Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Mulberry tree in Toronto & my village in India

Finding the mulberry tree in my backyard in Toronto was a plesant surprise. I cannot believe that a plant which was cultivated in my village by farmers for rearing silk worms, is growing without any care  from gardeners in Toronto!

Fields of mulberry plants were cultivated in my village and in the nearby villages(of Tumkur district) from nearly 30 years ago. The farmers, realizing that growing mulberry and rearing silk worms will bring in a lot more money than growing rice or ragi, stopped growing  rice and started mulberry. Of course, they did not do this all at once. They were cautious and each one started by growing half acre of mulberry, buying the eggs of the silk worm from the government agencies and carefully rearing the silkworms. Rearing silkworms is a delicate process and it had to be done in the rough and tumble world of the homes of poor farmers! If I remember right, many bought fans for the first time into their homes. They, the human beings had tolerated the heat & humidity and mosquitoes of their homes for centuries  but the silk worms were too delicate to withstand the heat and humidity of farmers homes!

I hope some sociologist has documented the changes in the fabric of rural society brought about by the rearing of silk worms in the towns & villages of Karnataka. Let me write what I recall and what I inferred here.

People who grew rice and ragi, started growing mulberry instead and so for the first time(I guess) started buying rice from government ration shops! This was something new in my village as most farmers ate what they grew.( I am not going to explain   'government ration shops'. please google it dear reader!) Food grains were coming to homes of farmers instead of the other way round!

The wealth increased and probably greed did too! Farmers could now buy gold jewels for their wives and daughters, more land, dig more wells, more quickly than before.

Silk rearing is a skill which many farmers lacked. So they hired skilled workers. If I remeber right, the workers did not accept pay but got a share of the profits.

The silk worms were delicate and those who could afford or who had the sense, built huge rooms with good ventilation so the rooms could be cool.( By huge, I mean huge for a poor farmer's home in karnataka! The rooms may looks small to  people from other cultures or backgrounds). Most old village houses of Tumkur district have tiny windows and some rooms have no windows at all. The old houses not only housed people  but  cattle too and therefore there were these huge mosquitoes in the houses whose bites were extremely painful! Believe me, the mosquitoes in the village (called 'dhanada solle' and the translation is "cattle mosquito") were worse than the city mosquitoes! The silk worms would die if bitten by mosquitoes and so farmers who built these huge rooms, put mesh on the windows. That was another new thing in my village.

 The silk worms were put into large circular things woven out of bamboo wood  and these structures were  placed in such a way that ants could not get at the worms. If the worms were on a table, the four legs of the table were placed in saucers of water to prevent the ants from climbing on to the table! (The ants would not get into the water; the water in the saucers would dry up and had to be replaced by the women...god save them if they forgot!)I wish I had photoes to show. A single photo will be a good substitute for a thousand word explaination!

There was such a rapid increase in wealth by selling the silk cocoons that people   brought a lot more  land under silk cultivation which lead to a drastic reduction of rice and ragi cultivation.
 I had read somewhere that India is home to about 300 varieties of rice. I do know that the rice grown in my village was not available in the shops of Bangalore. Now, these varieties of rice are missing! I feel really bad about this. I suppose no one ever thought, this would happen one day.
 My family grew a type of rice which was red skinned and so sweet that you could eat it raw. Now, that variety has disappeared! We would infact get gunny bags filled with that rice, every year to Bangalore and live on it the entire year. It was torture for me to eat the rationshop rice when we ran out of the rice grown on our farm.... but now my family is forced to eat the rationshop  or shop bought rice.
The new generation i.e. the children in my family of today are not aware of the rice we were growing in our fields, the name of the rice variety we were growing, it's taste, it's looks. I feel such a deep sadness that so many varieties of rice, fruit, plants, insects, etc are disappearing in India, with the increasing population, unplanned farming, etc.

There was definitley jealousy between the farmers who were 'lucky' in the silk-rearing and those who were not! Some farmers's silk worms repeatedly failed to thrive or died at some stage. No one ever scientifically and systematically studied why some silk crops failed.The skilled workers were in such high demand that they were running from village to village, trying to earn more.

With prosperity, came additions to the house and the item which was the most interesting and most ruinious according to some was the television! Only one house had a television in the beginning and everyone in the village would come and sit on the floor and watch tv in that house. I have heard farmers complain that work was not done by thier workers and children as they wre sitting in front of the tv. Before tv came to every house, there was a phase when workers would work, only in houses which had tv! Farmers had to come and drag their workers away from the television set in another farmer's house! All work was done on the floor, in front of the television! Workers, would chop mulberry leaves, with their eyes glued to the  kannada songs from movies on the tv!

