Miruna George and Jaya Selvi D
Dr. Miruna George is an Associate Professor in English at Stella Maris College, Chennai. Her areas of interest are American Literature, Postcolonial Studies, Indian Writing in English, Gender and Women’s Studies, Subaltern Studies and Theatre Studies.
Jaya Selvi D is a Doctoral Research Scholar in the department of English, Stella Maris College, Chennai. Her areas of interest include Literature and Globalisation, Development Studies, Memory Studies and Surveillance Studies.
Post-truth era is characterized by infestation of alternative facts and realities that makes distinction between truth and lies obscure. It exists predominantly in the political space, where there is active engagement in exercising power over subjects. These socio-political post-truth discourses present an imperative challenge to literary world in terms of accommodating marginalised subjective realities. The task at hand is to encounter both politically motivated objective truths and alternative facts of post-truth discourses in order to assert the resilient voices of the subjects. Literary works like Shoes of the Dead (2013) confronts such highly fabricated, conniving post-truth discourses through its literary representation. This paper proposes to study how literary representations subvert post-truth discourses by exposing the predispositions of objective truths towards political powers. Issues of Agrarian Crisis and Farmers’ suicides in India (with specific references to Central India) form the areas of study in the novel. A set of statistical data -a realm of the so-called facts- is usually presented as an evidence for its objective representation of reality; however, post-truth politics has even exploited such factual data for its advances. Literary reflections on data politics, with main focus on statistical data, as depicted in the novel, bring out the political power play involved in misrepresenting the data, and thereby, challenging its objective representation of reality. With reference to the novel, this paper aims to unravel the manipulative strategies employed by power centres in manipulating the data on farmers’ suicides. This paper further argues that the misrepresented data of farmers’ suicides is challenged by the novel through its literary representations and ingenious narrative techniques that subverts the post-truth discourse of Indian Agrarian Crisis.
Keywords: Post-Truth, Alternative Facts, Data Politics, Farmers’ Suicides, Agrarian Crisis, Objective Truths and Subjective Realities.
From literary works to literary theories, from literary canons to its historical transformations, from writing to activism, the contingent of literature is exponential, yet the foundation remains the same: to represent reality from a subject point of view and thereby assert the existence of many truths. One of the frequently discussed phenomena in literary milieu is Truth(s). Literary standpoint on the idea of truth always aims at presenting a subjective reality amidst the dominant presence of objective truth. The role of literature in representing the realities of marginalised subjects becomes highly challenging in the post-truth era. A surge of chaos than clarity, while perceiving and processing information as a result of data deluge has made literary reflections on social realities highly indispensable and significant in current times. Politically structured post-truth discourses gradually transform itself into objective truths1 of society further undermining the subjective realities. Post-truth discourses contrive a parallel reality using alternative facts that make the distinction between truth and lie completely obscure; in addition, data politics plays a huge role in constructing these post-truth discourses which is elaborately discussed in this paper.
With the term “data politics” being widely used to denote a number of socio, techno and political phenomena, this paper deems it appropriate to specify the intended reference of the term as used in this study. In recent times, the term “data politics” refers to technological supremacy that renders power over social and even personal spaces of people. The absolute control over information about people’s social interactions, monetary transactions, movements, social and political inclinations have high implications on business, marketing, advertising and even on politics. It raises concerns on data privacy, and also shows the infinite potential of data and information; therefore, it is no wonder that the power centres of politics desperately attempt to control data to its advantage. The significance of power over data was no different even when the term “data” referred to something as finite as statistical numbers. The initial study on social, economic and political implications of data and information was centred on “statistics, demography and probability, and data production practices such as the census and administrative registers” (Bigo 1). Ian Hacking, one of the forerunners involved in the study of data, also focussed on statistics and census and how this “avalanche of printed numbers” influenced society and even history in the data revolution between 1820 and 18402 (Bigo 1). The definition of data politics has undergone tremendous changes in accordance with the technological upgrade of collecting and storing data. However, the novel Shoes of the Dead discusses the issue of misrepresenting the farmers’ suicide data with respect to statistical data rather than the digitalised one. Therefore, the term “data politics” used in this paper refers to the absence of intrinsic objectivity in a set of statistical data. The role of power centres involved in data fudging as portrayed in the novel is so malicious that it demands the term “data politics” be used to highlight the rhizomatic presence of political power in this issue.
