I can’t eat a mango without thinking about my nani ma, my Indian grandma. As its golden juices trickle down my chin and cling to my fingers in sticky drops, I recall her words. Describing how as a child she would pick the fruit from the graceful tree in the garden, devouring the sun-soaked fruit on the spot. The stars in her eyes at the thought of that special treat. What could be more delicious than a mango in its prime? These childhood memories of hers echo in me, despite the imported fruit lacking the intensity and vibrant flavour which only the Indian soil can instill in it. I can only grasp at the hint, at sweetness pale as the winter sun.
Having been born and raised in Germany, I’ve always struggled with claiming my Indian heritage despite feeling an undeniable connection, a constant yearning. Since I don’t speak Hindi, our food has become my language. Chapati, daal, kheer, biryani, and paranthas are my vocabulary, the mantras, and rituals that see me through troubled times.
When my family immigrated to the UK, my mother and her siblings used to hang their coats far away from the kitchen, so they wouldn’t take on the scents of Indian cooking. My grandparents worried their offspring would get bullied for the curry smell and Indian accent. So, they also stopped speaking Hindi in their presence. Sounds and scents disappeared to the private realm. Today, I am proud of the bold perfumes that weave into my hair when I cook the recipes handed down over generations. It is the same scent that greets me when I visit my grandma’s house. Food is what connects me to the motherland, more than anything else. It is more than comfort to me – it is home.
Growing up in a different country from your grandparents, you learn to love from a distance. Since yet another prolongation of the lockdown has been announced, I worry about grandma’s safety, her health. I wonder when I will be able to see her again, hold her close in a big hug.
But there are also other elders, other grandparents who I fear for. In the biggest protest to date, thousands of Indian farmers have spent over two months on the outskirts of the Indian capital to make their voices heard. Braving the pitiless Delhi fog, the bone-gnawing cold, and the blows from batons by the police, they remain undeterred.
Their mission: Repealing three agricultural reforms that have been hastily and undemocratically put into force by the current government. Put simply, the laws are promoted as advantageous for the farmers, opening up a more liberal market for them to sell their produce. Small farmers, which represent the majority of the rural workforce, however, fear without governmental regulations and the guarantee of a minimum price, they will be left powerless and at the mercy of greedy corporations – which is already largely the case. Many of them are in debt. Many believe corporations will slowly bleed out the small landowners to ultimately snatch their land from them. In India, 29 farmers commit suicide per day. And the numbers of that strange fruit are increasing.
Born out of desperation, the non-violent struggle against these cut-throat laws unites farmers from all across the subcontinent. People of all faiths. Men. Women, often overlooked, but the most essential protagonists in agriculture and also the backbone of this protest. Even children. And so many elders. Their white beards and cracked skin speak of a life cultivating the soils, tending to the crops like a mother to a child. Not a day off. No nine-to-five schedule.
Never in my life have I seen so many elders at a protest. For us, the young, there lies a promise of adventure and rebellion in protest. Our elders camping out in make-shift tents, sleeping on the bare ground or in tractors is painful to see. Have they not struggled enough in life to enjoy the rewards of their work? Should they not have at least some comfort as compensation for their constant sacrifice? Many of the elders have already died from heart attacks due to the cold. Some of them know they might never return to their homes. If they are successful, many might never benefit from the outcome of their protest. And yet, they stay. And yet, they are willing to make their final sacrifice for the generations to come.
Some days, it seems to me that all is lost. The Western media has been alarmingly quiet about the protest. The inhumane brutality and defamation these honest people are met with make me shudder. The images, the non-violent protest, their dignity remind me of the Indian struggle for independence. Was this their generation’s dream when they reclaimed their country from British rule? Did they sacrifice their lives in non-violent resistance, so that the very same land can now be looted and robbed by greedy and powerful corporations?
However, it comforts me to remember that no one is better equipped for this bone-crushing struggle than a farmer. After all, farming is a business of hope. When farmers plant a seed, they know of the adversity it will face. It seems the elements are not in favour of that seed. They know many seeds will go wasted, will never grow. Will the winds whisk them away? Will the sun make them shrivel up before the rains start? It is a risky business. It requires patience, while the possibility of failure circles over their heads like a vulture. And yet, year after year and generation for generation, they prevail. If the farmers lose this struggle, we will all lose so much more than the land.
Mia Schlichtling is a German-Indian migrant and writer currently living in Vienna, Austria. After graduating in Food Culture at the Sorbonne University, she worked as an editor at a culinary magazine. Since then, she has launched her bi-lingual blog teller-story, which highlights the social, ecological, and cultural aspects of food.
Photo by Johnny What Photography @johnnywhatphotography