Widows of Vidarbha; Kota Neelima; Rs 550, 243pp; Oxford University Press
We’ve seen the wretched figures marching into our cities in search of succor; we avert our eyes from yet another ghastly report of a farmer taking his own life; we know Vidarbha, at the heart of India, has the highest number of farmer suicides; we are mute observers of an ongoing tragedy able only to sporadically offer our sympathies. Strangely enough, few thought of the women left behind, the farmers’ wives who have to rebuild their lives and those of their children even as they discover their diminished status in a staunchly patriarchal society.
“It was said that there was one suicide of a farmer every 30 minutes in India and that, in turn, meant that a woman’s life was suddenly and irretrievably plunged into darkness and societal struggle. This was true for every widow I interviewed in Vidarbha,” writes Kota Neelima in Widows of Vidarbha, her powerful exploration of the invisible victims of farm distress.
(Courtesy the publisher)
The author, who traced the lives of 16 widows over four years beginning 2013, says she actually discovered their invisibility when she began her research on Vidarbha a decade earlier. “The stories of the farmers’ suicides were told by the wives. How it happened, the circumstances, everything is told to the state by the widow. However, she herself is absent in the entire scheme of things, whether it is in the matter of understanding the distress or the solutions. I wanted to find out why the person at the centre of the problem, the woman, was invisible to the state, to society and to her own family at times,” Neelima stated in an earlier interview with this reviewer. She believes this invisibility has obscured the solution to the problem of agrarian distress. “We have been ignoring the very centre of the universe of the life of a farmer and that is the woman,” she says.
Her book then sets out to give a voice to these wraiths. The reader meets Vandana, the widow of Ganesh Rathod who struggles to keep the memory of her husband alive even as she deals with bringing up four children. There’s Mira, the widow of Dilip Dike, who, after his crops were devastated by a red bug attack, hanged himself from the rafters of his home. There’s Pushpabai Raut, whose husband Janardhan gulped down a bottle of poison at the Yavatmal district collectorate after his cotton crop failed. And so the appalling stories stack up.
This is a difficult book to read. It is hard to confront these stories of despair and quiet heroism, the stories of women trying to bring up their children and hold together what’s left of their families as best they can in a world leached of hope. The writing is taut, often ironic, and devoid of unnecessary adjectives and stylistic flourishes. Instead, the author allows the women to speak, putting down the nuances of each of their stories, almost editing herself out. The result is a book that’s filled with stark pain, one that’s almost unbearably honest. The accompanying pictures are moving too. Here’s an unsmiling Vaishali Sambde with her daughter, here’s the room in which Keshavrao Zhambre hung himself. Even the picture of a room full of cotton in Sunita Dhale’s house is strangely affecting. Her husband Ramdas died after drinking pesticide meant for the cotton in his field. Read this book to understand why our farmers are killing themselves. Read it and weep.