When we first moved to our farm, we planted paddy, ragi, lady's finger, and peanuts in turn. No matter what we planted, the short story was that pests, large and small, worked even more diligently than us. Amazingly, we did get some produce, but at phenomenal cost; one year the monkeys and jackals (yes, these canines love peanuts) conspired so that a kilogram of peanuts cost us Rs. 500 to grow. When the maths didn't tally, we thumbed our noses at the pests by giving up farming altogether (you could say it was a case of sour peanuts). Our neighbours in the village just looked at each other and tapped their temples.
If you live on a farm, there is definite peer pressure to grow something. “Do you have a kitchen garden?” is the commonest question visitors ask. Primarily to pre-empt that, we set to work establishing one. Initially, it was the proverbial first-time farmer's luck; we had a glut of everything — more tomatoes, lettuce, spinach, basil, fennel and gourds than we knew what to do with. It became necessary to make more friends just to give away our surplus veggies: we had become successful organic farmers!
Our farm, formerly rice-fields, is squarely sandwiched between scrub jungle and farmland. As conservationists are wont to do, we planted lots of saplings. We were desperate for the shade, and besides, all Rom can think of doing even with the tiniest parcel of land is to plant saplings. Our architect was apoplectic when he put one right next to the house instead of maintaining the mandatory 15 feet distance. By that, I mean close enough that the trunk rubs against the roof and leans heavily on the house during a storm!
After 12 years the trees were grown, the farm integrated with the jungle, and there was no clear boundary. Animals started wandering into the property, and like a typical human, I began muttering: “Can't they see the barb wire fence?”
The trees provided the bridge for several troops of bonnet monkeys to go from forest to fields (but not without first tasting our produce), while providing palm squirrels a launch pad for their guerrilla warfare on the kitchen garden. Half-eaten green tomatoes, guavas and mangoes littered the ground while tender, green, badly mauled Chardonnay melons hung from vines. Presumably, the squirrels and monkeys decided to solve our problem of producing too much. I have no quarrel with that except that this year they didn't leave anything at all.
Initially, our dogs were effective guardians of the garden, but the monkeys rapidly learned that dogs don't climb trees. So, out came the catapults. But, the primates were already savvy enough to sit tightly out of reach of the stones. Once our backs were turned, they were back to raiding. To get ahead in this game, we would have to drop everything, and watch the garden. We were tempted to resort to the “atom bomb” firecrackers our neighbour uses, but the sound drives the dogs crazy. So, in the end, we just gave up. Now, the only things that survive the hordes are spinach and limes.
Across India, several villages are being plagued by monkeys, and there seem to be lots of them. Recently, Dr. Mewa Singh and his students from the University of Mysore reported that throughout Karnataka, these monkeys have been virtually wiped out of the coastal region, and in some districts such as Chitradurga, temples and tourist spots teeming with them 20 years ago now have none. What is happening in other States is anybody's guess. Who would have thought that a creature sanctified by religion may need conservation action one day? While we try not to harass the monkeys too much, we do keep them on their toes just so they don't start having designs on moving into our house!
(A fortnightly column about life on the edge of the jungle with Rom Whitaker. The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Keywords: Feckless farmers