Society Reviews

‘Nine Rupees an Hour’ review: More work, less wages – Grim stories from rural Tamil Nadu

Podhumani’s wage remained ₹60 for about 17 years and yet she never complains of work or her ‘bhoomi’; Kamatchi, a Poikkal kuthirai artiste, used to be paid ₹5 per performance and still takes pride in the art form. Five such artistes were taken to Delhi in 1982 to perform in the Asian Games and were paid ₹12 each. Women mat makers of Pattamadai make about ₹9 an hour and they are only looking to work harder and become more efficient.

Aparna Karthikeyan’s Nine Rupees an Hour is a rich complex tapestry of honest stories from the interiors of Tamil Nadu, one of the top performing States in the country.

The stories tell us yet how people living in rural areas are highly distressed by a constant economic struggle, social discrimination and political exclusion.

Packed with statistics, facts and expert views, it is a must-read for anyone seeking a profound understanding of the countryside and traditional livelihoods.

Flawed policies

Be it the story of Chandra Subramanian, a widow, raising tuberose flowers in the red ochre lands of Sivagangai or of Antony Rayappan, a palm tree climber in the arid Ramanathapuram district, Selvaraj, a Nadaswaram maker near Thanjavur, Krishnamoorthy, a fourth-generation weaver of Kanjeevaram saris, Kali, a Dalit boy from a fishing hamlet who took up Bharatanatyam and the many others, there are common elements in all of them, including the never-ending cycle of ‘more work and less wages’, a least supportive political policy and the absolute lack of avenues for better days.

Vivid and descriptive, the narration brings to life scenes from the maize fields, the cattle shed, the fishing village and the workshop of a weaver but even before one could take comfort in the sceneries, there are heart-wrenching accounts of a daily battle that the people fight to survive.

From the elderly woman who wakes up well before dawn and goes into the fields plucking flowers to the scrawny man who climbs up and down a 100 palm trees a day and all this to earn a meagre ₹150 to ₹200, there appears to be a no-escape trap these people are caught in.

‘Let this end with me’

In the book, there’s one line that all of these real-life characters say — ‘Let this end with me’.

Whether the farmers, the artisans, the palm workers or the folk artists, they all wish a better life and profession for their future generations, which in turn means that the traditional livelihoods may cease to exist down the years.

The author, through her extensive travels across the State during different time periods including the 2016 Tamil Nadu drought in which 600 farmers took their lives, has documented minute details about the people. When she revisits the people or stays in touch with them through the phone or post, she notes the little changes that have come about either in the form of a fan in the one-room house or a new tiled-roof.

Harsh realities

Karthikeyan also presents a multi-dimensional outlook of the rural distress by interspersing her stories with enlightening interviews of experts like P. Sainath, S. Janakarajan and authorities working in related fields of rural banking, water, agriculture, folk music and so on. She brings to the table an in-depth understanding of not just rural livelihoods and the people but also of the multiple other factors that impact them.

Nine Rupees an Hour has not just given names and identities to the numerous faceless and nameless people working on the fields to put food on our plate or scaling up palm trees to sweeten our coffee, but also has encapsulated a literature on the rural populace, their lifestyle and routine, their emotions that are tied up with the land and nature, their modest dreams and the harsh realities of survival.

Nine Rupees an Hour; Aparna Karthikeyan, Westland Books, ₹399.

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Printable version | Jun 21, 2021 3:50:42 PM |

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