Everyday India

Nikhil Suroshe is the child of small farmers in Yavatmal district, Maharashtra. He is fair-skinned, with a mop of brown hair and a regal nose, and in India, where skin is often read as an indicator ...

Nikhil Suroshe is the child of small farmers in Yavatmal district, Maharashtra. He is fair-skinned, with a mop of brown hair and a regal nose, and in India, where skin is often read as an indicator of caste background and class privilege, it is the first thing you notice about him. He is a handsome boy, this student from rural India.

P. V. Chinnathambi is older, graying, and his eyes appear glazed—though this could be the glare of the Panasonic used to take his picture. Chinnathambi is a teashop owner, sports club organizer, and librarian in Irpakalukudi village in Kerala. He has the look of a schoolteacher, though his bare neck and shoulders belie this impression.

Both photographs are in the People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI). A panel to the right of each photo links to a news article. A recent piece on Chinnathambi describes the library he administers as the “loneliest in the world.” It contains over 150 classic works of Malayalam literature, which are actively borrowed and read by a marginalized population of Muthavan Adivasis living in the Kerala wilderness.1 In Suroshe’s case, you find a decade-old story from The Hindu.2 The boy’s father, Rameshwar Suroshe, was the 301st farmer to commit suicide in his region between June 2005 and February 2006. Most farmers commit suicide by ingesting pesticides, chemicals intended to help them grow crops and support their families.

Scroll back to the original photos. Now what do you see?

The People’s Archive of Rural India promises to transform both what is known about nearly 12 percent of the world’s population and the ways in which we know it. The brainchild of Indian journalist and social critic P. Sainath, PARI is a digital platform for collaborative, multimedia, nonprofit reporting on rural India. It features photographs, videos, interviews, audio files, and articles that illuminate the lives of 833 million people who, like Suroshe and Chinnathambi, live in rural India. The similarities both start and stop there.

One of PARI’s founding aims is to contest established practices of content ownership in corporate journalism, in which stories are copyrighted and circulated as property of their writers and producers. PARI’s content is first credited to those whose lives are depicted. This advances the idea that it is not only reporting that is an art; so, too, is the creative act of living. For example, potter Buddhadeb Kumbhakar is credited with “Story and Narration” for the short film Baked Earth, which depicts a day in his life.3 Credits for camera and direction, editing, translation, subtitling, and production are listed only after Kumbhakar’s ownership of his story has been established.

PARI is currently divided into 27 sections, including “Things we do” and “Things we make.” The use of first-person-plural pronouns here suggests that rural Indians are to be understood as speaking for themselves. The archive’s practice of attributing content to those depicted goes a long way toward countering the charge of ventriloquism, but some homogenization of those included in the ambit of the “we” is inevitable. The infantilism of categorical show-and-tell is tempered by the urgency of PARI’s preservationist charge, but many of the categories (“Things we wear”) risk condescending to their subjects.

Contrary to established practices in corporate journalism, The archive’s content is first credited to those whose lives are depicted.

Despite its populist ethos, PARI is not Wikipedia for rural India. Sainath, whose formidable journalistic background is the enabling condition of the project, has been vetting all submitted content. The self-styled “rural reporter” has covered India’s agrarian crises, forced urbanization, and rural poverty for over 30 years. In the first decade of the 2000s, as pundits celebrated India’s emergence as a key node of globalization, and as the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party unironically waged its “India Shining” campaign, Sainath was writing about farmer suicides in Andhra Pradesh and the decline in public health services across the country. In 2007, he won the Ramon Magsaysay Award for his work to “restore the rural poor to India’s consciousness, moving the nation to action.” With PARI, he aims to raise rural India to the level of world consciousness.

PARI is an ambitious and noble project, one that, as Durga Raghunath noted in Al Jazeera America, is making a “moral argument” for its existence.4 What merits scrutiny, however, is the beguiling language of the “everyday” in the archive’s operative mandate. Sainath says that PARI will depict “the lives and livelihoods of poor and everyday Indians.” A page soliciting contributions offers this caveat: “The basic principle: it’s got to be on the everyday lives of everyday people in rural India.” Just who is being archived here, and to the exclusion of what? What might the everyday obscure?

