Arts Illustrated
The Inheritance of Loss

Aparna Karthikeyan’s ‘Nine Rupees an Hour: Disappearing Livelihoods of Tamil Nadu’ traces the state’s rich cultural legacy and its rapid degeneration through diverse and fascinating stories

Poonam Ganglani

There’s fifty-year-old Soundaram, the only woman bull-keeper in the Kangayam region near Coimbatore; Rayappan, a palm tree climber from Ramanathapuram district, whose wife sits for endless hours next to a stove boiling sweet, brown karupatti; Kali, a twenty-six-year-old folk and bharatanatyam dancer born to a family of construction workers in Kovalam; and Kamachi, a sixty-seven-year-old poikkal kuthirai dancer from Thanjavur, who got married when she was only eleven years old, and has since mastered the ‘dance of the false-legged horse’… this is the world Aparna Karthikeyan takes us to with Nine Rupees an Hour, where the stories are cloaked in many sheaths and colours.

For me, though, the beauty of the book was largely in the telling. Karthikeyan doesn’t simply narrate the stories of these protagonists, but guides us through their fields, homes, green rooms and workshops, allowing us to settle into their spaces with her before unwrapping their lives, layer by layer. She takes her time with each one, gently teasing out the details of their stories so that we get to converse with them, get to know them. We ultimately confront honest human stories, made all the more potent by the author’s genuine journalistic curiosity and sense of empathy. Passages like these, about two women farmers in Melakadu hamlet in Sivagangai, drew me in and kept me hooked:

It began to rain. The courtyard turned slushy, the dogs got wet, the firewood that was cooking their rice sizzled and died, and roosters took cover under a steel cot. As we settled on the cement floor inside the house, the power went out. Colours faded, people became silhouettes, until Poovayi’s thirteen-year-old daughter Priyadarshini brought a brass lamp, rubbed five cotton wicks between her palms and lit them one by one. And in that room, where everything was touched by a golden light, two single women who farmed for a living – S. Poovayi and her mother-in-law M. Sivabhagiyam – told me a story. It wasn’t a happy one.

Lurking within these stories from the practitioners of Tamil Nadu’s traditional livelihoods is a vast and murky ocean of questions. Problems of caste discrimination, gender bias and financial sustainability, the impact of government policy, the recognition of skills (or the lack thereof), the continuity of these livelihoods, and, above all, the lack of dignity afforded to them all float to the surface, backed by eye-opening statistical data. Interspersed between the main stories and offering critical insights into these larger questions are Q&A-style interviews with experts from various fields, including veteran rural reporter P. Sainath, Dalit woman writer Bama and Carnatic music vocalist T. M. Krishna. The result: a hard-hitting, 360-degree view of Tamil Nadu’s dwindling livelihoods and all the realities that go along with it.

Unsurprisingly, Nine Rupees an Hour materialised over several years of painstaking research. Over an e-mail interview, Karthikeyan tells me about some of the challenges she faced along the way. ‘The reporting was time-consuming, visiting people over years, during good times (when the rainfall was plenty) and bad (when the earth was brown and cracked),’ she shares. ‘I had to also meet people both in their houses in the village and at their workplace, which could be next door, in the next street or miles away, inside a grove.’ Another hurdle was the mere lack of information in some cases. ‘What is the sickle industry’s turnover in the two villages that are famous for them? How much money does a stud bull-keeper make? These were tricky to arrive at, but we sat together and found some answers.’

First, finding shape in the People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI), then evolving into a series of articles, photo essays and documentaries for various publications, Nine Rupees an Hour, a remarkable culmination of Karthikeyan’s work, was published by Context in 2019. I ask the author about the book’s powerful and engrossing human element that gripped me from the start – how easy or difficult was it for her to gain the trust of the protagonists and to uncover their stories? ‘I always started by saying they need not answer all my questions and apologised in advance for my nosiness,’ shares Karthikeyan. ‘But they all answered me patiently.’ The author also confesses that the stories with female protagonists were the hardest to pursue. ‘Women tend to dismiss their worth – unless they’ve been told otherwise – and ask what’s special about what they do.’

While many such ironies hang over the narratives, perhaps the most tragic one that links them is this: these traditional occupations, marked by skills that have been inherited and perfected over centuries, are more often than not, of little interest to the next generation. The practitioners themselves wish for better lives for their children, one that isn’t bogged down by the many setbacks they deal with on a daily basis. ‘We have, as a society, inherited very beautiful things, we choose to smash them,’ says Karthikeyan. ‘How? By not appreciating the skills that went into its making, by not rewarding the maker, by not dismantling the caste hierarchy… we’re slowly strangling our culture, this legacy.’

Nine Rupees an Hour left me disconcerted and uncomfortable in the best possible way. In revealing hard truths about a huge section of our society, taking us through their daily routines, and exploring the journeys that products make to reach our homes

(‘It takes 219 people to create a Kancheepuram saree, from the silk farmer to the buyer’ as Krishnamoorthy, the designer and weaver from Kancheepuram explains in the book) – Nine Rupees an Hour forces us to re-examine our own ideologies and privilege, and to think about how we contribute to the situation in different ways. ‘You spread a beautiful mat on the floor and you’re spreading history, art and culture, you’re empowering women, doing your bit for sustainability and you’re strengthening the secular fabric of our country,’ says Karthikeyan. ‘That’s the legacy we need to guard; which we undermine collectively with our bargaining and reduce the makers to earn merely nine rupees an hour.’

Aparna Karthikeyan, Nine Rupees an Hour: disappearing livelihoods of Tamil Nadu. Published 2019 by Context. ISBN-10: 978- 9388754506. ISBN-13: 978- 9388754507.

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