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07/06/2007

Rain

Everything is perfect for the model farmer with the mathematical mind. Until the rain messes up his calculations. By Romesh Gunesekera

"The soil here is sandy. Perfect." He shielded his eyes against the sun and pointed at the thick green fringe on the edge of his land. "Over there you have to fight the jungle every day. Weeds everywhere. But here, nothing will grow."
"Isn't that bad?"
"No, no." He smiled. "Nothing will grow here unless you want it to. It is easier to tend to things if there is only one thing to do." He was a man with a mathematical mind. He liked numbers and efficiency. A modern farmer, an agriculturist. Except for this one bare patch of white sand, his land was meticulously planted with remarkably uniform trim coconut palms. His neighbours' plots were full of ungainly, stunted, wavering trees, profuse undergrowth and a general sense of impending chaos. "You see, the people over there have too much water. They think they are lucky to have a natural spring. But the water goes everywhere and everything is constantly growing. So to grow your own plants is a battle. You have to take out as much as you put in. Look at the mathematics: subtract as well as add. Much easier if all you have to do is add."
He explained his latest plan. "I will grow papaws here with drip irrigation." He took me across to an excavation site. "This is my reservoir, designed to save rainwater. It will not be wasted. From here the precise amount we want will be distributed to each fruit tree exactly when it is required. It will be controlled for maximum yield." He tapped his head with a small bent finger. "If you know what you are doing, everything becomes possible. Even a desert can bloom."
He was right. His papaws were excellent; the yield enormous. People for miles around marvelled at his extraordinary orchard. No one had seen anything like it. When I next visited him I saw the reservoir. A small sea with cormorants lazing on the water. The fruit trees stood like soldiers who had never had to fight, perfectly regimented for ceremonial duties, delivering beautifully formed papaws bang on time. "You see, you just have to add the right amount of water."

Then, last month, I found him in Colombo looking unusually glum. "What's wrong?" I asked "Sums no good?"
"I've had to scrap it."
"Papaw trouble?"
He rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Water trouble. It is always the water."
"But you have the reservoir for water ..."
"It's the rain. It doesn't come when it is supposed to, and when it does come it doesn't stop. You used to be able to set your calendar, even your watch, by the rain those days. Now you have no idea what is going on. It is totally unpredictable. We put the drip on one day, and the next minute it pours. The reservoir overflows. Everything becomes waterlogged. The fruit rots. If we get rid of the water, release it into the fields, we end up with a drought. I can't work it out. I can't grow anything any more."
"Nothing?"
"Someone somewhere has buggered up the system. I can't do it just on hope and a prayer."
"Then what?"
"We have to find some way of subtracting, instead of adding, to get back to some equilibrium." He looked up. "We have to fix the sky." Then he stared at me as if it was up to me.

*

The story, written in English, originally appeared in German in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on March 17, 2007.

Romesh Gunesekera
was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in 1954, and now lives in London. He is author of "Reef", "Heaven's Edge" and most recently, "The Match."
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