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Letters from America

An agriculture student from a small North Indian village writes home to his sister about the bizarre way of life he encounters during a stay in America. (An updated "Gulliver's Travels")
-BA

Dear Pooja,

Imagine how surprised I was to see farms here that are so big, they disappear over the horizon! Papaji would not have believed it and nor would our uncles. I first saw them from the plane, and as I couldn't judge how high we were, I didn't know how big they were.

This I saw in the state of California, which is quite dry, like in our North India during April, but of course it is much cooler. They grow many vegetables here, and many flowers too. I wondered how they had so much water, because where there are no farms and no houses, there is desert.

They told me the water comes from the mountains, which are quite far away (at times I can see them to the east, and there's a sparkle to some of their summits that could even be snow). How much they must have spent to move the water here - there is an enormous aqueduct (like our canals, but so much longer) that sends the farmers water.

What bothers me is that they waste quite a lot of it. You may think I am joking, but I have seen water being sprinkled all over big farms from sprinklers, like the ones some of the rich farmers have in our district, only of course here there are many more and they shoot out the water for hours at a time. Imagine what we could do with so much water for our crops - I wonder what they pay for this water, whether the poorer farmers also get any (don't ask me if there are any, I don't know yet).


Organic vegetable farm, Camarillo, CaliforniaOrganic vegetable farm, Camarillo, California

You would also be amazed by how much machinery they use. I could make out a plough and a tiller, but other things I did not understand at all, what they do or how they work. Papaji would have been very angry to see so much machinery for use on the farm. The other elders too.

Remember when Jagdeep-chacha bought his first tractor (yes I know he first rented it with three other farmers) how Papaji and the others argued with him. "Machines distress the earth, our hands and feet must be in contact with Mother Earth if we ask her for nourishment," I remember them saying.

I used to see it as a natural kind of respect, and although - as I admitted to you but not to Ma and Papaji - I enjoyed riding on Jagdeep-chacha's tractor when we went for fairs, I felt uncomfortable when that big heavy shiny noisy belching machine with huge tyres rumbled heavily across his fields. How could our soil bear such a monstrous weight, I would think, and what of all the thousands and thousands of little creatures that live in the soil and make it what it is, what would happen to them? Ma and Papaji and our brothers and sisters understood, but not everyone did.

But here, machines of all kinds are used on the soil. They dig, turn, roll, lift, crumble, bunch, furrow and level the soil. They treat the soil as it if was a kind of porous carpet that can be diced and shaped in any way they please. I find it very troubling, Pooja, that they do this. There is no respect.


Farm labour at work near Salinas, California Farm labour at work near Salinas, California

The rows of vegetables look healthy and neat - beans, lima beans, oats, safflower, lettuce, what they call 'salad' which means a variety of greens. I don't know how to react at times, there is so much of it. I was told the farms are in blocks of 100 acres, maybe more! Just imagine Pooja, where are we with our three and a half acres? But it's not good to compare like that, as Papaji used to say, stick to what you know and can do and work on the land to the extent Mother Earth wants you to, without greed and without superiority. Still, this is so different it will take me some time to understand it. But it will be difficult.

The family I am staying with here in California are kind and explain whatever they can. Two days ago we talked about food and hunger, poor and rich. They told me that people in the state of California don't know how poor other people are elsewhere in America. I said I did not know there were poor people in America, because the stories in our villages have always been of how easy it is to get rich here. But they explained to me that there are poor people, although what they mean by poor is quite different from what we and Ma and Papaji would understand.

"If someone has only one TV and one old car, that's poor," said my host, and I was so surprised by this he started laughing. When I told him what we mean by poor he became very serious. "This country wastes too much," he said. And I agree.


Shelter for homeless, Los Angeles, CaliforniaShelter for homeless, Los Angeles, California

Yesterday we went to a shopping centre to buy me some walking shoes - don't worry I'm looking after my money very carefully, the shoes were cheap.

Outside the shop we bought the shoes from was a rubbish bin. You won't believe it Pooja, there was a man with his arms in the bin, looking for food. He was taking out small packets and bags that people had thrown inside, and in these he had found something to eat. I looked inside the bin too, but could only see more plastic bags and paper packets and cups - this kind of man must have the experience to judge what contains food.

My host told me that every day, the average American "throws away about one-and-a-half pounds of food" (that means around 700 grams, they still use pounds here so I have to keep converting) and it is not that the food has gone bad. If lettuce has wilted only slightly, if a loaf of bread gets slightly hard because it has been left outside, even if an apple is a little discoloured through bad handling, they will throw it away! Yes I know you will say our city folk are wasteful too, but this amount of waste is different.

And yet I have heard of something they call 'food stamps' and 'soup kitchens', where the poor and homeless are fed. Ma would have been curious - these 'food stamps' and 'soup kitchens' are not managed by temple committees like at home but by small volunteer groups. I have been impressed by people willingly going to do such work: there is inequality and waste, that is true, but there is also concern and action.

