One of the abiding functions of the novel is that it can hold up a mirror to society. Besides being a crucible for individual characters, this narrative form can paint telling portraits of a people, and indeed of a time, with all its complexities and concatenations, in ways dreary official reports cannot.
Anita Agnihotri's The Sickle, in Arunava Sinha's elegant translation, does all of this and more. It turns the focus away from urban civilisation, in this case Mumbai, and gets down to telling the half-heard, often-misrepresented accounts from Maharashtra's vast hinterland.
The book opens with the story of Terna, a migrant sugarcane labourer and her family who like hundreds of others have to travel every year from the drought-ridden areas of Latur to the sugarcane fields of Satara, where they work for months under unsafe and severely exploitative conditions.
Terna, who is named after a river, has to undertake this journey because there is sparse rainfall and no irrigation in her village which would allow round-the-year farming. Meanwhile, thousands upon thousands of acres of thirsty sugarcane crop depletes the dwindling groundwater reserves of another district.
The narrative strand centred around Terna’s life in the sugarcane tolis - where labour contractors and their accomplices violate women at their will and run operations with an iron hand - is woven with empathy and a meticulous attention to detail only possible from someone who knows this land like the back of her hand.
Agnihotri writes, "Humans were 'sickles' here, they had no names but numbers... A sickle is released only after enough sugarcane is harvested to recover the advance payment. Had the labourers here been thought of as humans, it wouldn’t have been possible to make them work twenty to twenty-two hours a day."
Reading about the plight of the sugarcane labourers, the indebtedness of cotton farmers, implementation bottlenecks that withhold forest rights from indigenous people, and how climate change, irrigation scams and misdirected policies play in concert to affect human lives, one is reminded of Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck's timeless novel about migrants in the backdrop of the Great Depression.
The American author was writing about drought and dust storms long before global warming entered public discourse. Agnihotri's novel, which addresses climate justice and its complex interplay with economics and politics, shares its humanism and the ability to tell stories about collectives of people in the face of adversity.
Back in her village during the post-harvest season, Terna's story flows into that of Daya Joshi, the indomitable lawyer-activist organising people against female foeticide and corrupt doctors. But kicking a hornet’s nest is dangerous as Daya soon finds out, while the author goes on to introduce Vaishali and through her husband’s suicide, the plight of cotton farmers.
Agnihotri, whose important works include the great river novel, Mahanadi, has fashioned this book like a network of streams, one flowing into another in a mesh of narratives, painting a stark and memorable picture of deprivation and suffering in the backdrop of a scorched and denuded earth. Still there is the tinkle of cowbells in these pages, as there are vignettes of festivity and in the end a glimmer of hope.
The Sickle is also a bold experiment with form where the story is interspersed with facts, figures and even names of real organisations, like All India Kisan Sabha. The effect is that of being able to peer right into the bed of the narrative stream with its scars and obstructions, its secret channels and gathering detritus.
Here precise analysis follows illuminating anthropological enquiry while never missing the profound as in the magical scene on the banks of a crater lake where Ranjan, a brilliant researcher, proposes unsuccessfully to Vaishali, the dead cotton farmer’s wife.
Novels like these are rare to come by. Anyone who is troubled by the strife of the invisible millions of this country whose stories seldom get told or are forever buried in the files of government departments and opaque reports, should read this book.
Three years ago when farmers congregated in Mumbai’s Azad Maidan and today as they protest for months at the gates of India’s shiny capital, the importance of this novel can hardly be overemphasised.