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.


bluemountainmama said...

such a different May than here in our mountains... we have cool breezes, rain, and just a glimpse of the warm weather to come.

i can hear the sentimentality in the way you described the rural india of your childhood... sounds much like the rural areas i have always lived in. i hope you get to spend time there still, so you don't have to only rely on sugarcane carts for little glimpses and reminders of the good life. :)

kenju said...

YOu powers of description are unparalleled, Anil. And I'd love to try a glass of sugarcane juice!

Gauri Gharpure said...

reminded me of the rasvanti gruh just near the office in sadashiv peth.. We used to throng there in the hot afternoons, and have glassfuls of that cheap, energy-laced drinks..tht was last summer... i guess the biggest glass wud be abt 500-600 ml just for Rs 6!! and i am sure the shop is still bustling with the same large crowds and same cheap rates even this summer... i love these kind of posts that take me back in time for reasons altogether personal and different that drawn by imagery here...

delhidreams said...

this is what i want to read and this is what i want to write...
to see, smell, hear and talk about where i live, to share the mornings, the afternoons, the dusks, the nights with anyone who cares to read... as of now, i wait for a camera to record my words, and till the time i do not have a camera, i will record images with my words.
...thanks anil.

Lakshmi said...

I can almost feel the summer heat in Mumbai through your words. The inflation is affecting everyone..I recently met a similar "middleman " of coconuts in a village called Adagur..who buys coconuts from all the villages and sends them to Tumkur..and he was cribbing about the costs as well

Sherri said...

Hi there! Your words are making me miss India so much (other than the blistering heat of course). I feel I'm transported to Mumbai through this though and it's a nice vacation from my job today.
Looking forward to more vacations through your blog.:)
Take care,

Red said...

The lines about the orangish red gulmohar and the sugar juice brought on nostalgic memories. Wher I grew up the sky would be a flaming orangish red and the ground would be a velvetty carpet of the same hue. Gulmohar trees lit up the skyline during summer.

Thank you for the pleasant memories that this post brought forth.


I am so happy that you left a comment on my blog - because that left a trail to your wonderful posts. The content or the style, I cannot decide which is more delightful.

I am going to go back and catch up on your previous posts.

S.Bhagaban said...

Nice article with good description. Keep it up.

Sarah Laurence said...

Lovely description and photos! I feel like I am seeing it through your eyes. You've captured ordinary moments in time that others might not notice.

As for the other comments on that blog post about China and Burma, I feel distressed by my fellow Americans and their dismissal of other nations. I guess they haven't seen much of the world or the suffering that people can endure.

mountainear said...

Your streets are so different to my home at the end of a Welsh Mountain. Cool and green here at the moment.

Love your descriptions of street life - really brings it alive.

Anil P said...

Bluemountainmama: Out here it is nice and proper tropical weather. Clouds are getting larger by the day, moving shade along streets as they are driven inland by the wind. A quick pre-monsoon shower looks imminent.

Kenju: Thank you. A glass of sugarcane juice is refreshing :)

Gauri: Thank you for pitching in with your experience. The sugarcane juice rates are more or less the same here as well.

The other day I came across a rate card in Fort that read: Big Glass 3/-, Mota Glass 5/-, and Jumbo Glass 6/-.

Adi: Thank you. There's a certain pleasure to be had in chronicling ones neighbourhoods and cities if for nothing else than for the simple pleasure of re-reading ones ow posts in charting the city as time morphs it.

A local identity is essential to a city's character, an identity that reflects in aspects as mundane as the colour used to paint doors, the door locks used etc. and yes, the dialects as well.

Will be interested in seeing your takes on Delhi with a camera.

Backpakker: Inflation can cripple those in lower income brackets, more so when it involves food.

I feel inflation is an indication of the divide between the rich and the poor. If there're sufficient people to pay increased prices for a finite quantity of goods, traders will inflate the price.

Shireena: Sure I'll be posting more takes on India :) Monsoons are round the corner, and a trip to Kerela in the thick of the monsoons should be an exhilirating experience. Try it.

An iengar chick: Thank you. Yes, Gulmohar blooms against a blue sky is amongst the prettiest sights in nature.

