Remembering My Friend Debjeet Sarangi, An Example of Kindness

He had worked in coal mines as the lowest rung worker and in farms as an agricultural labourer. His sensitivity and kindness were reflected everywhere.

The world cannot forget Debjeet Sarangi. It must not. It is important to remember the work he did in his short lifespan (he was just 53 years old), and also the person he was. We lost him on 15 May due to COVID-19.

Debjeet set up Living Farms, an NGO that works with Adivasi communities in Odisha – I use ‘with’, because he will find it most offensive otherwise. He maintained he was just an accessory, a facilitator and a friend. The community did not need patronising from mainstream upper castes. I also use ‘Adivasi’ because Debjeet felt it was the most appropriate and respectful term for the indigenous people, meaning the original dwellers.

Living Farms worked with volunteers from the community to protect and preserve their culture, forest, land, agriculture, food, and life practices. His understanding, after years of working with Adivasi communities, was that the food was the most crucial aspect if we wanted to address these issues. He introduced many innovative projects like community kitchen gardens, mostly tended to by women. After surveying a village, Living Farms volunteers would gather data about how many women in the village had mothers with young children, lactating mothers, pregnant women and adolescent girls.

Accordingly, they would form groups of women and adolescent girls, encourage the community to dedicate a sufficient piece of land to them and then these women and girls took over the charge. The organisation provided them with seeds and saplings of vegetables that were rich in nutrients and minerals required for their nutrition. He launched a similar programme for public schools, as well. For Debjeet, the most important aspect of these programmes was for children and women to form a bond with food, how it’s produced and with their land – alongside learning why chemicals hurt their relationship with the natural elements.

He encouraged people to participate in local weekly markets, encouraged local artisans who made Odiya brass dokra ornaments. He was against the imposition of rituals of Hindu festivals on Adivasi students in public schools, against the imposition of Odiya cultural supremacy and puritanical beliefs over Adivasis, especially women. There is so much work he did sitting quietly in the small town of Muniguda in Odisha’s Rayagada district – never seeking attention for his work or himself. Even in today’s day and age, he kept a very low profile and was not a social media warrior – he never had any time for it.

Also read: Remembering Debjeet Sarangi, Defender of Adivasi Knowledge and Heritage

The first time I met Debjeet, he immediately invited me to Muniguda. His words were – “please do not write a single word about my organisation. I care little about publicity but please cover what is going on there. Nobody wants to come and spend time in our little corner.” This was about ten years ago, I think.

How do I explain the person who became one of my closest dearest friends? How do I explain his sensitivity and small kindnesses that made him who he was? Everything is so personal. That said, it’s because of Debjeet I understand why personal is political. I feel a certain unease at sharing personal memories but feel it’s imperative to understanding empathy. Feminism, humanity, and all radical political philosophies flow from here.

Debjeet was my facilitator, too. The first time I visited Muniguda and was about to leave for a village, he urged me to talk to the elderly women of Adivasi communities to understand how political and revolutionary their relationship is with their land, their community, and most importantly, the life giving seeds. I had no idea how much these women will change me as a person and the philosophy of my life.

Debjeet Sarangi. Photo: Twitter

Years ago, when my marriage fell apart, Debjeet was not just a shoulder to cry on or vent, he actively wanted me to get back on my feet. His only concern was that I don’t break down. Later in life, probably in October or November of 2018, I was finishing a fellowship when my MacBook broke down. It was under guarantee but they still asked for Rs 25,000 for repairs. I did not have that kind of money to spare at the time and the deadline was on my head. I had some other personal problems going on and was very close to a nervous breakdown. I remember telling him – “Debjeet, I am sick and done with adulting in this capitalistic world.” Instead of laughing, he assured me that he understood. Within two hours, he called back and told me that the money had been arranged and I should get the laptop fixed because work is most important at the moment.

There are very few people in this world who are invested only in your wellbeing. Who want you to stay resilient in bad times and preserve your humanity in spite of bad times. I have lost my person.

Not many know that he had worked in coal mines as the lowest rung worker. He had spent time in the northeast, especially in Manipur and worked in the farms as an agricultural labourer. His family was abandoned early on by his alcoholic father, with whom he had lost touch over the years. Once he came to Delhi and we met for tea, he shared that his father had recently passed away of cancer. He knew that my former husband was a recovering alcoholic and I understood the disease without judgments. He said he had gone to the hospital to say goodbye and told his father that he had forgiven him. We discussed forgiveness that day for hours, and how it had set us free.

Also read: Does Raising Questions on the Rights of Adivasis Make Me a ‘Deshdrohi’?

Not many people know how many times he was grabbed by locals goons and given death threats for his work. I wanted to do a story on a subject he had been working on. He immediately refused to cooperate and told me – “Parul, I am not afraid of dying. I knew the dangers of the work I have taken over. But I cannot risk your life or the life of my volunteers who work in the field. I am responsible for all of you.”

In all the time I have known him, Debjeet got mad and screamed at me twice. Once when I was visiting Muniguda for work and did not ask for a mosquito net at night before sleeping. Debjeet was not around and he called in the morning to check on me. This was his first question and when I said no, he screamed on top of his voice for being so careless. Muniguda comes under India’s red zone for malaria and the local variant is quite lethal too. He had lost two very young volunteers to malaria the day before I reached. I immediately apologised and ran to get the net from the caretaker. Apparently, he had already gotten an earful too and was on his way with the net to my room.

The second time was also my fault, although I must add it was a momentary lapse. I am usually quite vigilant when I am in the field. Nonetheless, I was returning to the office after a long day outside and I was in an autorickshaw. We had just about entered Muniguda border when I saw the Vedanta factory gate on my right. Thinking it might come in handy sometime for a story (reporter’s itch), I asked the driver to slow down so that I could take a picture. What I didn’t realise was that bang opposite, on my left, there were about 15-20 goons sitting at a tea shop who immediately charged at my auto and screamed. We ran away but it was a close shave. It wasn’t something I could hide from him. He didn’t talk to me for a few hours after that.

During one of our last conversations, Debjeet told me he wanted to drop his second name Sarangi officially. In a place like Odisha, people immediately associated him with being a Brahmin and changed the way they approached him. He felt it alienated people. I told him he didn’t need the Savarna guilt – his personal politics spoke for him. We laughed. Probably the last laugh we shared.

Parul Abrol is an independent journalist based in New Delhi.