the River Koel. According to oral mythology, Ved Vyas composed the Indian epic Mahabharata here on the banks of the Koel 3,000 years ago.

In the image, the people who went to the plant in the buses were like my father – a young engineer from Punjab who left his family to make steel. Build India. Like him, his colleagues had left their regions to come here. Not only the blast furnaces – that mix iron ore, limestone, and coal at 1,500° C – but also the town itself was a cauldron. In this multiethnic, multicultural, multireligious, multilingual town, I acquired four mother tongues: Punjabi at home, Odia with maids, Hindi in the streets, and English at school.

The statue of the tribal man fascinates me. It is of the freedom fighter Birsa Munda. Sadly, the torch in his hand did not shine for his own people. His people are the ones on cycles. They are the blue-collared laborers who, to this day, run the plant, keep the town clean, manage its water and electricity. They remain faceless, unheard, unspoken.

The bow points at the irony: the plant evicted the indigenous tribals from their forests and made them laborers. The idea that in a generation or two, through education, they will become officers, has failed. In the 1950s, India needed steel. In 2015, its politicians need votes. Instead of creating viable economic and pedagogical models for the tribals so they can participate in strengthening the nation, the politicians are playing the populist sentiments. In conflict is language, the act of naming. Is Rourkela named after the Ruhr valley, or from the word »my village« in the local Sadri language of the very tribals who were pushed to its margins?

In this debate, the biggest non-contestant is someone like me: one who has no native language. Rourkela was, until now, my birthplace. It will stay so, but the very meaning I ascribe to it, through its immediate short history, will no longer be the meaning my compatriots will bring to it. It will just remain a sky full of red-brown smoke.