says Harini Gopalswami Srinivasan, who describes herself as a natural farmer and sometime children’s writer. In this interview with Prerna Shah, she talks about how she made the shift to a rural, farm-based life and if, inspired by the choices made available by the Covid-19 work-from-home options, you want to consider a shift too, read on…
Harini, if you could tell us a little about yourself, also about your life in Bangalore before you moved to your farm?
I’m part of that bad generation, the baby boomers. Grew up in the 60s, came of age in the 70s, lived all over the country (my father was in a transferable central government job), and loved being rootless. The consumerist lifestyle crept up on us unawares in the late 80s, but within a decade I had its measure and began to make conscious decisions. I think of myself as primarily a homemaker. I taught briefly in a school, and edited for an academic journal for many years, but it was always part-time. I liked to reserve so much time for my family – usually including an animal or more. I also wrote a few books for children. That got squeezed into the busy schedule somehow, and I remember them as fun times with my daughters, who participated enthusiastically in whatever I was writing. Once they grew up and moved away, I lost the motivation and the momentum.
What motivated you to look for a piece of farmland and to then make the move from Bangalore to your farm?
I’d always dreamt of living on a farm, leading an outdoor life, having a lot of animals. My husband and I also love mountains and, for a long time, we thought we’d move to the Himalayas someday, live in an apple orchard with a view of snow-covered peaks. But ‘someday’ seemed far off, and by the time we were both in our fifties, we realised we wanted to live close to our daughters. So we decided to compromise — do what we could here and now.
We had a wonderful time driving around within a 50 km radius of Bangalore, looking at land. A year of picnics!
How did you find the land that you now call your own? How does one go about finding a piece of land to own and (then) farm or cultivate?
Each state has its own laws regarding agricultural land. Early on we realized we could not own farmland in our state, Karnataka. Fortunately, Tamil Nadu was within easy driving distance. We answered ads, talked to people, met brokers. We wanted land with a view. At last, we were lucky to meet a retired state government revenue officer, who was very knowledgeable and reliable. He helped us buy our land, and also became a good friend. We bought our land (in 2011) with three friends. (And built our house there by the end of 2013). That’s a nice thing, to have good friends for neighbours. Though only one of them so far has built a house there and visits regularly.
One piece of advice for anyone buying land: Make sure the papers are good, of course, but also make sure that the people around are friendly.
One piece of land we looked at was lovely – huge old trees, good soil, sloping down to a lake. But the minute we got there several scowling men turned up to say the land was under dispute. On enquiry, it turned out the people in that village were very quarrelsome. We’re glad we stayed away. Where we live, we are lucky to have generous and friendly people around and don’t have to waste our energies in protecting our property.
In your blog, you talk about keeping a lot of things in mind while designing your house, the well, and a number of other things around the farm. What were the thoughts and ideals that guided you to take these decisions?
We didn’t know a thing. If we had known half as much then as we do now, we’d have done many things very differently. We were scared to death and the house reflects that. We were told not to have glass windows as people would throw stones. So, we have wooden shutters. Our younger daughter insisted we should be able to make a quick getaway in case we were raided by elephants, and that was built into the design. Then we were sure leopards would eat our dogs, so we built a high-walled courtyard. Now we know: the villagers don’t throw stones, you can’t get away from a herd of elephants, and there are no leopards in the adjoining forest (at least for now).
The main thing we got right was deciding to be off-grid. We didn’t want electric wires going across our land and electrocuting elephants. And, of course, there was a kind of romance about the idea. Anyway, it makes us self-sufficient and not at the mercy of an unreliable power supply, especially as we are so isolated. Our house is built of stabilized mud blocks and has recycled windows from a demolished 100-year-old British-era school. It’s quite a small house, considerably basic. When people come to stay, which isn’t very often, it’s a bit of a crush. Fortunately, the two bedrooms and bathrooms are spacious, and we can be outdoors all day. We have a solar-powered water pump and a solar water heater, and we now have rainwater harvesting and a large tank to store the rainwater. These were all good decisions.
Can you also tell us a bit about your efforts in minimizing the use of plastics in your daily life — from food in plastic packaging to cleaning products that come housed in a plastic bottle or container.
This is such a long and boring story, I’m sure no one wants to hear it in detail! Suffice it to say that I have for many years now been dedicated to cutting out plastic – products as well as packaging. I buy groceries, fruits and vegetables in cloth bags for choice, and occasionally in paper bags. I use natural toiletries, laundry powder and housecleaners – things like shikakai, reetha, besan and neem-twig toothbrushes. Many are homemade or homegrown, and some bought from organic stores, almost all with no packaging. I’ll trudge miles to avoid a plastic bag, driving everyone around me nuts. My partner in crime is the Navadarshanam CSA.
What do you grow on your farm? And what grows wild and uncultivated that you find useful as well?
We grow the traditional crops in our area – ragi or finger millet, avare or bush beans, peanuts, and small quantities each year of different things like moong, urad, tuvar dal, til or sesame. We have 22 mango trees, about 10 papaya trees and a few guava and sapota trees that bear fruit. Not yet bearing, but tended lovingly, are several coconut trees, banana, custard apple, jackfruit, lemon, orange and sweet lime, gooseberry, avocado, breadfruit, mulberry, moringa, etc.
