Mahashweta Devi, winner of the Jnanpith and Magsaysay Awards, is a feisty lady with a definite twinkle in her eye. A few years ago, several of us journalists -- curiously, I was the lone male -- made a trip with her through rural Maharashtra. Over breakfast on the steps of a rest house near Phaltan (Satara District), we asked her some random questions. She answered the first few, but without warning turned away and sniffed: "Are you interviewing me? Where are your notebooks? Why should I answer your questions?"
Sniffed, but with a definite twinkle.
Still over breakfast, she told us how, in her youth, she once contracted to supply 15,000 monkeys for medical experiments in the USA. Collected from the wilds of MP, she arranged to bring them to Bombay. Unfortunately, any simian emigratory plans were stillborn right there: the American ship which was to ferry them was not allowed into the harbour for some unknown reason. After much wrangling, the puzzled creatures were released in the Western Ghats.
Months later, Mahashweta Devi found herself listening to a recounting of the affair from an uncle who didn't know she had played a part in it. "Only a Bengali could have thought up such a mad scheme," the uncle spluttered. "And do you know, there was a woman involved!"
So our trip began with this monkey story. It ended, with a certain cosmic symmetry, with goats. Chanda, a friend from university, runs a farm outside Phaltan where she breeds goats. She hopes to improve the area's goat population in several respects. One of those: increase their yields of milk. Another: promote twinning, or the tendency to produce more than one offspring at each birth. Multiple goat kids are a better use of resources than single ones.
We could see that for ourselves when we met three such kids, all just a couple of weeks old. One, a single kid, was clearly larger than the other two. But that pair, twins, together weighed more than the single one at birth and continued that way.
The reason for all this is that traditionally, the women in village families own and care for goats. A better breed of goat -- with more milk, more offspring -- therefore benefits women directly. That benefit was -- is -- Chanda's goal.
Seeking that better breed, Chanda imported several embryos of a South African strain called Boer, to cross with desi goats. The embryos have since grown into magnificent specimens, brown and black and white, complete with long flowing beards. Chanda named two of the finest "FW de Klerk" and "Nellie", for Nelson Mandela.
Symmetry, did I say? The previous year, Mahashweta Devi had her Jnanpith award handed to her by Mandela himself. He asked her, she told us with another twinkle, if he could keep the cheque.