“Let me tell you a story. Make that ten. Stories of everyday people who do extraordinary things to earn a living.” That’s how journalist Aparna Karthikeyan begins her debut book Nine Rupees an Hour, which releases this month. Focussing on 10 livelihoods specific to Tamil Nadu – from farmers and sickle makers to handloom saree weavers and folk dancers – Aparna’s wide-ranging book delves into the lives of often-forgotten skilled rural workers and the taxing, thankless work they do every day.
The story touches upon a number of issues that the state faces, including the agrarian crisis, depleting groundwater tables as well as the challenges for handloom weavers amidst technological advancement. In an interview with TNM, Aparna discussed her journey to writing this book, the oppressive role played by caste hierarchy, and how women often bear the heaviest load, with little recognition for their work.
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You’ve spent several years reporting and writing on the stories featured in ‘Nine Rupees an Hour’. Could you talk a bit about the journey that brought you to this book?
I am a city person. I was bred in Chennai. So while I have gone to villages for my summer vacations, I was going as an urban privileged kid. So you go there, you take in everything and then you come back. You don’t really engage with the whole idea. In 2013, I had written an email to (journalist) P. Sainath and he invited me to write for the People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI). Through PARI, I became familiar with rural India and started reporting on labour and livelihood. Some of the reporting went into a series for PARI and other publications, including The Hindu Sunday Magazine, OPEN, Frontline and Fountainink. Two years ago, I pitched the idea as a book.
Before I began, I didn’t know anything about the intense work that actually goes into farming. I had no idea what it meant to live that kind of life.
Over the years, your understanding of the story itself changes. The first time you go, you get one layer of understanding; each visit, you add more to it.
The book has such a rich array of female characters and the stories of their lives. Did you know you wanted to feature women so prominently?
The book had to be 50% about women because there was no way I could have more men than women. We just don’t have enough women stories out there. When we say farmer, we always think about a man in a dhoti with two bullocks in front of him, a whip in his hand and a plough. So where do we even think of women farmers, except in transplanting? All the backbreaking work is done by the women, but their pay is substantially lower and land ownership is much lower.
That invisibilisation of women is pretty much the grammar of the land, so how do you change that? You have to talk more about what they do. And unfortunately, the news in India is such that we only talk about somebody when there is news around them. Something terrible has happened or something brilliant, like someone’s child has gone far. And that’s wonderful and we need those stories. But we also need stories of the everyday lives of people.
The book highlights many of the disparities between men and women in their daily work. Why was it important for you to highlight those stories?
In the poikkaal kuthirai story, the husband and wife dance together. They’re very popular as a couple, but it’s the man who has won all the awards. She has absolutely no resentment about it. She holds his awards tenderly and says, ‘I want him to get more awards’.
But this happened over many years of meeting her. It was very interesting but it’s also very difficult because as an urban person, what is your understanding of the problems of the countryside? You have no idea. Water comes from the tap, milk comes in sachets, rice comes from the supermarket. What do you know about what goes into it?
It is men who still hold the keys. Women are still excluded. If they’re included, they’re paid less. Even if they’re included, they’re still stigmatised. And when they end up owning something, it’s because nobody else wants to do it. As urban women with agency, we have a very different view point about our lives. And then you go see the wife of a palm tree climber. She’s completely invisible. Even there in that landscape, that very brown landscape, you don’t see her. She’s inside a hut, she’s making the jaggery and pouring it into coconut shells. After that she’s going to be cooking, and she’s going to be cleaning and she’s going to be fetching water. Nobody talks about her. You see the men because they’re climbing up and down the palm tree, it’s a terrible life. But the women have an equally terrible life. And they’re just not in the picture. You also see very winning stories like the woman bull-keeper who is breaking a lot of stereotypes. You meet people like that and it’s very life affirming.
How do you put aside your own notions of empowerment when reporting on these women?
It’s hard because you have to shed your urban self and you can never fully shed your urban self. What you try to do is write with as much honesty and empathy as possible.
How did you choose the 10 livelihoods featured in the book?
I wanted a mix of art and pastoral essays. I wanted to make women and men protagonists. I had already reported on some of it and I wanted to build on it. It’s very, very hard to just go to somebody’s house a couple of times and get their story with all the layers and complexities in place.
The West has a way of highlighting certain labour and skill, which we use only for a very small group of people or for our Sabyasachis and Manish Malhotras. We don’t talk in the same adulatory tone about Krishnamoorthy (a saree designer and weaver) as we do about a brand designer. They completely deserve the respect that they have earned, but so does Krishnamoorthy.
The book refers to the debate over defining skilled and unskilled labour, or art and craft. How does this tie into these stories of livelihood?
Something gets dismissed as craft when it is utilitarian and there is repetition in the design. But the subtle variances that make it art is not considered. (Carnatic vocalist) TM Krishna talks about how it’s encoded in caste: how the caste hierarchy defines what you do as knowledge or labour.
The [debate of] skilled and unskilled and the way it is encoded in caste and gender is going to be the biggest challenge going forward in how we give legitimacy to these skills, and whether we ensure their survival or not.
In the book, you had posed a question to P Sainath about how we can keep traditional livelihoods alive while dismantling caste. Now that you’ve finished the book, I wanted to ask this question back to you. Do you have any new perspectives on this question?
I think people have been trying to grapple with that for a very long time. I agree with what Sainath says. The caste hierarchy has to go, that’s the first thing. Encoding it in caste and then saying somebody has a particular job, it reveals their caste. And that’s why people walk away from these livelihoods. It stigmatises. A sickle maker’s son may be earning less than his father’s assistant but he is still not going to want to do the job. Why? Because people don’t think it’s a great job.
You should respect the craft and reward it suitably. Give it respect and dignity, and don’t hold it within the caste boundaries.