Kota Neelima’s non-fictional work titled Widows of Vidarbha: Making of Shadows (2018) becomes a crucial part of this study as it explores the issue of farmers’ suicides backed by the author’s profound research and on-field investigation in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra. This research work is a collection of case studies that includes life stories and interviews given by the families of the victims. The introductory part of this non-fictional work is highly significant to this study as it blurs the boundary between fiction and facts in relation to the fictional work Shoes of the Dead (2013); furthermore, it validates the fictional portrayal of the issue in the novel with the factual aspects of farmers’ suicide cases from Vidarbha region. In her introduction to Widows of Vidarbha, Kota Neelima unravels the discrepancies seen in the data of farmers’ suicides as recorded by the state authorities. The author questions the disparities seen in the state’s report titled, “Accidental Deaths and suicides in India” (ADSI), which is annually published by NCRB (National Crimes Record Bureau) of India (xxviii-xxx). A set of following ambiguities paves way for such production of alternative facts: the suicides of small farmers, agricultural labourers, daily wagers, who don’t own a land under her/his name are not included under farmers’ suicides category (xxvi); suicides of women farmers are also not included since lands are not registered under their name (xxvi); a farmer’s suicide stands valid, only if she/he had loan dues with registered banks at the time of her/his suicide, and this criteria deliberately excludes the deceased victims who had taken private loans from unscrupulous moneylenders (xx). The long list of conditions to be fulfilled by the deceased in making her/his suicide valid deepens the traumatic experience of the widows in receiving their monetary compensation. These altered facts and fabricated data distort the subjective realities which the novel Shoes of the Dead attempts to represent. These contrived data reports can be seen as the socio-political post-truth discourse which the novel questions through its literary representations.
The novel Shoes of the Dead traces the intertwined lives of Keyur Kashinath and Gangiri Bhadra; Keyur is a powerful politician in Delhi and Gangiri is a poor, yet resilient, farmer from Mityala who is struggling for his survival. The political life of Keyur, a Member of Parliament comes under scrutiny because of the increasing number of farmers’ suicides in his constituency, Mityala. To save himself from political turmoil, Keyur fudges the statistical data of farmers’ suicides by exercising his political powers and thereby constructing a post-truth discourse. Gangiri challenges Keyur’s power politics by asserting individual/subject life stories of farmers who have committed suicides as the inevitable subjective realities/truths that counter argues the post-truth discourse. Henceforth, this paper aims to explore the ways in which the novel Shoes of the Dead subverts socio-political post-truth discourse of Indian agrarian crisis with reference to the issue of farmers’ suicides. This paper argues that the rendition of subjective realities as literary narratives, challenges politically framed objective truths pertaining to this issue. Furthermore, the novel articulates the resilient voices of the subjects using paradigm-shifting narrative techniques and inclusive communicative modes, which is also a subject of study in this paper.
In order to understand the dynamics between truth and politics, a little detour through various philosophical discussions on truth becomes important. In her work Philosophy of Logics (1978) Susan Haack analysed different theories of truth – Coherence, Correspondence, Pragmatic, and Semantic– in an attempt to understand the core ideas of truth and its effects on society. Despite repeated attempts to relate truth and reality (Haack 97), profound insights into foundation of reality and its effects on truth seems to be incomplete and inadequate. It was in the works of Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, profound insights on constructed social reality were observed. Their work explored the varied sources of reality and dwelled into its objective and subjective aspects. The central proposition of Berger and Luckmann was that human beings interact in a social world and create a paradigm of social conventions based on experiences and belief systems. Yet again, the power relation that influences a conscious exclusion of certain subjective experiences from the constructed paradigm was not part of their discussion. At last, the most significant questions on truth and power surfaced in the writings of Michel Foucault on these areas of study. His collection of interviews Power/ Knowledge: Selected Interviews and other Writings 1972-1977 can be seen as the foundational text to understand the politics behind truth.
