Four years ago author and landscape designer Lathika George was at a party when the dinner table conversation veered towards the futility of farming. One of the guests said how farmers were ruining the image of ‘India shining’. Intensely stirred up, this conversation became the catalyst for George’s second novel Mother Earth, Sister Seed, Travels through India’s Farmlands, published in January 2018.
“I knew at that moment that I wanted to write this book because for me, nothing could be further from the truth. Unfortunately, most people equate farming only with the recent farmer suicides but they undermine the contribution of farming communities in producing food while facing crop failures and many adversities along the way. The book was about their lives and of ‘others’ who fish, herd and gather food,” says George.
Through the twelve chapters of her book, George takes her readers on a lyrical journey to farmlands across India. From the Gaddi farmers of Chamba Valley in lower Himalayas to the 200-member family farm in Wayanad, Kerala, to stories of daring honey collectors of Sunderbans in West Bengal - who brave tiger attacks to collect sweet honey - the book is an ode to the origin of food and its creators on earth.
The heroes of Mother Earth, Sister Seed are men and women who earn their living from natural resources on earth. The book follows their lives through various seasons of agriculture in India and gives us a fascinating insight into traditional farming techniques, old folklore, rituals and festivals. “I wanted the book to be a narrative about the real lives of the farmer and the food producer, not merely numbers and statistics. India has such a wealth of agrarian diversity that I let each chapter focus on a terrain - its characters, traditions, landscape and the food,” she says.
The writing follows a travelogue style as the narrative did indeed evolve from George’s many travel diaries. Although the seed for the book was sowed four years ago, she had been prepping her notes for years. Based in the picturesque hill town of Kodaikanal in south India, George, also a landscape designer, is deeply passionate about natural methods of gardening. She grows her own vegetables and has set up several organic kitchen gardens for her clients.
Keen to follow traditional farming methods, she often visited farms across India and in fact even planned her holidays around farms. “I was struck by how farming systems and techniques evolved over the ages to suit the terrain. From seed germination to water management systems – our ancestors seemed to have put a lot of thought and planning into every step of farming.”
Her travels for the book led her to discover interesting new developments in the agricultural sector as some farmers were combining tradition and technology to produce healthy food. She felt the need to chronicle them as they could lead to positive changes at a time when large farms riddled with pesticides and fertilisers had degraded the soil and water system across Indian farmlands. A significant discovery was the presence of a network of traditional seed savers. In the tiny north Indian village near Varanasi, she found JP Singh, who sells high-yielding, pest-resistant seeds. Famously called beejwala (seed man in Hindi), these seeds are tailor-made for different soils and weather conditions and are sold at a low cost. At Navdanya Farms in Uttarakhand Bija Didi (seed sister in Hindi), a wise old seed collector, was preserving indigenous seeds of the region. George found that the state of Sikkim in north-east India uses no pesticides and is completely organic. And that in the Divar Island of Goa, farmers make manure from ash, plant, fish waste and cow dung.
“Although some agricultural communities have moved away from these traditional practices, there are many who continue to farm the traditional way. Through the book, I wanted to share my belief that the essence of farming life lies in traditional agrarian values that are in harmony with nature.”
There were other eye-opening revelations for George that gave her new views about food and agriculture. “I was happy to discover that ‘farming life’ can be fulfilling in every way. The farmers I met often had few material possessions but they had a sense of contentment.” Meeting and sharing meals with indigenous communities, she found grains and greens that were even more nutritious than wheat, rice and cultivated foods. Armed with notebooks full of such observations, it was but natural to document it in a book.
Born in a family of farmers, George’s connection with seed and soil is deep-rooted. Her ancestors were farmers who grew tapioca, vegetables, rice and spices in the southern state of Kerala, India. Although she grew up in suburban Mumbai, her bonds with the earth blossomed tending to her mother’s lush city garden. “I guess gardening and farming was instinctive, something I’ve always been drawn to. My mother’s little suburban garden was a model of homestead farming, a place where I saw life made whole again.”
After her marriage, she lived in Kuwait and worked briefly in a design firm where she learnt drafting and landscaping. Years later when she moved back to Kodaikanal in 1987, she became a landscape designer. “I had no formal training. I learnt from books and attended a short course in organic gardening, but most of the learning was on the job from my own gardeners, who were also farmers.”
Writing about food is not new to George. She made her literary debut with the popular cookbook The Suriani Kitchen first published in 2009 in the United States. Winner of the Best Asian Cookbook at the World Gourmand Award in 2010, The Suriani Kitchen is part food diary and part recipe collection of Syrian Christians of Kerala. Sprinkled with personal anecdotes of her extended family in central Kerala, the book gives readers an insight into the history and culinary roots of this ancient community.
But in spite of penning two books revolving around food, George shuns being called a food expert or a cookbook writer. “I love cooking but I am by no means a food expert. And I always say I am an accidental cookbook writer. The opportunity presented itself when a publisher in New York asked me to write a book about the food and culture of my community.” The success of the book was a pleasant surprise as she had essentially written it as a tribute to her memories surrounding food and family stories.
“Family traditions surrounding food are some of the best legacies that we can leave for future generations. The Suriani Kitchen struck a chord not only with Malayalis many of who like me live out of the state but also with anyone who has a deep connection with their heritage,” says George, who declined offers for cookery shows and more cook books in favour of pursuing the cultural aspects of food. Mother Earth, Sister Seed was, therefore, a natural progression for her.
A book on farming and food producers, George had thought, would have a limited readership. It was yet another revelation for her when readers’ were drawn to it from as far away as Europe, Canada and the US. “I was pleased to find that the book has attracted a wide range of readers. I have received letters from young college students who say they are inspired, academics interested in a particular aspect of agriculture, IT professionals who are exploring options in farming and an industrialist who said he has discovered a whole new world after reading Mother Earth, Sister Seed – he had never visited a farm and was inspired to do so now.”
Not one to bask in the success of her books, George has already chalked out the outline of her next literary adventure. She has recently stopped landscaping and is writing a lot more. Yet, this mother of three grown-up daughters admits not having a specific routine to her writing and that her large organic garden still is a huge focus of her attention. “So, I will write a little, go out into the garden to check on the plants, pick up vegetables for lunch, come back and read for a bit. Of course once I have a deadline, I plan my day to include three or four hours of serious writing – usually in the morning.”