Trip to Wayanad
Recently I made a day trip to Wayanad, the district that has the most farmer suicides in the whole state of Kerala. We left at 3:00am and drove six and a half hours to Wayanad. The drive was as usual on the bumpy potholed roads that are found throughout India. I must be becoming a real Indian because I managed to fall asleep in the car. I can't even sleep in an airplane but on these roads that jossle your head around like a bobble head I fell fast asleep. I woke up when we arrived at a tea stall along a mountain road that we had been climbing for sometime. We got out of the car to stretch our legs and a man in a hut by the side of the road boiled some water and made us tea...it was the best tea I have ever tasted. India is known for their tea and this was the moment I knew why, until now in my trip I had been surviving on bottled water. Tea is made very differently here; it is in the form of powder with some sugar. There are no tea bags and it is not steeped, you just drink the liquid until you get to the tea powder at the bottom. Once we had finished we got back in the car and drove through hours of tea estates and coffee estates to reach Calpetta. Along the way to Calpetta we had to stop and ask people which roads to take as none of them are marked and you could go in circles for hours because they all curve into one another. Once we arrived in Calpetta we stopped at a vegetarian restaurant (these are everywhere, there are lots of vegetarians in India) for breakfast. We walked in and did the customary washing of hands before we found a seat. When we sat down I had the people who were accompanying me on my trip order for me as I never remember the names of what I eat here. They ordered me ghee roast which is rice and butter and who knows what else, spread very thin on a grill and rolled like a telescope. It becomes very crispy and is really huge (like thin pizza dough rolled). The others ordered masala dosa and dosa with chutney. Along with most breakfast entrees comes chutney and sambal to dip whatever you order in. Once we had finished we washed our hands again as you do everywhere and then I had my first run in with a non western style toilet. I will not even go into explaining that….
In Calpetta we went to the government office of records to pick up the names and addresses of farmers who had committed suicide in the Wayanad District. To get to the office we climbed a narrow staircase that was just wide enough to fit through the cement walls that lined both sides. At the top of this building that had rewire sticking out and cement falling off the bricks (from the many years of rain) we found the office we were looking for. We walked in through a small wood door to find desks stacked almost to the ceiling with files. There were file cabinets being used for personal items of people working by them while files stood in disarray everywhere. At all the desks were large wooden boards, until someone sat down to use one I had no idea what they were. Because the desks are so covered with files people use the boards on their laps to review documents. We had called the day before to make sure the registrar would be there to give us the records and as usual he was running on Indian time, late. An hour after we arrived and had pleaded our case to everyone in the one room office he arrived and approved the list. The people who had accompanied me to Wayanad, quickly (only and hour) took the list and made copies while I sat and talked with the registrar and staff. They asked me about Arizona, apples (they don’t have them here), Google, etc. It was so neat because I knew I would not ever have the chance in America to sit with a government official and chat about Google or what houses look like in America. We also discovered that the costs of my flights over here were a government officials salary for a year (wow am I grateful). There were over three hundred names on this list, and this was not everyone. Three hundred suicides since 1999 in a district of a state, not even the whole state. This list is not even comprehensive at this point because not all suicides have been reported to this office nor all the debt forgiveness the government is currently investigating. Once we had the list in hand we said goodbye to the government officials and made our way down to the car. As I was just about to get in I saw a pesticide shop…this was pretty daunting as I knew that most of the farmers had committed suicide by ingesting pesticides from stores like this. We began driving and started asking people where the villages on the list were. We found multiple people from the same village and decided that is the one we should spend the limited time we had in. A man volunteered to show us the village and help us find these women. The villages in Wayanad are much different than those surrounding the Palakkad District that I have been researching thus far, they are built into mountains and the terrain is very difficult to navigate in cars. After forty five minutes of driving on dirt roads with boulders the size of small children we reached a spot where we could go no further. We got out and began the hike up the mountain to the first widow’s house. We literally hiked to the top of a hill to a small cement hut. The man who had volunteered to accompany us asked the widow and her mother if they would be willing to speak with us. They agreed and welcomed us in to sit down. This widow was strong and reserved; she really did not speak about her husband’s death more than telling us the year and how much debt he had taken on. She was dressed modestly in a house dress that was worn from working the land and she rarely smiled (not in an unfriendly way just in a way that told of how much she had faced in recent years). I asked her how she supported herself and she said they had less than an acre of land where she had one cow, some bamboo, a small amount off coffee, cardamom, and these trees that produced a fruit used to make perfume. As she told me about these things she went outside and brought in some of each one and gave them to me. I could not believe that with the little of each of these items she had, she was wiling to spare some just for me to see it. None of these items were enough to sell in mass and support her, so she sold most of them in small amounts in the village when she could. I asked her if she would be interested in more cows…I rarely encounter women who are not interested instead they often have trouble feeding and providing shelter for the animals. She told me she could take on one more cow and care for it. I took down my notes and thanked her for her time. We then hiked our way back down the mountain to our car.
