The economic transitions of India that bewilders
India’s economic transition has thrown up a diverse group of people grappling with changes that are often bewildering. Among them is Sathy, a zamindar with reduced wealth and status in Tamil Nadu, who can’t let go of his feudal past.
I met R Sathyanarayanan, or Sathy as he called himself, in late 2004. He was forty years old. We were introduced by a relative of mine. She knew I was writing a book. She said Sathy was a talkative man; she thought I might find some of his stories interesting.
So we met, one afternoon, in a hotel in Pondicherry, in a courtyard under a mango tree. Sathy talked a lot at that first meeting. I thought he was trying to impress me. He told me all about his family—about their noble background, about the land they had owned, about the way they had dominated the village of Molasur, in rural Tamil Nadu, and the region around it. He said they were Reddiars, zamindars who had migrated from the area that was now Andhra Pradesh some eight centuries ago.
He had grown up in the biggest house in Molasur. His family owned the only car in the village. Whenever they left home, villagers would line the roads and bow their heads in respect.
Sathy talked several times about his family’s land that afternoon. He told me about the hundreds of acres that were their main source of wealth, about the ancestral fields he still cultivated with rice and peanuts. Farming was in his blood, he said, and I could see he was excited, exuberant in a way that was almost childish, when he remembered the times he had spent with his father in the fields, burning under the sun or soaking in the rain, planting and ploughing and reaping from their land.
As the afternoon went on, Sathy grew less exuberant. He started talking about how hard it was to make a living off farming these days. The land around Molasur was less fertile; it had been poisoned for too long by chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The water table, overextended and over-pumped, was in decline. Labor was more expensive; young men and women in the village weren’t interested in farming anymore.
“Agriculture is a difficult business these days,” he said, and he leaned into me, as if he was letting me in on a secret. His voice was low, subdued. For the first time since we met, his confidence seemed to sag a little. He said it was a challenge to keep the farm running. He hinted that the family’s financial position wasn’t quite what it had once been.
It was just a little crack in the façade. There would be many more. But on that afternoon, Sathy pulled back quickly. He started talking about real estate. He said he’d been thinking about developing his land. He’d been considering building some homes for IT workers from the cities. Or maybe he’d build a golf resort; he invited me to join him in the resort project.
I wasn’t interested in building a golf course with Sathy. But I did find myself interested in knowing more about his world. I, too, had grown up in that world, some thirty kilometers down the road from Molasur, in the international town of Auroville. My childhood was very different from Sathy’s. But when Sathy talked about change in his area—when he talked about the way farms were being replaced by gated communities, when he talked about the violence and chaos that were replacing the stable rural order in which he grew up—I felt like I could relate.
“People are lost,” Sathy said to me once, shaking his head, with an expression that conveyed both dismay and wonder. “All the money has taken them away from themselves.” I thought Sathy was himself a little lost. He seemed disoriented, maybe confused. I knew that his discomfort was in many ways cause for celebration, part of the great emancipatory wave coursing across India. The old feudal order was crumbling; as the fortunes of the Reddiars declined, thousands of men and women in and around Molasur were rising.
Still, I often felt like I could sympathize with Sathy’s sense of disorientation. I had left my home in 1991, at the age of 16, to study in the United States. I left a sleepy, agricultural landscape that had in many ways remained unchanged over the centuries. By the time I returned, some twelve years later, that landscape had all but disappeared. The great upheaval that began in India’s cities had come to the countryside—first as a trickle and then as torrent. I found all the change bewildering. When I first met Sathy, I had a feeling that he could help me understand what was going on.
I started spending time in Molasur. I would take the forty-minute drive from Auroville, along a bumpy road bordered by villages and market towns. I would drive past gated communities and colleges, past fields dotted with yellow stones that marked ambitious real-estate developments.
Molasur was a few hundred metres off the main road, on a crumbling village track that hadn’t been tarred in decades. Sathy’s house was at the head of the village. It was a typical tile-roofed house, built in the nineteenth century, with whitewashed walls and cement floors that stayed cool even in the summers.
Sathy always served me coffee when I visited. It was delicious coffee, filtered in the South Indian style, made with fresh milk from a cow tied to a post in a courtyard at the back. Sathy’s mother sat just off the courtyard, surveying the kitchen, in a cane chair positioned at the edge of the sunlight—close enough to get the light, but not the heat.
