May 3, 2016

One day, last month, Govindraj came with the afternoon milk and said that there were policemen at the turn-u who were checking Driver’s licences and RC books.
Govindraj didn’t know the details, but apparently the previous evening, either Terthagiri had attacked his cousin Devendran or the other way around. The assailant had fled and was in hiding and the assailed was in hospital.
Since there was no villain (as yet), Govindraj was circumspect in his judgement, but said (neutrally), “Why can’t they just beat each other up? Why knives?”

The next day, Sonati and I went to the shandy and got the story on the way, in many versions and with much embellishment, depending on the teller.
It was Devendran who had hidden in the bushes and leapt out, unprovoked (at that moment, anyway) and hacked Terthaagiri’s neck and fled.

That evening, Govindraj had a villain to rail against: “I never did like that Devendran; who will marry his son, now? Where will they find grooms for his daughters?”
When Sonati and I went to Terthagiri’s kottai, his mother and daughters and daughters-in-law were there. He had been alone with his wife and mother; the sons and daughters had been away working in Mysore, but had now returned: Murugesh was in hospital, and Sathyaraj at the police station.

Their story was that Devendran had been drunk, and had hacked Terthagiri at dusk; and had then inflicted some injuries on himself and had been admitted to hospital.
His father, (Foxy) Aandi was in the lock-up and was the brains behind this attack.

The trouble with this sort of story is that it could well have panned out symmetrically and oppositely with the victim and assailant exchanging roles.
Kaatu prachanai (Land trouble) is ever present, particularly amongst brothers and cousins (whose are the adjoining lands, generally), and perhaps this April’s heat played a catalytic role. There is a Ray Bradbury story called Touched by Fire which is based on this violence-during-the-heat theme. The tragedy is that the feud will pass down over the generations a la Asterix in Corsica even when the protagonists have forgotten the original cause of the trouble. The evil that men do is visited upon their children.
The police and the lawyers make a packet. So both the assailant and the victim are losers.

The only thing to be thankful about is that we haven’t reached the level of the American Dream: A gun under every pillow.
A month on: The situation hasn’t changed. Terthagiri hasn’t returned from hospital. He hasn’t really recovered full consciousness. Devendran and his dad are in jail. Devendran’s wife and children have to cope with the farm work without him. As do Terthagiri’s wife and children.

Subversion on the Hippo Rock

November 3, 2015


When Sridhar first mooted the idea of us meeting 80 Teach For India fellows, our first thought was “Where will they sit?”, and then, “We don’t even have 10 tumblers”.
But Sridhar said that those were not issues. The group would come from Vellimalai, we wouldn’t have to feed them, and we would have to have them for two hours: a one hour speech followed by one hour of questions/answers. Eventually all the numbers changed.

Last Saturday we were host to some 40 Teach For India Fellows, most of whom were around 25 years old, who have been teaching in corporation schools in Chennai for the last four months. The Hippo Rock saw its largest footfall count.

Initially we were in the unenviable position of having to hold forth a la a school classroom; but after the speech component was disposed of, and the questions started coming, the energy of the youngsters took over.
We fielded questions about home-schooling, our own childhoods, rural life, schools in various places, fear, and Sridhar even added a bit about fishing on the high seas. We have enough material there for a book.

Sonati, Varun and I had managed to make peanut laddoos the previous day, and Varun had decided to leave an auspicious number for the event: 108. These were consumed with gusto.
And then, since lemons insinuated themselves into the speech I made, we all had a shot of Nimbu Paani on the Hippo Rock thanks to Krishnan, who took on the task of squeezing the lemons.

Then the discussions spilt over to the house, all over the land, and continued unabated until Sridhar and Krishnan hustled everyone down to the buses and back to base-camp, leaving Varun, Sonati and me to debrief each other, since each of us had been having independent conversations with multiple people. And then a brief debrief to Badri baba on the phone with the promise of more when he gets back home.

