Lockdown Days on the Farm
We had just finished a very successful Aale Mane (sugarcane harvest and Jaggery-making activity) on the farm in early March 2020. Our sugarcane crop was better than we had expected. We had great fun harvesting it and making the jaggery over the course of a week. Some friends from Bangalore joined us for the week and they completely threw themselves into all activities on the field and in the house, which was a big help. To top it all, we made some excellent tasting jaggery that also had the perfect consistency. The following week, we were to have our customary 'team outing' where we take our staff and their families out for a celebration after the Aale Mane.
This year, the Sirsi Jathre was our planned destination. The Sirsi Jathre is a huge fair celebrating the local deity Marikamba, and is held on alternate years. This year, it was on from 3-11 March. The centre of town is shut off to traffic and there are stalls set up all along the streets selling all kinds of objects aimed at separating people from their money. There was a show where a donkey would answer questions asked by his handler (questions like - “who in the audience steals money from her husband's purse” and the donkey would go and stand next to someone in the audience). There was a stall selling paan that would be set on fire before you put it into your mouth. There was another selling a drink that would let you send puffs of smoke out of your nose and mouth. Stalls sold everything from underwear to blankets and bedsheets and all kinds of clothes, kitchen utensils, cheap jewellery, plastic toys, wrist watches that stopped working after a week and there were lots of food stalls too.
There were also two large areas where amusement rides designed to churn your stomach and induce the regurgitation of semi-digested food, are set up. It goes on for about two weeks and attracts hundreds of thousands of people from all over the region. During this time, the Corona virus was slowly making inroads into India after having rapidly spread through Europe. We had promised to take our staff to the Jathre this year too but were concerned with the risk of being in the middle of a huge crowd of people that have come from far and wide. Finally, against our better judgement, we went on the night of the 12th, after the official Jathre was over but the stalls and amusement rides were still operating. Thankfully, the crowds were much smaller and there wasn't much jostling and crowding. We went in to town late in the evening after the day's work, went on rides, ate out, bought stuff and came back home well past midnight. I got myself a well designed, sturdy rat trap that has already caught two rats – works better than the useless cat we have at home and doesn't need to be fed thrice a day. We also watched the 'Well of Death' show, where stuntmen drive three cars side-by-side inside a well with steeply sloping sides while women loll around on the roof of the car and the drivers hang half out of the window, holding each other's hands while steering the car with their knees, while the cars are whizzing around at great speed on a near-vertical surface separated from each other by just a few inches. There were also five motorbikes that were ridden in the well, with the riders doing all kinds of seemingly improbable stunts standing on the bikes and steering with their feet. The spectators stand in a gallery at the top of the well and look down at the action. People held out money and the biker would ride up the side of the well and snatch it from their hand. The stunts were done nonchalantly without even a safety device or net. That was the most thrill I've ever got in my life for forty rupees.
The days following our Jathre outing were mostly spent getting our farm produce ready and packed for our trip to Bangalore. We make four trips to Bangalore with our farm produce every year, to sell directly to a circle of friends and acquaintances. We had a trip scheduled for the 20th of March and the orders were coming in. As the date approached and our preparations were getting complete, we also kept a watchful eye on the spread of the virus in the country. Things seemed to be getting worse and the infections were widespread. Several countries were in the process of announcing lockdowns and a lockdown in India seemed imminent. Sushie and I even briefly considered the option of making a quick 2-3 day trip just by ourselves, leaving the kids behind on the farm with their grandmother, to quickly deliver our produce and get back, instead of the customary week long trips we usually make as a family. On the 19th, we decided to cancel the trip since we didn't want to risk being stranded in Bangalore if a lockdown was announced. On hindsight, that was a wise move and a reaffirmation of the maxim I live by - “when in doubt, listen to your wife”. We made a quick trip to Sirsi town to replenish some of our supplies and prepare to hunker down while we waited for the crisis to blow over.
