We join Ragu in his bedroom. It is spotless. He has obviously spent the early morning dusting and cleaning and he actually refers to it as his “little house”.
We are leaving Pondicherry and heading for our next stop, Kumbakonam. It is about 110 mile drive, which on Indian roads means it will take about 4 hours. Most of the drive is through green and fertile lowlands with the occasional farming village and acres and acres of rice paddies. It makes for a very scenic drive. The recent and unseasonable rains have flattened large parts of the rice crop and made it impossible to harvest. The farmers are losing their livelihood. Where the crop is still standing they are rushing to harvest it. Because it is wet they have to dry the rice, and where better than on the warm tarmac on the side of the road. Three workers carefully spread the rice, oblivious to the traffic rushing by.
But what slows us down is the huge number of wandering cows, goats, chickens and dogs. They saunter along or across the road refusing to hurry or move out of the way despite Ragu sounding the horn long and loud. Some even find a sunny warm spot in the middle of the road to have an afternoon nap and nothing it seems will make them move. I wonder that we don’t see dead animals at the side of the road, but Ragu explains that hitting an animal is an expensive business. The animals are often the only asset a family will have and if you kill one the courts expect you to reimburse the family.
If you kill a cow you might have to pay 50,000 rupees or more. A goat, depending on its size could cost you 10,000 to 20,000 , a fighting cock 5,000 and a chicken anything from 1,000 to 2,000. Consequently drivers are extremely careful not to hit an animal. The cows and goats appear to be smarter than anyone gives them credit for and have learned that whatever they do, the cars will go round them. So they do nothing. Chickens however are every bit as stupid as they seem and squawk loudly and flee from any approaching vehicle not realising their value.
If the cost for hitting an animal is so high, what I ask, happens when you hit a person. The courts appear to recognise that there is a huge and unnecessarily large supply of humans, that most of them have little or no value and that they can be easily replaced. The fine for hitting and killing a person is a mere 1000 rupees and 6 months suspension of your driving licence. But people are every bit as smart as they should be and take great care when crossing the road.
Dogs are the most unfortunate of all. You are free to run them over as often as you want as there is no penalty for doing so. This seems to have little effect on the canine population. There are thousands of rather mangy flea ridden dogs wandering the streets, nearly all of them without a place to call home, and none of them with a human who has a pooper scooper.
We have spent three days in the comfortable world of Pondicherry, and the rural world comes as a bit of a shock. The farmer’s life is anything but comfortable. Long hard endless days of work bring in little in the way of rupees. The villages we pass are a collection of tiny houses with mud floors and walls and a thatched roof.
The thatched roof needs constant repairs and those that can’t afford the thatch have to resort to plastic. But it seems that however simple the houses there is still great pride in them and their surroundings are spotless
This is no mean feat when you consider there are no utilities (no water, electricity or toilets) and no trash collection. I ask Ragu to pull his bedroom into one of these villages.
There is just a handful of houses and I approach them cautiously unsure of my welcome. Gordon prefers the comfort of Ragu’s little house and refuses to get out of the car. But within moments people appear and welcome me. I am encouraged to take photos and one gentleman invites me into his home.
I notice the row of shoes to the right of the door, and realise that although the floor inside is just mud, I am expected take off my shoes before entering. There is a small dirty cloth by the door where I am invited to do this. Inside, the house is divided in two parts. The living area has no furniture whatsoever, just the necessary utensils for cooking lined up tidily against one wall, and a rope hanging the length of the room on which all the family clothes are draped. The only piece of furniture is in the bedroom where a large bed is artfully positioned in the open doorway. This clever positioning of the one piece of furniture allows any visitor to notice it and be suitably impressed, but makes it quite impossible to enter the room. Sadly any impression it might make is mitigated by the fact that it is missing one rather vital component – the mattress.
It is completely dark inside, the only light coming from the tiny doorway (the camera flash provides the light for the photo). I notice a meter on the wall and an old fan in the bedroom but the family has not been able to afford electricity for a long time.
When we step outside the rest of the family are waiting to meet me. Three generations all live in the one house and amazingly they are all clean and well dressed. It is impossible to imagine how they do that. They are welcoming, friendly and full of smiles and the little girl seems thrilled to have a strange visitor
Their entire wealth consists of 4 goats
and a few chickens that are kept under this straw cover at night to protect them from predators
The male goats are sold to the butcher when they are about 1 year old and the female goats are kept for breeding.
If the family is lucky enough to have a cow, the milk is collected every day and sold to the local milk co-operative. The milk is measured, a note made of the amount and at the end of the week they get paid. Many families only have one cow and the income from it must be tiny.
In another house we meet the oldest inhabitant of the village.
I am told that she is 90 years old but I am not sure if that can be true
She lives with her daughter.
While they seem happy to meet me ( I think!) and agree to have their photo taken, they never manage a smile. Both women have lost their husbands and they have no children. There is no man to help with the house or bring in an income. The roof of their house is covered in blue plastic and they are in dire straits. I offer them what to me is a small amount of money. Ragu tells me it will last them for weeks. They accept it with grace, but there is still no smile.
They have nothing to smile about.