AGERA 2019 — The East Indian Harvest Festival
A new old way to grow and eat rice…. and celebrate Halloween
‘ We are what we eat’ is a well known saying. Till as recently as a hundred years ago a person was a vegetarian or a non-vegetarian more for socio-economic and cultural reasons than for health reasons. But in the last 25 years, people living in cities in India are increasingly choosing to eat particular diets specifically for health reasons. So if we are what we eat, then what should we eat? And more importantly, how should we grow what we eat?
In my own community — incongruously called East Indians, though we are original Indian Christian inhabitants of Mumbai, Uttan, Bhayandar, Vasai Kalyan, Thane and coastal villages of north-western Maharashtra on the west coast of India — we celebrate AGERA which is our harvest and thanksgiving festival, on the first Sunday of October. The name ‘Agera’ comes from the Latin word ‘ager’ meaning field.
In the days when sustainable farming was still one of the chief occupations of our community, the harvest and thanksgiving celebration was rooted in tradition. It was a simple indigenous celebration of food and was also an expression of faith in the Almighty. On the morning of Agera, the parish priest would lead a procession of farmers into a field close-by to the church. He would then bless the paddy and cut a few stalks of paddy. A group of farmers would then cut more paddy sheaves and carry them in a procession to the church. The paddy would be carried either on ‘recklas’ (bullock carts) or ‘tongas’ (horse-drawn carriages). The men, traditionally attired in ‘surkhas’ and the women in ‘lugras’ (nine-yard cotton sarees) would walk along. They would be accompanied by the local village ‘Vanzootar’ — an East Indian brass band, which would play traditional hymns. On reaching the church the farmers would place the cut paddy sheaves on the altar. During Holy Mass, the priest would again bless the paddy, sprinkling it with holy water. Prayers of gratitude for an abundant harvest were offered up to the Almighty. Petitions would also be made for protection from floods and famine in the coming year. After Mass blessed paddy would be distributed to each family, to affix on the entrance to their homes or on their home altars. In the hope and belief that food and happiness would always be in abundant supply in their homes and community.
However, no more do we as a community eat rice, vegetables or fruit, grown solely by our own farmers on our own farmlands. From about the 1950s onwards, the East Indian community in and around Mumbai got increasingly urbanized. East Indians began to choose white-collar jobs over traditional agrarian work. In the years that followed, many also migrated out of India in search of better job opportunities in other spheres but not agriculture. This resulted in many of us selling off ancestral homes suburban lands and farmlands. So most of my parents' generation, my own generation, and my children's generation have little or no recall of an agrarian way of life. Unsurprisingly the practice of a harvest blessing and even a special family thanksgiving meal fell into decline.
But in 2001 the archdiocese of Mumbai reinstated the practice of harvest blessings in our churches. So, many churches in Mumbai will have artistic decorative arrangements of paddy sheaves. These will be blessed in a simple ceremony. The faithful will recite similar prayers and petitions like they used to in bygone days. Some parishes even have a procession with people dressed in traditional clothes and an accompanying brass band. But here is where the similarity ends. Transport vehicles like recklas and tongas have been replaced by diesel engine pick -up vans. The cottage homes and fields and farmlands have changed beyond recognition, having been replaced by highrise residential buildings, commercial offices, and shopping malls. Mumbai parishioners now have to source the first paddy sheaves or vegetables and fruit for blessing in their local parishes, from peri-urban areas like Uttan, Bhayandar, and Vasai. These areas still have some existing farmlands, but they too are getting increasingly urbanized.
My own experience within our community, however, is different from most others. My nuclear family does eat the rice grown on our own land. But that's because my husband chose to become an organic farmer more than thirty years ago. Eschewing at that time, supposedly better paying white-collar career choices, much to the initial dismay of his parents and grandparents. Their dismay however soon turned to whole-hearted support and admiration for what he was doing. So for more than 30 years now, we have retained our family suburban home in Mumbai but we also live and work 5 days a week, on our farmlands, just 120 km outside of Mumbai. Many of our neighbors there are Warli tribals.
Visiting friends and extended family members are enchanted by the lack of pollution and the absence of noise and crowds. “It's so nice here….you guys can relax at any time,” is a comment I've heard all too often. ‘So nice here’ that bit is definitely true but ‘you guys can relax at any time’ is so untrue. Many of our neighboring Warli farmers still follow traditional sustainable agriculture. That means, no harmful largescale use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers and dependence on steady and consistent rainfall patterns for the staple food crop which is rice. Believe you me this is no recipe for relaxation. Food crops will not grow if a farmer is relaxed.
On our own farm too, we do not use harmful chemical fertilizers and pesticides on our crop. But we sow and reap slightly earlier than our immediate neighbors. We also irrigate in a different manner. So, on our fields, paddy is sown on the first of June irrespective of whether it rains or not. Two old original varieties of paddy seeds are sown — Wada Kolam and Dangi. If it does not rain the seedling bed is irrigated for 1 month by water from our own well, which is pumped into the field by a solar-powered water pump. After a month the seedlings are transplanted over 5 acres of paddy field. After transplanting we too then partially depend on the monsoon. If it does not rain sufficiently, then we irrigate the field. If the rainfall is consistent then the crop is ready for harvest 100 days after sowing.
