My father played many roles in his life.
Professionally he grew from being an electrician to heading the electrical department in a small factory near his house in the same town that he was born and brought up. In his role as a provider he looked after a very big extended family comprising of about twenty people, being its major bread winner. Despite being a small person, he was like this large umbrella that protected many a people from the rain. He carried a broad shoulder, enough for most of the family to cry on, complain or to blame. He took it all in his stride. Also in his role as a provider, he ensured that all his four sons got high class education. We were a family of six, father, mother and us four sons, self being the eldest. We children were by no means easy to bring up, but he did it with elan despite taking lot of stress.
In the role of a communicator, he was par excellence. He had this knack of starting up a communication with almost anyone from 8 to 80 and beyond. He claimed to have a basic knowledge of astrology and that brought forth a lot of associates.
He dabbled in classical music, was a natural litigant getting involved in many a court battle and was a thorough gentleman, sometimes a bit acerbic.
But the role that he relished, which he was passionate about and in which he excelled was in his role as a farmer.
Farming was in Appa's (Appa: Tamil for Father) blood. Come early morning, he will head out into the wild, clad in a lungi with an occasional towel covering his upper torso. Climate in Kerala is hot and humid all through the year and his dress code was par for the course in Kerala. Once outside, he will immerse himself in his pet trees and plants. Be it a tall coconut tree or a small flower plant, all got his equal attention. Like Lord Elmsworth of Blandings Castle, he will spent time near each plant, caressing the leaves and lovingly smelling the flowers and gingerly weighing the pumpkins...
Most of my early memories of Appa are of his spending time in his farm. He and his brothers inherited a large acreage of land and he was determined to make the most out of this gift. One of my earliest memories is about his rice cultivation. Till he ended up with a major loss, he used to cultivate rice in every season. In his first season, he sowed about one 'meni' and reaped about 150 'Menis' of rice. My mom tells me that this rice was very tasty and there was a high demand for the same. In the kind of barter system that existed in Kearla at that time (we are talking about late 60s and early 70s), one kilogram of this rice fetched him 4 kilograms of ordinary rice which he then sold in the market and made a lot of money.
My memories about this period is very sketchy. I remember seeing a number of ladies sitting in our backyard and trying to separate the rice from the chaff. First they will fill a large 'Kotta' ( a container made mostly of Bamboo) with the rice and let it fall from a height. A fan running in the background will blow away the light chaff leaving behind the heavier rice. Once the rice is separated, it is boiled in a large 'Chembu' or 'Uruli' - Round flattish kind of vessel, normally used in South India, especially in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The ladies will light a large fire, much like the ones that you see in a movie about African Jungle, and place the Uruli on the fire. They will add water and rice in the Uruli and let it boil. Once boiled the rice is dried and then sent to a rice mill. In the mill, the rice is separated from the husk and now the rice is ready for human consumption and husk and the chaff is ready for the consumption of cows and chicken which are the sine qua non in most of the houses in Kerala in those days. We had cows at home for the milk but did not rear chicken since we were vegetarians and did not eat eggs.
To prevent pests from damaging the crops, my father will call the pesticide guy once a while to spray pesticides on the rice crop. This guy was a site to behold in the hinterlands of Kerala. You will see him walk in the middle of the rice / paddy field, a solitary sprayer, with a cylinder of Pesticides hanging on his back and the sprayer in his hand, spraying away pesticide like crazy. I could almost picture him like Niel Armstrong walking about on the surface of the moon with all that Oxygen cylinder hanging on his back. We children were barred from going near him since the pesticide was very poisonous and could damage the eyes if it fell in them by accident, but we could go near enough to smell the pungent smell of the pesticide being sprayed on the unsuspecting pests.
Buoyed by his success in the first season, my father cultivated rice in the next season also. Here also he made good money. However he was not lucky in the third season where, due to inclement weather, he made a measly four times the rice that he sowed. After paying off the labourers and considering all the operational costs, my father ended the season in a big loss of both money and appetite for rice cultivation.
This ended his tryst with rice / paddy cultivation.
He also dabbled for a small period in Black Gram ('Cheru Payar' in Malayalam) and Robusta Plantain Cultivation.
There are two other crops that my father cultivated about which I have memories. While I have fond memories about 'Kappa Krishi' (Tapioca Cultivation, Kappa is pronounced 'Cuppa'), the memories are not so fond about his Cocoa Cultivation.
First about his 'Kappa Krishi'.
'Kappa' is a major cash crop of Kerala. Since I am a vegetarian and teetotaler I can't vouch for it, but my friends emphatically state that 'Kallu' with 'Kappa' and 'Mean Curry' (Kallu - Toddy, a type of local liquor found mostly in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, 'Mean Curry': Fish Curry) is the greatest food combination that they have ever (and will ever) eaten.
'Kappa' is a very easy, low maintenance vegetable to cultivate. All you need is a mound of soil and a small (6 inches) long stem of the plant. The stem has to be fixed in the correct direction for the plant to grow. Then you wait for the miracle of the nature to do its trick. Almost from day one the plant starts growing. Soon the plant grows to about 2 meters tall, leaves and all. .
