My name is Yash, Yash Ere Singh is my whole name, but please just call me Yash. I come from Moolathara Village in southern India. It is in the Palakkad District, in the state of Kerala. Kerala is no doubt where you have heard of, but I have never been there, in fact I have never in my nineteen years left my village. I was a rice farmer in Moolathara. I was, but I am no longer. My family has lived on the land here, in a small house among the paddies, for many generations. When I was a boy I would help in the harvests, and planting of the rice. I would hand my mother, or brother, seeds as they nestled them into small mounds of soil below the thin layer of water in the flooded fields. As I grew older my father and grandfather taught me to build the minor embankments around the paddies to hold in the water which we flooded them with. In rice farming the water is the most important element. It is the life of the rice plants, what they drink in order to grow. Without it they die. Like me, the water is their life source, and death. We farmed rice where I live in southern India because the rains here were hard, and there is much water deep down in the soil. There was, anyway.
My favorite time was the harvest. This had to be timed between the rains. We got to use big rounded blades called scythes, and cut the rice stalks at their base. I was not allowed to do this till I was older though. I would collect the stalks and put them in piles. Later we would take handfuls of the stalks and beat the tops, the rice pods, onto a metal screen tilted at a 45 degree angle, above a tarp. The rice would fall through the mesh onto the tarp. We collected it in this way. Later we spread the rice out on the road to dry, and let the winds blow away the chaff and other light material of the rice that flaked off. We swept the rice around throughout the day to encourage more chaff to fall off, until after a few days we collected it up and it was ready for selling. My real favorite part was what we did with the stalks. We put them in big piles in the fields and burned them. The flames were big and powerful. Even at a distance the heat that came off the piles was incredible, and the pillars and plumes of black smoke that twisted into the air, and up to the unknown, never failed to hold my attention and imagination. I wonder if I saw them today if I would be transported back to the awe of my youth? Or if now I am too hard and cold to feel the wonder that I did back then?
My family was, me, my mother and father, my grandfather (my father’s father), my older brother Rut, and my younger sister Abi. We were not a rich family, but we got by. Our house was in the middle of our paddy as I said. We had a few papaya and coconut trees, some ponds with fish, and a small garden built on raised beds of soil. Really my house was build around the water, or should I say within it. When the rains came everything got wet, so we had to build raised areas for us to live on, and paths to travel on when walking around farm. Our primary source of income was from rice. My brother did get into politics, but that was not till later. My brother is only a few years older than me, so we, my sister included, were all in school. This was still ten years ago in 1993, when Coca-Cola was just moving in. They began building their factor on the edge of town, but since we also were on the edge of town, we were quite close and could see the factory in the distance. Sometimes I would sneak out to the fence that surrounded it and wonder what secrets lay inside. Many in my village went to work for Coca-Cola when they were building, and later, in the factory. In this way many thought Coca-Cola was a friend, to give so much work to our village. But not my father, he said they would hurt us.
I was nine when the Coca-Cola factor moved into my town. There was a vote as to whether they were allowed in , but my father said it didn’t matter, the local government was getting paid by Coca-Cola, so they would be allowed to build. I was young and I was excited. I said YES to Co-kah, as we called it. On special occasions my mother bought me the sweet beverage, and I loved it. It was a great treat. So in my child mind I assumed that when they moved in next door they would share Coca-Cola with me, like all neighbors share and trade what they have with each other. I figured they would be a part of our community, in this positive, sharing way, of which I understood community. They did share with us, but it was not bottles of Co-kah, it was the waste[i] from the process of making their many sodas.
In the years that followed Coca-Cola’s moving to my village, many bad things happened. It was a slow process but the signs were always there. The factory was surrounded by a strange smell. It smelled burnt, but also mixed with chemicals and sweet at the same time. My mother said she knew the smell, she said when she was a girl her brother had gotten injured and lost his leg. She said it was the smell that came from his sick leg as it slowly died; gangrene. But I don’t think this was accurate. When you smell dying, infected flesh, you know it is bad, but the smell that came from the factory was both good and bad. It would be like covering my uncles dying leg in sugar and baking it.
There was also a stream that came out of the factory. It was very dirty. We were told to stay away from it because we would get sick if we played in it. One boy did, Maagh, a boy a few years younger than me who I went to school with. He played in the runoff often, and then one day he did not come to school. At first I thought it would just be for a little while, but he never came back. Something went wrong inside body, and his organs stopped working[ii]. He died after a few months. The river was blamed for his death, and we were even more afraid of it; everyone avoided it at all costs. But my father said we could not avoid the stream, that it was seeping into the soil and that we were all drinking it because it was going into our water. He said he could taste it. Some people said there were holes in the earth inside the factory fence, that were filled with the same sludge as in the stream. My father was right, but at the time he did not know the science behind it. Our whole town was connected by and aquifer that lay beneath us and held all our water. Many of us had wells, and there was a big one in the center of the village. These wells tapped into the aquifer, and yes we later learned from studies done by concerned people like my brother, that Coca-cola was contaminating the whole aquifer.[iii]
There was also something worse than the contamination that Coca-Cola was doing to our water. They were using too much of it[iv]. In my traditions we have a kind of connection with nature. We know that it gives us life so we take from it sparingly so it will not get mad and go away from us. We looked at the water as a present from the gods. The rains that came, enabled us to grow our rice and quench the thirst of ourselves and our animals. When the rains did not come we believed it was because we had angered the gods. After Coca-Cola came, the gods became angry. The rains began to slow and drought came to us.
