Rice planting 101

Last weekend I had the rare opportunity to help with the rice planting at Amelie’s farm, Matrikunj.  Here in South India, the majority of rice is monsoon fed (seasonal rains) and there is just one planting per year.  The experience was communal, physical and beautiful.

At Matrikunj the dedicated rice fields have been with different levels so the rain can be stored in one level until it is saturated and then drained into the next and so on. There is a great deal of science behind rice planting; from my uneducated eyes, this was how it was done.

The grass or weeds had already been killed (drowned?) before we started so the field was a very fine wet mud.  We sunk into it up past our ankles.

To mark channels for irrigation, two cords stretched on sticks are pushed into the soil and then with the edges marked in this way, a person walks along throwing mud out of the channel first to the right and then to the left trying to keep things even.

Two men took a log and rolled it over the surface to make it smooth. To prepare for planting, a 10″ grid is laid out over the whole thing.

A grid made of sticks tied together is pushed into the surface and everywhere two lines intersect, a single 6″ seedling is gently poked in and erected.

Amelie with seedlings that were planted in a nursery bed just next to the fields.

That was it, over and over and over until all the fields were planted. Tadpoles quickly found their way into the new channels. We worked until sunset, then got up the next day to finish.

People are doing this all over the world.  I was thrilled to be a part of it.

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Amudha and Sundaram

Connecting with Amudha and Sundaram was one of the first things we did as we got settled in Auroville.  I was very interested in the project she is involved in and as a first step, we made plans to translate/type student thank you letters to their sponsors. Fortunately for us, she had several rooms to rent and we ended up renting her brother’s house in a village right outside of Auroville (more about that later.)  When I first met her, I said to myself that if this lady is what she appears to be, I am really going to like her. She is someone who says what she thinks AND she has lots of interesting thoughts. I have been working with Amudha almost every day since we got here and, since we typically spend our evenings at the bakery using their wifi, we are really getting to know her and Sundaram, her husband.  They have become our second family.

Below I want to share their personal stories because I find them fascinating and they said I could.

This family has a lot going on. They run the Ganesh Bakery (see photo below) selling baked goods and serving beverages, snacks and meals; they have a small organic farm across the street, next to their house; she teaches kindergarten; and he manage eleven night school enrichment programs in surrounding villages to help the children succeed in school. The Flattards (last post) found the perfect partners in this couple who are highly intelligent, wanting to help the village kids get ahead, and open to new ideas and ways to do things.

Sundaram is 52 years old. He is the son of his father’s third wife who died when he was very young, leaving him in the care of his older half sisters who were not especially motivated to take good care of him. He went to school, but with his tattered clothes, was the subject of much cruel teasing, so he dropped out after the third grade. Around age twelve, he went to work digging the foundation for the amazing Matrimandir, the beautiful meditation center that is the heart of Auroville. There he connected with Larry, an American, who must have seen something special in this boy and took him under his wing.  Sundaram worked with Larry to start the first Auroville bakery (a different one that still exists at the other end of Auroville). Through this he learned to bake, run a business and do many other very useful skills and it must have given him an amazing confidence in himself. After some years there, he left to manage an Auroville project that provides an evening enrichment program to eleven poor rural villages. Once that was going, he opened the current Ganesh Bakery and, with the Flattards financial support and that of the association they created, worked with Amudha to build the sewing workshop and now the new computer center (both for the benefit of the village kids). Busy as he is, he makes plenty of time for his family, restaurant patrons and especially his niece Tajal whom he spoils and loves to death (see below).

