Paddy Fields Sans Scarecrows

Journey by bus or train from Bangalore to Mysore has always been a pleasurable experience because of lush green fields especially around areas irrigated by canals from Krishnaraja sagar dam and, Arkavathi and Paschimvahini rivers.  You see women standing in water up to their mid ankle replanting young paddy plants in a field full of water, men busy cleaning the feeding waterways. A bit later in the year the paddy is getting ready for harvesting, the field still a green carpet ,the plants arenow leaning heavily weighted by the ripe paddy. The men and women are now busy shooing to scare the birds - the Magpies, Starlings, the Sparrows that come to feed on the grains as if it is their produce, there is a tinge of arrogance in the way they keep coming back to feed. The saintly Herons, Cormorants are also seen wading in the water looking for worms and insects. In addition to men and women you see other mute but highly visible sentinels dotting the fields – scarecrows. These are black or brown round, partly broken earthenware pots with human face drawn crudely on two opposite sides upendes on the vertical of a wooden cross draped in a torn shirt or a piece of colourful saree. The flapping of the cloth in the wind mimicking human movement scaring the birds, or so it is believed. Perhaps we should ask the birds!

I suddenly realised that there were no scarecrows and not many people in the acres of paddy fields that we were passing. This was on a bus journey from Siem Reap to Pnomh Phen one afternoon last November. I looked hard and there were none. It had no use – there were no birds to eat the grains that the farmer had grown. I tried hard to recollect the last time i had seen a bird in the sky in Cambodia. I realised that i had seen some water birds flying over Mekong river as we came in to land at Phonm Phen airport!

The people of Cambodia have been through a very violent three or four decades during which thousands of lives were lost. Our guide in Phonm Phen, Kosal, in his mid twenties had lost his entire family. Seetha, our guide in Siem Reap had lost all his family except for his brother. People were tortured and killed or they died of starvation. Hunger forced people to make a morsel of anything that grew or moved. They say that in certain areas there were no leaves left on trees.

A hundred and fifty kilometers into the journey we stopped at a roadside restaurant for lunch. As if to illustrate my thoughts the restaurant had Beehives with drones in them as food. Outside on the pavement were fruitshops selling Jack fruit, Durian, Pineapple, Ruby Grape fruit. They were also selling Spiders about the size of my fist, as food. Later that day at the central market in Phonm Phen we saw snakes, grass hoppers being cooked on a cart and sold.

Being a strict vegetarian my first reaction was one of revulsion and disgust, how could they?  You ask yourself. But then if a six month old child is starving to death the mother will do anything and feed anything to keep the child alive. So it is not surprising that you find insects, reptiles, and arachnids find a place on a Cambodian food plate.  May be they do not need to eat these creatures to stay alive now, they have become used to it or maybe they have developed a taste for it, or may be, they do not want to discard it now after these creatures saved the lives of many!

You need Scarecrows when you have birds.