Sainath is heavily invested in the idea of the everyday, and after hearing him invoke it repeatedly at the Annual Conference on South Asia in Madison, Wisconsin, in October 2014, I asked him about it during the public Q&A: “Who,” I asked, “is an everyday person? And what is an everyday life?” I thought about adding two other questions—Are you an everyday person? Am I?—but opted for decorum. He responded with stories about rural Indians: women who walk miles, barefoot and in the blazing heat, to capture small quantities of usable water from drying wells; coconut-tree-scaling toddy tappers who climb twice the height of the Empire State Building each day. “That,” he said, “is their everyday life.”

Sainath uses “everyday” in its literal, temporally bound sense. During each and every day of a toddy tapper’s life, he climbs twice the height of an iconic American skyscraper. Fair enough. But in describing the daily regimen of the toddy tapper, what Sainath invariably emphasized were its extraordinary components—extraordinary, that is, from the perspective of his metropolitan, English-speaking audience. Twice the height of the Empire State Building! Barefoot! Every day! What is notably “everyday” about rural India is specifically that which does not transpire every day elsewhere in India, never mind the rest of the world.

<i>Theyre not just barefoot, those are hot bricks on their heads. Those on the ramp are migrants from Orissa working in a brick kiln in Andhra Pradesh. The outside temperature is a scorching 49 degrees Celsius (120F). Its hotter in the furnace area, where the women mostly work.</i> From the PARI exhibition Visible Work, Invisible Women

Theyre not just barefoot, those are hot bricks on their heads. Those on the ramp are migrants from Orissa working in a brick kiln in Andhra Pradesh. The outside temperature is a scorching 49 degrees Celsius (120F). Its hotter in the furnace area, where the women mostly work. From the PARI exhibition Visible Work, Invisible Women 

And yet, PARI is not about “the everyday lives of rural Indians”; it’s about “the everyday lives of everyday people.” In his response to me, Sainath didn’t address this second use of “everyday,” as an identity-oriented qualifier for a population of specific people: landless workers and laborers; rural artisans and craftspeople; freedom fighters and farmers. Their “everydayness” closes in on the “ordinary.” Everyday people, it seems to go without saying, are ordinary people. This could mean people like you and me; this could mean people who are not, by definition, out of the ordinary. It could be read as a radical normalization of rural identity as “everyday” identity in a rapidly urbanizing India, where urban lives dominate mainstream media coverage. On the other hand, it could also be construed as the condescending assignment of millions of people to the uniform ranks of the common.

Are “everyday” stories from rural India significant because of the subjective aspect of everydayness, or because of its temporal signification? Is rural Indian everydayness a universal quality, or a particular one? Sainath’s aim is not to homogenize the rural, but rather to illuminate rural India’s endangered linguistic and occupational diversity. The PARI team also strives to address more than an elite, anglophone audience by translating its content into numerous Indian vernaculars. One could imagine any number of alternative archives—archives that refuse to translate content, that focus more on the encounter with the rural, that charge for access—that would be less democratic, less inclusive.

And yet, avowals of the “everyday” that do not account for their simultaneous invocation of a temporal imaginary and a universalizing identitarian one risk participating in a politics of exclusion. Who buys Buddhadeb Kumbhakar’s terracotta horses? Who owns rural India’s drying wells? Plainly, not all everydays are created equal, and even in rural India, some everydays are more everyday than others.

Listening to Sainath, I was struck by the tension and resonance between his invocation of the “everyday” and the way that subject is being addressed across the humanities and the social sciences. In anthropology, the “everyday” has long been an organizing rubric for the study of subjectivity, culture, politics, and art. The field’s historic investment in questions of embodiment and lived experience is evident in Veena Das’s Life and Words, in which she argues that “the everyday itself [is] eventful,” and that even a world-historical event on the scale of the Partition of India and Pakistan “folds itself into the recesses of the ordinary.”5 Das is interested in the boundary between the ordinary and the event, or, put differently, in the concrete relations that suture quotidian scenes of everyday living to violent moments of interruption, disruption, and eruption.

Sainath’s aim is not to homogenize the rural, but rather to illuminate rural India’s endangered linguistic and occupational diversity.

By framing acts like farmer suicide as a routinized reality of rural Indian life, PARI highlights Das’s argument about the “mutual absorption of the violent and the ordinary.”6 By that same token, however, it risks eliding the event’s imbrication in broader networks of global capitalism. In Prose of the World: Modernism and the Banality of Empire (2013), literary scholar Saikat Majumdar draws on the work of Michel de Certeau, Guy Debord, and Henri Lefebvre for an understanding of how the “ordinary everyday” indexes an unequal distribution of resources, both material and affective, between colony and metropole.7 Following Majumdar, I would suggest that farmer suicide is not just Nikhil Suroshe’s everyday life—it cannot be. To the extent that metropolitan complicity with global capitalism and urban non-knowledge of India’s rural realities exerts a force on events unfolding there everyday, it’s “ours,” too.

