Words of Magic by Ronald Mackay
“Please!” The sari-clad women graciously appeal to me to lead the way. Night has fallen on Tamil Nadu. I can barely distinguish the path leading into dim undergrowth.
Why me? They’re the farmers. It’s their land, their millet. The granary belongs to the village. I smile and gesture to an older woman.
“She is suggesting you go first, Dr. Mackay,” says Abhay.
“You’re wearing boots,” says Chandresh.
I compare my Australian Redbacks to the women’s bare feet, but still fail to understand.
“It’s dark,” says Abhay.
“They seek the residual heat on the bare path,” says Chandresh.
“The snakes,” explains Abhay.
Now I understand. My boots offer some protection if I trample one.
Since daybreak, our driver from the Swaminathan Foundation in Chennai, has driven agronomists Abhay and Chandresh, and me as the evaluation specialist, from one isolated hamlet to another, in the monsoon-soaked Jawadhu Hills. In each, barefoot farmers, all women, have greeted us with smiles and fruit drinks, clasping their hands and inclining their heads to respect the sacred in us. I’ve learned to return the honour.
Women have led me to the village granary where they store their harvested millet, an earthenware pot for each variety. My task is to confirm the volume of each variety harvested. The Swaminathan Foundation propagated the seed they’ve planted. The European Union has paid for its free distribution. This joint project seeks to reinvigorate the cultivation of high-quality millet in Tamil Nadu.
If villagers resume eating this traditional grain, their health and the general wellbeing of the hamlets in the Jawadhu Hills will improve. Farmers can sell their surplus and with the money, send their daughters to school. All will benefit. This is how development works.
It takes an evaluation specialist to ensure that money granted for development by governments and charities, has been used as intended. The specialist also determines to what extent the goals of the project are being met. For this project, it falls to me to visit the hamlets and their farmers, to gather the appropriate evidence, to assess how well the project is faring. Finally, I will suggest ways to get better results. The European Union will use my report to determine precisely what taxpayers are getting for their investment in assisting poor farmers to grow, consume and sell more millet.
“Make much noise as you go. Snakes will be slithering away before you are getting close,” Abhay says.
My Redbacks protect only my feet and ankles. Fears spring to mind. Snakes? What kind? How big? How aggressive? Venomous? Might they strike at ankle level? Higher? Will they give any warning?
“Be making a noise,” Chandresh repeated.
I understand now, why neither he nor Abhay have visited any of the granaries today. Verification is, I know, my job. But has fear played any part in their reluctance?
All five women are smiling, waiting for me to lead. Surely, they won’t knowingly place me in danger. I smile at them, peer into the lush undergrowth and step out bravely.
What kind of noise should I make? Shout? Whistle? Tramp loudly? Why not recite verses of poetry to help distract my mind from any danger?
I begin to recite in the dialect of my Scottish youth. My five farmers follow closely.
Ae day, an ae nicht
A yowden druft fae the cauld nor-east
Has whussilt and pufft and blawn the craa’s aoot the luft
Hit reeshlit the wuids and gart them shuft
Like a breer o barley.
Rustlings in the undergrowth give me no clue as to their origin.
The granary is typical of those I’ve inspected in daylight, the size of a small garden shed with a thatched roof. Five stones support each corner to raise the granary three feet above the ground. Each third stone is flatter, thinner and much larger than those above and below. They serve the same purpose that rat-guards serve on boat-lines -- to keep pilfering rodents out. As additional precaution and shelter from rain, the grain inside is stored in covered clay pots like the amphorae the Greeks use for olive oil.
So far, so good. In the tiny interior, I check the volumes of each variety that these farmers have grown, harvested and stored to feed the families in their hamlet, educate their daughters. They clap, delighted, when my moon-lit observations confirm the varieties and volumes that they themselves have recorded.
Now for the return trip. Surely no snake can be dumb enough to slither back onto the trail so soon after twelve feet have tramped past?
Back we head, me in the lead. Douglas Young’s words loud and clear to warn wayward reptiles and to bolster my confidence.
The cypress busses is aa blaan crookit;
The green’s are as clorty as only doo-cot;
The wind-faan aiples’ll hae te be cuikit afore they get waar;
The plooms are aa wersh they’re that sair drookit and clortied wi glaur.
Not a single snake!
The villagers offer blossoms and petals in Hindu ceremony in thanks.
We clasp hands and bow our departure but the older woman clutches my arm.
“She is begging you,” says Chandresh, “‘please teach us the words.’”
“Of the spell,” says Abhay.
“The one they say you used to ward off the snakes,” adds Chandresh. “They want to learn the words so they’ll never again be afraid to walk the path at night.”
The women shake their heads, meaning, ‘Please!’.
Soon, all these sari-clad farmers have committed the words of Douglas Young’s Fife Equinox to memory. A polyglot himself, he would have been proud of them. Perhaps of me to!
So, the next time you happen to find yourself in the Jawadhu Hills of Tamil Nadu after sunset, don’t be surprised if you hear my Scottish dialect gently chanted by a single line of women making their way back to the hamlet from the communal granary where they store their millet.