In Rural India, There’s Always Work To Be Done

Eron Sandler
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The day starts at 7 a.m., with the first hint of light through the plastic-shielded windows. Reluctant to leave the warmth of my sleeping bag cocoon, I pretend to sleep while listening to the daily chores starting around me.

My host grandmother, who we call Ama, quietly chants morning prayers and places new flowers and incense at the family altar in a corner of the room. Sudah, my host mother, sweeps outside. Hegde is on the roof, checking the drying progress of the betel nut harvest and transferring some down to bamboo mats in the yard. I hear Putu, the baby, calling from the bedroom, just to make sure he is not alone.

By the time I arise and fold up my bedding, waiting for me in the makeshift outdoor bathroom is a bath of steaming water, heated in a big cauldron over a fire, and in the kitchen a hot cup of milk, spiced with coriander, nutmeg, pepper, cumin, and sugar.

Sitting on the stoop, I talk to Sudah as she smoothes a new layer of cow dung over the front walkway to tamp down the insects and dust. She is strong and beautiful, not much older than me. “Everyday work,” she calls this. “Every day there is the same work to do and it has to be done.” She laughs, though, and refuses my help, always insisting, “Later.”

We sit on the floor and eat off of banana leaves, carefully washing them, pushing the water up the veins of the leaf with our right hands. I watch to make sure I do it properly, and sit on my left hand to keep it from helping. Dosas are the breakfast norm, thin rice pancakes hot off the stove with spicy coconut chutney. Sudah stands over us, waiting to serve us more. She ignores me when I say I am finished and sneaks one more hot dosa onto my plate. It has become our game; if she can serve me before I get up, I have to eat it. Breakfast is supposed to be light, but I always end up feeling exhausted and overstuffed.
 
Hegde takes me down to the farm with him. We stop at neighbors’ homes along the way. Every house we pass has betel nuts drying in the sun or boiling in big vats over clay fire pits. Betel nut is popular in India; it is chewed like tobacco, often as paan, a mixture of betel and other spices on a special leaf smudged with calcium carbonate. The juice is red and leaves people with hideously stained teeth and lips.

We follow a path through the village, under fruit trees and along a stream, until we come to the plantation where the betel nuts grow. This is no ordinary plantation though; it is layered like a rainforest. The air becomes cooler as we step down the embankment to the damp forest floor. The betel trees loom above, laden with clusters of green and orange fruits. It is a magical forest, spanning for miles. The boundaries of each farmer’s plot are understood without the need for spatial separation, so the farm seems like an unending jungle.

In the town of Shigehalli, eight miles away, Hegde takes me to see the local farmer’s cooperative. In a big warehouse, farmers lay out their produce for auction. Buyers bid, using a secret ballot, and the highest bidder gets the goods. If the farmer is dissatisfied with the price, he can decline to sell.

Hegde brings in five big bags of betel and stores them to sell another day. At the front desk he gets a receipt and explains that if he wants, he can collect 75 percent of the day’s selling price now, and return to sell another day and receive the remaining balance. In this way, he explains, farmers can always get money if they need it, but can wait to sell their goods until the market is high. In addition, cooperative members have access to the rice mill and a local hospital.

Hegde and other farmers talk with me about the World Trade Organization and market prices. They discuss the growing rate of farmer suicides in India and describe the farmers’ movements that are happening on the eastern side of the state. They explain that farmers here, in contrast, feel secure with their market.

In the evening, Sudah and I bring milk from a neighbor and prepare yogurt for the morning. She shows me how to grind coconut using a mortar the size of a car tire and a gargantuan rolling pestle. “You try?” she offers. The stone is difficult to grasp and very heavy. I can’t seem to rotate it with any rhythm. Sudah stands behind me and holds my arm, changing the angle of my shoulders and the weight of my pressure. Suddenly it clicks and I manage to get a steady pace going for almost 30 seconds. It is hard work! Sudah smiles and scoops out the last of the milky substance from the bowl of the mortar.

By 9 p.m., I am exhausted. I stretch out on my mat, close my eyes and listen to the sounds again. Ama is watching a cooking show on the family’s new television. Sudah talks quietly to the baby; I can hear the creaking of the bed as she rocks him. Hegde is on the roof again, covering the betel and moving it around. I fall asleep easily. Tomorrow will be another day, I know, with another day’s work to be done.


 

Comments

Posted on 10/07/2009 by

Sriharesh Sriperumbudur

Sriharesh Sriperumbudur

Vada, upma, dosa, chutney n sambar for breakfast…. Looks yummy and makes me feel hungry… it’s been ages I ate all these for breakfast and that too on the banana leaf…

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