Kolkata 2

The weather is always doing something in Kolkata.  At the moment the summer rains or “nor’westers” are with us which means that it’s humid during the day with thunderstorms in the evening.  In the morning as I leave my nice chilled room and step into the hallway my glasses steam up.  In the evening the air cools as lightning bolts dance across the sky and the rain pours down like all the gods of India have turned over their bathtubs.  Yesterday evening I went out for a walk and was caught in the deluge, I ran for cover into a tailor’s shop along with about 30 other people.  We all steamed together waiting for the rain to stop and the power went out.  Out came the candles and mobile phone torches. Immediately the traffic snarled up and I later heard it took Rahi an hour and a half to cross the flyover since a couple of trees had come down over the road. I ran back through puddles, happily with my new umbrella!

People are very sociable here.  I was invited to Parthib’s house for an evening with some of his friends.  It was lovely. They are all very musical and were singing a number of traditional Bengali songs with beautiful voices.  Also a Bengali version of Blowing in the Wind.  As always in Bengal, it was accompanied by a succession of lovely dishes.  Sitting with the windows open and a light breeze with people singing it was really quite like being in Spain with Glorita singing or Mario playing.

ParthioutsBallygunge campus

Kolkata street on a sunny day


Agatarla part 2

Next stop was an intensive plot, 50 ha of intensive vegetable production including a number of gourd species.  We wandered along a railway track and scrambled down into the fields.  Here they were growing spiny gourd which requires hand pollination due to lack of pollinators.  It is done in the morning, the male flowers open only early and each male flower can pollinate 5 -6 female flowers. They are picked and touched to the females. If we can demonstrate that beekeeping and other interventions can eliminate the need for hand pollination we will have a strong case with which to approach govt.

An intensive plot

The last place we visited on that first day was a Jhum area, which is a term for shifting cultivation practised by tribal people.  This year’s land had been very recently cleared (by burning) in preparation for planting.  The family occupying the area certainly have their work cut out, perhaps 40 ha had been burnt and this will be planted up with a mixture of crops, sown together.  Some of the slopes were very steep.  Beyond the burnt area, the forest rises up, home to a group of Hoolock Gibbon – which I didn’t see (gutted). A small extended tribal family are living in the area.  Ideally patches are cultivated on a 7 – 10 year rotation but because the area the tribal people have available is shrinking, the rotation has become shorter – about 3 – 5 years which isn’t so great for the land.  Tribal people have newly established rights to the forest and the dept. of Agriculture is doing its best to support them.  The small homestead was occupied by four huts, traditionally bamboo and thatch but a couple are corrugated steel.  The farmer showed us around and is happy to be part of the project.   Actually, I think he has been part of more than one international project!! It’s kind of a convenient place – surrounded by forest and certainly free from pesticides but it has a road going right past it so good access and less walking for the research fellows 🙂 .  The farmer and his family are well used to being photographed (see below).  The traditional greeting is to touch your hands to your chest which indicates ‘you are so dear to me’.  There are strong family ties with the idea that you might be dear to someone taken for granted – it kind of made me sad for England.

This shows the kind of clearance that is achieved

Photo opportunity!

A traditional hut

The family

The most surreal event was being taken to a house to see bees in a cupboard.  Knowing that we were keen to talk to bee keepers, our partners in the area really outdid themselves by stopping at a village we were passing to introduce us to a man who had a hive of Apis cerana in his cupboard.  Not by accident I hasten to add, the villagers had taken a swarm and put them in the cupboard, leaving the door slightly ajar to allow them access and had recently harvested a jar of raw honey.  Perhaps the most surreal part for me was that, the things originally in the cupboard had not been taken out.  Bees and books sharing space.

Cupboard bees!

Next day we were up bright and early to drive 3 hours up into the tribal lands.  It feels as remote as it is, now relatively peaceful but being up by the border and historically quite volatile it was an area that visitors might think twice about driving through at night (especially visitors who stick out like a sore thumb (me!).  As we drove we caught the tail end of a cyclone and hurtling along winding roads, overtaking the lorries creeping painfully up steep hills, we ploughed through the rain, with the thud of large hailstones glancing off our roof.  By the time we reached the research station we were visiting, the rain had begun to subside.  And the place we ended up was like a small piece of heaven.  A hill research station, newly invigorated by a scientific team of 5 young scientists and their experienced director.  Met by smiling faces and umbrellas we were hurried into the office and sat behind a desk to meet the team, who arranged themselves in front of us and introduced themselves.  We were treated to tea and traditional sweets and unable to wait for the rain to stop we went out to look at the experimental areas.  15 ha of land, some already down to experiments and managed by this amazingly enthusiastic team of scientists. Almost any experimental set-up can be managed here and the team are very keen to collaborate on the project.  What a fantastic resource.  After we had looked around we went to a small guest house across the road and here we were served a meal made by the team. A Bengali feast which was constructed completely from the produce from their gardens: pointed gourd, dal, fresh tomato chutney, even their own rice.  And fruit: water melon, pomegranate, apple, grapes and banana all cut and arranged so beautifully.  It must have taken an age – they are very isolated there and they have used their spare time to practice their culinary skills.  Through the window was a view of a  cultivated plain, dotted with huts and beyond, the forest and hills, their summits wreathed in mist.

