[Outlook, November 2, 1998]
In Their Own Words
A sensitive, ideology-free analysis of the poor and their history
WORDS LIKE FREEDOM
by Siddharth Dube
Rs 395, Pages: 297
THE poor are an opaque category—neither human nor animal, neither slave nor bonded labourer, neither in religion nor outside it.
The poor are untouchable. Bereft of land and God (still the only worthwhile possession in India for the silent majorities), language, public space, in short of all possessions of being in the world, including the right to life.
Before Independence, Gandhi exhorted his disciples to go to the villages; he himself constantly did so out of faith and compulsion, soliciting support for the Congress and the freedom movement. His imaginative way out of India's multiple oppression was to be poor by choice, to consciously opt out from material indulgence, to discipline his own taste and habits, and try and convert others. After Independence, the ruling elite and their commissars visited the villages to manufacture consent for their rule.
Now, it's the gene collector, patent discoverer and the (international and indigenous) development activist—missionaries of the 'new world order'—who visit villages. So do, ad infinitum, hordes of academicians and interdisciplinary scholars looking for rare gems, for theoretical exotica, coming back with books, fashionable methodologies, trendy stylistics—somewhere or the other always ghost-writing old colonial chronicles, concealing therein their own ignorance, prejudices and other 'knowledge' they share with the rest of the literate. It is in this context that Siddharth Dube's book stands out for its boldness and narrative accuracy.
The book is really the memoirs of Ramdass and Prayaga Devi, their sons and immediate relatives. It is the world of the untouchables, their internal and external landscapes, the rich and vivid remembrance of Independence, zamindari before and after 1947, primary education, industrialisation, bogus land reforms and affirmative action programmes, the Emergency and forced sterilisations. In short, the memoirs of the multiple operations of tradition and the state—Thakurs, police, local and state bureaucracy, the foul places and naked exploitation, the corruption, the depressed Bombay, Allahabad, Dehradun, Faridabad and Delhi, tea plantations and construction sites, textile mills and primary schools, in the backdrop of a constant fight for land and water, dignity and respect.
Dube's book testifies once again that the real subjects of history are not lacking in historical knowledge, that they remember everything, from the peasant struggles and armed uprisings of the colonial times, Gandhi, Congress and its corruption and complicity with landlords and money-lenders, Ambedkar and his tragedy, Nehru and his retreats to the mansions, Indira Gandhi and 'Garibi Hatao', Rajiv Gandhi and his festivals, massacre and tyranny, the consolidation of fanatics. It testifies that they live in history, that they breathe it. It is the professional historian who lacks it, condemns it to the archives. In that way, Dube's journey to the village and back is very instructive and should be appreciated without reserve.
As compiler and narrator of these oral testimonies, Dube limits his own descriptive and situational comments to a minimum and takes sensitive care of his protagonists by not snuffing their lives with the burden of history. He treats them with love, respect and a sense of gratitude rare among his tribe. An odd voice in these times and, strangely, more Nehruvian than Nehru and also rehearsed within the acoustical museum of the mainstream Left-liberal humanist scholarship, a hybrid voice true to its genealogical legacy, the current face of which is Ama-rtya Sen and the like, votaries of the coexistence of a welfare state and globalisation.Odd, since the most confusing and volatile topics in contemporary India are tradition and liberalisation, and the most ignorant in these two are our own intellectuals.
In a way this book is attempting a reality, no doubt to grant the analysis of poverty priority and absolute independence with regard to any discipline, research and rig-our. Dube does not point to it from afar, he neither observes it nor analyses it for the sake of experiencing it at a distance in the hope of a solution, some day or the other.... On the contrary, his text domesticates the malady of a poor family, he fuses with it, is on the same level with it, without either distance or perspective.
In Their Own Words
The dull rain of tragedy
THE TIMES LIERARY SUPPLEMENT
On the Famished Road
The Great Betrayal : Indian Land Reforms
A life without land
Why do the Poor Remain Poor?
Land Reform in India
DEVELOPMENT AND COOPERATION
“A penetrating study.”
STEPHEN P. COHEN, Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution, author of ‘India: Emerging Power’
"Elegantly intertwining the story of one poor family in Uttar Pradesh with the larger history of post-colonial India, this book documents the tragic consequences of the Congress Party's failure to undertake serious land redistribution and other social reforms. It is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the perpetuation of poverty and inequality in the world's second largest country."
BETSY HARTMANN, co-author 'A Quiet Violence', author 'Reproductive Rights and Wrongs' and Director of the Population and Development Program, Hampshire College
"Academically grounded, yet immensely readable, it brings to life the experience of those whose story has hitherto been swallowed up in that dark allusive term 'the masses'...makes all the recent, highly praised novels on India look contrived and artificial."
JEREMY SEABROOK, author of 'In the Cities of the South'.
“Sharp, convincing and absolutely to the point…for his ability to explain [the need for equity] in clear, human terms to contemporary readers whose perspectives on poverty has been addled by talk of modernisation, ‘trickle down’ economic reform and the overweening importance of population control, Dube deserves the widest possible commendation."
SUSAN RAM in Frontline.
"An important book that serves as a powerful antidote to much of the euphoria generated these days about the benefits of economic liberalisation. It deserves to be very widely read."
DARRYL D'MONTE in Humanscape
"A skilful melding of oral testimony and explanatory text...important reading."
PAMELA PHILIPOSE in the Indian Express
“A consciousness-raising book…told with a passion that emerges not only from the words of three generations of family members themselves, but also from the author’s analysis of the broader political economy.”
PRABHU GHATE in the Economic and Political Weekly
"(Written) with such skill that it holds the reader's interest all the time."
K.F. RUSTAMJI, Padma Vibhushan, The Hindu
“Excellent thick description…well grounded in history…a fascinating collection of anecdotes and insights from rural India.”
CONTEMPORARY SOUTH ASIA
“We seldom take the time to appreciate the dramatic impact historical events have on individual lives and Dube’s book gives us the opportunity to do so.”
JOURNAL OF THIRD WORLD STUDIES
"Subaltern history at its best."
"Not just the story of one family but the story of the masses of the Indian people."
"Compelling...The voices of the poor are urgent, sombre, stoic and pensive…they heckle you as you turn every page."
THE TIMES OF INDIA
“As finely written as a first-rate work of fiction.”
"Every Indian ought to read Siddharth Dube's book."
"Brings alive the ugliness of poverty...an excellent narrative."
"Surely recovers the voices of the poor."
INDIAN REVIEW OF BOOKS
"Incisive analysis. Written with powerful clarity."
“An intensely readable and memorable account.”
DARRYL D'MONTE in Tehelka.com
"A carefully crafted journey...far more powerful than any other pure socio-political or economic analysis."
"An excellent book...stands distinctly apart from other such writings not only because of its simplicity of style, but also because of the enormous empathy and compassion (it) evokes."
Biography of a poor dalit family