Eating is an agricultural act - Wendell Berry

Saturday, February 20, 2010

pollan's new book - Food Rules

i have followed michael pollan close enough to put him up there in my list. this youtube video was where i had caught him first.

his latest book, "Food Rules", promises to be another gem.
it is aimed at reforming the american diet, but is applicable to the affluent indian as his diet is starting to look similar.

a review and an interview tell the summary.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

typical day at pR

responding to this comment on first 3 days at point return, here is a typical work day at pR.

600 to 630 - post wakeup stuff + minor physical exercise
630 to 730 - grass cutting (the biomass generated is used for mulching and amrut mitti prep)
730 to 830 - vegetable bed maintenance
830 to 930 - clean up and breakfast
930 to 1030 - rest/reading + lunch preparation
1030 to 1230 - work
1230 to 130 - clean up and lunch
130 to 300 - personal time [rest/reading/writing]
300 to 400 - work
400 to 500 - amrut jal/amrut mitti preparation
500 to 600 - cleaning up and tea
600 to 830 - dinner preparation and dinner
830 to 930 - daily documentation and next day planning
930 - lights out

it is, of course, a flexible schedule.

1. work means stuff like those listed here and in putitsing the 'oles.
2. most of the work and the kitchen work is done on a shared basis.
3. some of the rest times is used for general housekeeping.

we are focussing intellect on understanding our ecosystem (observing the plants, birds, insects, etc.) and our place in this complex web.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

putits the 'oles

i.e., 'oles podunga...
a commonly heard phrase out here at pR.
which usually involves a sharp rotating tool impinging through a softer (comparatively) medium - like wood, earth, cement.
even a single hole will merit this phrase - holes podunga!

this sharp rotating tool is what this post is about - an auger.
it augers well that the readers are confused by the noun auger.

auger is a more engineering title of a drill-bit (the ones that get attached to a drill to make holes in the wall, etc.)

last week, we used an earth auger to drill a 2 feet deep hole in the ground. this was part of the foundation of the nursery that we are building. thats another story coming up later.
1. here it is in full display (notice the lazy elegance a la VVS).

2. it takes two people to maneuver (rotate) the auger. the helical screw will drive vertically downwards. it is advised to soften the earth with water before attempting.

3. here is a closer look as it moves downwards. the removed the earth moves upwards along the screw.

4. here is a better view of the auger after being pulled out. the hole is deeper by that much earth.

5. here is how the hole looks from the top. it is one smooth operator.

6. here is karpagam taking a shot at it. without being sexist here, it does take some strength (especially in the spine) to rotate the auger.

as we work with such simple tools and involve ourselves with each activity, it is such a phenomenal learning experience.

Monday, February 15, 2010

BT brinjal - as farmer and consumer

jairam ramesh's statement on the entire sequence since BT brinjal's inception.
tehelka interview of former MD of Monsanto India - TV Jagadisan.
sunita narain's (center for science and environment) piece in the TOI.

as a recent inductee into the farming community and having been raised on the concepts of fukuoka (natual farming) and a keen follower of deepak suchde and nammalvar, i will not plant BT brinjal as a farmer and not eat it as a consumer.

my avid readers will know of my affinity to monsanto.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

tree names - 2

continuing the series which started here, let me introduce the trees.
name of student - tree name in tamil - tree name in english

1. masrood ansari - murungai - drumstick

2. neeta sherla - vepa maram - neem

3. noor shaikh - elimicham - lemon

4. pir shaikh - moongil - bamboo

5. prashant dodke - nellikkai - gooseberry

6. sana ansari - the blood clotting clover

7. sangeeta zombade - goyya - guava

8. seema kamble - maa - mango

9. sumeet gade - pala - jackfruit

this could become a bit controversial as this may appear to be a list of 'favourites'. it is not meant to be. there is a top of the mind recall factor which is inevitable.
the attempt is to let it come as naturally as possible and the choices have been made based on similarities between the person and the tree :-)