Your loving brother



Vegetable shelves in an organic food store, CaliforniaVegetable shelves in an organic food store, California


Dear Pooja,

I am worried about Ma and wish I had been there when you phoned. The time difference is 12 hours and can get confusing. Please take Ma when she is feeling stronger to Dr Lal in the city. I know it must be hard for you and you should freely ask Mohan-bhaiya or Shanti-didi for help. After Papaji departed Ma has not been the same, it's worrying.

Yesterday I went on an American highway, they call it 'freeway' here. That is when I understood more about what they call the American way of life, although their petrol (they call it 'gasoline' or gas for short, which is also confusing, because we use gas for cooking) costs quite a lot. But everyone has a car and many families have one car for each person! How can that be? I also wondered why they must have so many cars, but it is because they hardly have buses and trains like we do.


Los Angeles urban built densityLos Angeles urban built density

In that respect I feel we are fortunate, Pooja, because we can take a simple rickshaw to the station or the bus depot, and take a train or bus cheaply to where we want to go. They do of course have trains and buses here in America, and I am told the services are comfortable and regular - who would want to sit in our buses if there was an option?! But I find there is a reluctance to use public transport if a car can be used instead.

The country is covered with these freeways, and some of them in some places are so broad they are like rivers. I saw one with a traffic jam on it and it looked like a river of slow-moving metal. This is also why their towns and suburbs are so spread out. It becomes difficult or not practical to walk from one place to another. I suggested doing so a few days ago when my host needed some help buying things and he laughed. "It would take you all day and then some," he said. I feel they waste petrol too in this way.


The price of driving fuel, Ventura County, CaliforniaThe price of driving fuel, Ventura County, California

I already mentioned in my last letter how they waste food. Of course not everyone thinks this is acceptable, and I believe there are citizens' groups and scientists' groups who try and convince people to use more bicycles. They do use bicycles here, but you'll be amazed to know that they are used as a kind of exercise - people wear tight colourful and strange dress and shoes when they want to cycle. I was so surprised.

"Don't you have milkmen and vegetable vendors who come around on cycle," I had asked my host in the first few days. He and his wife found my question very funny - only later did I understand what they found funny. But I wish more people would see things our way, Pooja, it would help them waste less and be together more.

My host and his wife are kind and friendly and look after me with care, but I find his children prefer to have very little to do with me. I was puzzled at first, and felt also a little hurt. After all, I am here as part of university exchange, and they are to learn from me as much as I want to from them. So why don't younger and older people ask more questions? You know how we are Pooja, on a train journey within ten minutes we know a lot about our fellow travellers.


Oil wells near Salinas, CaliforniaOil wells near Salinas, California

I see so little curiosity here about their fellow men (even if we do look a little different) and about other places. After all, how else did we learn about the world outside India?

Remember how Baldev-chacha used to tell us: "Open your windows and doors and let the breeze of new knowledge refresh you, but without overcoming you." We listened and we learned, even in our small village. I feel that they have so much here that is at their disposal to learn from, and yet choose not to, or get distracted easily by some small entertainment. What a waste.

There again the waste aspect, Pooja, but this is evidence of the waste of lives. America is indeed the land of limitless and varied entertainment. That much is clear now. I had thought with Bollywood, our Indian film industry put out the most entertainment in the world. Now I see there is every variety of entertainment apart from films too - young people play games on their mobile phones and other small devices, the youth play computer games, adults like to play golf or sailing or even driving some odd-looking vehicles across hillsides and through gullies (don't ask me how and why Pooja I don't understand either).


Range of breakfast cereals in a Los Angeles storeRange of breakfast cereals in a Los Angeles store

There are people so addicted to television shows they buy special gadgets to record these even when they are away doing something else that is entertaining. They seem to have 'leisure' very much more than we do, but at the same time say they work longer hours than other people.

I don't understand the hours idea - if a job needs doing, for example weeding our maize field, then we do it till it is done. Here it's different - people negotiate how many hours they will work and how much they will be paid and other details. Papaji would have called them selfish, but he is not here to tell them so.

But I don't want to sound as if I'm troubled all the time by this society, which to be truthful is not so very different from our own rich people in cities like Delhi and Mumbai and Bangalore. It seems like the rich everywhere think and act alike, no matter where they are.

It's like Papaji used to tell us, those days when us boys of the village used to work together to deepen our canal or arrange the stones in our rainwater tanks, that our society in India is meant to preserve inequality and democracy can easily become a tool of the rich and powerful. I used to watch Mohan-bhaiya when Papaji talked like this, and copied his nodding. But now I understand it fully.

Your loving brother



Organic farmers' weekly market, Ventura County, CaliforniaOrganic farmers' weekly market, Ventura County, California


Dear Pooja,

I am relieved Ma's complaint is nothing serious. Still, she is weak and needs to be convinced to make the trip to the city to see the doctor. What is troubling me is the unpaid debt for last year's purchase of the new pump. I have spoken to Kailash-bhaiya about paying it off in the next three months, so please tell me what happens.

