by Rishidev Chaudhury
Five years ago I spent six months working on a farm about an hour outside Bangalore. To get to it I took a city bus thirty miles along the highway to a dusty crossing where it turned onto dirt roads and bounced along them for about twenty minutes before ending in the centre of a small village called Mukodlu. As we left the city behind, the occupants of the bus changed from office staff to farm workers, and eventually included goats and chickens. I once witnessed a heated altercation between the bus conductor and the owner of a goat that was soiling the bus floor. It was eventually resolved when the owner held the goat’s bottom out of the window for the rest of the journey.
The farm was only a few miles off the highway but was also only a few miles away from a game sanctuary. Twenty years ago, when Bangalore was just starting to grow, the area was entirely rural. Now it was an odd hybrid of small villages, smaller farms, urban overflow, the game sanctuary and numerous granite quarries (many of them illegal). Perhaps it was once good for farming, but now the soil was thin, stony and eroded. We grew rice, vegetables and herbs, and had a small shed for breeding silkworms. The farm also hosted an NGO that ran workshops on governance for women from village-level self-governance bodies (Panchayats) and workshops on low-cost herbal medicine for midwives and other community healers.
The property next door was occupied by a collection of European renunciates. There were about a dozen of them, living in two small gender-segregated cabins, with a separate cabin for the incongruously named Guru Freddy, the Belgian head of the community. I’d go by in the mornings to get milk and planting advice from Swami Eric, a cheerful Englishman who’d spent twenty years in the community, and who grew extraordinary vegetables. The community’s small clinic was run by a German, who’d been a member of Baader-Meinhof, before fleeing to India looking for spiritual wisdom and turning into a pacifist. The most extreme left-wing view I ever heard him express was describing Angela Merkel as a “goose”. The community’s cook was an Austrian, who tried to live in harmony with all of nature, and allowed a cobra to live in the kitchen. This changed when he lay down for a nap on his mat and found the cobra underneath; it bit him and ended their friendship. I was never quite able to figure out the community. I only met Freddy a few times, and he seemed an unlikely leader. He divided his time between meditating and giving military training to the Indian special forces. He also ran a tight community, or at least used to. About ten years before I got there, the people on my farm smuggled one of the members of the community out in the trunk of a car, but I was never able to figure out if he was being actively prevented from leaving or if he was just paranoid.
On the other side of us lived a middle-aged man from the North, who’d been brought there to act as a caretaker for a farm. He’d occasionally come by to chat, in his elegant, Urdu-inflected Hindi. I was one of the only people nearby he could talk to; he spoke no English and none of the farm workers spoke anything but Kannada. He must have been lonely. The differences between small towns and villages in different parts of India are quite significant, and I’m sure he missed home.
Every so often, the presence of the sanctuary would remind us that the area contained more than just people. The dogs on the farm took this very seriously. Tara, the matriarch of the farm, killed a cobra every few months. On a couple of occasions when elephants tried to come through the farm, she stood in the gate and barked at them until they decided to leave. Occasionally, leopards would come down from the game sanctuary and take dogs. The neighbors lost several. At night the dogs wore spiked collars to fend off the leopards. The leopards were small, and if they couldn’t get a good grip on the dog’s neck they would run away.
About once a month we’d get a visit from the vet, a florid alcoholic who spent his days riding a moped along bumpy village roads to tend to goats and cattle, smelling of manure and cheap whisky. I always enjoyed his visits. The first time he came by we had a young Korean women staying on the farm. She was quite religious and had come to India to “serve the poor”; somehow she instead spent a month digging manure into the stony soil and growing vegetables. He cornered her and asked her where she was from.
“South Korea,” she replied.
“Yes, I know it. It used to be called South Vietnam”
And when she looked confused he gave her a brief lecture, telling her that she needed to learn more about her country and then trotted off to tend to the animals.
The second time he came he got four of the laborers to hold a cow in place while he used some contraption to inseminate her. The next day the owner of the farm asked me, rather confused, if I knew why the vet had come and tried to inseminate the bull. I guess he was either drunk or committed to unraveling the fiction of gender.
Three or four families of workers lived on the farm, from various villages across the state. The oldest farm worker, Biligowda, had spent many years drinking tea and gossiping under the tree at the local tea stall before his relatives tired of supporting him and sent him to the farm. He now spent most of his time following the cows around while they grazed. Despite living about an hour away from Bangalore, he’d never been into the city. He thought that his home district was the greatest place in the world, and he’d never left it before coming to the farm. He’d occasionally lecture me on the quality of the mutton and the cotton underpants it produced; these were apparently its most famous exports. He also didn’t quite believe in the sea. He asked me where it was and when I pointed in the direction I thought was closest, he chuckled at having exposed me. Someone else had told him it was in another direction, and this inconsistency made him even more sure that we were lying.
