The pages of Poulomi Basu’s Centralia open with a dreamscape of mining sites and the surrounding hills lit up at night by fire. In the forest nearby, a face appears in the shadows, a dog wanders through the firelight, and trees glow red in blurry images of horror. With this “prelude into an apocalyptic landscape,” Basu sets the stage for Centralia, a book that has been ten years in the making and finally published last year by Dewi Lewis to critical acclaim.
The title of the work is derived from the now non-existent town of Centralia, Pennsylvania. During the Colonial era, settlers bought the land from indigenous tribes and developed it into a coal mining hub. In 1962 a fire started deep in the mine that continues to burn to this day. The toxicity of the fire led to the death of the town, and the forced removal of its residents.
As an artist and an activist, Basu uses the example of the town Centralia and the narrative running through her own book to illuminate the universal story of indigeiounous landowners locked in conflict with government-backed corporations. Basu’s mission is to expose, “the hidden crimes of this war”, and examine the nuanced and complex relationships interweaving these opposing factions.
The story that Basu tells lies elsewhere. Deep in the forests of central India, where government forces push local tribes and populations off the land to claim natural resources, she explores the three main groups involved in this shadow war. First, the government and it’s military arm. Second, the rebels living in the hills who willingingly sacrifice their lives for the cause; and third, the surrounding tribes who play an important and often unexplored role in how the conflicts are understood.
To make the work, Basu made numerous and oftentimes dangerous trips to visit with the tribes and rebels connected to the contested zones. The rebel group, a Maoist faction known as People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA), was especially difficult to contact; Basu waits, sometimes for days, for a note inviting her to the secret location in the forest where the rebels hide out.
As she waits for her invitation, Basu explores the role of the often marginalized tribes. The Indian media, aware of the role bystanders play, is aggressive in its agenda to influence large scale public opinion on the PLGA. If there are local fights, violence or rape, the media overtly blames it on the rebels, going as far as re-dressing bodies in guerrilla or government uniforms to implicate the PLGA. Tribal populations, often over-generalized as simplistic and powerless in the conflicts, play surprising roles in their actions to support the media, the rebels, or the government.
Their lives are captured in scenes full of color and a vibrance one would not expect to see in the context of war, reminding the viewer that the bystanders are as complex and central as the conflict surrounding them. In a lengthy section printed on bright blue pages in the center of the book, Basu speaks to a journalist living in the area who sums up the conflict by saying, “no one is going to tell you the reality, the truth. You have to make your own guess.”
Central to Basu’s work is her emphasis on the role women play in this conflict, repeatedly highlighting the decision they make to stand up and fight. Their personal stories are reported on soft, thin, almost translucent paper so that within the pages of Centralia, Basu contrasts the complexity and masculinity of war with a feminine softness, compelling the reader to view this conflict with fresh eyes. The women here are not stereotyped victims; they are active participants in the rebellion.
While in the end Basu does not offer a resolution to the conflict, she does offer viewers another perspective, one that includes omnipresent traces of beauty among the multiple, crisscrossing threads of this layered narrative. In the pages of Centralia she writes, “The Truth upholds the fragrant Earth and makes the living water wet. Truth makes fire burn and the air move, makes the sun shine and all life grow. A hidden truth supports everything. Find it and win.”