Being in America is an education of a different kind. There are some regions, like California and what they call the 'East Coast' which are rich even by their standards. And they tell me there are others which are poor (also by their standards) and these are states in the centre of this huge country.

Whether rich or poor, cars are essential, food is considered cheap and everyone has electricity all the time. They also don't have water problems like we do. You open the tap, water comes out. They can't believe that in our cities, the poor people have to line up with buckets and pay per bucket. Abundance of essentials has not helped them understand there are places, many places, which do not have such essentials.

I am trying to persuade some of the people I have met here to come and visit us in India, to meet our farmers and families and understand our lives and dreams. They say they are interested and would love to come. I hope they do, and when I return to our village I will start making arrangements.

I hope they will be happy sleeping in our home - we will have to get two more fans and provide cold bottled water all the time and mosquito coils (they have a fear of 'bugs' all the time Pooja, and don't like to know that 'bugs' are what help our agriculture). Maybe Ma will be well enough to cook them some sweets, wouldn't that be nice?

Vegetables and fruit shop, Chinatown, San FranciscoVegetables and fruit shop, Chinatown, San Francisco

I met one helpful and interesting farmer who I think will get along well with us if he visits - he should learn some Hindi first however. He told me other farmers in this area are like robots, that the companies give these farmers 'planting plans' and 'seed schedules' and supervise whatever they do. I was so surprised by this I said this makes such farmers sound like factory shopfloor workers.

"That's exactly what they are," he said. He grows his vegetables mostly like us, and uses no pesticide or synthetic fertiliser. I asked him if it had been as difficult for him as it was for us. He said there was pressure from everywhere on him to not follow organic methods.

His system can work mainly because of what he calls 'community supported agriculture'. This is a most interesting idea Pooja, and Kailash-bhaiya and Mohan-bhaiya and Ma and you must listen to me carefully when I come back and tell you about this. In this system households agree to buy a farmer's produce. This means a weekly box of vegetables and fruit. They pay some money in advance.

In this way the farmer is able to maintain his fields and pay his labour and for his machinery. He gives them fresh and healthy organic vegetables and fruit, and they promise to pay him regularly for a certain period. The best thing Pooja is that it brings the city buyer and the farmer together. Where have you seen that happen in our country?


Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) box, Camarillo, CaliforniaCommunity Supported Agriculture (CSA) box, Camarillo, California

Our big cities are getting bigger and Mohan-bhaiya was saying that children who grow up in cities don't even know that milk comes from the cow! Or that rice and wheat flour existed before packets and boxes! I think this is a good system to try out at least in our smaller towns. Because you know Pooja how it is. The big retailers will just finish us off if we try and do good for the common folk.

Look what happened to Jagdeep-chacha. He and his family are now forced to live in the city, their land is theirs no longer, they are so unhappy and can't earn enough.

People in America have good ideas when their hearts are true - of course Pooja you will say we have lots of excellent ideas in India too, and that is correct, see the computer industry - but I feel the hand of big business is always nearby and ready to grab. And at that time, who will protect the small man and his family? I don't think the American government will - just like ours does not.

You know Pooja, we are actually not so different, us and the Americans. They have poor and homeless here too, it is just that it is not as easy to see them. They have corruption here too, and until you spend some time here you can't see it.

In some ways they are worse off - as Papaji used to say, when you've learned what you need to do, learn to do it with less. This is a lesson that will help the Americans I think. Like us, they have good people with ideas to help society, and misguided people who lose their humanity in the name of money. The problems are so similar. I hope I will have taught as much as I have learnt by the time I have to return to you and Ma.

Your loving brother


Handicapped beggar at traffic light, Los Angeles, CaliforniaHandicapped beggar at traffic light, Los Angeles, California

Editorial Notes: This fictional work, similar to Swift's Gulliver's Travels" or Montesquieu's "Persian Letters" was inspired by a first trip to America by long-time Indian journalist and EB contributor Rahul Goswami. Rahul is a "researcher and writer based in Goa, India and Berlin, Germany. Areas of study: local economies, energy and food interweaves, community planning." I had a chance to meet with Rahul as he passed through the San Francisco Bay Area earlier in June. He is a modest and articulate conversationalist. We bemoaned the state of journalism in our countries and he shared his observations of both India and the U.S. When I talked to him about the Transition Movement, he said, "We in India have already gone through the Transition. We know what it is like." And yet he thought that there might be a place for Transition in India. Rahul added that the thrift and ingenuity that he was familiar with as a boy seems to be disappearing in the well-to-do urban population. Many of the dysfunctions familiar to us in America are cropping up in India. Some of Rahul's writings are available on his blog, his blog, "Resources Research" -BA

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