Beneath all this there was an undercurrent of violence that I only began to see a few months in. Many of the children who hung about the farm had lost parents. Two had a father who drank himself to death, and they carried themselves shrunken and expecting to be hit. Another two had a father who one day came home with meat, told his wife to prepare a special dinner for the family, then went to the next room and hanged himself. Another’s father was run over by a tractor. Another’s mother doused herself with kerosene and set herself on fire after her husband beat her. Many of the women in the surrounding villages were beaten, often by men who didn’t seem particularly cruel, and who were often encouraged by the other women. This didn’t happen as much at the farm, but it did sometimes despite the best efforts of the people who ran the NGO. While I was there Hanuma, one of the laborers, and his father got together and beat Hanuma’s wife. Hanuma was a seemingly gentle, friendly man. He was at a loss to explain why he did it, and it was unusual for him, and he didn’t understand why he did it, apart from saying he was frustrated, and life went on as normal and his wife and he seemed fine. For weeks after I watched him, expecting to see signs of hidden darkness, but he seemed exactly the same.
I was never able to reconcile my conflicting impressions, of him or of society in the villages around us. When I first came to the farm I thought that being there would help me make sense of the flux in Indian society, in a way that wasn’t accessible to me in Bangalore. Many of the narratives I’d encountered in Bangalore were of the excessively teleological “we are finally becoming modern” sort (as if we were late come to the world; emerging from the “waiting-room of history” in Dipesh Chakrabarty’s evocative phrase). Others would set up “Eastern spirituality” and simple peasant life as something essentially Indian and that needed to be preserved at all costs, forgetting the ossified feudal and caste-bound social institutions that often went with that simple peasant life.
But my search for an alternative was also simplistic and, in retrospect I’m not sure what I could have found. All I left with were a collection of stories and a few insights. There was much that was frustrating and reactionary, and that seemed to be getting worse. And there was much that was tragic. Biligowda’s generation could perhaps still be secure in their memories, but the middle-aged men and women I met were often anxious and displaced and the rapid withering of their traditional contexts seemed to have unleashed frustration and violence, especially towards women. Still, there was also much that was encouraging, often surprisingly so. For every person who was shocked at the idea of marrying outside their sub-caste, I’d meet someone like the village shopkeeper in Mukodlu: from a traditional Hindu family but going to marry the Christian woman he was in love with. One of my favorite memories is from a workshop we held for women from Panchayats (local self-governance bodies). Many of them had never traveled outside the neighborhood of their village and for them to be at the workshop was already revolutionary. When we asked them what they most wanted to learn they told us they wanted to learn how to ride bicycles. We only had two on the farm and there were thirty women, so they took turns riding around and falling over on a grassy field till well past midnight. Another is when I came out one morning to find one of the farm laborers and the Hindi speaking caretaker from the neighboring farm, sitting together and chatting. The laborer was speaking Kannada and the caretaker Hindi. Neither could understand each other, but they were somehow communicating, and it seemed a delightful and almost whimsical refutation of parochialism. And every time I thought the women on the farm or in the villages were passive recipients of their social role they surprised me, often pushing back quite aggressively, forming groups to take away alcohol from the men or to protest and stop working when they felt they weren’t getting the respect they deserved. And even though I thought the European ascetics on the neighboring farm clung to an imagined and ahistorical vision of India they often surprised me, spending hours helping farmers improve fertilizer use and irrigation and otherwise attempting to become a part of their adopted context.
It’s hard for me to conceive of any of this without dropping into a cluster of clichés. Every time I think I've reduced the Indian context to some particular combination of social and political factors, I realize how little I know. Even that is still a cliché. I often felt like a distant visitor, sometimes inhabiting a beautiful fantasy of idyllic rural life (sitting on the verandah, watching the rain, listening for elephants, looking forward to the vet’s antics), and at other times I felt I was watching people’s lives get washed away. The urban-rural distinction looms large in India, but it’s places like these, on the edges of cities, that seem most representative of the changes happening in the country. I imagine the characters and places repeated, with variations, across the country as growing cities meet the rural hinterland: places perched on the edge of urbanization and, perhaps, of modernity. I’m not sure what this modernity is and what it will come to mean in a few years. But the world I glimpsed, with its peculiar combination of flux and tradition, wasn't around a decade ago and probably won't be in another decade or so.