Sathy lived in that house with his mother, a sister and various other relatives. His room was upstairs, by a veranda that overlooked the village. It was usually unkempt, clothes and books and sometimes a comb strewn across an unmade bed. It was a bachelor’s room. Sathy’s wife and children lived in Bangalore.
His wife was originally from the city. Her name was Banu. After marrying Sathy, Banu had moved to Molasur for a while and tried to adjust to the village. But village life was constraining for a modern woman like Banu—someone with engineering and business degrees, brought up to believe that women could work and have careers. She moved back to Bangalore and started a consulting business. Now, she trained new recruits at the city’s IT and outsourcing companies.
His family’s absence was a constant source of tension to Sathy. He talked a lot about his children; he saw them only on weekends, when he drove or took the bus to Bangalore. Banu told him he should move to the city, that his children needed their father. But Sathy was too attached to his land—to the fields he walked every day, and to the villagers whom he still seemed to consider his charges if not his subjects.
“What can I do, Akash?” he asked me once. “This is my place. This is my village and these are my people. They need me, all these people depend on me. What would happen to them if I left and moved to Bangalore?”
I loved going for walks in the fields around Molasur. Sathy and I would start in the village, on narrow lanes lined with thatch huts and tile-roofed houses. The lanes felt crowded; more than five thousand people lived in Molasur. We’d pass by a sandy children’s playground, and then an ancient temple, its turret blackened by the years, that stood at the edge of Sathy’s land.
The land was wide open. It was always exhilarating, like a breath, to step away from the congested village into the open fields.
Sathy carried a bamboo stick whenever we walked. He swung it in big back-and-forth motions, up and down, sometimes passing it horizontally between his hands. He said the stick was to protect us against jackals, but I never saw any jackal. I thought the stick was a way of asserting his authority.
There was a grey afternoon in November, an interlude between monsoon showers, when Sathy said he wanted to show me something on his land. He said we would be going farther than he had ever taken me before—past the fields, past the reservoir, to what he called his “forest land”. It was almost one hundred acres of wild, uncultivated property. It had been used in the old days—by “the Britishers,” he said—to hunt for rabbits and pheasants.
We began outside his house. As we passed through Molasur’s winding streets, people ran up to greet Sathy, many of them with folded hands, some of them bowing a little. Sathy was paternalistic. He inquired after their education or health; he asked how their jobs were going. He chided one man who worked in Chennai, reminding him to send money home for his ailing father. He scolded another who had been without a job for several months.
We came across a group of young men standing around a motorcycle. They were dressed in polyester shirts and dark pants, with synthetic belts wrapped tight around the narrowest hips I had ever seen. They were sharing a cigarette, and when Sathy saw them, he shouted, demanded that they drop it.
The men looked straight at Sathy. They laughed, kind of a sneer, and Sathy, taken aback, kept walking. “It’s just something that matters to me,” he said. “It’s from the old days. People would never smoke in front of my father.”
When Sathy’s father died, of a heart attack at the age of sixty- three, Sathy had been attending law school. He was forced to return to Molasur to tend to the family’s property. He tried to fill his father’s shoes, but it was the early nineties, and people in the village were developing new ideas about their place in the world. Young people, in particular, were no longer in awe of the Reddiars.
As Sathy walked me around Molasur that afternoon, he talked about the social reconfiguration he had come up against when he moved back home. Partly, he said, this reconfiguration was driven by the new sense of self-esteem that was transforming villages throughout India. But it was also driven by the dwindling fortunes everywhere of agricultural families like the Reddiars. Across the country, farm yields were down, input prices (the price of labour, fertilizer and pesticides) had soared, and people were abandoning the profession.
While India’s overall economy was growing at 7 to 9 per cent, agriculture was growing at below 3 per cent. Between the early 1990s and the late 2000s, the share of India’s GDP represented by agriculture fell from almost 32 per cent to just under 17 per cent. In a 2009 report on India’s environment, the government estimated that the relative productivity of the nation’s agricultural sector was less than one-fourth that of the non-agricultural sector.
Sathy acknowledged that his family was better off than many. Smaller farmers, unable to achieve the necessary economies of scale, too poor to buy tractors and other mechanized tools, had been decimated. He was far luckier than the tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of farmers who had been driven to suicide across the nation. Still, even families like his had felt the pinch. They could no longer rely on the vast fortunes they had used to build patronage and buy loyalty in the village.