On the 22nd of March, the government announced a 'Janatha Curfew' for a day as a trial and asked people to clap their hands and clang plates and utensils at 5.00pm from their homes and balconies. This descended into a farce as people swarmed out into the streets in towns and cities and were seen singing and dancing in groups, totally defeating the purpose of the stay-at-home curfew that was declared. I can imagine the rulers who thought this event up, banging their heads against a wall in frustration at the foolishness of their subjects. On the 24th of March, a 3-week lockdown was announced and life came to a standstill all over the country after some panic and confusion during the initial days when migrant workers from all over the country tried to get home. The lockdown was an unfamiliar experience for both the enforcers and the public. The only curfews we know about are those announced when law and order breaks down in communal clashes or political violence. Those are enforced with the use of extreme force and violence by baton wielding or gun toting uniformed personnel. This shutdown too was initially enforced with similar brute methods. 'Whack-at-sight' was the preferred method of deterrence employed by the cops. This kind of a shutdown was also a novel experience for the public and many youngsters were roaming the streets on two-wheelers to see what a shut-down city looked like. It took a week or more in most places for the public to understand what 'stay-at-home' meant and for the police to become a bit more humane in their enforcement methods.
Meanwhile, life on the farm continued, unhindered by events happening in the world outside. The only change we made to our routine was to stop the twice-or-thrice-a-week trips to Sirsi town for the music and dance classes the kids attended and for other errands. This further slowed down our pace of life and we had even more time on our hands. Summer usually is a time when the pace of work on the farm slows down and we are mostly in maintenance mode. It is too hot and dry for any field crops. Before the lockdown was announced, we managed to replant 1/3rd of our sugarcane field that needed fresh planting. The rest was ratooned from the previous crop and fresh plants would regrow from the stump of the previous harvest. During the summer months, we plant and water our new sugarcane crop, irrigate the betelnut and banana orchards and hand-water the mango trees that have flowered and any other young saplings that were planted the previous year. The veggie garden gets a lot of attention since this is a good time to grow most of our vegetables and also stock up on the cucumbers, pumpkins and gourds that can be stored for use during the monsoon.
It is also the time for any infrastructure projects and this year, we had a couple lined up. We wanted to build an extra bedroom attached to our house, for Sushie's mother who had moved in to live with us. We stocked up on the laterite blocks and sand for this construction. We spoke to the mason and the carpenter and got commitments from them to do it during April. We even managed to get the excavation done for the foundation but the work stopped there. We now have a more modest goal of building the foundation before the monsoon, so that we don't have trenches adjacent to our house collecting rainwater during the entire monsoon.
Update: Our mason decided to honour us this year by building the foundation and even the walls of the room. Work has progressed at a quick pace and he'll be done in a day or two. The carpenter is the next person in line whose blessings we seek to get the roof up before the rains.
Another long-pending demand from the kids was to build them a tree-house. Every year, there'd be more pressing work that would relegate the tree-house to the back of the list. This year, we had enough time on our hands to take this up. It wasn't going to be anything fancy – just a bamboo platform with railings and a roof. We don't have too many mature trees on our farm. Most trees have come up in the thirteen years we've been here, because we had started with a bare piece of earth. So we identified four conveniently spaced trees between which we would build our platform. Bamboo is usually plentiful on our land and in the surrounding forests. However, over the past two years, all the bamboo in our region had flowered and died out. This is a cycle that repeats once in 60-120 years depending on the species. This flowering cycle is programmed into the genes of the bamboo plant and it happens simultaneously over an entire geographical region for that variety. The dry stems would not have lasted very long since they are prone to insect attacks and also decay faster when exposed to sun and rain.
We managed to find some laggards that still hadn't flowered and got some green stems. The fresh bamboo was then kept immersed in water for over a week to drain all the sweet sap in the stem and make it unattractive to borers and thereby extend its life. It took about a week to finally build the tree house, working just afternoons on it on most days. The roof is just a layer of palm fronds to provide shade from the sun. Hence it is not rain-proof. However, it is a great space and the kids love it and often hang out there in the evenings.
Most mornings are spent around the house. Lunch has to prepared, the kids have their academic work for a couple of hours and there are other odd jobs to take care of. Afternoons and evenings, we go off and do our own things in various parts of the farm. The weather has been more muggy than usual this summer. Because of the heat, a paralysing lethargy sets in and after my afternoon nap, I have to drag myself out.
