Book Review: Shoes Of The Dead: The Power Of One...

In the ten year period between 1997 and 2006 as many as 166,304 farmers committed suicide in India. (See Table 1 below). If we consider the 12 year period from 1995 to 2006 the figure is close to 200,000: the exact figure (190,753) would be an underestimation since a couple of major states like Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan and a number of smaller states like Pondicherry did not report any farmers’ suicides for one or the other – or both - of these two years. Thus, going by the official data, on average nearly 16,000 farmers committed suicide every year over the last decade or so. It is also clear from the table that every seventh suicide in the country was a farm suicide.

"According to NSS 2003 data, the monthly consumption of marginal farmers was Rs.2482 and  monthly income was Rs.1659 (Table 14 and Fig 4.1). It shows that they have dis-savings  of  Rs.823. As NCEUS (2008) says “consumption expenditure of marginal and small farmers exceeds their estimated income by a substantial margin and presumably the deficits have to be plugged by borrowing or other means” (p.12). NCEUS (2008) also indicates that the poverty for small holding farmers is much higher than other farmers. The need for increase in productivity and incomes of small holdings and promotion of non-farm activities for these farmers are obvious "

Nationwide, the farmers’ suicide rate (FSR) was 16.3 per 100,000 farmers in 2011. That’s a lot higher than 11.1, which is the rate for the rest of the population. And slightly higher than the FSR of 15.8 in 2001. At least 270,940 Indian farmers have taken their lives since 1995, NCRB records show. This occurred at an annual average of 14,462 in six years, from 1995 to 2000. And at a yearly average of 16,743 in 11 years between 2001 and 2011. That is around 46 farmers’ suicides each day, on average. Or nearly one every half-hour since 2001.

Not everyone is moved with facts and figures; if so, this is the book for you - a stunning fictional story that is based on farmer suicides. The facts quoted above should be enough to convince anyone of the reality on which this fiction novel is based. It has been authored by Kota Neelima, who works as political editor with The Sunday Guardian, and is a research fellow for South Asia studies at the Paul H Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, John Hopkins University, Washington DC.

The foreword states “The stories of the farmers of Vidarbha region of Maharashtra are the soul of this book”, establishing the authors’ experience in this field. That resume also puts authority into the tome; which is one of the best books I have read in any genre for a long, long time. This is a book that will shake you to the core of your being – I can recall only one other – Churchill’s Secret War – that affected me as much.

The plot plays out in New Delhi, in the corridors of power, and in the village of Mityalay in “South Central India”.  The suicide of a farmer in Mityalay due to farm debts gets his younger brother seriously riled. This younger brother is educated, a city dweller with an established and settled job as a teacher.. His anger leads him to quit teaching and return to the village for a novel revenge – fighting to ensure that no other farmer quits life like his brother did. The non-functioning of support systems like loan terms re-negotiation, widow compensation in case of debt-related suicide, which form the core reason for his brother’s death – are identified by him as the core reasons.

Problem is that this system of non-deliverance of aid has an economy of its own, with unscrupulous money-lenders, local big farmers with agenda of their own, bank managers with targets to meet – and the local MP with an assembly election to manage. And this is how interests collide, as the enterprising young man almost single-handedly delivers justice to the widows of the farmers in an superbly plotted, entirely believable & flawless strategy. The personal cost borne by this young man make his achievement even more powerful, and at the end of the book, you are forced to realize “The Power Of  One”

He is assisted by a doughty Journalist, who, alongside this young farmer forms the  core of the book. Ranged against them are a big think-tank, an MP and his powerful father, a moneylender, the powerful farmer, the District Collector, Bank  Manager and Agricultural Officer.

The book takes you into the dirty intrigues that play out in the corridors of power, where everything and everyone is subjugted to electoral victory and nothing else matters. The interplay between various political figures is enthralling, and the entire Political-Media circuit has also been brought out with elan in the story. This is the secondary theme, which has been blended into the main theme effortlessly as the author skillfully merges the two with alternating chapters, letting us see the story unfold on both sides simultaneously.

The charectarisation has stunned me; I was left absolutely awestruck by the sacrifice of pace for the sake of building each character.  This actually adds to the story, which becomes an intriguing and absorbing tale that slowly captivates you. The detailed buildup helps us gel with each character, since we can now see the motives and the reasons for the behavior of each character, and makes for a very convincing narrative. This is a relatively slow-paced book – but is unputdownable nonetheless.  Each character comes across as forceful and real-life; such is the tremendous power of the charactarisation and the attendant narrative.

The story is virtually flawless, and instantly gels with you. It is a tragic tale, but has been put forth in a very factual and minimalist style, with little dramatization. It will tug at your heart, and make you think with its deep observations, stated simply is a line or two – observations that are spread across the book. These are the icing on the cake, as they start your mind thinking of the tragedy that is unfolding, as referred to in the facts section above. “I know I could not have won without the votes that these 2 got me by force and funds. But I would have chosen farmers to be my allies, or the labourers on farms, the tenants or any of the underpriviledged.” – lines which take you deep into a young MPs mind as his ideals collide with the ugly reality of politics. In this byplay between the 2  - the MP and the farmer, one can see how one compromises and becomes part of the system, and the other doesn’t- and brings about change. This is the power of one, the power we all ignore. 

And that is what this book is ultimately about: The Power Of One. How one man, one honest man, can bring lasting change… and about our society – which does not value this power – The Power Of One…

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