Mangalore, India: A Rising Fall

The rain is blinding. I tip-toe through the overwhelming, boundless sheet of water – and sole proprietor of the massive green fluorescence that surrounds me. A thick drop slaps my neck and mocks the futility of my umbrella, dripping ever so slowly down my back. The monsoon is in its third month. Just one month to go. Gregory is twenty paces ahead of me. And on a mission. He has something to show me at the end of the path. He’s oblivious to my paltry attempts at staying dry while I find proper footing for each of my rarely naked, ghost white feet.

Four generations of farming this land came to an abrupt halt three months ago when the Mangalore Refineries and Petrochemicals Ltd. company sent the police and a handful of “movers” to oust Gregory, his brother, their seventy-five year old mother and all of the livestock from their land.

The oil company bought eighteen hundred acres of fertile land on the outskirts of Mangalore claiming it was arid and dry and unsuitable for farming. Slowly and systematically they displaced the farmers. Promises of well-paying refinery jobs and a substantial relocation package were nothing but that. Promises. But the government and the oil company underestimated this particular rice farmer. He saw through their lies and deception and even without the support or encouragement of his fellow farmers, he stood his ground and wouldn’t leave the land he had worked his entire life. Instead, the family banded together and screamed and cried and watched in horror as the crew first looted, then smashed their home to the ground. With family heirlooms poking up through the debris and terra-cotta roof tiles dating back to eighteen sixty-six strewn about, Gregory and his brother piled stones together and built a new farmhouse. A one room shack nestled beside the pile of rubble they once called home.

At the end of the path, Gregory stops. When I reach him moments later his sullen eyes widen and for the first time since we met, he smiles. Then he turns his head, indicating our arrival. My childish musings of walking through the Indian mud puddles vanish. In awe, I let the umbrella drop to my side. And as the monsoon wets me to the bone, I am witness to a most beautiful and vibrant and lush green rice field. A wooden cross stands tall in the very center, a true testament to the man’s unbridled faith.

Three months ago, after the house was destroyed and everybody had gone, Gregory did the impossible. Beaten down and left for dead, he walked his bulls through the fields and planted his rice. Today, weeds have taken root and grown in the dirt that was once his house. But so too do his rice patties flourish. When the refinery moguls and government officials dish out a spoonful of his harvest to their children, they should only know of a man named Gregory Patrao.

John Torrente Written by:

It's three-thirty in the morning and I'm on the coastal railway from Bombay to Mangalore. Nineteen steamy hours on the Matsyagandha Express. The woman on the bunk across from me has reconstituted her sari into a blanket. There’s a full moon. It’s my forty-second birthday. And I haven’t slept a wink. The retired banker occupying the bunk just above me is resting peacefully, though his gentle snore is no match for the relentless grind of steel on steel. The windows are wide open and I’m drenched in the rush of the unforgiving night air. Earlier questions from my friendly bunk mate have my head spinning. They were simple. General curiosities people share when they come across me in a space clearly not my own. Mine is a story that’s taken over a decade to create. And a lifestyle I struggle to explain. In nineteen ninety-nine I dropped my corporate copywriting gig in San Francisco and went searching for Big Change. Having been a social worker on the overnight streets of Manhattan, I secured a volunteer position in Oaxaca, Mexico working with families living in the surrounding mountains. A year later, with my suburban ruse dismantled, I knew there was no going back. I traveled by bus through Central America and eventually wound up studying photography in Quito, Ecuador. I started taking portraits, printing the images and bringing them back to the people. This exchange broke down language barriers, cultural differences, economic disparities and complex social mores. Photography was bringing me deeper and deeper into the lives of the locals. My process is simple. I make contact with a group. I live with them for a month or two. And when it feels right, I use my camera as a means of cultural exchange. When my time is up, I head to a city where I can process the film and make the prints. Then I put them in a box and send them back. I’ve done projects with the landless farmers movement in Brazil, Indian schoolchildren who lost family in the tsunami, indigenous tribes in Mexico and Peru, gypsies in Turkey and seven foot tall drunken fishermen along the Danube river in Serbia. Three years teaching English in China and the occasional freelance project has helped finance my work. My home is where I land. And everything I own fits in a backpack. I use a forty year old Rolleiflex 2.8f TLR and typically shoot black and white film. I don’t publish or sell any work.