Some years ago, we and a few other journalists joined the writers Mahasweta Devi, GN Devy and Laxman Gaikwad on a trip through rural Maharashtra.
Mahasweta, winner of the Jnanpith and Magsaysay Awards, turned out to be a feisty lady with a definite twinkle in her eye. Over breakfast on the steps of a rest house near Phaltan in Satara District, we were asking her a few questions. Without warning, she turned away and sniffed: "Are you interviewing me? Where are your notebooks? Why should I answer your questions?"
She sniffed, but she never lost that twinkle.
She told us a tale of how, in her youth, she once contracted to supply 15,000 monkeys for medical experiments in the USA. Collected from the wilds of MP, they were brought to Bombay. Unfortunately, any simian emigratory hopes died right there: the American ship which was to ferry them was not allowed into the harbour. After much wrangling, the beasts were released in the Western Ghats.
Months later, Mahasweta Devi found herself listening to a recounting of the affair from an uncle who didn't know that she had had a part in it. "Only a Bengali could have thought of such a mad scheme," spluttered the uncle. "And do you know, there was even a woman involved!"
So if our trip began with the story about monkeys, it ended, with a certain cosmic symmetry, with goats. Chanda Nimbkar, a friend from university, runs a farm outside Phaltan where she breeds the animals. She hopes to improve the area's goat population in several respects. One: increase their yields of milk. Another: promote twinning, or the tendency to produce more than one offspring at each birth -- for 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 child, was clearly larger than the other two. But the pair, twins, together weighed more than the single one at birth and continue to do so.
Traditionally, it is the women in village families who own and care for goats. So a better breed of goat -- more milk, more kids -- will directly benefit women.
To that end, Chanda had 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? Mahasweta Devi also told us that when she got her Jnanpith award, it was Mandela himself who handed it to her.
He asked her, she said with another twinkle, if he could keep the cheque.