In his analysis of political economy of truth, Foucault discusses the production and the establishment of politically motivated truths. His reflections on truth and politics can be seen as the earlier arguments against post-truth discourses in the academic forum. Both Foucauldian concepts and post-truth discourses involve production of truth and its resistance. The post-truth discourse; however, takes a detour from Foucauldian ideas in terms of its operative mechanism. In addition to production of truth, post-truth politics makes sure that alternative facts are also produced to confuse oppositional forces and to deactivate any forms of resistance. Rather than a hegemonic presence, a state of bewilderment among its subjects is the ultimate goal of post-truth discourses, since hegemony would anyway be the default outcome of this deceitful mechanism. In the post-truth era, the cognitive ability of the people in distinguishing truth from lies is put under test by presenting a large number of misrepresented data and alternative facts. With respect to this study, the issue of farmers’ suicides and its misrepresentation attains authenticity with the manipulated data being published in ADSI by NCRB, as stated earlier. The data published by these authorities are considered to be the most reliable source of information for research institutes who are indulging in similar subjects of study and it paves way for this fudged data to become far more solid and constant. When both media and people quote and rely on these research institutes and government records to comprehend reality, these documents attain legitimacy, and that’s how post-truth transforms itself into parallel realities and it further leads to hegemony. Such complex dynamics make subversion of post-truth discourses through literary representations highly challenging, yet essential.
Post-truth has become the buzzword since it was exclusively highlighted as Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year in 2016; subsequently, a number of publications on the topic flooded the market and hardly any of those books failed to discuss Brexit, US elections and more importantly, the former president of USA, Donald Trump (McIntyre 2). This shows the inevitable political resonances of the term Post-truth. The series of publications on Post-truth by Palgrave Macmillan in 20193 provided a theoretical framework to this controversial ‘phenomenon’ to be engaged with in a more compelling fashion in the academic space. The definitions of post-truth are as extensive and intense as its effect on society and people. For Lee McIntyre, the most striking feature is that “the idea of post-truth is not just that truth is being challenged, but that it is being challenged as a mechanism for asserting political dominance” (xiv). According to him, though there were serious challenges in the past towards the very idea of truth, “never before have such challenges been so openly embraced as a strategy for the political subordination of reality” (xiv). The features of post-truth as stated by Lee McIntyre includes, “… [Post-truth] try to bend reality to fit their opinions, rather than the other way around” (6), “… post-truth era is a challenge not just to the idea of knowing reality but to the existence of reality itself” (10). The intricate relationship between post-truth and politics is evident from his following remarks: “… post-truth amounts to a form of ideological supremacy, whereby its practitioners are trying to compel someone to believe in something whether there is good evidence for it or not. And this is a recipe for political domination” (13). Such devious acts of political oppression and subsequent marginalization of the farming community, most importantly the increasing debt-driven suicides of farmers, which is one of the most devastating aspect of Indian agrarian crisis becomes the subject of study for this paper with respect to the novel Shoes of the Dead.
The issue of farmers’ suicides has become the discursive space for post-truth discourses. In the novel, there are two distinct spaces: a world of power politics in Delhi (a space of power) and a community of farmers from Mityala (a space of resistance). These two distinct worlds get entangled because of the news stories on farmers’ suicides written and published by Nazar Prabhakar, a fearless and honest journalist working in Delhi. Nazar investigates and report on farmers’ suicides, with Gangiri as his main source of information. His main aim is to expose the power politics involved in agrarian crisis which would create a positive change in the lives of farmers.
