It was beyond Sindagi that I truly woke up that April morning as the jeep bumped and swerved on the road. I looked out the window to watch vast fields inch past in a sepia downpour of the familiar. That familiar mud, dark brown, freshly ploughed, brought memories of another day from another age flooding in.
This road used to be my cycling route in my vacations from school. Though I never managed to cycle the twenty kilometers that separates Almel from Sindgi for, cycling forty kilometers to and fro in the heat of summer meant a certain heatstroke, I regularly cycled ten kilometers of the stretch, enjoying the breeze before cycling back the way I had come. Dodging cattle on their way back from their grazing grounds, dismounting to make way for buses plying the route (Almel is eighty kilometers from Bijapur) between Bijapur and Gulbarga, racing bullock carts and waving out to farmers out in the fields served to make twenty kilometers of cycling rest easy on my knees. It helped me sleep easy on the terrace under the stars while the massive Peepal opposite brooded over me. I loved riding with the clouds, and in those landscapes of North Karnataka one can ride long distances with the clouds without losing sight of your nameless companions in the sky.
Every once in a while in the summer after a particularly furious bout of pedaling, I pulled up to the side of the road and walked across the field where farmers were extracting sugarcane juice to make jaggery. They offered me juice in brass jugs, filling it up until I had enough. Then it was time to pedal back to the calls of the Brahminy Starling and Mynahs. So when we passed trails of smoke emerging from the fields a few kilometers before Almel, smelling sweetly of sugarcane extracts, we pulled up to the side of the road and walked across Poddar’s sugarcane field to find Basanna tending to a large kadai (a large, wide metal utensil used for boiling extracts) filled with sugarcane juice. Behind him two farmers were crushing sugarcane in a cane crusher while the juice ran down a conduit to an open, circular pit in the ground. They had filled the kadai with sugarcane extract and placed it on an opening in the kiln while a low fire fueled by leftovers of crushed sugarcane fueled the kiln, manned by a farmer who stood by, watching the fire through an opening in the mud and brick construction.
Basanna was clad in a dhoti and a Gandhi topi, the attire common to older generation of farmers in that belt. He’s been working on the farm for over twenty years and told us that sugarcane extraction begins post-Diwali. The kiln was set up at ground level over a largish area, now turned white with leftovers of crushed sugarcane. Underground piping carried the exhaust to a bottle shaped chimney about seven feet tall, constructed a short distance away from the heat source over which the kadai, filled with sugarcane juice was placed. The kadai held over 950 litres of sugarcane juice, a white simmering mass.
It is boiled for over two hours before it is transferred to a rectangular holding area in a shed adjacent to the kiln where it is left to cool before it is poured into metal buckets to shape the resulting jaggery into cone shaped blocks, each weighing 15 kilos. We saw a few lined up along the length of the makeshift shed. It takes 950 litres of sugarcane juice to produce 11-12 such cone shaped blocks (called penti in the local language Kannada) of jaggery. Later they are shipped to the market. "950 litres of sugarcane extract will yield about 200 kilos of jaggery," Basanna said.
The farmers work through the day, starting at the break of day at 6 am, and continuing till six in the evening. Basanna happened to know my uncle from Almel well, and we exchanged smiles that only familiarity can induce. We carried back sugarcane juice in empty softdrink bottles for the road. Havalgi was still fifty-odd kilometres away. While on our way out I peeked inside a fairly deep well hewn out of the earth nearby before dodging a sleeping form wrapped in colourful quilt (called dhubti in the local language), lost to the world in a mass of crushed sugarcane leftovers that early morning.
The sun was breaking out in the distance as we hit the road again.