May 14, 2008

Sugarcane in the Summer

May is a harsh month in Mumbai. In the shade of buildings that line narrow roads people travel by auto-rickshaws, motorcycles, cars and on foot. As the Sun climbs up in the sky dotted with straggling clouds, shrinking the shade to expose the tar road to the hard edged noon that fairly sizzles, people quicken their steps, easing up as they approach trees along narrow roads arching across in an explosion of deep orange Gulmohar blooms, and elsewhere carpeted with flowers of Copper Pod trees that drip-irrigate the roads with dollops of yellow shaken loose by occasional bursts of breeze rushing through the trees.

Only the stiff breeze where it can negotiate past concrete buildings along intersections in the road, cools the heat rising up from the scalding road and pavements where every once in a while people in twos and threes can be found chatting, or sharing a cigarette in lunch-time breaks from office. At corners where entrance gates open to residential complexes, vegetable vendors sit on the pavements, red tomatoes prominently displayed among leafy vegetables stacked neatly in cane baskets, waiting for housewives to step out for vegetables.

Away from the hustle of the main thoroughfares whose wide roads see little or no shade from squat buildings along their length, neighbourhoods to the back are quieter affairs. Here, amid patterns the light descending through leafy canopies makes on the road, it is possible to still time by pausing by a tree along the road to watch a street barber who has set up shop at the base of the tree, conduct his business, with the customer tracking the scissor's progress in the mirror the barber handed him.

Or other times at the sight of an elderly man who lifts his chin for a quick shave and walks away without paying even as he, with a nonchalant wave of his hand, tells the dhoti clad barber, "Will pay later." Without a backward glance the barber merely nods his head before returning the tools of his trade back to their box. His sandals, taken off out of respect to his trade, lie in the Sun near the base of the brick-and-cement platform encasing the tree.

I’ve probably done countless miles on foot in Mumbai and do not remember feeling the heat much, something I put down to the activity on the streets for, if not for the sights and sounds of Indian streets to occupy me neither the miles nor the heat would escape me as easily.

Street vendors in Mumbai are by their very nature transitory, so when I came upon a bullock cart parked to the side of a road in Matunga I paused for a moment to watch the elderly man in opaque glasses feed his oxen as they rested under the shade of a tree.

They were yoked to a cart that held a light load of sugarcane at the back. The elderly man, a sugarcane vendor, was feeding the two oxen lengths of sugarcane by turns. This amused me for I’ve known bullock carts to carry hay and other cattle feed in jute sacks hitched to the underside of the wooden carts, rarely ever fed from the very consignment they transported.

Later, the sugarcane vendor brought the whip close to his face as he secured the two lengths of leather to the slender stick with twine. By the look of it the whip apparently served the purpose of merely nudging the Oxen forwards rather then pulsating them into a gallop from hard thwacks of leather.

“Prices are going up everywhere,” he said. He had sourced his cartload of sugarcane for Rs. 2,500 from wholesalers in Byculla who receive sugarcane stock trucked in from as far as “Vashi, Pune, Nashik among other places.”

Typically middlemen ‘lift’ sugarcane produce from farmers and truck it to markets in Mumbai, where they either sell it off direct from the trucks or offload it with wholesalers who in turn sell it to small scale sugarcane vendors like the elderly man from Rani Bagh in Byculla. These sugarcane vendors then cart it from place to place selling it to sugarcane juice outlets along the way. It’s an unlikely sight though to see sugarcane vendors moving the produce along Mumbai streets in bullock carts; it’s more likely they use open-top tempos or mini-trucks for the purpose, so chancing upon the bullock cart in Matunga was a welcome sight.

“Even in season the prices are up this time around,” he repeated, looking at me before turning his gaze to the oxen. Apparently he had managed to sell off his cartload (typically 1000 kilos) of sugarcane at juice outlets along the way.

Byculla is a long way from Matunga by bullock cart but summer time affords sugarcane vendors an opportunity to earn a living as demand for sugarcane juice rockets.

“The Municipality (BMC) people trouble a lot,” he said. “They fine Rs. 5,000 to Rs. 6,000 if we don’t clear up before eight.” I assume he meant 8 AM, the time BMC staff patrol streets for vendors and hawkers doing business on arterial roads, clearing the roads for early morning traffic.

I nod my head and with a wave of my hand I step around him and continue on my way, quickening my steps to the happy beat in my head – Ta ra ra re.

It’s not uncommon to find sugarcane juice outlets set up shop in the summer. Not too long ago one could locate a sugarcane juice outlet from afar as the bells rolled with the wheel that ran the metal crusher, a rhythmic jangle that added festivity to the act of drinking sugarcane juice, more of an event to cherish than a summertime necessity. In Mumbai the crushers are a silent affair now, running out of small enclosures with a seating table or two for wayfarers.

Every once in a while a villager will travel to the city to run a sugarcane juice outlet from his wooden cart before returning to his village at the end of the summer. I’m particularly fond of cart driven enterprise not so much for the seasonal sights they offer in an increasingly mechanized world as for the simplicity of it all. They also remind me of the rural India of my childhood and my growing years, the open landscapes that fed the populace even as it left little or no trace of doing so, of the simplicity of rural folks and their almost filial attachment to their cattle, of how conversation would center around the land and harvests, of the helping hand in times of need, the laughter and easy conversations and more.

Watching an elderly villager in white dhoti (a traditional cotton wrap-on) and a Gandhi topi (cap) run his sugarcane juice outlet from a bullock driven cart parked to the side of a busy road brought a touch of the rustic to an enterprise run entirely from human labour. In the time I stood there people trickled in to his wooden cart for a glass of sugarcane juice.

Two heavy circular wooden cylinders mounted in a wooden frame are geared together with threads carved in the upper half of both cylinders so, when the yoke, fitted to a large wooden shaft fixed to one of the wooden cylinders, is turned it rotates the other cylinder as well, crushing the sugarcane fed through the turning wooden rollers. The juice flows out through a narrow wooden channel before being collected in a steel utensil through a cloth strainer tied to the mouth of the utensil.

I suspect folks who’ve walked across the road to the cart for a glass of sugarcane juice were driven as much by the sight of the elderly villager and a young man taking turns at the yoke, straining at the effort in turning the cylinders in slow motion.

To one side of the cart fresh sugarcane stalks are laid lengthwise. To the other side lie heaps of sugarcane leftover from the crushing. It is alternately used as cud and fuel. A large steel water container is placed on a wooden plank, water that I suppose is used to wash the glasses. The third wooden wheel attached to a length of wood is held down by a large stone placed along the length.

Rickshaws, cars, trucks, buses and pedestrians pass the sugarcane cart named Bhagwan Baba Rasvanthi Gruh in bold red letters on blue while the elderly villager and the young man cater to customers, taking turns at the yoke, feeding sugarcane through the wooden cylinders, draining the juice extracted into glasses, passing glasses with sugarcane juice to customers, folding crushed sugarcane, and collecting money.

A fortnight from now June will be upon the city and I already see increasing numbers of white clouds in the night sky, driven along by strong winds. The monsoon cannot be far away. In time more clouds will come in from the West, and urgent chirping of birds will ride the winds amid the swaying of trees, and as the first drops of rain will descend from the heavens the elderly villager will yoke bullocks to his cart and make his way home ahead of the monsoons that'll quench the earth.

Related Posts:
1. A Sugarcane Morning in North Karnataka.
2. A Postcard from The Nizam Sugar Factory.