I don’t know much about Palanisamy, except that his nickname was Misaai Karan or Moustache Man. They told me that he was from Silamalai Colony, a settlement on the edge of the western sand dunes. And during the rice harvest, his services were always in demand because nobody could stack straw like Palanisamy. Judging by the beautiful haystacks he constructed for us in those years, I could see that his reputation was truly deserved.
It’s no trifling matter, protecting rice straw against a year of sun, wind, and rain, with no barn or tarps or giant tubular plastic sacks. All that Palanisamy needed was a bamboo rod polished with use, three assistants, and his made-in-India knowledge.
Think about it. The ancient kingdoms of Tamil country were built on the rice which grew in the paddies of the Cauvery, Vaigai, Amaravathi and Periyar rivers. These territories may have been bloodied by the battling Chera, Cholla, and Pandian Kings, but the farmers were the ones who grew the wealth for buying war elephants and imported Roman wine. And they were the ones who developed the methods of stacking the rice straw which fed the kingdom’s beasts during the long dry season.
There is an old Tamil saying. “If the winds of Aadi (July-August) whip grindstones into the air, what is the fate of the poor banana leaf?” After the Southwest Monsoon dumps its rain in the mountains of Kerala, dry prevailing winds tear across Tamil country from west to east, day after day, month after month. To get around this, the Tamil padappu karans (haystack men) constructed the stacks in a west-east direction, forming long aerodynamic tubes. This orientation also protected again the onslaught of summer thunderstorms that roar in from the east.
After constructing a rectangular base at dawn, the best padappu karans would sprinkle rice straw one handful at a time, tapping down each layer with their rods.
After a few weeks, gravity would settle the stacks into a dense, felt-like mat. As extra security, the men would anchor the stacks down with rice straw or coconut ropes attached o heavy rocks or neem stakes thrust into the lower flanks of the stack.
And then there is the matter of rain. Fortunately rice straw is somewhat water resistant already, but put wet straw in a pile, and the mildew and rot combusts it at such a rate that the straw becomes too hot to touch and destroys the straw within a few days’ time. I learned this three years ago when a thunderstorm soaked four tractor loads of our rice straw on the way to the farm.
The padappu karans get around the water problem by building each stack on a raised bed of gravel, making sure that there is adequate drainage around each stack for the rainwater to run off. The stacks are kept relatively narrow and most importantly, the tops are constructed with a very steep angle so rain has no time to soak in. Since the crests tend to sag into little nasty little water-swallowing-core-rotting pits, the padappu karans form a continuous ridge pole of coconut branches, over which the stay ropes are tied.
Then comes the finishing. The lowest meter of the stack is plucked until the sides are well within the overhanging “roof” of the haystack’s steep slope. Each end of the stack is hooded the same way, so that if you happen to be a happy little raindrop falling from the sky, you would hit the slippery slope and zing whoopeee off the eves onto the ground. (And start your journey to the Bay of Bengal and the cycle of life and the sea of bliss.)
I’m always amazed how after a year of sun and rain, only about the outer 6 inches of the rice straw gets bleached and powdery; the straw within remains yellow and sweet.
After the haystack guru died, we hired his disciple Murugan who also had the knack of constructing beautiful stacks. These days, however, his back hurts and he’d rather take care of his own cows, so he’s quit the profession.
Consequently, we had to call one of Murugan’s assistants, a bossy fellow with broad shoulders. This man worked quickly so he could go home early. His stacks were rather lumpy, not felted down, and the slopes were not nearly steep enough to repel water.
“Don’t worry. I’ll fix it later.”
To make up for his poor workmanship, we had to purchase ultraviolet resistant blue tarps to spread over the tops of the haystacks. Palanisamy would have scoffed at this shoddy work.
Be that as it may, another season of the rice harvest has come to a close. Our straw is stacked in neat blue rows. The cows have already chewed off the western end of the eastern stack.
From time to time, I think of the man who lies in an unmarked sandy grave along Queen Mangalamma’s Highway, that plastic littered road where Sillamalai village buries its dead and dumps it’s refuse and dead animals.
When he was with us, we assumed that we could always call on Palanisamy.
We were wrong.