Immersion Stories: Michael Fu
"Ashulk & the Mill" is a story written by Michael Fu
It was a cold morning, morning dew drips from the trees and grass in the small village nestled in the mountains of Maharashtra’s Western Ghats. A moist, serene feel enveloped the atmosphere but in reality, the land was very dry. Ashulk, a sixty-five year old grandfather, who works in the local flour mill, makes his way down from a village located at the top of the mountains. Fourty years of this routine, yet each day the kiss of the morning sun reminds him of why he keeps coming back. Ashulk is prideful of the fact he operates the one and only mill in surrounding villages. He arrives and unlocks the door, the familiar smell of flour greets him as he settles down and prepares his tools for the day.
Monsoon season has just passed and water was at an all time low. Some suggested it had been one of the worst droughts the village has seen in the last fifty-or-so years. The lack of rain and subsequent limited access to water has made the village and surroundings abnormally arid and was translated into the quality and quantity of the local crops. In particular, this scenario has been accentuated since rice, corn and sugarcane, popular agricultural mainstays of the area, are highly water intensive to produce. For Ashulk business has been slow, none-the-less his mill remains open and available to refine and produce rice products for his neighbours and community.
Ashulk looked tenderly at his workspace, it had been his livelihood for the better part of his life and had always been a retaining factor. From the day he got married, from the day he had kids, from the day his kids moved out to big city Mumbai, from the day his wife moved out; the old flour mill had always been there. Hours passed, plenty of locals came by to greet and converse but very few came to engage in business. Concern flooded through Ashulk as he contemplated his future prospects, if the water situation is to remain as it is. As the dry weeks rolled into months he increasingly considered whether he would once again be forced into additional work in the fields, just to get by until the next season.
Ashulk was almost ready to pack up and close for the night when suddenly he heard a knock on the door. It was Sudam, a village farmhand who owns and works at a farm near the foot of the mountain, and with him, was an entire wagon full of unprocessed rice. “My rice crops have been slow this season, but this batch was finally ready for harvest!”, he happily exclaimed. The farmer’s market in Ghoti being only a day away, it was understandable for Sudan’s urgency in processing the wagon-load, lest he miss the important wholesale opportunity and the rice instead be consumed by the pests, which become especially evident during an extended dry season. Ashulk was overjoyed, not only was this batch enough to meet his daily quota, it was a sign that there was still successful harvests within surrounding farms during such a trying period. Despite the late hour, Ashulk set about his work with zeal.
He pulls the lever to activate the flour grinder. A slight pop sounds from his shoulder, a tingle of pain emanates through his arm. “Must’ve been from that time I tried carrying too many bags of rice home”, Ashulk thought to himself, with pain writ-large across his face. Although a small injury he suffered 30 years back, he never sought proper medical assistance, instead self-diagnosing a few hours rest as to not halt his productivity. He rubs his arm with a slight groan and continues collecting the precious grains, as the flour grinder quickly spins into motion. The pungent smell of fresh flour instantly filled the mill.
This is a true daily grind thanks to a complicated system requiring a dozen hours of physical, manual labour each and every day. Lifting and scooping, sweat dripped down Ashulk’s brow as he performed his duties. Despite, or perhaps because of this, Ashulk was in his element, not even the many long years have dulled his skill in operating the mill to its maximum capacity. Bucket by bucket raw grains were gradually replaced by bags of processed rice. By the time he was done, the sun had already gone down and darkness had well and truly taken over, ceasing most village activities for another day.
Ashulk breathed a sigh of relief as he said goodbye to Sudam for the night, wishing him a safe journey back home to the mountain. Electricity and lighting had always been a constant issue for villagers, Ashulk prayed that no harm would befall Sudam on his way home at this hour of the night. After all, the tiny village exists at the edge of forested mountains where leopards and other creatures have been known to roam. Even more mundane obstacles like tripping over an unseen tree root can cause injury as one picks their way through the darkness.
Ashulk returned to his workplace and took a seat, all of a sudden feeling a wave of exhaustion after undertaking a regular paced day’s work in an intense few hours. Despite the challenges of his work, Ashulk feels immense pride that his efforts and skill will mean a farmer’s produce will make it to market in the morning, where it will be sold to feed the famer’s family, not to mention the fortunate souls who will enjoy a plate of fulsome, fluffy whole grain rice in the coming days. From where, he has no doubt, the cycle will continue.
Ashulk & the Mill was written following Michael's immersion experiences with those mentioned in the story.
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