Pigeons of Perwa Waterfall

Today we publish our latest story in The Vanishing series, a gathering of responses by writers and artists, not only to extinction but to the quieter extirpations, losses and disappearances that are steadily stripping our world of its complexity and beauty. Vinit Agarwal merges fiction with reality as he recounts a childhood tale, set within the Koel Karo anti-dam protest in Jharkhand, India.
After graduating from the University of Rajasthan in Electronics and Communication Engineering, Vinit balanced writing scripts for street theatre and poetry with with a job as an IT programmer. Recently, he has completed an MA in critical theory, curatorial studies and cybernetics in Geneva. His research focuses on questions of oral indigenous epistemologies, digital archives and the constitutive violence of technology under modernity.

As a child, whenever I used to cry and wail, which was quite often, my grandmother would joke: ‘what else would you expect? The poor thing was born on a protest site.’ My mother’s waters had broken while on a sit-in against the construction of a river dam: the Koel Karo movement of indigenous people of Jharkhand against the dam on Koel river. A movement, she recounts, that had become an everyday normality for her life then, as it went on for 10 years before and after my birth. Until that one day.

It must not be a coincidence that the names of so many rivers are based on the names of birds in India, especially in Jharkhand. Son the bird with a golden crest, Mayurakashi or Mor nadi the peacock river, and in my own case: Koel nadi the cuckoo river. As a child whenever I approached, I could hear birdsong in the flowing water. Kal kal kal kal kal. We sang a song in praise of mother river, tuning ourselves with the birdsong. ‘Mother Koel, your water is pure, it flows. Kal kal kal kal. You have begun from an eternal source, O mother, everybody serves you, one that serves you is saved by you, so our ancestors have told us. Mother Koyal, your water is pure, it flows. Kal kal kal kal.’

The song kept us safe when we went to school. The school was across the river. There were two ways to cross one was a dinghy that functioned as a ferry, run by uncle Hamid. It could take three or four of us at a time if there weren’t any other passengers going further downriver. Hamid was an old man with strong hands, a somewhat angry man if you didn’t have what he charged precisely one rupee each way. But once on the water, he would allow his textured voice to sing beautiful songs that only he knew in the village.

But often we did not have one rupee to cross the river so we re-routed a little further outside of the village where the water was relatively shallow and a rope was tied across the river. In July and August when school reopened, just at high helm of the monsoon, the water table rose up and the river became testing to cross. We held the rope tight for our lives took the younger kids on our waists and went singing: ‘Mother Koyal, your water is pure, it flows. Kal kal kal kal…One that serves you is saved by you…’

It was exactly at sunset that magic happened at Perwa as the sun would go down, the rays of light would  become slanted on the waterfall, cutting across it – and between those streams of water – perwa pigeons would appear.

When I came back home, my elder sister Anuja would be writing her poems in the backyard, my father would be at mother Koyal’s temple, lighting an incense stick and an oil lamp. Sister Anuja would read me a fragment of her poem. Then, I would  run to join father on his way to the roof of the temple. Carrying a sack of grain on his back – I would lead the way on the narrow staircase with a broom to clean the roof quickly while he opened the sack. Normally it was corn, rice or wheat. Then, in two or three quick sweeps, the grains would be equally distributed on the roof, reflecting sunlight like pieces of gold.

My father would descend to the next task, while I would just hide under the staircase to see hundreds of pigeons who came fluffing and fluttering their wings bobbing their heads bib bob bib bob and taking  the grains. Some loitered there, basking in the sun flying halfway across coming back down. 

I would look at them with my eyes full of wonder. Yet, I knew where the real thing was. That was when, if you could save the sum of two rupees, uncle Hamid would take you to the waterfall on the river, where you could see the perwa pigeons named for the waterfall Perwa. Anuja knew where to find me when I did not show up late in the evenings.

But it was exactly at sunset that magic happened at Perwa as the sun would go down, the rays of light would  become slanted on the waterfall, cutting across it and between those streams of water perwa pigeons would appear. Fluttering, moving magically, rhythmically an absolute careless precision with which they would go in and out of the water curtain, not a drop touching their wings. I would  sit there for hours and get lost, until I was retrieved by sister Anuja, often with a slight rebuke. She would be going somewhere to recite her poems with uncle Mahadev Toppo. A night-long poetry recital would commence, hundreds of villagers six or seven poets on the stage. Behind them I would be half-sleeping, half-listening but always awake when sister Anuja came to read. There was a strength in her voice and words that moved people immensely uncle Mahadev was equally proud of her. I remembered many of her poems by heart and passed some of them off as my own in school (I was caught almost every time as all the teachers knew where they came from). 

