India, Day 8 - Rice Field Respite
As we Bolero'd our way through impoverished villages and shantytowns of eastern India, my host leaned forward and gave fresh directions to our intrepid driver. After he finished with the rapid, rolling-R burst of localized Hindi, he turned to me and said that we were going to detour through his home village. I was to see the place of his birth and the rest of his tribe. I told him that I couldn't wait to see the place. In my last entry, I posted about the incredible poverty to which I bore witness in this area. Future entries will show even grittier images than the ones I have posted thus far. You drive long enough through certain parts of India, and things start to look alike. Endless, pitted roads of repetitious cell phone recharge stations, machine shops and samosa stands. Villages of identical thatch huts appearing in the middle of rice fields that extend to a sensible horizon darkened by palm fringes. Even after just a few hours, the effect can be oppressive.
India is second only to China in world rice production; the last available measurement from 2010 placing its production at 120.6 million metric tons. As a staple food for its 1.2 billion citizens, most of the rice grown in India is traded within the country; the only variety to be traded outside of India to any substantial extent being the gourmet basmati variety. That said, large-scale farms still buy seeds from Western agriculture companies like Monsanto; and, like most other scenarios involving Big Pharma or industrial food production, the unethical policies of the seed producer has done exponentially more harm than good in India. I highly recommend that you watch this video of Dr. Vandana Shiva to learn more about these problems. As the Fair Trade movement gains traction in cultural consciousness, don't limit your awareness just to the sources of your coffee and chocolate. When you see images of smiling Kenyan or Ethiopian coffee farmers--remember these photos and consider the people who made your plate of basmati bryani possible.
That said, my host's home village represented a striking contrast to the usual scene. Conditions there were not only different, they felt...freer. I left with the impression that their agriculture was based on subsistence rather than subservient cultivation for the local rice barons. The people here seemed content and happy.
We pulled to a stop at the rim of a rice field. My host and I jumped out of the Bolero and he led me down to meet the people of his village who were busy planting the summer rice crop. However, they weren't so busy that they couldn't take a break to smile and meet the gora with the camera. The women were a bit shy, exhibiting the conspicuous modesty common among Indian females, but they seemed to truly get a kick out of seeing their likenesses in the monitor of my camera. Hanging about on the fringe of the crowd, a goat herder wandered up and showed himself to be an outright ham as soon as the camera turned his way.
This little episode, lasting no more than ten minutes as I photographed the people in groups and as individuals, but for a newcomer to the area, it was happy respite from the depressing scenes I had been in the middle of for the first part of the day, and would continue to see for the next five in this area.