Before the rains, Muthu and I spent a day muck raking. He got into the pond at the bottom of our acre to clean out the sludge and handed up basins of muck to me.
I balanced on top of the retaining wall and dumped the muck behind the stones. Wild boar had churned up the mud, so it was a smelly job. Twice I asked Muthu whether we should do the drier mud first while the rest dried out in the sun. When I suggested it the third time, he answered, in case we don’t finish it all, madam will find it hard to handle the wet muck tomorrow, so it’s better I finish the dirty part first.
I was touched. Muthu and I have had a five-year relationship that swings between well-oiled cooperation and headbanging frustration. When we first hired him, he treated me as a junior coolie, telling me to plant on the bunds and not in the ditches, not to snap off the moringa leaves from the tips, and to plant plenty of tapioca (which is part of his diet, not mine). But he’s a steady worker and now well trained to work under a hardened feminist. Now, he exasperates me by asking for instructions every 10 minutes.
Muthu has been hard to get hold of. He works under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. His wife, Thathai, is also signed up and they are together eligible to work 100 days. The wage is Rs125 for women and men alike, whereas with farm work women get only Rs80-90. The equal wage is a first, and 80% of the nearly 900 holders of job cards in Akathethara panchayat are women.
Before the rains, ad hoc workers are also in high demand to help householders plant small amounts of tapioca, elephant’s foot yam and other root vegetables. There are no workers available, say most of our neighbours, and women workers, understandably, would rather work for the panchayat full wages.
Our plot is rain-fed, so every pre-monsoon shower has to be taken advantage of. I dug our turmeric and ginger beds myself this year, then went through half a jar of Tiger balm afterwards.
In a larger version of our pond cleaning, anyone who signs up for the rural employment scheme here is put to work cleaning up water bodies, which comprise a few canals and defunct quarry pits in this dry and hilly panchayat.
They also clear the drains and dig rainwater harvesting pits. K.S. Sunil, an accountant working with the scheme in Akathethara panchayat, says its focus is to improve the lives of the poorest families and conserve water and soil in the process. In Kerala, the scheme now operates in Palakkad and Wayanad, the two most backward districts in the state.
The applicant must be a major and physically able to work. There is no upper-age limit. The scheme has run for about a year and almost 600 families are enrolled.
Things were looking up for Muthu before the rains. He and Thathai bought a goat a few months ago from the panchayat for Rs1,000, plus Rs400 for insurance and insemination. When you sign up you get a number by lottery and then you get the goat with your number on its collar. Muthu said he was lucky and got one of the bigger ones. The goat then had a kid.
He was less fortunate with the 20 chicks he bought for Rs300. After he paid for the mandatory vaccinations, every one of them died. He believes the heat did them in, although Thathai fed them a paste made of coconut oil and turmeric and sometimes a paste made with small onions to cool them down. The heat was terrible this year, with no edamazhai or “between rains” to keep the crops and cattle going during the summer.
The panchayat holds seven days’ wages, so whenever Muthu needs ready money he checks in with his private employers. He promised to fit us in when we needed him.
Meanwhile, the rains came, late but heavy. I measure the progress of the season by looking at the pond every morning, from an overhang we grandiosely call our cliff. Then I come back to report to Saar, who has his nose in the newspaper. It’s up to the second little depression. There’s only one foot of stonewall visible. I saw the turtle. The stonewall is under water. And so on.
The pond is what attracted me first to this long, shapeless plot. The view behind is of a paddy field, and then the smallest of the hills. Plains-reared, we used to call it the triangle mountain, but the people here, who have seen mountains, call it a rock.
Long before we came, there used to be a large round rock mass where the pond now is and when it was quarried a basin was formed. As we worked that day, Muthu showed me the path that bullock carts followed to park on the rock, to wait there for paddy to be loaded from the field below. I tried to imagine the carts, the loaders, the high-pitched chatter of women scything the paddy, the muted splat-splat of dung dropping from the cattle. All that activity in what is now the most silent place I know.
As for Muthu, by the time the rain started in earnest, things were looking down for him again. Thathai is recovering from a broken shoulder. Muthu is paying for medicines and working for two. And the panchayat’s work days are drying up.
(This is part of a continuing series on life in Akathethara in Kerala.)
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