Unfortunately this is the single word to describe the lion’s share of vegetables available in the marketplace these days. From seed to yield, these vegetables are “fed” with chemicals that raise threat to human health. There is this opinion that greed of farmer is the reason behind this overuse of hazardous chemicals in agriculture. Well, that is something we could discuss further in this article! This is a memoir of a journey to a hamlet inside a forest in the Western Ghats in India.
Was it the midnight breeze caught up in the foliage or the herd of elephants grazing in the backyard? There were several noises from the dark and it is very difficult to distinguish one from the other unless you are used to them. To sleep inside a hut in the middle of a forest, knowing that you are subject to surprises is a very thrilling experience. There could be a pale kerosene lamp burning for you, reluctant to give up but make you feel that everything is alright! I was about to spend such a night in the forest hamlet where my old friend Thankan lived.
Thankan worked for us in the city for several years. He suddenly left his job and left an invitation for me to visit him at his village in the Mountains. My friend and I chose to drive up the Naadukaani Ghat road and expected our journey to end up in some old British Bungalow in some remote parts of Ooty or Goodallur [in the Western Ghats, Tamil Nadu- Kerala border, India]. We followed the route that Thankan had described to s over the phone and soon we took a diversion to the road that connects Goodall to Masinagudi. We had underestimated the trip and had no clothes to stay for a night in that cold place. Malayalam was soon being mixed with the ancient, colloquial Tamil that the locals spoke. We managed to get new clothes and tried to get away with the cold weather by literally gulping two hot cups of black coffee sold in the shops by the road.
spiced up and suddenly we felt warm. My friend was already figuring out the road ahead and Thank was waiting for us at his village
. We came across a man who was taking his cattle back home and he told us that we were to go 5 kilometers further into the village pointing to one direction. We saw no road, but something that could have been a trail, and no village but the beginning of
a forest! “So, you get what you deserve”, my friend was glad that we drove in our Willis Jeep and he was evidently thrilled about the drive ahead!
There was hardly any road. A four wheel drive has little comfort but that’s what makes a trip like this one, unforgettable. We were warned that bears are dangerous. So, we froze when we saw this black figure in the middle of the path “barely” a few feet away! Crickets and a few frogs as if they saw us panic, started making noises to ease out the air. The bear walked away into the bush, we were relieved and sped away to find signs of human inhabitation in a while.
Eventually, the path began to fade, we could make out the remnants of a stream that probably would flow when it rains heavily. It was a relief to find the ”road” after a few metres’ drive through the uncertain path.
We could find a Peahen and a Sambar by the side of the road. A pack of wild dogs rushed to hide in the bushes as they saw us. They are ruthless hunters. By the time we started getting nervous about the journey we spotted signs of a hamlet. There were scare-crows in the farmlands on either side of our road. There were elevated wooden shelters in the corners of these cultivated lands where the farmers would sit through the night to scare elephants and boars that intrude at night. By that time the daylight was almost gone and we strained our eyes to identify what sort plants they cultivated. Thank was eagerly waiting for us. He had retained that bit of city life in him. He wore a wrist watch that my father had gifted him. He even had a pen and a pocket diary peeping out of his shirt’s pocket. He rushed to us,”I got a bit scared. How was your journey? I wanted to be there at the junction, but some work came up.” He sounded apologetic about not having accompanied us on a new unbeaten path. But by then there was no room for complaint and he declared that we had to walk up to his hut!
It was only in the movies that I had seen such places before. We entered Thankan’s village. The wooden bridge was a bit tricky and we had a bunch of kids watching each step of ours. T
here were tiny huts form which smoke wriggled out. A meal was getting ready after the day’s hard-work. I felt that there was more happiness there I
felt. We reached near a mud house. The roof was tiled and we found a few ruptures on the outside. “Elephants,
they don’t destroy the house. Must have been a young male trying to rub his tusks in the dark” Thankan’s explanations scared us. But the choice was clear, we there to experience it all. He showed us three kerosene lamps and said that they would keep wild animals away away at night. He had kept a few blankets for us to sleep on. There we
re large firewood in the corner of the courtyard of the house. At the sight of the firewood were relieved not just from the cold but also from the thought of encountering a wild tusker at night!
