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By the sweat of their brows: Sudipta Datta reviews ‘The Sickle’ by Anita Agnihotri, trs Arunava Sinha

Despair: A drought-affected farm in Nashik in 2018.   | Photo Credit: Vijay Chavan

In her Bengali novels and short stories, Anita Agnihotri shines a light on areas of darkness. She gives voice to the dispossessed and the marginalised, describing their life in and outside Bengal. In a previous novel, Mahanadi (2015), she went up and down the river several times to find out how people survive on the banks from source to coast.

Her 2019 novel Kaste, translated into English as The Sickle by Arunava Sinha, is about the migrant labourers of the dry Marathwada region who work in the sugarcane fields and mills of Satara in Maharashtra. It examines a host of other grim realities like patriarchy, female foeticide, sexual abuse, caste, migration, water crisis, the brunt of which is borne by women.

Imperilled workers

By the sweat of their brows: Sudipta Datta reviews ‘The Sickle’ by Anita Agnihotri, trs Arunava Sinha

The story begins with a Banjari couple, Terna and her husband Datu, working in the fields and staying in the doorless shanties around the sakhar (sugar) factories of Satara. Things are doubly hard for Terna because the mukadam or sugar mill agent, and other men are always on the prowl.

On top of that, “the payment was made at a ‘per sickle’ rate, with husband and wife adding up to one koyta, the local word for the sickle or knife used to harvest the sugarcane.” Agnihotri vividly describes the perils of the region: “The peculiar geographic location of Marathwada keeps it eternally anxious and distressed; delayed monsoon, scanty rains, drought, adversity — these are the variations on its fate.”

Fiction meets fact

Holding a mirror to society, Agnihotri also writes on the politics around farmers’ suicides in Vidarbha and the anxieties of tribal peasants. She peels layer after layer and delves into social evils. One of the characters, Daya Joshi, is a feisty lawyer who has taken up the fight against female foeticide, putting her life at risk. Joshi has built a team with women from 60 villages to take on the clinics which ensure that girls die long before they are born. The stories of Pari and Durga, snatched “from the arms of death”, are some of the few of hope in this cycle of despair.

In the end, migrants, farmers, tribal peasants march from Nashik to Azad Maidan in Mumbai. Fiction meets fact and Agnihotri mentions Rukma Bai, whose photo (“her cracked soles with dried lines of blood on them”) made it to the newspapers.

As the farmers’ agitation against the controversial farm laws continues on the Punjab border, The Sickle provides a backstory explaining what ails agriculture in India.

The Sickle; Anita Agnihotri, trs Arunava Sinha, Juggernaut, ₹599

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Printable version | Jun 17, 2021 1:38:46 AM |

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