At a glance, Vaishali’s story is typical among farm widows of Maharashtra’s arid Marathwada region. After her husband, a farmer from Aurangabad, took his life in 2017, devastated by hefty debt and crop failure, Vaishali was left to bring up their infant son. She chose a radically different path. Instead of cowering under social pressure and handing over their plot to another farmer, she decided to till it herself. Ignoring the censure of the village and lewd comments of male farmers, she did all the heavy lifting, eventually making a neat profit.
Vaishali’s act of exceptional courage and fortitude is recorded in journalist Kavitha Iyer’s recent book, Landscapes Of Loss: The Story Of An Indian Drought (HarperCollins India), a stirring account of a human, social and ecological tragedy that has been unfolding for decades in central and western India, mostly away from urban eyes. As it happens, Vaishali is also a character in Bengali writer Anita Agnihotri’s latest novel, The Sickle (Juggernaut Books), translated into English by Arunava Sinha and set in the same drought-hit landscapes of loss that Iyer reports from. Like the real-life Vaishali, she too is a farm widow, lost in the labyrinths of bureaucracy in her desperate attempt to claim the compensation and benefits that are due to her, harassed and intimidated at every step. Fortuitous as this convergence of fact and fiction may be, it is also a fitting coincidence, for one book complements the other in more senses than one.
Iyer’s book is based on her years of reporting from the hinterlands of Maharashtra. It draws, as she says in a video call, on “unfinished conversations” with people whose lives have touched hers. While human interest stories abound in her narrative, there are incisive looks into policymaking, attempts to decipher the multiple layers that underlie the controversial practices of sugar-cane farming in the region. A water-guzzling crop, though also hardy enough to withstand the region’s erratic climatic conditions, sugarcane enjoys high subsidy from governments. The proliferation of beer and paper-making industries in the belt also sucks the earth dry, leaving little moisture for other crops to grow. And thus, a vicious cycle of crop failure, mounting farm loans and exploitation by lenders continues to turn, season after season.
Agnihotri takes us closer to realities that are beyond the scope of journalism. A retired civil servant, she spent most of her working years in Odisha and wrote a series of hard-hitting novels, stories and poems about people in the tribal regions. Married to a Maharashtrian whose family comes from Jalgaon, in Khandesh, she made frequent trips to Marathwada and Vidarbha over the years, meeting migrant sugarcane cutters, documenting their lives, especially the trials faced by the women, forced to live in shanties barely put together with sugar-cane leaves and twigs, vulnerable to sexual violence from strangers, and sometimes forced to drink effluents released by sugar-cane factories when the one tap that provided them with drinking water dried up.
Apart from the endemic curse of seasonal drought and arid soil, there is also the evil of rampant female foeticide and a flourishing underground trade in hysterectomy. Both Iyer and Agnihotri write about the latter, especially the fear of cancer and unwanted pregnancies that are planted in women in their 20s to get them to agree to such procedures. The Sickle goes deeper into this social malaise, with one of its rotating cast of characters, a lawyer named Daya Joshi, orchestrating a campaign to stall the illegal practice of sex determination and abortion. At one point, exhausted by her decades-long labour and the uphill task of fighting corruption, she thinks back on the fate of fellow social reformers like Narendra Dabholkar, Gauri Lankesh and Govind Pansare, all of whom fell victim to assassins’ bullets for attempting to overthrow the status quo. It’s a moment of cold menace, closely rivalled by another gut-churning episode, where two activists enter an abortion clinic on false pretences to conduct a sting operation and are horrified to witness aborted foetuses being fed to dogs in the basement.
“In our profession, we were told, ‘If you see something, don’t carry it back’,” Agnihotri says in a video call. “But I followed precisely the opposite advice as a writer.” Just as there can never be a “non-committal bureaucracy,” she adds, “there is no non-political writing” in her experience. In spite of its fictional trappings, The Sickle is replete with facts about economic exploitation and the deepening climate crisis in the Marathwada region. But these interludes, filled with starkly realistic details, are interrupted by haunting scenes, such as one that describes the passage of a “water train” ferrying the promise of life, but bypassing the parched farmlands of Marathwada and its thirsty inhabitants.
In her book, Iyer, too, keeps a ledger of experiences that go beyond a simple record of injustices. Although the people she meets during her reporting trips are ravaged by generations of misfortune, Iyer is struck by the resilience they manage to exude. The women, bereft of their husbands and subsistence income, retain the capacity to smile and indulge in moments of levity. “The response to distress is so different in rural and urban parts,” Iyer says. “For people in the cities, grief is that one big Chennai flood. In Marathwada, it is made of a small something today, another thing tomorrow. People there are used to dealing with sorrow in spoonfuls every day of their lives over a long period of time.”
In spite of their relentless gaze on social evils and systemic corruption, The Sickle and Landscapes Of Loss are deeply invested in the question of empowerment—embodied in the lives of individuals or implemented by changes in policy. “Empowerment cannot be top down,” Iyer says emphatically. “Every block and taluka in the region has to deal with its specific struggles; a farmer living upstream faces a different reality from one that works downstream.” There is also, in both books, an increased awareness of the role women can play in improving the destiny of Marathwada. From the one-acre farms where they grow crops to feed their families through the year to their openness to embracing non-farming jobs, it is women who are leading the change, though, ironically, their ownership of farmland remains paltry. Although 40% of the agricultural labour force in India is made up of women, only 2% of them own farmland, writes Iyer. Women’s suicides are not treated at par with suicides by male farmers, again, because women are rarely the legal owners of land.
The Sickle and Landscapes Of Loss are inevitably going to remind us of the continuing protests against the Union government’s controversial farm laws. Iyer has a moving postscript on it, while Agnihotri is disturbed by the apathy of the state towards the farmers’ demands. In the course of her decades-long career, she too has dealt with several such situations, mediating between the stakeholders and the state, part of knotty negotiation processes. “We (the urbanites) can express our solidarity with the farmers in many ways, but we will never be directly affected by their predicament,” Agnihotri says. “If the farmers are not being killed by bullets, it is the state’s indifference that is killing them.” The least we, who profess to support their cause, can do is read these books to educate ourselves better and align our humanity in the right direction.