Lathika George’s Mother Earth, Sister Seed is a humanising narrative about farming in India. As George says in this interview, “I wanted to avoid…statistics – especially because farmers are usually reduced to numbers.” The narrative takes on various forms – conversations with the local farming communities she has visited, agricultural folklore, traditional knowledge that protects the crop and the catch, hyper-local recipes, and stories of change and endangerment.
The book takes us to the honey-gatherers in the Sundarbans, the rice fields in which fish are grown on Divar Island in Goa, the seasonal harvesting of salt from salt pans in Little Rann of Kutch, urban gardening in Mumbai, and coffee plantations among many other places. George spoke to Scroll.in about farming festivals, the dearth of accessible farming literature about India, the generosity of farmers, and much else. Excerpts from the interview:
Festivals appear to go hand-in-hand with traditional farming practices in India. Why do you think that is?
Agrarian communities have always celebrated each step of the farming cycle from seed germination to harvest – this may range from a simple pooja to appease the gods when seeds are sown, when the first panicles of rice appear, when the rains are much needed for a good crop, and in thanksgiving after the harvest. They depend on nature’s benevolence to see them through an agricultural year, and often attribute divine qualities to every aspect – rain, sun, moon, water bodies and the seasons. This is reflected in their festivals.
The entire country celebrates the onset of spring and a new agricultural year with Bihu, Pongal, Lohri, Sankranti and many other festivals. These short stops between the stages of agrarian life – called the panchajanya in Vedic times – are welcome breaks for agricultural communities for it is a time to stop and rest, and celebrate as a community.
On your travels through farmlands, what was the one thing that surprised you?
There were many revelations, but the one common factor was a sense of calm, and if I had to put a name to it – I would call it contentment. Despite the problems they faced – a good price in the market for their produce being a constant worry, the farmers and food producing communities I visited were content with their lives. These are traditional communities who had stayed close to their roots, continued to farm in the ways of their ancestors – and this was another surprise. I hadn’t realised there were so many farmers – mostly smallholders (an estimated 67% of India’s of farmlands are held by small farmers) who still farmed this way.
Did any of the people who held the traditional knowledge you sought refuse to speak to you or were suspicious about what you were writing about?
No, farmers are a generous lot, and this extended to sharing information. They love talking about their lives, their crops, and were eager to explain some ingenious method that I was curious about. There was no suspicion or holding back, and when I told them about the book I was writing – they wanted to share even more. Farmers want especially to be appreciated and acknowledged, but mostly just want one thing – fair prices.
The title Mother Earth, Sister Seed suggests an inherent femininity in farmlands. Can you talk to us a little about that?
Women have always been the soul of agriculture, and though their involvement varies region-wise, their presence is needed at every step of the way. In Meghalaya she is the seed keeper, while in the drought-hit regions of Maharashtra she is an agricultural labourer – both roles crucial to traditional farming. Besides, the earth has always been considered a female entity, nurturing, tempestuous, benevolent, and life-giving for fertility is associated with women.
There’s a lovely story about a man who gardens on his terrace, harnessing his memories of growing beans and corn in his garden when he was younger. In a practical sense, do you think gardening on their terrace or balcony is the closest most urban people will get to farming?
Practically, yes. And it can give you as much satisfaction as a farm in the countryside. I believe we all have inherent farming genes, and it is interesting to see how easily most people take to gardening or farming. Producing your own food, however little, is immensely satisfying. It also gives you new respect for the farmer and makes you realise how ridiculously low their returns are.
At the close of the book is a series of recipes that use local ingredients like stinging nettle in Sikkim, a fragrant bark called ganherni in Uttarakhand, and so on. Are these recipes preserved in local cookbooks? If one went looking for recipes that could only grow out of a particular ecosystem, would one find them?
I’m not sure if there any Indian cookbooks devoted entirely to these wild foods. And farmers do not use recipes – they cook by instinct, using what is available, and are puzzled when you ask them about time and measurements. But if you ask a farmer or his wife what was growing wild that season and how they cooked that particular ingredient, you can put a recipe together – in fact that’s what I did. As there is a glut of regional favourites from mountains, farmlands, grasslands and forests, perhaps this is a niche some food writer should explore – the hidden foods of these ecosystems.
I was floored by the detail about the madhekeeda tree in Coorg whose leaves contain 18 essential nutrients that grow with intensity over the monsoon. Am I wrong in thinking that knowledge like that can only be gained by living close to the source of one’s food?
Mostly, yes. Agricultural communities, or even people who live in natural ecosystems are aware of the wealth of uncultivated foods that grow around them. Most rural areas have a range of these wild foods – the “hidden harvest”. It is unfortunate that uncultivated seasonal foods may not grow around the farms that have switched to chemical farming. This is because harsh chemicals destroy these fragile plants, depriving the farmer of this additional food source, seasonal foods, free and rich in nutrients.
Are there books besides yours that come to mind when you think of agrarian practices, folklore or customs in India?
I’m not aware of any other book written in this particular style – part travelogue, part farming almanac. The book evolved organically, a culmination of my own personal journey as a gardener, a homemaker, a mother, an Indian. I didn’t want it to read like a conference report, or an agricultural treatise, though I did want to inform the reader about our diverse agrarian traditions, the unique water management systems (now mostly defunct). I wanted to avoid too many statistics – especially because farmers are usually reduced to numbers and statistics. It’s great to hear from readers now as they make their own connection to agriculture and rural India.