Friday, February 12, 2010

tomato worm

we are growing tomatoes. or trying to watch them grow (at best, we are mere observers. nature is the only grower).
most of them are in early stages, except one marvellous beauty.

on this path of growing vegetables, we have to figure out management of our beautiful visitors.
these lovelies will stake their claim on the fruits and vegetables of pR.
here is one example (one is inside the tomato and the right pic is after we removed him).

difficult as it is to see the 'fruits of our labour' to be 'plundered' like this, we trust that the natural cycle of prey-predators will set itself up at pR.
and we grow as individuals and farmers, we learn to share the ecosystem we habit with all our fellow mates.

Thursday, February 11, 2010


this is the first post from pR.
courtesy BSNL's WLL connection, we are online from a remote spot in TN.
quite something.

not that i missed the net much when we did not have it.
it is an addiction of sorts that needs to be grown out of :-)

so in some sorts, it is a reverse-ballelaka!

Sunday, February 07, 2010

managing sanitation at pR

sustainable design (like permaculture) mandates that 'nothing goes to waste' including 'waste', i.e., there is nothing that is waste, i.e.^2, everything has a use.

a potentially queasy problem in going off-the-grid is the management of human waste (note - not disposal, but management)

lets get to the evolution of the toilet design at pR.

stage 1
the simplest toilet in the world in the hole in the ground.
this hole is connected to a tank/pit which collects the faeces/urine/water.
in cities with areas not connected by sewarage systems, this tank is called the septic tank and the municipal authorities arrange to empty them at designated intervals.
in villages, sulabh's bindeshwar pathak and safai vidyalaya's ishwarbhai patel have pioneered the two-pit latrine system aka pour-flush-compost latrine.
this is how this system has been installed at pR. the pic on the right shows the top covers of the two pits.

the key short-coming of this system, is the potential contamination of the ground water (by leaching) as the faeces is mixed with the flush-water and the urine (total approx 3 litres per use).
also, in the case of heavy flooding, there is a risk of leakage into the over-ground fresh water systems (lakes, tanks, etc).

stage 2
it was clearly evident that we would need to address the above shortcomings.
1. the faeces should be kept separate from water and urine.
2. the faeces collection should be safe from flooding.

enter the urine diverting ecopan from paul calvert's eco-solutions.
here it is installed at pR.
this is the indian style version. the wooden frame (pic on right) is for holding.

explanation of this design (refer to the pic on the left).
1. the middle of the long pan is for the urine colletion.
2. the lid (with red knob) covers the pit into which the faeces drops (there are 2 pits on either side of the urine collector - the knobbed one is in use and the other is closed).
3. the short pan on the left of the pic is for washing the backside post dropping.

this entire system is mounted (with brick and mortar) at a height of around 2 feet. so the faeces collection pit is above ground.
sawdust is used extensively to line the bottom of the pit prior to usage and after each use to cover the faeces. this will absorb excess moisture and prevent odours, etc.
the urine and wash water could be directly led to plant beds just outside the toilet.
Note: - we will be running the urine through a charcoal bed as we feel that it is too concentrated to be directly given to plants.

now the important part - what happens to the faeces.
the capacity of the collection pit is approx 5 cu ft.
and 5 people can use it for over 6 months without even hitting 50%.
at this stage, the in-use pit will be closed (after generous dumping of sawdust) and the sitting position is reversed and the other pit will be start being used.
within 6 months, the faeces in the closed pit will have decomposed and can be easily and safely removed and used as manure (very high quality).

the key shortcoming of this system is the physical discomfort involved in the perpendicular swivel move to reach the backside wash pan. and not too appropriate for saree wearers.

Stage 3
the Ecosan urine diverting toilet from biome solutions is a better design with the backside wash pan comfortably placed just behind the faeces pit. so a simple shuffle of around 3 inches behind will place the user right above this pan.

this design will be optimised shortly in Stage 4.