Some of the responses were heart-warming:
“I want to unschool my kids…; but how can I say that, I don’t have any; in fact I am not even married”

“I wonder why my parents didn’t home-school me”

“I feel so bad that all I have been doing is to push the kids to score high marks; I will change that now”

It really was great having the group over; the energy of that age is tremendous. And we feel that some of them were touched somewhere by what they heard and saw; so that there will at least be some chinks in the citadel of school.

For the record, my “Speech for India” was as follows:

Hello everybody. Welcome to Thekambattu.

I am not used to talking like this, so consider this a conversation and stop me if you want to question something that I have said; if you want to say something; or if you just want to change the subject. I am just getting the ball rolling.

The impulse to stop the movement of your life–your career–your studies–and teach others not so privileged is commendable–something to be applauded– Not too many people pause at this stage of their lives; or for that matter at any stage.
Later, my question to some of you will be “Where does this impulse come from?”

A sense of discontent with things as they are. That’s not a nice word. Let’s coin a new word: malcontent.

We (Sonati and I)– I will use we and I randomly; but the two of us are in this together :-)– feel very strongly that if something is done with good intent, then the results will be good. However having said that, one needs to be careful of pitfalls. One great pitfall is that the system will co-opt you and make you complicit. I may think that I know best; I have thought this out: Arrogance. I may think that there is no other way: Resignation.
In both these cases I become an ally of the system.

So then our views, admittedly opinionated, definitely personal. But you need to look for the truth that may shine through for you in what we are saying.

So schools.
1. The first thing to be aware of is the seductive, lottery nature of school. This is inherent in all schools. Some kids will do well. But MOST kids? What happens to them?

2. Competition dominates: If someone else does badly, I do well. There is no place for co-operation.

3. Entitlement: I went through school and did well; so I deserve this. And Resignation: I went to school and did badly, so I deserve this.

4. When you spend a large part of your life in school doing what you are told, then you stop thinking and wait to be told what to do.

5. Irrelevance of school subjects to real life (And I am sure most or all of you will have loads to say on this subject). This destroys a lot of potential, particularly in rural areas where the irrelevance is even more stark. There are kids who end up being neither here nor there because they have lost the school lottery, and have not acquired the required skills to look after their land.

Schools are leading to breakdown of relationships due to competition. Children are being alienated from their peers, their family and their community (Irrelevance of school subjects to real life means they are relevant to some alien life somewhere else, is it not?)

Where do the winners of the lottery go? Farmers’ children to the towns; small town children to the cities; city kids to the US of A.
Maybe the losers of the lottery are better off? One, perhaps irrelevant statistic; but it comes to my mind: the number of farmers in the US is less than the number of prison inmates!

So then, what does one do? One needs to focus on the home. The fallacy that is prevalent is that everyone learns anything worth learning in school. Not true. Since children in their growing years are in school much of the time, it seems that that is the case. Think of your own experiences.

A sense of security can only develop at home. Home is inherently a co-operative place. Non-competitive. A sense of community first develops at home. Responsibility for another; for the place. Sense of people. Sense of place. Nowadays the sense of home as a place is absent for many people.

It all turns on affection. If, anything clicks in school, it is because of a sense of affection between teacher and taught. In spite of the structures of school. Think of your own experiences with the kids.

Here we can see changes in front of our eyes. Neither-here-nor-there youth. Kids who are not farmers-in-the-mind. The world has swept into a self-sufficient economy, and in a matter of a generation, changed it around. Cultures are being destroyed by the monoculture of school.

OK, I think I have spoken enough. Over to you.

The perils of homeschooling

September 7, 2015

Badri’s A level exam results were declared a few weeks ago. He got an A* in Computer Science and a d in English (AS). He was unfazed and had not “expected” or “not expected” any grade. And there the matter rested for a few days. But Sonati and I were not easy about this.

He had “studied” even less for his O Level English, and had got an A grade (or was it a B? I forget). Sonati and my gut feeling was that there was something wrong.

