Realism Books

Palanpur tribune: Review of ‘Rumble in a Village’ by Luc Leruth and Jean Drèze

Moved at the sight of this bare hovel, the children in rags, and their hospitality, I handed a fifty rupee note to the young man, adding ‘Use the money wisely. Maybe you should invest it in fixing the house.’”To this, Smita, a Dalit schoolteacher, responds brusquely: “‘Who are you to tell these people what they should do? Even with the little money you give them?… Our children have names like Bhukhan and Dukhi. If he invests fifty rupees on fixing the roof, will it make him feel better? No! He will still be miserable on a daily basis.’” This is an exchange from Rumble in a Village, a novelby Luc Leruth and Jean Drèze — economists both, but writing fiction this time.

Layered tapestries

Anil’s charitable attempt at telling the Dalit family what to do is justifiably met with Smita’s indignation. The dialogue points at how, among other things, centuries of subjugation manifest themselves even in the names of Dalits. And this holds true for 21st century India as well. The narrator of Rumble in a Village is an upper-caste male who accepts the injustice that his clans have inflicted on farmers and labourers over decades. Despite being on a slippery surface the narrative voice never assumes a patronising tone. In turn, Dalit voices, angry and anguished, are asserted repeatedly.

The novel starts with fear looming large over the village of Palanpur in Uttar Pradesh in 1984: gunshots are heard, Anil’s uncle is

Palanpur tribune: Review of ‘Rumble in a Village’ by Luc Leruth and Jean Drèze

murdered. After hearing the news of his uncle’s death, Anil, living in London, decides to go back to his ancestral village to unearth the truth. He befriends a frail Babu Ram, a Dalit, and learns that Babu’s mother has been arrested in connection with the murder. As Anil sets out to find the real culprit, we are taken on a journey through the layered tapestries of power, privilege and caste dynamics in rural UP.

Palanpur has three main caste groups: Dalits (mostly Chamars), the agriculturist Muraos, and the landholding Thakurs. Anil’s theoretical readings on farming get unwittingly rubbished by Kishan Lal, a hardworking Murao farmer. Kishan becomes Anil’s version of Zorba the Greek. For company, Anil keeps returning to his partner Pat, some audio cassettes, a camera, a billy goat and his father’s diary. John le Carré is distinctly missing.

The diary takes us on a historical excursion from 1869, documenting the lives, feuds and prejudices of Palanpur. Anil learns of his ancestors’ contribution in controlling land and the landless through the diary.

While Palanpur is very real, it also at times assumes mythical proportions, like Marquez’s Macondo. There are markers of change over time: the rumours of a metallic monster that can go long distances become an actuality when one fine day British generals arrive at Palanpur to lay railway tracks. The novel is a train journey through time and the railway is so endearingly presented that it feels like another character in the novel.

Caste calculus

For instance, as a train passes through Palanpur in 1932, its half-Dalit, half-British driver, George, blows the whistle triumphantly, as if registering his participation in a village wedding. The villagers react approvingly. Cut to 1984 and it is on a train that Anil befriends a man who, like a fortune-teller, repeatedly suggests that Anil must mingle more with Dalits in his quest to find the murderer. However things might change in Palanpur, caste hierarchies remain entrenched. As does the nature of control — Indian bureaucrats have taken over from colonial officers in managing the administration, but none is closer to understanding the people’s needs. The authors’ keen understanding of rural governance and the caste calculus dictating development priorities is in full bloom here. Should a school or a temple be constructed in the village? To get government funds, the villagers go in circles, meeting a variety of officials from ADO, BDO, CDO to KDO — the authors don’t open out the abbreviations, giving them an ominous ring.

The authors’ training in economics can be felt when an academic writing style surfaces, perhaps subconsciously. Some of the characters from the 1984 period could have been fleshed out a bit more at the cost of some characters from history. That said, the plot is well-knit, ironies abound, and there are delightful self-referential digs at economists and researchers. For instance, a self-proclaimed “expert” on poverty refuses to walk in the village fearing that his shoes will get dirty. He justifies his position by saying that it “implicitly confirmed that social change was best seen as a long-term objective”.

The protagonist, the 1980s’ rural setting and wit might suggest parallels with Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August. But unlike Agastya Sen, who is preoccupied with sex, Anil is more bothered about farming and the murder.

One need not rattle off statistics and jargon to bring out the inextricable relationship between caste, power and government bias. This novel proves that a work of fiction rooted in reality can do the job as effectively.

Rumble in a Village; Luc Leruth, Jean Drèze, Aleph Book Company, ₹699

The reviewer teaches at Azim Premji University.

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Nov 30, 2020 5:21:28 PM |

Next Story