Selling the cocoons is another interesting phase. The rates of the silk worms cocoons would chage everyday and would vary from market to market. If I remember right, the Ramanagaram market near Mysore was supposed to offer the best rates and farmers would haul thier cocoons in buses to Ramanagaram. If the farmer felt that the rate being offered the day he reaches was not good, he would wait for a day(sleeping in the market by his cocoons bags!) but he would have to sell, whatever the rate next day...it is not possible to keep the cocoons for long as they would start hatching. If the cocoon hatches, then, we cannot get an unbroken silk thread  and so the hatched cocoon had little value.

The guys who buy the cocoons, sell them to people who put the silk cocoons in boiling water and extract silk thread from it. As silk thread is obtained by boiling the poor worms alive inside their cocoons, followers of Jainism, do not wear silk clothes! I have not seen this process but I have accompanied my relative to the market to sell the cocoons.

Farmers returning from selling the silk cocoons(or rice or whatever) always carried the money in their drawers' pockets for safekeeping. Now men(in cities and maybe villages too) buy undergarments from shops. But in the 70s, men got their drawers stitched by a tailor and the drawers always had deep pockets in them. Villagers wore dhoties over the drawers and there was no way a pickpocket in the crowded buses could get his hands into one of these farmer's drawers! ( men of my fathers' generation got their drawers stitched;  their fathers i.e. my grandfathers generation, wore what is called a langoti i.e. a piece of cloth tied over the private parts.  Maybe my dad wore a langoti as a child and started stitching these 'knickers' or 'chaddis' in the typical striped cotton cloth(called "patta-patti") whenever they came into ?style.

I heard of reports of farmers returning from selling the silk cocoons getting robbed on the way. It made me so bitter to hear that. These men have slaved for 3-4 months and to be robbed of their money is so evil and unpardonable. Therefore, any robber caught is beaten up nearly to death. The sad truth is that even a person suspected of robbing can be beaten, without evidence. I sometimes wonder why Indians are so primitive and savage? Is it the poverty? Or lack of ethics>>>i.e. we only think of survival and nothing else?

These silk worms are so damn delicate that many times, many die and sometimes farmers lose the entire stock. This death can happen at any stage...if it happens at the end, it is , of course very very frustrating. The silk worm is so delicate that even chemical fertilizers are not used as the plant absorbs the chemicals and the worms which feed on the leaves die. The mulberry plant is fertilized only with cowdung and dead leaves.
 I have heard of one family savagely beaten by a farmer who suspected this family (the two families are old enemies) of spraying his mulberry crop with pesticide. His worms died eating the leaves and he somehow concluded that his mulberry plants had been sprayed and the toxic leaves had been fed to his worms.

In recent times, there has been a decline in rearing of silk worms in my village. I am not sure what are the reasons for the decline. Currenly, the monsoons have failed my village and surrounding villages. People are desperate and frustrated. Many have taken loans from the banks and dug borewells but not got water. Now they are even more frustrated with this damn bank loans added to their burden! I can go on about this but wil do it in another article.

When I think of the trail of silk, I realize that the one who makes the most money is the shop-keeper who does the least work and takes the least risks! It is such a shame!

The stages according to me:
government (at least in those days) was growing silk worms which laid eggs. These eggs were sold to farmers at affordable rates.
Farmers bought these silk-worm eggs from the government; cultivated mulberry plants in thier fields...irrigating the plants, cutting the leaves, taking the leaves home and feeding the eggs once they hatch with finely minced leaves and then with less minced leaves, until the worms grew and build thier cocoons.
The cocoons were gathered in bags and sold at a market for silk-cocoons to ? middle-men
The middle-men sold them to people who then threw the cocoons into boiling water and extracted the treads. The threads were probably extracted by hired labour who are probably poorly paid.
The threads are sent to ?dyers in ? Tamil Nadu
The dyed threads are bought by weavers or middlemen who sell to weavers.
Weavers work in government factories or private factories or in their own homes
The thread is woven into cloth and sold to buyers, who sell it to shops to sell to buyers who will buy small lengths of it and give it to a tailor to stitch/ OR
The threads are hand-woved into saris or hand-woved into churidar or skirt  materials. This involved LOTS of work such as weaving gold threads in designs (these designs are drawn by craftsmen on graph papers and then the design is woven into the saris or cloths as borders or even in teh body of the cloth)

In the entire process, the maximum work is done by the weavers. but they live lives in such poverty, you cannot imagine! The maximum profit goes to the sellers of silk cloth and saris, either wholesale or retail.
I wish I had  information to put in here below... Information such as
(1)time taken by farmers and their expenses and profits, labour, time, etc
(2) profit per kg of silk cocoons made by the buyers
(3) time, type of labour, profits and losses, inputs of the cocoon-boiling stage
(4)Details of expenses and profits of the thread making and thread dyeing stage
(5)The labour involved in the sari making stage, inputs , time, profit
(6) how many silk worms go into making of one sari?
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