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The changing rural landscape

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By: K S S Pillai

It is often said that a live society needs to undergo continual changes. Some of these changes are welcome, but many would be happy if others do not happen.

During my infrequent visits to my native state of Kerala, I observe several changes that have taken place there. Old houses with thatched or tiled roofs have been replaced by modern concrete ones. Open fields, where cattle grazed and children played, have disappeared. Sandy roads have been widened and tarred. While people used to walk in the past, auto-rikshaws transport them now.

The latest piece of news that pained me was that the ancestral home of my wife was being demolished. That house was one of the factors that prompted me to marry a girl from there. It was built in the traditional Kerala style. The central part of the house was the store room called ‘Nilavara’ where paddy was stored, along with large bronze and copper utensils. A large quantity of expensive wood with intricate carvings was used in building the house. The kitchen was located in an extended part, and smoke from the wood-fired hearths would escape lazily through the high chimney.

My father-in-law, a retired high school principal, spent most of his time in the ‘chavadi’, a small building, built to its south, facing the main building. It had a sitting room and an adjoining room for sleeping. There was a holy ‘bel’ plant in front of the chavadi. Every evening he would sit on the veranda and talk with some of his acquaintances passing through the road nearby.

There was a shed that housed many cows and calves to the east of the house. A man would come every morning to milk the lactating cows, followed by some neighbours to buy milk. After keeping the milk required for household use, the remaining portion would be sold to a couple of tea shops.

The eastern side of the house had paddy fields that stretched from the Subramanya temple of the village to its northernmost parts that ended in a perennial river. In the absence of a bridge, people preferred to be ferried across the river in some country boats by paying a small amount as the government-operated boat of a bigger size sailed only when there were enough passengers to fill it.

There was a canal at the eastern side of the paddy field. If the plants needed irrigation, water would be pumped to the field through channels. Paddy would be planted twice a year, and black sesame once.

After harvesting, the straw with paddy would be heaped in the compound. Once the harvesting was over, the labourers would come for threshing with their feet, holding onto a bamboo tied parallel to the ground. The stalks would be sun-dried for some days before storing them in hay stacks called ‘kachithuru’.

Cattle would be fed straw from these hay stalks throughout the year. It needed the expertise to build them as they were in the open in a region that got rains most parts of the year. The rainwater would flow away from outside without entering the interior.

All these have become a part of the past. Paddy fields have disappeared. Most of them have been filled with soil from other places, and houses have come up there. Those who were paddy farmers have changed to other professions as the labour charges have shot up, making agriculture a money-losing occupation. Even coconuts are not harvested regularly, as the traditional climbers of coconut trees have abandoned the profession and are replaced by ‘guest’ labourers from other states whose charges for climbing the trees are very high.

The youngest sister of my wife, who has inherited the house, has built a modern one. There are no cows, cowsheds, or hay stalks. The chavadi has remained locked up for a long time and is in a bad condition. The canal near the paddy fields has given way to a tarred road.

(The author is a retired professor of English. A regular contributor to ‘The Kashmir Vision’, his articles and short stories have appeared in various national and international publications)


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