Aparna Karthikeyan's Nine Rupees An Hour documents dying livelihoods amid considerations of caste, gender

  • Nine Rupees An Hour contains the vestiges of dwindling livelihoods and dying cultures, narrated in the voices of the rural people engaged in these age-old artisanal occupations

  • The intersection of livelihoods and culture fascinates me, says Aparna

  • Almost every single livelihood covered in the book could do with policy interventions, she adds

'It Takes A Village to Write a Book', Aparna Karthikeyan admits in the acknowledgements to Nine Rupees An Hour. The statement perfectly captures the sentiment of the book, for it contains the vestiges of dwindling livelihoods and dying cultures, narrated in the voices of the rural people engaged in these age-old artisanal occupations.

Through her travels to several regions in rural Tamil Nadu, including Madurai, Sivagangai, Kancheepuram, Tirunelveli and Thanjavur, Karthikeyan sets out on a mission to report on the people engaged in these occupations, outlines the definition of a livelihood and highlights how the very skills that will soon be obscure are those which most significantly represent and preserve the ethnicity and culture of this region. While doing so, she also unhesitatingly points out the need to do away with caste-based occupations that uphold hierarchical structures, and the preservation of those livelihoods which are under the threat of appropriation.

Six of the ten stories featured in this book have previously appeared in publications such as The Hindu, OPEN, Caravan and People's Archive of Rural India PARI; the rest explore the work of artisans such as weavers, palm tree climbers and sickle makers.

In this conversation with Firstpost, the reporter discusses the importance of narrating these stories, her motivations to pursue the subject and why there has been a steady decline of these occupations as sources of livelihood. Excerpts:

How did you first start working with People's Archive of Rural India (PARI), and what pushed you to visit rural Tamil Nadu and gather data for the stories that would eventually feature in Nine Rupees An Hour?

It started with fan mail. I read P Sainath's story ‘When Leelabai runs the farm’ in The Hindu in July 2013. I wrote to him. He kindly replied, told me about PARI, and invited me to be part of it. I was then writing a column for The Hindu Metro Plus called 'I am' about the everyday people of Chennai. I began looking for people's stories outside the city.

 Aparna Karthikeyans Nine Rupees An Hour documents dying livelihoods amid considerations of caste, gender

Author Aparna Karthikeyan's Nine Rupees An Hour is a collection of ten stories illuminating the dwindling livelihoods in rural Tamil Nadu.

My first trips were less than a month after the email to Sainath, to Arani, Narasingampettai and Thanjavur. I met weavers, instrument makers and folk dancers, and later, well diggers, cattle breeders, women farmers. In 2015-16, ten stories from a series on Vanishing Livelihoods of Rural Tamil Nadu, done on a fellowship from the National Foundation for India were carried in The Hindu Sunday MagazineFountainink, Frontline and OPEN, besides PARI. At that point I had no plans of writing a book.

In August 2017, I sent in a proposal to my commissioning editor at Context and was chuffed when it was accepted. Nine Rupees an Hour was born.

Why did you choose to make livelihoods the focus of your work? The book also explains what constitutes a livelihood, and as you have written in your introduction, the ‘bafflingly simple’ factors, such as rainfall, that might influence it. Could you elaborate on some of the reasons that have contributed to a steady decline in rural livelihoods over time?

The intersection of livelihoods and culture fascinates me. Everything around us — food, clothes, sports, worship, entertainment — all of it is influenced by local livelihoods. When one is smashed, the other suffers. And while we are very familiar with the end product, often consuming it blithely, we know very little about the lives of the people who made it. When do we read about palm tree climbers? And jaggery makers? Do we celebrate them at all, or their skills, or even adequately reward them?

Palm jaggery is an artisanal product. The skill of the women who make it is simply not factored into the price. A batch can easily go bad, but the women, who work in smoky, hot huts, are focused on the pan where the sap bubbles for hours on end. Their husbands usually do the terribly risky work of climbing trees. Who compensates them if they fall and fracture a limb? How do they then feed their families, pay off loans?

We'd miss them maybe, when they stop doing what they do and speak fondly of a time when we could suck on that wonderfully hard jaggery... but while they continue to toil, we ignore them.

I was very keen to tell their stories, and many others like them, and I believe they deserve be told in detail...

We don't have much time actually, to do it. Many livelihoods are dying. Of course, it is not always a lament. Some deserve to go, they need to be replaced – and urgently – with technology, given how dehumanising the work is. Those that are boxed in by caste and gender are ripe for a big shake-up. The market and society though do not easily make those distinctions.

Often, the beautiful – like India’s rich handloom traditions – are smashed; the brutal – unjust gender wage gaps – are strengthened. Pop-culture preys upon ancient folk art forms, urban elites ‘discover’ heirloom rice varieties and desi cow ghee (paying four times the rate of the common ones), and the threat of appropriation (of designs and dances) is constant and real. How can we expect a rural livelihood to withstand the uncertainty and losses that are now bringing giant corporations on their knees?

It's the same with every livelihood: we want our identity, the folk dance and music of our state to remain intact. But how many youngsters aspire to become full-time weavers and folk artists, farmers and instrument makers?

Why are these extraordinary skills not respected and rewarded adequately?

What role can the economic policy of a country as variegated and large as India potentially play on preserving these livelihoods?

I think the only way it can happen is if people, and not profit, come first. Will it happen? I wonder. Especially if the said people have no agency or clout. Take the example of women farmers. Are they readily given bank loans? Especially if they are single women, farming full-time for a living, and supporting old and young at home...