Once the plant is matured (about three months, I think) the root (Kappa) is ready to be pulled out. First step is to cut out the stem leaving about 6 inches in tact. This is to hold and pull out the root when the soil around had been removed. Then you make a wide circle around the mound and start slowly digging out the sand. You pour water to moisten the soil so that it is easy to dig. The wide circle is so that the shovel do not damage the root. Once you spot the root, you patiently remove the soil around the root and finally pull out the roots (holding the stem) and the Kappa is now ready to be cleaned and cooked.
The leaves are given to cattle as fodder and the stem is reused, almost immediately, for the next crop of Kappa. Children used the stems as cricket stumps or to play 'Kuttiyum Kolum' (Kutti and Kol: Kutti - A small stick 6 inches long, and Kol; A longer stick used to hit Kutti).
That is the beauty of stuff available from nature. You can reuse almost all the parts. Not a single thing is wasted.
Compare that to Plastic...
I mentioned earlier that I had fond memories of Kappa Krishi. That is because, those days (I should have been about 6-7 years old at that time), I was also a Kappa Farmer. Kappa is planted in rows of 10 meters long with three mounds per meter. I used to own a row. I will remove the weeds from my row and make mounds and plant thirty Kappa Stems in the mounds.
As I mentioned before, Kappa starts growing from day one. I will wake up every morning, and like Appa, will go out wearing just a trouser and no shirt and affectionately stand there watching my Kappa Krishi grow. Occasionally I will find that some of the Kappa is not growing and most of the time the reason is that I had planted the stem in the wrong direction. Like god, Kappa is very patient and allows you to remedy your mistakes. I will pluck out the stem and fix it in the right direction and pour some water to pacify the irate stem.
At the time of harvest, seeing your Kappa being excavated, oh man, is a heavenly feeling.....
My mother used to make various preparations using Kappa. One was 'Kappa Puzhuku', a preparation where Kappa is cut into smallish cubes and prepared in a ground mix of coconut, cumin seeds, green chilli and curry leaves. Another tasty preparation was boiled Kappa eaten with chutney made of Onion, Green Chillies and Curry Leaves. Then there was Kappa chips, Kappa sliced into thin slices, dried and fried in coconut oil.
Normally I like Kappa preparations, they are healthy and tasty. But when the same was made with the Kappa from my row, they were extra special.
Around the time I was 10, we moved to Factory Quarters. Here the land area was smaller. Even though Appa continued his various Krishi, I had 'Grown Up' and found Kappa Krishi to be uncool.
Appa had multiple bounty harvests when it came to Kappa. Since it is a cash crop and start generating cash from the time it is out of earth, he made some profit out of his Kappa Krishi.
I remember is stealing some money to buy Pencils and stuff and getting caught by Appa. That is a story for another article.
Now let me tell you about his Cocoa Krishi and why I disliked it.
Cadbury India created the culture of Cocoa Cultivation in the country in 1964. Kerala produced about 80 percent of the Cocoa demand in India and Kottayam, the place were we lived, produced most of the Cocoa produced in Kerala. In the years 1978 to 80, the Cocoa production peaked in the country.
Cocoa was a very lucrative crop. Cadbury was purchasing Cocoa at about 15 rupees per Kg from the local farmers and the margins were in the range of 40 percent, unheard of for any other cash crop. Every farmer and his grandfather who had a bit of land was cultivating Cocoa. During those days, the stink of Fermented Cocoa was the state smell of Kerala.
Once matured, Cocoa had to be plucked, fermented and dried in a span of just 3 days.
Cadbury had set up collection centers in various points in Kottayam District. Unfortunately for me, the nearest one was on the way to the college where I was doing Higher Secondary Course. So (Naturally !!) I was entrusted with the task of carrying about 5 Kilos of the fermented and slushy Cocoa to the Cadbury collection center in Kottayam, almost every day. I must have been about 16 then and had understood what was socially permissible. I realized that carrying stinking, slushy Cocoa in Plastic bags was not something which society encouraged. Despite silent reproach by the general public, I carried on this activity for over a year.
Of course, every cloud has a silver lining. In this case there were two. First is that even in crowded places, I got place to sit. Since people wanted to stay as far away from the Cocoa they gave up their seats as I approached. I was a social outcast in public transport during those days. The second one was that it built character I learned to ignore public reactions and carry on with what I had to do, provided I knew what I was doing was correct. (of course I am joking, every day I used to come home and complain that people are avoiding me.) !
Appa also cultivated Coconuts. Normally he used to sell it to the market, but in the latter days, he used to sell it to Coconut Oil Mills. In return, we got annual supply of Coconut Oil.
That oil, straight out of the mill, is the tastiest coconut oil that I ever experienced.
Towards the end of his life, he sold off his property and came to live with us in Bangalore. Without the land to go out in the morning, without the plants, vegetables, fruits and flowers to caress, without labourers to shout at, my father was feeling like a river fish caught and kept in an aquarium. The fish had everything, regular food, someone to take care and all the needs having been met.
But it lacked Freedom to move around in its natural habitat.
That is the price one pays for progress....