Dust Bowl America
By the 1930s, the great prairie lands of North America were over-farmed. Dust storms, soil erosion and drought were common after that. This, along with the Great Depression that hit the whole world in 1929, spelt the end of a lifestyle for thousands of rural farming families. Nobody has narrated their terrible and great story better than John Steinbeck in his novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939).
To the red country and part of the grey country of Oklahoma the last rains came gently. They lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed and grass along the side of the roads. In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds dissipated. The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day. The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the grey country.
The sharp sun struck day after day. The leaves of the young corn became less stiff and erect., then wilted. June came, and the sun shone more fiercely. The brown lines on the leaves moved in on the central stem. In the roads, the earth’s crust broke and the dust formed. Every moving thing lifted the dust in the air.
When June was half gone, the big clouds moved up out of Texas and the Gulf, high heavy clouds, rain-heads. The men in the fields sniffed at the clouds and held wet fingers up to sense the wind. The rain-heads dropped a little spattering and hurried on to some other country. Then the wind came. Gentle at first, it grew stronger, and began to race through the land. It dug into the rootlets of the corn until each stalk settled wearily sideways. It lifted the dust into the sky. Men and women huddled in their houses, and wore goggles to protect their eyes.
That night was a black one, for the stars could not pierce the dust. Then the wind died. The people came out of their houses and smelled the hot stinging air. Men stood by their fences and looked at the ruined corn, dying fast now. And the women came out of their houses to stand beside their men — to feel whether this time the men would break. After a while the faces of the watching men became hard and angry and resistant.
The owners of the land came, or more often their spokesman came. They came in closed cars and felt the dry earth with their fingers. The tenants watched uneasily. Then the owner men sat in their cars to talk out of the windows. The tenants stood beside the car, then squatted on their hams. Some of the owner men were kind because they hated what they had to do. Some were angry because they hated to be cruel, and some were cold because they had long ago found that one could not be an owner unless one were cold. If a bank or finance company owned the land, the owner man said: The Bank — or the Company — needs — wants — insists — must have — as though the Bank or the Company were a monster.
The owner men sat in their cars and explained: You know the land is poor. The tenants nodded. If the top would only stay on the soil, it might not be so bad. The owner men went on to their point. You know the land’s getting poorer. You know what cotton does to the land: robs it, sucks all the blood out of it.
The squatters nodded — they knew. If they could only rotate the crops they might pump blood back into the land. Well, its too late. The owner men explained the workings and thinkings of the monster that was stronger than they were. A man can hold land if he can eat and pay taxes. Until his crops fail and he has to borrow money. The monster breathes profits; they eat the interest on money. It is a sad thing, but it is so.
The squatting men raised their eyes to understand. Can’t we just hang on? Maybe the next year will be a good one. We can’t depend on it. The bank — the monster must have profits all the time. Then the owner men came to the point. The tenant system has to go. One man on a tractor can take the place of 12 or 14 families. Pay him a wage and take all the crop.
The tenant men argued. But you’ll kill the land with cotton. We know. We’ve got to take the cotton quick before the land dies. Then we’ll sell the land. The tenant men looked up alarmed. But what will happen to us?
You’ll have to get off the land. In the little houses the tenant people sifted their belongings and that of their fathers and grandfathers for the journey to the west. The men were ruthless because the past had been spoiled, but the women knew how the past would cry to them in the coming days. The men went into the barns and sheds.
husband had given Jaiswal for free, out of generosity, so that Jaiswal could build a home. Both Jaiswal and his son are dead. But the loan, amounting with interest to Rs 13, 720 has crushed Suhaso. When the bank woke up to this loan one day, it sprang the trap on Suhaso. The bank decided to auction her land.
(An illegal act, for in MP you cannot auction, alienate or transfer adivasi land by law.) Then, on the day of the auction, as the merchants gathered with their thailis (bags) bulging with money, Pandey took the auctioneer aside. “Soon they disappeared till the night,” says Kamlesh, Suhaso’s son.
“They returned only after all the other buyers had left.” Pandey bought the land — valued over Rs 2 lakh — for Rs 17,500 in his brother-in-law’s name to cover his tracks. Although the bank got Rs 3,780 more than the loan amount, they didn’t bother to return Suhaso the money. ?
Edited from: Everybody loves a Good Drought by P Sainath, Penguin, 1996, pp. 214-5, 238-9
In 1993, P Sainath left his job as deputy chief editor of Blitz in Mumbai to work full time on rural poverty. Sainath has won many awards for his journalism. You can read his series on Dalits that appears in The Hindu on Sundays.
Harness, carts, seeders, little bundles of hoes. Bring ’em out. Load ’em in the wagon. Take ’em to town. Sell ’em for what you can get. Sell the team and wagon, too. No more use for anything.
When everything that could be sold was sold, stoves and bedsteads, little corner cupboards, tubs and tanks, still there were piles of possessions; and the women sat among them, turning them over and looking off beyond and back. pictures, square glasses, and here’s a vase. Suddenly they were nervous. Got to get out quick. Can’t wait. We can’t wait. And they piled up the goods in the yard and burnt them. Frantically they loaded their cars and drove them away.
Highway 66 is the main migrant road. 66 is the long concrete path across the country from Mississippi to Bakersfield. 66 is the path of a people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership, from the desert’s slow northward invasion, from the twisting winds that howl up out of Texas. From all of these the people are in flight, and they come into 66 from the tributary side roads. 66 is the mother road, the road of flight.
Two hundred and fifty thousand people over the road. Fifty thousand old cars — wounded, steaming. Wrecks along the road abandoned. Well, what happened to them? What happened to the folks in that car? Did they walk? Where are they? Where does the courage come from? Where does the terrible faith come from?
Edited from The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, Pan Books, 1975, pp 7-10, 36-38, 93-96, 126, 130. John Steinbeck
1902-1968) was born in Salinas, California. After studying science in Stanford University he worked successively as labourer, druggist, caretaker, fruit-picker and surveyor. All this while he found time to write. His novels include Of Mice and Men (1937), Cannery Row (1945) and East of Eden (1952). He was awarded the Pulitzer prize and the National Book award for The Grapes of Wrath. In 1962, he was awarded the Nobel prize for literature.