Thursday, 1 July 2004

The man who sowed Gandhi and reaped happiness

During my travels for goodNewsIndia I was to encounter Gandhi in the most unexpected places. He popped up again in far
Cherkady, Karnataka. Read on to discover. That morning spent with Sri Ramachandra Rao was transforming. As write this note in 2017, I feel proud of what I wrote in the last paragraph: "The original sin is greed".
Ramachandra Rao passed away in 2010.
-dv 2017
The road north, out of Udupi induces peace and calm. The Arabian Sea to the left, the sense of space and the bright light make you wonder if there can be anything better.
Soon you learn that there is. Turn right at Brahmavar ['Gift of Brahma'!] and right again. You are on a road fast asleep. Trees stand tall, broad and quiet. Fruit lies on the ground unclaimed. There are so few people about. You have just dropped through two or three floors of time, from noisy, crowded India.
10 km down the road at the village of Cherkady, 86 year old Ramachandra Rao welcomes you with a pitcher of water and three tiny cones of jaggery, into his 2.5 acre homestead. He's a small, wiry man with twinkling eyes on an untroubled face. 
He is eager to tell his story and it is best we have it in his voice.

Gandhi is all you need:
"Sir, I was born in Kodagu [Coorg] in 1917. When I was two, my father and mother, died mysteriously within a day of each other. My older sisters had been married. I was first brought to one of them in Dharmasthala and then here to Cherkady where another sister had been married. My brother-in-law was a farmer some distance away from here. I grew up grazing his cows and helping out in the fields.
"They sent me to the local school when I was close to 10 and I spent just two years there. That has been the only formal education I have ever received. Or needed.
"My teacher Ramachandra Patil had only one subject: Gandhi. He spoke of his life, thoughts and courage. He spoke of Gandhi's frugality, devotion to nature and self-reliance. He spoke of nothing but Gandhi the whole time, and we were all under a constant spell. 
"Patil-Teacher even kept a charkha in the school and we all fought each other to learn to spin. My two years were soon over. The farm needed my labours. I am glad I studied no more, for that would have diluted what I learnt.
"I was growing up in the fields helping my sister's family. In my spare time, I was spinning the charkha at home. In my late teens, deciding that I must have a career, I went to Brahmavar to learn weaving. I made my first money when I was 22, for fabrics I had woven. I had not known money until then.
Weaving wins a bride:
"I gained a reputation as a good weaver. Oh, I loved it: the smell of lint in the air, the clack of the loom and the film of sweat on my skin. The whole thing was very meditative and kept me fit and well-fed. It gained me my wife as well. Her father thought me a stable fellow and she too began to weave. We earned Rs.600 per year as weavers. Life was good.
"Then came the great war. There was a huge shortage of yarn and we were out of work. I then heard there was a large stock of unusable cotton, lying at the Mangalore Khadi Bhandar. Everyone had declared its yarn unfit for spinning.
"I examined it and brought a sample lot over. I spun it and with some care, I could weave it. The Khadi Bhandar was delighted. They thought me a master-weaver. They commissioned me to convert the whole lot and spent the princely sum of Rs 30,000 on my word. I put a charkha in every home in Brahmavar and set up seven looms. We began to turn a warehouse full of dead cotton into good cloth. Gandhi was as good as his word. We spent the war years in reasonable comfort.
"The Khadi people then sent me to their ten acre farm in Moodbidri to revive it. There was a goshala, a weaving centre and agriculture to care for. I was paid Rs 25 a month. It was hard life with our three children to feed. I was there for four years. The extreme poverty nearly broke me.
"Post-war, famine was stalking the land. The British knew how to march around and terrify people but they knew nothing about managing a crisis. What do foreigners know who are not born to this land, who have not experienced its truths? Gandhi did. He urged people to return to the land and grow food, just food. I knew he was right.
Back to Gandhi:
Cherkady Ramachandra Rao pauses with a soft smile. He looks into the dense stand of trees and plants. We eat some sweet-sweet pineapple chunks just out of the ground. He resumes his story after a while.
"We returned to Cherkady. My brother-in-law gave me a cow and this patch of land. It is a hectare. He had no use or plans for it. It was barren, with some water in a ditch. Despite reasonable rains in these parts, no water ever stayed on the land for long. I built a hut and the five of us moved in. The cow fed us all. I sold the milk and we ate whenever we could. 
"I began to scrounge for seedlings and planted them all over. I would walk about wondering what to do next. There was no water to grow paddy. I raised some vegetables after deepening the ditch for some more water. I spent most of the time shaping the land to harvest rain water. That was the scene 57 years ago, and I am still here, a very contented man.
"Slowly the plants and trees grew. I never wasted anything that arrived on this land. All fallen leaves and cow dung, were spread around the young trees.
