Thursday, July 5, 2001

ARTICLE : Early Rains and the Kajuas (fireflies)

(Extracted from ‘Monsoon Diary’, June to August, 2001)

Last night,

all the stars

in the sky

came down to earth

to celebrate

the Season of  Life.   

In the jet black night,

they danced on the horizon,

weaving the earth

a sparkling crown

of shakti

Now, time for renewal.

It’s been raining since dawn. The sun appeared for a brief while, and all the plants glowed with a fresh vibrance, perhaps stolen from yester-night’s ‘dancing stars’, that seem now like a dream.

Last night, Bua told me that the kajuas (or fireflies) we saw – a dense, luminous cloud of them in one direction – were believed in their tribal lore to herald the arrival of the monsoon. Whenever these kajuas are visible in large numbers, good rains can be expected very soon, within the next 24 hours. And diligent farmers prepare themselves to drop everything else to begin their sowing, if they have not already started.

Taking Stock of Seeds
About a week earlier, we had rummaged through our treasure chest of seeds to take stock of what we have. For over two hours, we poured over our booty and discussed  what else we needed, quite animatedly when it came to rice.

Thanks to Madhav – Bua’s brother-in-law – we had a good stock of various local millets, though we ourselves hadn’t grown any the previous year. There were two varieties of nagli (nacchni/ ragi/finger millet). Also some vari and kangu.

We had seeds too of sesame (til), both kali and bhoori.  And a decent stock of various indigenous vegetables and tubers, mainly saved from our own harvest of last year. Smaller quantities of other vegetable seeds had been collected from various sources, including local ones. Seeds of yet other varieties needed to be procured, perhaps bought. However, several of the seeds we had got last year from Bombay seed shops did not yield well. Some did not even germinate. We thus renewed our resolve that this year we would take extra care to save more of our own seeds.

As for rice, we discovered that we had several dozen indigenous varieties, but mainly in small packets of barely 50 or 100 grams. Half of these were from the Konkan, and therefore relatively ‘local’. The other half were from India’s indigenous ‘rice bowl’ of Chattisgarh (Jharkhand), phenomenally rich in rice varieties. These seeds were obtained when Bua and Bharat participated in a 3-day regional (Maharashtra & Madhya Pradesh) meet on biodiversity at Lalwadi in February this year.

The only rice variety of which we had enough stock – to cover at least an acre – was Ratna. This is a dwarf hybrid, whose seeds we had saved from last year’s harvest. The previous monsoon, we had planted too the indigenous garwa kolam (also known as Surati Kolam or Nawabi Kolam), a high-yielding, 5-month variety, with excellent flavour, obtained from Bhaskarbhai Save. The latter – having been transplanted too close in a very fertile plot – had grown excessively tall, bending over and falling to the ground before seeding.

Discussing what rice variety (or varieties) we should sow this year, Mangal, Madhav and Bhau were quite vocal that at least two-thirds of our rice acreage be planted to Ratna, which they felt would give a dependable yield. We bargained hard. I finally conceded that a third of our acreage be used for Ratna. For the balance, I felt, we should persist with trying out indigenous (almost invariably tall) varieties, transplanting them more sparsely so that they did not grow too high in order to access adequate sunlight.

We decided to procure rice seeds of jheeni and ghosali from Lalwadi, and garwa kolam once again from Bhaskarbhai. And there the discussion rested – at least for the moment.

Nagli and other local millets:
Nagli – or finger millet – can be sown, unlike rice, a few days before the monsoon has set in. It is grown by many of the Thakur adivasis in our area, usually without any chemicals, and is believed to be a very nourishing and easily digestible food.

Nagli incidentally commands a fancy price (often as a baby-food preparation) in West European countries and the US, especially at their organic markets. Discerning buyers are willing to pay more for it than basmati, which is rarely available as organic produce. Ragi malt, prepared by sprouting, sun-drying and grinding nagli is even more highly valued, and makes a delicious, wholesome drink.

