On an average day, life is fairly quiet in Palanpur, a nondescript village of western Uttar Pradesh. Farmers tend their fields, women look after babies and animals, children mill around, others commute to Chandausi – the nearest town – for work, others still play cards by the railway tracks or hang around at the tea shop. There are no newspapers, no sports, no cultural gatherings and (virtually) no love affairs. Thrill, beauty, pleasure, comfort, hope seem to lie in small mercies – the sunrise, a special dish, a good joke.
The passage of time, however, brings some variety. Events like marriages, festivals, elections, visitors, even the pranks of the dreaded monkeys somehow conjure some zest into the daily life of the village. Now and then, a game of kabaddi or a troupe of itinerant acrobats attracts a cheerful crowd. Once in a while, the monotony is dramatically broken by the odd quarrel, dacoity, rumour, accident, or even –yes – a daring love affair. And, of course, over generations, the village has gone through momentous changes, mirroring the historic transformation of independent India.
I kept detailed notes of these events, big and small, when I lived in Palanpur in 1983-84. I had just completed my PhD in Economics at the Indian Statistical Institute, and joined a research project that involved a field survey in Palanpur. I spent a year there, rarely leaving the village except for short forays to Chandausi, Moradabad and some of the surrounding villages. The survey team also included NK Sharma and SS Tyagi, both sharp observers, and our assistant, Om Prakash, a fountain of local knowledge and wisdom.
Aside from learning a lot about the village from the survey work, I immersed myself in Palanpur’s social life, making many friends, some enemies, and generally getting to know everyone.
I also made a quixotic attempt to cultivate a small plot of land, seemingly successful at first (I had bought top-quality seeds from a renowned agricultural university), but later ruined by a poor monsoon. In my spare time, I updated my notes. Many years later, I shared those notes and memories with my friend, Luc Leruth, an accomplished writer with considerable experience of India.
Like me, he had studied at the Indian Statistical Institute, and tied the knot later on with his Indian sweetheart. He had also visited Palanpur a couple of times, for extended periods. With his fertile imagination, Luc thought that there was plenty of material—and inspiration—in my notes for a novel. Initially, I was a little sceptical, but I hope that the reader will agree, by the end of this book, that I have been proved wrong.
Much like Raag Darbari fifty years ago, Rumble in a Village adopts a light-hearted tone but leans in to what might be called the dark side of village life – jealousy, intrigue, corruption, violence, and such. That side is very real. For one thing, social life in Palanpur is a morass of class, caste, and gender divisions. I had not read Dr Ambedkar when I lived there, but during my visits to Palanpur in later years, the words he spoke in the Constituent Assembly on 4 November 1948 often came to mind: “The love of the intellectual Indians for the village community is of course infinite if not pathetic...What is a village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism?”
There is, no doubt, another side as well. In Palanpur, as everywhere, there is love, compassion, friendship, and more. At the individual level, I don’t think these sentiments are in shorter supply there than anywhere else. But the social environment is not quite designed to help them flourish.
Let’s take love. At one level, love is a bit of an obsession among Indian youngsters. Popular songs, for one, have few other themes. If a future historian tries to understand today’s India through the prism of popular films and songs, she will probably think that romantic love bloomed all around. The reality, however, is almost diametrically opposite, at least in Palanpur. Even as young boys and girls listen to love songs and dream of a sweetheart, the actual prospect of reciprocated love is virtually nil.
In the conservative environment of Palanpur, where everyone is watching everyone else, a love adventure can be very risky, and should it be discovered, retribution is likely to be swift and brutal (especially if the love birds belong to different castes). Matrimonial arrangements, for their part, are business-like affairs that often turn sour on the very day of the marriage ceremony. Even in arranged marriages, some couples probably develop feelings of comfort and mutual respect that are as good as love. The fact remains that a young bride in Palanpur is a kind of glorified domestic servant.
Much of this, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. If Palanpur feels a little morose at times, so do the gloomier neighbourhoods of London or Wolverhampton. When I lived in Palanpur, I thought it was an exciting place.
I was sad when I had to leave the village prematurely, after contracting tuberculosis. Anyone with a happy temperament and a curious mind could probably have a good time there. Still, it is doubtful that the residents of Palanpur include many happy-go-lucky types (though there are some, including at least one who has been immortalised in this novel). And if they are hit by tuberculosis, they are more likely to die than to get well and start a new life.
And then there is the grinding poverty. In 1983-84, Palanpur was not exceptionally poor by Indian standards, but it was poor enough. The poorest families in Palanpur lived on the margins of survival, never quite certain whether they would have enough to eat the next day or a blanket in the winter. That cannot be fun for anyone.
Caste, inevitably, runs through this novel. In Palanpur, everyone knows everyone else’s caste and is conscious of it. Caste is like being branded at birth, forever. It would take much longer than a one-year stay to understand the subtleties of caste in a village like Palanpur, but some aspects do strike the observer fairly quickly. One is the absurd and cruel nature of the caste system – a trivial point, worth making only because the caste system is still regarded by many as a method for “managing society in an orderly manner”, as the current Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh candidly put it in a recent interview with NDTV.
Another glaring aspect is the wide divergence of norms, values, and ethics between different castes, in particular, between the Thakurs and the Muraos – the dominant castes in Palanpur.* Much as in Bollywood films, these contrasts are enhanced in the novel, but their essence is far from fictitious.
All this, of course, is changing over time. The main events in this novel take place in 1984, when the observations that inspired it were made. Thirty-six years later, the village is a different place in many ways. By and large, life in Palanpur is less harsh today than it used to be then. Thanks to televisions, scooters, and mobiles, it is also less insular and monotonous. Some of the earlier pathologies remain, including deep social divisions, and women’s lives are much the same as before. But there is some hope at least, certainly for the younger generation.
It is also worth clarifying that the pathologies of social life in Palanpur are far from universal in India.
In recent years, I have lived in an Adivasi hamlet on the outskirts of Ranchi in Jharkhand, and the contrast with Palanpur could not be sharper. Unlike Palanpur, this hamlet has a relatively egalitarian culture, much natural beauty, and plenty of fun. People often help each other, women move around freely, and on festival days everyone joins the circle dances with abandon.
Sparks of liberty, equality, and solidarity – all scarce in Palanpur – can also be found in many other areas and communities of India. One reader told us that this book revived a flood of memories – good and bad – of her natal village in Bihar, suggesting that Rumble in a Village has a wider relevance, but how far it extends is hard to guess.
Most of the events and characters that inspired this novel have been fictionalised beyond recognition. Any attempt to separate fact from fiction is bound to be futile. In particular, the thoughts and actions of the narrator – Anil – bear no resemblance to my own. I know very little about cameras, let alone rifles and locomotives, and I certainly never had a girlfriend who attended transcendental meditation seminars. If you are an astute reader, you may notice the odd allusion to a real-life person. For the rest, it is best to read this story like the richly embroidered epics of yore.
* The term “dominant caste” is often used in Indian sociology to refer to the caste, if any, that is numerically dominant in a particular village or area and also dominates in terms of economic and political power. In Palanpur, the dominant caste used to consist of Thakurs, but at the time of my stay in 1983-84, there was a budding struggle for dominance between the Thakurs and the Muraos. The growing economic and political powers of the Muraos were symptomatic of the rise of the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in rural India at that time.
Adapted with permission from the Preface, by Jean Drèze, to Rumble in a Village, Luc Leruth with Jean Drèze, Aleph Book Company.