How the other half lives

A Srinivas | Updated on October 13, 2019 Published on October 13, 2019

Title: Nine Rupees an Hour: Disappearing Livelihoods of Tamil Nadu Author: Aparna Karthikeyan Publisher: Context Price: ₹399

Farming and a host of artisanal occupations are in crisis in Tamil Nadu. A poignant work tells us how

This book is a slim set of life histories on a cross-section of the Tamil Nadu working class, invisibilised by the industrial and service economy, economically, socially and culturally.

Whether they are paddy workers, nadaswaram makers, Kanjeevaram weavers, sickle makers, palm tree climbers, women bull rearers, and dancers on stilts, theirs is a life of extraordinary hard work, grime, dust and, above all, immense grace and fortitude amidst adversity.

Their life stories are rendered by the writer with sincerity (she has certainly spent time with her subjects to get ‘into’ their lives), compassion and a journalistic precision for information — all of this without a trace of aloofness that creeps into many a Western writing on subaltern India.

She is a cultural insider-outsider, an observer-participant, and for that reason her rendition of these extraordinary lives (hidden from plain sight in a society that is quite unidirectional) is poignant without being frothy or sentimental.

At the kernel of the book are the questions that the lives of farmers, weavers and other traditional economy people throw up for actors in the service sector ‘mainstream’ economy, which accounts for 60 per cent of the GDP — economic, cultural and above all philosophical.

The knowledge embedded in transplanting, or in the craft of making silk mats, sarees, sickles or nadaswarams of a certain timbre are barely acknowledged by a society that is running after some form of formal, bookish, dry, technical knowledge as the only escape out of poverty.

What is happening in this transition (as opposed to ‘progress’, a value-neutral term) is, therefore, a depletion of age-old knowledge systems and their replacement by a more utilitarian, alienated way of living.

The transition

The Marxists would say that the transition is inevitable, the Ambedkarites would say it is desirable even if it is utterly disruptive, and perceptive Gandhians would perhaps say that it needs to be managed in a manner that does not give the forces of rampaging ‘modernity’ the upper hand over ‘tradition’.

And, then there was Rabindranath Tagore who remained resolutely cosmopolitan in outlook and yet was fiercely committed to preserving and rejuvenating the traditional arts and crafts — his perception of knowledge being a free-flowing exploration of ideas and aesthetics flowering out of a traditional idiom.

P Sainath explains this transition in a conversation in the book. He says that caste denies both dignity and a comfortable existence to farmers, artisans and traditional occupations, as a result of which their children seek to escape into an anonymous white-collar job. Whether it is farming or other skills, a challenge to the caste system should come in the form of rewarding rich, traditional systems of knowledge, upturning the hierarchy here, rather than abandoning them.

It is also worth noting, as he points out, that industrialisation in the West drove up wages after a while because the labour left the home countries to work in the colonies, an option that is not available to India as the export of labour cannot take place on our terms. There are no urban jobs, only chaos.

Better to restore the land, help farmers adjust to the caprices of the weather and put them at the centre of the system.

Scourge of caste

It is surprising that the backward castes in rural India struggle for dignity even in Tamil Nadu, a pioneer in backward caste politics.

The book does not go into this aspect. Caste is a live scar even today. Hence, when Manithurai, the nine-year old son of a palm tree worker, burned his feet by running into a smouldering pile of ash, his parents said: ‘We don’t go to a doctor based on his qualification, we go to the ones who don’t humiliate us.’ For the same reason, they would borrow from the local moneylender rather than the bank, and this holds true for paddy growers.

The State’s ban on toddy has complicated their livelihood. The move is senseless, and stems from a combination of prejudice and the stronger lobby power of the liquor manufacturers.

A similar foolishness and elitism led to the ban on jallikkattu, without a realisation that indigenous bull varieties, already relegated to the margins of the dairy sector despite their hidden merits, need these festive occasions to remain valued.

The ban on folk performances through the night smacks of rigidity and intolerance.

Finally, the refrain that runs through the book is that if the farm economy is in perennial crisis, it will push to the brink a whole textured way of life. One where the worker takes pride in his dexterity, as opposed to being reduced to a security guard or auto-rickshaw driver in a ‘modern’ economy that is actually just as casteist in its contempt for physical labour and alienates the worker from his work.

It is heartening, yet intriguing, that in this grim rush to urbanise and homogenise work and life, folk art in Tamil Nadu remains in demand.

Does this current of resistance represent hope for Rayappan, the palm tree climber; Selvaraj, the nadaswaram maker; Zeenat, the silk mat weaver; Podhumani, the resolute paddy farmer; Soundaram Ramaswamy, the female bull trainer; Kamachi, the dancer on stilts; and countless other beautiful working people of Tamil Nadu?

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Published on October 13, 2019
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