On Pongal, this accidental farmer revels in her new life, cobras included

Growing up, Pongal to me meant holidays, movie releases, play time with cousins and, of course puja as well as making and eating lots of Pongal. However, since becoming a planter (farmer of cash crops), this festival has taken on a significantly different meaning.

As the daughter of the family, it was never on the cards that I would be a planter despite my father and grandfather being one. I did just as was expected of me. I became a chartered accountant, got married, sported a corporate career and lived the racy city life in many parts of the world.

And then it all changed. I was in the midst of a divorce, treatment for a terminally ill father and relocating back to my small hometown in India all at once. In these dire circumstances the most joyous thing happened. I became a cardamom planter in Kerala. I got myself a wide brimmed hat, rain boots, hiking gear and UV-protect hoodies, and marched right into this otherwise male dominated world.

Looking back, the initial set of challenges I faced now seem a cakewalk. It involved establishing myself as a woman leader to the plantation folk, unions and local political parties. It further involved evincing genuine respect for my opinions, rather than reluctant obedience merely because I was ayya’s (the boss’) city-bred daughter. It included not batting an eyelid when I was given a tour of the locations where huge resident cobras like to sunbathe.

On Pongal, this accidental farmer revels in her new life, cobras included

I learnt to overcome each of these challenges…and as I learnt, the plantation folk learnt too. They revelled in the new collaborative management style I followed, as compared to the more instructive style my very experienced father had. They took pride and honour in the larger responsibilities I placed on them simply because they are more experienced than I am. They began to respect my use of the Internet, access to research firms and consultants to find solutions to problems rather than rely on just in-house experience. They learnt to value the excel spreadsheets and reports I forced them to maintain, as access to data became remarkably simple. Gradually, over time, they allowed themselves to be challenged, and eventually guided by me.

This journey has taken five years and the plantation folks and I now make a strong team. Yet with every passing year, just when we believe we have seen it all, we face new situations that sometimes challenge our very existence.

As the Kerala floods of 2018 ravaged our fields and broke our labour quarters and catchment, we worked non-stop over the next 18 months to salvage our plantation.

So imagine our bewilderment, come 2020. COVID-19 related lockdown restrictions, extreme dearth of labour due to shut State borders and absent migrant workers, delayed monsoons followed by torrentially excessive rains... the list of challenges seemed endless.

On Pongal, this accidental farmer revels in her new life, cobras included

Yet while the world stopped, agriculture didn’t. We ploughed on.

As members of my team and I fell sick with COVID-19, requiring extensive quarantine planning on the plantation during peak cardamom picking season, I remember lying on the hospital bed breathless and weak, staring at the ceiling, feeling completely overwhelmed.

Yet, as January is born and Pongal is here, even the most dire challenges dissipate in memory, leaving us purely grateful for all the things that went right during the year.

That every tree that fell did not take one of us along with it. That every gliding snake went by without confrontation. That we were able to address crop rotting caused by the torrential rains in time. That Komalam and Shanthi, the oldest of our workers affected by Covid-19, recovered completely and we were able to arrest the spread. That the rogue tuskers who visited us the past year did not cause havoc. That Gnanaraja, who ran into a tiger, which had lost its way right by the bungalow, was unharmed. That our long-time worker Girija was able to smile and wave at all of us before the cancer that consumed her body took her. That Murali who walked into a truant leopard by the forest boundary did not lose his wits and backed out safely.

On Pongal, this accidental farmer revels in her new life, cobras included

And most importantly, that even in the darkest hours of 2020, we were able to safeguard our people and produce against the numerous variables that are not in our control, and that it fed all of us on the plantation and kept our families safe and comfortable.

Pongal has become a day to truly celebrate that we have made it through the year together successfully. In doing so, we renew our energy and faith to meet the challenges of the year that is to come.

With the pristine weather that January offers, festively garlanded gods of our fields, crisp settu mundus, bright smiles, and caramelised sakkara Pongal that we make together, this festival to me is like no other. It gives me intense gratification to have successfully seen our little plantation through one of the most challenging years in recent history. Pongalo Pongal!

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Printable version | Jan 16, 2021 8:19:14 AM |

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