Candid tales from rural Bengal | Milaap

Candid tales from rural Bengal

Each rural family that I have visited comes with their own story. Some women are self-assertive, some meek and nervous while talking to a stranger who has a weird Bengali accent. Here I have put together snippets of interesting conversations and observations, I have had while on my field visits in rural North 24 Parganas.

“Bhag, bandhak and lease”
While talking to Aklima, a farmer’s wife, her husband told me about the nitty-gritty of farming, There are 3 kinds of land-- bhag, bandhak, lease. In bhag or sharecropping, half of the produce of the land has to be handed over to the landowner, no cash payment is required. In bandhak, a land is mortgaged to another from whom one takes a loan. The creditor then farms on the land of the debtor till he repays the loan. All lands are leased for 1 year; in a lease, an amount needs to be paid yearly. There are different rates for different kinds of lands. There’s one kind of land which is low lying and gets flooded easily, the rate is cheaper of such land than the other type of land which is high lying, and doesn’t get flooded easily. Vegetables like eggplant, cauliflower, cabbage, pointed gourd need a high lying land, while crops like paddy and jute can cultivate in low lying lands. 

“Jute is the most labor intensive crop”
“Jute is the most labor-intensive crop”, Aklima’s husband told us, “The laborers are paid Rs 200, they come at 6 in the morning and leave at 11, including 2 hours of break during this time. For working over-time, they charge extra. We need laborers for cutting, submerging the jute in water, extracting jute fibers, then bringing the jute back, and hanging the jute for drying. It’s impossible to harvest jute by oneself without hiring labor. Sometimes a labor might need the pat kathi (jute stick) as a fuel for his house, then he takes the pat kathi home, and I don’t need to pay him his labor cost. During washing of jute stalks, the laborers are paid by the number of jute handles that they can wash in a day. For washing 100 handles, they are paid Rs 100. Jute is the most labor-intensive crop."
Both landowning farmers and landless farmers work on other people’s land as laborers. 
Jute is sold mon wise where 1 mon is 40 kgs. This year cost of 1 mon is fixed at Rs 1,400, it has come down from last year.

“Farming is an expensive business”
A landless farmer engaged in sharecropping told me, “All the seeds are brought in every season. They are priced kilo-wise.” This season he has bought 1 kilo of paddy seeds for Rs 50. “For 40 kgs of poison, we spent Rs 900. Farming is an expensive business”. Different things are to be applied to the plants at different stages of the plant’s growth- fertilizers, poisons, sulfate, mixture. He says, “This time we bought 10 gms of kohlrabi seeds for Rs 70. The ones which come from Bangladesh are cheaper as they are imported evading taxes. The seeds from Japan are expensive as taxes are imposed. We buy the cheaper Bangladeshi seeds.” 

“Ducks eat 5 times a day”
Many households that I have visited rear hens or ducks or both. Fatema Bibi and her husband are farmers in Katiahat. Fatema says, “I don’t need to give my hens any feed separately, they will eat insects by themselves from the sides of the roads. It’s a different story when it comes to ducks. Ducks are costly. A full-grown duck costs around Rs 300. I don’t buy ducks, I rear ducks by placing ducks’ eggs with hens' eggs, the hens incubate the duck eggs, and ducklings are hatched. I buy the eggs at Rs 6 per piece. If I have ducks, then I can’t go out much, as they need to be fed 5 times a day, they eat rice and wheat. That’s why I don’t keep ducks anymore.” 

“Fishes need to be fed 2 times a day”
“I feed the fish gadda in the morning and mash in the evening”, Hiramoni who farms catfishes in Baduria says to me. 

“I don’t know how much it is sold for, my son and husband would know that”
Many women that I have met and conversed with, don’t know how much they earn from the enterprises they themselves run. In most cases the women are involved in providing the labor, they manufacture goods, while their husbands or sons are involved with the procurement of the raw materials and the sale of the goods that they produce. Most women are unaware of how the money is managed, how much they buy the raw materials for or how much they sell their finished goods for. 
Hiramoni who farms catfishes in her 5 ponds says, she needs to put 50 kgs of feed in each of her ponds every day, she says 1 kg gadda costs Rs 50, and 1 kg of mash costs Rs 100. While the costs of the business come to a preposterous amount, I get to understand, that perhaps the women are not made aware of the nitty-gritty of finances. 
Madhuri a housewife who makes sketch pens says, “My husband brings the raw materials from Kolkata and sells them to different shops here, I don’t know how much they are sold for”. 
Another housewife owning and running a poultry shed along with her daughter-in-law, says, “My son would know how much the hens are sold for”. 

“Nurturing a seedling is like nurturing a child”
“Growing a banana tree is like nurturing a child. We need to put fertilizer, water, otherwise bananas wouldn’t come to the tree.”, says Mofuja, a banana cultivator of Katiahat. 

“Chicks need to be fed milk in the morning”
Rina has 2,000 chicks growing up in her poultry shed. Her mother-in-law tells me that they need to mix a little amount of milk in their water in the morning, chicks need to drink milk. They are fed medicines 2 times a day. 

"Harvesting Paddy"
Paddy is sown after jute is harvested during the monsoons. Paddy is harvested just before the winters. After the paddy is cut from the field, it needs to be dried, then vapor is applied to them, after which for 12-13 hours the paddy needs to be soaked in water, after draining the paddy, it needs to be boiled again and dried, and finally, the husks are separated from the paddy. Separating of the husk from the rice is either done by hand or by a machine. Many households do not have a machine, they rent a machine from a neighbor and pay around Rs 70-80 per day for its use.  All these work after the cutting of the paddy from the field is done by the women of the households. 

"How the mustard oil is obtained from mustard"
Mustard is sown during the winters after paddy is harvested. After mustard is cut and brought to the home, it's on the women of the household to work on them. After the mustard is cut and brought to the home, they are bunched together in a heap. The mustard automatically disintegrates from the heat generated. This takes 5-7 days. After which it is dried and then shaken, then the seeds are taken to machines which extract the oil. 

“A family has multiple sources of income”
Many families own land, if families have insufficient land, they might take land in lease, bhandhak and bhag. The women folk in a household is also involved in sewing or knitting or tying bidi, they also rear goats, cows, bulls, ducks, hens, they also help with agricultural work during harvest. Some women also run their own small side businesses like making sketch pens, farming fishes, making garlands. Jute is a labor intensive crop, most families cultivating jute, use their women’s labor for drying the jute fibers. A farmer had told me once, “If we take laborers for drying as well, then there won’t be anything left for us”. 
Many men in the areas near the Bangladesh border are employed as truck drivers, or are truck owners or work as laborers loading and unloading goods from trucks going to and from the Bangladesh border. These trucks carry bricks, sand, stone chips, rice. Many are also employed in brick kilns. The monsoon is the only time of the year when the brick kilns remain closed, after the Durga Puja, the men return to working in the kilns as laborers. 

As I would be visiting much more areas of North 24 Parganas, and meet many more families, I would probably hear many more interesting tales, but what has struck me most is that each person is willing to tell me their tale, and not shy away from a stranger. I guess everyone is eager to share their own tale, and are just waiting for an eager listener.