I like to look at a book as though it was formed like the universe (with all the conjectures) and grew and nurtured on the world around it. However, a book is incumbent to live up to this perspective.
Grapes of Wrath is such a book. It starts from the dust bowl Oklahoma and moves to California, tracing the trajectory of becoming and unbecoming of migrants, a family seen from close quarters by the author and the graph it scales. While it is the essential storyline of the book, Grapes of Wrath has been able to capture life as it is. I can conclude the book with this imagery: concentric circles, where, in the outermost circle lies nature, in the middle is the Manself (a word coined by the author to denote man and his desires) and within their lap lie the Joads (the family).
The book unassumingly, with no deliberations (and master plans) will lead you to contextual parallels in the smallest of nuances: of the characters, of the people in general belonging to a certain occupation, of the population of a state and finally of the mankind. And when you find yourself drawing parallels, you realize the book could have been written at any time and set up against any country around the world. Of course as it is based in the US, the Americans will speak to you (in the thickest of accents and funniest of drawls) which will eventually become a rage with a generation.
What fascinated me were those years of American life: when ‘tenant men’(how farmers were known then), men who grew crops and fed the population, squatted on their hams with sticks to mark the dust; the women still used to read the faces of their men as if gazing at the sky for signs of rain; the owner men who were kind and angry, cold and cruel; the bank was still the man-made monster which men couldn’t control anymore; the tenant men still talked about land as something one works on, one is born and dies on-which makes ownership, not some paper with a number on it. The farmer was still the victim, the landlord was still the villain. It was a time in America when ‘times they were-a changing’ and people as uncomplicated as the ‘tenant men’ were learning about it and failing to comprehend.
The book develops such a character that it stays with the universal truth- the cosmos was never meant to be human-centric: refreshing and iconoclastic at once.It further acquaints that it is absolutely not necessary that as humans we’d rather enjoy reading about other humans: and that is where the sensibilities of John Steinbeck (the author) come in. The book follows an alternating rhythm- one chapter is about the landscape of Oklahoma then the other will be about the developments in the Joad family; one will threadbare the outlook of tenant men in contrast to the owner men towards land and livelihood, the other will look at a particular member of the Joad family. The Joad family could be John Steinbeck’s family yet he finds himself drawn to the tortoise on the highway and his tedious trajectory such that he devotes the entire chapter to it- and one unknowingly builds an imagery of Oklahoma and its pace.
As I write this piece my equation with John Steinbeck has seasoned- the relationship began when I started thinking like him during the course of reading, maturing and sensitized, my sensibilities and observations grew finer. And finally when thoughts began to emerge from my mind, the association was sealed. My gratitude and fondness for the author make me address him as ‘John’ as and when I do.The intertwining of macrocosm, the nature and microcosm, the man and his body language- all of which are the results of Manself’s emotions, is the most beautiful part of the book. Nature or the macrocosm is a character in the book. “Look- more ducks. Big bunch. An’ Ma, winter’s a-comin’ early.” With exquisite sensitivity John leaves scope for the reader to take in nature’s reactions to ‘manself’. “In the Weedpatch camp , on an evening when the long, barred clouds hung over the set sun and inflamed their edges, the Joad family lingered after their supper...”
John’s gift to appreciate nature in its absolute is stirring. He is a connoisseur of nature, of life: he sees in colour the earth as the season tosses and turns and the hues of a sad dusk and living, likes to take in the smell of first signs of change, listen to what the time of the day has to say, feel the parched spirit of the corn. John is an aficionado. However, what are all these words for if they have not shone on his idiosyncrasies and quirks. Purposefully, he characterizes trucks and tractors and iron ore and then takes away their spirit and anything remotely life like from them, such that we know when to destroy our creations without letting them overpower us with funny ideas of conquest, money and lifestyle. “The tractor had lights shining, for there is no day or night for a tractor…there is a warmth of life in the barn, and the heat and smell of life. But when the motor of a tractor stops, it is as dead as the ore it came from…heat goes out of it like the living heat that leaves a corpse.”
John has a very interesting perspective on the concept of religion, ritual, worship and death. What is even more interesting is how all of them are laced into the fine thread portrayed as human spirit. Grapes of Wrath while testifying for life, allows the spirit of everything living to trickle through it: which is why one discovers that human spirit is tremendous and in that, breathtakingly beautiful, it is at the end of the day compulsive. As is put- “The last clear definite function of man- muscles aching to work, minds aching to create beyond the single need- this is man”; “And this you can know- fear the time when Manself will not suffer and die for a concept for this one quality is the foundation of Manself, and this one quality is man, distinctive in the universe.”