Badri was no help because he said (admittedly, in answer to a leading question) that he would not have been surprised if he had got a C in Computer Science.

The school was discouraging; admittedly in good faith:
“Just a caution – last year we did request this for our Art students, who received a lower grade than expected even by the expert external assessor. They had worked like mad for two years and expected a grade or two higher! But the response we got from CIE after re-eval was very disapppointing. It seemed to be the same person, and it was the same grade, with NO explanation of why they had done poorly that made any sense to us…”
“Some thoughts about the English exam. I feel it is not a trivial exam; as an estimate, students in the past have spent up to fifty hours (over about three months) preparing for it. Preparation included reading and understanding a textbook that explained basic concepts, working through several sets of exam papers and coming to a teacher for feedback, ideas for improving writing etc. Even with all this, some students only did moderately well.”

And the fee for the re-eval was 40 pounds per paper! That’s 80 pounds for two English papers times n rupees per pound! Bloody hell.

Then I awoke one morning with the remembrance of something similar from my Class 11 Chemistry exam at Xavier’s. I was travelling home on the bus with my Chemistry teacher and I tentatively asked him “Sir, how come I did so badly?” And he said, “What do you mean badly? You were top of the class.” It transpired that the office clerks had not added my Practical marks to the total. It was too late to change it on the Report card however, and Sukumar Verma said, “You; OK, you were tentative, but didn’t your parents think that they should kick up a fuss?”

And that day, serendipitously, we came across this Guardian article:

And on the CIE website, I saw that they would refund the fees in the case of a grade improvement.

And Sonati and I decided to indulge in this lottery. Yesterday, the d was revised upwards to a c.
Given the adrenaline rush that this “win in the lottery” has brought, we are tempted to ask for yet another re-eval. What would you say?

Double or Quits?

Hackers 2.0

September 3, 2015

On Monday, Arunachalam, who was working for us on the Upper field, returned from lunch and (quite casually) asked me, “Did you let someone cut down your Porcha-maram?” Judging by his casualness, I assumed that it was some small tree. And in the heat, I had no interest in going and looking at the site of a cut-down tree. So, I just said, “Of course, not. Some bloody thief again”, and we carried on with our respective work.

Later that evening, when Sonati and I were sitting on the Hippo rock, Varun joined us and immediately said, “Oh, someone has cut down a big tree”, and pointed to a gash in the landscape.

How come we didn’t hear the sound of the hacking? Sonati and I (and the boys to some extent) are so “tuned-in” to that sound that we start up from sleep if it happens.

Next day, we took a look at the place: It was a clean cut with a saw! That is why the operation was silent.

A silent hack

A silent hack

And what’s more, the felled tree was still lying in the undergrowth, having damaged a couple of others in its fall. It is a tricky spot; so has the thief let it lie, intending to come back later, with help?

The felled tree

The felled tree

The Porcha-maram is a tree used to make ploughs, and as with most other native trees, it can now be found only on our land. I suppose we should feel thankful that it is someone whom wants a plough who has chopped down the tree. Who knows the state of things to come? We have heard horror stories of Timber Mafias operating near Auroville, with chain-saws and trucks. If that comes to pass here, we may hark back to the idyllic time when thieves operated only on a Need-to basis and not for the market.

The "gash in the landscape"

The “gash in the landscape”

After all, till yesterday, it was the sound of hacking that was an alarm call for us. Today, without any hacking sounds, we are on edge: a continuous High-alert.

World Poetry Day Haiku

April 3, 2015

Boys, trees and we have
In the last fifteen years, grown
At Thekambattu.


Karumandurai Rocks, OK!

April 3, 2015

When we moved here, fifteen years ago, phoning Salem was an event: One had to book a trunk call from Karumandurai. Hot on our heels, STD came to Karumandurai. And now as everyone who visits us now knows, Karumandurai boasts of four (or is it five?) cell phone towers.

