I had two unexpected encounters with American history and politics the other day. A novel, The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah and a poem, The Hill We Climb, by Amanda Gorman. I read both with no context or prior knowledge of the setting and was startled to say the least, especially in the many ways they resonated with me. This post is about the Hannah’s book.
As an Indian, I have had little exposure to The Great Depression. A vague memory of its brief mention in our history textbooks had me know there was some kind of an economic recession, and that was it. In a grammar class that I attended outside of school, my eccentric teacher once mentioned something about wheat being dumped in the ocean by the American government to push prices up, and it got stuck in my memory next to a random caricature of the Boston Tea Party – nothing more than a small wonder at why men found the need to throw food in water.
When I began the novel set in the early 1900s, it was nothing more than a distraction, a new personal project. The writing wasn’t bad, and the premise was new, albeit reminiscent of some old classics. But as the story progressed, I got more and more engrossed. The dust, the heat, the unending drought; I could almost feel my throat dry up under the sweltering words. The strained relationship between a woman struggling with insecurities and her kin dreaming of a better life. The despairing fight for survival and the harrowing futile search for a better future. Xenophobia and otherness in a land that’s yours and yet isn’t. Perhaps the most surprising part of it all, for me, was the glorified tint of communist ideology that’s strewn towards the end.
The book resonated with me on many levels, and for different reasons. Firstly, communism. I hail from Kerala, a state in India which went down in history as the first people in the world to have democratically elected a communist government to power. I’ve grown up watching film after film that spoke of Che Guevara with pride and showcased the red flag as a token of youth, revolution, and a fight for social justice. Stories continue to be recounted with awe of the oppression meted out by the rich and the powerful, worker’s struggles united under the revolutionary ideal, and the triumph that brought about a society that currently has the highest Human Development Index in the country. The details in the book seemed like yet another movie made back home. It seemed almost uncanny to hear this narrative in a book set in the United States, a country long known as a flag bearer of capitalist economy.
This was further complicated for me by the fact that the workers portrayed are people from Red states like Texas and Oklahoma (side note – I find it quite amusing that both Republicans and Communists share the same colour) who themselves are usually shown to have a strong political sentiment against leftist ideologies.
The part that hit the hardest though, was the experiences of the prime protagonist as a migrant labourer. India has a huge population of inter-state migrant labourers who move to urban areas in search for a better future and end up being part of the invisible populace known as the urban slum-dwelling poor. Last year, when the first wave of lockdown hit the country, they were all thrown off work and driven from their residence, and hundreds of families traversed thousands of miles by foot to reach back to their villages. These are incidences that you hear about briefly in news reports,that you put out a few posts about and then conveniently forget about as another trend pops up; this book laid out in excruciating detail what it is like to be treated like a lesser human, simply because you did not ‘belong’. The labelling was all too familiar – how tax payers’ were bearing the brunt of looking after a “lazy”, “uncivilised”, “illiterate” lot who simply did not want to earn their living.
The same excuses, the same oppression, the same fights.
A story set in 1930s America to resonate with someone in 2020s India – what can possibly be a greater testimony to the limitless and tragic nature of human condition?
P.S. I know that this platform and, thereby, many who visit my site are American. I welcome your insights into the different matters dealt with in the book, i.e., the Great Depression, xenophobia, viewpoints regarding the proletariat, general political commentary on communist/capitalist ideals, or simply even your own impressions about the book and any further references/suggested reading.
P.P.S. Especially from you, Brian. 😉