I spent the last weekend rediscovering my roots a little with my Amma and Atha (maternal grandparents) at my mum’s home in Pathanapuram. It’s a one hour drive from my place; back in the day, you’d need two buses and a jeep if you didn’t have the luxury of a private vehicle or the time to wait around for one of those rare direct buses.
I know I’d walk all the way if I have to, because the happiness I get from my little world in Pathanapuram is something I’ve never yet managed to find elsewhere. It’s a different kind of peace – the kind where time stands still and all the world is wrapped in a blanket of coziness.
Dragging myself out of bed at 5 AM and realizing that the world outside was weepy with rain, all I wanted to do was crawl back under the sheets and take a rain-check on the trip altogether. But then I forced myself to remember those wrinkled smiles so dear to my heart and managed to brush my teeth with my eyes barely open, stuff a clean dress into my bag, and call shotgun even though I had no plans of staying awake for the trip.
On arrival, we were greeted warmly by my Amma, and after being appropriately chastised (never seriously) for daring to show up yet again in my track pants and tee shirt, I embarked on a quest to find my Atha. And when I found him in the ayyam (a cross between a backyard and a small field), digging holes to plant yams, I joined in happily. Granted, he only let me dig one hole (he is always worried when I’m around tools of any kind), but I did get to plant four yams in total, and walked away feeling like quite the accomplished farmer.
Then it drizzled and the world was suddenly more beautiful.
I love the rain. I embrace the warmth of the heady smell that pervades the air and covers my soul in bliss as the first monsoon shower kisses the baked earth. And for me, petrichor found true meaning among the lush foliage of Pathanapuram: in the dew drops running off the broad flat yam leaves, in the rain drops bouncing off the my grandfather’s back as he bends over his plants, in the steam rising from the tiny glasses of sulaimani my grandmother occasionally manages to coax me into drinking, in the beauty of the water droplets that are ensnared by the remnants of the net covering our old well.
As I washed up by the well, I couldn’t help but think back to a time when the coat of paint on the walls of the house was older and peeling, but my grandparents were younger and moved faster. When Amma sang by the kitchen fire while Atha and I washed up and headed out to work the land.
I’ve always felt that there’s something magical about farming, a vague sense of déjà vu that takes me back to my care-free childhood, back to those days I spent under my grandparent’s care. Back to the days when I didn’t know how to read or spell my own name, but knew how to collect coffee beans and pepper corns. Back to the days when I used to trail behind my Atha as he went about his business, bearing well the hard task of tending to his crops and the harder task of keeping my three-year-old self out of mischief.
He grew rows upon rows of cassava plants which felt like a mini forest to me on account of my tiny stature at the time, and had an assortment of trees he nourished to bear the tastiest fruits. Few things in life gave me greater joy than leaving tiny footprints (three each) on the mounds of soil entombing the starchy tapioca that are beloved to many, which consequently resulted in my Atha chasing me through the plants. As a child, it never occurred to me that it wasn’t my presumed super speed that kept him from scooping me up into his skinny brown arms until I was ready to hand myself in.
He owned the earth as far as I was concerned, and shaped his land according to his whims. He was powerful that way. After a heavy rain, he cut channels into the mud to drain the water effectively. I used to wonder how he always chartered perfect courses, resting in between to wipe his brow and flash me a grin. Sometimes, He’d cut channels around me for my amusement. Thus made me feel like he’d hacked up rivers out of the ground just for me; tiny rivers for my tiny self. I spent hours just watching the water; rushing by, falling off the trees, drenching my cotton dress.
Time has a tenuous hold on Pathanapuram, and days blended into nights almost effortlessly. Around mid noon (If I reckon right), my Amma would come down carrying a steel mug full of deliciously cool lemonade. I’d sip lemonade and watch him work, occasionally running around him in circles to let him know I was doing my part too. Sometimes I was even allowed to fetch the jug for Atha if Amma was too busy with her chores and I executed the job well. When balancing the lemonade, I walked with the precision of an acrobat.
As the sun went down, we’d amble back together, muddy from the toil (or in my case, muddy simply because I rubbed dirt on myself), him carrying a hand hoe (jembe) or a pick-ax and the sweat of an honest day’s work over his shoulder, and me clutching the steel lemonade mug and feeling like my day was productive too. We were both farmers, equals, and nothing made me prouder.
Atha is a slightly built man, weather-beaten and brown. But every inch of his lean frame emanates power; there isn’t an ounce of flab on him, only hard-earned muscle. He has lived through enough seasons to be unfazed by anything life throws at him. And he has always led a simple and quite frugal life; the Cool Water I got him over a year ago still wears its plastic wrap, forgotten in his cupboard.
He knew how it hurt to have his crops destroyed by wild boars. He got distressed when they left behind destruction in their wake. He built low walls to deter the animals. He planted small pieces of leaves and timber atop newly planted crops in an attempt to keep them away. He prayed for a better harvest the next time around.
He did not plant firecracker-laden fruits to hurt the animals that hurt his harvest. He only did his best to keep them away in a humane way. Because he could afford to be that kind.
He also did not judge those who resorted to violence to keep the animals away. Because he understood that maybe they couldn’t afford that kindness.
Maybe their crops were their only source of food, maybe they turned to desperate measures because the animals they hurt took from hungry human bellies and starving human eyes.
It is cruel to hurt defenseless animals. The story about the pregnant elephant taking our media by storm is hard to stomach. (Reportedly, a female elephant with child accidentally ate a pineapple stuffed with firecrackers and passed away while staying put in a river, perhaps to assuage the pain of the injuries she sustained when the crackers, supposedly kept out to keep wild boars away from crops, burst in her mouth.)
Yes, it’s cruel, even when the targets are boars, but not everyone sees it that way. From the perspective of a farmer who works hard for his meals, he is the one being wronged when animals destroy his crops. If it were you, would you let your family starve to keep wild animals fed?
Take a moment to reflect before passing judgement on others from your plush leather couches, glued to your expensive smartphones. Walk a couple of miles in worn out sandals in the scorching heat. Break your back tilling your fields all day and still barely make enough food to get by. Then you’ll be able to call for better measures that help small-scale farmers protect their precious crop instead of asking for them to be punished.
Atha and I always paused to check on the tomatoes that grew by the yam patches before going in for dinner.