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Rural Tamil Nadu, part 2

Visited a farm in the southwestern part of the state, where they're cultivating rice, coconuts, bananas, mango, and tamarind. Saw my first wild cobra (as opposed to the snakes-in-a-basket that itinerant snake charmers play with near major tourist traps): about three feet long, very dead, being carried out on a stick for disposal. Had my first fresh green coconut; you chop off the top with a machete (well, you don't, the person who prepares the coconut does) and drink the juice with a straw, and then eat slices of the unripe coconut meat, which tastes like nothing so much as some unidentified kind of very fresh shellfish sashimi. Tried some green mangoes too, which are sour heaven but don't taste much like the common packaged "Frooti" brand green mango nectar.

Bananas are a specialty here in Tamil Nadu, and if you think you know what a banana is I'm here to tell you you're woefully ignorant of the possibilities. Tamils who have visited the West think it's pretty funny, and pathetic, that you can only get one kind of banana there (and a pretty boring kind at that). (I feel somewhat the same about Indian apples, which all seem to be a paler bland version of Red "Delicious". The farmer who will figure out how to grow Granny Smiths or Jonagolds up in Haryana or Himachal Pradesh is welcome to all my spare investment capital, such as it is.) I don't know the names of the banana varieties, but there are "standard" bananas as well as little red and orange ones, tiny green plantains, and (my favorite) a variety that looks like a disastrously spoiled "standard" banana on the outside but is actually a perfectly firm and ripe apricot-colored fruit with a delicate scent and sweet taste.

For rice cultivation, the paddy fields are flooded and then broken up by men driving two-bullock ploughs, followed by crows and egrets (herons? some kind of smallish all-white wading bird, but I'll need to look it up in my bird book when I'm back in Jaipur). Then the women rice planters, in kilted-up saris, bring bundles of rice seedlings from the sprouting fields (where they grow much more thickly, in an eye-catching mass of vivid acid green) and plant them, calf- and elbow-deep in the muddy water. They poke the seedlings quickly in the mud, dib dib dib, apparently at random, and a few weeks later you see the plants growing in perfectly straight lines. A rice crop takes about four months total, so in a good year they can get three crops; last year the rainfall was a disaster and they didn't even get one, but they hope for at least one this year.

Irrigation and water use are huge issues all over here; for the past ten years or so, much of Tamil Nadu (esp. the central Kaveri River valley) has been getting less and less rainfall, and formerly lush and fertile areas are desertifying. Up towards Erode we saw an especially hard-hit farming region; we could walk along dry streambeds and peer into dry water-holes while the tenant farmers showed us how high the water used to come up. The monsoons have been insufficient, the bore wells they drill to compensate have been lowering the water table, and the sharing of dammed river waters with other regions is contentious and inadequate. (I passed over dozens of bridges during the trip that used to span streams and rivers, and all but a few of them, because of damming or drought, were completely dry.) Many people who can afford it (it's especially sacrificial for the few who own their own land instead of sharecropping) are leaving the rural areas for the cities, which in turn are having severe water shortages. (Madras residents can get drinking water only every other day or for very brief periods---a few minutes---every day, from what I heard.) Farmers who remain in the countryside are not optimistic. It's sad to see, and I felt pretty guilty drinking the lemon-and-sugarcane-juice that the tenants gave us (really delicious, though), because they clearly have nothing to spare.

This is the area, in the eastern foothills of the Western Ghats range separating Tamil Nadu from Kerala, where the famous "Robin Hood of sandalwood"---India's notorious bandit Veerappan---is said to have his main base. He's been wanted for decades but the law hasn't got him yet; he lives by poaching and smuggling protected ivory and sandalwood and by kidnapping public figures for ransom. Some say that his support network of hill tribals and other local people protects him from capture so effectively, despite the price on his head (some $33K, which is real money around here) because he's generous with his spoils; less romantically, it's suggested that they observe the code of omerta because they know informers will be killed.

—— Kim Plofker
2003-12-30 04:12:34

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Created: 08 Oct 2003
Last modified: Oct 15, 2004 3:58:04 PM
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