In my post relating to the recent demolitions of a slum in Shakur basti in west Delhi ( published in thewire.in ), I referred to The American writer John Steinbeck's great novel 'The Grapes of Wrath', and compared the conditions of our jhuggi jhopdi dwellers to the migrants described in this novel.
I first read this great novel half a century ago, and still enjoy reading it again. It is one of the most powerful novels of the 20th century, written with intense passion, but after careful personal observation to keep the account truthful.
The novel is about the 300,000 migrant small farmers from Oklahama, Texas and Arkansas in U.S.A. who had to abandon their farms because of the Depression, drought and dust storms which hit that area in the 1930s and migrated west towards California.. The novel revolves around the migrant Joad family
Normally nobody likes to abandon his home, but desperate circumstances may compel him to do so. The migrants, who had lost their livelihood, travelled west to California, which had been depicted in movies as a land of plenty. However, they were met there with hostility by the local people, who thought that the migrants ( who became known as 'Okies', named after Oklahama, from where many of them came ) would take away their jobs or depress their wages by competition, and bring in slums and diseases. They jeered at the migrants, physically attacked them, and sometimes burned their camps.
The migrant families lived in horrible conditions, without proper food, water or sanitation, and often travelling from place to place looking for work. Families which once owned a farm and raised vegetables, corn, chicken and pigs were now living in squalor in card board houses ( somewhat similar to the juggi jhopdis in India ). their clothes soiled, and barely enough food to eat.
Steinbeck decided to study conditions among the migrant camps himself. So to avoid attracting notice he bought an old, battered bakery truck and travelled all over. He personally saw horrors which he never imagined existed in America. He saw families too poor to buy food, people drinking from dirty irrigation ditches, and diseased and dying children.
In one poignant scene the novel describes how a young malnourished woman, Rose, whose own child died stillborn, breast feeds a starving old man who would have died otherwise.
The novel describes vividly the journey of the Joad family from Oklahama to California, the grandparents dying on the way, and some family members splitting off. The Joads allowed a priest, Jim Casey, to join them on the way. Casey lost his belief in God seeing the misery, and remarks " There's no sin, and there ain't no virtue, there's just stuff people do ". The Joads' food supply keep dwindling.
Steinbeck gives a vivid account of life during the migration. Twenty migrant families might camp beside a road together. " In the evening a strange thing happened : the twenty families became one family, the children were the children of all. ". The families temporarily became a phalanx, because that was the only way to survive. Young men could not have casual sex with a girl. If you liked her, and she liked you, you could marry her, but one night stands or casual affairs were simply inconceivable in these conditions.
Writing the book became a single obsession for Steinbeck. It took him 3 years to write it, from 1936, when he started collecting material for it and making notes, to 1939, when it was finally published.. He wrote in a journal he kept during this period " My life is not very long. but I must write one good book before it ends. My other books ( 'Tortilla Flat', 'Of Mice and Men', 'Dubious Battle' etc ) have only been makeshifts, experiments and practices. For the first time I am working on a real book that will take every bit of experience, thought and feeling which I have."
Writing 5 or 6 days a week, sometimes as many as 2000 words at a stretch, Steinbeck worked himself to exhaustion. " John had never been so concentrated " his sister Beth recalled later " You almost couldn't talk to him ".
Steinbeck called his novel ' The Grapes of Wrath '. Ripe grapes spill their juices when pressed for wine. The migrant families were ripe with wrath or anger that was ready to spill forth. Steinbeck wrote : " In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage ".
Steinbeck's book was published in 1939 and created an uproar in America. Some people like California planters and big businessmen launched a campaign to defame Steinbeck and discredit his book. He was called a liar and a communist. This greatly discouraged Steinbeck, but his spirit revived when Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of President Franklin Roosevelt visited the migrant camps in California and said " I do not believe there is any exaggeration in the book 'Grapes of Wrath' " .
Twentieth Century Fox made Grapes of Wrath a film, with Henry Fonda as Tom Joad. Many people expected studio executives to dilute Sreinbeck's social messages, but producer Darryl Zanuck researched the migrants' camps, and found conditions there much worse than that reported