Summer is also the time when most fruits are in season. We have just finished our chickoo (sapota) season and the mango season will begin soon. Meanwhile, the cashew season is on and we go around gathering the fallen nuts from the trees in the evenings, a few times a week. Many times, we find just the empty shell of the nut, after the porcupine had gotten to it before we did. The cashew apple is juicy to eat, though there many more than we can eat. So, most are discarded. The Kokum season is also beginning and the half-dozen trees we have are laden with green fruit. However, the monkeys have been feasting on the barely ripe fruit and also causing a lot of damage to raw fruit. We make kokum juice concentrate and also dry the rind for use as a souring agent in cooking. The pulp surrounding the seed is usually discarded but we've discovered that it ferments easily and is great for making sweet homemade wine. The citrus trees are flowering profusely and so are the cherry and guava trees. We also had some oranges, ram-phal (custard apple/bullock's heart) and mulberries this past week. The cherry bushes are laden with fruit and Sushie is planning on making Cherry jam. We've had three good showers in April. The first was on Good Friday and was a hailstorm that dumped small pebble-sized chunks of ice along with a good quantity of rain. The second rain was a week later. These rains have triggered the sprouting of new foliage on our bare trees the greening of our deciduous landscape.
Monkeys have always been around in our forests and they forage from the forest trees surrounding our farm and often raid our fruit trees as well, when they move along the forest canopy on their journeys in search of food. They were unwelcome visitors, but they moved on and didn't stay long In the past few years, bands of monkeys are permanently on and around our farm and sit just out of reach of the barking dogs. They are also less afraid of humans and often sit defiantly on low branches of trees when we try to shoo them away. This is a common situation in most of our region now. Peacock numbers have also gone up considerably and they eat a lot of the field crops like paddy and the summer crops (green gram, cowpea, black gram etc.). Wild boar and porcupines have unhindered access and a free run of the place during the night. Wild boars are extremely destructive to the ripe paddy crop just before harvest and to sugarcane and can cause a lot of damage in a single night. Bandicoots have been a nightmare for Sushie in her veggie garden. They dig up freshly planted seedlings or seeds and any tubers and also destroy many plants by digging around in the rich veggie beds. Large flocks of birds raid fruit trees that are in season. We try to peacefully coexist with all these animals that raid our crops, avoiding the use of poison bait, air guns or other violent methods, using only physical barriers in some cases to keep them out. But the advantage clearly is tilting towards the wildlife around us and we've resigned ourselves to living on the left-overs.
Update: This year, being an 'off' year for mangoes, only half a dozen of our mango trees had fruited. Over the past week, monkeys have completely wiped out whatever raw fruit was on the trees. This is in addition to the kokum fruits that they have also been raiding. If the remaining handful don't survive to ripeness, this will be a mango-less year for us since we don't buy from the market anymore.
We had one new arrival during the lockdown. Our cow Jaya gave birth to a lovely female calf.
Jaya is the cow that has mastered the tricky calisthenics involved in turning her head around to drink her own milk. Ravi has rigged up an ingenious harness that restricts her head movement so that she can't stretch her neck too far behind. We now have excess milk but our dairy is not collecting milk from farmers anymore because there is a glut of milk and very little consumption in the market because of the lockdown. Many farmers who have large dairy operations have been hard hit during these times. The market for milk and milk products has shrunk also because bulk consumers like restaurants have shut down. But the cattle still need to be fed and looked after and this is a huge burden on many farmers with limited means. The meat industry that consumed unproductive and male cattle has also shut down. So these animals too have to be looked after by their owners. Things may soon reach a point where some farmers may abandon the animals they can't look after.
