‘Nine Rupees an Hour’ by Aparna Karthikeyan documents vanishing professions

Chennai: Living in a metro, having a mirthful, mellow lifestyle, witnessing advancements with every day has made our lives amiable. Most often, we fail to look beyond the metro life. But when Aparna Karthikeyan, a Chennai-bred writer stepped out of her comfort zone while she was working with a leading newspaper, she saw life from a different frame of reference altogether.

She interacted with artisans whose livelihoods are vanishing and published Nine Rupees an Hour, a book that documents their plight and how the society views the artisans. The title of the book signifies the wage of mat weavers in Pathamadai, Tiruchi.

“It all started with a fan mail to P Sainath, founder editor of People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI), when I was a journalist. He, in turn, suggested me to write for his portal that documents happenings in the rural side,” recalls the writer.

Aparna accepts that it was the first time, she looked beyond the metro city and began writing articles. The book, which documents 10 livelihoods of Tamilnadu, has a common thread – all the professions are declining and are on the verge of disappearing.

“In the case of paddy farmers, as we know, there are lot of them. But the big question is are the youngsters coming forward to take it up,” Aparna, who identifies herself as a dog mother, tree hugger and story-teller, says.

There may be people from the city who take it as a hobby, but that will not increase the number of full-time farmers who depend on the income for a living.

Speaking on the second common factor, Aparna explains, “A lot of them are hereditary livelihood. But now, it is getting broken which is a good thing. No child should be forced to take up their parents’ occupation. If they want to do it, it is a different story.”

She gives the instance of a sickle-maker, “A sickle-maker’s assistant has the potential to earn Rs 21,000 per month. However, his son after completing education earns lesser than that, but is happy with his white collar job.”

Aparna goes on to question the society. “How do we view a blacksmith? As skilled craftsmen or just labourers? Do we give them the respect they deserve?” she asks.

After having interacted with rural communities of Tamilnadu, Aparna states that the young generation will not be interested in traditional livelihoods, when the art, craft or skill is not given the respect it deserves.

“If nobody is interested and a beautiful or important occupation is declining, then, as a society, we need to introspect why it is happening. Often, it is because of the lack of respect, remuneration and dignity associated with the profession. These are the things that we need to bolster,” the Mumbai-based writer says.

As she goes on to speak about the plights of them, Aparna brings to the fore an important factor that continues to happen: “When a profession is caste-based, practitioners – particularly the younger generation- move away from the livelihood, to avoid oppression. I have discussed this aspect – and why it is important to destroy the caste hierarchy – in some detail in the interviews in the book with Sainath, musician TM Krishna and writer Bama,” the zoology graduate explains.

Having worked for about five years to bring the narratives, angst and predicament of the rural craftsmen, she reiterates the kind of treatment that we give to them and emphasises on remunerating them well and giving them the respect they deserve.

Bhavani Prabhakar