Saturday, February 06, 2010


as per, colony means:
1. a group of people who leave their native country to form in a new land a settlement subject to, or connected with, the parent nation. 2. the country or district settled or colonized
3. any group of individuals having similar interests, occupations, etc., usually living in a particular locality; community: a colony of artists.
and a few other definitions...

scores of tamilians live in defined colonies in matunga and sion in mumbai (definition no. 1).
india was a british colony (definition no. 2).
my parents have lived in syndicate bank colony since 1975 (definition no. 3).

i have never thought of this word in any connotation other than the above definitions.
till Point Return happened and specifically the cycle trip.

in rural TN, colony refers to the part of the village where the lower castes (dalits) stay. see outlook's report where this definition is detailed.
the situation of the lower castes (dalits) in TN is pretty abysmal (a simple search with 'dalit tamilnadu' tells this story).
and contrary to popular rhetoric (of the dravidian parties - DMK, AIADMK, etc), the current atrocities on dalits are not inflicted by brahmins, but by those who are just above them in the caste hierarchy.
but it is true that the brahmins (including a few in my own family) hold the dalits (sudras) in extremely low regard.

so how does it look, out there in the villages and in the segregated 'colonies'.
1. they are filthier/dirtier
2. they are visibly poorer (from the type of huts)
3. the kids wear lesser clothes and look scruffier and scrawnier.
4. ambedkar statues and busts are aplenty.
5. plethora of paraphernalia of dalit based political parties like VCK (dalit panther's party) and BSP (of mayawati).

in addition to these visible differences, the colonies face a high level of violence inflicted by the higher castes and are easy target for religious conversions.

saddening as it was to assimilate these visuals and read the reports, there is a newer form of economic casteism evolving in the cities, which could be just as dangerous.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Pal Pot

Nope, this is not about any misspelt Cambodian dictator.

This is a masonry activity that is common at pR.

All water storage (for immediate use) is done in earthen (aka clay) pots (they are spread over the topography at pR and are one of the beautiful sights over here. see carefully below (left photo) for the 3 pots in the background and the right is the 2 beauts in the bathroom.

And each of them is a lovley mini-elephant, over 100 lts in volume.

For newcomers to earthenware, clay pots are porous. i.e., stored water is likely to ooze out slowly (this aids evaporative cooling – the scientific reason why water stored in clay pots are cool). This will lead to algal formation on the pots (inside and outside).

To prevent this, the pots have to coated on the inside with a cement mixutre .

Cement is mixed with water and taken to the consistency of pal (tamil for milk)). There is no sand added. This mixture is called cement pal.

This is painted with a regular paint brush. The pal coats the inside to provide the leak-proofing.

Two coats of the pal should be done to ensure full leak prevention.

reporting other news

sainath critically analyses farmer suicides (yes, once again).
Maharashtra has logged 41,404 farm suicides from 1997 (over a fifth of the national total) and 44,468 from 1995, the year when this State began recording farm data. No other State comes close. During 1997-2002, Maharashtra saw, on average, eight farmers kill themselves daily. The corresponding figure rose to 11 during 2003-2008. The rise was from an average of 2,833 farm suicides a year in the first period to an average of 4067 in the next period. more...
guha writes another tribute to gandhi. his leadership creation skills was one his magnificent legacies for us to emulate.
One of Gandhi's less-noticed achievements was his making leaders of followers. Vallabhbhai Patel was given charge of building the Congress party; Jawaharlal Nehru of reaching out to the youth and to the West; C. Rajagopalachari with taking the nationalist message to south India; Maulana Abul Kalam Azad with taking this message to Muslims. The delegation of responsibility was also followed with regard to the constructive programme; thus J B Kripalani was asked to set up khadi centres, J C Kumarappa set to work on reviving the agrarian economy, Zakir Hussain was charged with designing an educational curriculum. In later years, the trust reposed in them by Gandhi helped these men make substantial contributions to the political and cultural life of the nation. more...
TOI highlights the sorry state of higher education (engineering) in TN.
In an alarming indication of the turbulent state of affairs in Tamil Nadu's self-financing engineering colleges, it has emerged that more than 51,000 BE/B.Tech seats are lying vacant for want of students in the current academic year.

