The Other Side Of Farming
Storms and fathers: How the blazing winds are merely a DNA test
Storms can be good fun, but they can sometimes make us behave like characters out of a comic strip.
- Total Shares
Don’t be an Eliot, May is the cruellest month of all. The fields are barren brown except for the oasis of lush fodder so green it’s almost hurtful to the eye. Dust devils dance in the dry West Wind that is known to be the distant cousin of the French Mistral, capable of getting into the heads of artists and making them behave absurdly. In the northern plains of India, hot air seems to rise from the soil and becomes a screen on which images of unending blue lakes are projected, bluffing those with an eager imagination.
Your sweat dries in seconds and your skin and clothes become a salt pan. You sleep under a mango tree laden with sour juvenile fruit with the legs and hands apart because only then does the sweat cool you. Your cot has to be a hammock, loosely woven. Sleep in the day comes easy because the night belongs to vampire mosquitoes. The contractor, who owns the orchard only for the season, yells out a warning to potential thieves even in his sleep. Like an alarm, he has a habit of screaming without knowing he’s screaming. And his entire family spread out across the ten acres barks and howls in reply creating quite a din. The young lot beats tin canisters and teenagers explode a mixture of sulphur and potash, feeling so important.
You sleep under a mango tree laden with sour juvenile fruit. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
The other great things about May are the sudden storms that appear to follow the clock. At three in the morning when sleep finally clubs you these storms come out of nowhere and douse you first in fine dust followed by a sharp five-minute shower, leaving you looking like mud. You run helter-skelter indoors with your bed and all and flop down in whatever little space you can find. This happens almost every morning.
To the mango orchard contractor storms bring grief. The ground is covered in fallen juveniles and word is sent to the village. Hundreds of kids barely in their teens descend on the farm and more yelling and screaming ensues. In four hours you have a few mountains of small green mangoes that will fetch nothing. So obviously the snotty gatherers are paid in kilos of mangoes.
May was the month when paddy nursery is prepared for transplanting in early June. While most farmers prepared much later, waiting for the rains, my father insisted on being the first since labour came cheap. Once the monsoon broke over our heads the planters of paddy behaved like lions in loincloths. Plus, we had six tube wells as replacement clouds. Our farm was in the Terai region where water needed an excuse to gush out of the earth.
Now preparing the paddy nursery is a delicate operation. The seeds are soaked for a few days and when they sprout you carry them in measured quantities to seedbeds with four inches of standing water. A fresh eucalyptus branch bearing leaves is gently run through the water turning it into the colour of tea. A man must broadcast very fast because the mud already raised must settle and cover the seeds in a fine veneer. That year I stood in the shade of a loaded mango tree watching Nissar spread the sprouts. Billa, our driver-manager, kept an eye too. Two other men sat on their haunches smoking bidis. Suddenly, the East Wind picked up and we all looked up.
On the hills shrouded in haze rose a column of cloud. Soon it opened its hood and became larger. It became larger because it was closing in at a tremendous speed. We knew we had ten minutes to wrap up and run. Billa told Nissar to move his rusty joints, but Nissar was the perfectionist who ensured every seed fell at the exact distance. The storm was hardly three minutes away. Thunder boomed like cannons. That woke Nissar up and he rushed through the last leg.
Darkness fell at noon. Fireworks began in the sky. We ran like mice through the orchard towards the house. The last hundred-meter dash remained when the heavens dropped on our heads: hailstones as big as a cricket ball, and harder.
It was a public stoning of thieves in medieval times. The trees were hardly any cover. Mangoes and hail fell together. We covered our heads and ran. The wind snapped the eucalyptuses down the middle. Branches flew and fell around us. Hailstones were relentless. The entire farm turned white in front of our eyes in a matter of minutes. There was a noise of ten thousand rock bands jamming together. At last, we ducked into the cowshed, laughing like mad. And then we saw a spectacle I cannot forget.
Our three buffalos were standing bravely in the blitz, but there was something very odd about them. Each one of them wore a helmet. A steel milk pail sat upside-down on their heads. The handles hung below their chins giving them the appearance of guards at the gates of Buckingham Palace.
Nanu, the creative genius, was there with a large aluminium utensil over his own head as he brought his wards into the cowshed one at a time. I wanted to reward him, but I couldn’t. He wasn’t just their fodder, dung and milking manager, he was also their father with huge faults of his own. Only he could risk his life for his children and not utter a word thereafter. Storms are merely a DNA test.