The famed Indian summer has begun and I swelter under the unforgiving sun. My throat is parched and most of the fields lie empty, thirsty and cracked. The dust-laden track is lined with stunted trees: babool and dhaak, so scrawny by overgrazing, you’d hardly believe they could grow to be majestic trees. A dog, panting heavily and covered in slime, trots past – I know he has been sitting in whatever water is left in the puddle at the bottom of the village pond. Just weeks back, I had watched the wheat graze the wind, a verdant carpet swaying gently, holding the promise of a full granary and if luck would allow it, perhaps some extra cash. Now the stalks are bent with their bounty, the fields are golden, the rich colour of money. And summer. Ahead, a thresher is at work – noisily separating grain from chaff. Khatu Lal Meena’s family is hard at work.
The girls pass the bundles up, their faces are covered with their dupattas for the chaff makes breathing difficult. They move fast, for they must keep up with the men ahead and though they make it look easy, I see their palms have gashes where the wheat stalks have pierced into their skin. The men of the family stand on top of the thresher – feeding its ever-hungry mouth with more bundles of wheat. Khatu ji, the aging patriarch, is bent double, his knees are so bow shaped that they would appear comical if not so pathetic. He grimaces with each bale of wheat he feeds into the thresher, and the chaff makes him wheeze. His son, Vimal, moves skilfully. He’s learnt well from his father but he must be careful. Only last year, someone in the village had lost a hand while stuffing wheat into a thresher. Vimal knew well that being a handicap in a farming family was a deadly curse – the ignominy of being an extra mouth to feed without the solace of being a helping hand. Below, collecting the golden grain sits Leela Bai, Vimal’s mother. She’s wearing a pair of very thick glasses, the kind they used to wear after getting a cataract operation. Modern day laser surgery eliminates the need for such glasses but one doesn’t get modern facilities in the free sarkari eye camps. Sitting on her haunches, she deftly collects the wheat as it pours out of the thresher. The glasses magnify her eyes enormously and when she talks to me, it seems as if she is very interested in what I have to say, which of course, I chide myself, cannot be very true. Finally, at the base of the chain, stands little Mohini. She is Vimal’s only child and barely reaches my waist, (but then I am, err, rather Lilliputian). She is dressed in a dirty blue school uniform and is presiding over the full sacks with much authority. Suddenly, she shouts, “Saat.” Seven. Vimal grins at her, and then looks at me pointedly, as if to say, “Did you hear that? She can count!”
Suddenly, the noise dies down. The family is taking a break and I sit down with them. They are keen to talk to me, for they have heard I have been inquiring about the water situation in the village. Leela bai offers me some water from her copper pot – it is still cool and I gulp down some. It is a muddy brown and tastes queer – she looks at me apologetically, “Beta, humare paas yahi paani hai”. (Child, this is the only water we have). Grateful for the water, for I know this supply must last them till dusk, I thank her, starting out on my questions. My eyes look at their sunburnt faces and find myself hoping the wheat will feed all these mouths for a year.
First published in Helter Skelter.