Call us old-fashioned if you will, but we preferred our chunky WLL phone; and surrendering it a couple of months ago was a watershed event. We had hoped for a chunky desk phone which would use a GSM SIM card, and I have window-shopped in Salem but never had any luck. “Adha yaaru vanguvanga, saar?” (“Who would buy it saar?”) was the refrain.

And on April fool’s day, when I visited Sensar Mobiles, the fancy cell-phone shop in Karumandurai (In one period of 45 minutes waiting in the shop last month, I saw 6 cell phones being bought; and all of them smart-phones costing over Rs.3500), with Badri, we thought, No harm in trying.

And, for less than the price of the cheapest cell phone in the shop, voila:

Varun's painting of the new desk phone

Apna nimbu: Kahaan pahunchega?

December 16, 2014

Since there has been a lot of back and forth about our lemons, on Facebook, on our blog and in e-mails to us, we thought we should clarify/consolidate, and carry on the conversation.

If a solution was required to our personal lemon problem, then e-commerce or organic marmalade would have provided one. Even so, we strongly feel that surely these lemons should be consumed locally, by our neighbours and others from nearby who need lemons to pickle or juice or…

But the problem is not a personal one but rather a systemic one: which is that primary producers of all hues seem to be trapped by a broker mafia into becoming sweat shops for faraway customers who outsource their every requirement (and responsibility).

So perhaps, I need to say, with Wendell Berry, All you who eat; eat thoughtfully. Eating is a political act. Where you get your food, where it is cooked and who cooks it, and how you eat it: all of this contributes to the solution.

Farmers need every encouragement to grow food, not cash. As things stand, what Wendell Berry writes about 60’s America is true for India now: If you can get into a profession; why, then you must not be a farmer. If you can move to the city, why,then you must leave the country. If you can work the “miracle” of industrial progress, then you must do so, even if it means the theft of energy from posterity. (Posterity can’t complain!)

The countryside is no longer a place to come home to; it is a place to leave. That needs to be turned around.

landscape card

Apna nimbu bazaar bech nahin saka

December 14, 2014

To take it to the limit, Sonati and I decided to try and hawk our lemons in the shandy at Karumandurai. So we set off on the TVS with our bagful of lemons (and some lemon juice to drink), found a corner of the road, and set up the bag on the seat of the TVS. I started calling out “Paththu rubai-ku naalu” (Ten rupees for four).

In the hour that we spent there, we didn’t sell a single lemon.

The only ones who made a foray in our direction were the brokers. The garlic-man and his wife were also discouraging: “No-one will buy lemons; just give it to that broker…”. Raja came by for a chat and said that we should definitely not sell for 40 paise a lemon, but take them to Salem where “they don’t cheat so much”.

Was it a broker nexus that ensured that no-one bought from us? I wonder.
In the end, we unloaded our entire stock on Jothi and returned home. The Net-net for the day was a sketch by Sonati of me hawking (read trying to hawk) lemons off the TVS.

hawking lemons

The Fire

November 22, 2014

This happened at the height of the drought (Varun’s diary entry is for 25 March), and it still gives me the heebie-jeebies to think about it; but here is Varun’s Stream-of-Consciousness:

Varun's "The Fire"

I was in the Hippo Rock. I thought I saw smoke on the south-east corner of the bore-well tier.
I went down and told Appa.We went up. He said that they must just be burning stuff in the next kaad. Appa went back.
I noticed that it was on our land. A fire had started.
We went to the bore-well tier.

We went down into Doriswumi’s well tier. Ananda was starting the pump in Parman’s well. Appa started talking to him. Ananda said Shanti was burning the field where the well is and it must have spread.
I saw someone walking in the path in between the fields. He said something to Appa.
You couldn’t go straight from where we were standing to our land because there were too many plants in the way. We went to Doriswumis well, and then to another field and then in to our land. I noticed that there was diesel on my legs and on the slippers that I was wearing which were Appa’s.
The strap of one of my slippers broke. Appa was wearing them.

