Saturday, August 11, 2012

My memories at coffee plantation

It is another rainy day here. The sight of rain drops falling on the leaves reminds me the dew drops in Wayanad. Situated in north Kerala, Wayanad is one of the exotic destinations for travellers.  My relationship with this tourist spot is not that of a traveller. It is the place where I spent my childhood. The long 15 years, perhaps the most vital time in any person’s life span. 

Coffee plantation
My memories at Wayanad begin at my Dad's coffee plantation. Midst of coffee plants and pepper strings, the little me ran and played. I often got surprised with the varieties of plants and insects existed there. Several migrant birds visited the place and they rested on the Shatavari herbs (Asparagus) that my mother grew on the pillars of our house.

The surroundings always bore a heavy silence. The only time I found the place noisy was during the coffee season, from December to March. 

During this period, the labourers from Karnataka come to our place in abundance. Each estate has their own labourers to come every year and they have a master accompanying them. He decides the wages for them and brings more people if the owners demand. 

Paadi houses for labourers
The labourers are usually accompanied with their families. They have a fixed accommodation arranged within the estates itself, which is popularly called as ‘paadi’. This is nothing, but the labourer cottages.

The work time begins at 8am and extends up to 5pm. There is a person who is addressed as ‘Wrighter’ (hope the word emerged from the word Wright) or Mastery. He leads the work. Mostly, he is an appointed elderly person who lives within the estate throughout the year, irrespective of the seasons. 

Food habits of labourers
Ragi balls (Ragi mudde)
The food habit of the labourers is something I found fascinating. The main food was always Ragi (Finger millet), which they brought from their home town. The ragi is boiled in water and is made it into heavy balls. A curry of dal and onions is made as side dish. For spice, the people bite small green chillies grown in the estates. As a child who grew up by eating rice, this was anew to me. 

In addition, they fried ground nuts which were also from their native. The ground nuts were given as gifts to the owners, whom they addressed as ‘Sowkaar’.

The work
The first work in the estate is cutting of grass. This begins early so that the ground is cleaned before the coffee ripens. This is the only time in the year I could walk through the estate without the kisses of grass on the legs. Once cleaned, the place becomes a kingdom of mosquitoes. I can still feel the depth of the itch their bite gives. Perhaps, it is the toughest one I had ever experienced. 

Coffee Harvesting
The harvest of coffee is a memory by itself. The process is completed in three sections that begins in December. The first pluck is careful, in which the ripened beans alone are plucked. By January, all beans get fully ripened and it is plucked at one stretch. The workers strip the beans from the branches. The third pluck is a clean up. Women undertake this job. The fallen beans are picked from the mud. Those from the mud are found without the outer skin. The reason for this is the bats. Bats eat the red skin of the coffee beans and spit the inside kernels. 

Evenings are the time to count the filled sacks. The view of the labourers bearing the sacks and strolling up to the flat lands is captivating. One sack is approximated to sixty kilograms. That is a standard measurement defined. The sacks are weighed on machines only towards the sale. 

Coffee beans at Kalam
These plucked beans are laid on the flat lands called ‘Kalam’ and are allowed to dry. The red colour gives a stunning view and I used to skate on them. Every night people sit at the corners of the land with lighted camp fires. They sing songs throughout the night. These are the only nights in Wayanad which are fearless. 

Flowered coffee plant
Once the beans are plucked, the coffee plants get ready for flowering. The white flowers spread a fragrance in the aura. 

The coffee making
Dried coffee beans
A peculiar way is followed to test the dryness of the beans. The beans are taken in bunch and are shaken. The crispy sound indicates dryness. When dried, the colourfulness of the coffee beans vanishes and they turn dark brown. These dried brown beans are crushed and the white inner kernels are separated from them. The white kernels are fried later and grinded into coffee powder. 

White coffee kernels
The estates mostly sell the dark brown beans. The white kernels are expensive, yet only a few go for kernel sale. Perhaps it could be the difficulty existed in the conversion process that ceased them. 

The labourers stay till the sale period, which is often at the end of March. Their salaries were given weekly and their celebration were limited to a Sunday movie. The owners offer the labourers clothes and food as a sign of gratitude on their departure day. It marks sadness not only to the people, but also to the place. I always felt the darkness gulp the place faster on such days and the scary sounds fill the environment. 

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