"He realised suddenly that he had been looking in the wrong place for those who had brought him here to Gopur and were planning to keep him here. Those who wanted him to walk in the shoes of the dead, those who knew they would fit him. He walked into the yard and glanced up at the night sky, realising he had been searching the wrong world...."
This could have been a translated excerpt from one of Hindi writer Munshi Premchand's stories, which offer you not just a glimpse of the farmer in the field but a close view of his life - just like one of those scary close-ups in German film maker Rainer Fassbinder's movies. His stories make you live the warp and weft of the peasant's penury, and village life in general. If one story shows a pair of bullocks in conversation, another would have you shiver with the farmer as he sits guarding his fields from the wild beasts on a cold night with nothing to keep him warm.
The fact that the excerpt at the start of this review is from Kota Neelima's novel Shoes of the Dead will tell you how little life has changed for the farmer in modern India. His livelihood is as unrewarding as it was in Premchand's stories, which were written in the early part of the last century. The difference today, perhaps, is that farming has become so vulnerable as a means of livelihood that farmers' suicides have become a grim reality.
Ms Neelima's novel gives voice to the modern farmer's story, a voice that many of those in the political establishment may want to muffle for the bare truths it might reveal. The beauty of this story is that it keeps its gaze steady as it peers into the meaning of farmers' suicides and the truth behind the statistics of the dead. Grinding poverty is a theme that rarely finds a place in modern Indian fiction in English.
Suicide is the protagonist of this story. It starts with the death of a farmer, Sudhakar, an episode that does not raise much interest initially. Like countless other farmers' suicides, it is little more than a statistic in news reports. Parallel to it, almost shadowing the suicide story, is the political theatre being enacted by the local member of Parliament (MP) Keyur Kashinath and the mahasarpanch of Sudhakar's village, Mityala.
It is from this suicide and the denial of compensation to the farmer's widow that the main pillar of the book rises: that is the character of Gangiri Bhadra, Sudhakar's city-dwelling younger brother. He gives up his job in a city school and decides to fight for the dead in the village so that their deaths are accepted as suicides by the district suicide committee headed by the collector.
Gangiri not only gets himself on to the committee, he manages to get the other members to accept farmers' suicides for what they are, instead of toeing the line of powerful members who dismiss such suicides as being caused by factors other than agrarian distress. Not surprisingly, the mahasarpanch, Lambodar, plots with the ruling party MP based in Delhi to have Gangiri removed from the committee.
As Gangiri discovers, what makes a farmer's death classified as suicide is determined by the vested interests of the members of the committee. There is, for instance, Durga Das, the village moneylender. If the farmer has taken loans from him and has some land, then it is in the moneylender's interest not to have the death acknowledged as suicide. For that would enable him to seize the farmer's remaining land. The death is only acknowledged as suicide if the farmer has no land. That way, the compensation paid to the farmer's family would help the moneylender get back the money the farmer had borrowed. Since Sudhakar owned some land, the moneylender had no interest in having his death classified as suicide.
The beauty of the book is the tragedy buried in its heart. Gangiri's struggle - his victory even in defeat - lends his character the grandeur of an epic hero, overshadowing all other characters.
That Ms Neelima the novelist is also a journalist is evident in the portrayal of a journalist, Nazar Prabhakar, who helps Gangiri in his fight against powerful politicians. It is also evident in her single-minded focus on the story of the village, despite temptations to meander into subplots around Nazar.
The core of the story is also material suitable for journalists - unravelling the intrigue of vested political interests that distort the meaning and the number of farmers' suicides. The fact that Ms Neelima is writing a fictional account allows her to express what the demands of journalistic rigour - solid, documentary evidence and a dry, impartial writing style - cannot always deliver.
She is clearly distressed by her subject and freely expresses it in lyrical, eminently readable prose. And, of course, there is that constant journalistic frustration, so aptly highlighted in Nazar's attempts to give up the profession, only to be drawn back into it by the next story.
SHOES OF THE DEAD
274 pages; Rs 495