In The Sickle, acclaimed Bengali writer Anita Agnihotri speaks directly to our moment: the plight of migrant workers and the impact of climate change. Translated by Arunava Sinha, the book foregrounds the lives of farmers, migrant labourers and activists in Marathwada and western Maharashtra entangled in a number of crises: infanticide, sexual assault, the violence of caste, feudal labour relations, farmers' suicides and climate change in all its forms and manifestations.
The following is an excerpt from the book focuses on how Daya Joshi, a Satara native, helped prevent over 400 child marriages in the Shirur Kasar subdivision. With politicians sometimes featuring on the guest list at such events, Daya 'tai' worked tirelessly with a small filmmaking team to educate people about the ills of the horrific practice.
This excerpt from The Sickle, written by Anita Agnihotri and translated by Arunava Sinha, has been reproduced here with kind permission from the publisher, Juggernaut Books.
Daya tai was from Satara district, but when she spoke in the villages of Beed district, it was in the version of Marathi used in Marathwada. Her voice reverberated everywhere when she spoke loudly. She didn't need loudspeakers. Silenced by such a powerful voice from such a petite woman, the men listened with bowed heads.
Daya tai had been working in this subdivision of Beed located 350 kilometres and six hours away from home for fifteen years now. She had a practice and cases to attend to in the courts of the town where she lived, but she had taken on additional responsibilities in different ways. It had been ten years since her efforts to eradicate illegal breweries had begun. Nakoshi wasn't even married then " Sagar said Daya tai had had more than 200 illegal breweries closed. First she would gather the women together and organize them in a group, and then inform the police and the excise department. Why should women tolerate the men getting drunk and beating them up and kicking over things at home? It had often happened that the police had ignored her and the excise officials pretended ignorance, but Daya tai had not been deterred. She had blockaded the breweries with the women all day and night, and then shot off angry letters to the district magistrate, after which the officials had been forced to act. Getting girls married before they turn eighteen is illegal, but it has been a long-established practice in Marathwada. As soon as a girl attains puberty, she becomes an object of shame for her parents and grandparents. Now that she's grown up, there's danger everywhere, it isn't safe for her to remain at home. Why bother with school either " had education made life more secure for women, after all?
Daya Joshi had toured many villages in the Shirur Kasar subdivision, visiting girls' schools everywhere. Every time she heard about wedding ceremonies she would arrive on the spot with activist companions and journalist friends. A tender young girl of eleven or twelve was being married off to a bigamist above forty. There was music and dancing, with neither the bride's nor the groom's family remotely perturbed. The law made no difference to them, but did they have no heart or conscience? What about the girl's mother and aunts and grandmothers " didn't they feel anything either? Or did they want to conceal their own embarrassing memories of being forced to have sex in childhood by forcing another young girl on to the chopping block? Naturally, no one wanted Daya Joshi to barge into the wedding, but since they couldn't be downright rude to a highly educated woman lawyer from a town, they tried to escort her out of the venue politely and said goodbye to her with a cup of tea, hoping the wedding wouldn't be disrupted.
Daya had talked to the teachers in the schools, who had told her, we have no say in the matter. Marriage is a family decision; if the girl's parents have chosen to do this, how can we interfere? A classful of girls was silent, their eyes on the floor. They were on earth by virtue of their good karma, they had grown up, they had food to eat, they were going to school " marriage was inevitable, it was their future, what else could a girl expect?
Invitation cards were printed when a minor girl from a well-off family was to be married, with VIPs being invited to the wedding. Even those who would never travel to distant villages to attend such ceremonies were sent invitation cards in the mail. Ninety per cent of the marriages in this area were child marriages. Daya Joshi would be astonished to see the local MLA's or MP's name on the invitation card as the guest of honour. Was this even possible? How could an elected representative of the people be present at an illegal act? Later she discovered this was the norm. Everyone wanted their elected representative at annaprasanas, weddings and the eleventh-day ceremonies after a death. The sharing of joy and grief was political too; the people's representative did not want a cross against his name denoting his absence either, for that would mean lagging behind in the race for popularity. Daya changed her strategy when she realized this was common practice, beginning instead to speak against child marriage at small gatherings in villages, schools, panchayat meetings. No one should vote for MLAs and MPs who were present at such illegal activities. Their names would be published in local newspapers. The threats worked to an extent; wedding invitation cards no longer featured their names. But the crafty politicians were vexed with Daya. She had in the meantime assembled a film-making team " comprising herself, Deepak and a few young women and men from the villages whom they had trained. The team had made a half-hour film, which was being screened in every village and school, and outside every temple. The car battery and a large-screen TV had been combined to utilize technology on the go. Mothers and aunts watched the film, younger women and girls too; teachers made arrangements in their schools " gradually it became a sensation across the district. It had been shown in other states too, and had even won a prize at the national film awards in Delhi. The teenaged girls who had appeared in the film without any acting lessons had turned into detectives, intent on preventing child marriages. More than 400 weddings had been stopped in the past five or six years, with the teachers taking the respective brides back into school. This was simply a dress rehearsal for the revolution.