OPINION

Walking Through a Wheat Field

April 04, 2010
Deepa Krishnan

Have you seen wheat being harvested in North India?

I hadn't seen wheat farming up close, until I walked into a golden-yellow wheat field in Rajasthan last week.

I was on a trip to Agra and Bharatpur, with my friend Stephane. Everywhere along the highway we saw big overloaded tractors, looking like very pregnant cows, trundling along.



"What are they carrying", I asked our driver. "Is it wheat?" I knew that in North India, March / April is the month when the wheat crop that is sown in November is harvested. Mustard too is harvested at this time.

The driver smiled at my city-bred ignorance, but said kindly "Na, na, madam, it is the left over dry grass after the wheat is harvested. It is used for fodder."

Ah, I nodded, realising my stupidity. Of course. The wheat is harvested in the field, threshed, and only the grains are transported to the market. These huge overstuffed straw bags were too flimsy to possibly contain the precious grain.

We drove further along, and in many fields, I saw women and men harvesting the crop by hand.

"I'd love to go into these fields", I said to Stephane. "Just to see what it's like, you know?"

As luck would have it, we met a guide in Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary, who was also a farmer.

We chatted about birds and Bharatpur's seasons; but it was too hot to go bird-watching.

So I asked the guide: "Can you take me to see the harvest?" He said yes, and in 20 minutes, Stephane and I found ourselves rather unexpectedly walking through a golden wheat field.

 

On both sides of the small dirt embankment, the wheat crop was ready for harvesting. The first thing we did was to pluck a single stalk, rub it to remove the chaff, and taste the grain. You know the most surprising thing? The grains were soft, not hard. I was expecting it to be exactly like store-bought grain, hard to bite.



Nibbling on the soft grain, I felt like the Country Mouse from that famous Aesop's fable, the one about the Town Mouse and the Country Mouse! Wholesome wheat  to nibble, but no fancy pantry with sugar and treacle and ham and sausages in sight!

We walked further along and came to where the women were at work. It is not an easy job. Work starts early in the morning, and continues through the day, although temperatures at noon can be something like 30 - 35 C.



We were a welcome diversion; but not until our guide walked away did the women begin to chat with me. I didn't understand their silence at first, until our guide explained it to me - he was the senior member of their family, and in his presence, the women would maintain a modest silence, and would not unveil themselves.

But when he left, the women transformed into a chatty, laughing trio. They were as curious about me, as I was about them. Where do you live? What work do you do? Where are you going? They peppered me with as many questions as I did them.

I was curious about the sickle, and hunkered down to examine it. It was surprisingly light, and unlike the smooth curve that I was envisaging, it had a pointy inside edge. I realised the women were actually using wrist /muscle power to hook the knife around the wheat and pull it at a particular angle, slicing through the wheat stalks with a smooth technique.



"Man, how do they sit like this the whole day long", asked Stephane, who - in true tourist fashion - was quite amazed by how comfortable the women were in the squatting position. "Isn't it murder on the knees?"



I very wisely decided to find a more comfortable cross-legged position on the edge of the field. (Behind us you can see the other side of the field, which the women had already harvested)

I spent a happy 15 minutes sitting cross-legged, chatting and exchanging stories. Although initially I was a "city-mem", a stranger to the women, somewhere along the conversation, things changed and we became friends on a more equal sort of footing. I was invited to come again and spend a longer time with them. I was invited home for dinner, and to stay the night if I wished. (I am always surprised by the hospitality and kindness I experience in rural India - no matter how poor people are, the genuine warmth that they extend to complete strangers is amazing).

I was also offered some advice on the importance of having male children. In fact, the women were quite distressed to hear I had no sons.

"Kya? Aapka beta nahi hai?", they asked me. What? You have no son? (what a tragedy!)

I said no, I had only one daughter, but she was pure gold ("Lakhon mein ek hai meri beti").

They shook their heads. That apparently didn't count.

"Ek beta hona chahiye", I was told, somewhat sadly. You must have a son.

I tried again. "Meri beti badi hokar khoob padegi, kamayegi, hamara naam roshan karegi" My daughter will study and work and do well and make me proud.

Uh-uh. No dice. I had to have a son, for my own good. "Phir bhi, ek beta to hona chahiye, behen. Ek beta jaroor kar lo aap"

It was advice lovingly offered, to someone who they thought would benefit by listening to it. What could I say in the face of such utter conviction? I gave up, and smiled and told them, ok, next time I'll come here with a baby in my arms! We all laughed, and I waved goodbye...

...But as I was walking out with our guide, I wondered when these attitudes would change, and when these women would stop viewing themselves as second class citizens. Will the new Women's Reservation Bill be able to change anything in this village? I don't know. Not in this lifetime, perhaps. Still, I was glad I spent some part of the afternoon here with these women. Living in my elitist "emancipated" world, I had forgotten what the life and beliefs of the average Indian women is really like.

 

Deepa Krishnan has a consulting practice in banking technology. She owns Mumbai Magic and Delhi Magic, companies that offer insightful, off-beat city tours.
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