Karkala in South Kanara District of Madras Presidency had little to distinguish it from other villages on the road to Udipi – except the famous Jain statue of Gomateswara, an imposing monolith set atop a black rocky hill on the outskirts of the village. Along with the Jain temples of Mudbidri nearby, it was a place of pilgrimage for Jains and Hindus alike.
In the first decade of the 20th century Karkala was somnolent, its life revolved around the paddy growing cycle of seasons. The monsoons brought plenty – watering green carpets of rice fields and coconut palms, aptly named trees of wealth.
Old timers in Karkala remembered the Prabhu family patriarch, a simple man who was entirely self-made and whose rags-to-riches story was often related.
Ram Prabhu tried to make a decent living as a small farmer, but he had ambitions that he nursed secretly. His father Srinivas Prabhu looked to him and his brother Sheshgiri to work on the small piece of land and shop they owned. They had a bullock cart that he drove to the fields, and periodically, to carry the farm produce, and sometimes small goods he bought from itinerant traders who came in from the port of Mangalore, which were sold in the shop. But his gaze went beyond the cultivated fields, to the distant mountains of the Western Ghats where he found the forests and rivers, wild, beautiful and exciting. On a trip to the highlands he saw the farmers there growing areca palms and selling the nuts which were in great demand at paan shops for their supari. He saw the profits made by middlemen who brought the betel nuts to his shop, and decided it would be much more profitable to buy nuts directly from the growers. By the time his father died, he had made up his mind that he was not interested in working in the fields. He was content to let his brother take the land and he started his journeys to the mountain region, partly by bullock cart, part of the way by bus, and on foot. Ram Prabhu was a familiar face to the hill people working on their small landholdings. With them he found ready hospitality and pleasant conversation. Time was of little importance, when as a tired traveler you arrived at a resting place, tasted home grown coffee freshly brewed, and exchanged news and stories.
He was popular because he brought news – and stories -from the port of Mangalore. They were also appreciative of small gifts he brought them, imported from foreign lands. Most of them had never seen the sea but they had heard that ships came from Arabia, that sailors from there were Muslim and spoke a strange language. He described the busy harbor and the dhows that anchored a distance from the estuary of the river, unloading their cargo into smaller boats to be rowed ashore by the Navayati Muslim boatmen. Their eyes were wide with interest as he described an incident when a woman passenger stepping from the dhow into the rocking boat, missed her footing and fell into the sea. She would have been swept away by the tide, but for the alert boatman who, catching her by her hair, pulled her up. Sitting around the kerosene lantern the men and women listened, their hands over the mouth in astonishment at the graphic account of this near tragedy.
Awakening to the cold mountain air, Ram Prabhu walked to the fields. He stopped to gaze at the pattern of the tall slender areca palms, columns of pencils against the sky. Often he would see a man climbing the trees which swayed as he jerked his feet up step by step to reach the bunches of yellow fruit at the crown. Cutting down the fruit he swung bending the tree to spring, and leap to catch the trunk of the next palm. He marveled at the nimble movements and accurate handholds, like those of a trapeze artist, but with no safety net below should he drop fifty feet.
Ram Prabhu returned to Karkala from these trips carrying baskets of areca nuts on his head. He was pleased to return home to his brother’s house where his sister-in-law Kamala provided good food and his brother’s children were happy to take time off from their schoolbooks to ask him questions about his travels and listen to his stories. He never felt the desire to marry, set up his own house start a family. He thought a settled life would chafe him and curb his wandering spirit. The large profits he made from the areca nuts excited him and he meticulously kept an account of his earnings. Making money was his main goal. He hardly bought anything for himself; the dhoti, banian and towel on his shoulder comprised his entire wardrobe and people who greeted him on the main street saw a simple friendly villager, hardly realizing his substantial net worth in financial terms.
His brother Sheshgiri was close to him, and he was generous in providing for his brother’s family. With no banks in Karkala, at the time, ( Canara Bank, was the first bank to start operations in Mangalore in 1916), investment in land was the next step. His brother bought a substantial area of rice fields in a village twenty miles away, improved irrigation and leased the fields to tenant farmers. Soon there was enough cash to buy gold jewelry for his brother’s wife Kamala and their daughter Saraswati; the boys had enough saved for higher education. They were not going to work on the land either; an education in English schools and colleges in Mangalore was their goal.
