Sharavanan, our neighbourhood go-to man, came by a month ago to invite us to his house-warming. He built that house with loans from cooperative banks and friends and family and, of course, he pawned some jewellery.
He’s always doing odd jobs for Shanti next door, but I never had occasion to hire him till this past summer.
A herd of wild boar had come through our pond and climbed up the stone wall along one side of it. The wall collapsed, since the mud holding it together had, over five dry months, become a dry powder. I asked Sharavanan to organize the rebuilding of the wall, anticipating a month of delays, endless costs, unnecessary cementing and a shaky result. He asked for two tractor-loads of stones and brought two stone-layers and, in two days, we had a stronger, neater wall, dry set without cement.
It was only recently that I heard the story of his banana venture. Last summer, he sold his daughter’s gold chain and ploughed Rs15,000 into a leased acre behind the nursery, planting 350 banana plants. He fertilized them four times and treated the roots with lime to prevent rotting. He had hopes of making Rs35,000 which, after subtracting the year’s land rent of Rs3,000, would leave him with Rs32,000.
When the rains started, promising bunches formed but, by harvest time, the plants had rotted, and instead of healthy bunches of bananas, he got stunted ones that he sold for a total of Rs4,500. An adviser from the panchayat’s Krishi Bhavan told him the plants had simply taken up too much water.
This February, Sharavanan put in 4,000 tapioca rhizomes at a cost of Rs6,000. The soil was already rich from before, so he spent little on manure. He did a partial harvest of 450kg, for which he got Rs2,000. Then, the wild boar came and ate up 450kg of the remainder. He still hopes to get Rs2,000 for what is left, but that leaves him still deep in the hole that the banana venture put him in.
He has six months left on his lease, and he has put in tapioca again, since it requires few inputs and he can plant and harvest it himself, without hiring labour. Friends assure him that the boar will not eat up the crop in the coming season, since there will be standing crops everywhere. But come January, he won’t renew his lease on the acre.
I just can’t manage it any more, he says. It’s a bad time. Nothing I venture seems to succeed. I know how to run a tea shop. I can make tea and snacks. But people won’t pay. They’ll say they will pay me tomorrow or the day after, because they’ve already spent their money on drink.
Sharavanan is a member of the loaders’ union but since the quarry here shut down eight months ago, he has relied on his occasional earnings as a mason, going as far as Alathur, Thrissur or Perinthalmanna to work. When there is work, a mason can command Rs250 a day in Palakkad, but everything slows down in the rainy months. Sharavanan then takes up farm work if he can get it, and that pays Rs100-150. His wife works as a helper in a nursing home and earns about Rs60 a day. His mother, who brokers marriage alliances, puts some money into the household.
It takes about Rs4,000 a month for him to keep his family going, put his son and daughter through primary school, and repay his loans. Apart from the house loans, he borrowed money from a bank to buy a motorcycle. He needs a vehicle, he says, for when the buses are on strike. Shanti stood guarantor for him, since the bank would not give a vehicle loan to a loader.
When the rains are over, Sharavanan will start drying copra again. For some years, he has bought coconuts, dried them into copra and extracted oil. It takes 60kg of coconuts to get 15kg of copra, which is then pressed into 8kg of oil.
When coconut oil prices are high, he can make a profit. He relies on sun drying, so the business is seasonal. He doesn’t have the money to invest in a shed and equipment to dry copra the year round. And year after year, he says, oil prices have come down.
Sharavanan had hoped, with his banana money, to buy an auto. For now, he is just working on making ends meet. On the day he told me his story, he offered to do any odd jobs I might want done. He is an ace stone-layer, but I just don’t need anything built right now, so we agreed he should come in on the next sunny day to prune some trees that were leaning too close to the house.
An hour later, he dropped by again and said, “Write that it took me seven years to build the house. Write that.”
(This is part of a continuing series on life in Akathethara in Kerala.)
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