We reached Latur on a Monday morning to find the entire city virtually shut down. At Hotel Manas where we had a booking, not a soul materialized for the first 30 minutes. Finally a man emerged, gave us our keys and shuffled off. Refusing, despite our several pleas, to serve up any tea. The kitchen staff, we were told, had the day off.
Many hours later, a explanation. It was Velu Amavasya, a harvest festival, big in this part of Maharashtra. A day farmers celebrate, first by praying to their fields and then, hosting a sumptuous lunch for the community.Everything shuts down – schools, colleges, offices. Never mind that Velu Amavasya figures nowhere in the list of official public holidays.
Not the best start to our trip. But we decided to ahead with our visit to Hasegaon, to a shelter for HIV+ children. We were headed there for a documentary on community initiatives to fight stigma against people with HIV.
Hasegaon had other plans. Minutes after we reached we were told we had to participate in the festivities. Our host for the afternoon, a farmer, 70 year old Kumbhkaran Gawde. An unusual name given the reverence the Hindu god Rama has in these parts. Kumbhkaran, for those unfamiliar with Indian mythology, was brother to Ravan, the demon king who abducted Rama’s wife, Sita.
Kumbhkaran was one of Ravan’s generals. Famous for his long, long naps and huge appetite. With his shocking pink turban and curved walking stick. this Kumbhkaran cut a rather imposing figure. He took us to his sugarcane fields, to this makeshift shrine. We paid our respects and started digging into the thali. A simple, but varied spread as you can see in this picture
There was the Pitle, traditional dish made of gram flour, a side dish of spring onions and Unde, which are steamed dumplings made of jowar (type of cereal). Followed by the piece de resistance, khichda. Not the mutton and dal version many of us are familiar with. This was vegetarian, prepared with two different cereals. Very simple and light food, but the whole experience of eating in the midst of the fields was quite something.
To round it off, we had something akin to the sakhrai pongal, a traditional Tamilian dish served during festive occasions. Here, the rice is cooked in sugarcane jaggery instead of sugar, and the milk poured on the rice just before it’s eaten. Unlike Sakhrai pongal which is cooked in milk.
As we drove out of Hasegaon, villagers stopped us at different points to invite us to their homes. Really heartwarming. We remembered them even more later that evening. Because back in Latur city, not a single hotel was open for dinner!