"I had built my toilet based on a design by Gandhi. It was a simple pan set into the ground, the outlet had a trap door and looked down on a pit layered with leaves. There was a rudimentary privacy screen around it. After each use one poured just a mug of water and the that dumped it all into the ground; the trap door shut again, sealing out all odour. One then went around and emptied a small basket of dry leaves over the dump in the pit. Every year or so I made a new pit and moved the pan to it. In about six months the previous pit awaited me with rich manure.
"I planted only what I found in the neighbourhood. Mango, jack, pepper, pineapple, silk cotton, banana, coconut, cashew and vegetable species. I picked the best of a breed and brought it over. In a few years, water stayed for longer months in the ditch. The land got cooler and the soil felt wetter. The leaf pile was getting thicker.
Message on a straw:
"One morning, I stopped in my tracks. A sturdy plant of rice, ripe with grains stood in my way. How had I missed it all these days? Where had it come from? Where it stood was no wetter than other parts of the farm and my land was by means abundant in water. I had certainly, not planted it. It was unlike any paddy I had known. It had buxom grains on 16 strands, all on one stem. It stood alone glistening in the morning sun.
"I was overwhelmed. I took it home and shook it. There was close to a kilo of grains from that one plant! And so began my rice harvest year after year. I scattered the seeds on unploughed land, spread leaves and manure and watered it by hand. There was no attempt at flooding the patch. Slowly, the patch grew wider but it was never more than a tenth of an acre. All it called for was one man's labour for three days in a season. That was enough to feed our family of five continually, for forty years. 
"Folks were surprised. Paddy in dry land? Without flooding? Papers wrote about it. I was told that a Japanese man called Masanobu Fukuoka had done something similar. There was a stream of visitors asking questions. I was called to meetings, seminars and was honoured by adoring audiences. 
More pay-offs:
"What cash I required, I got by growing vegetables in 20 cents and from what my trees gave me. We ate what we grew. I milled the silk cotton seeds for oil for our lamps. I deepened the ditch, and built a lined well over it. I drew all the water by hand, for the land and our home-- about forty pitchers in a day. There has been no electricity on this land till two years ago. Not that power-lines didn't run in these parts,  but I didn't want it. Children went to school and read by oil lamps.
"My first son was a good student. When he passed high school, Mr Haridas Bhatt, principal of MGM College in Udupi, who was my admirer took him in at no cost to me. When he graduated, Mr K K Pai, another admirer, took him into his Syndicate Bank. He went away to become a good banker. I was happy, for him. I got my daughter married to a good man. The land had helped me do my duty by her. But I was happiest when my second son Ananda, came home from school one day and said: "Father, I do not want to study any more. I don't understand anything at school. I want to work with you on this land." He has been with me and does most of the hard work. I think he made a great choice.
"I don't want you to think I am a poor man in money terms, either. My bank account is as rich as this land. And it grew without any clever skills. I have more than what many salaried people have at the end of long careers. The term, 'impoverished farmer' bothers me.
"I can understand the plight of people without land to live on and grow their food. But I don't understand those with land, complaining, asking for the government to help. I am sorry to say this, but their problems can only be traced to two things: greed and or ignorance of how nature works. Often, the latter. They are led astray by fertiliser, seed and pesticide companies, bore well contractors and politicians who say, I will give this free and that on credit. We have farmers seduced by exotic crops and huge profits. All in quick time. They are finally led to suicide." 
Ramachandra Rao has nothing more to say. He is clearly upset.
Cherkady changes too:
Rao's elder son returned to Cherkady after retiring from the bank. He declares he's happy to be back. He has built himself a substantial house in a corner of the land. Electricity arrived two years ago. The old man suffers it albeit with some grudging concessions to its merits. There's also a small electric pump drawing water from the well. 
The Gandhi toilet has fallen out of favour. "It needed just one mug of water per use," wails the old man. Alas, rice grows no more: the trees are so big and everywhere, that hardly any sunlight falls on the land. So they buy rice to eat. But Rao has preserved his success species. Elsewhere in the state, there seem many people who want to know how to survive on heartache-land. Rao travels frequently to teach his secrets.
The drive back to Brahmavar suggests a new interpretation of the story of Eden, as possibly told by Brahma: Nature decreed that for those without greed, there is enough to live happily by. But man wanted more. He looked up from the soil and gazed into the distance. And, was tempted by chemicals, credit and fork-tongued promises. He was drawn away from the land and began to wander in confusion. Soon he was lost, and often killed himself. The original sin, said Brahma, is greed.
Back on the highway by the sea, past Brahmavar, the road ahead somehow seems uncertain.
Cherkady Ramachandra Rao
Khadi Dhama, Post: Cherkady
Via: Brahmavar, Udupi District - 576215

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