This figure is a significant and unparalleled 31% of the 1,65,980 seats, (including a few BArch seats), that were available in the 440 engineering colleges both under government and management quotas.

Latest admission statistics in engineering colleges compiled by officials of the higher education ministry revealed that only 1,14,518 seats were filled up during the admission season that started in July (government quota) and ended in October (management quota). more...

Tree names

I had promised to my students that I would continue to interact with them through the trees at pR.

Vague as it may sound, my thinking stemmed from my belief that plants react to human interaction (refer Secret Lives of Plants) in almost human-like fashion (actually, the react in a much more mature fashion than most humans)...

So what better way than to name them after those students who spent over 6 years with me learning and teaching simultaneously.

But who to start with and how?

The first 3 days at pR did not give me much space to action this. It was there in the back of my mind, and I was keen for this to happen with a decent level of spontaneity.

So as we settled into our daily routine of sickling the grass in the inter-tree and around-tree spaces, I had cleared the spaces around two trees. One was a coconut tree and the other was a pongamia. Both were struggling (former was shorter than his peers and latter was affected by extensive leaf damage).

This was the connection. These were the ones which I will now nurse carefully.

The Coconut tree is now called Latif and the Pongamia is called Naheeda. That after 2 of my ardent students. They were the ones who inspired me to be lyrical and the memories of us singing together will be evergreen!!

Here are their photos. Naheeda followed by Latif.

More to follow.

Beautiful Visitors/Residents

pR has many more beautiful visitors/residents than the human ones including us.
With the growing spread of trees, shrubs, grass, etc., this will just multiply to numbers which will surpass advanced level mathematics.

Some beautiful insects, reptiles, bovines, birds congregate at pR – going about their daily eat-drink-shit routine with enviable equanimity.

Here is one of the beauties we found one day while clearing grass. Such a pretty little fellow.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Meri Jaan Meri Jaan – Cycling on Sunday

Sunday is a day off for us too. We had the time to ourselves and we decided to take a cycle trip (our preferred mode of local transport) around the neighbourhood.

The route we took was a full circle with pR as a point on the circumference.

pR -> Kaatudevadoor -> Chittamoor ->Mudukarai -> Jamin Endathur -> pR (the names roll off the tongue with so much vigour, doesn't it).

The country-side is just a splendid place. Small villages, tons of greenery, low traffic roads (hence low noise), colourful temples by the dozen and lovely birds.

The 3 hours we spent (including stops for chai, etc) saw us cover over 22 kms and make us the current endurance champions of Jamin Endathur. We had met a couple of locals on the way and when we indicated the route we took, incredulous looks met us and mental calculators whirred away (to arrive at the 22 kms figure).

So what started out as a simple Sunday morning stroll has made us popular in the neighbourhood.

More cycling the in the coming Sundays.

Blasting away our anonymity

After almost 4 years of hiding behind CSM and Fun – yeah, it is time to raise the curtains.

And here is a small feature on us on the pR site.

My good friend Abodh at Straying Around must now be mighty pleased with this expose :-)


Those tuned to Tamil movies and those of Rajinikanth will recall this post title to the foot-tapping 'entrance song' in Sivaji - The Boss.

The lyrics talk about the beauty of rural life in comparison to the hurly-burly of city life.

On the suggestion of the erudite Ludwig, the rural-experiments series of this blog will hereafter be tagged as Ballelakka.

Trite as it may sound, it shows my respect for Rajini as well as Ludwig :-)