Shoes of the Dead by Kota Neelima

I was sent a copy of “Shoes of the Dead” and asked to review it, and so let me start this review by saying a big thank you to blogadda.com.  Thanks to them I have just read a fabulous book, and have discovered Kota Neelima, an author who is an amazingly talented writer and story teller.

This novel is a piece of committed, erudite and yet 100% gripping writing about the contemporary political and social scene in India.  Ms Neelima explores with equal skill and dexterity the corridors of power in Delhi and the ground realities of the tragic, ongoing phenomenon in India of farmers’ suicides.

With poverty-driven suicides as the central topic of the novel, “Shoes of the Dead” is never going to be a light fluffy read.  Instead it is robust, riveting and heart-breaking at times.

(Don’t worry, I won’t spoil the plot).

You are engaged from the opening page, as you are led deeper and deeper into the web of political machinations that try to extract self-serving political benefit from the deaths of desperate men. The author clearly knows her way through the bureaucracy and the murky world of politics in India, and the quality of her writing and story telling bears this out.

What is impressive is that her descriptions of life in the rural cotton belt of Mityala district are every bit as compelling.
The narrative moves seamlessly between the manicured lawns of grace and favour Lutyens bungalows in New Delhi and, in stark contrast, the parched infertile farm land of what she terms “South Central India”

What I especially liked about Ms Neelima’s writing is that she never once reduces any of her characters to a stereotype, even though they are all there – the political Mr Fix It, the son with a sense of deep entitlement, the ruthless moneylender, the honest farmer.   In the hands of a less gifted writer, these men might have become 2 dimensional stereotypes, but in Ms Neelima’s skilful hands, they leap from the page, fully fleshed out, believable characters.

I loved the book, was deeply moved by the ending (which I absolutely didn’t see coming), and as an exposé of the manipulation of well-intentioned poverty alleviation schemes, “The Shoes of the Dead” cannot be bettered.

Ms Neelima’s writing is elegant and a pleasure to read :

‘Never, he knew, would he be home again. And never again would he be part of something that contained both his past and his future.

From then on, he would live in the city but never belong to it. A man from nowhere, a man who was just a name on a salary check, a face on a photo ID, a voice on the phone. A part of the moving mess of people in a crowded bus, a metro, a local train. A part of the praying mass of people in a temple, a mosque, a church, a hospital.’

She has her finger firmly on the pulse of contemporary Delhi, sharing with her readers the incongruous sight of unbelievably expensive cars staying in low gear because of the mind-numbing traffic.

Just this last week, this reviewer saw a bright orange Lamborghini stuck in the mother of all traffic jams for such a long time that everyone (your reviewer included) was hopping out of their equally immobile cars to take photos of it.

‘To drive in Delhi was easy, if one kept to 40 kilometres per hour. So, the Ferraris, the BMWs, the Mitsubishis, the fastest cars in the world, humbly stayed in the lower gears.  But the pace of traffic always quickened as the night advanced. And the policemen did not chase the few who took their speed machines out to race on the six-lanes, the cloverleaves and the flyovers.’

The writer observes the manipulative, cynical workings of the New Delhi political machine with cool insight :

‘You want him in politics! Keyur was shocked.

Vaishnav shook his head. ‘Just play on people’s cynicism with goodness, the fatigue with hope. We are nervous about messiahs because they bring change. And history has taught us to beware selfish saviours.

Keyur leaned forward in his chair, curious.

‘Make sure that he is no longer the Messiah,’ Vaishnav said. ‘Consider this your training; you will be doing this all your life in politics.’

And she is equally eloquent about the dashed hopes of those born into poverty :

‘He and his elder brother had both studied at the Mityala High School, the first in their family of farmers to do so. They believed they were on their way to college in the state capital, to find paying jobs and earn enough money to send home so that parents could live without worrying about the fate of the crops.

‘Do I have an option? Gangiri asked gently. ‘The increasing toll is bound to trouble the people in power because farmers like us are not supposed to be visible to the government: we are supposed to be a silent, pliant vote bank. But now our lives are drawing attention because of our deaths.’

Her description of desperately poor patients waiting at a government hospital is moving in its sadness :

‘There was silence, mostly, except for the occasional cough, sneeze or gasp of pain. The women were usually accompanied by someone apprehensive or someone indifferent. They were dressed in cotton sarees that was soft with overuse, wore cheap slippers on feet that were used to being bare and beads around necks that used to wear gold. But the unbreakable plastic bangles would probably outlive the hands that wore them.’

Thoroughly recommended.

Published in 2013 by Rainlight by Rupa, the nice looking hardback is priced at Rs 495.

As I said earlier in this review, the ending took me by surprise, and I closed the book both sadder and wiser.  This is a well written, good read.

What are you waiting for ? You can buy the book right now, by clicking on one of the links below :

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