An Unknown Turf

The first thing I do after buying a book is smelling it. Every single book has a different smell. Some reminds me of the textbooks from school, some of the old notebooks or newspapers. The journalist blogger Annie Zaidi‘s book titled “Known Turf” smelled good too, except that afterward it was a tough journey to an unknown turf. As I skipped through the first chapter, I initially found it dragging and was beginning to wonder how writers like Sainath recommended this book as “a beautifully written book“. I was quite bored of her continued references to the Bollywood movie “Dushman” and her story of Tea. But it could be me and little did I know that I was in for surprises.

The first chapter has the title “Please do not carry loaded guns in the bus” and I was surprised to read that it was not a sign in the United States, but in Madhya Pradesh (in India where we blame Americans for their gun culture). I did not know that the people who have a BPL card are entitled to a health card that assures free medical treatment upto Rs. 20000 and just like me, most of the villagers who have a BPL card haven’t heard of this facility.  At every single instance, we are ashamed and angry about people who portray India as a poor country but I read stories of famine in this book with not so much shock. I read that in Madhya Pradesh, 72% of children of Sahariya tribe under six are malnourished and within the first year of birth all that those babies are eating is dry roti. Even before they have grown teeth to chew.

I read stories of pregnant women chew bits of gum plucked off gum trees trying to kill hunger pangs. In Annie’s own words, “about women who have not eaten for three days giving birth alone in dark hovels, knowing their breasts are dry. About the dismissive assistant in the nutritional rehabilitation center who said that Sahariya women hardly deserve the state’s help because they smoke beedis.” Then the cover-ups of hunger index.

I also read the inside story of Punjab, which we thought of as the most prosperous states in India. Where the minimum wage is Rs. 96 per day. Where most people get between Rs. 40 and 80. I was thinking about all those urban friends of mine who blame Kerala for the state which we are in. Those friends of mine who sweats out themselves in Bangalore IT sector and always put blame on the state. Here, the minimum wage that a mason gets, compared to the minimum wage of the state of Punjab which is celebrated as a prosperous state in India, is Rs. 300-350 per day. And they call us an undeveloped, Communist state. I read stories of how Punjab’s Dalits are tortured. Of the Zamindars who formed a committee and announced a boycott of all laborers who wanted higher wages. How the Zamindari and Dalit politics constructs Punjab’s social fabric. I realized that Punjab ain’t those beautiful wheat fields that some Hindi movies show case.

Annie also writes about Sufism and her affinity to it. But from what I read about the Sufi practices I don’t understand how it is different from the core principles of other religions or religious sects because Sufism also promotes the Master-Slave concept. Why the heck is God always seen as a Master and never a friend?? She puts one thing right here though – that “whenever there’s a wider economic crunch, or when there’s personal frustration and insecurity, either there’s revolution or people turn to spiritualism.”

Annie’s book gives an in-depth analysis and real life stories of power, crime, poverty, caste-politics, corrupt bureaucracy, religion, labor bondage and feminism – be it the stories of dacoits from Chambal or the poor weavers of Uttar Pradesh. These are not the kind of stories you would find in your daily newspapers. These are the stories which would shake you for good and make you think about all the shining glory that we boast upon about India and some of it’s states. It give you a pointer to the unknown turf that lie buried in India’s underbelly.

If you care about it, I would recommend you read this book.

Title: Known Turf
Annie Zaidi
Price: Rs. 250