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Dear Saxena ji,
Thank you for inquiry.
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A few July’s ago, it did not stop raining for eleven days and most of us in the village ventured out only when we had to. The ponds and other waterholes that a month ago were nothing but small swamps, with hundreds of toads fringing the water, merged with other waters and formed a continuous sheet, all flowing down to meet the Kanger River to the north.
This unbroken spell of rain kept us around our smoky fires, shifting position to avoid stinging eyes when the wind blew. There was no dry firewood in the world. We munched on popped corn, roasted mahua flowers and siyadi seeds (Bauhinia vahlii), and cursed the rain that we had invited with the performance of the frog marriage a few weeks ago!
When the old man dashed out of the hut, grabbing the rain-hat while on the move, he was not cautious. The boys had placed a lump of wet earth in the hat where the head rests, as a prank, and laughed as the mud dripped down the old man’s face. The roar of water had become a part of the landscape. We realised it only when, one afternoon, the rain suddenly stopped to breathe and we heard the silence. We came out of our homes, like monitor lizards come out of their burrows to enjoy a sunny moment, quite taken by surprise.
It’s fortunate that most adivasi people in central India have no clue about the India Meteorological Department (IMD) and pay no heed to the practice of its medieval art which it passes of as a science! This year too we come across the usual guesses, based on statistics. The IMD is “hopeful of an improvement in the upper air cyclonic circulation….”; it’s Director General, L.S. Rathore, added that things could improve in the coming days and weeks and that the monsoon would “most likely” be normal. Apparently, the Agriculture Ministry is also “closely monitoring the situation”; though Ashish Bahuguna, Agriculture Secretary, is prepared to face any eventuality, Abhijit Sen, Planning Commission Member, said enigmatically, that “… there is some cause for concern but not a great deal… and there is no reason to ask farmers not to sow. They must be prepared to sow in time.”
All these pronouncements printed in our newspapers with utmost seriousness makes me conjure up images of farmers grabbing handfuls of grain ready to broadcast and then, the hand with a fistful of grain held back as the IMD changes its prediction. To sow or not to sow, that is the question.
Instead of all this mumbo-jumbo about Long Period Average with model errors of 5 per cent either way, we could get real and see how the Muria or Durwa highlander in Bastar read their data. Their information is available in the Forest Meteorological (FM) bulletin, extra-net, to anyone who can observe and read. For free! These peoples’ data comes from a collective knowledge-base of several thousand years, (as against 1901-2000 of the IMD), and has space for aberrations. Most importantly, the Muria depends on his own observations and interpretations! The IMD can only add another year’s figures to its data base.
After the last of the summer showers in May the new leaves of koliari (Bauhinia purpurea) become a part of the menu in most homes. This is the first of many bulletins of the FM department, followed very soon by the flowering of the nowdeli (Schefflera roxburghii). The liti warbler has by now built its nest, with the entrance in a direction exactly opposite to that of the approaching monsoon wind. The wet season – known variously as munsud, musud, barsa, in different parts of Bastar – has begun. The FM bulletins are area-specific: different elevations within a region would be reflected in differences in nowdeli-flowering dates or the entrance-position of nests between the two places. No hiding behind district averages and El Nino when one misses the target.
The first week of rains revive the dry ponds and wells in the villages. The water is still muddy and brown and the showers only succeed in making the trails slushy. In Temurpalli, that village in Malkangiri district, the earth gets so sticky that walking or cycling through the village is an ordeal, with the wheels getting completely clogged up. That’s when one envies children as they move about on stilts: when they reach a home they lean their vehicle on the fence and hop over, clean-footed! The air is also muggy during these weeks that the forest fills up with clouds of mosquitoes.
After the monsoon breaks the village takes on the work-rhythm. Dykes are built to channel the water in the rice fields, hill-slopes cleared and spaded for millet, begging and borrowing sufficient grain to sow. Not everybody knows how to make a rain-hat and the demand for good bamboo craftsmen goes up; some people use an umbrella but this is impractical as one hand is tied up holding it! Besides, one can’t move efficiently in the forest with an umbrella. The usual guests, malaria and diarrhea, appear with glee by mid July and we have frequent trips to the bush to relieve hurting stomachs. The combination of these two ailments can be lethal; one year we buried twelve people in a month. The government hospital was locked up as the doctor was afraid of falling ill.
Mushrooms sprout in a given order, each kind marking a stage of the rainy period, telling us how much rain has passed and how much more to expect. The shoots of various bamboos and about thirty species of fish from the streams and the rice fields are the other treats. Many amaranths are gathered during this time, often cooked in bulk and eaten at all times of the day, the most easily available side-dish served with mahua. It’s perhaps the intake of greens during the monsoon that makes night-blindness, common in some parts of central India, take a backseat during this season.
After a month into the wet season comes the festival of the moonless night to mark the end of sowing. By now the feet have a peculiar problem – known as chodden getel in Durwa – due to long hours in the wet fields; the skin between the toes split and hurt, making walking painful. The condition of the human body too functions like a calendar: combine it with the specific mushrooms that sprout, the level of water in the well and the call of the bullfrog and fine-tune the monsoon almanac.
In these wet fields one spends most daylight hours weeding. Very small mosquitoes hover before one’s eyes and manage to get inside our clothes and bite. We carry pots with rice-husk for a fire that smokes and provides some respite. The one reward of weeding days is the small crabs that appear in the water and are picked up for the evening meals. They are cooked with a little tamarind gravy, most preferred with some colocasia.
Like it announced the onset of monsoon the FM bulletin also predicts the onset of the dry season. Curiously, the IMD does not bother much about how the monsoon will retreat; instead it begins the analysis of the monsoon that went by, giving us figures and tables about the rainfall in different districts in India, marking out drought-hit areas and flood zones, about the relief funds demanded by various states, etc. On the other hand the FM bulletins send out news about the season to follow. The large Nephila spiders that weave their orbs across the path; the Marking Nut tree begins to bloom; and most of the fish and mushrooms we’d been eating the last months vanish. There are fewer mosquitoes in the forest. The ground gets harder and more difficult for the wild boar to dig up the tubers that it likes. Instead, it begins to invade the fields around the village. It’s time now to construct machans in the fields to guard the ripening grain.
Clear skies ahead!