“Extraordinary,” says Mota Kaka in the opening lines of Postcards from Bardoli, “Extraordinary how the past speaks to us.” Set in post-liberalisation India to the tune of one alcoholic narrator’s correspondence with his partially estranged son, writer Ramu Ramanathan’s characters Mota Kaka and Mihir (director Jaimini Pathak and Amol Parashar) navigate their relationship and lives against a backdrop of Mihir walking backwards — both literally on stage, and metaphorically in his political development – towards Bardoli.
A child plagued by social infirmity and consistently fighting injustices in the playground, classroom and hostel dormitories, Mihir learns of the 1928 Bardoli Satyagraha and Sardar Patel’s agitation alongside drought-stricken farmers against land tax increases implemented by the British government. As the words and lives of Patel and Mihir (who adopts the nickname ‘Sardar’, too) become intertwined, as Mota Kaka looks on, perched upon a bar stool with a glass of whiskey in one hand and Mihir’s postcards in the other.
Mihir’s character is a composite of the newspaper clippings and headlines that form urban middle class India’s mental landscape of the ‘other’ India. Most notably, Mihir and his friend Sachin morph into Tushar and Matt — two young men who lived on first Rs.100 and then Rs. 32 a day, to draw attention to the Planning Commission’s proposed poverty line. Following their story to Kerala, and recounting the prices of Parle G biscuits and public transportation along the way, Mihir steps out of the newspaper onto the stage, and performs for the audience headlines they have heard several times before. As he scans through official documents, reports and accounts from the debt-stricken areas of Vidharbha, the details of the crisis remain plucked from media accounts: numbers of suicides, numbers of dams, but lacking voices from the villages themselves.
This several-times-removed account (Mihir via the postcards via Mota Kaka) of India’s severe agrarian crisis is frustrating for an audience looking to learn the ‘real’ details of the suicides outside of a teenage Marxist’s repetition of Sardar Patel’s famous speeches. The shortcoming of newspaper reportage does, however, not go uncommented upon, as Mihir calls the Times of India ‘the first limb of the establishment.’ In this way, perhaps the distanced lens through which we experience the farmlands in the play is truer to the way in which we as urban, largely middle class citizens in the audience can ever acquire knowledge of these ‘other’ realities: through a report, through a newspaper article, through someone else’s words.
Even those unwilling to condone the long-winded personal narrative that takes its own time to reach the final ‘point’ of the production (a flyer placed on each seat in the audience clearly identifies the subject matter as the agrarian crisis: an unhelpful framing for an otherwise thoughtfully unfolding story), the timeliness of Working Title’s Postcards is outstanding. In March this year, the farm loan waiver scheme for Vidharbha came under fire for funds being siphoned off and relief rarely reaching farmers in an area where debt-related suicide has chalked up alarming figures.
With its debut show on 9 July 2013 at Mumbai’s Prithvi theatre, the play reaches audiences just four days after Monsanto’s newest patent for India was rejected by the judiciary: a crucial juncture in the battle for autonomous, sustainable farming. The battles, however, aren’t quite adding up to the war, as the pending Food Security and Biotechnology Regulatory Authority Bills will ensure that charity-based subsidies and increased patents for GM crops are given precedence over farmers’ rights to livelihood, and people’s right to food.
It is against this backdrop that Mihir’s efforts to organise farmers (“Every village is an armed camp,” he declares) in a movement reminiscent of the Bardoli Satyagraha are staged. The young vanguardist poignantly recounts the words of Sardar Patel: “What, after all is a confiscation? […] Where will they take your lands?”, rolls up his chatai, and sets off walking backwards to Bardoli, encouraging the audience to join him.
This piece was originally published under the title ‘Timely missives on India’s agrarian crisis’ in The Sunday Guardian on 13 July 2013