One of the best times in our life in my younger days was when our family had an occasion to grow sugarcane and produce jaggery. In our Malnad the whole process of producing jaggery when the sugarcane is ripe is called conducting of Alemane (I am not able to find an equivalent word in English for this). We were offered the land by Srinivasaiah of Puradamane for this purpose. It was the land where somebody else had already raised the sugarcane crop in the previous year and hence it was easy for us as we could use the same saplings. This saved a lot of investment for us. Also as agreed we were to keep the entire produce without surrendering any portion to Srinivasaiah.
Initially our daily job was to ensure watering the saplings. The place was about one kilometer from our house. The location was to be accessed by passing through a small forest beyond the arecanut gardens of Srinivasaiah. It was indeed a beautiful spot with total greenery in place. The daily journey to the place itself was so thrilling to children like us. We would finish our breakfast early and prepare ourselves to reach the place. Once reaching there we would either assist the elders or start playing around. We were filled with great anticipation to the forthcoming Alemane to enjoy drinking sugarcane juice and eating fresh jaggery. Till then we had only heard about the Alemane and had never seen it. Here we were in the process of conducting our own Alemane! Oh God! The gracious!
Our entire family was involved in this great new venture of raising the sugarcane farm. The crops grew up fast in line with our spirits. But suddenly a problem started. As the farm was very close to the forest wild boars started visiting at night to destroy the crops. It was a heart breaking scene to witness the destroyed crop in the morning. The only remedy for this was to keep a watch in the night and shoot the boars using a gun. Srinivasaiah was in possession of a licensed gun. We borrowed the gun and spent some money for purchasing the cartridges. For the first time in our life we saw a gun and were thrilled to hear that the same would be used to hunt down the wild boars. The gun was handed over to a man called Chowda. He was a cowherd who used to take care of grazing the cows and buffaloes of the entire village. He was appointed the night watchman.
We thought the menace would come to an end with the appointment of Chowda as the gun wielding night watchman. But to our surprise the menace continued. At the same time certain cartridges were found missing from Chowda’s gun! Chowda who had the exclusive possession of the gun could not offer proper explanation. Our investigations revealed that the cartridges were fired by Chowda to shoot forest birds. While he enjoyed the supper prepared out of this bird meat, the wild boars continued to enjoy their sugarcane dinner at night thoroughly! It was indeed a situation which called for appointment of another watchman to supervise the gun wielding watchman!
The issue was sorted out by my father and brother with one of them spending the night at the farm to supervise the nocturnal activities of our Chowda! Naturally the menace came to an end with our Chowda spending a few cartridges from his gun to shoot the wild boars.
As the crops became ripe for harvesting, the process of setting up the Alemane started. There was sufficient place in the farm itself to conduct this activity. A big oven was set up to place the Kopparige (a massive vessel) for boiling the sugarcane juice. Lots of firewood collected from the nearby forest was already in place. A big pandal was put up to cover the entire area of operation. About four Alemane specialists arrived from a place called Kardipura under the leadership of one man called Siddha. Within no time this Siddha became a part and parcel of our life and became a great hero for us.
On an appointed day the crusher and two pairs of bullocks arrived on the scene. The crusher was installed with a small ceremony. The crushing of sugarcane started with great celebrations. We spent most of our time in the Alemane and were reluctant to go home even for our meals. The food for the workers arrived from our home. We even spent certain nights in the Alemane itself with either our father or brother. It was great to witness the sugarcane being crushed by the crusher pulled by the pair of bullocks. The juice would then be poured into the big vessel which was mounted on the huge oven. One person had to ensure that the firewood was burning continuously and the level of burning of fire was uniform to ensure the proper formation of jaggery. Siddha would go on stirring the juice till the same got solidified in the form of jaggery. Siddha’s skill would be tested in the way the jaggery tasted later. His role was very critical and he had to monitor the activities continuously to ensure the best quality of output.
We could taste and enjoy several combinations of sugarcane juice mixed with lemon juice, ginger, etc. We also found a method of hanging partly ripe skinned banana fruit in the boiling sugarcane juice. They would be removed after they got a good coating of boiling juice. Such bananas tasted terrific! Siddha would also allow us to take out the foam formed on the surface of the boiling juice in small quantities. The same tasted wonderful. Overall, the days went off so sweetly for all of us literally!
Here I should mention the special culture of Malnad as far as the Alemane was concerned. Even though there used to be no formal invitation, all the villagers were expected to visit the Alemane and taste the sugarcane juice. If only one family member were to visit, he would be handed over a vessel full of sugarcane juice for the other members of the house. In fact such person was expected to bring his own vessel to carry the juice without any inhibitions! It was also customary to hand over a bundle of sugarcane cuttings for eating at home. This type of generosity in entertaining the guests was in fact a matter of routine! It was indeed believed that the more you entertained the guests, the more would be your sugarcane yield! The present day generation may not even believe that such a custom did exist. Thanks to the commercialization of our entire cultural life!
We kept a track of visitors to ensure that no household in the village was left out. This act of entertaining the guests was indeed so satisfying to all of us. We thoroughly enjoyed the same.
The final product of jaggery was placed in tins specially ordered for the purpose. While the jaggery for ordinary usage was in solid form, a few tins of liquid jaggery (called Joni bella in Kannada) were also made to cater to the needs of daily breakfast. Such jaggery in combination with ghee would taste fantastic when eaten with dosa and other similar preparations. In those days sugar was not in use in daily village life. The daily dose of coffee used to be made with jaggery only.
Our joy knew no bounds when the entire jaggery in tins arrived at home. The same were stored in the attic. We children used to daily count these tins just to ensure that all of them were in place! I do not remember whether any of the tins were sold either before they arrived at home or later. But I do remember that they were sufficient to meet our one year consumption.
The winding up of Alemane was a very sentimental moment for all of us. It was as if a great festival had come to an end! Similar sentiments were expressed by Siddha and his team. At least for us children it was a very sad occasion to part with them. As far as I remember ours was the last Alemane to be held in our village. We never had another opportunity to see this team of Siddha in our life. The dedication with which this team worked and became a part of our life at least for some time remains etched permanently in our memory. If only the God was to make available the ‘Time Machine’ to me for a few days, I would use it only just to go back to those Alemane days! But alas! It is only the memory that remains!
…. (To be continued)……