Amudha is 50 years old. She grew up in the village where we are currently living (Alankuppam); her mother lives just around the corner from us. She said that her parents lost their first baby so when she came along, she was given lots of special attention especially from her father who treated her, uncharacteristically in India, more like a boy. At ten years old she was the first girl to ride a bicycle around here and it was a big deal. Now many girls ride them. Amudha, bright as she is, was a promising student and set to finish high school and go to college. Once she met Sundaram, though, that was the end of those plans and they got married when she was sixteen. She quickly had her two boys, Babu and Balaji (both now in their early thirties; they also have a 17 year old daughter, Sangary). When she was twenty Amudha was selected to be part of  a cultural exchange program and she spent six weeks in the US with some others girls from Auroville. This left a lasting impression on her and greatly improved her English skills. Since then she has visited France four times.  This woman does not ever sit still. She teaches kindergarten in the mornings, manages all the details of the student sponsorship program (dealing with requests for assistance; many of these kids’ homes were severely damaged in last December’s cyclone and there are some special medical requests), making  sure the sewing workshop has what they need to keep going, translating letters twice a year, interviewing all the sponsored students, and much more.

She loves to work in the vegetable portion of their farm. One day last week, instead of translating/typing letters, we learned from a young Turkish farmer visiting farms here how to build a seedling bed with sheet mulching (the base is cardboard pieces laid right on top of the weeds). Always something new to learn and another cultural exchange.

Now that you know Amudha and Sundaram, be prepared to hear much more about them.

The Ganesh Bakery

Sundaram with his niece Tajal

Amudha and Francine

It’s a very small world!

For the past two weeks we have been living in a village just outside of Auroville.   Our first few days here, In looking for ways to get involved, I found an Indian couple, Amudha (her) and Sundaram (him) who manage a large project to help villagers go to school.  The project is funded through an organization in France, Les Enfants de PondyPatch.  The project started 14 years ago when a French couple partnered with Amudha and Sundaram to set up a local workshop to make  items to sell at private parties in France.  From that a sponsorship program sprang that supports around 120 children ($240/year can cover almost all their school expenses). This region, Tamil Nadu, is the second poorest in India and in the rural villages there is almost no income and many of the men are alcoholics. They spend what little money they have on alcohol and are often physically abusive to their wives and often children too.  This program is giving these kids a chance at something different.  Children were selected from the poorest families, amongst those doing well and working hard in school.  Many of the students have had the same sponsor for years now and lots of them are in college.  They are becoming engineers, teachers, nurses, etc.

I started by helping Amudha translate and type thank you letters to sponsors.  The letters, with their personal stories, are very touching.  I can clearly see that this chance at an education is changing lives.

The week before last, the French couple, the Flattards, came for their yearly 3-week stay.  Francine brings new ideas for products to make, Jean-Paul reviews the financial records (he’s a retired banker) and most importantly for them, they take photos and interview all the students to keep the sponsors up to date on their students’ progress.

We knew the Flattards were from the Basque Country (across the Pyrenees from Spain on the Atlantic where we lived for three years and our younger daughter Brett was born) but we quickly found out that they lived right across the big road from where we lived, in a small village outside of the metro area, St Martin de Seignanx.  They were only a few minutes away walking. What a small world!  Francine is very involved with quilting (I used to be too, especially at that time).  She had heard I was teaching quilting and  even came to our house looking for me but, alas, only after we had already left for the US.

Two days into their stay (and what a pleasure connecting with them), Francine got a call that her mother, who was due for surgery, was not doing well at all, and she feared for the worst.  With much regret for the project and what they came here to do, they arranged to leave right away.

Could it possibly be a coincidence that we were here looking ways to be useful and this couple, with whom we had so much in common, needed us to step in for them?  How could it be?

Amudha and I have been continuing the interviews and Gerard taking photos.  I am so impressed with these students.  As poor as they are, they come in their best clothes and are so dignified, intelligent, and sincere.

Below is a photo of some students.  The Tamil people are beautiful; just about everyone has perfect teeth. Orthodontists would have no work here!

Left to Right: Jean-Paul Flattard, Gerard, Sundaram,
Amelie, Francine Flattard

Saguna sewing at the workshop

Serala at work

A few of the sponsored students