I must not deprive the readers and restrain myself, how this book, in addition to the above, looks at human spirit- “Fear the time when the bombs stop falling while the bombers live- for every bomb is proof that the spirit has not died.”It is not that one wants to credit the John for his observations and sensitivity, what he has intended is so pure and uncomplicated that timelessness of his observations is fortuitous.Like I was saying, before digressing to John, Grapes of Wrath must have been one of many spectators when migration took place, perhaps first started within America. For, migration remains the most palpable phenomena that the modern history is evading like a textbook misprint.
One can traverse the length and breadth of the world, only to find it happening within the hearth of homeland. There is a great reference in the book- “The western land, nervous under the beginning change. The Western States-Texas and Oklahoma,Kansas and Arkansas,New Mexico, Arizona,California- nervous as horses before a thunder storm. The great owners, nervous, sensing a change, knowing nothing of the nature of the change.” Its greatness lies in the fact that it travels to the other side of the bridge, to the land and the great owners of the land- the recipients, and discerns. Now this highly ironical knowledge is worth satire: this is a clear case of time travel; perhaps some of the Oakies (as the migrants from Oklahoma were derided as) have travelled to Europe of 2016 owing to the mistreatment at the hands of fellow state men. How? How! When the authorities in Europe look ‘scared stiff’ on international television broadcasts, pledging sanctity of their pristine-ish borders.
The problem is THE GREAT ASSUMPTION: which existed then and which exists now- when the great owners of great lands think of the migrants as lesser people as they are able to live in conditions a human being wouldn’t like to live. Because, as it is said in the book “a human being couldn’t stand it to be so dirty and miserable”. The assumption is that the refugees crossing a whole (Mediterranean) sea are too dumb to know it’s dangerous. The problem when these government officials, ministers, the caretakers of societies speak, they have already deduced that these people have chosen to become migrants, that they don’t know any better. My problem is with the attitude towards the whole issue- as if it is something too silly and futile to exist.Hopes must have swiftly sunk from their faces to the pit of the stomach, when these lines emerged:
“How can we live without our lives”?
On further reading, one can learn about the concept of ‘roots’, if one has never known it.
“How’ll it be not to know what land’s outside the door? How if you wake up in the night and know- the willow tree’s not there? Can you live without the willow tree?” The first thoughts, the first of reactions- probably a man’s most spontaneous response to the unknown.
Such people are nervous. They can’t wait. They pile up their goods from the yards- burn some and load others and drive away. As the book travels with the tenant men, it internalizes the peaks at which they become migrants. “their worries were not the rainfall, wind or dust or the thrust of crops but a broken gear was their tragedy.” Imagine if all of a sudden water in the evening and food over fire becomes your worry: what a downfall, when all of man’s and only a man’s natural efforts are towards moving higher.
It is a revelation to grasp the fear of the great owners in California waiting with much anticipation, for such souls who will crumble day after day, who will look to be crushed more, till they can’t crumble no more. These lands were nervous of “simple agrarian folk who had not changed with the industry.” The revelation which the book has NOT failed to seize – “Once California belonged to Mexico and its land to Mexicans; and a horde of tattered feverish Americans poured in. And such was their hunger for land that they took the land and growled and quarrelled over them- those frantic hungry men; and they guarded with guns the land they had stolen. Mexicans were weak and fed. Because they wanted nothing in the world as frantically as the Americans wanted land.”
And I am wondering how different or similar it must have been when Britishers notorious as the East India Company, first came to the land between the Hindu Kush range and the great Hind Mahasagar (Indian Ocean). What must have been their hunger like, considering they built such astounding and impeccable buildings and infrastructure, which is still being relished by India and its tourists.
Two very different hungers- the American hunger and the British hunger- hunger to survive and hunger to flourish. How shocking will it be if a Marathi were to look at a Bihari as an intruder in Maharashtra so much so that he wouldn’t let two squatting Biharis sit together, for the fear of their coming together and fighting for equality- the fear that it may dawn upon them that they really are in the same boat and that ‘together’ will be easier any day. How did America come to this- something very evil must have started like a killer crop bug, which ultimately rot the good ones too.
America of the 1930s and India of 2017- how far have we come ?
“The decay spreads over the state.Men who graft trees and make the seed fertile can find no way to let the hungry eat their produce. Men who have created new fruits in the world cannot create a system whereby their fruits may be eaten. And the failure hangs over the State like a great sorrow.”
Times, they are a-changing- Grapes of Wrath saw through the early symptoms of the disease which would become an epidemic around the world. The farmers whose “love is thinned with money, and all their fierceness dribbled away in interest until they were no longer farmers at all, but little shopkeepers of crops, little manufacturers who must sell before they can make.”
“Then those farmers who were not good shopkeepers lost their land to good shopkeepers.”
What could be a more alarming situation than systematic corruption of not just characters, but of human spirit. Corruption of agriculturists who, in spite of it all, have managed to feed India, hitherto. Mind you, it is nothing short of a miracle- the miracle of human spirit.