Friday, September 24, 2010

taxi drivers and agricultural pedagogy: my days in punjab

my days in punjab are coming to a close, at least for now. i plan to leave to the northern states of himachel padesh and jammu and kashimir sunday morning. first to the hill station at shimla (the former colonial summer capital) then to manali, and perhaps even ladakh; traversing the grandeur of the western himalayas. before i make that journey, inshallah, i thought i would share with you a more thorough description of daily life thus far.

every morning i wake up, before i put on my makeup, i say a little pra...oh, err, wait. no. let's try this again:

5am: the local gudwara beckons worshipers to prayer. i turn over, hoping for another hour of sleep;
i typically rise between 6 and 7am. i use the washroom. i clean my room. i greet dr kang, who can usually be found practicing yoga or otherwise preparing for the day (tying his turban, reading his hymns, etc). i spend the next two hours leisurely oscillating between reading scripture, catching up on indian news, praying, eating chapati, purifying my water, and trying to communicate with shanty, the house maid: so far we've mastered hand signals, and basic words such as roti (food) and sukrriya (thank-you).

i have come to expect dr kang's emphatic call of "let us move" around 9:30am. we exit to the marble driveway, which may sound more posh and exotic than it is: many of the homes i have visited have marble flooring. some mornings we take the car (a compact suzuki), some mornings a driver picks us up in a government suv, and one morning we took the new hero honda motorcycle: a trip which was less jarring than i had expected, in light of previously mentioned road conditions, and the lack of helmets (sorry dad).

our destination depends on the day. friday, monday, wednesday, and now friday again, we have made the 6 kilometer journey to langroya - a small colony outside of nawanshahr - to what is called a kvk: transliterating hindi to english, a krishi vigyan kendra (farm science centre): the workplace of dr. kang.

there are a multitude of  kvks (571 to be exact) across india. they act as a testing ground/research area for vegetable crops, fruit, and other aspects of farm life, including animal care and domestic duties such as embroidery and child rearing. kvks are composed of a team of specialized scientists - most of whom have completed doctorate level research - and workers who tend to the fields and package the produce. kvks operate under the auspices of the federal government, in conjunction with local universities; in this case the punjab agricultural university at ludihana.

kvk langroya employs a veterinarian, an agronomist, a home scientist (re: domestic duties), a horticulturist, a plant geneticist, a plant pathologist, an entomologist (one who studies insects), and a agricultural engineer. together they attempt to find the most effective  methods of farming (with respects to crop yield and crop health) in punjab. dr kang has been the director of this kvk for 8 years; he oversees the various projects undertaken by the staff and works to ensure coordination between the researchers and local farmers.

i am continually impressed by the work, maybe i could say mission, of the kvk. far from an ivory tower, an academic enclave removed from reality (as some perceive the academy to be), the scientists here humbly strive to better the practices of local farming. arguably the most important facet of doing so is relating to the local farmer. indeed, to quote a punjab agricultural university calendar which hangs in many of the rooms, "[the] farmer is the most important visitor on [the] premises. he is not an interruption on [the] work, he is the purpose of it." most strikingly the staff embody this attitude. they meet regularly with farmers, they host training sessions, and they attempt to foster relationships built on mutual trust and understanding. the calendar continues: "we are not doing a favour by serving him, he is doing us a favour by giving us an opportunity to do so." as such, binaries of researcher/researched, educated/ignorant, and town/gown, beautifully blend as knowledge is gathered and disseminated. to reiterate, the kvk works for the betterment of the farmer, not for a short-sighted economic end, nor a ego-based scientific enterprise which attempts to know all. Of course helping the farmer includes advocating for fair wages and promoting practices (through science) which decrease waste and improve yield for cash, but the spirit is of service, not profit or self-aggrandizement. 

in many ways this educational environment serves as a model of what "western" institutions could be. while i am sure there are some that operate similarly (perhaps in an agricultural setting like this), more often than not, i think canadian/american/english based universities have become couched in discourses of vocational opportunity. "what do you want to be?"; "what job will that degree get you?"; and "are we producing economically viable citizens?" have replaced more important questions like "how does your degree affect your job?"; "how does your degree help you be?"; "how can your degree work to support the citizenry?"

as i wander the main hall of the institute, professors welcome me into their offices (which they share with a colleague); they are interested to hear of my life and willing to speak of their own. for those who speak little english, we stick the basics: why am i here? where am i going next? those whose english is more competent, converse on their research and motivation for working with the kvk.

on multiple occasions i have ventured to rural farms and the fields of the kvk, guided by various professors. i have learned about crop varieties and species, breeding techniques, preservation, and soil quality. when the professors are occupied i find myself reading journal articles on indian agriculture and am now adequately versed in the basics of the field (no pun intended).

throughout the day i am served tea, and sometimes cookies, by the young man - essentially a butler - who runs back and forth helping professors with administrative and culinary duties. lunch is spent with dr kang. and my afternoons are ripe with continued learning.

when "5 has gone" (after 5pm) dr kang and i leave for home, always with a fresh basin of buffalo milk and other items his assistants may have purchased at his request. upon arrival dr kang begins preparation for dinner; i have started to help. we peel fresh vegetables for the base of the dish to be served and talk about life. notable is the great respect dr kang has for his associates and the humour he finds in many things: i rarely laugh this much.

at 6pm dr kang leaves to worship at the gudwara and i sit and think or work out. i probably should tend to the latter: we eat a lot here (i average 10 chapati a day and three main course meals, a piece of fruit, and a serving of dairy) and i am rather sedentary.

when dr. kang returns he bathes while i read and then we switch. afterwards we finish dinner preparation and eat (usually by 8:30pm). after we have had our fill it's bed time: 9:30pm, lights out, ready for another day in punjab.

the days when we don't attend the kvk, we spend touring the major attractions of the state. i have seen the capital, various museums, the golden temple, hindu places of worship, various markets in the big cities, and, most poignantly, the indian/pakistani border. (each of these trips deserve a post unto themselves, though due to time constraints will likely not be brought to fruition. if you so desire, i anticipate our conversation upon my return.) as i have written before, dr kang graciously funds these adventures and i have only spent rs600 ($13.33 CDN; to be sure, that's thirteen dollars and thirty three cents) since arrival!

on our trip to amritsar our driver took it upon himself to take my luggage tag, which was a canadian flag with my contact information affixed, and tied it to his rearview mirror. unfortunately, he had to have gone through the contents of my bag to do so; i suppose his intentions were only moderately malicious (or, more positively, he was just a curious fellow with a vexillological fixation) as he left my sunscreen, hand sanitizer, and journal. i didn't have the courage to call him on it. so if you're in the area and you see a canadian flag in a taxi window you know we('ve) share(d) proximity.

admittedly, this post was rather heavy on details, intentionally so. i hope it provides a deeper understanding, or paints a better picture - if you will, of my travels. thanks for taking time to read this.
god bless,


  1. Hello lovely boy
    having a Chai and a tear with your mom as i read your beautiful entries and how they reflect on your outlook of the world and your incredible spirit.
    we love you a lot
    and send you blessings on this next leg of the journey.
    aunt heidi
    (if i have taught you anything -- it is to not be a CAPITALIST)

  2. These are some great posts, Robb. Thank you for your honesty and insight...hope all is well!


  3. We love you very much and think of you often. I love reading your blogs!
    xoxoxo Aunt Cindy

  4. thanks for the encouragement folks. i miss you all a great deal. i'm grateful for the internet: so we can share fleeting moments though worlds apart. god bless you all!