“It was really a shock for me when this started happening,” Sathy said, speaking of the financial difficulties his family had faced. “We were never poor—we didn’t suffer as badly as so many others. But I remember how freely my family used to spend. I never imagined that we would have to worry about money. It was a new challenge we had to face.”
“I don’t need the money for myself,” he went on. “I’m happy to live simply. But it’s true that people see us differently now. Everybody knows the Reddiars aren’t as rich as they used to be. And the sad truth is that even in the village, money buys respect. People admired us for our status, but I’m not so simple to think they weren’t also impressed by our family’s wealth.”
We came upon an old man in a loincloth. He, too, was smoking, a beedi nestled discreetly in the palm of his hand. Sathy yelled at him to drop it, and the man did, immediately, and without hesitation. Sathy was satisfied. He told me that the young men who had refused to stop smoking probably weren’t from the village; they must have been day-trippers from the city.
“Most people in Molasur still remember the old ways,” he said. “They know who I am and they know how to behave. They know how to give proper respect.”
Respect was one of Sathy’s favourite words. It cropped up all the time in our conversations. Sathy said his wife mocked him for using the word so much. She told him he was a fool, that he was so hung up on the past, so intent on maintaining a semblance of his family’s old dignity, that he cared more about respect than the practicalities of life.
“Can you eat respect?” she would ask him. “Will respect educate your children?”
“In a way, she’s right,” Sathy said. “But she doesn’t understand. Banu is from the city. She doesn’t know what matters in the village.”
It was late afternoon as we walked through Sathy’s fields. The sun was low. It had just emerged from grey clouds, into a narrow band of blue stretched over the horizon. It was a gentle, blurry, winter sun; it hung like a butter ball over the land.
Sathy talked, kind of babbled, as we walked. He seemed preoccupied. He had just returned from a trip to Bangalore. One of Banu’s relatives, an uncle who had made a fortune in real estate, had given a party to celebrate the purchase of a large property. He invited six thousand guests; they were served a lavish meal, with hundreds of dishes, and there was live music for entertainment.
After the party, Sathy’s son asked him if they could give feasts like that, too. Sathy said: “I told him, ‘Never. Never. Don’t expect these kinds of extravagances from me. I’m just a farmer. I can’t rise to that level. But I get good respect, everyone knows who I am, and I can give you a good life. That’s all you can expect from me.’ ”
“People are so superficial in this country nowadays,” Sathy said. “All they care about is showing off. I go to Bangalore and it’s full of all these IT workers—all these young children with their cell phones and money and all that. They’ve become like Americans: they have wallets full of credit cards, and pseudo-feelings. You meet them and they say hi, and then they say bye. They might even say they love you, but there’s no real feeling. It’s just like America. We want everything big and quick.”
“Don’t get me wrong,” he went on. “I’m happy for my people. I want them to develop, I want them to get rich. Development is good for them. It’s educating them, making them more confident. People stand up for themselves. Even the women—they’re so bold. My mother never dared to raise her voice with my father, but look at Banu: she does what she wants. She moves to Bangalore with my children, and what can I do? I can’t say anything.”
I said: “You sound like you’re contradicting yourself.”
He said: “No, I’m not contradicting. I know it’s good for the country. I know things have to change; they should change. Some people rise, and others have to fall. My family was high for so long. I know my status can’t stay the same forever. But still, the ego is there—the ego clings to what it had.”
He told me that some nights, lying in bed, he woke up thinking about how different life in Molasur had become. He thought of the farms that were turning fallow, and of the old country road running by the village that was becoming a highway. He knew things would change even more; he figured he had about five years before the village became unrecognizable. His children would never live in Molasur. They would never be farmers; he would have to sell the land.
He woke up in the middle of the night and the knowledge of all this change, of a way of life he’d never share with his children, would seize him. He’d feel a tightness in his chest. He would think of how his father had died, and the tightness frightened him.
He would sit outside his room, on the veranda. He took deep breaths. The village would be quiet, the lights off. It was something like the way it used to be, before everyone got motorcycles and televisions and electricity, and the silence would calm him, give him strength. At moments like that, he felt like he could handle anything.
