From source of life to embodiment of an uncertain and dangerous future: changes in the perception of rice in a South Indian village
Heribert Beckmann (Heidelberg University)
Paper short abstract:
This paper describes how in a rice-cultivating village in South India the meaning of the staple food rice for residents increasingly shifts from constituting a source of certainty and stability to becoming the embodiment of bodily and ecological decay and an uncertain future.
Paper long abstract:
In the Kaveri River Delta in rural Tamil Nadu, India, rice has been cultivated for over two millennia. As it is their main food crop, villagers perceive rice as the main physical connection between their bodies and their social and ecological environment. They further consider it the main source of bodily health (Sujatha 2002). Within the last 15 years, rice production, distribution, and consumption have become increasingly commodified and villagers have lost control over and knowledge of the cultivation and processing of the rice they now purchase for consumption and of the agro-chemical substances applied to the rice. Simultaneously, there has been a dramatic increase in the incidence of type 2 diabetes and other "diseases of modernity" (Shetty 2012), which villagers attribute to the application of mineral fertilisers and agro-chemicals to the rice. Based on fieldwork in a rice-cultivating village, I show that, while villagers continue to enact rice as a life-giving and auspicious source of certainty in rituals, rice has also become a major source of anxiety and fear for them. I argue that, due to being their main food, rice has become the main material and discursive means for villagers to experience and articulate what they perceive as the increasing decay of their bodies and their environment due to being infested with alien chemicals. I show how through their engagement with rice they come to imagine their life world as a "traditional" social-ecological system, the future of which is increasingly threatened by a destructive and invasive "modernity."