The reasons for the crisis and the problems faced by farmers in leading a peaceful and dignified life are extensive and highly complex: failed monsoons, highly priced farm inputs, deceitful moneylenders, manipulating middle-men, low yields, or high yields with less market price, inadequate policies and ineffective schemes, mounting debts, and corporate-serving politicians (Neelima 18: 2013). As signified in the title of the novel Shoes of the Dead, agrarian crisis is equally devastating for both the living and the dead. The families of the victims should prove the validity of their loved ones’ suicide as a debt-distressed one in order to become eligible for the monetary compensation given by the state. The families of the victims, mainly widows, experience a series of emotionally disturbing investigations and exhaustive bureaucratic circumlocution in terms of paperwork and procedures. As portrayed in the novel, the state investigates the validity of each and every farmer’s suicide through district suicide committees, which meets every fortnight to vote and decide on the cases of farmers’ suicides. The rise of farmers’ suicides in Mityala reflects the inefficiency of Keyur Kashinath as an MP and his ruling Democratic Party. In order to curtail this, Keyur strategically falsifies the number of suicides recorded, instead of working on solutions to stop famers from committing suicide. Keyur monitors the activities of the district suicide committee, and influences the proceedings through his ardent supporters: local money lender Durga Das and Maha Sarpanch Lambodar (Honorary Head of all panchayats in the district). Thus, Keyur’s political ambitions revolve around successful political career rather than the survival of farmers; as Nazar puts it, “There is political comfort in keeping suicide figures low. It disproves debt distress; it shows the success of policies” (16).
In the novel, the district suicide committee consists of members holding different power positions in the society: Agricultural Officer of the district Jivan Patel, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Hemant Rao, Mityala Chief of Police Purandar Reddy, Maha Sarpanch Lambodar and Maha Sarpanch Gauri Shanker, Regional Bank Manager Ramesh Vaish, deceiving money lender and powerful village leader Durga Das, the District Collector Amarendra Gul, and Sitabai, a former Sarpanch representing farmers in the suicide committee. Apart from Sitabai and Gauri Shanker, the rest of the committee is either corrupted or coerced to vote in favor of Lambodar and Durga Das. They (Lambodar and Durga Das) validate or invalidate a suicidal death based on their personal benefits. They both vote a suicide valid only if they are sure that the compensation money can be seized from the family later for the loan that the deceased has taken from them earlier. On the other hand, if they plan to acquire the land of the victim for the money that they have loaned earlier, they make sure that the compensation gets denied so that the family is forced to sell their land to Lambodar and Durga Das. Keyur also benefits from such deceitful acts -recording a smaller number of farmers’ suicides- as it reflects his successful governance in Mityala as an MP.
One such malpractice can be witnessed when Sudhakar’s suicide – a debt-distressed farmer and brother of Gangiri – is declared invalid, and therefore not eligible for monetary compensation. Such verdicts indicate the strong presence of post-truth politics in the agrarian crisis. The post-truth discourse of socio-political power can be witnessed in the following conversation, in which talathi (a village accountant) informed Gangiri about the verdict of the committee on his brother’s suicide: “Gangiri asked again in a stunned voice, ‘Are you saying we lied?’ The talathi now squirmed a little. ‘I think the committee found reasons other than the ones you mentioned for your brother’s suicide’ ” (45). The suicide committee had quoted depression as the reason for his brother’s suicide, which was also true because he was certainly depressed. But the reasons for his depression - due to mounting debts and failed harvests - are the subject realities that the post-truth discourse deliberately negates from records. This shows how the power centres (Lambodar, Durga Das and Keyur) construct an alternate reality of farmers’ lives and reasons for their suicides to suppress the embedded truths of subjective realities. In another instance, while discussing a neighbour’s suicide, Gangiri’s friend Vadrangi says, “The district committee had decided it was not a suicide due to debt distress. They said he died of a weak heart. In a way, that was the truth” (47). The strategic planning of Lambodhar and Durga Das involves twisting facts about the victims and creating a parallel reality. They tarnish the dignity of the victims and falsely and derogatorily label them as alcoholics who squander away money and never repay loans. They intentionally refer to trivial health issues, past family problems and victim’s desire for luxurious life as reasons for suicide (13). The very fact that they had committed suicide because of increasing debt and harassment by moneylenders gets buried along with the dead. In the words of Lee McIntyre, “This [Post-Truth] is not the abandonment of facts, but a corruption of the process by which facts are credibly gathered and reliably used to shape one’s beliefs about reality” (11). Such meticulously construed post-truth discourse of power centres infuriates Gangiri and he decides to challenge this power politics that destroys the life of farmers.
