I am a city girl. No, now that I’m firmly, no takebacks, no two-ways-about-it in my thirties, I am a City Woman. But deep inside my pollution-specked heart, which definitely has some hearing loss because of all the car horns that blare in my ear each time I step outside, which definitely is not the trusting innocent heart of someone who has never had to look at all strangers with the assumption that they could be potential thieves/murderers/rapists, deep inside that very heart is also a conviction that I’d be really good at the country life if I tried.
This is probably the fault of my ancestors on my mother’s side. They owned land and farmed it, my grandfather, until quite recently, was actively involved in his farm, which was a farm farm, mind you, buffalo milk in the morning and eggs whenever you wanted them and grapes and mangoes and some other crops I’m sure, but these are the ones I remember. Not like a Delhi “farmhouse,” gosh, I remember the first time I went to one of those – the lawns as green as a golf course, the marble floored mansions, the swimming pools, one grander than the next.
At my grandfather’s farm, we swam in water tanks, floating about in tractor inner tubes, swatting away mosquitoes and making algae sandcastles on the side. We had to be careful about snakes, and sometimes when there was a thunderstorm, the electricity would go out and we’d read by the light of lanterns. Like: real lanterns. Like you were in the 1800s. Okay, so there was only one lantern and lots of torches, those huge power saver ones you charged all day to whip out at a time like this, and okay, so no one actually let me read, they were too busy seeing what interesting things they could look at through the torch light, and insects freewheeled around the light, bumping and returning over and over again.
I’m drawn back into that world a little, because of a memoir I just read: Yashodhara Lal’s wryly funny part-fiction, part-memoir How I Became A Farmer’s Wife.
Sowing the seeds
I’ve read “returning to the soil” pieces before, if not entire books, and they are a category unto themselves on Goodreads and lists on the web. Most of them follow the same essential pieces – a person is tempted by a large swathe of land somewhere on the outskirts of nowhere, buy it, much to their spouse’s consternation and then try to turn it into the dream they had of a perfect farm, or vineyard or what-have-you. From burnt-out city dwellers to ruddy cheeked milk drinking tillers of the soil.
Lal’s book is all this – her husband has always wanted a farm, and finally he rents one, way out in rural Haryana and decides to keep cows, but the essential difference between a Western farming memoir and an Indian one is that in India, you have to deal with – and often through – a battalion of staff to even get your dream off the ground.
So Lal’s husband, Vijay, is led around for a while by an equally clueless “farming consultant,” there’s two sullen “boys” who drag their feet and seriously injure a cow, and one caretaker/overseer of sorts called Mobeen, who offers wry commentary and is always around to say, “I told you so”, but also becoming part of the family in the process. There’s also – unique to India again – the landlady who also maintains an ashram on the grounds dedicated to an obscure holy man, whose devotees’ needs take precedence over her farming tenants.
A strange harvest
The title, while technically correct, is slightly misleading. Lal is supportive enough, but mostly long-distance, as the family continues to be based in their Gurgaon flat while Vijay commutes back and forth. He sells his milk to his neighbours, via a Facebook group, and the most fun Lal seems to have with all of it is when they adopt a stray dog and her puppies to live on the property. Up until then, she’s sort of stand-offish about the whole thing, but the dog seems to bring out something in her, much like the cows do to her husband, and watching her children play on the grounds and with the various animals, you can see her softening, becoming more involved.
It’s a good touch, a twist in her character just as you watch her burning out with her job and having to parent, and suffering from writer’s block in the process. I think I was most sympathetic about the writer’s block, described in excruciating detail here, gazing at that blank Word document until you’re convinced you’ll never write again.
Somewhere towards the middle of the book, the story also takes on a slightly ominous turn as the landlady leases the remaining bit of land to two “babas” who take advantage of all the free milk but resent the dogs and the people on the land, and slowly, insidiously, start to encroach on Vijay’s half of the space. Maybe it’s just watching Netflix’s Wild Wild Country too recently, but I saw them in my head, red-robed, long beards, an aura of only slightly suppressed malevolence.
Lal is, by her own description, a “romance” writer, and this book is meant to be a sequel of sorts to her first, which was similar fiction-ish, memoir-ish story of the first years of being married. Romance writers can definitely plot, even if they are somewhat condescended to by the greater literary establishment. Her plotting shines through, though I feel like some bits could have perhaps meandered a little less, and some threads not tied up quite so neatly.
How I Became A Farmer’s Wife, Yashodhara Lal, HarperCollins India.