Book Review: “Shoes of the Dead” by Kota Neelima


Shoes of the Dead may be set in India, but the problems it addresses are taking place all over the world.

“Who cares about dead farmers, Nazar? No one even cares about the ones who are alive.”

Shoes of the Dead had its own display throughout most of the bookstores I popped into during my month traveling throughout India. At about the third or fourth shop I picked it up, read the back cover and had to have it.

The backbone of this book of political fiction is the suicide of Sudhakar Bhadra, a poor farmer made poorer by successive crop failures. But the complexity of the work – what will keep you flipping the pages – is the entire story’s commonality, of how such deaths are often handled in India, the swindling that goes on, the money lending, the status of farmers in India and throughout the world, the treatment of the widows and, alas, the few brave souls (like the main character, Sudhakar’s brother, Gangiri) who are driven and willing to spend their lives bringing justice to the dead.

Farmer suicides are on the rise and it’s up to the Mityala suicide committee to determine the cause of death. If the cause of death is ruled a debt-related suicide by the committee, then the widow is granted some money (usually just enough to pay off outstanding debts to the moneylender). If the committee decides that the suicide is for some other reason, no money is distributed (which results in the moneylender being needed once again). No matter what happens, the moneylender wins, but the process behind making the decision pits a host of characters against each other and this is what makes up the bulk of the book’s dialogue.

The primary battle is between Gangiri, a former teacher who left his job in the city to add his voice to this committee, and Keyur Kashinath, an arrogant new politician who is carrying his father’s tradition. Gangiri unanimously votes in favor of debt as the cause and Keyur, because he doesn’t understand the plight of the farmers and so that he can wield his new power, unanimously votes for other reasons.

The result is what happens when suicides are stripped of their humanity to become mere calculations.

On one hand, Gangiri understands that “The widow of a farmer, burdened already with debt, does not have time even to mourn. She has to keep the home and the farm running, generate loans, organize farm inputs, and sell the harvest. The widow whom a farmer leaves behind is thrown into a struggle that she has no choice but to win.”

On the other hand, Keyur and his team believe that paying anything to widows simply encourages the already poor farmers to go ahead and kill themselves. In fact, Keyur and his people often spend money hiring people to spy on the farmers to study everything from how fat their goats are (if they have full bellies then surely the farmer isn’t poor) to seeing which brand of fan the farmer buys for his home – how dare he buy that fan? It’s a few rupees more than that one? This farmer most certainly isn’t poor. Meanwhile, the rich cruise around in their sports cars and have meetings with the air conditioning on full.

The reader can’t help but think of how the stories in Shoes of the Dead apply to so many issues going on in the world right now. As I read I was continuously reminded of a quote Christiaan Bosman of Open Hand India often says: “There is no such thing as cheap clothes and cheap food.”

Someone down the supply chain pays a price, and usually that price gets put on the farmers and the poor laborers who often are not even paid a living wage, whose stories and struggles are rarely told. This breeds a host of situations such as human trafficking and slave labor to the creation of ever more sly ways to reduce the quality of products while brilliantly hiding the methods and the health and human costs from the public.

If you care about the slave laborers in Bangladesh who toil under dangerous conditions to make clothes for the brands we love, if you care about the thousands of workers across the United States whose wealthy employers keep them at minimum wage and forever at 34-hours each week so as not to have to pay for healthcare, if you care about the stories of the people behind the tag on your shirt or on the receipt of your grocery bill, then Shoes of the Dead is for you.

-Kota Neelima is on Twitter @KotaNeelima

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