In the fringe

Shame, Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote, is revolutionary. It makes you want to challenge established wisdom and force change. In Known Turf, a collection of Mumbai journalist Annie Zaidi's previous writings, it is not the children of India sleeping on pavement that induce shame – in that situation, the more pertinent emotion is guilt or anger – but rather the proud artisans, farmers and nomads who are constantly being pushed to the margins while new technologies increasingly hold sway over minds and imaginations. According to Zaidi, it would be easy to save, say, the weavers of Benares from their quiet misery, easy to accord Adivasi peoples the right to maintain their way of life if they so choose. All this requires, she suggests, is a quantum change in perspective: away from purely profitable concerns about 'catching up' to the West in terms of industrial output to recognising that many current lifestyles are not sustainable. In this, she says, Southasia is particularly well placed to begin to develop more-sustainable models of existence – but we need first to rework out definition of the 'mainstream' and the 'periphery'.

In 1969, the British historian Eric Hobsbawm published Bandits, a history of people on the fringes of society and an attempt to fit them into the broader social scheme. In the Southasian context, it is important point out that a bandit can be anyone excluded from society, while dacoits (from the Urdu dakaiti, referring to armed pillage) are unambiguously violent repeat offenders. During the colonial era, the British latched onto dakaiti in a concerted move to criminalise broad swathes of peoples of the Subcontinent, albeit without any sense of their roles in society. For the past few centuries, then, one simply needed to label an individual or group as 'known dacoits' to strip them of respectability – a taint that has been able to endure for centuries in several countries of the region. Traditionally, dakaiti was used in the sense of activity rather than identity; but over time, the two meanings were conflated. Thus, bandits are by now default dacoits, outlaws subsisting at the fringes of society. Known Turf is an attempt to add nuance to this discussion. In one section, the author skilfully uses a Hobsbawm-derived idea of 'social banditry' to write about homegrown bandits from the ravines of the Chambal River in central India. Zaidi's analysis retains much of the original spirit in which Bandits was written: to explain how and when people who are pushed to margins choose to push back.

In the 21st century, it is perhaps difficult to care about oppressed desperadoes who engage in contingent revolutions while most Southasians race ahead to meet their destinies. So many things are moving so fast that it becomes difficult to locate the rebellions erupting everywhere; to track weary peoples pleading for a small measure of dignity, a little food, a chance to do honest work. This is the side upon which Zaidi has placed herself, and the result is a powerful, disturbing book. She forces her readers to face the conditions that their privilege has wrought on others – the escalating price that has been paid for our modernity, by the displaced, the hungry, the refugees. 'When you take away a person's livelihood, or stop paying fair price for his work, you take away his breath,' she writes. 'You might as well cut off his hands. You might as well hang him. It might be quicker, and kinder.' At one point Zaidi describes the weavers of Benares, slowly starving and falling into a steady spiral of impoverishment. At the end of that essay, she writes: 'Sometimes I wonder if our inability to judge the true value of things has something to do with the fact that we don't have a clue about how they are made… What price would we put on a silk saree if we were born into the Ahmed family in Benares?'

Discomfort and compassion
Zaidi's focus is not solely on dispossession and the costs imposed by modernity, however. Her also canvas includes migration, Sufism, family and tea. Indeed, for all the brilliance of her 'issue' essays, it is the more personal ones that are most enjoyable, particularly intimate explorations into being female and Muslim in India. 'Our small family has had a tenuous relationship with Islam,' she writes, like a now-on, now-off between lovers who don't see eye-to-eye and shy away from the prospect of a conventional life-long commitment. We used a multi-pronged fork to stab at orthodoxy, and it used a social sabre in turn, to stun us into conformity. Confronted by the ridiculous, the mad, the false, the stretched-to-the-limits-of-incredulity demands in religion, our reactions ranged from a shrug to a laugh … And here we are now, living in a world where one half wants to kill you if you don't wear a burqa and the other half thinks you deserve to die if you do.It is the author's willingness to put herself into uncomfortable situations, and the compassion that laces her judgement once she does, that make Known Turf such an effective comment on humanity. Perhaps the strongest section in the book is the last one, where Zaidi attempts to understand how women allow their infant daughters to be killed. There are many myths in the popular imagination about female infanticide that must be dispelled before anyone can seriously consider such a dilemma. A new favourite seems to be that such a situation will ultimately empower women – by making them scarce. Perhaps if, like such fantasists, your sole source of media is NDTV Profit, chances are that the 2005 movie Matrubhoomi, which dissolves such illusions in two harrowing hours, passed you right by.

Other notions of female infanticide suggest that it is a class (or maybe caste) problem, or perhaps a holdover from the days when widows jumped into funeral pyres and will go away once we 'modernise' everyone. That in today's India the sex ratio is worst in the prosperous parts of the country is simply ignored by such theorists, as are the technological perquisites of sex-selective abortions, responsible for the most skewed demographics. For Zaidi, part of the question is ultimately quite simple: Would you have the courage to bring a girl into a world in which her life will almost certainly be more difficult than that of her brother? 'Professional' women might think that they can beat the odds – that 'our' girls will not be battered by life; but it is difficult to come down on a mother who is not quite so optimistic. The tragic irony, of course, is that the cycle can only be broken when there are more girls with more education, not fewer girls with diminishing prospects.

Zaidi's concern with women is apparent throughout her work. She discusses them in every context she studies, but the last section in Known Turf is the only one that explicitly deals with 'women's issues'. Her approach to gender informs her perspective in the sense that she consistently roots for the underdog. The question of infanticide, for instance, highlights an underside of the region's newfound modernity – it tends to obfuscate the inequity it creates, even as it deploys it. Infanticide of the sort we see today is a quintessentially modern problem: bred of technology and notions of legacy and gender that are convenient to the upper classes in the Subcontinent. It is not a heritage problem. But unless we recognise this issue for what it is, and not what people claim it to be, we are substituting context for subtext.

~ Nandini Ramachandran is a lawyer and writer living in Bangalore.

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