Soon the brothers built a large and attractive house, with a spacious courtyard, a well that provided sweet water. At the back of the house there were coconut trees that met their domestic needs, and provided enough fruit to sell. In the cattle shed there were two milch cows, in addition to the bullocks for the cart that provided transport for servants and farm produce. A new acquisition was a horse carriage – called a jutka – which provided comfortable and fast transport for the family.
Everyone, young and old looked forward to harvest time. The family piled into the jutka and went to the village, the elders to supervise the gathering of the crop, the women would arrive when the rice was being winnowed, camp in one of the village huts and cook their own food. The share croppers were Bunts, the peasant community of the district. and they spoke Tulu. The men guided the bullocks as they trampled the rice. Some beat sheaves of rice on the ground to loosen the grain, women winnowed the grain shaking the winnowing baskets held high to let the breeze separate the chaff. The Prabhu brothers looked on with satisfaction as the piles of grain grew. The sound of the pounding of the grain was rhythmic and continued into the late evening.
Most of the grain was packed in large round balls of woven rice-straw called “moodas” The children loved to watch this special art of the farmer hands. Rice straw was twisted into a long rope and wrapped into a spiral coil. It was gradually coiled round, in ever widening circles, each circle of rope tightened and knotted in place until a bowl -shaped basket container emerged under the expert hands of the craftsman. The cleaned grains of hand-pounded rice were poured into the basket-bowl and the wrapping and twisting continued until a globe-shaped moora took shape which had sealed within it about twenty pounds of rice.
The mooda and its contents were of standard size and weight, the accuracy of the weight was rarely questioned. Buyers would pierce the straw mooda with a hollow steel stick, draw it out and check the quality of the grains of rice that were drawn out in the stick
Community kitchens provided a meal at midmorning, of “paz” a gruel of rice cooked with plenty of water, to provide a rich soup which was slurped with relish, with lime pickle adding to the taste.
Kamala was the matriarch of this large property in Karkala who supervised the women’s work in the entire operation, the winnowing, pounding and cleaning of the rice. A handsome woman, she stood tall and straight-backed, a portrait of a woman of status, the wife of one of the wealthy landowners of Karkala. Her husband’s relatives, and members of the clan, were of considerably lesser means, she was the natural head of the family.She carried herself with confidence but without arrogance. Her sarees were always attractive, and her jewelry drew one’s attention because the sparkle of diamonds in her ears and nose set off the colour and smoothness of her skin.
As the work ended, the landlords carefully counted the moodas of rice , the tenants were given their due share, and the larger number transported by bullock cart to Karkala.
The celebration of the harvest was an occasion for music and revelry. If the monsoons had been kind there was much to add to the celebration, fruits, vegetable were plentiful, chicken, fish and meat added to the diet, and home-made arrack was essential for the evening convivial mood. While the Prabhu family never joined in the noisy celebration, they waited eagerly for the itinerant Yakshagana party that turned up. The entire village sat around the threshing floor next to the main house, the cleared field turned into a theatre for the night-long dramatic presentation of the Epics. The children wide-eyed at the loud aggressive declamation of Duryodhana, soon dozed into slumber, occasionally awakened as the drum beats became loud and insistent at a dramatic climax.
As dawn broke, the Yakshagana party left. The men sans costumes and extravagant headgear turned into mere mortals. Thankfully drinking their coffee, after the landlord had paid them a handsome fee in cash and kind, they would move on to the next village.
As the twentieth century dawned, the family had established its place in the changing social and economic map of this little corner of Madras Presidency. Male relatives who were educated at the Jesuit institutions in Mangalore had joined the professions, as doctors, lawyers and professors they were largely settled in Madras, Mangalore or Calicut, busy cities with their traces of Portuguese history and strong British commercial and administrative presence. But the brothers, living away from the urban settlements, heard only of the changes brought by the British administration. Increasing transport facilities brought visitors by the daily bus from Mangalore but they did not aspire to taste the cosmopolitan life. Their life revolved around the agricultural season. It was a good life, with its sure rhythmic pulse. Life flowed according to the allotted span, as in nature so with man.
Ram Prabhu was barely fortyfive when he contracted typhoid and local medical help could not save him. His brother and small nephews stood by the funeral pyre remembering the man to whom they owed their comfortable life and secure future.
As body and breath merged with the earth and the sky, the verses chanted by the priest exhorted them to remember the deeds, remember the deeds, remember….
Without an English education and knowledge of economic theory he had established a legacy that changed the lives of the generations following him. His story had ended but other tales were born, with different endings.