What is a travelogue? Is it simply eloquence and accuracy, braided into evocative descriptions of places, faces and experiences? That’s one way of looking at it. But author, landscape designer and environmentalist Lathika George, coaxes her third book, Mother Earth, Sister Seed: Travels Through India’s Farmlands, to delve deeper into the narrative. Born into the hustle of Mumbai, it was the organic farmer’s umbilical empathy towards nature and the old agricultural way of life (her Syrian Christian ancestors were farmers in Kerala’s Kanjirapally) that planted the seed of the idea, lived and documented over a pan-Indian journey through diverse states, landscapes, communities and farming rituals. Findings from the journey form the axis of her travelogue, held together by the pleasures of nature-conscious travel, along with the history and politics of identities—George’s, and our country’s.
The following excerpt traces the food and faith cultures, and the unique survival strategies of agricultural communities in the three states of West Bengal, Goa and Meghalaya. — Sohini Das Gupta
As we passed the villages edging the long embankments, we were witness to endearing vignettes of village life: couples working in tandem in the fields or drawing in a catch together standing side by side in tiny boats. They only have each other, and have had years of practice working together, raising a crop or planning where to cast their nets and when to draw them in. These thoughts crossed my mind as I noted the fluidity of their movements. Like well-matched bullocks, they knew the rhythm. The houses in the village have thatched roofs, each with a solar panel propped against the eaves. There were no wires and poles cluttering the skyline, and no sign of that familiar appendage, the cell phone, that seemed to be as natural to humans elsewhere as a coconut on a palm tree. Further on, a group of children ran around after their cycle tyres kept in motion with the sticks in their hands. When was the last time I had seen anyone do that?
The Sunderbans has plenty to offer its inhabitants besides honey. Apart from the crabs, fish and prawns which thrive in the nutrient-rich mangroves, there is bagda, tiger prawn seedling, which fetches a good price. The lucrative business, which lures women and children to the water’s edge, is extremely dangerous as they stand exposed to the deadly predators that roam the shores. Even the collection of wood, herbs and roots comes with its own perils.
Jena, despite his close shave with a tiger and memories of a childhood that held the threat of violence each day, still believed tigers would never deliberately chase or prey on humans. Like many residents of the Sunderbans, he sees the tiger as the protector of the forest, ready to defend his territory from the most insidiously dangerous predator—man. His belief translates into the legend of Dakhin Rai, who preyed on all who exploited his forests. The villagers of the Sunderbans believe they share their unique homeland, and all that it offers, with the tiger and the other inhabitants. Everyone migrated here at some time, Jena says, even the tiger that had come down from the foothills of the Himalayas. He feared that like the rhinoceros and buffalo who roamed the Sunderbans till a few centuries ago, the tiger too will one day disappear, a spirit that came to guard the Bans for a few hundred years and then moved on to another forest where it was needed.
“The Mandovi is closed to all but the shallowest draught vessel between June and September, when the southwest monsoon drags up sandbars at its mouth, the stormy water completing its maritime seclusion,’ I read from an old copy of the Piedade Gazette I had borrowed from Jose de Albuquerque. In July, the river barges, smaller shing boats and ferries continue to ply the waters, ferrying people and commodities across. On Divar, time is measured by the timetables of the two ferries, the lifelines of the riverine islands. The Tiswadi ferry leaves at an interval of thirty-five minutes and meets its twin midway with a toot of acknowledgement. Then they drive past each other, with the passengers waving at familiar faces. Farmers discuss their crops; some take their tools across to the mainland for repairs. I had heard that many a Divar romance starts on the ferry, and later I even met a young football player who had wooed his wife on the crossing.
There are concerns that the proposed bridge would change life on the island; the old houses waiting for someone to return to their roots would perhaps be sold to builders and developers offering attractive prices. Divar has no beach, the magnet that attracts visitors to Goa, and the island has stayed relatively unscathed. There are no large hotels and resorts, or the myriads of shops selling sarongs and beachwear, hats and beads, no sign of the touristy Goa on the island—the Goa of hippies, drugs, raves, beach parties and gypsy markets, shacks and cafes with fake cheer, the utopian Goa created for tourists. Or of the darker side of Goa—the rapes, the murders, the Russian and Israeli drug lords, the mining barons. Divar still lies hidden in the mangroves, a land of lagoons, churches, music, Bondera, football in the rice fields and vibrant local bars.
