Sans heart & soul

Written by Sudipta Datta | Updated: Aug 4 2013, 07:19am hrs
The predicament of the farmer is at the heart of this book, the third from senior journalist Kota Neelima. In her non-fiction book, Death of a Moneylender, she wrote about a moneylender Desraj found hanging from a lamp-post. Contrary to popular belief, Desraj wasnt the typical moneylender, the villain of the piece in the farming ecosystem, but one who understood the plight of farmers and even tried to help them out. It was an important bookone doesnt see many writers exercised about the plight of farmers, though they are such an important part of our social and political fabricbut it didnt spend too much time on the characters and why they act like they do probably because there was so much to write about the ills of the system.

In Shoes of the Dead, too, there are many characters, and most are not fully explored, which makes the novel suffer, but the story is too important to ignore. The stories of the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra are the soul of this book, says Neelima in her authors note. And anyone who has been following the newspapers or television channels cant have missed the rising farmers suicides in a state from where the Union agriculture minister hails.

In Shoes of the Dead, a farmer, Sudhakar Bhadra of Mityala district, kills himself after successive crop failures and rising debt, leaving behind his wife and two little children. The district committee of Mityala usually dismisses suicides as debt-unrelated and refuse compensation. These apatra verdicts had ruined many lives. The committee, besides others, comprises a moneylender and a sarpanch who rule against compensation to suit their needs. This is when Gangiri, the brother of the farmer victim, who is educated and wanted to settle down in the city as a teacher, returns to the village to fight for justice.

As Gangiri launches his fight at his village, Gopur, a village of just 4,500 people, he finds out that their lives are also in the hands of the powerful politicians in Delhi, and a journalist, who is battling his own ghosts of the past. Journalist Nazar Prabhakar knows that the big fish are tough to catch, that they are too smart to be drawn into the dark corners of the Great Indian Growth story, but he hopes to do just that, drag them into dealing with the mess because one of their own, an MP, is the son of the big fish.

The battle between the big fish and the son is an interesting one, and mirrors the real-life tug-of-war we see between politicians and their offspring. Also in the fray are several district functionaries, the collector, the doctor, the moneylender, and in Delhi, politicians, journalists, and the rich wife of an industrialist who is an activist, characters who make an appearance in newspapers everyday.

The book is too close to reality for comfort and Gangiri is everyman (farmer) when he tells the journalist: The increasing toll is bound to trouble the people in power because farmers like us are not supposed to be visible to the government; we are supposed to be a silent, pliant votebank. But now our lives are drawing attention because of our deaths, and then again: None of us can match the powers we challenge. It is an unequal fight, but we have the dead on our side.

The problem is that the characters are so taken up with polemics that they hardly give us a glimpse into their real lives and thats an opportunity lost. Maybe the author should have taken up a few pages more to give the novel more heart and soul. Still, the pages that deal with life in the village throw a light into the darkness that India is becoming.

Sudipta Datta is a freelancer