On a monsoon trek through the hills of the Western ghats , our path winded through what looked like meadows of flattened grass. It was obvious that they were patches of forest clearing ,where the low shrubs had been cut and burnt down and a few villagers still worked weeding the patches by hand.
It was raining occassionally and the farmers wore polythene sheets for rain coats while one had lined the traditional cane basket (which used to be lined by waterproof leaves) with a plastic sheet. Both men and women worked in the fields ,weeding patches by hand and at the end of the trail, just outside the village, we came upon the young woman who was taking them their lunch in a waterproof basket.
Then we passed the fields that had been cleared and here was a man with a handful of what looked like trimmed grass seedlings ,that he keep laying out in rows on the slope, like a card player dealing cards. Mind you, he was not sticking them into the soil , as rice planters do when they transplant rice seedlings, just laying them flat out , a few inches away from the next plant.
Apparently he was planting ‘Ragi’ / finger millets ,an ancient crop, which has been grown in these hills of Karnataka since the last 4000 years. The sturdy plants found their feet on their own in the wet soil and sprang up forming bright green carpets in a day or to.
The hardy cereal grain , rich in amino acids like methionine is consumed both as a porridge and as flour cooked into chapattis, sometimes wholly by itself , at times mixed with wheat flower. Once the staple of large parts of rural India, Ragi had got bad press for the last 100 years as an ‘inferior crop’ as larger and larger areas of agriculture were pressed into mono cultures of rice and wheat.
Only in recent years have nutritionists woken up to the fact that the amino acid rich finger -millet is actually a boon for protein deficient diets in the poorer villages and a great dietary substitute for diabetics . Hence, the cycle turns again and as Ragi flour and grains reappear in posh retail outlets in the cities, villagers take to their rain drenched fields to plant once more this ancient crop.