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A GODDESS IN THE STONES by Norman Lewis

  • Written by  Jules Stewart
  • Published in Books
A GODDESS IN THE STONES by Norman Lewis
07 Aug
2017
Not for intrepid travel writer Norman Lewis the melancholy tea estates of Darjeeling or the placid beaches of Goa. Lewis’s writing career is always an adventure miles off the beaten track, in this case to the gangster-ridden badlands of Bihar. Apart from the caste war between untouchables and higher-caste criminals, his description of the poverty comes as an eye-opener

Lewis takes the reader behind the scenes on his journey to Bhagalpur, Bihar’s most tragic town, where more than 2,000 people perished during the 1989 General Election riots. On his approach to the outskirts, he drives into a scene of wrack and ruin. It is a frustrating visit, illustrative of the enduring Hindu-Muslim violence that has torn this society apart, with no answer to the question of accountability.

He continues his journey south through Bengal, to the highlands of Orissa and the totally different way of life of the caste-free indigenous tribal peoples who have survived here in isolation. On his way, he recalls his early insights into the working of caste, when in Calcutta he and several companions checked into a hotel in which five waiters ‘of varying degrees of responsibility’ stood behind their chairs. On entering his room, there is a powerful image of a sweeper, ‘who covered his face with an arm as if to ward off a blow, then scuttled almost bent from the room’.

Lewis is pleasantly surprised by Orissa and Madhya Pradesh, home to the tribes that have retained much of their aboriginal identity. It is the oppressive injustice of caste, more than the ubiquitous poverty of India, that he finds most grating. After explaining the multitude of ethnic origins of this society living in peaceful co-existence, he exclaims with a sense of relief, ‘Above all, the descendants of the original inhabitants of the sub-continent are free of the burden of caste.’

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