So from the second week of September onwards, we’re ready to start harvesting. We are blessed with a yield of 20 times the national average. This is possible because we start sowing early, and also because the crop is organically grown it is healthy enough to resist most pests. But growing rice in this sustainable manner requires personal determination and persistence. There are no governmental incentives for sustainable paddy growing. Also, should a sustainably nurtured healthy standing crop be attacked by pests or be prematurely ruined by even one errant thunderstorm before it can be harvested or during the 3-day long process of harvesting by hand, there is virtually no compensation for the farmer unless he is willing to bribe somebody!! Political election time promises like ‘ sabka saath sabka vikas’, ( progress for all) ‘swacch bharat’ , (clean India)and ‘brashtachaar mukt bharat’(corruption free India) all remain a distant dream for most of us.
The harvested paddy is threshed, (rice grains separated from the stalks) and hulled (outer husk or chaff is removed from each grain of rice) These can either be manually done as they are in sustainable systems or, by machine. After the rice is hulled it is brown rice, which is highly nutritious. However, the rice that is easily available in urban markets is mostly white rice. This is because the brown rice goes through a process of mechanical rice mill polishing which removes the thin nutritious outer coating of rice bran or polish also called ‘konda’. It is profitable for many rice mill owners to sell this ‘konda’ to biscuit factories to be used to make biscuits! The trend of eating white rice is, unfortunately, percolating down to rural markets in villages on the outskirts of Mumbai too. And it is definitely detrimental to public health. Diabetes which used to be a disease associated with urban and sedentary lifestyles has sadly begun to affect villagers today, even those who still grow their own rice.
But if white rice is what sells and is freely available in urban markets, it is not the farmer who is to blame. In less than a century, in and around Mumbai, the largest city in India, it is consumer demand for convenience in cooking and a modern urban way of life that has overturned a traditional sustainable method of growing and eating one of the staple food grains of India.
So the change from the industrial food chain system that we are in now to the peasant food web system which was the universally practiced system a hundred years back, can only come if more consumers, consciously demand it. There is undoubtedly a huge health benefit to eating any food that is locally produced, uses little or no chemical pesticides and fertilizers and follows seasonal growing patterns. But for this to translate into an economic benefit for the farmer, it means that as part of our staple diet, more of us should eat sustainably grown food for at least one meal every day. And preferably every meal, every day. That's the only way that sustainably grown whole unrefined food grains can step out of the hip upper-class urban market niche that they inhabit and become mainstream and affordable for everyone. Which they used to be and which they should be.
It would be incomplete to write about harvest traditions, without a mention of the celebratory meal that should accompany it. I asked many older East Indians about what they used to cook specifically for the harvest blessing day. Many could not recall any dish specific to that day, that could have been made in their homes. The general consensus is that families would have a traditional afternoon lunch featuring both vegetarian and non-vegetarian food. The inclusion of meat and fish dishes is in contrast to other communities that celebrate their harvest festival with vegetarian food only.
Also, they recall that while their mothers or grandmothers did make a few traditional and family favourite dishes of meat and or fish, there were not so many courses as they would have at Christmas, Easter, and weddings or other celebrations. This makes practical sense, as in sustainable systems, women are traditionally involved in harvesting which is labor-intensive. Also, women can’t really relax after harvesting, as the process of threshing (beating paddy plants to separate the grains from the stalks)has to start soon after harvesting. Then again if the same fields are being used for vegetable growing, you have to prepare for sowing that crop.
- So realistically speaking we can eat the first fruits of our labour — in this case, new rice — by the end of October. In fact, while our East Indian community joins the rest of the world in celebrating Halloween parties on 31st October, with scary-looking pumpkins and frightful looking snacks, sweets and mocktails, we also have an old tradition for All Souls Day on 2nd November. It consists of making ‘Atola’ — a sweet dish made from newly harvested unpolished rice, cooked with coconut milk, jaggery (molasses) and chowli beans (black-eyed beans) and flavoured with cardamom. Bowlfuls of this dish are laid out in homes, in the belief, that when the souls of our dear departed relatives visit our homes on All Souls Day, they will feel welcomed and nourished. And as one enthusiastic lady who is well-known in the community for her excellent foogias and chityaps (handmade east Indian breads) quips, tongue-in-cheek, “ I make atola on All Saints Day, which is on 1st November, for all those other souls…the real life and always hungry ones who are roaming around the house, looking for something nice to eat!!” So the skeptical me scoffs at the rather spooky possibility of a 'visit' from a long-departed relative. But the sweet-toothed me admits that Atola, though one of our simpler and less known sweet dishes is at the same time down-to-earth delicious and extremely nutritious. Definitely a culinary tradition that’s worth passing on to the next generation.