As my camera battery ran out, I am waiting for others to send me their snaps.

Agatarla part 1

We arrived in Agatarla with the first shower of rain since October, the temperature plummeted to 31 and it felt almost cool as we crossed the tarmac.  In Bengal they say that when visitors arrive with rains then the rain is from the Gods. It’s a good omen. Agatarla is the capital of Tripura, a northern state, bordering Bangladesh and is itself only 5 km from the border. It is carved into the jungle, the roads in a grid pattern lined by lock-ups selling, making and fixing anything you might need.  The main street, a kind of Oxford Street, is a bustling mix of modern shops and traditional market. There are a profusion of tuk tuks as well as bicycle rickshaws which ride perilously close to the huge painted lorries with ‘Blow Horn’ on the back.  And everyone does.   The area is a great producer of fruit and vegetables and the market is currently a cornucopia of melons, which make everything we have in England look hilariously puny.  The houses tend to be bungalows, many with woven flattened bamboo walls but there is a general trend in the direction of concrete – which is more secure and lasts longer –although I expect insufferably hot.  The latter can be grand, painted in bright colours, each with a small plot of tropical flowers and fruits.  Grand is a theme.  The railway station looks like a palace. Along the lanes, the forest scrambles to come back in.

We are staying at the state guest house, I do not have my own room, I have my own suite complete with conference area !  I don’t think I will even sit in all the chairs available. It is positively palatial, faced in pink marble, with a grand entrance and cool white marble floors throughout.  We have two staff a piece looking after us and the kitchen is wonderful.  I am battling my English need to tell everyone not to bother and am being appreciative of the honour that I am being given. Not that anyone can understand me and I am seriously starting Bengali lessons when I get home, I will not survive without it.

Tripura state guest house bedroom

and the lounge / conference area

Our visit has been architected by Baharul Islam and as the days go by I can see the skill he has.  We are appearing to just come across just the right sites in just the right places, all of which is, I am sure, the result of very detailed planning.

The first afternoon we visited an organic small holding of about 1 ha.  The arrangement is what is called a ‘composite’ farm here and what we would probably think of as a permaculture plot.  Behind the homestead is a pond for fish and irrigation (and ducks).  Around and beyond are plots of various fruits and vegetables in particular a number of gourds, including our favourite ‘pointed gourd’, and brinjals (aubergine) of several types (there are a great diversity of brinjals in India), cucumber and tomatoes and others.  There were also some lime trees.  The farm is run by an early adopter who took up this kind of farming in the face of local opposition.  But by making it work he has won over the local community and now trains other farmers and made an amazing success of his enterprise.  One of the most exciting things for us is that he keeps bees.  He has four hives of Apis cerana, a small honey bee indigenous to the area.  His son opened the hive and showed us the queen, I have never seen anyone open a hive with so much skill and so gently, it was beautiful to watch. The hives produce about 6 litres of honey a year.  The truly exciting part is still to come.  When Sri Nitai Saskar started he had to hand pollinate his pointed gourd but with 4 Apis cerana hives per hectare he doesn’t need to do it all. He also felt that overall production of pollinated crops had increased by around 30%. This gives us incredible hope for our project.  We were beside ourselves.  But the good doesn’t end there as Nitai Saskar Is keen to be involved and has agreed to act as a training centre.  He can feed up to 100 at a time.

  Talking to Nitai Saskar at the Krishnadhan Memorial composit farm

Apis cerana and the gentle beekeeper

Apis cerana

The next day we went up to Teliamura which we had identified as a possible project area using google earth (!).  We were lucky with the weather, it didn’t top 33 today and was around 29 for much of the time (I am acclimatising, put the heating on for me when I get home!). The first stop was at a site that has a certain amount of pesticide use in the rice but is also close to the forest – what we would consider within our project framework to be intermediate (not an intensive area but not in the forest and not completely pesticide free).   The site grows a lot of limes, which are pollinated by the common lime butterfly (those Victorians knew what they were up to eh? ;)).  I wish I could post the smell of a sweet lime, freshly picked under the tropical sun.  It is a soft smell, the sharpness is almost a whisper.  It’s no good – I can’t describe it, you will have to come and smell for yourself.   Among the vegetation we saw a couple of dragonfly  which were beautiful, one incredibly fancy (common picture wing – no photo)  that it could have been a butterfly from a distance if it’s flight pattern hadn’t been so distinctively dragonfly like.

Fish pond

Gourds are encouraged to climb over trellis

Think it’s a ‘pied paddy skimmer’

Ant nest in a lime tree – Crematogaster species

We then went to a homestead (close by) where they were growing pointed gourds and where the lady who owns the homestead has agreed to have an experimental plot for us. Basically she will look after the crop and record yield, our field assistants will record pollinators.  Pointed gourds are going to be a recurring theme of my life for the next three years, they are a key crop and very dependent on pollination services. I can’t imagine what the girls giggling in the shade made of me, Indian women are so incredibly groomed, even when they are going into the field.  I was in clothes I consider suitable for the field, cool and practical but ultimately pretty charmless with my big funny hat.  I must look a scream to them.  Although it looks productive the land stills offers a fairly meagre income and any improvement in production will improve livelihoods.