The everyday is the subject of philosophically inflected criticism across fields. Scholars of affect theory such as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Brian Massumi, Lauren Berlant, Rei Terada, Ben Highmore, and Sianne Ngai draw on a range of thinkers and paradigms—from Kierkegaard and Spinoza to Deleuze and Guattari, from Derridean deconstruction to the Marxist cultural criticism of Raymond Williams—to elaborate “the infinity of little affective events that make up our everyday lives.”8 Some strive to cultivate “everyday attentiveness as a scene of living” (Berlant); others seek to articulate an “everyday politics … of the gut as much as the mind” (Highmore). In these works, the ordinary and the everyday index the site of convergence between thought and feeling, marking the space between reason’s deepest frustration and its fulfillment. Ordinary affects, in Kathleen Stewart’s words, are things that happen everyday, but—and this seems key—there is always a risk that they will thwart representation and analysis.9

What affective response is PARI soliciting and capturing, and from whom? A web archive can theoretically be accessed by anyone, anywhere, anyday; thus, the range of possible responses from viewers and readers will inevitably exceed the number of those depicted. PARI is an interface for engagement between the everybody of the Internet and the rural Indian everyday. However, this engagement is heavily mediated, and the curated content by turns invokes feelings of complicity, envy, empathy, sympathy, identification, admiration, and ethnographic interest.

<i>V. Nagamma, Vellore District</i>. Photograph by Sweta Daga / PARI

V. Nagamma, Vellore District. Photograph by Sweta Daga / PARI

The heart of PARI is “Faces,” a photo gallery that will eventually include portraits of individuals like Nikhil Suroshe from all 629 districts in India. Each face is accompanied by information about its bearer: name, location, occupation. There are men, women, and children, farmers, traveling minstrels, and firewood sellers. In the Narasinganpettai village of Thanjavur district, N. L. K. Sakthivel Achari makes nadaswarams, a classical wind instrument of South India. N. Kamachi is a poi kaal kuthirai, or false-legged horse, dancer. Some of the people pictured stare right at the camera; others look imperiously off-frame. There are smiles and furrowed brows, raised eyebrows and wrinkled noses. A young girl bites her finger. A professional cowherd brandishes a big stick.

PARI’s gallery effectively demonstrates rural India’s diversity of appearance and occupation. It also beautifully crystallizes PARI’s contradictions: the promise of full representation comes face-to-face with the audacity and inevitable contingency of the attempt. “Faces” identifies each photographer by name, as well as the specific camera used in the making of each photograph: a Nikon D90 in the case of Kuni Majhi of Kalahandi District; a Canon E0S 600D for S. Masi of Kanchipuram.

These details serve as crucial reminders that every image of a rural Indian is ultimately a product of technological mediation. Like PARI, each image challenges the viewer to come to terms with the essential artifice of the digital world. The “everyday people” pictured exceed their online rendering, and their quizzical, thoughtful, amused, or grim faces make evident that the affective contours of their ordinary, “everyday lives” are precisely what will elude the archive. icon

  1. P. Sainath, “The Wilderness Library,” psainath.org, June 4, 2014.
  2. P. Sainath, “Vidharbha Suicides: A Scenario of Post-mortems 24/7,” Hindu, February 16, 2006.
  3. Baked Earth,” People’s Archive of Rural India video, 14:35, posted by Kavita Carneiro, January 4, 2015.
  4. People’s Archive of Rural India,” Al Jazeera America, December 20, 2014.
  5. Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary (University of California Press, 2006), pp. 8, 1.
  6. Ibid., p. 7.
  7. Columbia University Press, 2013.
  8. Lone Bertelsen and Andrew Murphie, “An Ethics of Everyday Infinities and Powers: Felix Guattari on Affect and the Refrain,” in The Affect Theory Reader, edited by Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth (Duke University Press, 2010), p. 141.
  9. See Kathleen Stewart, Ordinary Affects (Duke University Press, 2007).
Featured image: Nikhil Suroshe, Yavatmal District (left), and P. V. Chinnathambi, Idukki District. Photographs by P. Sainath / PARI