Indian villages are treasure troves of tales. There are a million stories buried within them, that are waiting to be unearthed. But, it is unbelievable that two foreign research scholars who spent only a year in one of those unrecognizable villages of India could spin such a brilliant tale about it. Palanpur, in the words of Jean Dreze, is a “nondescript village” in Moradabad district in Uttar Pradesh. Jean is one of the two authors of the book, ‘Rumble in a Village’, published recently by Aleph Book Company. He along with Luc Leruth documents life as it was in the 1900s in the village of Palanpur where Jean stayed as a part of his research work. Both Jean and Luc are former scholars from the Indian Statistical Institute (New Delhi) and continue to be associated with India in many ways.
The story begins as a murder mystery which compels Anil Singh, a banker in London to return to his father’s village – Palanpur. The murder is only a premise to take the readers to Palanpur. The main plot unravels after you arrive in the village. The story jumps across different timelines as it traces the history of four families over three generations and the dynamics of three castes – the Thakurs, the Muraos, and the Dalits. What is more interesting is most of the characters lived and some still continue to live in Palanpur. The book retained the original name for some of the characters and even has a photograph featuring a few.
I must credit the authors for their keen eyes which makes the book a very entertaining read starting from Anil’s train journey to Palanpur. Anil’s experience with the Indian railways will stir quite a bit of nostalgia in the readers. The unusual camaraderie, the unnerving questions from fellow travellers, the droplets of spit that hit your face from the window next are just too familiar. I was amused to learn how the railway station in Palanpur came to be named as Jargaon. The book brilliantly chronicles the arrival of the railways and how it changed the lives of the Palanpuris in some unfathomable ways.
The caste politics and the poverty that the book brings out will not surprise you if you are one of those who were raised in an Indian village. But you will be intrigued to learn what changed and what remained unaltered in this ugly game. While the Palanpuris evolved a little when it came to agriculture, they still preferred to have a temple built before fixing the dilapidated school. I can assure you, this mindset hasn’t changed even in 2020 in many of our villages. The worst part, however, was that the Palanpuris seemed to have remained immovable about educating and empowering their women. Like the authors’ rightly point out through Pat’s research, financial independence for women meant a degradation of their stature.
The book effortlessly documents the many little things that truly captures the spirit of Palanpur. The Thakurs and their love for guns, the obsession and the pride that came with becoming a soldier, their marriages and illicit affairs, the village council meetings and corruption that happens at various levels, child mortality and more. The story doesn’t do much about solving a murder mystery but it does in educating you about Indian bureaucracy. While the truth is rather disturbing, Jean and Luc get us through with a little humour. The whole episode of ADO, BDO, CDO, DDO, EDO and more is absolutely hilarious. And then there is Babu and his goat. The innocence and ignorance of these villagers offer you a hearty laugh, but you know that they aren’t as meek as you imagine them to be. Given the opportunity, they are quite capable of crime and treachery.
After a few chapters, I was confused with who is who thanks to the non-linear narration and characters from three different generations. I also did not see any value in the character of the Captain who is shrouded with mystery. But I didn’t need to bother too much about these difficulties because they didn’t matter. What mattered was Luc and Jean transported you to Palanpur and let you live among the Palanpuris and witness it all for real. I didn’t feel the urge to rush through the pages as one would do with murder stories. Instead, I soaked myself in every page, with every detail and the experience that the book had to offer. To me, it felt and read like a bright morning in a beautiful village.