When Premchand’s Godaan (The Gift of a Cow) was first published in 1936, it was hailed as a brilliant evocation of the rural-urban divide of pre-Independence India, capturing poignantly the bathetic plight of the village poor, the rampant exploitation and the inexorable violence brought about by wrath of nature and society alike, as well as the apathy of the city-slickers towards all those distant accounts of doom and gloom.
Kota Neelima is no Premchand, but in her powerful narrative strokes, there lies an enigma of awareness, an awareness of the tumult unleashed in the contact zones of the city and the village, demarcated by, on one hand, unbridled consumption of a class that considers the world, if not its stage, at least a touristy indulgence, and, on the other, farmers resorting to suicides as a way out of depression and the vicious cycle of debt and loan interests that far exceed the amount borrowed in the first place.
Shoes of the Dead, Neelima’s third novel, is not just a portrait of the agricultural labourer suffering, not so much silently any longer, but also the revolting political machinations that go on in plush bungalows in Lutyens Delhi, the government residence of politicians in power, as much as their sons and daughters, whose inheritance of authority and money come laced with the blood of the dead and the dying in the cities and remote villages.
In the novel, Keyur Kashinath, a young, dashing, first-time MP has taken over the reins from his father, a political heavyweight, having won the election riding his parental goodwill.
But within eight months into his term as a member of parliament, Keyur is confronted by the strange case of too many farmer suicides, all from the same district of Mityala. As the district’s mahasarpanch dismisses the suicides as ordinary deaths, but dressed as such to extract compensation from the ‘benevolent’ state, a competition of sort ensues to portray the farmers – particularly Gangiri Bhadra, their leader, whose own brother Sudhakhar had taken his own life some months back – as evil and plotting to milk the milch-cow of the state government!
The confrontations between Keyur and Gangiri – one burdened by the immense legacy of his statesman-like father, who’s trying to come out of the latter’s shadow and carve a niche for himself in the overcrowded firmament of Indian bodypolitic; and the other ravaged by loss, by a brother’s death and pounded by the grinding wheel of poverty, the vagaries of an unkind and unpredictable nature as well as the general hostility of all and sundry towards a family already drowning in pond-scum of socioeconomic decrepitude – are the crux of the book.
But whereas Keyur is bound by the bequest of power, circumscribed by his riches and connections, Gangiri is, in a poetic sense, set free by the incredible harshness of life and liberated to turn the tables and rewrite the terms.
Gangiri is also the epitome of the revolutionary teacher, who uses education as a tool against the kings and queens of the establishment, while Keyur is the living embodiment of 21st century feudalism, in the garb of ‘inherited’ democratic power and the guise of dynastic diabolism.
Between Gangiri and Keyur, the battle is epic, as the battle is over one’s right to reclaim History, rewrite on its unjust pages a new chapter with the ink of educated revolt.