The field of data politics is largely encompassing in its scope and content. As mentioned earlier, considering the theme of this research paper and the novel selected for study, the definitions and interpretations on data politics are narrowed down to concepts that involves only statistical data. The dynamics of data politics gets more complex and entangled in the novel, as the novel portrays how the power of data and numbers not only threatens the life of farmers, but also misrepresents the intensity of the crisis, which may delay the proactive measures to be taken. The data being deliberately fabricated for political gains eliminates any chance for constructive measures against agrarian crisis. It is also evident in the novel through the words of Girish, an honest journalist, “Figures that make governments look bad are usually fudged” (16).
In their work titled Data Politics: Worlds, Subjects, Rights (2019) Didier Bigo, Engin Isin and Evelyn Rupert discuss data politics in representation:
Data sciences such as statistics, probability, and analytics have emerged not because they have merely quenched our curiosities but because these sciences have been useful for the objects and subjects they have brought into being for the purposes of governing and/or profit. And to speak constantly about data as though it either represents or records subjects and their movements, independent from the social and political struggles that govern them, is to mask such struggles (4).
As clearly pointed out here, the potential of data becoming a ground for socio-political resistance is extremely high. Gangiri’s initial attempts to confront data politics and resists post-truth discourse includes him becoming a member of the suicide committee. After a lot of struggle, he finally becomes a member of the committee as a representative of the families whose members have committed suicide. He aims to alter the course of the committee’s proceedings and decisions. His resistance comes in terms of disentangling the web of data politics, power and truth as seen in the course of the novel. In one of his conversations with Nazar, Gangiri discusses the repercussions created by numbers in the power centred arena: “I knew I would not be able to stand for long against these powerful people who are troubled by the real numbers of the suicides, but I had to at least try” (93). Being located in a very precarious position, Gangiri still challenges the centre by exposing falsified data on farmers’ suicides using every resource that he can afford, even though it endangers the lives of his brother’s children. In the suicide committee meetings, Gangiri’s detailed research on each and every suicide gives him victory over Lambodar and Durga Das’s post-truth versions of the case.
Since post-truth discourse uses fabricated data as its main source of validity, Kota Neelima’s use of investigative style of writing makes the novel resemble an investigative report on data politics in farmers’ suicides. Complementing this style, the profiles of the fictional characters in the novel also revolve around profound investigation and research: Nazar Prabhakar is an investigative journalist; Videhi is the Assistant Director of Centre for Contemporary Societies whose research is on social crisis; Gangiri, a poor educated farmer whose investigations and search for truth provided valid proofs that made debt-distressed farmers’ suicides eligible for monetary compensation. The plot of the novel moves forward through the series of reports presented by these characters. For instance, the first chapter includes Videhi and her team presenting their report on the remedial measures to be taken by the government to address agrarian crisis (7-9). The reading of her report introduces the reader to various arguments on agrarian crisis from different perspectives.
The use of articles and news stories as part of the narration makes the novel more experimental and engaging. In the fourteenth chapter of the novel, Nazar’s news story on farmer suicides is presented in a typical newspaper format with title and writer’s name beneath it (168-171). Such narrative technique blends journalistic style of writing - which usually carries features of report writing - with literary representations making the novel more factual than fictional. The following similarities drawn between the non-fictional work Widows of Vidarbha and the fictional text Shoes of the Dead blur the boundary between fact and fiction in the novel. One of the major factual elements seen in the novel, in comparison to Widows of Vidarbha, is the very structure of the suicide committee. From the case studies discussed in the non-fiction work, it can be explicitly seen that the role of bureaucrats and government officials portrayed in the novel is similar to their roles in real life as well. Furthermore, the functioning of the suicide committee and the rules that Lambodar and Durga Das uses as loopholes in deciding a suicide valid/invalid (45) are very similar to the legal requirements stated by the government for approval of monetary compensation (xxvi), yet again bringing in factuality into a fictional text. The use of case-studies and literary incarnations of real-life characters in the novel taken from her work Widows of Vidarbha further complements the fluidity of fact/fiction binary seen in the novel.
