In April in the north of India, wheat is crackling golden ready for slaughter. A carelessly thrown matchstick or bidi-butt, and you have a wildfire which no Californian forests can out-race. If you’ve seen the flames you will remember for life a hundred thousand mad witches running with abandon, their red hair flowing, their wheezing loud and sinister. Harvesting at night is somewhat cooler even though the very same witches lurk and hobnob with ghosts of dead farmers.
Wheat can be cut at night with combine harvesters, and paddy can’t, for two reasons: one, unlike paddy the fields have no muddy patches where the heavy machines can get stuck; and two, there is no dew till the early hours of morning and crispy wheat continue to crackle making the task a breeze.
You don’t argue with people who live at the edge of the forest, you share their food and wait. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
But night on a distant farm is not very different from that in the woods, where you have no idea which way you are facing because there are no village lights for miles and you haven’t learnt how to read the stars. I remember ploughing a plot close to midnight and must have dozed-off for a few seconds, but when I opened my eyes I didn’t know where I was and had to sleep on the tractor till the sun showed up. So is harvesting at night just another level of experience. And before I lose the plot let me come to what I’ve come to tell.
Combining at night, and otherwise, begins with a chase. You don’t own the machine and must go looking for the elusive deceptive bunch of cowboys who ride it, and who cut crops for a price. That year I saw two tufts of grey clouds and my heart sank. The sight of fifty acres of wheat dancing in the wind like daffodils was happy no more. It was late evening when I rode through the most god-forsaken roads, through rocky streams and wilderness looking for the machine that had promised me a date and reneged. Every farmer in two hundred miles had seen the very same pair of clouds and panicked. Everyone wanted his crop in the bags before teardrops fell.
I heard the musical clatter and hum miles before I saw the harvester like a great big spaceship, all lit-up and glorious, eating up a huge chunk of someone else’s crop at the edge of the forest. I learnt that the machine had been willingly hijacked, for a higher price perhaps, and I had to wait until the plot was done. You don’t argue with people who live at the edge of the forest, you share their food and wait. This would take all night, but I could not go back without the combine at my heel. Besides, alcohol had been brought and consumed by the group before me, which made my immediate future slightly bleak and a lot more blurry. I dropped down on a small hillock of grain.
Darkness enveloped us absolutely. A starry starry sky stretched above like a tent. And a few new clouds staining our cover. The East Wind had picked up portending rain. My gut churned from the food I’d partaken or was it fear, I wasn’t sure. The combine circled the ten acres chewing, threshing and vomiting out grain into a trolley that followed it like a pup. The view from the driver’s cabin, 10 feet higher, is unlike any other. In the glare of floodlights you watch gold pour into your stomach. Dust rises like a storm and turns your hair platinum white making you look wiser and absurd at the same time. Little creatures that had taken shelter in the crop for winter scoot or hop or fly out like blunt arrows; and some that were taken by shock could end up shredded in the machine and would have to be pulled out amidst curses that belonged to people in my position at that moment. Nothing was more precious than minutes.
The gathering around the bottle was getting a bit boisterous. I took a blind walk across the stubble and straw, tripping now and then better than the drunkards. From a distance I watched the theatre of uncertainty. Three more hours of patience, I muttered. The nearby forest made its own noises, mainly jackals howling for nothing.
And then I sensed a presence behind me. There was no sound but it was more like a feeling. The spaceship went around at its pace spewing dust that glowed like a halo. A tiny chill trickled down my spine. I turned gently inch by inch.
I stood frozen. Two eyes glowed at me at my level from four feet away. Just two large grey eyes and I could see nothing else. They did not look away and met my gaze for what seemed like forever. The others were fooling around far off. This wasn’t one of them. The eyes belonged to someone six feet tall. I shut mine for a few moments, and when I opened them the vision was gone. I felt no fear, yet my hands shook. And I sauntered back wondering if it was a man, a spirit or an animal as tall as I. Had it come to tell me something? Even thirty years later I lapse into thinking of what happened that night of the combine.
We reached the farm before dawn, both the crew on the ship and I. The sky was completely overcast. Ten minutes before we were to begin, rain outwitted us. It came down in sheets. I only stared afar unable to comprehend the designs of someone up there. After two hours a huge gust blew in. Dry wheat, I’ve said, is consumed by witches with red flaming hair in seconds, but the same wheat also topples over when rain falls and the wind blows. What was a golden swaying field looked like a bad haircut before the day was done. The crop lay flattened. The combine went back having eaten nothing. Witches hate wheat, I laughed.