Dedicated to the upliftment of ancient Indian rural livelihoods
By Dr. Annavajhula J.C. Bose. Department of Economics, SRCC
Free-market economists are not bothered about social dislocation due to economic dislocation due to their economic policies. Instead, sociologists and psychologists have addressed social dislocation. They point to a building anxiety in societies where social dislocation occurs and basic structures that once held people in a sense of value and purpose are disappearing. They refer to the destruction of jobs, support structures and shared community values as a significant part of the contemporary globalist policies that contribute to our broken societies.
In his masterpiece, The Globalization of Addiction, Bruce K. Alexander, Professor Emeritus, Psychology Department, Simon Fraser University, says the metastory of social dislocation succinctly thus: “Dislocation is the condition of great number of human beings who have been shorn from their cultures and individual identities by the globalization of the free-market society in which the needs of the people are subordinated to the imperatives of markets and the economy. Dislocation afflicts both people who have been physically displaced, such as economic immigrants and refugees, and people who have remained in place while their cultures disintegrated around them. Dislocation occurs during boom times as well as recessions, among the rich as well as the poor, among capitalists as well as workers. Today, dislocation threatens to become universal, as global free-market society undermines even more aspects of social and cultural life everywhere.”
In building up the metastory that includes the various stories of people’s experiences of dislocation, we can ponder about the pressing question: How can we change economics and economic policies in order to build a society where there is better community cohesion, meaningful work for all, richer culture, less transitory lifestyle, as also less crime, domestic violence, drug and alchohol abuse, better educational and health outcomes and so on?
In light of this topic, a best book about discovering a culturally rich but poor India I have read lately is the Nine Rupees an Hour by Aparna Karthikeyan. It is perhaps the first interdisciplinary book in India that is amazingly well written by tracking the erosion of work and cultural ambience surrounding traditional livelihoods in rural Tamil Nadu.
Aparna is not a trained sociologist. Nor is she a trained psychologist. She is a zoology graduate and has evolved, inter alia, as a storyteller for children and also an independent investigative journalist. Having come under the inspiring influence of the People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI) founded by Palagummi Sainath (a historian by training from the Jawaharlal Nehru University), she has written this wonderful book that is an exemplary window to understanding the facts and feelings of rural Indian experiences.
For Humanities students, Aparna’s writing style is a role model in terms of the mysterious alchemy of combining the four main types of writing—expository, descriptive, persuasive and narrative—all in one. For economics students, let me say that Aparna likes the economics based on action oriented research as that of Jean Dreze who is more Indian than many Indians! Despite being a non-economist, Aparna and the like PARI writers are indefatigable warriors against not only the systemic neglect of rural society on the part of the policy makers of the various central and state governments in India but also the bankruptcy of the discipline of economics in relating to rural society. The increasing rural-urban divide on these grounds that a professor of the Azim Premji University had highlighted well in a newspaper article, is a must read for economics students (see Kumar, 2016). It makes you appreciate how Aparna’s writing and the like adds value to the devalued rural setting and its folk culture against the highly valued urbanization and its sanskritized as also mass culture. It also makes you realize the importance of not making economics and economic policy making independent of their social and cultural orbits.
In her book, Aparna tells ten stories of livelihoods that are ancient, complex and beautiful. These are struggling experiences of ten persons associated with ten occupations. They are stories of “everyday people who do extraordinary things to earn a living—like Soundaram, probably the only woman to own over half a dozen of the fiercest and finest stud bulls; Kali, perhaps the only male dancer who is accomplished in both Bharatanatyam and folk dance; and Tamilarasi, only the second girl to perform in an all-male, all-night folk theatre. Then there is Rayappan, who climbs hundreds of palm trees every week; Selvaraj, the nadaswaram maker, who makes wood sing, Krishnamoorthy, who has created ten thousand sari designs by hand, and Zeenath, who weaves exquisite silk mats on a floor loom. There is Kamachi, who has spent most of her life dancing on stilts, with a dummy horse strapped around her waist; Chandrasekaran, the sickle maker, who gets iron to yield to him; and Poudhumani, who coaxes the parched earth to bear a crop, rushes back to cook another meal for her sons and her husband, and is back again on the field, to put food on your plate and mine.”
She writes: “These men and women, shared their dreams and defeats, triumphs and tears with me. They spoke as they worked under the scorching sun or rested briefly in the shadows of tall palms. They told me stories of pride and despair, of love and laughter, in rooms lit only by oil lamps. And hope. They earned for their children to receive good education and a well-paying job. Let this end with me, they said about the occupation their ancestors had survived on for centuries. They did not have much of a choice, not when they were growing up. Their children do.”
From this unique socio-economic storytelling which gets little space in the mainstream media, we come to know a number of things: decline and fall of physically grueling prodigious livelihoods with non-transferable skillsets sustained by natural, social and cultural resources; how these livelihoods are closely related to the monster of caste; how livelihoods shape culture and demolition of the former demolishes the latter which in turn demolishes the former; and what can be done to keep the ancient livelihoods alive.
In between the stories, Aparna arranges to intelligently place powerful interviews with P. Ayyakannu, who participated in an ingenious farmers’ protest for 141 days at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar in 2017; with Dr. Thomas Franco Rajendra Dev, who had started a federation of self-help groups in Kanyakumari; with her mentor P. Sainath of PARI; with Bama, an educated Dalit woman writer; with Prabha Sridevan, a former chairperson of the Intellectual Property Appellate Board; and finally with T.M. Krishna, a vocalist in the Carnatic tradition. These interviews help the reader, via a more intellectualized and interdisciplinary discussion, grasp the multiple reasons for the vanishing traditional livelihoods and the solutions for their resurrection and protection.
A drawback of the book is the absence of the photos of the occupations and persons that the author had painstakingly dealt with; photos could have helped the non-Tamil reader to connect with the author’s writing well. But this is understandable as the publishers these days do not allow them for containing the unit cost and price of the popular writing based books. However, the publisher should think of bringing out an expensive hardback with visual effects of her travelling and ethnography. Perhaps, making documentary movies is more effective than writing books on these lines.
I appeal to you to buy and read this book and support socially useful and culturally life-enhancing writers such as Aparna Karthikeyan. She deserves more than a PhD for this contribution and I wish I could travel in my homestate Andhra Pradesh and write like her.
Alexander, Bruce. 2008. The Globalisation of Addiction: A Study in Poverty of the Spirit. Kobo eBooks.
Karthikeyan, Aparna. 2019. Nine Ruppes an Hour: Disappearing Livelihoods in Tamil Nadu. Westland Books.
Kumar, Vikas. 2016. Urban Bias Aplenty. Deccan Herald. May 13.