Spinning Rice Straw Into Gold

Village India rice straw everywhere

So many farmers lost their rice crop to last year’s drought that they switched to corn.

village India rice corn 2

Something feels horribly out of joint when thousand-year-old rice paddies are replaced by golden cobs used to feed the flesh of pale birds on chicken farms.

Village India rice corn cobs

Still, there are those who will always grow rice.

Village India rice planting

The ladies of Munthal planted their happy green rice babies after October’s rains filled the Kurungani River.

Thanni katta karar (watering men) irrigated the paddies using sluices and channels of river water, distributed according to a complex set of rules first laid down during the days of the Nayak Dynasty of Madurai.

The sun suffused emerald into the sparkling mudflats. To the west stood the Spice Mountains, to the east the Agamalais where red coffee beans grow and to the north, the birthplace of rivers, the blue cliffs of the Palnis.

Green gave way to yellow as heads of grain burst their sheathes. Now it is the time of harvest. Though we long for mango showers, please, not until the rice is threshed and the straw is dry and safe.

village India rice fields

Two years ago, teams of women were still cutting the rice with serrated sickles, carrying head loads along the little bunds to the threshing kalam. Nobody can afford their labor these days, not since company buses take these same ladies to work under the fans of cotton mills. The ones who remain can finally ask what their labor is worth.

village India rice cutting

For the first time in our valley, lumbering combines are clamoring in and out of postage stamp paddies. For fields too wet or small, farmers call in threshers on bull-dozer treads.

Village India rice combine 1

Laborers hold sacks beneath spouts gushing with grain. The sacks are then stitched shut with hemp string and loaded into lorries.

Village India rice combine 2

No more threshing rice on back roads under the thundering tires of buses. No more portable thrashing machines parked in the shade of the Munthal’s old tamarind tree.

This is also the time when the men who desire rice straw descend like crows upon the Kurungani River Valley, each according to his caste, station, and ability.

Dr. Bruce is of the Dutch American caste. He wants to buy a year’s supply of fragrant straw for Aishwarya, Amaravathi and his other cows, but is rather clueless.  The first year he tried buying from Big Broker in White Veshti, but Big Broker in White Veshti was very smart. He sold the rice straw by the load, claiming each load contained every last blade of straw from two whole paddies when in fact they contained only a quarter of the amount. He would just fluff the stuff, tie it loosely in the tractor wagons and collect his cash.

The next year, Dr. Bruce’s advisors suggested bidding for five long haystacks near the threshing ground. Though these men knew what the rice was worth and struck a good deal with the owner (who happened to be a patient of Dr. Bruce’s), a surprise thunderstorm drenched six tractor loads, rotting half the straw.

This year Dr. Bruce’s cow man Suruli , a wiry Telegu speaker of the Chakkliar (S.C.) caste, took matters in hand.

Village India rice straw Surulli

An astute man in tune with the whisperings of village lanes, he approached his cousin Muniandi who is a water man in rice valley.

Village India rice Muniandi

What’s more, Muniandi is built like a boxer and knows all the other water men who in turn know everything about everybody.  They know how many kullis  each paddy is (1 kulli =0.6 acre), what breed of rice was planted in each plot (which determines the quantity and quality of the straw), who the owners are, where the access paths come out, and what the going rates are likely to be.

To transport the straw, the two approached another Telegu speaker, Chinnathumbi of the Karattupatti Nayakar tribe.

Village India rice chinnathumbi

He not only owns a red tractor, but he knows nearly everybody in rice valley and has access to labor from his village in the thorny forest. His people were some of the first in the valley to own land, being related to the Zamindar of Bodi Nayak City or Bodinayakanur. The Zamindar is a direct heir of the rulers whose authority came from the King of Madurai himself.

Ra, dah,” they said, “Cheppu, you have to tell us when your relatives are cutting their fields. We need to know before our competitors arrive to snatch up the rice.”

