When we were children and summer meant our grandmother’s rambling, musty home in Adyar, the best quiet-time game of all was The Tamarind Seed game. When the rest of the house shut the green wooden shades against the afternoon heat and slept, us cousins would lounge on the bougainvillea-clad verandah and play Tamarind Seed game. Other seeds figured in our lives as well – pumpkin, bitter gourd, ridge gourd were all carefully collected and laid out to dry in the sun on the terrace. One Rudrakshi seed sat on the back of my mother’s brass tortoise. Tulsi seeds were used in kashayams. Kanakambara seeds were collected, as were lilly seeds, balsam seeds, Bachelor’s Button seeds. In fact my grandmother, Jaya Kumar, was a veritable clearinghouse of every variety of flower, vegetable and fruit seed that grew in her garden.
Decades later, when Konarak and I began farming, we were delighted to get most of our seeds from our neighbours; huruli, avare, halsande and togri. It felt like they were giving us more than just seeds. A glimpse into their kitchens and the kattu saarus and avarekai hulis of yore.
And so life ought to continue, plodding on gently, vis-à-vis seeds and their perpetuation. Except, we’re not in Kansas anymore. A quite insidious (because they come to us in the name of development, poverty-eradication and change) adversary has entered our world - genetically modified and branded seeds.
There are two fundamental issues at stake – the first has to do with the nature of genetic modification. And the second has to do with ownership and Intellectual Property Rights. Genetic modification, very simply, involves the addition or deletion of certain genes from a species. This can happen in nature when exogenous DNA penetrates the cell membrane usually for reasons of evolutionary logic. For instance, the mammalian immune system which is geared to modify so as to protect the body from an infinite array of antigens. Unfortunately, capitalism is not quite as benign. So when a tomato is genetically modified to ripen without softening, it is done so to increase shelf life, storage possibility and eventually profits. Sounds good, except that artificial genetic engineering hasn’t had the benefit of millions of years of testing and fine tuning and can have unpredictable and unrepeatable results with unstable transgenic lines. And rest assured no one will talk about the human and fiscal costs involved (think BT Cotton) while plugging it to poor farmers in India.
Finally, to me the biggie is the issue of ownership and community. Why the hell would we give up our birthright to free and unconditional use of a vegetable (brinjal) or a medicial herb (neem) or a spice (turmeric) and begin paying a for-profit company for the right to plant or use it? Where is the logic in that? In Magadi, during the ragi harvest, it’s impossible to get labour on our farm because every hand is needed for work on their own farms. Men, women and children of the family all have unique roles in the harvesting process and rightly so. I heard that in Ladakh the most important man in the village is the one who shares the common water source, moving a dam here, shifting a tributary there so as to facilitate equitable distribution. Water-sharing was traditionally a part of our farming culture as is seed-sharing. So why walk into the trap of dependancy and that too for the profits of some anonymous and gigantic company?
Enter resistance; what a beautiful notion!
In the lush Malenad region, on a farm in Sirsi, lives my old, dear friend Sunita Rao. She is an environmental educator having made the trek from pure science to farming a while ago. In 2001 she started the Malnad Forest Garden and Seed Keepers’ collective as a network of seed exchange groups focused on celebrating and endorsing biodiversity. This activity further developed into Vanastree (Women of the Forest), a collective that promotes forest garden biodiversity and food security through the conservation of traditional seeds.
A legend on their website reads -
A few small seeds have the power within them to feed a family; a fistful of seeds, the whole community. Our future depends on saving the traditional diversity of seeds around us.
This last weekend I attended Malnad Mela organized by Vanastree. Suddenly, in the mall-peppered mindscape of Bangalore, a colourful and diverse exhibition and sale of seeds, home-made produce and patchwork godhdis. It was so lovely that in minutes I had 8 containers of citronella/beeswax insect repellent, pudina and vilva pathra tambuli podi (to mix into curd or buttermilk on a hot summer day), Kai Holige, Malnad pickles, organic turmeric, vanilla bean (that I shall turn into crème brulee), pure apricot oil, wild honey, amla jam, organic cashew nuts and lemon pickle. And all of this for about Rs 1,500/-. Further, the sales from Malnad Mela will go towards nurturing traditional skills, sustaining livelihoods and upholding the idea of community. It blows my mind. It really does only take a spark…
I am drinking a delicious kashyam right now that Manorama Joshi of Vanastree said was good for laryngitis. It cost Rs 40/- for 50 gms as against a bottle of a common cough syrup (not suitable for children, don’t drink and drive) that costs Rs 57/-. The former is soothing and believable, the latter makes one feel like a drowsy elephant coming down off a very bad trip. I mean, seriously, consider the options!
Malnad Mela has been coming to Bangalore, to the home of another old school friend, Mala Dhawan, for the past 3 years and has had tremendous response. Sunita said they had many new faces visit this year and very many children. I have no doubt the idea will spread like wildfire because it’s beauty lies in it’s simplicity. It doesn’t require sponsorship or big funds to start a seed bank, to share seeds, to downsize, to resist. It’s the David and Goliath story, ya’ll.
Small is simply sweeter.