'Widows of Vidarbha' book review: Harvesting the living dead

In Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Seven Samurai, an ever angry Kikuchiyo extrapolates his disgust for farmers, “What do you think of farmers? You think they’re saints? Hah! They’re foxy beasts! They say, “We’ve got no rice, we’ve no wheat. We’ve got nothing.” But they have. They have everything. Dig under the floors. Or search the barns. You’ll find plenty... Look in the valleys, they’ve got hidden warehouses. They pose as saints but are full of lies. If they smell a battle, they hunt the defeated. They’re nothing but stingy, greedy, blubbering, foxy, and mean. God damn it all!” 

Then Kikuchiyo answers his conscience, “But then, who made them such beasts? You samurai did. You burn their villages. Destroy their farms. Steal their food. Force them to labour. Take their women. And kill them if they resist. So what should farmers do?”

Kota Neelima’s Widows of Vidharbha paints the Indian state as holding a similar opinion of the region’s farmers who committed suicide. Minus the empathy. Ms Neelima, being a journalist-turned-author, does a good job in interviewing 18 widows and family members of indebted farmers who killed themselves in two districts in Vidarbha. All the widows are spread across Amravati and Yavatmal districts, which have witnessed the highest number of suicides in Maharashtra. Although her legwork is admirable, Ms Neelima fails to comprehend the socio-economic intricacies of the villages she covers, treats the widows of farmers as another statistic to check off her list and interacts with each widow with a restricted mind space that does not extend beyond her own pre-conceived script of presenting stories of staggering tragedy. 

Ms Neelima’s failure to capture in all its nuances and complexities one of the most harrowing human tragedies of independent India can partly be explained by her proclivity for sticking to a template of questioning that ends up fusing the widows and family members of the dead farmers into one amorphous monolith. Her narrative reduces each dead farmer and their families to listless characters devoid of any individuality. This is surprising for a book that has 18 chapters — each of them devoted to a different farmer and their loved ones. She fails to highlight the viciousness of the lenders (private moneylenders and banks), the haplessness of the indebted farmers and the continuing cycle of debt that still plays a role in shaping life choices of the farmers’ surviving family.

While certain aspects of Ms Neelima’s approach may be flawed, her intentions are good. For those whom Vidarbha has been reduced to mere statistics of farmer deaths, her book offers a partial glimpse into an invisible after-life. This is how it looks: Young widows mostly uneducated and married off as minors are reduced to working as daily wagers after their husbands have committed suicide. Those families that inherit land from farmers lease it to others which yield a pittance — sometimes as low as a few hundred rupees a month. Widows are often regarded with suspicion by district officials who come to probe the exact cause of the farmer’s death. The line of questioning is often designed how not to prove a case as a suicide rather than an honest probe into the circumstances surrounding each death. 

Many widows and their children suffer multiple humiliation while waiting for compensation that may extend up to Rs 100,000. It is the state that decides whether the farmer killed himself due to an inability to repay his debts. In some cases where the compensation is received, the family members of the farmers have little say in what happens with the money. Officials like the tehsildar can behave like patriarchs and decide how much money would be paid out to the family for their immediate needs and how much should be parked in fixed deposits in a bank. 

A significant portion of the compensation money is used by the farmers’ family to repay debts to private money lenders. Most farmers killed themselves for being unable to pay a few thousand rupees. Even after the death of a farmer, it makes sense for the family to repay the money lender rather than the bank. That’s because it’s the money lender who would never refuse them a loan in a future exigency. The most pressing needs in the future will be a daughter’s marriage or a son’s education. The widespread prevalence of dowry in Maharashtra or the culture of organising a wedding beyond one’s means invariably pushes the family back into debt. Children of farmers are forced to restrict their academic ambitions. None of them want to go back to tilling the land like their farmer fathers. Agriculture for them is associated with death devoid of human dignity.

Despite the inadequacies of her investigation, Ms Neelima succeeds in laying bare the state’s reluctance to acknowledge that a farmer could kill himself because he could not repay his debts.
Widows of Vidarbha
Making of Shadows 
Kota Neelima
Oxford University Press
284 pages; Rs 550

Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel