The earth whisperers

Shabnam Minwalla | Updated on March 02, 2018

A honey deal: Beekeepers in Meghalaya apologise to the bees before collecting honey, “Do not be angry with me. I need this honey to take care of my family”   -  CH Vijaya Bhaskar

Mother Earth, Sister Seed: Travels through India’s Farmlands Lathika George Penguin Non-fiction

In the age of man-made-solutions-for-every-problem, stories of farmers who adhere to the rhythm of nature, and hold onto ancient legends and beliefs

The Indian farmer is a familiar figure from Hindi textbooks, patriotic songs and newspaper articles; a stock character with his turban, plough and stoic approach to vicissitudes.

What is the reality that lies behind this monochromatic stereotype? That is what Lathika George attempts to find out in Mother Earth, Sister Seed, a colourful book on the diverse, vibrant communities living in close contact with the earth. Here are men and women who overcome great obstacles — a turbulent sea; a wily man-eater; pests and erratic monsoons — to get food onto our tables. Many of them still follow the techniques and traditions of their forefathers. Even in an age of the internet and man-made-solutions-for-every-problem, they adhere to the rhythm of nature, poring over old almanacs and holding onto ancient legends and beliefs.

What happens, though, when traditional knowledge is relegated to the attics of memory? When the rhythms of the seasons and nature are disrupted? When technologies and “the new ways” attempt to dislodge the old? What has been the experience of farming communities that have clung onto the methods of their ancestors — and refuse to use chemicals and new methods for bigger yields?

These are questions that George asks, as she criss-crosses the country to meet a fascinating cast of characters. Pranab Jena, the houseboat captain who describes a childhood in the Sunderbans, lived in constant fear of the Bengal tigers that “appear like demon spirits and disappear in a puff with their human prey”. The Khasi women who reign over the calm, orderly land of forests and grasslands, overseeing farms, running small businesses and making clear they are “the boss”. And Cheruvayil Raman, the internationally acclaimed paddy conservator, who cultivates over 40 indigenous varieties of rice and uses traditional knowledge to protect his fields. When George asks Raman how he deals with the borer worms and cutworms that attack tender plants, the farmer smiles, “I ask them to leave. I command them to go. I would plead too, if it is a bad case.”

Standing amidst the lush fields and slopes planted with banana, jackfruit, and coconut trees, George realises the wisdom in Raman’s words. The Cheruvayil mittom is a large farm in Wayanad, run by a 200-member family that lives, works and celebrates together. “About 50 type of fish live in the flooded paddy fields and marshlands,” she writes. “The mittom has a herd of cattle that provide milk and manure and are also used for field activities. Down below the earth, yams, tapioca and other tubers crowd a secret subterranean garden. This is a veritable forest of food, fodder, medicine, cash crops. If anything explains the soundness of biodiversity and sustainable agriculture it is this.”

While George is primarily interested in biodiversity, traditional methods of agriculture and organic farming, she has also collected a remarkable array of legends and trivia from around the country. George has visited sacred groves — “man’s first holy temples” — where not a leaf or stone can be destroyed or removed. She describes attempts by the perfumers of Lucknow to capture the aroma of the first rain on sun-baked earth. She recounts a myth about why Kerala has an eight-month monsoon. And talks of Bonbibi, the goddess of the Sunderbans, who is an intermediary between animals and humans. She recounts the words of the beekeepers in Meghalaya who apologise to the bees before collecting honey, “Do not be angry with me. I need this honey to take care of my family.”

She recounts the incredible legend of Baba Budan, who smuggled seven coffee beans out of Yemen and sowed them in his backyard in Chikmagalur — and is credited with introducing coffee to India in the 17th century. Almost 400 years later, she visits the Coorg plantations that are the outcome of Budan’s derring-do. And here, for the first time, she hears the plangent chaavu paatu songs sung at the Coorgi funeral that describe the planters’ unique relationship with the earth.

You planted ginger and turmeric Ajayya

And sold them and earned money Ajayya

You planted cardamom and coffee Ajayya

Earned three panis full of gold Ajayya

Mother Earth, Sister Seed: Travels through India’s Farmlands Lathika George Penguin Non-fiction



Given this bond between planter and land, it is ironic that many Coorgis are switching from mixed plantations and shade-grown coffee to cultivating coffee in cleared lands — choosing higher yields over the health of their land and environment. But then, George finds that each farming community is following its own path to the future. Sikkim is today a 100 per cent chemical-free, organic state. But Goa is losing its rich, coastal khazam lands, once its pride and wealth.

In Mother Earth, Sister Seed, George provides fascinating snapshots of farming communities, but the problem, however, is the absence of context. The multiple pictures do not create a cohesive image. George views every kitchen garden and traditional method through rose-tinted spectacles and appears blinded by her belief that traditional is best. So it is difficult to gauge how widespread the movement towards biodiversity and organic farming really is — whether it is a genuine trend or an outcome of wishful reportage.

George, herself, is an organic farmer and votary of country living. She maintains that since the Green Revolution of the 1960s, Indian agriculture has been in a state of turbulence. She asserts that a new wave of sustainable farming is on the rise. “…a silent, alternative revolution has risen in the countryside and new farming communities have emerged to meet the challenge,” she writes.

Will these experiments help break the circles of debt, land aridity and farmer suicides? Will these gentler methods feed a populous nation? George’s answers are simplistic and unconvincing. Her uncritical take on the old, traditional ways — not just of agriculture but also of family structures and life — is downright irritating.

Even so, this book is worth reading for its insights into other ways of life; into the beautiful but troubled world of the Indian farmer.

Shabnam Minwalla is a journalist and the author of What Maya Saw, currently in bookstores

Published on March 01, 2018

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