Mornings and afternoons are mild and sultry in July, at the end of monsoons. Evenings, when a fine drizzle spots the road, are cooler. I took long walks around the village of Piedade and then beyond to the rice fields and even down to the sluice gate looking out for the old crocodile by the mangroves. Old Goan families with names like Braganca and Barreto live in houses called Villa Grao, with wild roses and papaya, beans and torai growing in backyards, where an old well with sweet water is still cranked up each morning. Chickens scratch about the backyard. Not much had changed here, for centuries it seems. And nothing can stop the mould growing on the walls, the ferns creeping out of cracks, and grass sprouting on the roof tiles. An overripe jackfruit dropped on the road, just missing me and splattering pulpy yellow pods. I saw crosses at every bend of the road, adorned with garlands and candles in sconces lit at dusk. In a field, I spotted a thin wrought-iron cross with a marigold garland protecting a lush crop of rice.
One of the guides waiting at a tea shop accompanied me after introducing himself as Mcduff Henbok; he was named after a Scottish missionary who once lived in those parts, he said. At first sight, the forest looked like any other, a dense mass of trees edged by tall rhododendrons bursting into bloom. Then we saw the group of monoliths by the entrance, indicating the presence of the ancestral spirits and the forest deity, Ryngkiew U Basa.
‘The upright stones, Ki Moo Shynrang, represent men,’ Mcduff informed me, ‘and the flat table stones, Ki Moo Kynthai, are women; they represent ancestral spirits who are revered, remembrance stones for the dead.’
The spirits of the forests keep the crops and livestock healthy, and the community land and its inhabitants safe from harm. The Lyngdohs are a clan of priests who are the traditional protectors of the Sacred Forest, though its survival is the responsibility of all the villages around Mawphlang. The locals collect firewood, edible herbs, roots and produce from other forests, but sacred groves like Mawphlang are sacrosanct; the removal of anything from here invites the wrath of the forest spirits.
Within the forest, the temperature immediately drops, the air is moist and dense with earthy aromas. Though the villages and farms lie just beyond the meadows that surround it, a deep silence pervades the air—then, imperceptibly, the utter of butterfly wings, birds chirping, the whisper of insects, and the sounds of a living forest with a million organisms shifting, breathing, growing. The ground is so with fallen leaves in between tangled and exposed roots. Dappled light illuminated the forest as we walked past ferns of all sizes, orchids, pipers and aroids. At several clearings, we stopped by groups of monoliths scattered seemingly at random; there are no markings or engravings but each represents an ancestor whose spirit still lingers on, like a protective angel.
Mcduff said, ‘This is where religious rituals are conducted even now. Kaleh-niampirdais a ritual performed by groups of seven men every year in April. Offerings are made here at each stage of agriculture, so that the harvest is good.’
There are many legends and fables about the sacred groves of Meghalaya, and each is as enchanting as the forests. Theories abound about early settlers from the pre-agrarian age who created the forests, for as hunter–gatherers they valued what the forests offered by way of sustenance. The clans that settled in these areas chose a place to conduct sacrifices and rituals—a space that must be kept sacrosanct—where the spirits resided. Sacred spaces like these were man’s first holy temples, with tree trunks for walls and leafy canopies for roofs. Nothing here would be removed or destroyed, it was decided, so that it would remain unviolated by humans. While other forests and grasslands were available for community use, for gathering wild foods and for firewood, the sacred forests remained untouched, repositories of biodiversity with their rare vegetation. Most of the forest lands are owned by the community and governed by the village council known as DorbarShnong, which allocates land for cultivation. As we walked out, we saw an elderly man carry water in a makeshift water carrier using a pole and two tins. Mcduff explained, ‘He comes here every day to take water from a clear spring that has healing powers. There must be someone in his home who needs the healing water from the forest. This is permitted, but the spirits are clear that any misuse of forest materials will be punished severely. You could have your head twisted around to the back, or your crops could fail.’
So there were exceptions, I noted, pleased to hear that the spirits were not heartless.