Monday, November 1, 2010

Back in Sirsi, and What I Want To Do When I Grow Up

It’s nice to be back in Sirsi. The weather is cooling down, there isn’t a predictable downpour after 4 pm anymore, and I can at least understand some of the language, if not say much. Coming into Sirsi felt like coming home. Chitti leapt up to us, whining and wagging her entire dog self, and I can dig in the dirt and chase kids around making chicken noises.
Sunita and I went to the office and spent the night there. This office has sleeping stuff, because even from the hills 18 kilometers out of Sirsi, the commute takes a while, and Sunita has to either hire a driver (in Sirsi it seems that few people have cars and those who do often offer taxi service) or take the bus, which is infrequent, slow, and often very crowded. That said, I like to take the bus, because I get to see a lot of people, and school girls will sometimes talk to me in school English. Or old ladies will talk to me in Kannada and I can’t understand much, but if I say a couple Kannada words, they keep talking. Both are nice. I learned in Pondy that being a friendly foreigner makes being foreign feel much less wrong-footed.
One of the office chores is to sort out fabric scraps into piles of colors to be taken to the quilt lady to make into quilts, or to be made into cloth menstrual pads by the seed collective women. And what fabric scraps! Bright oranges, reds, green-blues, silver and gold thread making intricate designs on the colors. So I sit cross-legged with a rainbow in a circle all around me. I get to thinking what I used to call Handwork Thoughts: long, long thoughts that chase each other in circles and can be thought as long as it takes to knit or sew. I think I would like to be an old lady who lives in the mountains and makes quilts, makes bread, makes a garden, keeps goats and sheep and ducks, all of her own love and her own hands. I want to be a holdout, you know, one of those people that Michael Pollan or Gary Paul Nabhan writes glowingly about, the old-fashioned people who are dying out, the lady who still hand makes tortillas of corn she grew herself.  I want to breathe new life into this sort of work, I don’t want all the old fashioned people to be old, and then to be gone. But—but—there’s something keeping me, just yet. I tell Sunita this when she looks up from her work.
“I want to be an old lady who lives in the mountains with phone service, good road access and internet. And I don’t want to do any intellectual work!” says Sunita. I laugh, because Sunita lives in the mountains, with the trees and rice paddies and the purple-rumped sunbird...but she hasn’t got phone service, good road access or internet. You have to walk out the paddy field, on narrow raised mud paths that squelch under the feet, scattering frogs and paddy-crabs, and then out the red mud road. Or you have to go in Muthalif’s little van out the other red mud road, which is scarred by rain and cows and rocks.  
And she does absurd amounts of intellectual work. Her mind functions at about a million miles an hour. Sunita sighs then and says slowly, “But if you don’t think, they’ll just ride right over you.”
These days, it isn’t enough to be a holdout. Lone holdouts can be ground down—by time, by companies, by money, by the bank. Holdouts have to be farmers and fighters, teachers of that which is blacklisted by the economic system and banned by the media. We have to stick together. “Use those modern networks,” says my favourite professor-mentor Steve. We have to do that. I found a copy of The Grapes of Wrath on Sunita’s shelf, started reading it. It’s eerie just how much what happened there in the Midwest a little over half a century ago is echoing here. Sunita’s neighbours have a loan. 13 percent interest and areca farming doesn’t pay enough to barely pay the cost of living and the loan itself, let alone the interest. Are we going to let history repeat itself, at great cost to the land and the people, because a place is too far away? Although the companies engineering this slow trapping of the people who work the land are housed on our own soil? Are we going to stand so much longer for inhuman treatment of our own land—the sterilization, the rendering of farming into pure chemistry and biology, the removal of human souls from the land? I hope not. Because I want farming, and other land-based livelihoods, to be something I can do when I grow up. To be viable choices for young people.
“...They arose in the dark no more to hear the sleepy birds’ first chittering, and the morning wind around the house while they waited for the first light to go out to the dear acres. These things were lost, and crops were reckoned in dollars, and land was valued by principal plus interest, and crops were bought and sold before they were planted. Then crop failure, drought, and flood were no longer little deaths within life, but simple losses of money. And all their love was thinned with money, and all their fierceness dribbled away in interest until they were no longer farmers at all, but little shopkeepers of crops, little manufacturers who must sell before they can make. Then those farmers who were not good shopkeepers lost their land to good shopkeepers. No matter how clever, no matter how loving a man might be with earth and growing things, he could not survive if he were not also a good shopkeeper. And as time went on, the business men had the farms, and the farms grew larger, but there were fewer of them.
Now the farming became industry, and the owners followed Rome, although they did not know it. They imported slaves, although they did not call them slaves: Chinese, Japanese, Mexicans, Filipinos...And the farms grew larger and the owners fewer.”
—John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
Here's what Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister of India, said (7 September 2010:)
"The only way we can raise our heads above poverty is for more people to be taken out of agriculture." migrate into Mumbai slums? to make room for multinationals like WalMart and Monsanto, two members on the board of the Indo-US Knowledge Iniative? to be poor in the city instead of poor on land that their grandfathers owned, but that is being taken by the bank in the same way it was taken from farmers in the Dust Bowl in the US?
How about subsidizing knowledge and the people who hold it, grow it, steward it as they do the land, instead of chemical companies? How about putting farmers in the seats that make decisions about farming? How about society putting a higher value on the food we eat and the people who grow it, so that farming becomes a job with respect in its very name? Do farmers have to be poor? I don't think so--if I did, I wouldn't be doing this sort of work.
I just want to work for myself, but I want to do it with dignity, I want that to be possible, I want the economic system not to be stacked against the kind of living where you’re either the boss or the bossed, if you know what I mean. I don’t want to work for anyone, and I don’t want anyone to work for me. Sure I want to help my neighbours, sure I love to work with other people, but with, not for. There’s a big difference.
P.S. I've also been to Pondicherry and Kotagiri for a Conservation Education conference...I'd like to write about those places too, we'll see. Thanks for reading,


  1. It's a complex dance, this industrial life which goes against our nature...But you, SARAH, will be able to dance it well, naturally and smartly! Love reading your adventures! Stay well!

  2. i settled down to read this post like i do to read words by a comfortable, thoughtful, poignant, much-loved author. thank you for telling your stories and sharing your heart! i hear you on being a friendly foreigner. uganda unfolded itself in surprising and beautiful ways, often just because i smiled and tried to speak the language.

    thanks for writing, and lots of love,


  3. Sarah I applaud you. Your writing has so much heart and far-seeingness. Please continue to do what you do.
    -A fellow subcontinent traveler and dear friend

  4. thanks, all of you! all this encouragement of writing is unforeseen and wonderful! More to's also a complex dance between experiencing and finding the time to write about it! Thanks again...much love.

  5. Extremely eloquent word portrait of your immersion in a place and profound insights about large forces, about being a counterforce, and economic/cultural rights and wrongs. Sweet!

    A let me also tip my hat to the intimations of Colin in two-headed chicken picture posted above

    xoxo from Santa Fe — yr. fan Hal