Review: Mother Earth, Sister Seed: Travels through India’s Farmlands by Lathika George

Lathika George’s book draws a vivid picture of the connection of seed, soil and earth with our cultures, and leads the reader to feel the pulse of India’s agrarian communities
Jhum cultivation in Arunachal Pradesh.(Hindustan Times Media)
Jhum cultivation in Arunachal Pradesh.(Hindustan Times Media)
Updated on Mar 23, 2018 06:13 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | By Prerna Bindra
Mother Earth, Sister Seed: Travels through India’s Farmlands, Lathika George, Rs 699, 256 pp, Penguin Random House India
Mother Earth, Sister Seed: Travels through India’s Farmlands, Lathika George, Rs 699, 256 pp, Penguin Random House India

India has often been called a nation of foodies but our obsession is largely focused in the eating and making of it: recipes handed down generation to generation, meals that bond families, or embracing new cuisines in an increasingly shrinking world. Our imaginations, when we think of ‘source’, usually runs till the supermarket next door, the kirana shop or to mandis bursting with vegetables in winter. Excuse me for making generalisations here but my mind is fixated on the child who brightly responded “tetrapacks” when asked where milk came from!

It set me thinking of how little we know of the story of food - its history, source, production, creation; of the farmlands which produce the food that sustains us, the soil where seeds take root, and the people who feed us. Mother Earth, Sister Seed speaks of our umbilical relationship with food.

Author Lathika George takes us on a fascinating journey to farms, into kitchens and rural India; weaving in the celebrations, rituals, and folklore that surround farming. She travels to farm and field — on holiday and on work (George is a landscape designer), armed with an intense curiosity, and a diary, which later evolves into a book.

She visits Chamba in Himachal Pradesh, where she meets the Gaddi pastoralists who grow maize and barley and apricots. In the Khasi hills in Meghalaya she understands how shifting or jhum cultivation is practised, and off the Tamil Nadu coast, she learns how fisherfolk farm the fruits of the sea.

Seeds travel; at times, aided by man. The Sufi saint Baba Budan is believed to have smuggled seven coffee beans from the port of Mocha into India. But seeds also ride the wind and the water, or are transported by animals and birds across lands, oceans and deserts. Then, they take root, multiply, fruit, and continue to feed. Such lore, which is rooted in our farming traditions, are part of George’s narrative. The garba, performed during Navratri and derived from the Sanskrit word “garbh”, or womb, celebrates the earth at the end of the monsoon, when it is fertile and ripe with new grain. In Goa’s Divar island, even as farms shrink with tourism yielding heftier gains, the first harvest is marked with the Bondera festival.

George draws a vivid picture of these connections of seed and soil and earth with our cultures. The reader feels the pulse of agrarian communities — of both traditional ‘sons of the soil’, and new-age farmers like the ex-servicemen who, military fashion, run what is perhaps one of the largest pesticide-free farms in the country.

The author’s heroes are people like Bija Didi from the foothills of the Himalayas, who is engaged in the task of collecting and preserving indigenous seeds at the Navdanya Farms in Uttarakhand. JP Singh is another remarkable character. From a village near Varanasi, he produces high-yielding, pest-resistant seeds tailor-made for different soils and weather conditions. He has perfected some 400 types of paddy. His homespun wisdom has helped farmers across the country with seeds that yield even during droughts and in water-logged soil.

Lathika George (Courtesy the publisher)
Lathika George (Courtesy the publisher)

George’s stories have a pattern — her farms are rooted in traditional practices, the natural and organic. The author celebrates local cultures and diversity, rues their passing, and hopes problems can be fixed by marrying traditional farming systems and indigenous knowledge with technology. In her words, is the whiff of the romantic, and the lens is rosy-hued. It makes for pleasant reading, but seems dissonant with the ongoing crisis of agriculture with images of 50,000 farmers pouring into Mumbai , and Tamil Nadu farmers donning the skulls of comrades who lost their lives to mounting debt, still afresh in our mind.

It’s not that the author is unaware of the harsh reality of farming, but her touch is light, though sensitive. In Dahanu, she highlights how the region’s famous chikoo farms are threatened by the slew of thermal power plants. She writes of how the green revolution destroyed the robust agriculture economy of Punjab, and the horror of endosulfan poisoning in Kerala.

Read more: An unknown slice of Kerala

The immense value of this book lies in bridging our alienation with that which sustains us, luring us back to a time when life was simpler and in tune with nature. From an agricultural family from Kanjirappally in Kerala, George is a foodie, an organic gardener, and the author of the acclaimed The Suriani Kitchen. Mother Earth is an organic extension of these interests. Her understanding of this world is nuanced and empathetic, and the narrative reveals her passion for it. The book speaks in an easy, chatty manner, as though you were taking a journey with a friend, through an India, so near, yet so far.

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