Listening to the women — their stories appear in the chapter titled 'Let them eat rice' — was wrenching. In the cities, we go by advertisements and high talk. Well-meaning and concerned people are relieved when they're told women farmers will be given preferential help. But are they?

Do instrument makers get enough wood to work? Do mat weavers get any support to market their products? Do folk artists get enough performances? For what use, they ask, are awards? 'Can we eat them?' Nadi Rao, a very senior artiste, asked me.

Almost every single livelihood covered in the book could do with policy interventions, and the practitioners and experts have explained them as well. Maybe if they're implemented, the livelihoods will not just survive, but also thrive.

Could you share one or two instances that you witnessed while reporting in the rural areas that brought the harsh realities of these workers' condition into sharp focus?

I think I felt it most acutely in the stories about the women. That is not to suggest that men have it easy. It's just that they don't have the additional burden of running the house. Besides, much of what they do is paid work. Patriarchal society often considers as work only that which is compensated. So fetching water (sometimes scratching it up from dry wells, waiting for a puddle, collecting it, lugging two pots when pregnant), cooking, cleaning, washing, putting the cows and goats out to pasture — none of it is "work." After all these chores, the women's work day really begins.

It's no better in the art world. Kamachi, the poikkal kuthirai dancer told me how long her days were and how arduous. She danced until the final weeks of her pregnancy, and while she nursed her infants. Women farmers took their kids to their workplace — the field. They kept a distant eye on their kids when they played on the raised borders between squares of paddy. Cloth cradles were hung for the very small ones. Older ones – from when they’re eight months old — could sit around and play, but they were forbidden from splashing about in the water, the one thing they always wanted to do. Because, if they got wet, they'd fall ill and their mothers’ work would get a lot harder.

Aparna Karthikeyan's Nine Rupees An Hour.

Aparna Karthikeyan's Nine Rupees An Hour.

Why is it crucial for the stories of rural India to reach the urban populace, that we should read and understand the gravity of the severe deprivation prevalent in these regions?

Sainath explains that in his interview in the book. He says: “National dailies publishing from Delhi devote, on average, 0.67 percent of their front page to rural India, where 69 percent of the population lives. Why do they do this? Because corporations have reduced journalism to a revenue stream in the last 30 years.”

Why is it important to report about it? Because what happens affects all of us. And the growing disconnect is not just alarming but also very worrying. One day, we'll wake up to the fact that handsome and hardy cattle breeds have been lost; hundreds of weaves have vanished; beautiful art forms can be found nowhere... We'll have no time to save any of it. Neither can we help people who migrate in hundreds and thousands to cities, live in cramped houses, and then build houses and roads. Why? Because there's no water in their village. And the apartment complex they build is sure to have a swimming pool or two...

Unless we shift from reporting events — which we are sometimes quick to do — to processes, we're going to be in trouble.

Other than economic issues, which are some of the problems faced by rural Tamil Nadu that you came across? Do they have any bearing on the livelihoods of the people in those areas?

Economic problems are widely believed to be the only culprit, but that’s not true. Caste and how it confines livelihoods, gender and how it defines pay, the debate on skilled and unskilled work, and how that ensures (or erases) an occupation — these are some of the bigger issues. Take a profession like sickle making, where the maker is not under financial strain. There isn't commiserate respect for the work. Can anybody at all fashion a beautiful, strong sickle from a piece of metal? Why is the sickle maker not celebrated the way a goldsmith is? That is not to say the old model of jewellery making is thriving. It is not (as I found out reporting on independent goldsmiths for the series on Vanishing Livelihoods) but there is no stigma attached to the work.

In some instances, the stigma comes in the way of education and healthcare too. A group of kids taught me just how cruel society could be. Deep inside a palm grove near Sayalgudi, nine-year-old Manithurai was playing outside their family’s work hut. His mother was making a batch of palm jaggery. Manithurai had a bandage on his foot — a burn injury from driving a tyre with a stick (among his few toys) into a pile of ash which had a heart of fire. But before they could take the writhing boy to the doctor, the elders had a meeting. Who, they asked around, would not humiliate them?

Your book also features interactions with figures such as P Sainath, who has extensively reported on rural India. Did your conversations with them open up a different perspective of looking at and reporting on rural areas?

Absolutely. The seven interviews were illuminating. They helped me understand the problems faced by the practitioners from different angles. TM Krishna spoke about how caste influences the purpose of art; whether it is considered as knowledge or merely as labour. Writer Bama told me about the experiences of Dalit women. She asked me if people from high castes would take up manual scavenging 'if they were paid wages like in the software industry'. Justice Sridevan explained how intellectual property rights can be a tool of social justice. Thomas Franco spoke about financial inclusion and why those who badly needed it barely managed to avail loans.

S Janakarajan spoke about the great gamble that is ground water. ‘Around 70 percent of India’s gross cropped area (GCA), 80 percent of the country’s drinking water needs and roughly 90 percent of our industrial water requirements are met through groundwater.’ P Ayyakannu neatly summed up why farmers get a raw deal – one group cannot influence an election. His solution? Protests must never stop.

Sainath explained something very central to the book: how do we keep the skills associated with traditional livelihoods alive, even while dismantling the caste hierarchies that kept them going for so long?

As for lessons, the only ones I learnt — from what I call the ‘P Sainath School of Journalism’ — taught me I had to foreground the voices of the people. Sainath once said: if you are travelling 600 kilometres to meet someone and have 800 words to tell your story, don't make it about yourself. I think that was very fine advice...

Nine Rupees An Hour has been published by Context, an imprint of Westland Publications.

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Updated Date: Oct 19, 2019 11:14:39 IST