Winter Winds and the Scent of Avarekai

It is almost a year now that we began the process of this community conversation with the camera. We need to bring the narrative back to where it all started….the Hakki Pikki settlement in Bannerghatta from where the journey began. And so we land up here today once again. This time to enter the lives and livelihood of the Iruligas….farming. In this settlement the destiny of the Hakki Pikkis are tied with the Iruligas who are the keepers and cultivators of the land that was first released in their names.

The harvest is just over. Some like Byramma  and Mahadeva are unhappy. Their ragi that had just flowered was caught by the early rains  and was all but wiped out. Those like Gundamma, Akkamma, Krishnappa and Kencha who delayed their sowing were saved. They have atleast about 40 bags of ragi that will feed them through the year after they have given shares to the Hakki Pikkis whose lands they are also cultivating. Kencha apart from his own two acres has done four acres belonging to Dilippu and her family. A mutually interdependence between two totally disparate communities has sustained them this far despite the mutual grumbling. A grumbling which sometimes takes the form of affectionate mumbling and at others when the stake is that of declaring ownership, an explosive resentment. The question of which one will prevail can perhaps only be answered when the chips are down and ‘pattas’ are actually distributed!

In the meantime the sun shines brightly, the wind is blowing and the community is out on their lands threshing and sorting out the ragi from the hay which is all stacked up. Precious food for their cattle.

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“Vasudevaaaaaa……” cries Kencha entreating the wind gods as he stands high on a barrel holding up the Mora full of ragi and dust which through some skillful shaking he directs to the ground. As this mixture falls, the wind blows the mud to one side and the ragi to the other. Byramma tells us that in their dialect that the mud thrown aside is called Gowramma and the ragi deposited on the ground is called Rajja. The Rajja is further further cleaned with a jarade (which Byramma called Budhivantho…the intelligent one) and stocked up in piles. A pooja is done to this pile before it is filled into bags that will be taken into their homes. Inside the house the more personal Rajja becomes the universal ragi, the staple millet of rural Karnataka.

Nagaraja, Byramma’s older son stands atop the bales of ragi throwing it down for for threshing. The tractor moves restlessly round and round in circles on the scattered bales, coaxing the ragi out of its thene, the stalk. Byramma reminds me of the time that I held Nagaraja on my lap when he was a baby and he decided to relieve himself on my sari! Looking up at the wiry, mustachiod young man, it is difficult to imagine him as that baby! But she speaks like it was yesterday.

We turn away and cover our faces when the wind throws the dust into our faces. Nataraj tells us it is a week since they have had a bath since they are covered with mud everyday by the time they return home! He speaks of the Rs. 25,000 he has invested into cultivation this year and is pessimistic about whether he will recover much of it. Attabariya speaks of  how dependent they are on farming despite the losses that they suffer. ” We have to cultivate otherwise the lands will once again be overgrown with wild shrubs and the forest department will reappropriate it as their own.” Besides, as he says the Hakki Pikkis can survive anywhere and anyhow whereas the only thing they can do is cultivate. Although many of them have also been absorbed by the Forest departments as guards and watchers because of their deep knowledge of the forests that they do not fear. He also  speaks about the elephants, the deer, saarge and pigs who come and eat up the crop. But accepts it philosophically saying that they too need to eat and “if we have to share our food with them that is the law of nature.”

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Carrying that thought we wander into Krishnappa’s field and find him fast asleep under a tractor that is laden with hay which apparently has been sold to a neighbouring villager for his cattle. “See these people from Boothanahalli, Doddi….they had good lands that they sold for a song. And now they come begging to us for fodder for their cattle!We will never sell our lands when we get the title deeds”, he says confidently. ” We will see about that”, I say, sceptically!

Drawn inexorably by the scent of the Avarakai which is planted along with the ragi, we go foraging in his field for this winter delicacy… the queen of beans in Karnataka.  Akkamma, who is helping her son, Uyyande with threshing and cleaning the ragi on his fields, walks along with us, plucking at a rate faster then we possibly can. “Let us see if the old woman has left anything for us to pluck” she says laughing. Krishnappa’s mother comes everyday to gather the crop greedily for cooking into the all time favourite meal of this season……avarekai saaru and ragi mudde.

The winds are blowing too fiercely for us to conduct any interview. And so we continue to sit in the shade and listen to the sounds of the hay being threshed; watch young girls working as hard as their elders to pile up the stack. Akkamma sweeps up every bit of ragi from the ground before she leaves. “One paav costs Rs. 20” she says smiling sagely.

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As we breathe in the heady scent of the avarekai that is clinging to my hands and clothes, voices crying out to “Vasudevaaaaa”cut through the silent breeze that envelops us in its restless embrace.

I come back renewed with immense respect for a people who work so hard, not to make money, but to grow food that they will eat after sharing it with the ants, elephants, deer and pig and selling the surplus into the market. And because they want to save the land and the earth which they know is their primary source of strength and survival.

 

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