The Green Thumb of India

by Ruth Alliband (India 1966-1968)

In my mind, community development was a catch-all category. We did have male and female counterparts in the Indian civil service, though the Uttar Pradesh womens’ community development program was terminated early in the spring of 1967. The entire Gram Sevak structure was modeled on a ten year pilot program (1946-56) at Etawah, Uttar Pradesh, developed by Albert Mayer, an engineer originally from New York City. One of our number in the India 34 group was actually stationed in Etawah, which is about 50 miles north of our own village site near the market town of Chirgaon.

The volunteer stationed at Etawah was Al Miller. He came down to visit us once—we met in Jhansi, our district capitol, and took the bus to Orchha, seven miles outside Jhansi, to spend the day as tourists. Orchha had once been the center of a small rajadom. There were several monuments to dead ancestors beside the Betwa River—the English word for this structure is “cenotaph.” (the Hindi ischhatri) There was a Hindu temple there that often attracted pilgrims. I believe we came on a pilgrimage day; I was kept behind barriers until male pilgrims had been cleared from the shrine. I remember religious fervor and heaps of red tilak powder and white sandalwood paste to make purifying marks on the foreheads of those who had just prayed at the shrine. The women who surged into the temple with me began washing the lingam in the shrine and pouring oil and flower petals over it.

My interpretation of our Community Development job title was that it was a cross between agricultural/ home extension education and public health education. I kept busy in one small village of 900 people, at first with a community census so I could meet everyone in the village. I followed this up by drawing a map of the village with the houses color-coded by caste. Open wells, hand pumps, gardens, papaya trees, the village pond, the roads (& road surfacing material) were all detailed. The neighbor girl across the street, who had gone to school through 5th grade, wrote the names of the heads of the households in Devanagari script. I posted the map on the wall of our house; it was an object of much interest among the village children. They would ask me to point out their house on the map.

I consulted on kitchen garden construction and distributed UNICEF seeds. I distributed reconstituted powdered milk to village children, milk that had Volga (South Dakota) Cooperative Creamery or Fairmont (Minnesota) Coop stamped on the 50 pound bags. I sold fruit tree seedlings to families who had placed orders. Many of the fruit trees died of drought or were eaten by goats. The most successful fruit tree was a papaya which I had sold for ten naiya paisa to a very poor untouchable family. I was surprised that the man was able to pull ten paisa from a knotted handkerchief. The papaya seedling was planted inside his house in unpromising soil embedded with shards of pottery and bricks from the fallen house which had stood where this one was built. But the plant was still growing and fruiting when I left the village. Every time I walked near that family’s door, they pulled me inside to examine the papaya. They were very proud of it, and were also perhaps surprised that it had done so well.

My husband, Terry, had a similar serendipitous experience with a handful of  loki seeds he gave to another leatherworker in the untouchable part of town. Mohan’s loki seeds germinated and took off. The plants climbed up the side of his house (aided by Mohan, I think), and then prowled on up the tile roof of the one-story structure. I have a photo of Terry and Mohan (with handlebar moustache) standing beside the little cottage completely engulfed with rangy vines. The loki produces a substantial yield of summer-squash-like vegetables, on the order of a zucchini on steroids(!) Mohan was thrilled that his family received so much value and nutrition from so little effort.

One more kitchen garden story: I say I “consulted” on kitchen gardens. Actually, I proselytized for constructing kitchen gardens in areas that would be safe from marauding goats, cows and water buffalo. Often the places where I suggested building a garden were not considered very suitable—I counseled tearing up a corner of the walled courtyards of houses. Sometimes women would agree— my friend Deoputi had her son hack into the thick crust of cow dung and straw that sealed off the soil and rubble mixture below with a mattock, orpowra as it was called in Hindi. Then we picked out the bricks and pot shards, smoothed the soil and etched little furrows into the ground to plant the free UNICEF vegetable seeds suitable for whichever season we were in (there were three planting seasons, though the hot season planting suffered terribly in the 120 degree heat). As we planted and talked about the prospective yields, I could tell that this courtyard garden plot had no future beyond my tenure in the village. Deoputi was just humoring me…

Jeryai Village Interpretation of Community Development by Ruth Alliband (India 1966-1968)