That evening was a rainy evening, water was drizzling. After having seen Perwa, I returned home. Anuja, along with my uncle, was at the protest site, my father was at his small shop. I had a fever and was tired so I went to sleep early. Then all I remember is the night and those headlamps with their lights seething directly in the house. Everyone in the village was running, taking whatever they could with them. Anuja was in the truck while uncle Mahadev and my father were taking stuff from the house. Before I knew it, I was also in the truck. I was crying incessantly along with the other kids and everyone from the village, in the dark of the truck. 

A few people from the government’s army stood there with guns and shields organising this. Breaking the houses so that we would not be able to return. The height of the river dam was to be increased, overnight. 

I fell asleep in the lap of sister Anuja while she was singing a poem and when I woke up the next morning everything was gone. The village, the school, the truck. Water was still dripping from the branches of a tree on the tin rooftop, making music. My father was already up. ‘Come’ he said, and made me sit on his shoulders passing a broom. I cleaned the tin rooftop, then he took two fistfuls of rice that he had managed to save amongst all the other food things in the night and threw it on the tin. He put me down and I stood there waiting for pigeons to arrive. After a while, a few birds came but no pigeons. It made me anxious and nervous. I knew that somewhere something had gone deeply wrong. I ran towards the river bank. Uncle Hamid was there, his dinghy out of the river sitting under a plastic shade and smoking tobacco. I had no money on me. I asked him if he would take me to the waterfall. He said, ‘It’s useless’. I said I would give him the money later on as soon as I could. He put his dinghy in the water took me in his arms and made me sit in the dinghy. As the dinghy moved through the water there was silence in the valley. Nothing seemed to move and it took forever to arrive at the waterfall. 

Finally when we arrived I jumped out from the dinghy. ‘I will wait for you here’, uncle Hamid said. But there was no waterfall. I looked left and right but no trace of it. The perpendicular rock of the mountain stood bare telling a lie. I did not believe it. And the perwas were not there either. I sat while a stream of tears began to roll down from my eyes. I don’t know how long I kept sitting there until uncle Hamid came and took me back to the new shelter. When I arrived, my sister Anuja was humming a poem. I asked her what it was and she was reluctant to tell me but I insisted:

From the day Perwa has gone away, flown away.

There is a terror spread all over in the valley.

They have gone away, they will never come back

Pigeons of Perwa waterfall, they have become carriers of peace now.

 After a while, a few birds came but no pigeons. It made me anxious and nervous. I knew that somewhere something had gone deeply wrong.

After a few months, we moved to the nearby city. My father opened his grocery shop there and life seemed to move on. I graduated as an engineer in Electronics and Communication and found my first job as a software engineer in an Indian IT company. After six months of training, I was put on the first project – at the Koel Karo water dam site. I came back to the Koel river after a gap of what seemed to be an epoch. Upon my arrival, I was given a visit to the site a huge water body under which everything was submerged school, home, temple, village, friends, and memories. I looked at the water as the sun reflected back glimmering, glittering. My first task was to update the content of the Koel Karo dam project’s website. The text was given to me:

…70,000 people have been successfully rehabilitated during the project … 710 MW electricity is been generated daily… one of the most successful water dam projects in the history of the modern nation… a marvel of engineering practices.

I knew it on multiple layers, the truth was so different. 150,000 people were displaced in the project. 22,000 hectares of land were submerged. My village, my friends’ villages, and all the other 256 villages were now under water. That night when I returned alone to the quarters where engineers of the project were living, I could not hear anything apart from the sound of glowworms in the night and the voice of my sister singing:

From the day Perwa has gone away, flown away.

There is a terror spread all over in the valley.

They have gone away, they will never come back

Pigeons of Perwa waterfall, they have become carriers of peace now.

 

Note: The Koel Karo protest is widely cited as the longest and most successful anti-dam movement in India. It was largely driven by the Munda people, the indigenous inhabitants of the Chhotanagpur Plateau. The protest lasted from 1974 until 2003, when the dam proposal was finally scrapped. However, dams such as the Narmada, Bhakara Nangal, and Nagarjunsagar were indeed built, displacing millions of indigenous people. The above is a semifictional retelling in which Vinit merges many realities into one story to depict the high cost of  industrialisation.

 

IMAGE:  Mural of pigeons in New Dehli by Adele Renault (photo by Pranav Gohil)

Belgian artist Adele Renault creates large-scale paintings of pigeons, highlighting the spectacular feather patterns and hues that might otherwise go unnoticed at the birds’ small scale. The two grey and blue-toned pigeons were created for St+art India’s Lodhi Street Art Festival in Delhi. Other large-scale paintings can be seen on her website and Instagram,

 

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