Ploughing A Lonely Furrow

Rahul Alvares, a college boy from zoology class in India, learns to plough fields in his spare time – and enjoys himself in the bargain.

Ploughing a field Indian style is not as simple as it looks.
When I first saw Guru (my immediate neighbour) ploughing his fields, I thought it to be the most simple thing in the world. All that it appeared necessary to do – as the bulls pulled the plough effortlessly up front – was hold the implement steady by its handle. When Guru reached the end of the field, the bulls would automatically turn around and he would plough in the opposite direction. It seemed like a fairly monotonous job to me. When I took a one year break from school, three years ago, ploughing was one of the skills I learnt during the rains.

As I first held the plough, however, I soon realised that this was going to require some skill. In fact, I eventually took longer to learn ploughing than to drive the family car. I also found the work quite enjoyable. Nothing about it was monotonous.

Since then Guru has called me to help in ploughing his fields for the past three consecutive years. Guru is part of a big joint family of about 25 members but yet he doesn’t have a single member in the entire family who will help him in ploughing his fields. Every one wants to get nice ‘desk’ jobs.

Let me start by telling you how the plough works. A wooden piece about one and a half metres long and 10 cms thick is tied across the necks of the two bulls. Tied perpendicular to this is the plough which is about 3 metres long, with a handle and the sharp curved blade. The bulls move forward as you tap them with a stick. Normally you start ploughing from either the centre or the edge of the field and continue with concentric circles around them. Usually, Guru used to do the first round so that the bulls knew where to turn around and then he would hand me the plough. He would then leave me to plough the rest of the field.

As he left he would call out his famous parting words: ‘Rahul, go straight, OK? Don’t miss the line.’ Then he would return after an hour when the work was almost done and seeing me fully drenched in sweat, he would say, ‘Now you can leave this to me.’

Sometimes I would be ploughing in the rain, cold and wet, and Guru would return snug in his raincoat, ‘Don't get wet or you’ll catch a cold,’ he’d say.

A lot of people are under the impression that when you plough you have to push the plough into the ground. Actually you have to guide the plough, a task that is really more difficult than handling the steering wheel of a car. The plough has a curved blade and a pointed end which goes into the soil. This is situated exactly between the hind legs of the two bulls. The trick is to move parallel to the groove created in the previous round, and at the same time, avoid ploughing the bulls’ hooves. If one of the bulls had to get the plough into his leg he would need at least one week’s rest for the wound to heal and this would cost the owner severely.This is because bulls have only one use, which is to plough the field for one month of the year. Also, if a bull is injured, it is as bad as having both the bulls injured because a lone bull can’t plough the field.

In theory, holding the plough seems to be quite easy but actually each field is different. In some fields, the soil is hard and the plough lifts out of the field on its own and has to be pushed back in. Some fields are full of grass which would get entangled and the plough would start slipping towards the bulls’ hooves. At times, the field is so full of water, you can’t even see what you are ploughing. At times the bulls would lash out with their tails, throwing mud straight into your eyes.

Another area of difficulty is the turn at the end of the field: the plough has to be gently turned nd at the same time you have to concentrate on directing the bulls to turn around too. If you incline the plough too much, it will start skidding: then follows the comical jugglery of the farmer with the plough, trying to push it back in as it dangles dangerously behind the bulls’ hooves.

Then you have to remember to lift the plough with one hand over the bund (raised mounds of mud that divide fields) and then push it back in again. The plough wasn’t that heavy but when you lifted it about 40-50 times over each bund, you definitely felt its weight.

The heroes of the ploughing exercise are of course the bulls. So let me tell you about Guru’s bulls.

Both of them are two different characters altogether. The older one is a 23-year-old and is reddish brown in colour. He has short and thick horns like two oversized bananas sticking out of his head! His back was arched but yet he never appeared tired when compared to his younger partner who is a 16- year-old. The younger bull looks stronger, his back is straight but yet he was the one who tired out more easily. After I finished one round around the field, sweet sixteen would immediately demand a rest. Normally I wouldn’t disapprove of this but when I knew I had 20-30 rounds more to go I would get a little impatient.

Then in order to waste more time, the younger bull would throw down the zu (wooden piece across his neck). I had to lift it up and place it back again across his neck. This of course put me into a very vulnerable position because I was right between the heads of the two bulls and if any one of them had to lash out, I would be in deep trouble. Fortunately, they were both well behaved and I suffered no injuries.

Though both the bulls were silent and showed no expressions except the usual sad and mournful face, I was quite sure that there was some bull talk going on between them. For example, the older bull was a bully. If the younger bull didn’t manage to throw down the zu at the end of the round, the older bull would lash out at him. Sometimes, the younger bull would walk slower than the older bull who would naturally get angry and swing his horns towards him, as if to say, ‘Do you expect me to do all the work!’ Sometimes I felt sorry for him because he would receive punishment from me and from the older bull as well.

During my ploughing exercises I met a lot of farmers. Most of them seemed surprised that I was in a field ploughing. They all recognised me of course because I am from the same village. But they were always a little surprised to find me out in the field at 6 a.m. hard at work in their fields. I think I was the only ploughman who besides having a college education also sported a pony tail and wore glasses to work. Some of the men folk would compliment me and say I was doing a fine job.

But the women who came to the field thought that there was something wrong with me. They couldn’t understand why the son of a so called bhatkar (landlord) was out ploughing afield instead of going to college. In fact, the first thing they would say to me would be to ask, ‘Are you going to college or not.’

One rather strict lady even asked me which class I was in and what subjects I had taken just to make sure I wasn’t bluffing. When I told her that I was definitely going to college but there was still a week for it to begin, she relaxed a bit.

Another lady whose field I had ploughed met my mother at Sunday mass. She told my mum rather hesitantly, ‘Your son did a great job ploughing my field – the furrows were absolutely straight.’ Then realising that her compliment perhaps unwittingly implied that I was from the peasant class, she quickly retracted saying, ‘Of course, I know he is not meant to be ploughing at all.’

Now as I write this article during a free lecture in college, I think of the great time I had this year ploughing. It was a wonderful feeling being all alone with two bulls under your control, the cool rain beating against your back: you definitely felt tough.

Next year I’m sure to be back in the fields again, with the pungent smell of bulls, muck all over my body, the farmers all asking questions about my college as usual.

Guru, of course, still calls me on Sunday mornings when I don’t have college. And I find I can never resist.

About the author: Rahul Alvares is an expert snake and reptile handler. His first book Free from School (pp.136 Rs.100/US$5) was published when he was sixteen. His second book, The Call of the Snake (pp.150 Rs.110/US$6), has been recently released. Both titles can be ordered from Other India Bookstore, Mapusa 403 507 Goa, India.

Note: Reproduced WITHOUT permission from Mulitiworld India - Kamirithu. But I know they won't mind :-)


  1. Bimal, Rahul's first book (Free From School) is written in a similar fashion, full of his 'free' experiences. And since he wrote it when he was 16, they come out very direct with no sermonizing. You might like that too.

    The softcopy is available at though it would be great if you order a copy at Other India Bookstore (, a small non-profit alternative bookstore.

    Glad you liked the post! :-)

  2. And here is the PDF for Free From School.


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