This year’s equations were especially complex due to the failure of the monsoon in the southern half of the state. The Malayalis were pouring over the border from Kerala and snapping up lorry loads of straw. Tamil merchants were arriving from as far as Erode and Karur in central Tamil Nadu. Trails into the rice fields which last year were only passable by tractor are now paved, allowing lorries access into the interior.

The three drove up dry riverbeds on their mopeds and when the paths disappeared, they walked to isolated fields where outside agents had not yet penetrated. They went to the homes of owners in the evenings, to the fields in the early mornings and negotiated prices per kulli far lower than anything the white guy would hope to see.

They paid advances to the various players– a Goundar, a Nayakar, a Pillai, a Thevar. After money changed hands, we assumed the risk of rain and spoilage. They in turn promised not to sell the straw to another party.

Buying the rice is only half the battle. It must then be raked into little piles so the load men can hoist it into their tractors.

Village India rice loading

Guards must be paid to keep locals from skittering off with head loads of our straw. Chinnathumbi drove a tractor load of aunties and sisters from his village to pile the straw. He convinced his cousins to come load the straw, not during the day when the killer sun and itchy dust are overwhelming, but at night under the cool starlight of winter.

We were lucky because Nayakars know how to work and they don’t skimp on the loads and they keep to their word. They filled the tractor trailers ten feet high and eight feet wide and hauled the bulging loads to our place early in the morning.

Village India rice tractor load

About half way through the buying process, a particularly troublesome Thevar with big gold rings went to an owner’s house and offered him 50% more per kulli then what we had already paid for. The owner accepted his proposition and told us to take our money back or pay up at the new rate.

Village India Rice Thevar

Chinnathumbi pulled strings with his people and they pressurized the owner to keep his word. A deal is a deal. An advance of one rupee is as good as ten thousand. The middleman was fuming as he threatened Suruli and Muniandi in the dark.

“What caste are you? Who are your people? What are you two doing here in this business?”

Though in times past, Chakkliars might have been be afraid of Thevars, Muniandi and Suruli had no time for his bullying.

“What is this nonsense talk about caste? You out of town karans have no right messing up our deal. Who are you, anyway?”

“Relax. I’m just a business man earning a few rupees to buy kunji for my kids. Tell you what, I’ll pay you ten thousand here and now if you give up the straw to me. You can return the advance to your boss. He’ll never find out, and you’ll each be five thousand rupees richer.”

Ponga. We’re not like you. We’re men who keep our word.”

“You’re poor men who keep your word. Whatever. It’s your loss.”

The next day the man with the gold rings approached a different owner, bought 50 tractor loads worth of rice straw, split each load into two loads, and sold the little loads for double the price of the original big loads.  We figured he pulled in a cool two hundred thousand without lifting a gilded finger. Rumplestiltskin Thevar had spun his straw into gold.

Rice purchasing now is over. Dr. Bruce is at work in his little clinic.  Chinnathumbi is driving his tractor. Muniandi is irrigating a new cornfield and Suruli is caring for the cow who just gave birth.

Our farm is bathed with the scent of sun-dried rice straw and the motley band of gentle beasts are happy, for in reality, they are magic cows.

They have the power to transform rice straw born of water, earth, wind, and sun fire into moist black humus, frothing buckets of milk, yellow rounds of Bodi cheese, and golden ghee.


rice sunfire

About the Author

Bruce DeJong

I am an Indian of American parentage who practices medicine in rural Tamil Nadu. After years of getting to know the local people, they have begun to open up their lives, allowing me to paint a portrait of their village one story at a time.

  • Jenna M. Gibbs

    Another beautiful story. I was struck by how rapidly things are changing, even as traditional ways of doing things still endure. I also loved your use of vivid colors in this piece, which evoked almost a Van Gogh-like vision of the rice fields and straw stacks.

    • Bruce DeJong

      Van Gogh. I link it. Thanks Jenna.

  • Pippa

    Bruce it is amazing the advance of things over the last years but with still the old ways of doing things which are enduring. Every part of farming needs to be without the middleman to interfere its great to get a good deal from men of their word. I can just imagine your cows now happy and content.