Gudiyatham is a small town in the Vellore district of Tamil Nadu. As you exit the Bangalore- Chennai highway, you reach a busy junction crammed with buses and little shops. Then you drive on into a terrain that is trying to cope with urbanization while retaining its rural essence; tired old men and women sell seasonal fruits and vegetables spread out on tarpaulin sheets, cows and their suckling calves graze along the streets besides their sheds made of wooden planks and dried palm leaves, children run about homes painted bright purple and fluorescent green, the poultry farms emit a stench of chicken shit, an occasional sign board announces someone’s death or puberty function.
Grids of dry farmland stretch on either side with coconut trees lined up in rows, serving as dividers. A bullock ploughs through a patch. Even from a distance you can tell that the beast is distressed from toiling in the unforgiving heat. As a draught-prone district with topography that doesn’t permit water percolation, farmers struggle with their crops. They can do nothing but wait for the rains as the blistering sun rages on.
Three years ago my father announced that he wanted to buy a plot of land out here. It came with a concrete structured three-bedroom house, a well and a water tank. We were skeptical about his decision and thrust our questions – who would help him manage it, how would he cope with the extreme summer heat, what would he do for food. Apart from these basic day-to-day issues were the two key challenges that every farmer has to address to sustain land – reliable labour and a steady water supply.
But we heard a thrill in his voice that was unfamiliar; the tremor one feels when they have discovered a fresh meaning of the word ‘possibility’. Here was a man who had spent decades as a civil engineer, shuttling between jobs that would give his family stability and the capacity to afford luxuries like bi-annual vacations and weekly dinners at fancy restaurants. Never once did he let us see a side of him where he resented his work or sacrifices. So whether this capricious choice to be a new-age farmer was logical didn’t seem to matter. He deserved the indulgence of chasing a dream that no one else understood. While we worried about the ‘what’ and ‘how’, he only cared about his quest to both build and find deeply buried roots.
He dove in with all his heart, ready to occupy himself with a passion to connect with soil and watch crops and trees grow and yield fruits. His father’s side of the family still lived close by and he was able to garner considerable support. From them he formed a clear plan on how to set up his land; hire workers through special government schemes, meet local experts, gather soil reports, attend agricultural expos, research on where to buy seeds and saplings from, find ground water sources to dig bore wells.
Almost every day I read about inspiring people who abandon successful and stable jobs to work on agricultural solutions that ease rural distress. Having watched my father face innumerable challenges over the past few years, I can tell you that these heartwarming stories are incomplete. We can never fully comprehend what it takes to transition from the comforts of urban life to the incalculable struggles of living in a village.
Most of the mainstream films we watch capture the snippets of daily existence that make farm life romantic – a carefree girl running amidst mustard fields, buffalos mooing contentedly while being milked, children splashing about in flowing rivers, the sweet smell of soil that awakens everyone at the crack of dawn. These are the images painted in our cluttered minds when we think of the other side of India – peace, simplicity and swathes of joy that come from not needing to rush to survive.
The movie Swades showed a benevolent NASA scientist, Mohan, moved by the plight of people living in a village that he visits to meet his long-lost caretaker. The poverty, patriarchy, broken infrastructure and plight of debt-ridden farmers frustrate and sadden him. Mohan finds himself torn between his ambitions and a desire to contribute towards social change in his homeland. Swades ends on a feel-good note as he relinquishes life in the USA to work with an Indian space station and live in the countryside. This idealistic conclusion is designed to appease all angles of conflict and instill hope that such decisions are the closest we’ll get to happy endings in the real world.
But what happens next? How does Mohan adjust to rural life as a mode of survival as opposed to a pit stop? If and when he has children, where will he send them to school? How does he make money? What does he do to pass the time? What kind of friends will he have?
These are the answers that I find my father filling in for me. As he shuttles between Bangalore and Gudiyatham, balancing two diametrically opposite lifestyles, I feel the realization of how satisfying yet difficult his post-retirement life has turned out to be. Despite all the efforts and investments in high-quality seeds, crops have failed because of delayed rains or pest problems. He has to shrewdly manage people who see him as a privileged person that can be taken advantage of. The workers are well aware of how dependent he is on them and there are days when they abuse his trust. He has to tread the line between being harsh with them to get his work done and empathetic enough to share resources like water and food.
Then there is the isolation, the biggest surcharge that comes along with the tranquility. In the nights you step out and there is nothing but darkness; stars twinkle in a charcoal smeared sky, a radio blares from a distance, wild boars grunt as they roam the fields in search of plump rats, coconut trees sway and rustle in the unhindered breeze. Even with a television for company, my father gets lonely. His days begin early and end in a state of physical exhaustion.
It’s never too old to learn from your parents and seeing my father strive against the odds at his age inspires me in a way that not even the best self-help book or TED talk can. I see his eyes light up when he talks about a tree bearing fruits or a potential opportunity that involves doing something differently. And though his experimentations have yielded more failures than he would have imagined, he hasn’t stopped. This passion goes beyond monetary rewards; it is a journey of discovering new realms of self and nature.
We spend the occasional weekend at the farm when the weather is pleasant. It isn’t as often as he would like us to visit but we try. My daughter gets busy playing with the farm dogs, rolling around in the mud and watching young calves with their mothers. As a bug aficionado, this land offers her infinite discoveries. Once she stopped a worker from killing a snake and made him catch and release it elsewhere. Despite the long sweaty hours we endure at times without electricity and having to cook in a kitchen that is in a state of absolute disarray, I am grateful that my child benefits from these raw and immersive experiences.
I watch lithe women with toughened hands scoop dung with metal sheets and pile them in a corner to be baked by the sun. Sometimes I try to help them, but you wouldn’t believe how heavy one heap of cow poop can be! Once I sat husking a pile of crop feed and my fingers got cut so badly in less than hour that I quietly retired to reading a book, letting the women giggle at my delicate condition.
Dad bustles about excitedly in his loose white dhoti whenever we visit, eager to show us ripened papayas, stout bottle gourds and heaps of dried peanuts. He is never still. In the evenings he sits in the veranda with his granddaughter and they build a fire with wood and heat water filled in an earthen pot. We then have our hot bucket baths, a simple meal of upma or rasam rice garnished with freshly plucked sprigs of coriander and go to bed.
Our trips to the farm never last more than two to three days. It’s easy to idealize what it’s like to live amidst green pastures and grazing cows when you don’t have to sit there all the time; in a place where shops don’t sell bread or butter and there is no Swiggy to sate you hunger when you’re too lazy to cook, where you have to listen to rats scuttling in the room and lizards clicking their tongues as they hang ominously off the ceiling, where you have to scrub the toilet seat before you place your butt on them because they haven’t been washed in a while, where the crickets chirp at night as you lay on a hard mattress with a fan powering on relentlessly at full-speed only to circulate hot air.
As for me, I enjoy the peaceful hour before sunset when the birds arrive. With a hot cup of tea, I sit on a charpai in the cool cow shed, clutching my binoculars. I watch the Indian roller in flight, a marvelous sight of turquoise and violet feathers cutting through the air above a plantation. A rufous treepie hops about on a neem tree, unaware of me spying its peach, black and white velvety plumage. A pair of green bea-eaters twitter restlessly as they swoop down to pick at worms. The kingfisher stops by occasionally and waits patiently on a wire before taking a dip in the water tank.
I momentarily connect with an inner silence and feel content. The sun drifts behind rippled clouds, a bright golden coin for an instant and in the next, a shimmering haze. There are no friends to call or plans to be made; no traffic jams to navigate through or award-winning restaurants to eat at. Welcoming boredom and living slowly is the only option.