An idyllic trip to a tiny Indian village, with a lesson on the economics of rice farming.
Sekhar brought us to his home village on Gandhi’s birthday. We weren’t celebrating Gandhi’s birthday; we went because it was Sunday, and it was the day before Sekhar’s and my birthday.
Sekhar’s family lives in Irikupallam, which in Telegu means “congested place”. I didn’t think it was that congested- Irikupallam has 2,500 residents, and they are mostly farmers. Sekhar’s family owns five acres of rice fields.
There were twelve of us who drove out to Irikupallam on Sunday: we needed two Qualises to fit everybody. The trip out there was 250 kilometers, on mostly decent roads. The closer we got, though, the bumpier the roads got, and our butts got so sore.
We drove into the center, right next to a beautiful purple temple. One left turn down the side street, and we arrived at Sekhar’s house. We climbed out, stretched, and went through the gate and into Sekhar’s family’s front yard.
We took off our sandals, filled pitchers with water from a large stone basin in the front yard, and washed our hands and feet. Sekhar’s mom and aunt and sister gave us towels to dry off, and we went inside and met the family. They only spoke Telegu, but half of our group understood it, and they translated for the rest of us.
We sat down to some serious Southern Indian hospitality. The family brought out wadas and sweets and coconut chutney and water, and every time our plates were almost empty, somebody came along and heaped up more food on them. Pretty soon we were stuffed, and it was funny watching how different people tried to stop the food flow – Richa said “no, no, no”, and ended up with more, more, more. Sreelekha scolded them and made them take back the food they snuck onto her plate when she wasn’t looking. I left two wadas on my plate as reverse decoys – if they were there, no more would come.
We ate so much food that we forgot about our sore bottoms. Then Irina and Julia suggested that we visit the temple, and we trooped outside, put on our sandals, and walked the half block to the village center.
Somebody ran to get the priest, and we went through the side door of the temple yard. We walked around the courtyard until the priest arrived. When he came, he was wearing a dyothi. He looked like he just wrapped a long towel around his waist, and threw another one over his shoulder. He also looked like he had just woken up from his morning nap. Since he was now awake, he went to work on waking up the gods for our visit.
The priest reached up and rang four bells in sequence, chanted something, made some hand motions around the door, and then rang the bells again. Sekhar said that he was warning the gods that he would be entering. Then he unlocked and opened the door to the inner room, got a match and some oil in a spoon out of a cupboard, and lighted the oil. He entered the room, chanting and gesturing, and waved the flame and smoke at each of the three idols inside. Sekhar explained to us that he was waking up the gods for us – once awake, they would bless our arrival.
We were left outside the room, watching the priest moving around inside. We weren’t quite sure what he was doing, but there was a lot of muttering and singing and moving going on. Eventually he came out, spoke with Sekhar, and we left. Sekhar said that the priest suggested we visit another temple, where the gods were already awake and waiting for our visit.
We left the temple, and Sekhar asked if we wanted to see the rice fields. Of course we did, but how were we going to get there? We could either walk, or take a tractor ride. Since it was a few kilometers away, and the sun was beating down on us, we opted for the tractor ride. While we were waiting for the tractor, more and more of the villagers came out to see us, and pretty soon we were surrounded by lots of curious kids. Irina started taking their pictures and showing them the digital images, and they pointed and laughed when they saw each other. I got them dancing and making funny faces, and we had a good time waiting.
We clambered aboard the trailer, opened up some umbrellas to protect us from the hot sun, and the tractor pulled us out to the rice fields. Sekhar also pointed out fields of cotton, turmeric, and jute. Once we got close to his family fields, Sekhar walked us out into the fields and explained the mechanics of getting the water from the canals and into the fields: the farmers make little ditches and dams with the dirt, and the water flows through the fields, from one end to the other.
As we were walking alongside a small canal, Sekhar told me that the water came from the Nagarjunasaga Dam – and said, “Dennis, you must drink some of the water.” It didn’t look that clean, but when Sekhar drank some, I thought that I should do it too. I bent down, cupped some water in my hands, and drank it. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a dragonfly wing floating in the water in my hands just as I took my sip.
The wing gut stuck in my throat. But I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it, so I said, hopefully, “Wow, it’s nice that the water is so clean.” And Sekhar smiled and said “no, Dennis, it’s not very clean, but it’s auspicious to taste the water that grows our rice.” Great - at least it made me forget about my sore backside.
The tractor ride back seemed a lot longer. I think they wanted to show us around, but after a few minutes of bouncing across the floor of the shock-absorber-less trailer, baking in the heat, and shielding ourselves with our umbrellas from the thorn bushes that seemed to reach out at us as we passed, the rice and cotton and turmeric and jute fields all looked the same. So to get our minds off our rear ends, I taught everybody the bear song “Some years ago, I met a bear, a great big bear, away out there”, then “There’s a hole in the bottom of the sea,” and finally “And the dog went bow.”