Appa told Ananda to get a knife. After some time he told me to get a knife. I think he said it because Ananda was taking too long.
I ran up and asked S’na for a knife. While she was getting it I quickly washed off the diesel from my legs.
I went down. Ananda had brought a knife and Appa was beating the fire down with a stick.
I said, “Should we get water?” We were wondering.

Appa said, “Just hang on to these,” and gave me two sticks which he had used to beat down the fire, and our knife and went away.I didn’t know where he went. I didn’t know where he went. I heard him shouting at someone and she was saying something. The fire had spread to one place were I thought I could put it out. I put it out. I thought I could put it out a little more. I did. That kept happening until the whole south-east corner was put out. While I was putting it out, Ananda came from a path that the fire had made. He said something to me and went.
The fire was spreading north. I had been using a stick to put out the fire. I was wondering whether to start cutting with the knife. I didn’t because it looked quite difficult, so I just kept beating it if it started coming west. I throw a few stones at it and it went off a little bit, and I was putting out fire on the east of the path to go down. When I was throwing stones, then I had to aim properly. The fire on the tier east of the bore-well tier had become big.
Someone came from the same path as Ananda had come. I wasn’t sure who it was, but I thought I had seen her before. She came with a “jarmenybon”  (eupatorium) stick so I thought she must be coming to put out the fire. She was. She put out the fire in the south-east corner of the bore-well tier which was spreading north. She had to go underneath some plants to put it out. There was a small fire on one of the leaves above her wile she was putting it out. I was just going to tell her, but she came out of the plants and it went off. She started putting out the fire on the edge of the tier below the bore-well tier. It kept suddenly becoming big even if it was small because it was quite dry.

There was one place which I thought I could put it out. She told me to check if everything was put out up. Maybe she wasn’t sure if I could put it out.
She put out the fire down.
We were looking at the fire which was spreading east. I heard Appa call me. I guessed that he was coming from Parman’s kaad. I told him him that we were putting out the fire. He said, “Who’s we? Thenan’s wife?”. I said, “I’m not sure who. Maybe” He told me that he had gone to Parman’s kaad to get water but when he reached he had noticed that there wasn’t much fire on the bore-well tier.
Appa told me that he had shouted at Thenan’s wife, Shanti. That’s who I must have heard him shouting at.

We went to the bore-well tier. She was Shanti. She was wondering what to do about the fire that was spreading east. Appa said you won’t be able to put it out. I heard him telling her that if it happens again it’ll be better if she tells him as soon as it happens.
I put on my t-shirt. I had kept it on top of the bore-well while putting out the fire. There were a lot of sacks and one of my old sleevelesses on it to cover the pipe, so that it was camouflaged.

I went to the Hippo rock after lunch. The fire had stopped. But I could see burnt stuff on the patch south-east of the one next to the road and Potti’s kaad.

We saw a plane flying very high in the evening.You could only see it because of its smoke trail.

Apna Nimbu Bazaar Becha

November 20, 2014

The title credit for this post goes to Pankaj, who has made a great film on much the same issues called Apna Aloo Bazaar Becha. The rant credits go to me and the insight credits to Sonati. 

Yesterday, it came viscerally home to Sonati and me that the Economy Rules OK! 

We have always sympathised with our farmer neighbours about their being trapped in the brokers’ clutches. One memory that stays is Govindraj and his young machan (brother-in-law), barely bigger than Badri Baba at that time, some 12 years ago: he was hawking tomatoes door-to-door at ₹3 a kg; the retail price in Karumandurai was ₹15; and he said that he was not going to get more than ₹1 a kg in Karumandurai. So he spent about three hours a day carrying his day’s pickings around the villages for some six or seven weeks!

