South American farmer Hesus, or as his namesake’s anglicised version goes, Jesus, treasures nothing more than a small plot of land that has remained in his family for over 200 years. Tending it lovingly in the El Salvadorian countryside of the 1970s, his narrators tell us that being poor, when you have land on which to grow food, ‘isn’t all that bad’.
Hesus’ own philosophy declares, ‘If I work hard, things will change.’ But as the three-person dramatisation of Gould and Stearns’ 1982 play A Peasant of El Salvador tells its audience: ‘Things did change. But they became worse.’ Brought to India in a début show by Q Theatre Productions on 1 September, 2013 at Mumbai’s Prithvi Theatre, A Peasant resonates deeply with a country experiencing its own set of land, food and agricultural reforms.
Tilling the land on which he grows corn (not the juicy, golden corn we often crave; rather, corn that is ‘stunted and irregular’, but with no pesticides and 12% protein), Hesus uses this nutritious crop for a range of dishes, most often combined with another once-popular South American crop: black beans. But the first change in Hesus’ sustainable existence is that one day, and then slowly, but surely, every day after that, the price of the beans keeps rising.
The narrator-actors of Hesus’ story declare from the outset that ‘any resemblance to India is purely coincidental’, but the cause of the rising price of the beans sends chilling echoes across continents. Enter cash crops. El Salvadorian black beans are being replaced by cash-yielding coffee, sugar cane and bananas for the sweet-toothed Californians, who in exchange provide the densely populated South American nation with, you guessed it, beans (which this time around have been ‘harvested by machine’). It’s an old tale of farming, but one that must be told again and again, lest we forget the true price we have paid for a global food system.
As El Salvador’s centuries of seed saving wisdom are replaced by mechanisms that move crops between nations for profit rather than to feed people, India’s own debt-ridden farmers suffering at the hands of global corporations that render re-planting seeds impossible, find echoes within the play. And while closer to home we are several stages away from South America’s military dictatorships, the crushing realities from India’s agricultural sector are not too far off from Hesus’ plight.
On par with the engaging narrative, the direction and translation of the original two-man show into a three-person performance welding together Spanish, English and Hindi is commendable. As the three languages blend into one another, with one actor seamlessly translating the words of the previous speaker, a decent knowledge of English — and none of Spanish and Hindi — can comfortably take you through the show.
A clever use of simple sets — four yellow crates and a large wooden cross comprise its two primary features – allow objects to double or triple up for several purposes. As a crate becomes a jail, a desk and then the sound of a gunshot wound, it is the exemplary performances by the cast including Meher Acharia-Dar, Suhaas Ahuja and Pramod Pathak that bring to life the objects they touch. From La Bamba strummed on a guitar to the eerily close-to-life reproduction of a crackling radio, the show’s auditory effects are one of its most striking components, and a tribute to both cast and direction.
Weaving together continents, languages and lives that are all too often real but rarely spoken of, QTP’s rendition of A Peasant is an artistically compelling, globally resonant performance.
This piece was originally published under the title ‘Across continents, the farmer’s plight remains the same’ in The Sunday Guardian on 7 September 2013