As we swept past a turn on the NH66 heading South, a lush green rice field emerged by the roadside.
Sandwiched between the highway and a hill and bounded on the west by a smattering of banana plants along an outer embankment of mud and laterite breached by an opening to channel water into the field, the dollop of green was like fresh lemonade to the eyes in the deciduous landscape and red earth.
Canacona lay 15 kms away.
We had driven through Balli on the NH66 on our way to Cotigao, dodging shadows while they sought to embrace us in the early March morning light filtering through trees, a sight that kept us company all the way through.
Leaves danced on the road, swallowing us up like a blanket moving up and over the head, except this blanket stretched kilometres on end and I was more than happy to let it slide over, and over. To be ‘netted’ without being constrained is to be embraced without being held. It’s a different feeling.
The caress of the road is experienced in myriad ways.
It was a fine morning for the road and I was relieved to be in Goa and about the place. A day of hiking in the Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary beckoned us both. Philip’s binoculars and camera lay in a bag between the seats while my own was hidden away in a canvas bag drawn around my neck.
While early March is not the best time to go cashew hopping in the hills about Goa, for the cashew season is only just about beginning, I was nevertheless struck by the visible absence of the distinctive cashew fruits in trees along the way, not even in the cashew plantation the Government of Goa has undertaken within or along the limits of the Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary that we passed by later that morning. (See photo below).
“Late March and April is when you’ll see the trees awash with cashew fruits,” Philip said. While I was aware of it, I’d hoped to be enlivened by colourful cashew fruits hanging from branches roadside.
In some parts, cashew harvesting is over by mid-April, in other parts it marks the beginning when fruits are harvested for Feni, the local alcoholic drink, and cashew nuts for processing at cashew factories.
A Goan summer sojourn is incomplete without cashews, and mine was saved, however fleetingly, by a local villager a few kilometres out of Balli.
She was walking along the road carrying on her head a large plastic tub heaped with cashew fruits. The fruits still retained cashew nuts. Atop the heap of cashews a small plastic bucket lay face-down, likely for use in collecting cashew nuts once separated from the fruits.
Through the day to follow we would be buffeted by the overpoweringly deep and heavy smell (fragrance to some) of cashew distillation roadside on two occasions each on our way to Cotigao and back.
One was at Shisheval not far from where we stopped for cold drinks at a local shop across the road from a temple to quench our thirst from hiking in the wildlife sanctuary all day.
In another instance a small makeshift distillery in the open space between houses with sloping roofs was being readied to host the distillery. It rose from four wooden supports in the open. The floor was levelled out and probably awaited a coat of cow dung. Early for the season I thought back then though maybe not quite.
Approaching May, the Goan countryside is dotted with local cashew distilleries housed in the open in cashew plantations. They’re mostly constructed from no more than four wooden supports driven into the earth and roofed with coconut fronds to shade the earthen or copper pots used to distil cashew juice obtained from crushing cashew fruits in a basin carved out of laterite rock or in cemented enclosures on raised platforms.
Then it’s time for distilling Goa’s best known alcoholic drink, the Feni.
Urrack, an early by-product of the same distillation process, is only marginally lesser known than Feni, atleast in Goa, and equally in demand among locals if not more than its more illustrious sibling. And so it is for Neero.
Villagers will carry their cashew produce to the local distillery, their own or that belonging to another, to sell the produce for a price. If the cashew distiller will buy cashew nuts they’ll likely offload them too, the price for raw cashew nuts ranging between Rs. 70 – 90 per kilo depending upon the demand for processed cashew nuts in the market. Processed cashew nuts produced by cashew factories sell between Rs. 450/- and Rs. 600/- per kilo subject to market demand.
Manohar Parrikar, after taking office as Goa’s Chief Minister last month, has indicated introducing a minimum support price for Goa’s cashew cultivators, a benefit only enjoyed by areca nut and coconut cultivators. The BJP manifesto prior to its election victory was reported to have promised a support price of Rs. 90/- per kilo of raw cashew nuts.
Watching the middle-aged woman walk with the load on her head, probably eking out sustenance from a few cashew trees in a small plot of land, an income that’s as seasonal as it gets, a minimum support price for cashews would go some minimal way in alleviating financial burdens.
Cashew nuts are currency, a reality that escapes no one in Goa, not even children plotting capers to meet their objectives like the bunch of us ‘Nuts’ did growing up.
Back from school one year the lot of us had financed the purchase of our cricket kit from selling raw cashew nuts at a neighbourhood shop for Rs. 10/- per kilo. If any of our parents had learnt how we’d sourced our cashew nuts, from raiding cashew trees in the countryside, there’d be hell to pay, including a tight slap or two administered to each ‘Nut’ complicit in the childhood caper.
The cricket kit barely lasted beyond two seasons, with the bat we’d purchased second-hand for Rs. 37/- from Tufaan
Sports Club, a grouping of local Muslim boys from families with a relative or two working in the Gulf, giving away even sooner, barely two matches into the summer. It splintered along the side quickly enough to stir disappointment and anger amongst us.
At the time of its purchase it hadn’t occurred to us, aged no more than 11-13 years each, that the innocuous tape firmly binding the bottom of the bat was less of a protection for the bat from future blows than from the need to hide the deep crack along its length from past blows.
Much recrimination resulted between us and them. But there’s only so much and only so long 11 year-olds will hold a grudge. Four kilos of cashew nuts went down the drain, not to speak of ‘loss of face’ for having being taken for a ride. Maybe it even served us right, for while I agree in principle with ‘Two wrongs do not make a right’, I’d however make an exception in our case back then.
Soon the woman passed us, walking rhythmically and wiping sweat from her brow periodically.
The road stretched long before her, and us.
Soon we passed her.Related Link
Read my account of meeting A Feni Consultant In The Jungle.