Raji Muthukrishnan: Thank you, it was a pleasure to be taken back in time with your own post.

S. Bhagaban: Thank you.

Sarah Laurence: Thank you, it's indeed a pleasure.

I feel that cities and towns with traces of their past hold in nondescript corners the simplicity of their 'ordinariness' that is at once revealing as it is refreshing.

More footfalls outside of America can be revealing, from a human perspective for, nothing truly educates one about fellow human beings than travel.

Mountainear: Thank you. The cool and green would be as inviting as the hot and humid, some would say more inviting landscape than the latter :)

Vartika said...

I was reminded of this article in a magazine (IT or Outlook) which I read recently…it explained the entire economy and supply-chain of sugarcane juice production…

Line said...

Your writing is so lyrical! Even though we're in the midst of a cold wet spring here in Minneapolis, I feel like I can feel the sizzle of the pavement, and hear the Ta ra ra re....

A joy to find your blog -- I'm looking forward to reading as you continue to chart the local identity...

Anil P said...

Vartika: Thank you. The nature of sugarcane production and distribution will make the supply-chain an intersting read. My earlier post 'A Postcard from The Nizam Sugar Factory' illustrates one such instance.

Line: Thank you. It's a pleasure to have you participate in the journey.

Prixie said...

those pics makes me want to see india again

Dawn said...

WOW! what a nostalgic feeling ...I get when I see all these pics :)
AWesome! Thanks for sharing all this

Kay Cooke said...

I think this is the best way ever of getting to know your country - from the inside out! Beautiful. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Such wonderfully descriptions of your travels. I'm fascinated with the carved wooden cane crushers - far more intricate than the typical cane mills I've seen here in the south (reminds me of the blower impellers we used on the race car).
BTW - I answered your question about how we differentiate between our fox in my latest post.

The Littons said...

Very evocative. Reminds me of some of the street vendors I saw when I was in India - a barber in Agra, a scary-looking dentist in Jodhpur...

Anil P said...

Prixie: Sure, visit India :)

Dawn: Thanks. You're welcome.

Chiefbiscuit: Thank you. It's a pleasure to know you enjoy reading these accounts.

Seamus: Thanks. In the cities these wooden sugarcane crushers have been largely replaced by machine crushers.

The gears carved into them fascinates me as well. I would expect these to consume less energy in operating them.

I'll check out the post. Thanks.

Simon: Thank you. Street vendors lend character to the streets :)

delhidreams said...

*update alert*


Anil P said...

Adi: Sure, I'll be posting soon :)

Ash said...

Reminds me of my days in Maharashtra. I've lived there for almost 10 years!

Wonderful essay and photos.

messys musings said...

very beautifully written... your descriptions are lovely... reminds me of mumbai when i was a kid... the cows on the road... the ice carts... the men selling salt on handcarts... and the imli wala near my school... sigh!

i have lived in mumbai all my life but i have never seen a mobile sugarcane cart!... lovely pictures... after a very long time i have enjoyed reading a blog...

hope to

Anil P said...

Ash: Thank you.

Messy Musings: Thank you. I can well imagine for they were to be found far more than they do today.

The mobile sugarcane carts are not that common, I was lucky to see one that day.

bobbie said...

Such a fascinating look at your world. India has interested me ever since one of my daughters dated an Indian man while they attended college together. He was a wonderful man, a real gentleman, and often told us stories of his homeland. I love to learn about other cultures than my own. You are so articulate. I will enjoy reading more.

Anil P said...

Bobbie: Thanks for sharing your memories of the Indian Gentleman.

Like you said rightly, another culture may only be as distant as the next dialect, and yes they fascinate with their attires, language, mannerisms, and traditions.

India is a paradox of beauty.

dr.antony said...

Reminded me fo my childhood at my uncle's sugarcane farm at Thekkady,kerala. We used to spend all our summer vacation there.Harvesting time.The juicer mill used to be drawn by bulls or buffaloes.And when it starts moving,I used ot push in an orange ,freshly plucked from a neighbouring tree. Tempting. Gone are the days. There are no more sugarcane plantations there,and no more jaggery business.

As usual,your unimitable style.
If you are interested in photography,have you come across