At first sight, everything is wrong with Namita Waikar’s The Long March. It is a novel but reads like a textbook. Its characters are types, rather than individuals. Their conversations with each other are forced. They are all rendered in English — their stories and their speech — and this makes them pathetic. It is a tacky representation of the plight of poor farmers in most states of India.
Here is the story. Mallika Joshi is trying to escape getting married to the awful men who come to “look at” her. She finds work with an NGO that looks after farmers’ problems. Vikram Sonare is an educated son of a farmer who took his life because he could not repay his bank loan. They come together, and with others, to act in a way that is enough to scare the rich and the powerful, to warn them that change is not too unrealistic to be a possibility. The novel unfolds in three marches — one of spiritual awakening, another in search of knowing about real problems, and yet another about taking charge.
The novel is insufferable for the way it mixes up the plight of a girl living in a big city and the farmers’ way of life. There is one kind of apathy Mallika faces when she faints and others are complaining that it is her way to get a seat in the overcrowded Mumbai bus. There is another that the poor farmers face when they approach the governments with issues of daily survival. Mallika’s story is filmi: a mysterious guy saves her life and disappears, only to reappear as a love interest. Contrast that with the depiction of a greedy minister who smashes his glass in the never-used fireplace. All of it reads like a litany of problems collected from newspaper stories, and poorly imagined at that.
And yet, one must read it.
A closer look at the novel, in the middle of the story, reveals that The Long March is not for those who read novels to indulge themselves in stories and the craft of the sentence. But what it loses in aesthetic, it gains in the statement it tries to make, and the reality it seeks to uncover. As a collection of chunks of stories of different men, invariably men, who kill themselves with pesticide or rat poison, who hang themselves or throw themselves into a pile of burning hay, The Long March consists of insights that stick.
One of them is the fact that money is always easier to get but impossible to return. That men, groomed as breadwinners for families, find it shameful to admit that they have failed to do the only thing they are expected to do. That “death is an eager bride when you are a farmer in debt”. And the most painful of all — “I am a farmer and I have no food to eat. Can there be anything funnier than this?” It recalls Samuel Beckett — nothing is funnier than unhappiness.
The elite or the middle class that primarily reads novels would be uncomfortable to know that the liberalisation of the 90s, proudly recognised as freedom from the license raj, has a lot to do with the situation in the villages. When the state pulls out of its responsibility to engage with the needs of the people, they are left at the mercy of powerful non-state actors.
Mallika encounters a spiritual epiphany on a journey to a pilgrimage site. Greed, jealousy and hatred interfere with human life which was meant to be a straightforward journey. It all strikes her — her personal life and the pain of the farmers’ families she had seen earlier — in the moment of her physical suffering while walking all the way. It is in the physical exhaustion that one realises the transcendental truths about power and its meaninglessness. Incidentally, these few pages flow more easily than the rest of the novel.
We lack the vocabulary to frame the grief of the farmers. Hence, if their story is narrated by someone else, it must be ready to fail. It is a good thing that The Long March fails. But before it does, it reminds us how we are connected to the farmers.
The professional tax that we pay so that the farmers are not forced to move to the cities if the rains fail them is one such connection. If they begin to keep the food they grow only to themselves, we would starve. Each time we see men and women digging roads in the cities, we see our own smallness.
These are farmers who know that while growing food for the whole nation leaves them penniless, they can fall back on the stupidity of the urban idiots for work because in spite of being educated, the latter cannot see through what is happening with their money.
We must make do with this novel until we hear such stories first-hand and more loudly.