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India Today
October 5, 1998


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BOOKS
On the Famished Road

A fine biography of one indigent family; a poor critique of post-1947 India.

By Shubhashis Gangopadhyay

WORDS LIKE FREEDOM
BY SIDDHARTH DUBE
HARPER COLLINS
PAGE: 297 PRICE: Rs 395

The book takes a look at Indian poverty through the experiences of one rural family that originated in Baba ka Gaon, Pratapgarh district, Uttar Pradesh. This family's history, as told by the oldest surviving member, is chronicled by the author against the backdrop of India, both before and after Independence. It is a moving story of the desperate struggle of a landless rural family trying to grapple with the double trouble of being poor and belonging to the lowest caste.

The author describes vividly the dreams that were nurtured during the freedom movement, as a result of the promises made by the Congress nationalist leaders. It then goes on to narrate how, despite the socialist rhetoric of the post-1947 leaders, little if anything changed for this poor and socially outcast family. It is true that over the generations the family has moved from being landless and in debt to owning a little plot of land and getting out of the debt trap. On the whole, however, it is still precariously balanced on the threshold of doom and survival.

The book moves back and forth between a narrative and a critical look at post-Independence history. I have a bias against this style. The author moves too easily from the particular experiences of an oppressed family to a general critique of Indian politics and economic policies. For the latter, the author refers to the previously published works of a group of researchers who support his claims. There is no careful weighing of the evidence; nor a critical investigation of differing views.

For example, the author feels the Indian poor were betrayed by their leaders when the Congress failed to implement a radical land-reform policy. There is no doubt that land redistribution would have helped the poor and landless families. However, history also tells us about the violence and bloodshed associated with such policies in countries that implemented them. Moreover, in many developing countries that eradicated poverty such policies were never implemented. Some of the East Asian economies the author refers to are prime examples.

Nevertheless, the book should not be read as a treatise on Indian poverty. It is not a work of pure fiction either. The experiences of Ram Dass Pasi and his family are real. They are a poignant reminder of the untold trials and tribulations that such families go through in India even today.

The author employs a detached attitude when narrating the experiences of Pasi and it is difficult not to be moved by the narrative. In fact, if a reader were to read this part of the book without the author's own commentary on surrounding events, it would still leave an indelible mark on his or her conscience. In this regard, the author has successfully conveyed the plight of the Indian poor.

The narrative part of the book is extremely well written and makes very easy reading. The rest of the book is a bird's eye view of the events that shaped modern India. Here, the author becomes less rigorous and often simplistic in his analysis. Nevertheless, he gives a quick rundown on important political events as seen through the eyes of those who should have mattered the most but, sadly,were left totally unaffected.

The book is worth reading, if only to remind us how we have failed to deliver on the dreams we want the poor to see.

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