Writing about political figures within the government and the centralization of power is, at the very least, a task that is not daunting, if not a safe play. "Droupadi Murmu: From Tribal Hinterlands to Raisina Hill" (Rupa Publications), a biography of the current and the first tribal president of India, serves as a prolific example of this. Nevertheless, Kasturi Ray, an award-winning journalist and the current senior News Editor at The New Indian Express in Bhubaneswar, has undertaken the task with exceptional dedication. This is evident in the all-encompassing account of President Murmu's entire life presented in the book—from her childhood to her tenure as President. Ray's writing fosters in readers a sense of an enjoyable journey through the book's simplistic storytelling style.
Droupadi Murmu, born into a Santali family in Uparbeda, a village in the Mayurbhanjh district of Odisha, faced a unique circumstance during her presidential nomination announcement. In her hometown of Rairangpur, her family couldn't even watch the news on TV due to a power outage. This is how Ray initiates the book, concurrently depicting vibrant scenes outside the president's house, where people had already begun arriving to greet her upon hearing the news. From the outset, Ray consistently portrays Murmu's composure as a significant personality trait. Describing this, Ray writes, "Murmu looked calm from the outside. She appeared unaffected, maintaining poise while everyone else awaited the euphoric moment outside her double-storeyed house in ward number 2 of Baidaposi, on Mahuldiha Road in Rairangpur."
The book, further, delves into the childhood days of President Murmu in Uparbeda, also describing the visuals of the village and the wrecked infrastructure of the entire district dating back to the late 1950s, a time that saw the Santali girl Murmu grow up. Ray also takes into account the Santali culture and its perspectives on the education of girls and marriages by delineating Murmu's family values. In one of the paragraphs, Ray mentions how in times when the education of girls was not considered important, Murmu's father wanted her daughter to study which followed even other girls taking up study. However, the author also presents the deep-rooted mores in her tribe and the family as she writes, "Like her father, her grandmother, who was from Chakradharpur, supported her in her pursuit of higher education. However, it could not be at the cost of her chores (hinting towards the household chores)."
In the seven chapters, Ray traces her journey from childhood to her entry into politics through the BJP-BJD alliance. She emphasizes how her husband became her strongest supporter in her political pursuits. The author also highlights the historical tendency for husbands or male family members to make decisions on behalf of women. This is illustrated when BJP party members approached her husband, Shyam Charan, instead of her, to discuss her candidacy for elections.
Throughout the book, Ray delineates Murmu's significant contributions during her tenure in positions of authority. This includes her efforts to improve the school where she taught, advocating for the inclusion of the Santali language in the Constitution, and the decisions she made as the Governor of Jharkhand to benefit tribal communities. Notably, Ray recounts how, on her insistence, a tribal affairs portfolio was established in Jharkhand.
Kasturi Ray ensures a balanced narrative by devoting equal attention to both the informative aspects and Murmu's personal life. Readers are given a thorough picture of President Murmu's marriage, children, and family life. In fact, the book meticulously examines the upheaval that entered Murmu's life after she lost her young son and, later, her husband. It vividly portrays the sequence of events detailing how she overcame these challenges, with spirituality playing a significant role. Ray goes on to discuss Murmu's journey to becoming the Governor of Jharkhand and, subsequently, the first citizen of the country, showcasing a remarkable transition in the President's life from grief to great heights.
All through the chapters in the book, Ray manages to give as veracious a glimpse of the far-flung parts of Odisha as possible where Murmu lived and led her life. Readers not only embark on a journey to witness the geographical landscape of the state as it was decades ago but also gain a deeper understanding of Odisha's political arena. Using exceptionally clear and comprehensible language, Ray aims to captivate the masses by seamlessly blending information with a touch of emotion. In one paragraph, Ray quotes the president, who declares, 'I would not like to see a portrait of me crying. From that day, I decided not to cry ever again.' This quote speaks to President Murmu's resilience in overcoming grief.
On the other hand, what captivates readers the most in the biography is the narrative itself, which thoughtfully delves into the struggles faced by women in rural tribal families and women in general. With Murmu's story, Ray meticulously traces the resistance to girls' education in Indian families, particularly in the backward sections of society. She also sheds light on the daily challenges faced by working women who are expected to balance both their families and careers. Moreover, Ray establishes a strong connection between Murmu's story and the contemporary woman, who, like Murmu, doesn't relinquish her responsibilities towards her birth family after marriage. Ray dedicates a substantial portion of the book to informing readers about Murmu's decisions to consistently care for her family.
Having said that, Ray doesn't shy away from depicting how personal lives, especially the lows in a mother's life, can introduce disturbances in their professional lives, detailing Murmu's personal losses. What stands out in this portrayal is its refusal to victimize; instead, it focuses on accepting mental health issues, addressing them, and returning to the envisioned path that individuals dream for themselves.
While Ray endeavors to portray the authentic persona of Droupadi Murmu, a careful reading of the entire book inevitably prompts one to question the objectivity of the presented image. This skepticism may arise due to the author's affiliation with the same state as Murmu—Odisha. What also doesn't escape notice in this biography is its omission of any aspects of Murmu's life that might have portrayed her as less divine and more human. This inclination towards a demigod-like representation makes it challenging to categorize the book as non-hagiographical. Consequently, the writing seems acutely aware of its role in crafting a narrative for a 'President.' The book dedicates significant space to interviews, quotes from political leaders, and accounts from Murmu's acquaintances, a section that could benefit from condensation, as it risks making the narrative feel redundant and, consequently, fleeting in the minds of readers.
Furthermore, readers are likely to encounter numerous references to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) thinly veiled under the guise of a biography throughout the book. The narrative doesn't conclude without allocating space to the National Education Policy (NEP), a recent policy launched in 2020 that continues to evoke controversy and opposition. This persistent inclusion of political aspects may give the impression of reading more about the party's works than the personality covered in the biography. The author briefly addresses the opposition's views on Murmu's nomination as president and, towards the end, discusses how the infrastructural landscape in Uparbeda remains unchanged months after Droupadi Murmu held the presidential position.
In any case, the laborious efforts and detailed research invested in presenting the life stories of Murmu resonate well throughout Ray's book. Ray, currently pursuing a doctorate in English Literature on 'Journalists as life narrators,' distinguishes the biography by incorporating a local essence. This includes vivid scenes, Santali traditions, norms, and beliefs, seamlessly woven into the empowering narrative, making the biography a noteworthy and informative documentation piece.