P Sainath is something of an inspiration to many of us journalists. On the Times Fellowship over a decade ago, he wrote with passion and knife-sharp incisiveness about rural poverty in this country. Even then, few journalists took the time to understand not just events in rural India, but processes. Sainath did. The stories he wrote then formed the basis for his superb book, "Everybody Loves a Good Drought."
And yes, I can think of several journalists whose work places them directly in Sainath's tradition, who make it their business to pound the bylanes and dusty cart-tracks of this vast land to understand it and report on it. (Yes, I like to think I am one, but in all honesty there are many others who pound much more diligently than I do).
Sainath spoke at St Xavier's College on Wednesday January 18, and you can get a sense of what he said, over at Vik's Vislumbres and Anand's Locana. Briefly, his focus was the suicides of farmers in Maharashtra, Andhra, Karnataka and elsewhere; but as always with Sainath, he was really getting at the processes that have led to these suicides. And, most intriguing of all, the attitudes towards them. How many of us know, let alone give a damn, about what is happening to farm India?
And that's why, for me, Sainath's most telling point that evening was not so much the figures and anecdotes that flowed like a breached dam. Instead, it was a point he has made before: about Nero's guests.
Nero fiddled while Rome burned; he also partied by the light of human torches. Now you can write off a monstrous Roman emperor -- how, after all, can you account for madmen, especially when they become emperors? You can write off his burning victims too. But can you so easily write off his guests, likely the elite of the greatest city of the time? What were they thinking as they sipped their wine and downed their pasta, while around them humans burned to a crisp? What does that say about the kind of society Nero's Rome was? What does that say about the eventual decline and fall of a great and powerful empire?
Think of farmers taking their lives, think of what drives them to do it, and then ask yourself: Who are Nero's guests today, here in this country, around you today? What are they thinking? What does that say about the kind of country we are?
And then try this: do you need to think of farmer suicides in remote rural areas? Are the sights that Nero's guests would rather not see closer than they imagine?