A stark tale of greed and helplessness based on news reports of farmer suicides.
If a farmer dies in his fields and nobody hears him fall…
Farmer suicides are a curious topic. They reflect one of those ponderous sociological ills that have become an inexorable feature of life. Eminent journalists like P. Sainath seem to keep churning out story after poignant story but farmer suicide trends continue to bloat regardless. And we’re forced to resign ourselves to the fact that poverty and deprivation is an immutable element of modern civilisation.
For, who can be held responsible if the rains misbehave? However, in a good novel, a corporeal villain must be put in the dock. So, Kota Neelima, in Shoes of the Dead, has chosen to focus on systemic callousness. Farmers kill themselves not just because of successive crop failure, but also because they are at the mercy of a cruel infrastructure that exacerbates their distress.
The suicide toll will mount. But there’s a gratifying loophole if you are a local politician like Keyur Kashinath and don’t like to have dying farmers on your resumé – I mean conscience. The numbers can, in fact, be fudged. A farmer suicide isn’t a farmer suicide unless the Mityala district committee says so. It is bad enough that the committee disparages a suicide by refusing to acknowledge it. But to be denied due monetary compensation as a result is a vicious thing to happen to the dead farmer’s destitute family, left with no option but to forfeit its land to pay off dues to usurious moneylenders.
Suddenly, a new hero emerges: Gangiri Bhadra. Gangiri insinuates himself into the suicide committee and, by hook or by crook, turn all apatra verdicts around to secure compensation for farmers’ widows. That he is forced to politick and blackmail his way through every stage only accentuates the systemic disorder Kota is trying to address.
In the urban side of town, outspoken journalist Nazar Prabhakar is denouncing the feeble solutions offered by the powers-that-be as the “eyewash” they are. Kota shows how policymakers grow these ‘solutions’ in the bell jar of academic institutes. And bell jars can sometimes produce the most chimerical of brainchildren.
Inheritance — of power and of despair — is an underlying motif in the book. The juxtaposition of Keyur, a complacent wielder of hand-me-down political privilege, with Gangiri, the recipient of a legacy of debt-distress, is stark.
A certain sub-plot, however, does stick out like a sore unicorn-horn on an elephant-in-the-room. Something akin to ‘lurve’ is brewing subliminally between hard-hearted-bachelor Nazar and unhappily-married Dr. Videhi Jaichand, one of the bell-jar operators. But brew subliminally is all it ever does — neither of them being willing, annoyingly enough, to shatter the veneer of societal propriety and vocalise their mutual admiration. Professionalism can be quite the love-squisher. Not that we’re looking for a love scene or anything, but why give page-time to a digression that goes nowhere, has little to do with the story and only, if anything, distracts the reader? Alas, thou contagious Bollywood.
You almost wish Gangiri, who like Gandhi values reconciliation over retribution, were non-fictitious. If you find the ending a tad fantastical, it’s probably because reality has convinced us that turning the other cheek serves only to get you slaps on both sides of your face. I believe, though, that if we just endorse the story’s denouement en masse, the nefarious ways of the world can be rewired.
Kota shows us that the world needs to treat its Gangiri Bhadras right. Or, it may find that the hero will, one day, wake up from the ruthless nightmare inflicted upon him, bundle up all his courage, wisdom and spirit and depart this “wrong world” to join John Galt — as has done every dead farmer.