On March 19, 1986 Sahebrao Karpe, a farmer from drought-prone Yavatmal district of Maharastra mixes zinc phosphate in his food and serves it to his family before consuming it himself. In reality, this is the first recorded incident of farmer suicide in the state. Crop failure and an inability to pay off debts has brought Karpe to this decision. The Long March, Namita’s Waikar’s debut novel, takes us right into the hinterlands of Maharashtra where, even after three decades since the first farmer has taken his own life, the lives of many agriculturalists are as perilous as ever. Although a fictional take on the lives of farmers such as Karpe and the farmers since Karpe, The Long March serves as a continuous reminder that fiction is always born from kernels of truth, from the irreducible nature of human pain, loss and bereavement, and that the art of fiction is always informed by the perils of life, and therefore (and in the words of V.S. Naipaul) fiction never lies. Throughout the novel, Waikar unleashes discomfort and disquiet through depictions of the raw humanity and the precarity of the lives of those who have pledged themselves to the land, to the soil, to the farm and to food. Waikar takes us to the centre of this agrarian crisis and through the narratives of an ensemble cast of characters, readers traverse the geographies of death and anguish, pausing only to grieve.
Kashibai, the wife of the farmer Kailashnath Sonare must confront life and the responsibilities that follow after she finds her husband stretched out near a pile of hay, a can of pesticide beside him. Whatever happens to those who have been left behind?
“She was the head of the family now and they were all her responsibility,” writes author Waikar of her Kashibai Sonare. Her son Vikram Sonare, an employee of the Agricultural Technology Institute set up by the well-regarded agricultural scientist Dr. Kabir Rehman, finds both solace and warning in the writings of Babasaheb Ambedkar. Can you have economic reform without first bringing about a reform of the social order?
The depredations of the past and the present, and the seeming futility of the future provides Vikram an impetus to start a social movement, a revolt by those who have been damaged by the agrarian crisis, against a system diseased by political apathy, misgovernance and the ennui of the privileged. At a time when farm suicides have become mere statistics and a topic of political bickering, something that is easily dismissed by urban consciousness and urban citizenry as a ‘far-away event,’ Waikar’s portrayal of rural Maharashtra – from Wardha to Yavatmal to Vidarbha – all unfolding through the travails of Mallika Joshi, an NGO worker, illustrates the real, aching vulnerability of lives that face the ignominy of daily loss and bereavement.
On assignment to understand the magnitude of the problem, Mallika travels to the hinterlands of Maharasthra where she meets Vikram Sonare for the first-time. She also visits other families who have lost fathers and brothers to debt-induced suicide. From failure of harvests to drought-ridden dry lands and lack of irrigation, from rising costs of seeds, fertilizers and pesticides to manipulative policies set by international trade bodies, from lack of loan facilities to the traps of local moneylenders and mounting debts, farmers pay for their choices to be farmers, with their lives. As the extent of the farm crisis becomes evident to Mallika, she realizes that she must act. Along with her boss, the genial Dr. Sriram Kasbekar, Mallika plans a country-wide padhyatra, a long march of farmers, activists and volunteers. But the planning must wait for there is another walk that she must undertake – the vaari, a walking pilgrimage to the holy site of Pandhurpur, home to the god Vitobha. The arduous journey that takes 21 days to complete is a yatra by foot alongside a palanquin procession carrying padukas or footprints of the saints Dyaneshwar and Tukaram. While Dr. Kasbekar chides her for her decision to abandon the planning of the padhyatra, Mallika, who is mourning the tragic loss of her lover Iyer, seeks out the meditative space of the vaari. Upon her return, and after a series of travels across the state’s villages, Mallika’s and Vikram’s paths cross once again. What follows the yatra is a grand culmination of a co-operative movement – a people’s movement, a long march against neo-liberal capital’s nexus with political greed, something that has systematically destroyed the agrarian economy – that leads to the establishment of the Democratic Citizens Party. The epilogue tells us that seven members of the newly-formed party have been elected into the parliament and now sit in the Opposition.
In March 2018, more than 40000 farmers marched a distance of 180 kilometers from Nashik to Mumbai to gherao the Maharastra Vidan Sabha. The All India Kisan Sabha backed by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) brought about this grand collectivization to make a series of policy-related demands to the Government at large. In Waikar’s fictional world, the movement goes a step further – into the realm of governance itself, of people discarding the tag of subjection and elevating themselves within a defiant social order. Fittingly, The Long March begins with a quotation by M.K Gandhi on how democracy is the art and science of mobilizing the entire physical, economic and spiritual resources of various sections of people in service of the common good of all.
Namita Waikar is a writer, translator, and the Managing Editor of People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI). She is a partner in a chemistry databases firm, and has worked as a biochemist and a software project manager. She’s most recently the author of The Long March, a novel, Speaking Tiger Books