CHENNAI: We returned hotfoot to the farm to discover that the ‘jolly giant” who’d simply employed himself turned out to be Bottle’s son, and the finest young man in those parts as evidenced by the 20 idlis; four packets of sambhar; four pooris and two dosais he swallowed in one sitting.
Victory, however, was another matter: he sauntered back when my father called out to him instentorian tones — but looked morose. This was another facet of rural life that we found difficult to absorb: women automatically ranked lower than men; any instructions or questions my mother or I gave or asked were largely ignored until my father corroborated it. It was frustrating and deeply unsettling, but there was little we could do. The time wasn’t right to take Victory to task as we still had a great deal to do, and very few people to help us do them. The newly planted saplings appeared under-nourished even to our inexperienced eyes, and my mother suggested an organic remedy: vaeppam punnakku or neem remains which could be strewn in the fields, or mixed with water and distributed.
Sourcing proved a Herculean task. Process Punnakku went something like this: farmers in the area gathered their hard-earned vaeppam kottai and journeyed to MudTown where, under the aegis of a certain institution, everything was bundled and sold in sacks. This would not work for us as we wanted smaller quantities; it was decided to buy punnakku from the source itself. Accordingly, we trundled to a picturesque little village just beyond a tiny hill-temple near MudTown, where my father initiated a conversation with a random villager:
Father: Could you tell us if this Neem Village? We were told we’d get punnakku here. Where is the chekku (where neem is processed for oil, et al)?
Obnoxious Villager: No, no punnakku here. Who told? Who are you? From Madras?
Father: Yes, but is there no chekku here?
OV: Who told you? Why you want punnakku? You tell me that.
Father: Could you please tell me where else I can get punnaakku?
OV: You tell why you want all that. You are from city? Why you came here? What for you want punnakku?
Father: Is this Neem Village?
OV (discomfited): West Archers Village.
Clearly there was to be no punnakku to be had here; we left, this time, for Washing Village where existed the institution’s headquarters. A drunk man stumbled up and saluted us in the mistaken impression that we were Agricultural Department Officers; when matters were explained, he went on a tangent about how he’d been “deceived” about our appearance, and eventually gave us a quote: each sack of vaeppam punnakku cost around `1,300. We were dumbstruck, for this was phenomenally expensive.
(The writer is a journalist, artist,translator, historian and editor but not necessarily in that order)