We bought a farm: A Delhi couple’s adventures with simple life
Shady contractors, sceptical neighbours and vegetables that just didn’t look right... nothing was as they’d imagined.
You can revel in the beauty of Nature, feel healed by it, but, a famous naturalist once warned me, you can never own it. I beg to differ, I would have told him at the start of our farm adventure, as I cupped a tiny brown frog in my palm. This is my land and on my piece of land, right now, millions of frogs are hopping around drumming up a raucous chorus to welcome the rains.
It was an illusion of grandeur, this feeling of owning nature, but since this moment had come after two long years of searching, I allowed myself that indulgence. For all the scars we inflict on the planet, this two-acre piece of land that was finally my own, gave me my chance to do everything right. That reality was enough to make my PM 2.5-laced lungs cry for joy.
I didn’t want to be a ‘Chattarpur farmer’ (no offence to the people of Chattarpur) or part of a gated community where uniformed guards patrolled manicured patches of broccoli. This was going to be a real farm. This wouldn’t just be our weekend getaway; we could watch our bhindi grow as our two-year-old ran around.
But farming in India, or anywhere in the world for that matter, is far from gentle on the planet. In time we would come to realise this, but more on that later.
When we first began our search — me, the environmental journalist, and my husband, the wildlife filmmaker — the property dealers descended on us like sly hawks, showing us by turns plot so full of water they could only be a scam, and land so alkaline it held not a blade of grass. There were fertile green fields too, but they were far outside our budget.
We met brokers whose land existed only on paper, saw ready-made farmhouses with ugly iron gates, but nothing that jumped out at us and said ‘Buy me!’
Our patience finally paid off in mid-2016. A farmer I instinctively liked and trusted was selling his plot because he wanted to purchase land elsewhere. It still cost a bit more than we’d bargained for — I had one last fixed deposit and we’d have to liquidate that too, putting into this plot literally all we had. But it was the right distance from the city for day trips, it offered easy access via a small road, and most importantly, I wasn’t buying from a sleazeball in the city.
POSING LIKE DRAUPADI
The journey from liking a piece of land and owning it is an arduous one. There’s room for many a slip, so you have to go slow. First we had to get a lawyer to do due diligence and make sure we didn’t spend decades in court over contested claims. The papers were clear, our legal eagles said. Now the deal began to move in swift, sharp steps.
We didn’t have enough money to buy the complete parcel of land; we had to forego the portion that had the tube well. We would have no water source for our crops, but that was an obstacle we would deal with later, we said.
Eight weeks on, bright and early, armed with a sheaf of papers, we arrived at a nondescript government office by the side of a national highway in rural Haryana. Outside the small red building, notaries sat under the shade of a large banyan tree, beset by landowners. It was a cesspool of testosterone. Everyone was in overdrive, struggling to get their papers signed before the lunch break. My hands were stained with purple ink as we put our thumbprint on sheet after sheet, which was then handed over to a bespectacled man seated behind iron bars in the red brick building with no lights and no ventilation.
A paan-chewing tout in figure-hugging blue jeans hurled cuss words every time the officer behind the bars found a comma or a full stop missing in the legal documents and tossed the papers back at us.
The smell of hot food got my stomach rumbling. I followed it out to the highway to discover Maruti vans parked with their boots open, dishing up, for Rs 25 a plate, piping hot home-cooked rajma-chawal. It was a feast for hungry landowners like me waiting to get paperwork done.
I craved coffee and decided to drive 10km down the highway to get it, leaving the beleaguered (though more patient) husband to deal with Blue-Jeans Tout. As I sat quietly in the corner of a café, sipping, I noticed a hefty man with dark glasses arrive at the counter with a briefcase. He looked very like the bouncers at trendy discotheques in Delhi. He tucked his hand into his pocket to give everyone a fleeting glimpse of a shiny black pistol hooked to his belt.
The local farmers I shared this information with shrugged it off as common practice — ‘Yes, the gun-toting bouncers are called in sometimes to help collect rent from the slackers’. I cringed, eager to go back to the husband and apprise him of what we had done: bought land in an area where hafta collectors came with guns to collect their monthly rent.
The husband brushed aside my paranoia. Let’s just stay focused on the moment, he hissed, as Blue Jeans Tout hurled another string of curses at us all. Six harrowing hours later, the papers were done, and we were called forward for the photo opportunity. The sellers on one side (two brothers and their three offspring) and me the buyer on the other. We had to look into a small video camera fixed on the iron grille. Nearly invisible in the darkening interiors, the revenue officer shouted, “No moving pliss”.
In the final picture, I look like Draupadi being married off to the Pandavas.
WE BECOME OWNERS
The drama over, my husband and I walked out of the Registrar’s office. The vans laden with lunch had vanished.
We decided to drive to ‘our land’ as the yellow bhindi flowers reflected the last rays of the sun. All my adult life I had been eating bhindi and I had had no idea it came from a plant with yellow flowers. Much to learn, I muttered to the husband.
Our journey as farmers had begun. Suddenly my exhausted soul felt enriched by the clear blue sky, my carbon-laced lungs felt cleansed by the gentle breeze that made the bhindi sway its welcome to us, the new owners.
After all the dusty road trips, the sleepless stressful nights, we had made it. I bent down and scooped up some clayey soil and clutched it in my closed fist.
We would grow our own bhindi; we would welcome the frogs every monsoon. Finally, we owned a piece of earth.
(Bahar Dutt is an environment journalist learning to grow her own food)