It bothered me that they said supermarket and not market. It was a sign of times we are in.
This year, it rained unseasonally in Maharashtra in February and while we were rejoicing the break from the unseasonal heat wave, Re did notice that all the flowers from the mango trees around us had fallen down and was disappointed. Perhaps he didn’t know how this would affect the mango crop that we were waiting for, and the other ‘invisible’ crops that we consume every day. I felt ready to tell him about farmer’s lives, tell him about the real people who put food on our table. It was also time to tell him about global warming and how humans have wreaked havoc with nature and how we can do our bit.
“You mean humans can make rain?” he asked, shocked.
“Well there’s good rain and bad rain; humans make the bad rain,” I found myself telling him.
Last year, my father brought home 11 pumpkins on one visit home from his farm in Belgaum. It must have cost him more to bring them down than to actually grow them. But the joy of cooking and sharing those pumpkins, the posts for which went viral, was indescribable. Re has spent hours with my father in the kitchen, cleaning and sorting various vegetables, hearing him talk about the different varietals of plantain (his passion), different types of gourd, beans and odd berries he loves growing and pickling.
When dad turned 74, he decided he wanted to live the rest of his life as a farmer and is now tilling away on a small plot of land which doesn’t even belong to him. It gave him joy, it nurtured his soul, and he knew what went into the food we ate. When we were kids, we often used to worry about my father rearing buffaloes, as he was dismayed by the adulteration and the hormone-infused milk we were having. He didn’t eventually, but his numerous experiments in the garden continued- with plantains, lemons, guavas, pomegranates, chikoos, pumpkin, ladyfinger, brinjals and other produce. We knew the difference between organically-grown and genetically modified quite early.
One of my dear friends, Navjyoti Dalal, who is a new mother and a journalist on sabbatical is currently growing muskmelons, chillies, red and yellow peppers, basil and other herbs in her balcony. As someone who started gardening very young, nature was her therapy and she learnt quite early why everything in nature is important and there for a very vital reason. The lessons are many: about ecosystems, compassion, balance and, as she says, “It is a universe in itself. Every now and then you find a new layer to peel, to learn.”
She wants her 18 month-old son to learn to garden for a very practical reason. “I know that food is not going to be cheaper and pure anytime soon, not in my lifetime. So he must know how to grow his own greens and fruits. I know how a non-hormone-infused bottle gourd tastes, and I want him to know and value it too.”
I could see my father in her.
This summer, Re and I were in Himachal, going walkabout a lot through apple, peach and plum orchards. But things looked bleak. There were no apples or plums, thanks to the unseasonal rain, the peach trees were affected by the leaf-curlies, a fungal disease, and there were no workers on the potato and garlic farms although the crop was ready to be harvested. Our local guide told us no one wants to work on farms anymore. I knew why. Farmers, everywhere, are in despair. Trapped in a vicious cycle of adverse climates, failing crops and huge debts, they all want city jobs. They want their children to grow up in the cities.
A few years back, I was in Dahanu with a friend whose family owned chikoo orchards. I noticed a lot of chikoos on the ground, rotting away, and I asked her why they weren’t being plucked on time. She told me it was cheaper to let the chikoos rot than to find labour to have them plucked and sold.
India has 2,000 fewer farmers every day. Our children need to know this before they begin to stick shiny happy pictures of synthetic produce in their worksheets. They need to know about crop. They need to know what goes into putting the food on the table.
One way to do it is by growing something with your child, and watching it grow, as Navjyoti does. Another is sharing stories, as Bijal Vachharajani who consults with Fairtrade India wrote in her brilliant piece a few months ago. According to Vachharajani, “There are ways of sharing stories, real and fictional, about the people who grow our food and our clothes. Especially now, it’s critical that these stories go beyond outdated nursery rhymes, especially for children, who are naturally curious about where their food comes from.”
Apart from the classic Enid Blyton books like The Children of Cherry Tree Farm, she recommends The Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff and Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer, Michael Morpurgo’s Mudpuddle Farm series full of charming stories about animals who live on farms, and Farm Boy which is a poignant read for young adults.
The stories might make them want them to think about the food they eat, the clothes they wear, the world they live in. They may not end up being farmers, but it’s important they know how things get to the supermarket. And that’s a start.
(A version of this post appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 13th July, 2014)