Lady at far left is gooing to grow a plot of gourd for monitoring yeild change after intervention.

Anyway -enough for today! to be continued …..

Kolkata part 1

Kolkata is made up of numerous qarters, each of which is distinct.  The south Indian quarter, the old quarter, the book quarter … you get the picture.  People have come from all over India to populate Kolkata and generally settled with people from their own community so you can go to particular areas to sample various regional cuisine.  Tonight we went to the South Indian quarter and had masala dosa and idle (pronounced idlie) which was particularly good. I am staying at Golpark which is near to the market area where the streets are strung with market stalls full of kurti (blouses), jewellery, throws and shoes.  I have no idea how many kurti there are in Kolkata, but it is quite a few! The streets in this area area packed with people weaving through and around the stalls in the steamy heat, to the sound of car horns.  The intersection is a huge and terryfying roundabout with the Rama Krishna mission sitting in an orderly manner on one ‘corner’ and a riot of shops, stalls and street food sellers on the other sides.

Gol park

The guest house (in a quiet side street)

Rada krishna centre

Rada krishna garden

Two days ago Ronita took me to the old quarter where we visted her friend in her home which is one of the traditional old family homes in Kolkata.  We visited because they were holding a puja (religious festival) and so we saw a little of that and I was shown the house.  It is actually seven buildings joined together, occupied by the extended family.  Built around a very large courtyard, open to the sky, each floor is galleried with rooms leading from the gallery so that family members have a small suite of rooms to themselves but otherwise live communally. The gallery has a view into the central courtyard of course.  The building was beautiful, with oranate railings around the gallery and spiral staircases and small corridors leading maze like in every direction.  It is currently occupied by 70 people but apparently in the last generation there were 200.  As every where else as people go to uni and get careers the number of offspring is falling sothe  future of this lifestyle is not clear. The pujas that this family hold are famous through out the city so I was lucky to see it.

Kolkata house in the olf quarter

Puja – in which Shiva pushes his luck with his wife by demanding food rudely and brings about famine across the land as well as disillusionment with the gods.  Here he is begging her to start providing food again – at the behest of his fellow gods who are not best amused.

Offical start-up

The project was formally agreed by signing the MOU with Registrar in the office of the VC Academic.We are now going through the process of setting up the financial structures. Next step is have a partnership meeting with the government officials of the Agriculture Departments of Tripura and Orissa which we are doing on Monday.  The fun bit was going up to the newly added top floor where the university has built a Centre for Modern Biology in which a number of other centres are nested (mostly molecular) and where we will have our Centre for Pollination Studies.  Its not furnished and the partition isn’t up yet but the room is there! (see below)


CPS room is through that window – you can’t see it but there is a great view.

We don’t get all of it!  It will partitioned and part of it will be workshop space that any of the Centres can use.

Our corridor… err, on second thoughts perhaps not that interesting!!

Settling in

I arrived on Tuesday morning bright and early and found Kolkata airport to be quiet and restrained. No crowed of Taxi drivers calling, just a few people milling about and some sunshine.  I expected to come out into a furnace but tropical heat doesn’t seem to be like that.  Its not like the Nevada desert where you feel you’ve been sandwiched in a George Foreman grill, it is more subtle.  It feels comfortable and then you realise something is bothering you and you realise you are HOT! Very very hot.  However, AC is everywhere, although I am practising at doing without because  the forest next week is unlikely to be airconditioned!

Parthib and his student Priya met me at the airport and whisked me off  the guest house where I am staying.  Its about a 15 minute walk from the University.  Its light and airy with everything I need. They are massively looking after me. After a couple of hours sleep (I had managed 6 in the last 48 hours) I went to the University and met other students in the ecology lab (see pictures).  It is great fun working with these guys, they are all involved in fascinating ecological studies out in remarkably remote areas.  They couldn’t have been more welcoming and I feel quite at home.

We haven’t been biding our time though.  On the second day Parthib and I did some of the official buisness, formally signing the agreement between GWCT and University of Calcutta with the Registrar and obtaining official permissions from the Vice-chancellor etc.  Will post photos when I have sorted my card reader out.  The main campus, where the VC is based is the original building.  Incredibly grand, with an ENORMOUS marble staircase.  It is the oldest University in India, originating in colonial times.  Apparently it has over 60 buildings scattered around Kolkata, all donated by wealthy alumni.

For the last two days I have got up early to work on UK stuff, gone into the lab at about 10.30 and then returned to the guest house at about 7.30 to finish UK bits while everyone is still at work.  Tomorrow I am determined to walk around a bit – i now know how to walk to the uni so I might try and make it through the heat in the morning.  Will post pics tomorrow.