Republic Day

February 03, 2007 at 3:25 PM • Filed under India 2007

          The truck from the local milk processing plant won't come to her farm to pick up her milk. They require 100 litres a day for a pick-up, while her cows provide only 50. So nearly every day, Lalita Kamble and sometimes her husband Prem climb into their clanky white van and head into central Chandrapur to deliver their milk to the plant themselves.
          Just as in Vermont, the small organic farmer in India has to do an awful lot on her own.
          After the milk delivery, Lalita will sometimes bring paneer to a nearby dhaba, or roadside restaurant, stopping to chat with the hefty manager as he prepares the day's dishes and yaks on his cell phone. On the day I accompanied the Kambles on this errand, one of their laborers (that's what Lalita calls them) rode with us halfway, balancing the heavy round of paneer on her lap. She was middle-aged, had beautiful features and an easygoing way about her. 
          "Her husband committed suicide," Lalita told me as we drove. I looked over at the woman. She didn't understand English, and kept peering out the window. Later, I learned that her husband was an alcoholic farmer who threw himself down a well after a night of drinking.  Lalita took her in, along with her four daughters, one of whom is the Kambles' cook.
          I wasn't sure what - beyond alcohol- motivated this husband to kill himself. It's not just expensive pesticides and GMO seeds alone that are causing the farmer suicides in India. It's also unscrupulous moneylenders who charge exorbitant interest rates; Indian cultural practices that require families to spend (and thus borrow) huge amounts of money for weddings; changing weather patterns (perhaps from global warming) that are causing widespread drought and crop failure; global trade policies that give farmers a pittance for their crops; and failure by the heavily corrupted state and local governments to get relief packages to the farmers.
          On the day I went on the rounds with the Kambles, they also brought raw milk and cream to the wife of a local bank manager. We sat down with the lady to sample her ladoos, a type of soft, sweet treat.  Lalita hates going into the city where she was born and raised, hates the noise and the dust and covers her mouth with her shawl when the window is open, but direct marketing is necessary to the success of her farm right now, and "customer relations" is something she knows she must engage in. 
          Even on this past 26th of January, when the populace of India gathered in town squares and village squares, along major roads in big cities and in schools and auditoriums to celebrate "Republic Day," the day 58 years ago when India's first constitution as a British-free nation was ratified, Lalita had to make a milk delivery. But not before accepting an invitation to speak at the Republic Day celebration in her village - and asking me to speak as well!
          I knew it would be coming - the moment when I'd have to stand next to Lalita and lecture villagers about their poor sanitary practices and failure to take advantage of organic alternatives. That's what she'd been wanting me to do ever since I arrived at the Clay House, when she learned that I share her opinions about agriculture and politics and most other things. She told me what a wonderful idea it would be to have me visit the nearby villagers and speak to them - with her interpreting, of course.
          "And I will add some thoughts of my own, and make them think you said it."  Of course!  
          This idea was completely natural to Lalita, who wants nothing more than to convert her fellow citizens to her way of thinking. As for me, I had visions of being driven out of Chandrapur by angry villagers upset by the arrogant American who had the gall to tell them what to do!
          Still, at 8 a.m. on Republic Day I went with Lalita to the outdoor celebration in Chek Borda (the name of the village and literally "Small Borda"). The only people in attendance were a dozen elementary school children sitting on the ground outside their crumbling school, their teacher, trying to keep their attention with his earnest lecture about the constitution, and six or seven men, village leaders, I suppose, seated in an official-looking row of beat-up chairs. Presumably, everyone else in Chek Borda didn't care much about the constitution.
          Lalita, as the invited speaker, took her seat behind a small table that had been placed on the ground for her. I sat next to her. Then the children rose, the sun beat down, a rooster crowed and everyone began singing the Indian national anthem. Lalita went over and raised a small Indian flag attached to an unsturdy pole. A goat strolled through the proceedings. Then Lalita stood and began her speech.
          Hellfire in Hindi!
          I was surprised the men paid her as much attention as they did, given what was clearly a scolding. But I've found Indian people to be very good listeners, enamored of good debates and conversation. They even listened to me, there in that schoolyard. As I rose, I had no idea what would come out of my mouth. But I ended up saying how pleased I was to be in their village, and that I'd heard about the farmer suicides in their country. I said that in America, farmers are treated poorly, too, but that when they turn to organic practices, their lives tend to improve. Awfully simplistic, to be sure, but Lalita's long translation of my few words probably had me saying much more.
          Thinking back on it, the moment was heartwarming. But at the time, I was just trying to make it through without insulting anyone.
          Later that day, as the fierce red jewel that is the Indian sun began to touch the horizon, Lalita took me to another village, a larger one, near to her farm. There, I sat in the small courtyard outside the dilapidated home of the village's lone "police officer." The mayor came, too, and about two dozen village men, plus a few women. They sat before me on the ground, on a tarp that they'd unfurled. This time, I felt more confident, and in addition to saying a few words about farming, also told them that in America there are some people who are very suspicious of corporations.
          "When a corporation tells you something, you may want to question whether it's true," I said. I saw some heads nodding in agreement when Lalita translated. I also asked if they knew what global warming was. No one did. "If you begin to notice changes in the weather, it may be due to this problem," I said. "It is mostly caused by people in my country and other Western countries, and we are trying to do something about it."
          If you'd told me six months ago that on Jan. 26 I'd be in central India speaking to rural villagers about organic agriculture, global warming and corporate power, I'd have sent you to bed and given you a cold cloth for your fever.
          I left the village in the evening wondering whether my words may have helped them in some way, although I let go of needing an outcome. 
          Here in Mumbai, where I am now, I phoned Lalita and Prem to thank them once again for their hospitality, and to see whether there was any reaction among the villagers to my visits. Lalita said yes, that they seem more willing to work with Lalita on her ideas. Who knows if my visits had anything to do with this. All I know is that I did what little I could to share information across thousands of miles. And I wasn't run out of town.