“I shall get your meal by the time you take bath”. Thankan showed us the way tot the small stream. Water was ice cold, the fatigue we realised, was washed off in no time. We walked back to the house and by then there was no daylight either. The house was located by the side of huge paddy field. Harvest was just over and I could still smell the freshly cut paddy. We were otherwise surrounded by forest and a few stars had begun to negotiate with the darkness. “Let me get some sleep, call me once the meal is ready”, my friend was not willing to sit up and gaze at the stars. I took a blanket [the thick black ones that are common among tribes] and made a pillow for myself to rest my back and sat on the verandah of that tiny mud house. I could find a few stars and felt as if they were waiting to see how we would sail through the night!
“How are things here? The harvest was good enough? We would like to buy some rice, remember…Amma loves your unpolished rice a lot. She won’t let me enter the house without that!”, I told Thankan who walked into the courtyard. Thankan smiled and said this. “Sar [his version of Sir], all you know is the taste of the meal. If you wont get me wrong, let me explain…” He waited for no answer from me, and continued. “Farmers here prepare the land and sow the see
ds. We do our best to get the best, be it vegetables, pulses or cereals… Then the wholesale buyers would walk in. They promise the best price. We sometimes even receive advance payments. We take good care of the crop. Even at the risk of our own lives. A few years back one of our friends even lost his leg while trying to scare wild boars away from the fields. And as the time of harvest approaches, the buyers sometimes the
ir representatives turn up to check the progress. That build our faith and we get ready for the big day. By then, out of nowhere we would start getting signals that the prices are not going to be the same. If not the same buyer, a new fellow would walk in pretending to save us from poverty. They bargain for a cheap price and we helplessly surrender for it. Initially we believed in the ”economics” of the city market places. Eventually we learned that we were being cheated! And there is no other way but do farming. That is all what we know to do and most of us refuse to chose a different occupation. And the cost of our living keeps shooting up. So we are left with no other choice but increase the production. Good crop comes when we do organic farming. But we have to use chemicals to boost
the yield. Moreover most of the new seeds that we get fail to respond if the respective chemical fertiliser is not given. Pesticides therefore become inevitable for these crops to fight the pests. We know that this is not the way. But tell me what to do?! Our children have stopped joining us in doing this. They are educated and they don’t want to do this. Ultimately we farmers gain a bad name producing poisonous food. But nobody wants to notice the other side of the story. We have stopped protesting. Our lives should move on. It might end with our generation. Young men in the village have gone to the cities searching for jobs. I have some rice with me that we made for our personal use. I will happily share it with you Sar..”
I felt some sort of insecurity and helplessness listening to him. At the same time I wanted to make the most out of this conversation. A jumbo trumpeted somewhere and we paused for a while till we assured that we could sit for some more time. We then rushed to the stream nearby. The water was ice cold. There was moonlight by then. my friend seemed to be very nervous and wanted to get back soon. I took a minute to lie down in the flowing water. I could feel the stream in and out. Aren’t we all part of this eternal flow…? We got back home and by then Thankan’s son had brought fresh meals for all of us. Country chicken curry with fried-coconut gravy, there was snake-guard deep fried in sesame oil and some papads
to make the cooked rice taste the best ever in a lifetime. The brass vessels were emptied in no time and we were ready for a chat again. Thankan smoked beedis and offered us the same. We had brought along with us nothing for this friend. There was more of silence than words. We saw deer grazing on the remnants of the harvest. The mothers would have found the glowing camp fire as a sign of safety for their young ones. Their eyes glowed as Thankan showed the torch light on them. We got back to the safety fo the small hut in a short while as it started drizzling.He had to leave as his ailing mother had told him to be at home. My friend and I, equally scared and thrilled about the night ahead, fell asleep in no time.
The morning was so beautiful. The fresh rays of the sun lit the dew drops on grass blades, once again we fell in love with the forests, the people and ourselves. We saw the foot prints of elephants. I was amazed at the depth of my sleep or the skill of the gentle giants to have visited us without letting us know about the same! On our way to Thankan’s house for breakfast I asked him about the possibilities of doing organic farming. He said he had a few friends thinking of the same. But they were not ready until someone promised them to buy what they made. ” We know that chemicals are not good for the soil or the crop. But organic farming is not cost-effective for farmers like us who find it tough to meet our daily needs from agriculture alone. One NGO came to us a year ago offering help. They taught us organic farming but their work stooped half the way. We don’t get consistent support. We have little choice but do what we do now”. I thought not twice and shared my friend Raghu’s contact. He was on the look out for farmers who could supply organic produce for his resort. It was an hour away from this hamlet but that was not a challenge for this association to begin. I left for my hometown with unforgettable memories and a great deal to happiness that I could facilitate change. And one day, I would return to honour my dear friend’s invitation to visit him again.