Several months back I wrote about a road trip I took to the countryside, spending time in farms and talking with rural folk. The essay, “In random conversations with farmers”, received a lot of positive feedback for reasons that still elude me. However, since I went on a similar trip earlier this month, I thought it would be a pleasant idea to share my experiences once again.
To me, calling it the “Indian countryside” has often seemed redundant. Most of this country qualifies under that term. Urbanity is the minority here, so perhaps this essay should have been titled “A trip away from urbanity”. Nonetheless, I was out a little late in the morning, heading northwest. The roads were free from traffic, but the potholes made sure I had no other conveniences whatsoever. The occasional bus shuttling from village to village was all that I came across. These busses are often painted bright red, and are dear to the villagers — unless the driver happens to run over some cattle — to the point where they deck it with thousands of flower garlands covering the windshield.
This part of the district is yet to see any development. This has two consequences: the people are nicer, not nouveau-riche, and there are still dedicated farmers with beautiful farmlands. The problem, however, due to fragmentation over generations is that farms in India are now mostly minuscule by comparison to those in Europe or America. This, in turn, means lower likelihood of even partially good yield, which means most farmers end up earning extremely little over the year — something no government seems to understand or even talk about.
Things are about to change, though. A minor highway is scheduled to be built this year (read, this decade — given the snail’s pace at which the government works). A lot of villagers seem excited about the prospects. This means more money, as their relatives further east have narrated to them: tales of the government taking away parts of their land to build roads, paying huge compensatory fees in return, which sordidly prompted a lot of farmers to sell the remainder of their land as well for even more cash, and they are rich. For now.
Starkly missing are trees. Talking to a few locals about them, I got similar replies. “These trees,” says one, pointing at some teak, “fetch good money. You can sell them, but they actually give us a lot of savings when used in our own houses.” Transporting wood from the city works out to be expensive, they tell me. The alternative is to chop off two of the branches and they’ll have enough wood for all the windows at home, and one of the fatter branches will make a nice door. The rest of the tree gets sold. Today, spotting a tree that is not either pitifully young or uselessly thorny is rare.
It is not only problems in vegetation or cultivation that have held them back. Most families here are broken up, not least because some relative struck it rich because his land was smack dab in the middle of where a highway should have been. Now he shows off. Consider the case of a farmer whom I will refer to anonymously, out of dignity, as X. He arranged his son’s marriage a few years back with a lot of pomp — wholly funded by a section of farmland that he sold for this purpose — and the whole village was around his house, feasting, celebrating, congratulating. Last year the lady, his daughter-in-law, eloped with another man.
Now a pot-bellied habitual drunk, X shuffles around his 20 acre coconut and areca palm plantation, lush green, with ample water supply (something other farmers, including his neighbours, envy him for) desperately waiting for a buyer. He has had enough, he says, all thanks to his sorry family and the disgrace his daughter-in-law brought him — although you will find almost no other villager in the region looks at it as anything other than tough luck — and he wants to sell his land and settle down elsewhere. He reckons he will earn enough to last him his lifetime. Careful calculation (or even gross approximation for that matter) will quickly show this is a delusion. Selling all his land will fetch him neither a suburban home nor a flat in the city. But he remains close-minded.
Further west, towards the river Kabini, the same villagers who pray for one form of development also celebrate how they stopped another form of it. “This land is safe”, one of them tells me, clearly having no bearing on how bureaucracy works, “the government had a hydel project planned here, but we protested and got it cancelled and moved it to Raichur”. He is referring to another underdeveloped city in the northeastern part of the state, home district of the former chief minister of Karnataka, who, in all likelihood, moved it there to secure votes, not to please locals here. The protest movement these villagers speak of went unreported in the news because a shift in leadership was taking place at that time, with the state in political turmoil; and almost anything that happened during those months — it is both safe to assume and readily apparent with one look at the events leading up to the last elections — had ulterior political motives completely unrelated to any protest by any farmer in this region.
As far as shoddy governance goes, there is one example too many. Electric wires in the middle of nowhere, electric poles rooted through rivers, waiting to be overturned, metal hooks that most villagers illegally attach onto wires to draw current from, vandalised street lamps, and, like a blessing for nobody, uncannily strong 3G connectivity. Most people here do not even own smartphones.
Perhaps the only pleasant thing about the countryside is the countryside itself. The rich greens, the blue skies slowly desaturating as the monsoon clouds near, a musical little brook, the constant song of birds competing against the incessant chirp of crickets make for an unforgettable day. When you get back to the city, you find yourself wishing to overlook all its problems and disappear in the lap of nature, as, at least every now and then, you probably should.
Visit my Flickr for more photographs, besides the ones accompanying this essay. And goats. ❖