Kota Neelima’s “Shoes Of The Dead” takes India to Bharat. Anuj Kumar speaks to the intrepid author
When a story begins to fade in newspapers, it finds its way into novels. The latest is farmers’ suicide. Penned by seasoned journalist Kota Neelima, “Shoes Of The Dead” brings out the emotions that get overshadowed by the facts. It tells us how some amongst us are left with dead people to speak for them.
“When you are out there to do news reportage you bring back home emotions and experiences that stay with you long after you have filed the story. Over a period of time these stories start getting accumulated. The book is full of people you and I have met as a reporter. As a journalist you need pure information but you know and the reader also knows it that there is more to it. There is a reason to why somebody is making an unreasonable statement. There is a past to it and there is a future to it,” says Neelima as she dwells on how her long years of reporting from Vidarbha have shaped her third novel.
On the surface it is a clash between the brother of a victim of debt and scion of a political empire but the way Neelima has woven it you can sense it is not just a one-way contest between rich and the deprived. You find there is more to it as the author makes you aware of the complex grass-root realities without being judgmental about any of the characters. She keeps the hope flickering even when the odds seem insurmountable.
For Keyur Kashinath, the young MP from a rural constituency, says Neelima, farmers’ suicides are not a problem. “It is just one of those glitches, which he has to get over quickly and nicely so that he can get on with his ascent.”
The kind of solutions that he is offered in the beginning to get over the hitch reek of indifference of political and intellectual elite towards the poor. “Precisely. Half the time the solutions that are given are designed according to the person who is listening to them. That is the reason problems never get solved. When the power structure tries to solve a problem, it listens to the lobbies. My question is what about people who don’t have lobbies. Isn’t it the government’s role to represent people who don’t have lobbies?”
Talking about her protagonist Gangiri Bhadra, Neelima says, “When you are a victim of the system you know the system best. So when Gangiri decides to solve the problem and takes on the system he does a much better job than others who have been part of it or in charge of it.” Neelima says the anger against the system is very intense. “But the good thing is that people are now actually fighting for somebody else. It is seen in the processions against corruption and sexual assault. Similarly, Gangiri is not fighting for himself or his brother, he stands for other families whose members have committed suicides because of debt.”
What makes the novel believable is her portrayal of the functioning of bureaucracy, particularly the suicide committees, which certify a debt-related suicide. “The problem, strangely, is not the fact that the farmers are committing suicides, children are losing out on education and the farm is losing power. The real problem that the administration is tackling is how to keep the number of debt-related deaths down. Initially, when I came across these committees I thought they may be looking for solutions. Later it occurred to me that their aim is that if a thousand farmer suicides occurred how to peg it around 80. And who is on these suicide committees? Same money lenders, same collectors, same agriculture officers, who don’t listen to the farmers.”
In the novel, Gangiri becomes a member of this committee but in real life it is still a fiction. “I wish it doesn’t remain a fiction,” she sighs.
Neelima says from her experience that the solutions that come from farmers are much more sincere. “Some of the solutions that are offered in the book have come straight from the farmers. Like the real problem starts when the money lender sends his henchmen to recover loan, because they do it in a very inhuman way. It happens because there are no witnesses. Later on when the farmer takes it to the Panchayat he has nobody to speak for him. So why can’t a Panchayat member be present when the recovery agents come calling? The other thing was that a lot of farmers don’t have a bank account, land papers…. The local politician who has known these people for generations should stand security for them. The solutions may not be entirely practical but something that could be discussed,” she suggests.
The novel also highlights the poor state of infrastructure in the villages. “How many of the rural constituency MPs actually live in the villages,” she asks. “How many politicians get themselves checked in the OPD of government hospital in a village? Had Keyur Kashinath been living in Gopur, the issue would not have arisen,” she muses.
But such people get elected repeatedly. “This is because of vote bank politics. Not more than 50 per cent of voters exercise their right in a constituency. Out of these if you get the support of 25 percent on the basis of caste or religion, you win. Then you don’t need to care about the rest. But if you have to win over even 50 percent of vote then you have to think about the fundamental problems. We have written about it in newspapers but in fiction you can actually talk about the implications. For instance, the maha sarpanch Lambodar is supporting Keyur for he wants to promote his son. This brings us to the issue of inheritance. I met many people like Gangiri. They are angry. They migrate to cities for better prospects but they don’t want to leave everything. They want to retain their legacy. And what do they inherit…absolute hopelessness. Why should their inheritance be any different from that of a politician’s son,” she questions.
It seems dynastic politics finds acceptance even at the grass-roots because many regional satraps, who came into prominence by opposing it, are now themselves promoting their progeny. Neelima differs. “Indian psyche is also about fair play. We are very just people. How many people do you see at the top level in sports because of their parents? It is because sports is a level playing field. But our politics is not. Which politician’s son starts from making speeches at street corners from where you and I are expected to start?
She is right. Instead, they are considered selfless for refusing the PM’s chair!