Wednesday, April 7, 2010

West Bengal, the land of sweets and large rice containers!

Hello all!

It has been a while since I posted... but I’m ok with that :-).

I’m in sugar cane territory now: outside Delhi on my way to Navdanya near Dehra Dun.

Gandhi Ashram, people saying goodbye after a meeting.

Gandhi Ashram, me carrying peas on my head :-).

Goodbye Gandhi Ashram! No longer shall I carry your fine peas on my head, or mustard in my arms. I will miss your fire cooked chappati and crooked daikon radishes. Your fragrant guava and yummy berries. Your interesting books, cool mornings and pleasant company.

The boy who is getting the Sacred Thread bestowed on him.

I left the ashram with the caretakers, Sanjoy and Damyanti. They took me as their friend to visit Sanjoy’s family in the Calcutta region. First we spent a few days in the Durgarpur area in a town called Bankura. There was a celebration going on to bestow the sacred thread on one of Sanjoy’s nephews. Sanjoy was the person who they requested to do the honors and hang the thread. I don’t know the full significance of the ceremony but it is a coming of age type of thing. The person who accepts the thread is dedicated to worshipping the sun every day as it rises and sets, for the rest of their life.
Here is the man himself, with the sacred thread around his left shoulder. He also has a carrying bag around his shoulder. Part of the ceremony is that people put rice into the bag, to prepare him for his journey of life. Damyanti is to our right.

The entire family was very nice to me. In return I showered them with slides shows from Gandhi Ashram and other places :-). Many of Sanjoy’s relatives are also involved in constructive efforts, weaving khadi, working with an NGO or being involved in a social campaign.

Women making thread ("spinning"), which will later be used to produce khadi cloth.

During the few days we were by not so busy with ceremonial things. It was very relaxed, and Sanjoy took me to many places to visit. We visited a trade show selling co-operatively made textiles, and a Gandhian NGO which makes textiles. We also visited an ashram growing date palms and rice. It was a lovely little place, where they take care of the pigeons by giving them nests :-). It was my first time seeing a mud house and the most remarkable rice storage containers, which are built entirely out of rice straw.

Rice container, made out of rice straw.

This rice container can hold approximately ten tons of rice. The walls are made from a rope twisted out of rice straw, and lined with more straw. Behind are mud houses with clay roofs. The mud houses are unusually cool buildings, and can last for a very long time (a hundred years or more) if properly taken care of. The walls must be re-coated every year to prevent the building from “melting”. They are constructed layer by layer, pouring a foot or so of mud/straw mix and letting it dry before adding the next.

Basudhra rice farm!


The Sal forest

On a different day we went to see what I was really looking forward to. We took a beautiful drive through the cool, clean air morning, stopping at the mahua tree to eat some flowers, admiring the Flame of the Forest trees and passing through a brilliant green Sal forest. Then the three of us (Sanjoy, his brother and myself) piled off the motorcycle at a farm run by Dr. Debal Deb. It is a seed preservation project primarily, although they are also running some very sensible and simple other agricultural experiments concerning mulching and companion planting. Their focus is on preserving over 540 “folk varieties” of rice from West Bengal. Imagine that, 540 varieties of rice in only one section of NE India! The good doctor has done a meticulous and thorough job of characterizing and documenting the varieties. He has published a book about it. The farmhouse is made of adobe which is sun dried mud bricks. The straw roof has a water catchment system. It’s a lovely, clean and comfortable building. The pillars on the outside have slate carvings in them made by a nearby artist’s enclave which we visited on the way home.

Eventually we moved out of the town of Bankura into the village where Sanjoy grew up in; to his mother’s house. This was a really interesting experience to stay at what is basically a normal village house. There was the “house” or sleeping building, then there were sort of outbuildings; the kitchen, cow shed, and washroom. The outbuildings were made of mud or cement. The sleeping building was one floor, with easy access to the flat roof. The entire place was surrounded by a very high brick wall, maybe 4 meters high. Inside on the floor in the corner was piled loose rice, and rice in bags. This rice still had the husk still on it, although when people eat rice they eat mostly white rice. I thought the stoves were fascinating. They are dug into the ground,

Imagine this being your stove! This is not an improvised stove; the house I was at was not a camp. This was the kitchen stove, used every day for years. So simple, so elegant. Such efficiency with so little input. Ah, simpler life!

I departed Calcutta and made my way to Delhi to visit Amanda, one of my friends from Queen’s! The bus ride was a disaster, with as I like to say “breathing room only” for part of it: so packed you couldn’t even stand properly. People getting sick and vomiting their breakfast rice onto the floor (instead of out the window. Why? I suggested it. They didn’t like the idea).

