Sundry observations on Himachali life

Clearly It’s a Conspiracy

On a recent phone conversation with AIF fellow John Van Rooy (better known as Mountain John), we were discussing the strange thing about living in the Indian Himalayas. John works at the APV School, which incorporates meditation, mindfulness, and alternative learning into curriculum. The school is located in the neighboring state of Uttarakhand, a four-hour jeep ride from the state capital of Dehra Dun, so he has become my mountain brother as I have taken up residence in the state of Himachal Pradesh.

You see, India is a land of plains. The human history of the region is defined by the fact that geologically the Subcontinent crashed into the rest of Asia a long time ago. So the Himalayas and Hindu Kush mountain ranges formed, separating very different cultures and ethnicities of India from neighboring China, Central and Southeast Asia. The Indo-Gangetic Plain, one of the cradles of agriculture, is a sweltering area of continuous civilization for millennia.

High up in the mountains, the culture is still Indian in flavor, but there’s a solitude, beauty, temperate vegetation of pines and cherry trees, and rich greenness.

I told Mountain John that I could not imagine how the chaos of plains India could possibly translate to this tranquil other world. However, on my first significant local bus ride, I saw the full potential of chaos. Plains India deals with its need for transport with the venerable auto rickshaw. However, the small engine of the rickshaw meets its match on the traversing climbs of the Himalayas, so endless numbers of people stream into creaking buses, or worse, shared jeeps.

I recounted to John my morning ride to a farmer’s exposition fair at the CSK Himachal Pradesh Agricultural University in Palampur, cruising along in the misty morning. I spend the morning perusing local technology to control the tobacco budworm and other common problems that interest those of us with a biological science-inclination.

With my mind full, I sat down on the floor of the gymnasium for an epic all you can eat thali meal served on a plate made of leaves. The rice, interesting varieties from the Kangra Valley, overfilled the rustic plate, while servers threw colorful mystery vegetables and legumes in an endless procession. This ensued for three rounds of vegetable and rice throwing. As some of the ladies and less ravenous men started to beg not to be served more, the real champions among us continued. With a few muffled remarks of admiration, I stood up with the remaining few, almost blinded by the incredible mass in my stomach, and feeling great. We soon went to the bus to start the long trek home. This bus driver, however, was among the significant number of Himachali public transport workers (are buses owned by the government in the state?) who conspires to drive at unreasonable speeds around unimaginable hairpin turns. I soon turned hot and sick to my stomach, even mildly dizzy. Upon getting off, relieved that I had managed not to be that foreign guy who actually lost his lunch, my coworker, the venerable Gaytri, told me how sick she felt also. Yet no one complains!

John succeeded in beating my misery by stating that he had been on the window seat more than once when a middle aged, corpulent, “auntie” dressed in a cotton candy blue or saffron orange salwaar kemeez had thrown herself over him to vomit. Buses full of vomiting aunties. And no one complains.

Now, India does have a GDP per capita ($1,176) that is about 40 times smaller than the United States ($47,132) (in nominal terms, not adjusted for purchasing power parity, figures from the IMF for 2010), and gasoline does cost around $5.40 per gallon at 61 rupees per liter. One can imagine the incentive to pack as many people as possible into inadequate transport. However, there must be some standard of safety and minimum comfort in public transit. Very few exist.

But strangely, none of this truly surprises me. The Indian way remains in all areas of infrastructure, social engagements, and any imaginable aspect of life. We concluded that there’s a Central Planning Board of Government Incompetence, or a Comptroller of Public Chaos, mandated by one of the Schedules of the constitution of the Government of India. The local directorate for these two west Himalayan states had implemented the schemes well.

Speaking of Himachal

The Kangra Valley, where I now live in western Himachal Pradesh state, is an area of uniquely sown cultural diversity, with the local tribal languages like Gaddi, Pahari (a mountain dialect of Panjabi), standard plains Panjabi, Tibetan among the Tibetans in the exile community near the Dalai Lama’s residence in Mcleod Ganj, and Nepali in the Nepalese community. On top of all this, Hindi has a prominent role, although it is the first language of how many speakers I cannot say. The Hindi spoken here also has a strong accent, annunciation, and grammatical preferences that vary strongly from the use in Udaipur, where I had been living 90 km from the border of Gujurat, where Gujurati dominates and the predominance of the “Hindi Belt” of North India gives way to the linguistic independence of Gujurati and Marathi. At the same time, higher studies here favor the use of Hindi, although a pure and technical Hindi that incorporates many words from Sanskrit.

With this as a background, I saw the extremes of the Tower of Babel that is language policy one day, while helping my coworker Gaytri understand her homework for her bachelor’s of social work. She gave me the task of finding creative uses of Google to find the challenging, Sanskritic words in her exam questions. She said, “I don’t speak Hindi well.” Of course, Gaytri’s English is also quite good, and we constantly fill time by teaching each other things in Hindi and English. She had obviously passes several years of English classes as well. It was amazing that a village woman, who makes chapattis over wood fire and tends to her cows, could traverse valleys and mountain ranges to complete her education, while doing her work with Jagori Grameen.

