Kavitha Iyer: Landscapes of Loss

Mumbai-based Kavitha has been a journalist for more than two decades and a significant part of her work has been reporting on those living on the margins – slum dwellers, small farmers, indigenous communities, landless labourers and women. She is also the author of Landscapes Of Loss: The Story of an Indian Drought, which won the 2021 Tata Literature Live! First Book Award for Non-Fiction. Based on extensive research and first-hand reportage, the book is an in-depth look at Marathwada (a relatively backward part of Maharashtra), adjoining the Vidarbha region. The region has seen cyclical drought for around a decade, crop failures, bad credit and farmer suicides. Landscapes of Loss is the story of Marathwada told through the accounts of its own people and reveals the factors that have brought the region to this pass. It’s also a story that, in some ways, mirrors agrarian unrest in other parts of rural India.

Kavitha is a fellow of the Logan Nonfiction Program (Fall 2021), a grantee of the Earth Journalism Network (2020) and the Thakur Foundation (2020, 2021). We caught up with her for a chat about Landscapes of Loss, her views on the problems that farmers face and the response she has received from readers.

You’ve worked as a journalist for more than two decades. In Indian media, journalism, and in the way journalists work, what are some of the biggest, most significant changes that you’ve seen in the last 20 years? In what ways has the Internet transformed journalism?

My first job was at The Asian Age in Mumbai, in 2000. Of course, technological advancements and geo-political transformations have altered the nucleus of news dramatically, along with how it is consumed, who consumes it, when, where, and so on. These are profound changes; they have hit us more rapidly in recent years; and now we are all playing catch-up, all the time, with one or the other new platform, audience segment and algorithm.

And yet, when you ask about changes, I remember what hasn’t changed – the power of a good story to move the reader. A former editor told me often, ‘If a story has legs, it will run.’ That is an uncomplicated early lesson in journalism, to find a story with legs, and I believe it is the biggest change we’ve witnessed in the profession (and certainly also in news consumption), that mainstream journalism now appears able to skip the search altogether.

The effort that goes into the search is not the most economical way of doing journalism – it’s simpler to be economical with facts and dress up views as reportage. Everything else that continues to rush downhill stems from that.

With regard to how we now operate as journalists, the most terrible fallout of this is the unwillingness of very large sections of bureaucrats/ police officers/ politicians and others to engage with those who ask questions, and with those who reported or published something that caused discomfort. It is rare now to have a morning-after-publication argument over a published item that ends with the reporter-resource relationship intact.

As for the Internet, its transformative power is very well known, and growing as we speak, with mind-boggling numbers of AI applications appearing every week. WhatsApp deserves a special mention, both, for being its own parallel post-truth universe and for replacing reportage with WhatsApped press notes. (If it hasn’t been shared via WhatsApp, did it even happen?)

Snark aside, the Internet has given us in India a small treasure of digital-only news companies. They’re growing in numbers and many of them are punching above their weight, producing quality journalism from tiny newsrooms with a sliver of staff.

Regarding your book, Landscapes Of Loss: The Story of an Indian Drought, what was it that inspired your interest in the subject, and how/why did you decide to write this book?

I wandered into the subject somewhat by chance. Some kind of sorting-hat newsroom system sent me to cover elections in Latur in 2004, my first visit to Marathwada. A few more sporadic trips later, I returned to cover the 2009 elections, this time a little more extensively. By then I was hooked. In fact it was Marathwada that got me interested in the agrarian economy, rural livelihoods and indigenous communities.

It was the unyielding harshness of dry periods, barely 400-500km from Mumbai and still a world apart, that induced me to go back repeatedly. For a city-bred reporter, this hardscrabble life that pretty much everyone in the region lived was shocking.

I was able to cover the 2012-13 drought, one of the worst ever, in some detail. Subsequently the region witnessed cyclical drought until 2019. During my travels, I began to fret that my reportage did not adequately represent what had occurred in the lives of these people over this period of time. Even the longer pieces that I was fortunate to be able to report and write frustrated me; I was writing about poor credit availability and failed crops and depleting groundwater and farmer suicides without grasping the import of all these happening over and over, relentlessly, every blow harsher because it was preceded by another.

I imagined that a book length project would be satisfying.

‘This hardscrabble life that pretty much everyone in the region lived was shocking,’ says Kavitha, who travelled extensively in the Marathwada region for research on her book

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in doing all your research work for the book? Tell us about your travels. Any major obstacles in the reporting process? Regarding the people you met, were they willing to speak openly about their troubles?

Between 2012 and 2020, I travelled a few dozen times to Marathwada, on some occasions on assignment for The Indian Express, and on other occasions driving around by myself.

Beed city became extraordinarily familiar, I began to quite easily recognise which direction the town’s Shivaji statue circle lay. The management of the hotel where I spent nights while in Beed got accustomed to my frequent arrivals, always late in the evening, always sunburnt.

I began to try the street fare in Aurangabad, Latur; I discovered an unexpectedly good filter kaapi in a Keralite-owned hotel in Jalna (the only place in Marathwada where I will risk a coffee over milky tea); I got accustomed to being called ‘tai’ (Marathi for sister).

