An edited version of this appeared in Deccan Herald in my monthly Sunday column.
After a long and rather arduous search of nearly eight years, we have finally found our little piece of paradise, a small plot of agricultural land just outside the temple town of Nanjanagudu near Mysuru.
More than half our weekends in all these years were spent burning rubber through countless towns and villages across the countryside, chasing brokers, scouring real estate websites for listings and making enquiries among landed friends for leads. We saved-up everything we could spare over the last few years for a dream that we were unwilling to give-up on despite being termed preposterous by a few.
After checking-out nearly seven dozen plots and scrutinizing nearly as much paperwork, Sandeep and I are now probably as competent as any real estate lawyer in evaluating paperwork for agricultural land!
To live amidst nature, to learn the ways of the land and unlearn the habits of a crushing city existence, to befriend trees, plants, birds and insects in their own territory is a dream I’ve nurtured for most of my adult life.
My paternal grandfather and his forefathers have farmed for many generations. Thinking back to my growing-up years as to how and when my intense love for an agrarian life close to the land must have taken shape, there are many factors that probably influenced my subliminal mind.
As a rather quiet, shy and sensitive child growing-up in my maternal grandmother’s house amidst trees and an assortment of domestic animals, and spending many a summer vacation with my paternal grandfather, uncles, aunts and several cousins in his small homestead in rural Malenad (Western Ghats), I naturally internalized the gentle, sustainable and commonsensical way of life from both sides.
One incident has however left an indelible imprint in my memory and made an everlasting impression on my soul. Each summer, I spent a few days with my paternal grandfather in the small hamlet of Kannuru about 50 kilometres from the town of Shimoga in Karnataka. ‘Kannur Ajja’ was the loving moniker we children gave him. The patriarch of a brood of 10 children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, Ajja (grandfather in Kannada) was a learned man of many talents.
A farmer, a self-taught astrologer and a popular Nati Vaidya (herbal healer), Ajja, known for his prodigious knowledge of native medicinal herbs, plants, trees, and their applications, was sought after by people from surrounding villages to treat the most venomous of snake bites and several other ailments. He was Malenad’s very own Druid and dispensed treatment free-of-charge
Ajja was also an ace marksman in his heydays when proficiency with a rifle was considered a necessity, living as they did near the thick forests of Western Ghats where tigers ruled.
During one of my summer visits, Ajja called me to his side, “Thangi*, baa illi.” He said he had something to show me. He took my tiny hand in his and led me to the family fields across the cluster of family homes. The wrinkled skin on his hand felt soft and comforting.
Ambling along hand-in-hand, him matching his slow steady steps with my tiny strides, we crossed the road that ran between the homestead and the fields. We walked across the threshing yard (Kana in Kannada), treaded over the wooden logs laid over the little rivulet and came upon a line-up of tall coconut trees along the wide bund abutting the paddy fields. He paused and fondly looked at the sturdy trees swaying to the wind, trees he had planted and lovingly nurtured for many years.
Pointing to a few of the coconut trees he said, “These are for you when you grow-up and these are for your cousin Rekha.” Coconut trees were considered a source of income. Many years later, I learnt that Ajja had a few coconut trees earmarked for each of his many granddaughters, his own immensely beautiful way of continuing to care for his female progeny long after his time.
Over three decades and several family partitions later, I don’t know where my trees are and don’t even know if they are still standing. After Ajja passed on, our visits to Kannuru dwindled. But each time I think of my grandfather’s treasured gift of trees to me and my female cousins, the thoughtfulness of his gesture leaves me overwhelmed.
In a culture steeped in patriarchy, the gift of trees to granddaughters of the family by my dear Ajja, a simple small-farmer, holds so much significance.
Years after his passing, the memory of that summer afternoon walking hand-in-hand with my precious Ajja to receive that glorious gift of trees enfolds me in its warmth. In times peaceful and demanding, I have come to rely on this one memory of Ajja’s love — pure, unconditional, unprejudiced and timeless, and I once again morph into that quiet, shy little girl, ensconced in my Ajja’s loving embrace under the cool shade of the coconut trees he gifted me.
As Sandeep and I embark on our new journey trying to follow in his rather large footsteps together with his great grandchildren, I derive my sense of inner peace and strength knowing that Kannur Ajja will continue to watch over us from the better place he probably is in now.
I couldn’t have asked for an inheritance richer or a legacy more meaningful than those of the gift of trees from my Ajja, my wellspring of untarnished love and inspiration.
*Note: In Kannada, Thangi, Akka, Thamma and Anna mean younger and older sister, and younger and older brother in that order. However, people in the villages of Malenad use them as terms of endearment when conversing with young children.