As the years past I grew into a man. I was married to Kavisha, my neighbor’s daughter. We tried to start a family of our own, but Kavisha could not get pregnant. Maybe it was because of the sickness in the land, and a chemical I have heard mentioned called DDT[v]. I became very poor too. My father’s lands dried up. Water would not come, and so rice would not grow. My sister had died also, over the course of a few years. The doctors did not know why she got sick, but we all knew it was from the chemicals coming out of the Coca-Cola factory. After my brother became a politician, he would show us facts of how Coca-Cola was illegally drawing too much water from the earth. That they had made six huge wells that stole 1.5 million liters of water a day[vi]. He said they were running their factory in ways not mandated by the government. He said that Coca-Cola saw the water as money. That they stole it and then resold it. He said the water belonged to the people and that the factory took more than their fair share. This was my brother’s view though. I agreed that Coca-Cola was taking too much, but I did not care for his political ways. I thought he overcomplicated it. I believed nature and I were one. I did not think water was a legal right, I thought that the water and the earth were my family. When we lived in harmony, life flowed more smoothly. The gods were happy. Nature and I shared the same gods, and we were gods by the same respect. This is what I believed, but I don’t think about my beliefs very often anymore. For me there was also the reality of my situation in front of me. So I did what I could to get by. When we could no longer grow rice, I went to work for Coca-Cola.
I worked in the shipping department at Coca-Cola, stacking the heavy crates into trucks to be hauled away. Millions of bottles of that sweet liquid I craved as a child, went through my hands every day. The company sees these bottles of sugar water as a commodity to make profit by, but I see the soda as the water of life I once knew, dirtied by their process. I read once that it takes nine liters of clean water to manufacture a liter of Coca-Cola[vii]. I would rather have the nine bottles of water. I did not want these bottles of soda, I did not want to drink them. I only wanted water. But sometimes I did drink Co-kah because there was no water to drink. My brother showed me a letter[viii] Coca-Cola had written in response to his colleagues official complaint to them. It said they had set up rainwater harvesting ponds which held 27 million liters of water. I believed it too. The factory was huge, and in it somewhere was enough water to flood my father’s rice field. And the fields of our neighbors. In it was enough water to fill the town’s wells which now held a thin layer of silt filled water at their bottoms. Somewhere in the factory was enough water for me to fill up an empty coke bottle and bring it home to my wife.
So this is where my story ends. My father is not the man he once was. He is old and angry, he drinks rice wine and yells. He does very little with his time. My mother is much the same. She has retreated from life. She sits in our house, in a kind of daze. She helps Kavisha with housework, but there is not much to do, because there are not many living in my house anymore. My father and mother watch a lot of TV now, sitting next to each other not speaking. My brother tries to change the world. He wants to make India a better place, and he want to fix the wrongs that have been committed to our village, and to others like it. He knows the water is key to fixing our problems, but he only sees it as tool. He lives in the city now, and drinks water from bottles. He sends money home to us sometimes. But it is not money that we need, it is purpose. We, my father and I, my family and ones like it, we need to go back to the past. We need our hands in the earth. Wet hands, our feet suctioning in the mud as we plant rice. We need to work, backs bent—hard work. We need the days before harvest, watching the sky, deciding when the rains will come, and when there will be respite from them to let our rice dry. Now there is only respite from the rains. I need to go back to being to that kid watching the flames roar over cut rice stalks, and the black smoke twisting into the sky. But we cannot go back to the past, so on my walk to work, I stare at the silver pillars which protrude from the Coca-Cola factory, and now and then I see thin white smoke wafting up into the air. It is not the same, but it is better than nothing.
[i] Vandana, Shiva (2006). “Coke Pepsi and the Politics of Food Safety.” Z Space. Retrieved from: http://www.zcommunications.org/space/viewCommentaryPrint/2690.
[ii] (See i). The effects of exposure to this waste are not fully documented, but it contains high amounts of Cadmium and Lead. “Cadmium has the potential to cause effects like kidney dysfunction, damage to bone, liver and blood. lead affects the central nervous system, kidney, blood and cardio-vascular system” (Vandana 2006).
[iii] Vendana, Shiva (2005). “India: Soft Drinks, Hard Cases.” Mindfully.org. Retrieved from: http://www.midfully.org/water/2005/India-Coca-Cola-Pepsi12mar05.htm.
[iv] (see i and iii).
[v] (see vi)
[vi] Office of the Perumatty (2003, September 18). “Panchayat Letter to Coca-Cola.” Message posted to: http://www.pbs.org/now/transcript/transcript_perumattyletter.html.
[vii] (see iii).
[viii] Coca-Cola India (2003, November 5). “Response from Coca-Cola India.” Message posted to: http://www.pbs.org/now/transcript/transcript_cocacolaletter.html