'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Taken to the Gleaners

A new facebook page by name ‘Cochin Diaries’ has been put up by some Journalism students. Here is a picture there; it was taken at Chellanam, a fishing harbour near the city.

The gist of the accompanying descriptive passage:

Day after day, eagerly awaiting the return of fishing boats, they hang around our beaches – poor and ragged old women and men, some physically challenged, some immigrants from other states. Not having money to actually buy any fish, they fervently pester the fishermen to part with some of the least appealing bits in their catch. And then they go around selling what is (often grumpily) thrown into their baskets. The fishermen donors themselves are hardly well off and are subject to all the vagaries of 'Kadalamma' (Ocean Mother).

These pictures of hand to mouth struggle on the margins of our modern society reminded me of some recently read lines from the Bible (btw, a I discovered a very useful retelling of the Book called ‘The Good News Bible’ but a few weeks ago and have been reading the earlier portions thereof with great pleasure). Since quoting from the King James version is cooler, let me do so:

When thou cuttest down thine harvest in thy field, and hast forgot a sheaf in the field, thou shalt not go again to fetch it: it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow: that the LORD thy God may bless thee in all the work of thine hands. (Deuteronomy)

And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not make clean riddance of the corners of thy field when thou reapest, neither shalt thou gather any gleaning of thy harvest: thou shalt leave them unto the poor, and to the stranger: I am the LORD your God. (Leviticus)

Wiki on gleaning:

Gleaning is the act of collecting leftover crops from farmers' fields after they have been commercially harvested or on fields where it is not economically profitable to harvest. Some ancient cultures promoted gleaning as an early form of a welfare system.... When people glean and distribute food, they may be bringing themselves legal risk(!)… the Soviets…. criminalised gleaning, under penalty of death, or 20 years of forced labour in exceptional circumstances.

And of course, we have 'The Gleaners', Millet's masterpiece. We will always have 'The Gleaners':

Question: Is there anything known about gleaning in India? Our tradition sets great store by charity and giving ("datta" of the "da") but there don't seem to be much written on gleaning or any related kind of picking up the crumbs (no, I haven't examined Manusmriti on this). To my knowledge, no Indian language has a dignified word for gleaning. Those who pick up anything - scraps/offal/detritus - are insultingly called "perukki" in Malalyalam (the negative connotation of the word has led to an equally insulting slang phrase for a ball-boy ("out-perukki" - one who picks up a ball gone out of play; so much for our notions of dignity of labor!).

And I just heard that our rice-growers wouldn't return to the fields after harvest to gather missed grains - for a rather more pragmatic reason: rats would be hurriedly scurrying after the loose grain and snakes would have come out in strength to prey on them!

I couldn't yet find any Biblical lessons to fishermen - whether they ought to give up a certain fraction of their catch etc.. At any rate, Kerala's struggling fisher-folk have more than lived up to the Biblical injunction on grain gleaning: they not only part with some of their catch; indeed, rather than generally leave some fish around somewhere, they directly hand it over to the recipients (however grudgingly). Perhaps, deep within, they feel bound to their beneficiaries by the shared 'karma' of being fed by Kadalamma.

Note added on January 7th 2017:

Just found in Mahabharata (where else?!) this bit (I quote from an online source):

"There lived a Brahmin with his wife, son and daughter-in-law. He used to follow the lifestyle of Unchavritti (living on grains picked from post-harvest leftovers from the fields)....."

Thus begins the story told by a half-gold mongoose. In some versions of the story, Unchavritti is the name of the Brahmin in the story.

Unchavritti (which appears to have been viewed with a certain level of respect), is often distinguished from living on 'bhiksha' (alms). Of course, the latter is, as opposed to a gleaner's, a life-style absolutely devoid of labour and production. There are also some who take 'unchavritti' to mean the lifestyle of musical mendicants such as Tyagaraja, Tukaram, Kanakadasa and so forth.


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