Monday, March 08, 2010

Turning the Pot, Tilling the Land: Dignity of Labour in Our Times

Turning the Pot, Tilling the Land: Dignity of Labour in Our Times
Author: Kancha Ilaiah
Illustrator: Durgabai Vyam
Publisher: Navayana Publishing

At a sale recently I was headed towards the billing counter when my eyes fell upon a book with a beautiful illustration on the cover page. Authored by Kancha Ilaiah - had not heard of him before, Turning the Pot, Tilling the Land looked interesting at first glance and I picked it up on a whim. The illustrations are by Durgabai Vyam, an artist belonging to the Gond tribe of central India and are reason enough for one to grab a copy. 

This is how I got hold of this rather unusual book. I say unusual because it addresses a subject that is rarely dealt with in children's literature - the caste system that has plagued our society for centuries, and that too in a very direct manner. I must admit that initially I was slightly hesitant to share it with the under-10 in these parts, mainly because I found the author's opinions a tad stronger than what I felt was okay for her. Ilaiah as I found is a very vocal champion of the dalits. He minces no words to highlight how certain sections of society have been discriminated against and unfairly relegated to the wrong end of the social spectrum while in actual fact it is they who have been instrumental in shaping society. Well the child picked it up herself and read it and I was surprised by her thoughtful observations. 

The book is divided into eleven parts, and each of the first eight explains in detail the contribution of a particular community to how society has evolved. For instance the adivasis (or the tribal forest dwellers) were the ones who through trial and error figured out which forest product was edible and which was to be rejected. They were the ones who developed a deep understanding of the various medicinal properties of leaves and barks, a science which is unfortunately ignored today in the name of development. Then there are cattle-herders - rearing cattle is different from having a pet says Ilaiah and talks in length about the expert knowledge of animal husbandry that these folks possess. He tells the reader about leatherworkers who evolved the science of tanning, farmers who nurture us with their produce, potters who brought clay to life, weavers who are the original fashion designers, dhobis or washerfolk who discovered the first soap and were directly responsible for hygiene in society and barbers who were also surgeons in the pre-modern period. The book is full of well-researched information about all of these processes and their origins in ancient Indian civilizations.

Ilaiah dwells at length on how these vital communities have been wrongly labelled as the lower castes. Like I mentioned earlier his tone is direct. He thinks it is extremely unjust that they have been deprived the right to an education and basic dignity for centuries by groups of people who in his opinion have only 'been involved with priesthood, writing and administration'. He says that it is ironical that those who labour are humiliated while those who do not enjoy a high status.

The last three chapters deal with labour itself in relation to the quality of human life, its position in religion and finally the gender issues around it. Ilaiah feels that there is an urgent need to teach the idea of dignity of labour to our children simply because it is essential for basic survival.

This book in some ways is more 'real' than what is usually written for children. Though you might not totally agree with all of the author's views, the book does make you get out of the comfort zone and brings a different perspective to the caste issue. I think it is a good idea for children to read and think about it. That perhaps is our only hope. 


Anand Navayana said...

Hi. Thanks for taking note of this. Ilaiah is spelt Ilaiah not Iliah...

Choxbox said...

Thanks Anand.
Apologies for the error - will correct it.

sathish said...

wow! chox.

I really would like to get my hands on it. I hope sutradhar will have it till I go and visit them.

Liked to you comment on how the book gets us out of our comfort zone. That is always difficult, isn't it?

Tharini said...

Very insightful review Chox. It sounds like a book where you really have to stop, think, and assimilate everything, because it is something that can cause a dent in regular everyday thoughts. I love these pauses for introspection. Thanks for that.

I particularly loved what the author said and you highlighted about helping our children see the dignity of labour. That is a hope.

sandhya said...

Saw this post on your blog. I was wondering then why you had not crossposted it on Saffrontree. Good pick, as always.

Vibha said...

Interesting pick Chox and very nicely introduced thro' your review.

ranjani.sathish said...

Really like this pick and loved your review ! I want to get this book for myself.

Choxbox said...

Sathish: Yes getting forced out of my comfort zone -thats what struck me when I read it. No such thing for the child though because she has no baggage from the past you see. Which is why its best kids read about these issues and form balanced opinions - and that is our hope.
And I think they had quite a few copies - might be worth giving them a call.

T: Thanks and you nailed it on the head - it is certainly one of those.

Sandhya: This one needed some time to do justice to it and that has been in short supply the last few days.

Vibha: Thanks. You'll love the illustrations I bet.

Ranjani: Do let me know what you think of it. Incidentally Tulika has published a Tamil version of the book.

Playing by the book said...

Sounds like a very stimulating book. I don't know what kids here (in the UK) learn about the caste system, but I as an adult would be very interested in reading this book.

Praba Ram said...

Yes, a not-so-commonly addressed topic in kid lit Chox. Thanks for this great find. Celebrating the lives of the marginalized and their dignity of labor, certainly moral uplifting topics to offer children (and grown-ups!:))

Arundhati said...

Sounds very interesting.

Where in Bangalore can I get hold of a copy?

Choxbox said...

PbtB: It is a good starting point for all sorts of discussions.

Praba: Thanks!

Arundhati: Sutradhaar, Indiranagar. Alladin's Cave for manner of interesting stuff.

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