The Fields of Youth

Sunday Raj took us tripping back through memory lane. He escorted Jyothi and her brother Sagar with us, first to the Keshava temple at Somnathpur, built in 1268 under the Hoysala dynasty. The temple architecture is classic Hoysala design, meaning, very elaborate and intricate, with each of the thousands of tiny carvings unique from one another as they tell the story of the dynasty.

The real treat, however, was watching Rajeev light up, at times downright giddy, as he took us on tour of his Uncle’s coconut farm. It was Jyothi and Sagar’s first visit to the farm, so it was truly as special event. The farm had belonged to Raj’s grandfather, with the estate now primarily run by his mother’s two brothers, one of whom continues to occupy the family home. Like any child who should have fond memories of their grandparents, Rajeev’s face said as much as the stories he told.

When we first arrived we were welcomed into Uncle’s home. Granny is still alive, and though she does not move around well, she can still hold her own. Raj took us through a tiny set of very steep stairs, up to the roof overlooking other homes in the village surrounding the farm. On warm nights, as children they would sleep under the stars on that roof.

We then assembled to go out to the farm. Raj road with Uncle on the back of a scooter, and one of the farm managers road with accompanied the rest of us as we followed in Sagar’s car. We wound through tiny village roads, through fields, and stopped where a woman was sitting under a lien tue tending two giant pots of boiling, yellow liquid. She was making jaggery. The pots were fueled by a fire of coconut husks and the stripped, dry sheath of sugar cane. Next to the boiling pots was a large, square trough where the liquid would be poured to cool to a gelatinous state. On the other side of the trough, taking up half the lien tu, were several long rows of yellow jaggery that were cooled to a solid state. Flies and bees swarmed the jaggery. Though Jyothi and Sagar had not visited the farm previously, they recognized the fresh jaggery. Jyothi reached for a sample and passed it around. A moment later Uncle arrived and handed around even larger samples. It has a flavor much deeper than refined sugar, rich with its original molasses content.

As we walked away from the jaggery processing, the farm manager stripped a piece of sugar cane and passed around stocks for each of us to chew on, and suck out the juices. We walked around the corner and through a soil-plowed field with an orchard of tall coconut trees. Rajeev remembered climbing the tree to pick his own coconut as a child. This time, a manager skillfully scaled a tree holding tightly with his bare feet. No cork boots necessary for this climb. Once he reached the top of the tree coconuts started falling to the ground. Another farm manager picked up one with the tip of his knife and began shaving the end to create a hole from which to drink the juice. It was a little like sharpening a pencil with a knife, only on a much larger scale and requiring more precision.

There is an art to drinking coconut directly from the shell without pouring it down your front. Raj took the first coconut to demonstrate for us, though Jyothi and Sagar were already well skilled. The trick is to cover the hole with your entire mouth to create a seal. Raj leaned back with the coconut at his face. As he started to chug (yes chug, like a beer-drinking contest), a thin stream of coconut juice came dripping down his chin. Even the expert does not get it right all the time! He pointed out the hole was not a clean cut, and a new coconut was handed to him, this time with a perfectly smooth, round hole in one end. Once the juice was gone he showed us how to break it open (with the help of an assistant with a knife) and use a shaving from the husk to scoop out the layer of coconut jelly inside.

We had one more stop before we could return to the house for luncheon: jack fruit, Rajeev’s absolute favorite. We walked a little further through the farm until we reached a jack fruit tree. Jack fruit are quite large, often like a watermelon or larger, lumpy, prickly-looking fruit that grow from trees. They are quite a site to stacked up on a sidewalk market. To a westerner who has never seen it, in large quantities they are scarcely recognizable as fruit, and certainly not a tree fruit given their size. From the ground, Rajeev picked two, and our friend the tree climber, again easily slid up the tree, knife in hand, to remove them from them at the stem. Jack fruit are apparently quite sticky, and difficult to cut, clean and prepare. Several times walking back to the jaggery processing house where we left the car we paused while Rajeev adjusted around the sap oozing from the stem of the heavy fruit.

Jack fruit is traditionally served before a meal, though not today. The two we picked needed to ripen a bit, and were destined for Rajeev’s house where his mother would prepare them. After a lovely south Indian luncheon, served on a paper version of a plantain leaf we continued on to another Uncle of Rajeev’s at a nearby home. Like visiting relatives in any small community, once word gets out that you are there everyone wants to see you. We enjoyed a cup of coffee and Uncle picked several custard apples for Rajeev’s mother. By then we had been gone far longer than we anticipated and it was time to return to Mandya.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *