Anita Agnihotri’s The Sickle, translated by Arunava Sinha takes the reader through the lives of farmers, migrant labourers, and activists in Marathwada and western Maharashtra. Agnihotri illuminates, with shocking clarity, a series of intersecting and overlapping crises: female foeticide, sexual assault, the violence of caste, feudal labour relations, farmers’ suicides and climate change in all its manifestations. She infuses a gripping fictional narrative with anthropology, geography, and political economy, remaking the form of the novel as a way to bear witness.
Six years had passed since Terna had started coming to this area, at first with her husband immediately after her marriage, and then with the children too. There had been one good monsoon in between; that year they had stayed back in their village. But once drought struck the region where they lived, it tended to continue for years on end. Dushkal, they called it.
With no water in the fields they farmed and no work in the village, they had no choice but to go elsewhere to make a living. The sugarcane fields and sugar mills of Satara were eight hours away by truck or tractor from Latur district in Marathwada. The mills were called sakhar factories locally, sakhar being a corruption of sharkara or sugar in Marathi.
In winter, not even the polythene sheets extracted from the lining of the sugar sacks and strung up to cover the open doorway could prevent the occupants of the shanties from trembling uncontrollably in the cold. And in summer, when not even a whisper of a breeze entered, staying inside was like being weighed down by a rock. Which was how Terna was feeling now. Even a light layer of sleep could keep the anguish in check for a while . . . but now it was early April, and a cuckoo was splitting the night with its cries. There were hardly any trees on the field, and of the few there, most were bare, having been struck by lightning. Some mango and neem trees stood near the centre, which was where the cuckoo must have taken shelter amidst their boughs. Night had brought some relief to the meadows, and the hills tried to find some comfort too after sunset by launching the heat trapped inside them on air currents. The crests of the Sahayadri range were scattered near and far, some nestling close to the horizon, others rearing their heads unexpectedly behind villages. Mornings came before the rocks could turn cool, the heat beginning to spread as soon as the sun popped up and raised the temperature of the ground. The April days were scorching, though the heat was not unbearable after midnight.
Terna knew that going outdoors would afford her body a smidgen of relief, but she had no intention of doing that. There was little sound anywhere on earth now besides the cries of nocturnal birds and the repentance of cuckoos. A dog might have just walked over a pile of sugarcane leaves, making a rustling sound. A cowbell rang out. But it wasn’t any of these that had woken Terna up; it was a different reason, it was the fear that always raced across the minds of young women at night here in these shanties like a jagged flash of lightning.
Even with your eyes closed you could tell if someone was staring at you. Her eyes weren’t sticky with sleep, but still they smarted when she opened them. Involuntarily, out of habit, Terna felt the space next to her with her hand to check that both the children were still sleeping, squeezed up against her. She had lain them down on rags placed on a thick sheet. They were fast asleep, their arms and legs thrown across one another. Terna drew her other hand to her breast; she could sleep in loose clothes at home, but not here in the shanty, where there could be a call to go to work at any point. In the fields their feet were encased in canvas shoes for protection from pebbles, bricks and shards of glass. They wore thick, full-sleeved button-up shirts along with pyjamas, over which they put on a pair of loose trousers. It was entirely possible to have your body scratched by thorny weeds or the rough ridges of the sugarcane. Terna didn’t take off her work clothes even after dinner, which meant gasping in the sultry heat inside the airless hut. Still she didn’t undo a single button, and not just because it might mean taking longer to respond when the call to work came. These clothes were her armour for self-defence too. No one could take them off just by tugging at them; the tight buttons couldn’t be undone quickly, giving her enough time to pinch the children and wake them up.