By Manisha Lakhe
You don’t have to read the writer’s bio to figure out that the writer is a civil servant. The book, Feet in the Valley by Aswini Kumar Mishra, is an ode to the “sarkari daftar” and its ways and means of working less and making more money.
Somen, the protagonist of the book doesn’t start out as being likeable, because he fails his exams and generally seems to not care whether his family has to put up with hardships due to his “studies” late into the night. He takes it for granted that his parents and sister would be crammed into one room in order for him to study into the night. When he fails, you wonder if his mother’s love for him (she feeds him pakoras and samosas and cut fruit – by her own hand – at different points in the book) is deserved. He is 28 years old and seems to be self-centered and “useless”, and it seems to be a patriarchal setup because his sister Minati seems to have more brains than him.
Somen’s father works in the Railways, and the working ways of the booking office creates a fine picture of bribery and corruption. It is so beautifully written that you feel that you are standing in the booking queue, waiting for your turn, witnessing the way government offices work (or don’t). It is a record of frustrations with the system. Even the details in the offices of the Block Development Officer and the nexus between the different departments and the avarice of the people, with utter disregard to the welfare of the people they are meant to serve is wonderfully depicted in the book. You feel every bump in the road, and hear the music played by the crooked owner of Hotel Amar (where everyone goes, from the BDO to the contractors and the subcontractors and the Tehsildar and his cronies and anyone with money and interest in making money off the government).
“At times, it was discovered that Nanda’s motorcycle ran on the fuel supplied by Patnaik. When relatives arrived at the resident of Rath, another JE, Mishra the Sub-Contractor, provided the entertainment packages. As soon as the office opened, Patnaik would arrive, with folded hands to greet both Nanda and Rath.
‘Sir, namaste… My bills, sir.’
‘Not prepared yet, please come later.’
‘Sir… I badly need the money to pay my labourers.’
‘But the BDO is out of station.’
‘No, but he sure to return soon… Sir.’
‘Oh! You are so bothersome, as always.’
Patnaik laid a packet of cigars on Nanda’s table while suggesting the mode of preparation of the bill. Nanda, puffing a cigar from the pack, asked Patnaik to leave the room so he could go ahead with the present task. Patnaik left immediately. Nanda once again shouted at him, ‘Please ask for some coffee.’”
This sums up not just the begging and scraping that happens at government offices, and also the callousness of the people involved, but also reflects the writing style of the author. The sentence construction is endearing though rather quaint: I badly need the money to pay my labourers. The sentence seems to have been thought in Bangla or Oriya and then written in English on paper. Even in colloquial Hindi, the words are arranged “badly need” instead of the “need money badly (rather “urgently”)” in the sentence.
The “Indianness” of the writing is not a bother because it flows so naturally, and there is not a shred of portraying “exotic India”, a disease that most Indian writers of English suffer. Here the small towns come alive with the words of the author and you can feel the heat and dust of the town. You also empathise with characters like Banita and her need to escape that town.
The only problem with the book are the large chunks of words that make up a paragraph. There are so many details crammed into long paragraphs that extend even up to a page and a half, that it just becomes difficult to concentrate on the page. Also how Somen is suddenly drawn into the fight to save the forest dwellers and becomes their champion is a tad unbelievable. He has been so selfish in his concerns that you just don’t see him change for anyone, let alone displaced peoples cheated by the government. And how he suddenly looks handsome when his deeds so far have pictured him as rather off-putting. Even the way he gets his job seems to paint him as undeserving.
And yet there is a weird satisfaction in seeing how Somen is just a cog in this wheel of corruption that is insidious no matter where he is located, Beethalgarh, Judabandh or Bangalore. The book is a tiring read, but many pages of satisfaction and the ups and downs of the narrative are beautifully rendered on the cover.
The reviewer is a writer and poet. She is the founder of Caferati Writers Forum. Her book ‘The Betelnut Killers’ was published in 2010. Currently, she teaches communication and creative writing at KC college, Mumbai and Harkishan Mehta Institute of Media, Research and Analysis, Mumbai.