I remember Unnamalai from Gundiyapattu pleading with a broker to give her 5 paise per lemon more than he was willing to give: eventually she had to take the offer of ₹20 for 100 lemons. 

Yesterday, I sold lemons for a rupee a piece, and I suspect I got a “good rate” because the broker was Jothi, my vegetable-wallah. Just last week I had heard him say that there was no way he could charge less than ₹5 a lemon because he was buying them for ₹4. 

Till this year we have never sold lemons: We have pickled them, gifted plenty (once even carting a couple of hundred to Bombay to gift away: half my luggage), and generally made merry with Nimbu pani, Lemon cakes and what-not. This year, too, we have gifted lots: it was a real pleasure to see the usually zombie-like Easparan’s face beam when, just as he was diffidently asking me for a few lemons (“My wife told me to ask you”), Sonati emerged with a bagful! 

And of course we have received gifts aplenty throughout our stay here of a variety of things. Pumpkins, coconuts, rice, what-have-you. In fact all these lemons are from trees grown from seed of lemons gifted to us by “Lemon” Annamalai. 

But this year it became a problem of plenty. Brokers started accosting me with offers of 50 paise per lemon (Just imagine, saar: ₹50 for 100). They would of course strip the trees if we let them and then we, who haven’t bought a lemon for many years may have been reduced to even that! A certain sense of entitlement also crept into those who received our lemons: “Anyway, if they are free, why not ask for more?” 

The long and the short of it was that there were a bit too many to handle, so yesterday, when I was going shopping I carried 100 lemons and asked Jothi if he wanted them for his shop. He enthusiastically took them and after having made out my vegetable bill, he finessed any attempt at bargaining (which in any case I never indulge in with him), by saying “It’s OK Anna, the lemons have paid your bill”. 

And it came home to me that I had sold our lemons at ₹1 apiece. Which was quite appalling. 

(An aside: Amma in Salem says that the shop makes more out of her coconuts than she does; Aseem says that Penguin makes more out of his book than he does; Russell says that an agent would make more out of his paintings than he does; only he doesn’t use an agent; and hence makes less money than he would otherwise. But I digress)

 And this is the trap that the farmer falls into. Moreso, if it is a cash crop. I mean, I can gift lemons away almost indefinitely, but any takers for Sugarcane? Tapioca? The system ensures that the buyer calls the shots and the seller has no choice but not to grow Tapioca for the market.

 But that too is a phantom choice. If you grow Ragi for a few years in fields surrounded by tapioca, you will find that all the neighbours’ rats migrate to your ragi-field. And to add insult to injury, when you do finally harvest whatever Ragi the rats have spared, your neigbours will say, “Saar, your rats have come to our fields”. 

Been there, Done that. 

We have seen the landscape change in front of our eyes, literally. When we came here, 14 years ago, 80% of the rainfed fields we saw were food crops: ragi, samai, kambu, nellu…Now no-one grows rainfed food crops. Farmers have moved to the cultivation of Tapioca to the exclusion of virtually everything else. 

The upshot is that since the aim is to make money, all our neighbours’ kids have turned to some form of brokering to add to their income. If you look at the statistics, India’s pulse production is steadily declining (Sunny: Numbers please). Not surprising at all. Anything which requires care throughout the year, is given up for low-maintenance tapioca. The menfolk can then go earn money in Tiruppur, Coimbatore, Kerala (or of course for the gamblers, there is Red-Sanders smuggling in Andhra).

 I can say that here in Thekambattu, at any rate, most of the younger generation have stopped thinking like farmers. And who can blame them? And it is likely that “No longer farmers in the mind” is the rule rather than the exception all over the country. And if we lose our farmers, who will feed us? 

I will end this with a quote from Oliver Goldsmith’s Deserted Village: 

“Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay;
Princes and lords may flourish or may fade;
A breath can make them as a breath has made.
But a bold peasantry, their country’s pride,
When once destroyed, can never be supplied.”

…and an invitation to drop in for some Nimbu paani.


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