There was never time for touristy things, but I had the chance to marvel at the Jayakwadi dam in Paithan – at full capacity and viewed from the visitors’ deck, it really does look like the ocean. Tragedy-hit farmers never failed to point me in the direction of the beauty in their backyard – a hillside full of peacocks in Beed, pretty Sufi shrines and tombs in Khuldabad, rock-cut caves in Osmanabad, now called Dharashiv.

It was easy to arrange the logistics of these assignments, there were no challenges in finding a diverse range of people to speak to, impacted villages to visit, shrinking water sources to locate. Even data collection was more straightforward in Marathwada than in Mumbai.

Almost uniformly, people were warm, welcoming, willing to part with their wisdom, those just visited by grief shared their sorrow. Everywhere, strangers would gift me things. Besides the traditional shawl-coconut welcome that scores of families bestowed on me, I received many other things: books, a personalised horoscope once, glass bangles, sticker-bindis.

A farm widow once thrust a handful of tender tur into my hands, straight from a tiny patch of farmland; it was just days after her life had plunged into uncertainty, but she was still concerned about treating the guest from Mumbai well.

The only real challenge was the distress one feels, carrying those stories in one’s heart long after the newsprint they were published on was pulped. I sometimes thought it was unbearably sad, but then the pandemic came along and redrew the lines of what is unthinkable grief.

This year, in April, Marathwada seems to have had much higher than normal levels of rainfall, which has created its own set of problems. But in the context of drought, what do you think are some of the primary reasons for the serious water-related problems for farmers in that region?

Marathwada received heavy rains over the last two years, and the water  bodies have been flush, though it may still be too early to call it a summer without serious water scarcity. The climate crisis has been cruel to the region’s farmers. Heavy rains, floods and hailstorms have destroyed standing crop, just days or weeks away from harvest, during these years.

For small farmers in a poorly irrigated region such as Marathwada, the groundwater levels are an important socio-economic barometer. While the region has traditionally experienced insufficient rainfall and the water scarcity is chronic, inadequate monsoon precipitation is not the sole reason for the imbalance between extraction and recharge rates of groundwater.

We have the water-intensive sugarcane cultivation, poor water infrastructure such as canals for distribution and pumping arrangements, and consequently an over-dependence on groundwater to blame. (Between 2015-16 and 2021-22, area under sugarcane in Maharashtra grew from 987,000 hectare to 1.23 million hectare.)

Farmers are also aware that the market is not aligned towards improving their lot, their incomes, and they find the globalised markets and the logic of corporate profits antithetical to their needs. They speak at length and very eloquently, knowledgeably about why farming is increasingly an unsustainable profession in India.

How have readers responded to the book? Any responses from bureaucrats / government officials from the Marathwada region? Any particularly interesting or thought-provoking response(s), which you’d like to recount here?

Those who read it have been incredibly kind. Students from Marathwada’s towns, now in different parts of the country and elsewhere, have said they were glad to see the region being discussed. The kindest comment was that my voice did not appear to be an outsider’s.

Landscapes Of Loss won two significant awards, and both times some jury members reached out to say the book moved them.

Many people mentioned in the book will only be able to read it now, in Marathi, and I hope to hear their comments soon. It is really their book as much as it is mine, for I was merely a vehicle for their stories. I do hope they find that I did justice to the subject.

A tiny handful of bureaucrats who read it responded very much like casual readers, like they had just been given a surprise, the good kind. I don’t believe enough people in decision-making spaces are readers, so I’m not hopeful of that kind of engagement with the book’s themes.

For me, the most thought-provoking response came from a student originally born in Jalna, Marathwada, and now studying in Delhi. He said he didn’t know such a book had been published, and he had stumbled on it by chance in the college library, and that perhaps I had not done enough to market it.

In a very crowded space, first-time writers who don’t take the lead to push their offering into the market a little aggressively will just have to wait for the book to make its own journey, mostly by word of mouth publicity. That is definitely my experience, and I’m not unhappy with it.

Landscapes Of Loss is available on Kindle and on Audible [and] I’m delighted to share that it’s now also available in Marathi, published by Madhushree Publications and translated by the supremely talented Pranav Sakhadeo.

Would you like to name the three most remarkable, memorable books that you’ve read in the last 1-2 years? Any books that are on your must-reads list for 2023?

Some books I read recently and loved are Ashoka Mody’s India Is Broken-A People Betrayed, 1947 to Today, Debasish Roy Chowdhury’s and John Keane’s To Kill A Democracy – India’s Passage To Despotism and Ameer Shahul’s Heavy Metal – How A Global Corporation Poisoned Kodaikanal.

On my to-read list in the coming weeks are Marginlands: Indian Landscapes on the Brink, by Arati Kumar Rao, Caste Pride – Battles For Equality In Hindu India, by Manoj Mitta and The Earth Transformed – An Untold History, by Peter Frankopan.

Landscapes of Loss is available on Amazon

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