As we were working, a bird, which has a progressively more urgent and distressed call, began chirping. The sound is both haunting and distressing. It is much like the dhart mata or “land goddess,” a kind of winged ant that flies in tremendous the evenings in the area. Both signal the start of spring. However, this bird, treeyoo in the “local language,” (Pahari, I gather), has a special meaning. The treeyoo, (the name is onomatopoeic for its call), only cries when a small spring rain descends from the mountains, rather than one that drenches thirsty fields in the dry rabi season (Indian agriculture almost uniformly follows a kharif, or monsoon, and rabi dry season crop; interestingly, both are Arabic loanwords via Persian, meaning autumn (kharif) and spring (rabi) for the time of harvesting). Thus, the villagers say that it is someone who refused water to a thirsty person in the past life. A Hindu tale that attaches the idea of karma to a real phenomenon in nature. I was struck that that this folkloric and indigenous of Hindu belief had captured the a simple truth pointed to in the most esoteric Vedic teachings, which is simply compassion for people’s needs, and that it all comes back around to you in the end.
It is easy to criticize the lack of what Western and modern institutions demand from grassroots efforts, but every village has a library of such knowledge, of names for birds, medicinal plants, and types of weather. There is so much too learn, if India can continue to decolonize its policies in education and prioritizes rural areas where most of the population lives, then more students like the outstanding women that I work with could have great futures.

The Kinesiology of Non-Mechanized Agriculture

Indians do everything squatting. Sweeping, bathroom needs, and (it turns out) agriculture. My Achilles tendons simply do not stretch to my butt to allow my to maintain this position. I am much more comfortable with the Western logic of bending from the waist with a hoe than with the continual squatting of India. Nevertheless, we tend the organic garden on the Jagori Grameen campus, so I am forced to feel and understand the logic of Indian weeding, as we crawl along beds of potato, pea, dakon radish, and other vegetables. As a result, the yield per area will probably be extremely high in these tightly planted patches. On the other hand, industrial agricultural fields have rows wide enough for tractor wheels to traverse. Incidentally, I am reading some works by Masanobu Fukuoka, the Japanese author of the One Straw Revolution, who advocates using ecosystem principles to raise yields, a technique that he calls “do-nothing farming.” These principles had a great impact on the permaculture movement, as well as other agroecological schools of thought. Fukuoka finds European tools (in the few cases where Europeans were still doing manual farm labor) to be far too inefficient compared to his Japanese ones.

The peasant way of life is much maligned by those who’ve never lived it. Anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes (perhaps quoting a third source) calls the motions of former Brazilian peasants reduced to working in sugarcane fields “the slow, pained ballet of bending, bowing, to divine and earthly masters.” Moreover, Marx called peasants indistinct and uniform “much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes.” Certainly, many forms of technology reduce the physical exhaustion of controlling nature to produce dense patches of nutrition in what we call agriculture. However, the kinesiological difference in managing energy, posture, and time in agriculture across cultures is understudied. Human labor in agriculture has not disappeared…in industrial societies it has simply been shifted to the lowest social class, often migrants with no representation or rights in the workplace. If more people in rich countries felt the rewards and pains of producing food, then perhaps we could put the estimated 40% of food that is wasted post-harvest (often thrown from grocery store shelves) toward meeting future food needs as the world’s population approaches a bursting 9 billion.

And this month’s photo accompaniment:

From April Blog Post

Mountain sunsets.

From April Blog Post

Old houses. Many families now have a “pakka” or solid house of concrete and their old earthen houses for storage etc.

From April Blog Post

The mountains. Their presence reminds me to slow down and look up to appreciate where I am in the world, especially on challenging days.

From April Blog Post

Himachali terracing to conserve soil on slopes and flood rice paddy in the monsoon season. Terracing makes the use of tractors impossible or limited, a tradeoff that does not support “modern” agriculture among the area’s part-time smallholders.

From April Blog Post

The university agricultural fair in Palampur.

From April Blog Post

I represented the international delegation the day of the fair. I was not prepared for a diplomatic role, but everyone was quite sure that I was an important person.

From April Blog Post

Even very simple labor-saving tools earn a space in the displays. How much do people need to save labor given limited employment alternatives?

From April Blog Post

Traditional grain storage.

From April Blog Post

Another lovely view of local homes.

From April Blog Post

Agriculture team!

From April Blog Post

Finding and hauling firewood and other non-timber forest products creates a burden on women and children across India.

From April Blog Post

Monkey framed by the mountain landscape.

From April Blog Post

Campaign posters for women running for panchayat elections. Convincing women to use th 50% reservation in local government is the first step in creating a political environment where women have an equal voice in decision-making. I emphasize, it is but a first step.

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