“Grandmother! Look! I’ve caught three grasshoppers!” The little boy ran excitedly to the old woman and held up his fist. She saw the crushed wings, legs and bruised green bodies of the insects he had caught.
“Can we eat them?” He was looking up eagerly at the grey-haired woman. The five-year-old had lost both his parents in a brutal enemy attack and his grandmother was the only parent he had ever known. He had only been a few months old when it happened. It was a wonder he had not been killed when their village was overrun and people were massacred in their own houses. Luckily for him, the killers had not seen the baby sleep- ing beside his mother and, having killed both adults in the house, the men escaped to avoid being caught in a counter attack.
“We don’t eat grasshoppers, Namu. You can give that to our chickens and I will catch something else for you,” his grand- mother replied. She broke off a broad leaf and handed it him. “Here. Wrap them in this leaf and put it in your basket. We will take your catch home later.”
Tola, the old woman, worked hard to get enough food for the two of them. She had lost her husband ten years ago in a freak hunting accident. Namu’s father had been her only son, and with him gone, Namu was the only family left to her. Tola tried to teach him the most important lesson of life, how to get food.
They left early every morning to work at the jhum field where she had sowed hill rice. In the patches cleared for vegetables, she always had a good crop of chillies, tomatoes, egg plant, and beans growing. Native cabbages sprouted up in season, and if they plucked them before the caterpillars got to them, they made a nice addition to their evening meal.
The tapioca and sweet potatoes grew wild and did well even though left quite untended. When they were out in the field, she would take her hoe and expertly dig out a few sweet potatoes for the boy. He loved to eat them raw, the juice dribbling down his chin. Namu was still too young to help, but he followed his grandmother around, carrying his little basket and imitating her as she plucked edible leaves and put them in her cane basket.
Tola checked the grain on the paddy stalks and satisfied herself that the ears were filling up. In three or four weeks they would turn yellow and be ready to be harvested. It was hard work, but it gave them food for a good part of the year. Like the rest of her fellow villagers, Tola owned a small terrace field down in the valley.
Working in the field was a little less demanding than cultivating hill rice, and as she got older, the thought had crossed her mind that she should probably stop tilling the hill slopes altogether. Some years ago, she began to grow millet, which was also known by its native name, the food of war. It was so called because millet could be stocked for many months without spoiling, and when a village had been prevented by war from tilling their fields for months on end, they could still survive if they had millet in stock.
It was relatively easier to care for since the fast-growing millet plants required much less water than paddy. Weeding was done a few times during the growth season and the millet was always harvested before the rice. Those villagers who had big plots of land planted millet all along the edges. Tola had done as they did, sowing the hardy cereal after the second rain.
As long as she was able to, she would provide food for them in the one way she knew, by tilling the ancestral fields that she and her husband owned. She had given up tilling her father’s fields as it was too much work. Besides, they had enough food for the two of them. One day, Namu would inherit all the fields and plots of land owned by her and her husband. He would also inherit her father’s lands because she was his only child, and the only other male relative who might have made claims on the land had more than sufficient land of his own.
Tola’s hoe suddenly struck a rock, forcing her to stop digging. She instinctively put out her hand to check that the blade had not cracked from the impact. Then she looked at the sky; the sun was behind the plantain trees, wearing a halo of orange mist through which you could see the diaphanous wings of evening insects. It would linger there until it set, but on the days when Namu was with her, she preferred to set off for home earlier than the other field-goers.
“Come on, Namu, it’s time to go home,” she called out to the boy. He had struggled halfway up a young Nutgall tree, trying to grab a bird’s nest on the upper branches.
“But it’s not dark yet, Grandmother,” Namu pleaded.
“And what are you going to do with the dark when it comes?” she asked in a rough voice. Namu knew that tone well. It brooked no arguments. He slung his basket on his back and followed her down the narrow path until it joined with the wider field path.
Excerpted with permission from Spirit Nights, Easterine Kire, Simon & Schuster India.