The lockdown has caused a lot of tribulation to people across class and geography. But the worst hit seem to be people that have migrated from rural India into cities in search of non-permanent, seasonal, daily-wage jobs. Overnight, they were without jobs, money, food or transport to get back to their villages. Lack of a steady, reliable income from agriculture and scarce alternate employment opportunities force people to move to urban areas in search of better fortunes. These anonymous people are the ones that keep the city running – as security guards, construction workers, cooks, restaurant staff, taxi drivers, delivery boys and scores of other services that we take for granted. A more resilient rural community would result in fewer of these distress migrations to cities. Resilience has to be built from the ground up – at the individual family level, at the local community level, ecological region level and so on. Most of the rural population have their own homes, however small and basic. So shelter is not a huge problem in rural areas. People also have the skills to build their own homes with locally available materials. Though the situation is now changing, with the government's housing schemes that provide money to BPL (below-poverty-line) households to build pucca houses. Climatically inappropriate and aesthetically atrocious box structures topped off with an RCC slab are the norm these days. The front wall is then clad with wall tiles with stunning designs. The latest fads are also incorporated – a 'canopy' is the one in vogue right now. No self-respecting house owner will build a house without a canopy. It took us a while to figure out what this was – a porch that extends from the front of the house and is held up by a couple of pillars. The more prosperous you want to look, the bigger the canopy.
In the past, farmers took their excess vegetables to sell in the market. These days, many of them take cash crops to sell in the market and come back with vegetables. They buy most of the food they eat from the market. Very few grow any significant portion of their food. Old practices of maintaining kitchen gardens to supply the family with fresh seasonal produce are becoming rare. Even if a person is unable to grow all their food, if they can fill in the gaps with food grown by other farmers in the region, communities become self-sufficient. For this to happen, a wide variety of foods need to be grown within the region, rather than growing only a handful of crops extensively. Food these days, travels huge distances to get to even rural kitchens.
Sensible management of the commons is also an extremely important aspect of building resilience. Water bodies, forests, grazing lands and other common spaces have to be managed by the community with an eye on long term gains for all, rather than exploited for short term gains for a few. Water shortages, especially during the summer months, is a common hardship experienced by rural communities in large parts of the country. People with resources tap into groundwater through borewells and extract water to irrigate cash crops, with little regard for the long term costs of depleted aquifers. Those with no water often migrate to cities in search of employment. Communities need to take collective ownership of the commons so that they can be protected from over-exploitation by a few and the benefits of healthy commons can be shared by all.
Life in rural regions (at least, in our area) seems to go on unhindered (to a large extent) by restrictions imposed by the authorities to curb the virus contagion. The only change being that most people wear a handkerchief over their nose and mouth when zooming around on their bikes. A neighbour who hosts card games at home has been having a high attendance of gamblers from the area and the sessions seem to go late into the night. Another is planning his wedding which will happen in a fortnight. He happens to be the son of one of our staff. The negotiations between the girl's and boy's families was held a week ago and involved almost twenty negotiators crammed into a small room (included Sushie and I as flies-on-the-wall to make up the numbers and provide moral support). Needless to say, the need for social distancing was not a constraint. Wedding planning is going on at a hectic pace since there's not much time left. However, the opportunity to keep it small, simple and inexpensive is being squandered in the effort to make it as grand as the circumstances permit, that too on borrowed money. Celebrating festivals, births, weddings and funerals on a scale way beyond their means is one of the most common ways that rural households end up in debt. The other is unexpected medical expenses. Disaster struck another neighbour last weekend when his cowshed burned down from a fire that started due to a short circuit. The dry paddy and maize straw stored in the loft caught fire and soon it was a blazing inferno. They managed to untie the cattle and get them out before the fire got too intense. The fire engine arrived much later and put it out but nothing was left standing of the original shed.
A lot of adjustment and change has been made around the world to cope with the unfamiliar circumstances of the lockdown. Many good things too have come out of it. Unnecessary travel has virtually stopped and so has unnecessary consumption. People have been forced to do household jobs that were outsourced to cooks and house-help. Hopefully they will have a greater appreciation of the effort involved in what were considered 'menial' tasks that were not worth their time. Families have spent more time together eating home-cooked meals and playing games and talking more to each other. Bonds have possibly been strengthened. There may be a greater appreciation and gratitude for a lot of conveniences, services and people in our lives that we had previously taken for granted. When the world comes out of the lockdown, one hopes that some of the good that was 'discovered' during the forced lockdown will continue to find a place in our lives. But there's also the fear that we'll all go back to 'business as usual' with a vengeance to make up for lost time and plunder and loot our our planet and fill our air with smoke, water with chemicals and our lives with material possessions like we did during the pre-pandemic days. Will humankind have the wisdom to make the right choices?