The Community Catalyst

By Nirmala Govindarajan

Publisher: Sapna Book House

Pages: 204

Price: Rs 250

There is a guilty pleasure about judging books by their cover. Amidst the sounds of a pressure cooker and an early morning prayer, I pick a book by its cover that strikes the typical chord of “Indian” in me. I look at the credits to realise that the cover images are shot by the author herself, and am drawn further into the book. After all, what spells rustic more than the glorious sun blasphemously helping a lake in a rural setting to get picture perfect?

Nirmala Govindarajan’s The Community Catalyst — a novel inspired by the life experiences of a civil servant’ is Sapna Book House’s first English fiction undertaking. Personally, dramatised biographies have always been a hesitant pick. But something tells me that The Community Catalyst is the sober narration on superb work that I absolutely need over the weekend. As it turns out, I am not proven wrong!

Although a work of fiction, the book draws its inspiration in entirety from the real life experiences of Bharat Lal Meena, a civil servant who has spent more than two decades in the southern state of Karnataka – and seems to have left more than just a mark of his incredible work in the region. Meena, the protagonist of this story, made an entire movement (ApnaDesh) of his impressive philosophy of sustainable development through self-help.

Put this story of hard earned success with Nirmala’s refreshingly seasoned writing, and this is a book you want to read over a “much boiled sweetened cup of chai,” indeed. Taking us back and forth through Meena’s journey of survival, success and solidarity, Nirmala writes almost certainly, to leave you with a poignant sense of calm. From the civil servant’s training centre in Mussoorie to his eco-conservation project in Mangalore. From recreating a polluted tank bed into a recreational hub in the small town of Belgaum to urban development and management in the city of Bangalore — Nirmala brings us the story of a clearly underplayed civil servant, in pages of evocative research and narration.

Speaking of narration, The Community Catalyst maybe one of the few books in my reckoning, that have the ability of making an exquisite exhibit of the most everyday beauties. Take for example, Nirmala’s understanding of the “much practiced dexterity” of the “ochre rays” from a charismatic and yogic sun. Or the simple portrayal of a nilgai couple, which finds itself in poetically intimate positions on Sundari hamlet’s groundnut fields in Rajasthan. And instantly, through sheer command on the English language, the author adds magic to a telling, which would could have otherwise risked itself to the passé. Hindi and Kannada sprinkle themselves with equal expertise in a placid sense of matter-of-factness throughout this English fiction, convincing the reader of the raw authenticity that the protagonist brings with himself.

The Community Catalyst maybe one of the few books in my reckoning, that have the ability of making an exquisite exhibit of the most everyday beauties. Take for example, Nirmala’s understanding of the “much practiced dexterity” of the “ochre rays” from a charismatic and yogic sun. Or the simple portrayal of a nilgai couple.

But the authenticity doesn’t end with the language. Through the pages, the author makes sure that the gravitas of the oft-called Sahebru’s work is not lost. From encouraging the people of the small town of Sindhanurin Karnataka to bring their collective resources together for clean water, to envisaging SMARTand connected classrooms across the state, the protagonist’s achievements are humanised and is just about enough to make readers believe that anybody can be an agent of change; the Sahebru is after all an example.

However, the example himself is rather larger-than-life. Hailing as the innocent Laadla from the village of Sundari in Rajasthan, Meena goes on to take his “community first” approach to both the rural and urban regions of Karnataka. Through his journey, Nirmala introduces us to the many people this civil servanthas inspired with his belief in Shramdaan — a united community self-help succour.

Padma Vibhushan Justice M N Venkatachaliah in his foreword to the bookspeaks of this story as part of a larger discourse to civil servants in good governance.This is exactly what the author attempts through her visual, powerful yet breezy style of writing, the pendulum like storytelling taking us into the crevices of a rural upbringing, which finds its pragmatism beyond the barriers of culture and class, even amidst the very cosmopolitan Bangalore.

Bangalore or Sundari, whatever maybe the backdrop of this Sahebru’s life and work, this IAS officer is what all of us have the ability to be. And yet again, despite the very Bollywood like perfectionism of his character, the child-like imperfection is not snatched away from him in Nirmala’s rendition. After all, it does take a truant and naïve youngster, who has lost both his money and way in an all-India tour to know what it takes to spearhead and be a part of a people’s movement like ApnaDesh.

The pages smoothly go by, as my cup of chai now lies abandoned. As if the sustained picturesqueness of the language weren’t enough, the book also gives us pictorial glimpses into the life and times of the real Sahebru who is to retire in a few months. For a generation, which is relentlessly struggling to acknowledge its own privilege and go beyond it, The Community Catalyst presents itself at the starting point of a long personal journey — as a book of hope and happiness, which tries its best to restore a sense of faith in a democratic system of governance that has almost amusingly seemed to have failed us. But with real-life examples like Bharat Lal Meena around, the book definitely does lend itself to every reader who believes in initiating change from both within the system and outside of it. An undoubtedly fast but fascinating read this 200-odd pager is the Sunday morning grab that leaves you feeling both accomplished and inspired.


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