My father used to call the wild area beyond I.I.T.’s Hijli campus the Dandakaranya, the forest in the Ramayana where Rama fought the rakshasas—and the site of a very real epic struggle raging in east-central India as I write.
Our bungalow was on the very edge of the campus, so, as children, we spent many hours wandering through the Dandakaranya in search of adventure. It was during the school holidays that I had the idea of founding a nation. We came across a flat, unforested area, and I thought what fun it would be to mark out a boundary and divide it into plots for our friends, each of whom could cultivate it as he or she chose. I suppose the idea was in the air. These were still early days after Independence—Nehru had only just died—and the Congress Party’s Land to the Tiller slogan and Vinoba Bhave’s bhoodan movement had captured our young imaginations (although they redistributed relatively little land).
Most of the fun lay in the idea of it. In the abstract, the nation was a model of cooperative organization. In my mind’s eye I saw the neatly maintained borders, both internal and external, perhaps marked with white lines as on a tennis court. I saw the enthusiastic but compliant citizens keeping to their allocated plots and—now that I come to think of it—doing what Puttu and I told them to do. Besides cultivating their gardens, I imagined them attending meetings where we would discuss our plans for the future and take votes; votes, it went without saying, that would unanimously endorse our proposals.
But voting was where the problems began. Modeling ourselves after the world’s largest democracy, we held elections for Prime Minister, and the electorate voted decisively for Puttu. I was heartbroken, though I put on a brave face at the time. After everyone had gone home, I ran to my mother and told her my tale of woe. “Never mind,” she said comfortingly, “She may be Nehru, but you are Gandhi, Father of the Nation.” Her words did console me a little, but the fun had gone out of the project. It turned out that nobody else had really cared much about the idea, so it died, along with my political ambitions.
At ten, it never occurred to me that somebody might already own the ground on which our nation stood; or that the peaceful Santhal tribals, whose village was only a short distance away, might have prior claims to the land.