A heaped teaspoonful of the malted nacchni/ragi flour is stirred into a mug of water, some jaggery or sugar added to sweeten it, and the brew taken to a boil. Depending on one’s taste, some pounded cardamom and clove may be added. Alternatively, the drink may be flavoured with a little pounded ginger. For weaned infants or convalescing patients, ragi sattwa, made from the core, white kernel of the nagli seed (minus the outer seed coating and fibre) is believed to be even easier to digest.

Thursday, Saturdays and Mondays are the preferred days –  considered auspicious by local farmers –  to begin sowing one’s crops on the land. Bua sowed his own nagli at Chinchwadi a few days ago on a Thursday. Two days later (yesterday), he sowed the nagli on our land at Vanwadi. Ours was intercropped with kangu, another indigenous millet, which is believed to make a delectable kheer, cooked with milk and jaggery.

Nagli similarly makes a good kheer, whether cooked in coconut milk or regular milk. I haven’t tasted it yet. But the nagli bhakris, sometimes eaten with only a chutney made from garlic, chilli, black sesame and salt  – especially in this sowing season – make my mouth water! Perhaps the rains too stimulate one’s appetite.

On different plots, we sowed two varieties of nagli. One, the common red variety, and the other called ‘bhoori’ (or fair) nagli, which is rarer, and fetches a better price. Besides kangu, we also intercropped our nagli seedling plot with various vegetables, particularly  gawar and chawli, both leguminous species that ‘fix’ atmospheric nitrogen in the soil and thus ‘stimulate’ the growth of the other crops, functioning somewhat like a natural equivalent of chemical urea, but minus its various ill effects.

Some other nagli plots were inter-planted with black sesame and zendu (marigold). The latter inhibits the reproduction of insect pests, which can otherwise become rampant if extensive monocultures are planted year after year on the same plots with liberal doses of chemical fertiliser.

Yet another millet we sowed yesterday was vari, which commands the highest price in the local and surrounding market – and disappears the fastest. Cooked like rice, it is consumed even on days of upvaas (semi-fasting days), and is relished by the elders of the area, some of whom grow it only for themselves.

On one tiny ‘nursery plot’ of about 200 sq ft, I scattered a mixture of nagli and kangu seeds, trying to follow the wristy motions of Bua and Bhau, who sowed two of the larger seedling plots before I did. It was an earthing experience, ‘soul-satisfying’ in its own way. The scattering – as Bua instructed – needed to be thin and even. If the seedlings come up too densely, he explained, this could obstruct the movement of air through the young plants, leading to some of them rotting if there are heavy rains too soon. Too thick a nagli plot also tends to attract rats. 

However, nagli is apparently one crop that is least affected by the vagaries of the monsoon, especially poor rainfall. Perhaps this also has something to do with the non-use of chemicals, which tend to ‘burn’ the seedlings if subsequent rain is scanty. After ‘transplanting’ the nagli seedlings – by just laying them flat on a ploughed and weeded field! –  even one good shower is often enough for them to establish their roots. Within two weeks, the young nagli plants stand erect on their own! In contrast, the transplanting of rice needs a well puddled field, where the water is retained for several days for the seedlings to take root.

And since nagli is usually grown on well-drained uplands, any excessive rainfall too rapidly flows away, without flooding the tender, susceptible seedlings. Being thus tolerant of both scanty and heavy rains, this traditionally consumed, nourishing millet provides a dependable source of food to the local adivasis.

As the local millets all give a fairly reliable yield, it remained a source of regret that we did not grow any last year, mainly because we failed to do our raabni in time. [Raabni is the traditional method – characteristic of our wet Konkan region – for the pre-monsoon preparation of small nursery beds, where seedlings of millets or rice are grown for subsequent transplanting to larger, surrounding ploughed areas.] This year, we were thus extra careful to prepare various raabni plots well in time, a task which our adivasi workers did most painstakingly.

Our New Open Well

This year, the monsoon did not arrive hesitantly. The first showers were good and heavy. As a result, within just a week, our main stream started flowing.