The use of case studies also adds to the list of combating narrative strategies employed in the novel. It is a very emotional read as it takes readers deep into the world of struggling women whose husbands committed suicide due to debt-distress. This work stands evident to the failure of state and bureaucratic inefficiency in handling agrarian crisis with reference to farmers’ suicides. The novel Shoes of the Dead shows a number of similarities with the case studies and life stories of the women in Widows of Vidarbha. For instance, one of the characters in the novel, Varadaamma, whose husband had committed suicide, claimed that she was harassed and threatened by moneylenders whose debts she was unaware of, until the suicide of her husband (223). Similarly, one of the life stories recorded in Widows of Vidarbha included the life story of Jayashri. She narrated a similar incident where she was oblivious to her husband’s debts until his suicide. In the words of Jayashri:
After he died, the moneylenders asked me to repay the loan. I told them I had no idea about it because my husband never shared such information with me. They refused to believe me and threatened to take action. I asked them to go ahead, because I had no money to repay. (106).
Despite expressing strong resistance, Gangiri finally succumbs to power politics and commits suicide as the death of his nephew fills him with intense remorse. Even though the death of Gangiri at the end of the novel indicates a sense of uncertainty, the inclusion of his friend Vadrangi as the new member of the suicide committee asserts the continuation of protest and resistance. The emergence of Vadrangi as the new epicentre of resistance hints at the victory of subjective realities against post-truth discourses. The novel ends with Lambodar casting his vote for all suicide cases to be sanctioned monetary compensation. In the words of Vadrangi: “Just wanted to mention that Lambodhar maha sarpanch, the man notorious as apatra Lambodar, today voted for all debt suicide cases as patra or eligible for compensation” (274). The change of proceedings in the suicide committee with honest votes from Lambodhar marks the victory of both the dead and the living.
Thus, the novel represents the socio-political post-truth narrative of institutional powers that frame farmers’ suicides for its own morbid and corrupt purposes through its representation of subjective realities. It presents a detailed account of farmers’ suicides using investigative style of writing, which makes the entire novel resemble an investigative report. Inclusion of news story formats as part of the narration makes the text more factual than fictional. Such factual insights become highly necessary as the narration attempts to challenge the data politics involved in the reductive statistical representation of farmers’ suicides. The fictionalization of case-studies from the non-fictional work Widows of Vidarbha becomes the most significant subject realities that the novel Shoes of the Dead represents to counteract the objective truths produced and generated by the state through its inaccurate data on farmers’ suicides. Thus, the novel Shoes of the Dead represents and documents subject realities subverting the objective discourses on agrarian crisis, which in effect destabilizes the politically affiliated post-truth discourses.
1. It is important to note here that the phrases “objective truths,” “alternative facts” used throughout this paper refers to politically motivated and manipulated ideas and facts (realities) based on manual research and investigation. References to scientifically proven and experimentally tested facts are not the points of discussion here. Such scientific facts and its relation to post-truth is altogether a different, yet interesting subject of study.
2. The census taken between 1820 and 1840 (London, United Kingdom) was considered to be the first Data Revolution. It mainly focussed on the so-called “moral outsiders (deviants)”. The social categories of the census included the poor, the unmarried mother, the illegitimate child, the black, the unemployed and the disabled. It is quite obvious that the census targeted a set of people and collected data about their location, social status, employment that made significant impact on government policies and regulations. It was an anti-revolutionary attempt more than anything else. Source: London School of Economics Impact Blog. “Big Data Problems We Face Today can be Traced to the Social Ordering Practices of the 19th Century” by Hamish Robertson and Joanne Travaglia. London 2015. https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2015/10/13/ideological-inheritances-in-the-data-revolution/ May 2021.
3. A Political Theory of Post-Truth by Ignas Kalpokas, Post-Truth and Political Discourse by David Block, Post-Truth and the Mediation of Reality: New Conjunctures edited by Rosemary Overell and Brett Nicholls, Post-Truth, Scepticism and Power by Stuart Sim.
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