Moons ago I visited the tropical house at Kew in London and breathed the hot humid air that sticks to your shirt and I walked among plants that were so busy growing you felt that if you turned round quickly you could catch them at it, sprouting leaves and fruit like popcorn leaping out of a pan.
Ninety kilometres south west of Kolkata I have that same feeling as we pass turquoise houses, and tractors heaving four times their mass of sugar cane, as if balancing a sofa on a roller skate.
Our guides stop repeatedly to ask the way. Onto smaller roads, we pass the busy sari shimmering haze of small towns, and squeeze through sun-hammered villages thick with lorries, shoppers, motorbikes, and shadows glimpsed through doorways. A canal appears alongside the road. I say canal appears but in truth no water is visible, only a long depression to our left into which someone has tossed an enormous and never ending salad of water lilies.
A slow gingerly shudder over a rickety wooden bridge and the driver cuts the engine. We have arrived.
Passing a bright yellow school building bearing the life-size hand-painted portraits of two wise old men, we follow a track under the tree canopy. Tropical birds are shouting. Large butterflies do their best to stir the heavy air. A cyclist trundles. A cow lounging by a palm tree observes us from beneath her sleep heavy eyelashes, chewing cud like an old Mississippi farmer chewing tobacco.
Everywhere there are ponds. A woman washes her child, both hip deep in warm brown water. Behind her, strung up between the palms, backlit and bright as a dozen television screens, is her laundry: bed sheets, saris, shirts. The child scampers away up the dripping steps leaving her mother to splash and wring the rest of her washing and we walk on towards the blunt wooden ticking of machines. Distant Holi festival music fogs the air. Another pond. A fish breaks the water’s thick skin briefly then flops back, leaving a hundred circles to radiate outwards.
We find and enter the new weaving house of the Chhandabrati weavers. Sujata, our guide, introduces us to a serious-faced manager while the dry tapping and scraping of wood on wood continues. If I close my eyes I might be standing inside a working cuckoo clock.
We look into a windowless room piled high with freshly fashioned folded fabric. Someone arrives with chai. We sit in the shade of a half-lit room. Through the small open window a rice paddy glows green as emeralds. There is no wind.
The weaving room is a cacophony of yarns and wooden frames. Four feet step time beneath two large looms and two bare-chested men push treadles and swing ropes back and fro over the vast webs of coloured cotton. They work to different rhythms. I want it to move … I want it to move … I want it to move, sings one machine. Tick to, tick fro, tick to, tick fro shouts the other. From time to time one or other worker stops to inspect the swelling cloth like a spider adjusting her web.
In a corner sits a spinning wheel, its wood frame and bicycle wheel as old as rusty time. Mahatma Gandhi, leader of the Indian independence movement sat at a similar wheel, preaching the dignity of manual labour as India found freedom itself from British rule in a black and white world long ago.
So what is Shared Earth doing here? We are here at the invitation of Sasha, one of our Indian Fair Trade suppliers. Sasha has been the main marketing channel for the weavers for many years.
We are not here to wallow in a rural past but to help the weavers in the here and now. Since the Chhandabrati association was formed 46 years ago, to improve the lives of villagers, the world has moved on. The dyeing station used to colour their yarns is no longer fit for purpose, the soil is stained a dozen colours and the spilled dyes are polluting the nearby pond.
With Shared Earth’s financial support a waste water treatment plant will be created where for now there are now only weeds. It will protect ponds and the water table. Trees will be planted. And, if enough money is found, there is also a programme to bring solar power to the village. Helping Indian villages join the energy transition has to be right; it’s a shared earth, after all.
As we leave the village I am again reminded of the Tropical House at Kew. In London when you have had enough of the heat and humidity you simply push open the greenhouse door and step outside into the cooler breeze of a northern European climate. Here there is no greenhouse door. We climb back into the oven that is our car journey back to Kolkata and sweat it out.