Reviewed by MV Soumithri
“What is a village — a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow mindedness and communalism” - Dr B R Ambedkar, Nov. 1948.
Rahi Masoom Reza’s carefully spun tales of the village Gangauli and its Shia inhabitants, in the book The Feuding Families of Village Gangauli, do not at first bring Ambedkar to mind. Reza’s stories tell us of the place of his father’s mother, some 40 kilometres from Ghazipur in Uttar Pradesh. His stories describe Moharram as it takes place each year, not merely as a festival of mourning but also as an occasion for families to gather, catch up, and eye each other’s achievements. Indeed, at many moments Reza’s account resembles nothing more strongly than the kinds of tales an expert gossip might tell a sometimes unwilling audience - the kind of audience that all too often we find ourselves becoming during these sorts of festivals.
Reza, perhaps best known for writing the script and dialogue for B R Chopra’s televised Mahabharata, does not particularly take care to identify when his stories take place. Rather we conclude by the arguments that his characters have that the initial stories must be happening before the second world war, that as the book continues Pakistan is being discussed, and that by the end of the book, the land reforms ending the zamindari systems must have taken place. The manner in which he assumes this kind of knowledge on the part of the reader helps us become part of his world. It allows us the illusion that we know as much about his subject as he does.
Reza’s stories revolve around the Saiyid zamindars of Dakhin Patti, the southern half of Gangauli. The book’s Hindi title, Adha Gaon, feels more fitting than its English one. The village is eternally divided: Uttar against Dakhin, zamindar against labourer, man against woman. Yet at the same time Reza’s writing reminds us that one division unites another - husbands and wives come together when it’s a matter of the pride of the community, and no zamindar, whatever his religion, allows Dalits any rights whatsoever.
Perhaps what is most striking about Reza’s stories is how casual, implicit, and rampant oppression is. Misogyny is rife across all communities, and so is casteism. As a result of Reza’s subject, it is the women he writes of whose hardship is most obvious - they are beaten, molested, and forgotten as easily as the men eat paan and smoke huqqa. It is in reading about this kind of violence, treated by the men in his stories almost as banal, that one remembers Ambedkar. In this same way, when the Miyans of Gangauli take offence at the Chamar and Ahir labourers sitting on chairs or demanding land, one thinks about the ingrained nature of caste and gender in villages across India. Miyans and Thakurs both agree about the “correct” place of untouchables. When the land reforms occur, they are all equally horrified.
However, Reza does not allow us to simply demonise his characters. Hammad Miyan, a Muslim attempting to be more devout than his neighbours, annoys the others by speaking only in Urdu. They ask him whether the tongue of his mother, Bhojpuri, isn’t good enough, when it works perfectly well for the rest of them. Yet that same Hammad sends his daughter to Aligarh to college and defends her to his community. Tannu, who signs up to fight for the army in Italy, remembers the inexcusable things he has done, but speaks powerfully against Pakistan to the Muslim League when they ask him to consider what might happen to Muslims when India becomes free. “When I thought I would die, I thought of Allah Miyan, but I did not think of Mecca or Medina,” he says. “I thought of Gangauli. How can anyone ask me to leave my home?” he asks them.
These questions are not the only reason Adha Gaon is worth reading. It’s a hilarious book, full of wry observations about the ways people tend to take their own pride seriously. Large parts of the book are concerned with stories that only a gossip would tell: who is in love with who, where were they seen, what do we think their parents will do now. When Hakim Ali Sahib sees his medical practice evaporate due to Kamaluddin’s homeopathy business, we feel his anguish. Yet we cannot help but laugh when Kammo himself fumbles with the stethescope, pretending he knows what he’s meant to do, all the while thinking to himself that he will just prescribe four pills and get on with his day.
I suspect I will think of Adha Gaon’s innumerable characters often. Keeping track of them is not easy, and I resigned myself to the same strategy I use with any gossip: I did not try. Rather, I let myself read about their sadnesses, their joys, and their difficulties. In doing so, Reza helped me realise that even in sinks of localism and dens of ignorance, people find happiness.
The depressing truth is that perhaps if we did not, it would be more difficult to keep us there.
M V Soumithri is an analyst with the Indian School of Business. He has lived in Hyderabad, Sheffield, London, Madras and Bangalore. If he were a fruit, he’d be a papaya.