Then I made it to the good old dirty ass train. It was labelled “express” but in fact was more of a local train, stopping at every station from Calcutta to Delhi. With a distance of about 1300 km you can imagine this is a whole lot of stops. In total the journey took about 36 hours on the train, which is about 5 hours overtime. Partly this is because people pull the emergency brake when the train is near their house! The Indian trains are often late but I have to say it’s not necessarily the company’s fault. I heard stories about people sitting on the track to stop the train then hop on it! In the story I was told this was happening every few km. The driver got upset and stopped the train, refusing to move until he got a village organizer to tell people not to do that! In general passengers are kind of badly behaved in many ways. Many people get on the train without tickets as the ticket collector is overwhelmed. Or perhaps the company oversells tickets, I don’t know. There is no doubt that the system is overwhelmed: with some trains you must book months in advance to get a seat.

Eventually I rolled into Delhi and met a chemical engineer who helped me to get an auto (three wheeled taxi) to United Service International where Amanda was staying. It’s a weird place, inside a military compound. Very quiet, nice gardens, very rich. In the diplomatic section of town, among all the embassies and such. Lovely except for the whole killing people bit. They have conference services we used: the meeting itself had nothing to do with supporting the military I promise!

The next day I attended the meeting that Amanda came to Delhi for. It was an annual get together and update for a project entitled Municipal Services Project. It is a roughly 12 year, one million dollar academic research project, involving a team from parts of Africa, South America, Asia and Canada. It is run by a professor at Queen’s. The goal of the project is to do rigorous research into alternatives to privatization of heathcare, water and electricity services. Ultimately in “alternatives” is included the traditional public system but there is a lot of analysis as to why it isn’t working, what can make it work better etc. It was great to learn about such a project and listen to what people had to say. They meet every year in some major city, which could be anywhere in the world it seems.

After the meeting was over I stayed at USI for a bit, and a few of us toured around Delhi for the day. We did tourist stuff. We went to the Red Fort, to an enormous mosque that wouldn’t let us in, and to Dilli Haut which is a kind of outside shopping center. It’s obvious to me now why shopping centers are catching on. Unless we can clean up normal markets so they don’t have garbage strewn everywhere, terrible sanitation, disorganization, sexual harassment and aggressive touts shopping centers will continue to grab market share by simply providing a peaceful place to look for goods.

From the left, Amanda, Susan (Prof. from U of Ottawa), and Julie (Prof. from Rhodes, South Africa). They are standing inside the Red Fort at one of the many gates. Susan went on to travel around Rajasthan for a while before returning to Canada.

After Amanda went home I lingered around USI for a bit before moving in with my friend Rajat for two days. I just took it easy at his house, playing with his kids and reading interesting articles he showed me. One of them was quite fascinating, about the Naxalites in Chhatisgarh. It shed some light on why the tracks were blown up on my way to Durgarpur. On the way to Calcutta area (Durgarpur station) our train was 10 hours late because a group of Maoists blew up the train tracks. Actually they didn’t blow up our tracks per se just ones nearby. Maybe we had to wait for other trains to be rerouted along our tracks or something, I don’t know. Sanjoy saw the damage out the window on our way by, but I missed it. Nobody was hurt. After reading the article written by Arundhati Roy for Outlook Magazine, March 29, 2010, it was not surprising that they had no apparent intention to hurt average citizens. The Maoists at least in Chhatisgarh are there to lend (violent) support to the public in their fight against exploitation from the state and corporate parties. Usually the exploitation involves mining and forestry. The state and certain corporations want to exploit the land and eject the people living there by raping, plundering and burning the villages (literally). The communist (in this case Maoist) party has established itself as allies of the people. The state is weak enough that they are able to wage a substantial geurilla war against them. If you can find the article I highly recommend reading it. Who knew there was a civil war going on in India? Now you know.

After spending some nice time in Delhi I came to Dehra Dun, arriving today at Navdanya, which is Vandana Shiva’s operation. There is seed saving and some great activism going on here. Arriving today I can say the facilities are excellent. The library is very nice, the gardens are beautiful, the experimental plots are well kept, they have a soil testing laboratory and a fantastic lecture hall. It’s quiet here now because apparently a lot of people are in Delhi running some sort of event. Its a bit of an oasis so far :-). I have high hopes for my time at Navdanya! It’s a bit expensive here compared to other places, 400 Rs per day but that includes everything. Compared to living in Canada it is quite reasonable and I think I will be getting a lot :-).

Good Night and Good Luck!