The main trees that grow wild in our farm are non-edible species – honge or pongamia, Malabar neem or melia dubia, palash, laburnum and a kind of thorny acacia. They provide much-needed shade, mulch, firewood, and food and habitat for non-human critters. They also add beauty to the land and, when they are flowering, the perfume is intoxicating.
Tell us about a typical day at your farm, a day in your life if you please.
Wake up at an unearthly hour, get breakfast and laundry out of the way, potter around looking at how the plants are doing. Once it’s light enough to see an elephant if one is lurking, we go for a long walk. The views are as nourishing as breakfast! From about 8 am to noon I slog – digging holes for saplings, making new beds, planting, watering, weeding, mulching, pruning, picking vegetables. propping up climbers, etc. In non-Covid times I also used to make breakfast for our farm hands and anyone else who was helping out. I have cut that out in the last couple of months. My work is easier for that, but I also miss the daily chats and the happiness of seeing them enjoy the snack. In non-Covid times, we also had friends dropping in for a chat, to exchange seeds, saplings and goodies like pickle or cake. Life is rather lonely at present. At noon we knock off. Bath, lunch, and a few hours of lazing. I spend a lot of time on a lounger under a tree, reading, snoozing, and watching the birds that flit to and fro. Then a couple of hours of light work before dinner. We are in bed by 9 pm with our books and music.
Do you spend all your time, most months in a year at the farm or do you divide your time between Bangalore and your farm?
We planned on one week a month in the city to meet family and attend to business things, but it’s been pretty erratic, what with interstate passes and lockdowns.
Do you miss anything about city life at all?
Not at all when we’re there. But when we come to the city, after the initial culture shock, everything is an exciting novelty – shops, restaurants, newspapers, and TV!
Are there any stereotypes that we may have about life on a farm, and about villages and village folk? Did you learn and unlearn a few things about the rural way of life when you moved to the farm?
Well, they are better informed than you might think, but as superstitious as you’d expect. What I found surprising was that they are all there by choice. Almost all of them have spent some time in the city learning a trade or doing odd jobs. And everyone will tell you how much they couldn’t stand city life, the noise, and traffic, the lack of food security, the commercialization of everything, the polluted air, and water. Here in the village, they say, no one starves. We’re always losing money, but there’s enough to eat, and people will help you out.
I know this is contrary to the reality of farmer distress and suicide elsewhere in the country, and I can’t explain it. Among the farmers of the current generation, the 30-50 group, there is an entrenched belief in the high risk-high return model. They invest large sums of money in a single crop for the market and, if that fails, they lose it all. I hope in time they’ll realize the value of the old model of subsistence agriculture, and grow enough of everything for their own needs.
Another thing that fascinates me is that their brains seem to work differently from city-bred brains. Is it that their spatial intelligence is greater? I love how local and rooted are their memories and stories, their excellent mental maps of places, and their instinctive understanding of natural processes and creatures, which is different from mine at any rate – so much of my knowledge of farming is from books. Of course they are sometimes wrong, but it’s still impressive!
In a blogpost you address this question about ‘after the honeymoon’ and I ask it here again. Has your commitment to the farm and the way of life sustained and grown?
Yes and no. I love being close to nature and the idea of growing our own food. But I am 62, and Srini, my husband, is 68. I am beginning to realize that we can’t sustain this amount of work as we grow older. It’s deeply satisfying, but certainly not easy. I am committed to work at it until we can really live off our land. Then I shall sit back and let someone else do the maintenance.
And what were some of the biggest challenges that you have overcome?
Ignorance, poor soil, an inhospitable microclimate. Being at the top of one valley and the foot of another hill, we get a wild raging wind most of the year, sun radiating from the rocks in summer, and not enough rain. We are working hard to improve our soil and capture rainwater. We read a lot, experiment a lot, and talk to the local farmers as well as permaculturists elsewhere. We still have a long way to go, but the journey is fascinating.
What piece of advice would you have for someone who is a novice but has a keen desire to move to rural India and try and live the way you do?
Just do it!
Have you found it useful to document your journey in your blog ‘The Long View’ and how does your writing (not just the blog but your work as a children’s author) come about or is helped by your life on the farm.
I haven’t written a thing since we moved more or less full time to the farm. I have neither the time nor the inclination right now. But that’s not to say I won’t sometime in the future.
And if you could tell us about a native tree or two that grows in your part of the farm or around it and the joy it brings you.
It’s amazing how many trees growing wild around us are NOT native! One beautiful tree that is, is the silk cotton, bombax ceiba. I was thrilled to find two growing on our farm a couple of years ago. The flowers are beautiful, and I love the softness of pillows and mattresses stuffed with its cotton. I’m eagerly watching them grow!
The villagers keep introducing me to interesting new trees. I’ve recently got to know the naarve, with citrussy, rough leaves that are traditionally used to scrub vessels; the jaalaari with scented flowers that, in the season, perfume the whole forest; and the taare (terminalia bellerica), which has nuts almost as good to eat as cashews, but which I later discovered has ‘mind-altering’ properties!
(You can read more about Srinivasan’s life on the farm at her WordPress blog)