I love February in Kolkata. The air is free from the dull smog of winter; sunshine is in the hue of pale gold, the sky is floroscent blue and everything around me is sprightly. The evenings come with mauve sunsets and the light breeze from the south, cool but not cold bringing with it the familiar fragrances of flowering plants. This is a time that makes me feel free and weightless, rid of shawls and cardigans but not yet sweating and puffing. The mid mornings of February also come with unripe guavas; vendors come from the districts around Kolkata bringing with them crisp green guavas, with a tinge of sour but sweet around the seeds. They are as juicy as leeches and as crisp as biscuits. The vendors keep a knife and black salt to cut and dress the guavas and serve them on young sal leaves or the broader leaves of the guava plant. I have a guava each on my way from home to the destinations of my visitations and on my way back.
No wonder then, when I was visiting home this February I too swooped over a guava vendor and immediately instructed him to prepare or me a piece of unripe guava, the best one in his lot according to my judgment. He promptly obliged and calling me as “Kakima”, he swiftly wiped the fruit and cut it and held it towards me with a dash of black salt. I resent the term Kakima, which literally means the wife of a father’s younger brother. Since I am never married I resent he assumption that my imagined husband should be the younger brother of the vendor’s father. A mashima or a pishima which are marriage neutral epithets are safer, but Kolkatans assume each woman of my age to be the wife of a man. Usually I fight and argue because I feel that stereotypes must be resisted, no matter how much small the effort is. But today I could not speak much because the sight of a basket full of luscious fruits was making my mouth water involuntarily.
I held out a ten rupee note towards the vendor. He took it and extended his palm for another tenner. Why? What is the weight of the guava? Is it not merely a poya (pau, or a a quarter kilo)? Yes, it is Kakima, the vendor replied. But unripe guava is selling at Rs 80 a kilo!! I felt the earth beneath my feet give way. Guavas selling at Rs 80 a kilo? The poor man’s mango? The fruit that is meant to be stolen and eaten by street urchins in the quiet soporific afternoons, the fruit which is neither offered to Gods nor to guests because of its low status as it panders to palettes of the young; that fruit now selling in the price of gold? Where do you get stuff from which you have to sell so expensive? The wholesellers, the vendor tells me are the ones who jack prices up. Crop has not been good, he informs me. What rubbish !! I have just been around the Jharkhand and Orissa and I can see a surfeit of food crops? Who says that there has been a crop failure? Its only the television that sometimes says that there is enough food and sometimes worries about declining food production.
My mind went back to the little picturesque villages in Orissa, presently under the wave of Maoist violence. I have seen guavas grow and sell at less than Rs 5 a kilo, tomatoes have sold for as low as 50 paisa. The Adivasis are looking for ways and means to sell their produce but never finding an access to the markets. They are trying to save their crops by trying to process them and even in the little processing that they have done, the farmers have only lost out. Free market is not faceless; it is a social network jealously guarded by vested interests and entry into the fold of its automatically equilibrating invisible hands is guarded by the invisible web of interests that allow only some to pass through the filters of privileged participation in the markets. To access the free market and make the impersonal free market forces work requires something else, namely political power. Politics, that the neo-liberal state keeps away as something totally as a force outside of the economy, is secretly the one which is shaping economies. Unseen to us, prices of food grains are going up astronomically because political power is now flowing from a small band of hoarders and speculators using food stuff to speculate and make huge gains for themselves.
The neo-liberal state is an unapologetic upholder of the rich and plays development against democracy in order to neutralize political opposition to its own brand of apolitical politics which allows the rich to get richer. Hoarding and speculating against food stuff is one way of making quick profits and indeed the hoarders are having a field day in the so-called Maoist areas starving farmers by forcing them to sell their produce at abysmally low prices and then controlling supplies to make prices for the retail market reach sky high. The surplus produce namely the quantity which remains with the hoarder after he relinquishes some for the customers is sold in bulk to the food processors like Kissan, or Druk or even Maggi. No wonder then food processing becomes cheap in India and attracts FDIs here. All of this is at the cost of a starving farmer and a starved customer, both of who will now find tomato sauce cheaper than fresh tomatoes and potato chips cheaper than farm grown potatoes. This explains why though food is becoming dearer, fast food is getting affordable; the falling prices of ice cream are a case in the point. Marie Antoniette’s dictum finally seems to be getting on; if the people cannot afford bread, then why not have cakes. Cakes, today, paradoxically are cheaper than bread and this is because the cake maker is more powerful than the producer of bread.
When we look at food processing, the industrialization of food stuff is allowed to become more prosperous than the producer of fresh food, we also have to look at yet another reason for allowing farmers to starve. The more farming becomes unprofitable, the more land the farmer will be willing to sell to real estate and resort developers. For years preceding the plan to develop Rajarhat, or Pailan, or Raichak or Nayachar, or Singur and Lalgarh, the operators in the wholesale markets have refused to lift produce from the farmers of these lands. The food speculators are in unison with the land mafia and indeed one is doubling up as the other. Bengal is the land of Ispahani, the man who almost single-handedly brought about the Great Bengal Famine of 1943 through the hoarding of food grains. Real estate markets, food insecurity and FDI into food processing, retail marketing of food and fast food chains together with a change in culture and television ads constitute the reason why most of us should be starving to help a few to make more profits.
I turned towards home with heavy steps and a heavier heart, the unripe guavas tasting like mud in my mouth. Just around Ranee’s home, I see a young woman squatting on the pavement obviously tired from walking. With her are her two infant sons, with a begging bowl and dressed in mourning clothes. Kakima, the older one says, can you help us? My father had died. How did he die I ask him? What did he do? I learn that the father was a bidi worker, casual labour, died out of malnutrition, no ration cards, could not afford to rent out a place in the city, traveled from the suburbs and collapsed out of exhaustion. The smaller boy was more innocent and therefore seemed relatively unhurt by the catastrophe that has struck the family. Can you give me a piece of the guava? I shrank back and clutched on to my buy with jealousy. No, not this, this is only one piece and I have many people to share this with. Sorry, I cannot help you with guavas. I had a chocolate in my pocket, here, boy, take this, it will help you stay filled up for a little while more. Share it with your brother. The older boy did not want the chocolate, he only said its fine Kakima, let him have it, I am not hungry.
As the boys moved into the shade where the mother was seated, I found a picture – the poster of Deewar !!! The two orphaned boys with a mother who was still shell shocked and had not donned the widow’s clothes as yet, helpless, shelterless and hungry. And yet the unripe guavas, on sleepy afternoons of the early spring were meant to be theirs, to be plucked by throwing stones and then to be chased by the grandma in the house and then they would flee but not without the booty. The real estate has broken homes to make buildings and with that taken away the trees that were as much a part of the homestead as the people were. With them have disappeared the innocence and prosperity of sleepy afternoons of spring in Kolkata and so have the unripe guavas from the platter of the young boys and girls. The richer can still buy them though their mothers insist that they eat a chocolate or a cake, or sometimes chewing a bubble gum is more in their way of thinking and tastes.
As I saw the two bereaved boys and their mother exhausted with despair, I sensed the older boy already taking over the burden from the other two, already in the process of becoming the breadwinner of the family, entering the world of child labour fighting abuse and exploitation all the way, to earn for his brother what he hankered from me, on this glorious noon of spring, a piece of an unripe guava.