By Jeff Carter
I’ve always held a fascination for India and while I’ve never been there, there have been other opportunities to learn. Over the years I’ve come into contact with a number of academics and activists from the subcontinent.
Among them is Vandana Shiva, the environmentalist and food system advocate who is known, among other things, for her opposition to genetic engineering and the industrialization of the food system. Another is Rattan Lal, a man of humble origins, who is recognized internationally for his research as a soil biologist.
Most recently, I had the opportunity to interact with a dairy technologist from Bangalore, India’s third largest city located in the south of the country. He worked extensively in India, and also in Mauritius, Kenya, Uganda and Malawi where he was involved in managing and designing dairy processing facilities.
Here in Canada, he had been staying with his son and daughter-in-law for an extended visit and found himself at loose ends during the day. I was introduced after my wife discovered him volunteering at the free-clothes depot at a local church.
Ravindra, who refers to me as “Mr. Jeff,” was hoping to visit a dairy farm in Canada and so I arranged a couple stops, one in Chatham-Kent at a more traditional operation and another with state-of-the-art equipment and facilities in Lambton County.
We took a circuitous route through the countryside crossing the Sydenham River a number of times during the process.
We also shared a bit of food. I provided a tour of our garden offering a few vegetables, not all of which he was familiar with. Ravindra shared with me a breakfast meal typical of south Indian, a blend of wheat farina, vegetables and spices, along with a treat – a from-scratch tapioca pudding.
The tapioca was flavoured with actual vanilla beans rather than vanilla extract. Ravindra seemed a bit disappointed when I remarked that it tasted a lot like what my grandmother once made. (Had he made it with cardamon as he first intended, my reaction would likely have been different.)
Nothing like food to make a connection.
As it happened, I had been dabbling in Indian cooking, having acquired a cookbook written by Madhur Jaffrey who was described by an overly zealous reviewer as “godmother of Indian cooking.”
The diet that Ravindra and other many members of the Hindu population of India follow is known as lacto-vegetarianism. Grains, vegetables, beans and lentils are widely consumed, along with milk and milk products. As Ravindra pointed out, the cow is viewed as sacred in India, but unlike stereotypical views from the west, they are working animals, valued for their manure, as beasts of burden and, most of all, their milk.
Milk consumption goes back thousands of years in India and over the past 50 years, the dairy industry has been transformed through what is known as the White Revolution. Milk production and processing have been modernized but at the farm level remains largely in the hands of smallholders, village families who keep just a handful of animals as a secondary source of income.
There has been a great deal of education delivered to these smallholders to maintain the quality of milk and over the years a system has been developed to safely produce, transport and process milk while providing farmers with “fair’ returns. Issues still remain but today India is self-sufficient in milk and milk products, having become the world’s largest producer, exceeding even North America in total production.
Ravindra was generally impressed by what he saw at the two Ontario dairy farms but it is difficult to compare the situation in North America to that of India. There are fewer than 10,000 dairy operations in Canada, according to federal government statistics, compared to more than 10 million farms in India where milk is produced.
Ravindra remarked on several features of the landscape as we traveled through the countryside. He learned most of the animals on pasture were beef cattle, that the Sydenham River is relatively healthy despite its muddy appearance and sluggish flow.
He came to understand the concept of farmers in Canada being land-rich but operating with narrow – and occasionally non-existent – profit margins. He also remarked as well on the relative isolation of Canadian farm families. In India farmers generally live in villages together with their livestock.
We only had one disagreement, although unspoken. This was resolved when I casually displayed a number of novels written by Salman Rushdie when Ravindra, a most observant fellow, was paying a visit.
Ravindra said he has heard of Rushdie but has not read any of his works.
Rushdie, born in Bombay and educated in Great Britain, was the subject of a fatwa issued by a leading Iranian Muslim cleric in 1989 which called for his execution after his novel, The Satanic Verses, was published the year before. A year ago, an attempt on his life was made in New York City.
Having read many of Rushdie’s novels, I’ve gained a better understanding and appreciation of the Muslim world and I can only imagine it has been the same for others, something his most virulent critics might consider. Rushdie, arguably the world’s greatest literary figure of our times, also provides a perspective of Hindu-Muslim relations in India and one, as well, of the western world, views often uncomfortable but worthy of consideration. ◊