I had already written a sizeable portion of The Sickle in 2018 when I found myself perturbed at visuals on the TV screen of innumerable farmers marching 180 kilometres barefoot from Nashik to Azad Maidan in Mumbai. I was able to see an underlying connection between the politics of droughts in Marathwada, the uncertain lives of migrant sugarcane labourers who are bereft of rights, the aftermath to the suicides of farmers in Vidarbha, and the march undertaken by tribal peasants.
Shortly afterwards I travelled to the Surgana subdivision on the border between Nashik and Surat, where tribals have been farming the forest land adjacent to the hills for generations without getting leases. The thoughts of the march began with their protests. I saw signs of these extinct forests where they farm now. The land had not been measured, nor had leases been given, although all of this should have been done under the Forest Rights Act. The farmers were worried that the government land would be taken away under the pretext of creating land banks for industrial houses, that tribal farmers would lose their land as well as their livelihood.
After meeting them, I followed the route of the long march to Nashik. Defying the instructions of Google Maps, I located the Valdevi river. Eager to protect the Mumbai Nashik highway, the police had forced the farmers to sleep on the bed of this river. Later, like tributaries merging into the main stream, farmers from different parts of Maharashtra joined the march. The long march did not materialise overnight, various farmers’ organisations prepared for it over a long period through local protests, sit-ins and marches.
The people of Mumbai woke up one morning to a photograph of a pair of lacerated feet running across the front page of their newspapers. A female farmer’s bare soles, swollen and infected. The question made me think: why do farmers have to march for their demands? Industrial houses and investors do not even have to leave their offices to be informed of the government’s announcements of incentives.
The Sickle ends in real time, even though it took shape in my head over a two-year period. I have been familiar with the Marathwada and Vidarbha areas for over a decade, with my understanding of the people, nature, and the draught-and-farming economy becoming clearer over time. All of these have found their way into this novel.
A novel or story does not reveal itself to me through conscious plotting. The Beed area of Marathwada had the lowest proportion of girls being born in the country at that time. As I wandered around the streets of the small town, the sight of rows of gleaming clinics that had sprung up as part of the conspiracy of female foeticide sparked a fury within me. It blazed into full-fledged anger on hearing of a woman who had been forced to abort a girl child for the tenth time to fulfil her husband’s family’s demand for a son. All of these immediacies became part of the novel.
Although Marathwada and Vidarbha form the backdrop to The Sickle, the story of the novel cannot be said to belong to a specific region in that sense. The proportion of girl children was dropping even in the so-called metropolises across the country.
Later, like everyone else, I too saw the cruel images of starvation, humiliation and long treks on foot, not just of sugarcane harvesters, but of migrant workers everywhere in the country. Now the farmers’ agitation which started at the borders of Delhi is spreading wider and getting longer. Why is the government delaying discussions, considering the protesters have been camping under open skies for months on end? For whose benefit were the three agriculture laws passed with such speed during the pandemic, when so many people were already pincered between penury and infection?
I cannot write only at my desk. The warmth of human existence, being in the vicinity of people, is crucial to my writing process. But this is not fieldwork or research. The attempt to weave myself into a country that lies beyond the urban experience is an integral part of my writing. When I wrote my novel Mahanadi, too, I visited the villages and towns and small cities on the banks of the river several times. I feel the characters make me write their stories. Their shadows fall on the paper as I write. Their struggle, the love for life that sustains them, are generated within me too. This is why my stories are never consciously crafted, both their birth and development take place organically.
Writing as a child
My life as a writer began by writing poetry in childhood, which is why a fascinated poet and lyricist always lives within me. I had not learnt the alphabet yet—I would compose poems orally, and my parents would write them down. I learnt to write for myself when I grew up a little. My parents’ role changed to reading out children’s books my two siblings and me, which was how I became familiar with Lila Majumdar, with Bibhutibhashan Bandyopadhyay, with Rabindranath.
I was published for the first time at the age of 12 in Sandesh magazine, edited by Satyajit Ray. A world-famous filmmaker by then, he lovingly published everything I wrote till the age of 18. I would not have developed the confidence to be a writer without his affection and indulgence. My writing was shaped by the roots of Indianness in Rabindranath and the prose writers who succeeded him. Writers like Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay, Satinath Bhaduri and Mahasweta Devi formed our sensibilities and responsibilities.
I lost the sanctuary of Bangla when I entered the Indian civil service, I was detached from the circle of my mother tongue, but in return I received the rest of the country. In my own way I expanded the opportunity that my work had created to go closer to people, travelling around the country more than my duties required. I carried back the whispered utterances of people, unheard by most, things that administrative compulsions suggested I should not acknowledge, and planted them as seeds in my writing.
The realities of voiceless India, the remote areas of Chhattisgarh and Chhotanagpur, Maharashtra and Odisha, have appeared in my writing over the past three and half decades. It is a matter of fortune that Bengali readers have accepted these works with indulgence. Many of them have reached a wider audience through translation. But in spite of this I do not consider myself a solitary writer.
I am walking along with hundreds of other writers in the country. Our journeys have created a giant patterned tapestry across forests and mountains and plains, whose stitches are the lives of millions. We do not know the final design. I believe our work must be done right now, every day, through every moment. We have to write these times, these protests and resistance, this animated silence, this tumultuous roar of the people. May this chorus ring out in the creations of every writer-artist in this land. May it give a deep and resonant voice to our democraticness.
Anita Agnihotri’s latest novel in translation is The Sickle.
Disclosure: The Sickle has been translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha, who edits the Books and Ideas section of Scroll.in.