We had begun digging our new open well in the last week of March, and were racing against time to finish constructing it before the monsoon. Around early June (just before the first rains), the well presented an awesome spectacle – an oval stone fortress with solid walls 22-23 feet high, and a diameter ranging from 21 to 24 feet!

Then, in the space of less than a week, the sight of the well was totally transformed. Brimming now with water in level with the adjacent stream, it looked like a deep green, emerald jewel. Gazing into it, I was stirred with mixed emotions, with jostling memories of faces and bodies dripping with perspiration. Of the young and old who toiled to dig, excavate and then build its walls under the hot summer sun.

About half our workers – from the neighboring adivasi wadi – were in their mid-teens. For over two months, they had toiled to remove the rocks from the well-pit. Some of these came from huge boulders which older men had sledge-hammered to break into smaller, manageable sizes for manual lifting. Often, these had to be hammered, maybe twenty times – with all one’s might – before the first crack appeared! Sore, bruised hands were a common occurrence. And sometimes, when a rock shattered, a flying splinter might painfully pierce the skin of the one wielding the sledge-hammer, or a nearby person.

Carrying the broken rocks and stone chips out of the pit was no less laborious or free of danger.

As the pit of the well grew deeper, the task of negotiating one’s way out of it with a heavy head-load became increasingly treacherous. At the end of it all, it seemed a miracle we had no serious accident.

 That the youngsters (and elder workers) could still smile while labouring thus – hour after hour, day after day – never ceased to fill me with wonder. The water in our well must be suffused with their goodwill and cheer. If  the plants and people it feeds, rise as spiritedly, all their toil will be well rewarded !

One estimate put the quantum of rock excavated at forty truckloads, each of 5,000 kg capacity. The total inner volume of the dug pit before construction was about 10,000 cubic feet. (Some of the rocks extracted went back into building the walls of the well.) Considering that one cubic ft of rock would weigh well over 20 kgs, the total mass of rock and chips excavated does work out to more than 200,000 kgs, or forty truckloads. All this can be useful in building houses, water tanks and extending our boundary wall of rock and earth. If we had bought this much rock from outside, we would have probably had to spend more than Rs 30,000 for it.

Our total expenditure on the well till date is approximately Rs 84,000. (Account available) Another Rs 6,000 or so will still need to be spent for further raising the well wall up to a height of 3 feet above the earth’s surface. If the Panchayat subsidy of Rs 40,000 for an open well can still be suitably managed while satisfying existing rules, and if we deduct too the value of the rock excavated, our total net cost for the well would work out to barely Rs 20,000. As against this, one contractor quoted a price of Rs two lakhs for building a pukka well of this size from scratch!

Water Security and Meeting Needs

In the summer of 2,000, when the water level in our bore-well – fitted with a hand-pump – fell below its piped depth, it was a mini-crisis. Not only was water needed for drinking, cooking and washing, but also for keeping alive the considerable number of trees we had planted the previous year. We tided over this problem by building a tank and filling it with water brought in by a tanker.

However, continued dependence on such measures was expensive and unsustainable. It seemed ludicrous too that in an area with a hundred inches of rainfall each year, we had to resort to external sourcing for our needs.

When Bhaskarbhai Save visited us in February this year, we walked over the land with him, and visited too the site near the main stream, where once existed a traditional water-hole, and where we proposed to dig our open well. He asked  why we were waiting. What needed to be done had to be done.

As the proposed site was at some distance from our house, we still dithered, wondering whether this was the most suitable for our well. It was a month or so later, that we finally started excavation, opting for dependability, instead of risking any other higher site that may have been more conveniently accessible. There were a few more hiccups yet and a lively exchange of elaborate e-mails, before a decent momentum of work was struck up with the hope that we could still complete the well before the skies opened. Rock was encountered about 6-8 feet from the surface, and then the really hard toil started, not made any easier by our personal lack of experience.

Nine times over the next 2 months, we blasted rock and cleared its debris. At about 22-23 feet, we finally stopped. Ideally, we should have dug another 5 feet for safety, but the rains were around the corner and the narrow strip of fragmented rock separating the well from the stream desperately needed reinforcing before the monsoon set in.


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