“We have to learn to let go, Akash,” Sathy said, swinging his stick as we walked through the fields. “We have to learn to accept. It is difficult, of course, but we have to accept.”
He read a lot; that helped him. He read spiritual books. He quoted a line from J Krishnamurthi, his favourite author: ‘There are no solutions; there are only problems, and the resolution of each problem lies in the problem itself.’
Sathy’s forest land wasn’t really a forest at all. It was, in fact, quite barren. Sathy said it had once been covered with mango, neem and palmyra trees. Now all that remained was a thin line of palmyras, their trunks encased in an ancient carapace of spikes, their leaves rustling in the monsoon wind.
The forest had been cut down, chopped away one branch at a time by villagers foraging for firewood. It had been reduced to a flat—if wild and beautiful—stretch of shrubs and thorn bushes. “We lost control of the land,” Sathy said. “Before, no one dared to cut on our property. But when our status went down, I couldn’t manage things as well as my father. I couldn’t stop the villagers around here from killing our forest.”
My legs were tired from the walk. I crouched on the ground, on the slippery grey clay, above a stream. The stream flowed fast and strong. The rains had been heavy; it was a successful monsoon.
“Quite a downpour,” I said to Sathy, and he agreed, and said it was good for the farmers. But then he shook his head and said it was nothing compared to some of the rains he remembered.
He remembered standing on this land in the pouring rain his face flat in the gusting wind with his father when he was a boy. They had come to inspect a dam. The rains had been ferocious, the strongest Sathy had ever seen. The dam was in danger of breaching. The village could have been flooded. Sathy’s father gathered more than five hundred men. He called, and they came, and they worked in the rain, strengthening the dam with bags of sand and logs from cashew trees. They worked for three days, under the supervision of Sathy’s father. They saved the village.
Sathy told me that story, and he told me how proud he had felt of his father. “He had so much control, so much charisma,” he said. “Everyone obeyed him. Sometimes I wish I could imitate him. But I don’t have his looks, and I don’t have his charisma. I never had the same control that he had over the village.”
“Do you think that the village would have stayed the same if your father was still alive?” I asked him.
“No, no, I wouldn’t say that,” Sathy said. “That’s going too far. Even my father couldn’t stop modernity. Even he couldn’t block what’s happening in this country now. Sometimes, to tell you the truth, I think it’s good he died. He wouldn’t want to see everything that has happened.”
Sathy told me about a meeting that took place in the village near the end of his father’s life. The meeting was held outdoors, under a banyan tree. His father was late; everyone stood up when he arrived. Everyone, except for one man—a Dalit youth named Raju. Raju had spent some time working in the cities. He had fancy, modern ideas; he was defying the Reddiar.
Sathy said his father’s face turned to stone when he saw Raju sitting. He didn’t say anything at the meeting, though, and he didn’t say much the rest of the day. He was silent at dinner. Later, when Sathy was massaging his father’s feet in the bedroom he shared with his parents, his father looked at him and said, “I don’t know how you will manage. I don’t know how you will cope.”
Sathy told his father not to worry. He said times were changing, and the family had to change with them. He said he would learn to adjust; they all had to adjust.
Now, Sathy told me, when he visited places like Bangalore and Chennai, when he saw what was going on in the cities, he wondered if maybe his father was right. “Sometimes I think that maybe I goofed up my life,” he said. “Why did I stay a farmer? It’s silly to be a farmer these days. We landlords missed the industrial revolution, and now we’re missing the technology revolution. Sometimes I ask myself why I’m struggling to keep the farm running while so many children are making millions. Maybe my father had a point—we didn’t know how to cope.”
Sathy didn’t say anything for a while after that. The land, too, was silent. We felt far away from the village, far from the road that was becoming a highway, and farther still from the cities that would be connected by that highway.
Dragonflies hovered above the stream. A group of mynah birds dug at the ground. A kingfisher exploded in a burst of blue.
Sitting there, the stream gurgling below me, the chirp of crickets in the air and a mongoose pawing nervously at a clump of wild berries, searching maybe for prey, I could just about remember the way my home had felt so many years ago, when I was a boy. Sathy’s forest land felt untouched. I felt alone, far from the crowds and commotion and constant churning of the nation.
“I love this land,” Sathy said. “It’s that old feeling, something that hasn’t been lost.”