Once in the car our guide navigated the way to the next house. Along all of these routes we always stopped to ask people to make sure the widows still live there before we drove way out into the mountains and hiked to a house. The next house was located in a group of houses at the end of a gravel road in the middle of a field. There were women farming all around, carrying large sacks on their bodies to carry whatever they had picked (most often tea). This house was the most modest I have seen so far. There were no windows just tarp covering them that continuously flapped in the wind. It was brick and appeared to be wearing away by the minute. The widow we had come to see was working on the mountain (6km away where she walked everyday to work). Her family welcomed us in. In India it is very customary that your parents become your dependents, so in the house we met her daughter (nursing school), son (10th grade), and parents. She currently supports all these people aside from the small odd jobs the children can find. The family immediately offered us rice soup (this is the water that rice is cooked in; there is no actual rice in it). As always I felt bad taking something that I knew they needed to eat more than I did but I could not bear telling them no. I sipped the soup from a small glass as I asked them questions. They told me about their mother working up on the mountain and that the family had been wanting a cow for sometime so that maybe she would not have to hike so far to work everyday. The son also told me that he grew vegetables in the yard to eat and sell. They eagerly answered all of my questions but did not share a lot of information about their father’s death. Some families want to share the story of their loved one’s suicide and some do not; I let them do whatever makes them feel comfortable. I do not need to see their pain to know what a difficult thing that must have been to go through for them. In this house as every other house I had visited there was a small table dedicated to the lost loved one where pictures and candles are displayed. Whether they show it or not I know there is a void there that can never be replaced. Once we had finished our soup and questions I realized we had no way to take a photo of this woman. The family quickly scurried about to find a photo that I could take a picture of. They finally found a photo in a small plastic album of her and a friend. Their hospitality towards me and willingness to help a perfect stranger made me desire even more to help them. As we left, the son showed me his plants and the whole family stood at the doorway to say goodbye.
Next we made our way out of the valley where those two widows lived and back to the tea estates where we had picked up our guide. He showed us one more widow’s house on the tea estate property. These houses were different from the others…they were long buildings with small apartment style housing. They were surrounded by miles and miles of tea. As we got out, neighbors came out of their houses to see the foreigner and one neighbor boy who spoke English showed us where the house was. He also observed the meeting and read the survey over my shoulder to practice his English. He kept repeating and sounding out Jansport which was the brand of my bag. The house was laid out so that you walked through one small room (maybe 5 feet wide) with a bed into another one with a bed and TV. We sat in this room between the bed and TV while I interviewed the widow. She told us how her son and daughter-in-law lived with her and how she had trouble working on the estate because she had such bad back problems (they carry huge bags of tea leaves up and down the mountains all day long). She said that she worked the minimum amount to still be allowed housing on the estate but needed more to support her. She told us that she could not keep animals such as a cow or chickens because the estate would not allow it. She said that she liked to sew and had even taught her son so that they had a skill to make some money but that she could not afford sewing machines. She went on to talk about how the tailor was far away from the estate and that she thought there would be a big enough demand for she and her sons work that her goal was for them each to have a machine. This was the first widow that I saw light up when talking about what she wanted to do. Usually I have to suggest things like a cow, chickens, etc. but this woman knew what she wanted to do. I think that I have to suggest things to the others because they do not want to get their hopes up that I may one day be able to help them with their needs, not because they are disinterested. I was so excited to see someone that had worked to pass on a skill to her son and that wanted so badly to work if she could only get the right tools. After talking for sometime about her desire to tailor clothes and very little about her husband, she ran off to make us some tea. Once again it was the most amazing tea I had ever had in this glassware that I am sure she had received at her wedding (they were modest cups, nothing fancy but had been displayed by the door when I came in). Along with the tea she brought banana chips and we all (our guide, the people accompanying me from Palakkad, the neighbor boy, and the widow) sat and enjoyed. After that it was time to go as we had a long journey home ahead of us. The neighbor boy walked us out and asked me about Bush as many people do and then said goodbye to us. We thanked and tipped the man who had shown us around and made our way into town to get one last tea and prabapudi (fried banana). We stopped at a roadside hut where they walk the tea out to your car along with the bananas wrapped in newspaper. Newspaper is the cellophane of India, they wrap everything in it. Tea is served in glasses that you drink from there and return as paper cups are too costly and wasteful. We then got back on the bumpy roads to climb down out of the mountains and back to Palakkad. We reached Palakkad a whole twenty four hours after we had left and I stumbled into bed after such a long day.