Eventually the tractor reached a paved road, and we picked up speed. This stopped the bumping and started a breeze, and we perked up enough to notice Sekhar‘s primary school and high school. We returned to the house and re-washed our hands and feet. Sekhar’s family brought in some extra tables, and then they brought more and more food for us to eat. The meal was incredible – we had rice with ghee, lemon rice, some fried dishes, upma, many different kinds of chutneys and curries, okra, and coconut ice cream. Finally we were stuffed. We got up, went to another room, and each received a bowl of “ginju”, which is made from the first milk of a buffalo after she gives birth. Good thing they told us after we ate it.
As we were leaving, Sekhar’s family called us inside one last time, and presented us with gifts – saris for Irina and Julia, a dyothi for me, and cloth and money for Richa, Sreelekha, and Chaitanya.
We stopped at Nagarjunasaga Dam in the evenings, and saw the water falls lit up with colored lights - absolutely magical. We watched the Banjarra girls dance, and then drove home. After the trailer ride, the bumps in the Qualis were hardly noticeable.
Sekhar told me about the rice farming business. Farming is a lot harder than programming. Outside of major disasters, the amount of sunshine or rain we receive doesn’t directly impact our paychecks. But it makes a huge difference to the farmers of Irikupallam. This was the first year in the last eight that there was enough rain to fill the fields with enough water to grow enough rice to make a profit.
Not that there’s a lot of profit in growing rice. On a good year, each acre of land produces 3,500 kg of unprocessed rice. Each kg sells for 5 rupees, so an acre of land with a single crop (only one crop a year in this part of Andhra Pradesh) can produce 17,500 rupees. Multiply that by five and the total gross income is 87,500 rupees, or around $2,000 US each year.
But that’s before expenses. Each acre of rice needs 10 people to grow it, weed it, water it, and spray it. That’s 500 rupees a day for the labor. Each acre of land needs seed and pesticide. All told, it costs 8,000 rupees to grow an acre of rice, which means that in a good year like this year, rice farmers will earn a profit of 9,500 rupees per acre of rice. Five acres means 47,500 rupees, or $1,100 US per year that a typical rice farmer family earns.
I guess the pay isn’t so bad when you consider what other non-technical people earn in India. Our driver earns a salary of 39,000 rupees each year. But he gets paid whether the rice grows or not. Plus, he gets tips, he can sleep most of the day while we’re at work, and he gets overtime when he works more than 72 hours in a week (this is frequent with our schedule). Farmers work much harder than Hussain does.
Sekhar and Arunabh explained how rice is grown. The farmers grow the rice shoots in special beds. It’s very dense, and looks like a lawn of uncut grass. The goal is to get these shoots eight inches long so they can be planted in the fields.
When the rains come in May, the farmers prepare the fields. They create dams so the fields get filled with water. Once there is six inches of water in the fields, they bring out the cows and plows, and they till the fields until they turn into thick, black mud. In September, they add more water, and they transplant the rice shoots to the fields, placing them in evenly spaced clumps of five or six shoots.
For the next few months, the farmers ensure that the fields maintain six to eight inches of fresh water. They cut out the weeds with their sickles, collecting them to feed the cows and buffalos. They fertilize the fields with cow and buffalo and human manure. They spread and spray pesticides to keep the bugs away. All day the farmers and laborers are in the fields, protecting their rice, keeping it alive and healthy. This continues until January, when the rice stalks turn brown.
In January, the rice is almost ready for harvest. The farmers drain the water from the fields to dry the rice and loosen the kernels. This is the critical part: if a stray rainstorm comes by while the rice is drying, the crop is ruined. Fortunately in Andhra Pradesh, this is a rare occurrence – rains come only between May and October. When the rice is dry, the farmers carefully cut the rice stalks with their sickles. They gather the stalks, thresh them to shake loose the rice kernels, and bag the kernels. These rice kernels are brought to the mill, where they are husked and the grains are extracted.
You’re probably asking yourself, “Why don’t the farmers buy many acres of rice, so they can make more each year?” Good question. The laws in Andhra Pradesh prevent any family from owning more than ten acres of farmland. This restriction prevents large companies from taking over and putting independent farmers out of a job. It also protects the labor market: machinery is not cost effective on the small scale of ten acres – it would take decades to recoup the capital investment.
Whenever I eat a bowl of rice, I will appreciate the amount of manual labor that went into preparing it. I will remember the feel of the bumps of the tractor’s trailer, the dragonfly wing going down my throat, and the heat of the sun on my head. I will remember the taste of the dirty water and the wonderful spicy food. I will remember the smell of the fresh earth, and the manure in the fields. And I will savor the memories of the wonderful time we had with Sekhar’s family in Irikupallam.