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The ground beneath our feet

The story of a people’s self-worth is progressively contaminated as their relationship to their lands is debased

Many years ago, before the 2008 financial crisis, my father took me to meet a great scholar of Sanskrit theatre who lived in middle-class obscurity. While much of that conversation involved this scholar telling me the importance of preserving art forms with complex grammatical structure of presentation such as Koodiyattam, what he really wanted to discuss was the consequences of what Marxists describe as “finance capital”. I nodded dutifully, although I realised, much to my great amazement, that as profound and subtle was his knowledge of Sanskritic arts, his knowledge about modern finance was standard fare anti-capitalist rhetoric from the 1930s that intellectuals — on the Right and the Left — in Kerala dutifully peddle. What struck me, however, with the force of a revelation was a throwaway etymological reference that he made. According to him, the Malayalam word “thantteddam” — a word that describes a kind of self-assuredness in one’s being, a will to anti-servility — came from two words — thantte (one’s own) and idam (land). His larger point was not just that as long as a person has his or her own land, a place to call their ‘own’, they will find the internal reserves to stand up for themselves; it was that the very self-dignity of man is born from land or property he considers inviolably his own. From the material emerges the state of mind. Take that land away, the scholar seemed to imply, either from a man or a people, and what you get is a loss of internal equanimity, a decimation of self-image, and eventually a form of servility.

A history of loss

What is particularly striking about such a formulation — even if it is decidedly inspired by Marx’s writings on English serfs in the 1650s — is that instead of thinking about modern history as a story of victorious leaders and glorious revolutions, and powerful nations, it allows us to think of modernity as a history of transformations borne by those who end up on the losing side. History becomes a story of the dispossessed, of living and losing one’s land, and of becoming irrelevant in the larger society. Over time, such people have had different names — settlers, smallholders, serf, campesinos, and, most strikingly, peasants and villein (from which the word ‘villain’ emerged). But eventually, history writing had little use for such lives, for they were deemed no longer relevant in the larger story of growth or empire-building. This is true even of the European settlers — arguably, the most successful settler group in modern history — whose westward expansion on the American continent led to the decimation of various native Indian nations such as Cherokee, Shawnee, Creek, and so on. But nearly a century after the Indians were evicted, as urbanisation of the American economy, corporatisation of American land, and mechanisation of farming began to flourish, the descendants of European settlers who were still small farmers were either simply forgotten or, worse, themselves subject to pressures that forced them to leave their lands in search of opportunities.

Nowhere is this tale more viscerally told recently as it is in the best-selling autobiographical book, Hillbilly Elegy, by the Silicon Valley venture capitalist, J. D. Vance. It is a story of life amidst social ills — unemployment, abuse, drugs, alcohol, a disappearing work ethic — that wracks the Appalachias, the broad swathe of forested regions that sweeps in, like an army’s pincer movements, from the tail end of New York down to the interiors of Alabama and Mississippi. In glittering cities of America, these regions are seen as provincial (which they are in comparison to the multicultural cosmopolis of New York or Los Angeles), their inhabitants often described as unsophisticated and racists (institutionalised racism and legacies of slavery still mark many aspects of public life in these regions), and their long and complex cultures deemed as having little ability to evolve except as heightened expressions of resentment that masquerades as tradition.

What emerges from Vance’s telling of his own life — his credibility to tell this tale hinges on being an insider who made it in the outside world — is the story of a people whose self-worth is progressively contaminated as their relationship with their lands is debased. Whether it be through irrelevancy of small farms, aggressive resource mining, land grabbing by corporations, toxicity from fertilizers, or monopolistic stranglehold of industries involved in resource extraction, millions of lives are progressively hollowed out and, perhaps, irretrievably written off.

Reclaiming dignity

Reading Vance describe his home and what has become of it, I couldn’t but think of places across India where the aggressive and opportunistic pursuit of “growth rate” — a sacrament in the religion of progress espoused particularly by those who no longer live off the land, thus with no real skin in the game — has led to the creation of a class of people who have replaced subsistence living off the land for subsistence wages in informal economies. What this means in the long run is hard to say, except in terms of sweeping generalities — overcrowded cities, strained resources, production of new social relations, weakening democracy, and rise of illiberalism.

But what is, however, ineluctable, perhaps even inevitable, is that men deprived of dignity will seek to reclaim it. And when they do, irrespective of the means they choose or vocabularies in which they express themselves, no one who has paid attention to the present age of India’s transformation should be surprised.

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Printable version | May 27, 2020 11:24:56 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/the-ground-beneath-our-feet/article19897725.ece

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