“The Sickle” by Anita Agnihotri was published in Bengali as “Kasté”, and has been translated by Arunava Sinha.
Through the lives of farmers, migrant labourers and activists in Marathwada and western Maharashtra, the novel illuminates a series of intersecting and overlapping crises: female foeticide, sexual assault, the violence of caste, feudal labour relations, farmers’ suicides and climate change in all its manifestations.
From Vaishali, trying to rebuild her life after her husband’s suicide, to Yashwant, a dhaba owner driven to activism by his mother’s murder, the author’s indictment of Indian society is grounded in individual lives.
Read an excerpt from the book below.
The monsoon winds that carry the rains across the country take till the beginning of July to reach Marathwada. The south-west monsoon brings rain to the Malabar coast around the middle of June, after which the monsoon reaches the entire west coast of India, along the Arabian Sea. When Mumbai’s roads are flooded with water, when torrential rain makes rows of cars stall on waterlogged streets, pre-monsoon showers begin in western Maharashtra too. The skies are overcast, and it rains across the districts of Pune, Satara and Kolhapur; the Sahayadri ranges get rain too. But the rain-bearing clouds cannot clamber quickly over the Western Ghats and into Marathwada; nor does the south-west monsoon arrive by then.
Daya Joshi left Satara one day with the sun blazing overhead, with Deepak and Sanjay Atre as her companions. Sanjay used to work with a Marathi newspaper earlier, but now he was a freelance journalist.
He was also deeply interested in street theatre and in translating plays, an interest that matched Deepak’s closely. It was the cause of their deep friendship.
Deepak was a spirited driver, feeling no fatigue even when driving long distances. His only problem was that he would eat according to his own whims during the journey. Everyone else might have sat down to a lunch of vegetables and rotis, but all he would do was pop some paan into his mouth. When urged to eat, he would say, but I’m the driver, how can I stuff myself, I’ll feel sleepy. If anyone insisted that he eat, Deepak would put his foot down. All right, he would say, in that case one of you can drive. I’m going to have some rice now. Normally he ate rotis of wheat or jowar or bajra at home, but when on the road he would go looking for rice at unfamiliar shacks, places he had never even set foot in, let alone having eaten there, before.
Having known Deepak for many years, Daya was aware of these quirks. So she usually held her peace when a dispute arose over his meal, focusing instead on how to go about her own work. It wasn’t wise to provoke Deepak during these moments.
Deepak usually wore a bandana wrapped around his forehead so that his long hair didn’t get into his eyes. His eyes were softly dark, like the colour of his skin, and he wasn’t particularly tall, being only about a head taller than the petite Daya. He used to be thickset even a couple of years ago, but he had shed some weight since. He had involved himself in many small tasks with Daya and Sanjay, and nowadays he often didn’t have the time to bathe or to eat when on the road.
Sanjay, in comparison, was about six feet tall, slim, with thinning hair. Nearly forty, he looked much older. Whenever Deepak threw tantrums in his presence, Sanjay would say, ‘No problem, I’ll drive the rest of the way.’ But that never materialized. The kind of questions Sanjay asked from the back seat didn’t inspire confidence in Daya. Things like: How do you start the wipers? Is the rear tyre on the right making a strange sound? It’s not a puncture, is it? Deepak, have you ever used the rods in the headrest to smash a car window?
On his part, Deepak played along with a grin. He knew he couldn’t be displaced from the role of driver easily, there was a line that was not to be crossed.
When Daya became particularly annoyed or even angry, she would get an urge to drive. Deepak was aware of this and didn’t want such an eventuality. Daya had plenty to do – long telephone conversations, constant planning, so much to write late into the night, and if on top of all this she had to drive too . . . no, impossible. What was Deepak here for, after all?
Which was why he kept scanning her expression out of the corner of his eye, becoming wary whenever he sensed a storm was brewing.
It was a scorching morning as they drove from Satara to Beed district of Marathwada via Ahmednagar. There are two habitations named Shirur at either end of the road, one in Ahmednagar and the other in Beed. The word Kasar has been added to give the name of Shirur Kasar to the area. Perhaps the Kasar community used to live here in large numbers once. Semi-nomadic in nature, they wander around the villages, dressing brides in glass bangles before their wedding.
Shirur Kasar is also the name of a small town. Being the head office of an excise zone, it has some government offices, besides shops and a vegetable market to see residents through their basic needs. Daya Joshi ran her operations across the villages of Beed district from this town. It wasn’t an easy matter to travel 350 kilometres from Satara and then tour the villages immediately, especially since the roads were not in good condition once the town was past, forcing the car to slow down. The more politicians choose to move between districts in helicopters, the less attention is given to road maintenance, with the engineering team of the public works or panchayat departments giving up completely. Who cares for ordinary people travelling in buses or Trekkers? The country is for the political elite, after all.
After some years of this Daya had traded in the long travel from Satara for a rented building near the Shirur Kasar market, where she had created a camp office. The women were given group training in the largest room upstairs, which could be used to sleep in at night after laying out camping beds. The room on the right on the ground floor was used as a kitchen. Everything from pots and pans and spices to dry food and a gas stove were stored here. Daya brought vegetables, fruit and pickles from Satara whenever she came so that no one had to make a beeline for the market on arrival. There was another large room on the first floor where the books and posters used for training, and a TV set, were arranged. Four or five camping beds were laid out here too, so that some people could sleep here if necessary.
Daya had built a team with young girls as well as married women from sixty villages around the town. At first her mission was to stop child marriage, shut down illegal breweries and promote literacy about the law among women. But the past decade and a half had changed her a great deal. A central law had been passed about sex determination of the foetus and had subsequently been strengthened through amendments. Daya’s work for women’s rights had earned her a place in the state government’s monitoring committee. Meanwhile, Yashwant the dhaba owner had visited her several times, smiling sardonically through his thick moustache to tell her, what are you doing, madam? Stop waving your sword in the air, it’s time to grab the hammer and drive the nail in.
It wasn’t as though Daya didn’t know the true nature of the problem. She had been visiting this region for many years and had many friends here. But only a secret tunnel could let her penetrate the chakravyuh – she needed an entrance. Districtwise results of the 2001 census had been published two or three years later; the figures for Marathwada showed that the proportion of women had kept decreasing over the past 100 years, and was at its lowest in these districts. Beed was the worst off – there were only 796 girls for every 1,000 boys at birth.
According to the laws of nature, the number of girls and boys born should be nearly the same. Afterwards, the girl child faces discrimination of all kinds, being deprived of adequate nutrition, or being denied timely medical aid when ill, which means that many girl children die before the age of six. But why is the number of girls so low among the newborn, with more than 200 fewer of them being born for every 1,000 boys? Each of these 200 is a missing girl child. Who makes them disappear? Who gets rid of them even before they’re born?