Book Title: The Indian Village: Rural Lives in the 21st Century
Author: Surinder S Jodhka
Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr
This book has a bagful of pleasant surprises. It makes what is apparently a soporific subject of Indian village and rural countryside a most interesting read. The style is informal, an extremely rare feature for a book on a subject of this kind. And it carries the authority and credibility of a scholar. It is not a book written by a non-expert for the entertaining enlightenment of the general reader. It brings in a historical perspective of what leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Dr BR Ambedkar, all of whom had never lived in a village, thought of the Indian village and its place in contemporary India.
Surinder S Jodhka shows the generally romantic idea of many urban Indians, who were born in a village but moved away early and lived a greater part of their lives in cities, looking back with nostalgia at the Indian village. As a matter of fact, he starts off the book with an anecdote of a retired Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer he ran into at New Delhi’s India International Centre (IIC); he bemoaned the fact that the village has changed and things are not the same as before. Of course, he meant the idyllic place that the village was in his memory. Using this as a starting point, Jodhka unravels the reality of the Indian village, how it is different from the Gandhi-Nehru-Ambedkar conception and the romantic tint of the IAS officer’s memory.
Jodhka neatly sums up how the misconception that India was mainly villages gained ground. He writes: “The colonial formulations of India as being a land of village republics that had remained aloof from any kind of politics and outside influence, unchanged for centuries and millennia, were clearly born out of the emerging thinking in the West about non-Western societies and cultures.” He shows how traditional villages — and there were many types of them — were not self-contained, as against what Gandhi believed. Even traditional practices of exogamous marriages — that is, marriages cannot take place within the village — made the village part of an extensive regional network.
The fourth chapter, ‘The Actually Existing Villages, History and Ethnography’, provides a clear account of how the modern idea of the idyllic village created by the colonial writers was dismantled by Indian historians and anthropologists in post-Independent India. The village structure was complicated, though hierarchical. Some of the sociologists felt that the relations between castes were not exploitative, while the others saw clear cleavages between them. Jodhka’s narration is couched in simple language but he does not simplify the rich research on rural India. And as democracy took root, its effects could be seen in the village structure. The author takes note of this: “Caste was never about ritual hierarchy alone. Power too was its constructive feature, always. Empirical studies of village life from across the country reported this extensively. Relations of power tended to overlap with ritual hierarchies. The mediating factor was control over agricultural land. The caste groups that tended to be in possession of land also held power. Notwithstanding significant regional differences, these tended to be all from upper or middling castes.”
And as India entered the 21st century, there were further changes in the already transformed village. Migration has played an important role in the change. The village society and economy loosened up. Jodhka writes about his field studies of villages in Punjab in 1999-2000 and 2006, and of villages in Haryana in 1987-88 and 2008: “Very few among the Dalit castes were involved with their traditional caste occupations. While some, such as the blacksmiths, had to give up their traditional work because of growing redundancy, others gave up for the sake of dignity. For example, no one from the villages was willing to pick up dead cattle. The villagers in Punjab had to invite ‘contractors’ from nearby towns to get their dead cattle picked up.”
The interesting conclusion Jodhka draws is that the Indian village is alive and kicking, and it is certainly not the romantic place that many urbanites imagine it to be. He also questions whether the urban/rural binary is of much use in discussing the Indian social and economic scene. Agriculture, which is the mainstay of the farmers and of a village, has become intensive and technologically sophisticated. Its connectivity with urban markets is a crucial aspect. And it has been noticed that non-farming activity is an important aspect of the Indian village.
The triumph of this book lies in the fact that the narrative is brisk and easy to absorb. It is a necessary read for the city-dwelling young and old because the village should not remain a strange country in their imagination. It is not exotic and it is not a hovel.