A young Aurovilian of Tamil origin stewards a 30 acre farm
Over a year ago, I was invited to accompany a friend to lunch at Iyanar and Tushitha's home in Brihaspathi. I still remember the elaborate Tamil-style meal served on banana leaf with dishes prepared from the produce of the farm. The tasty finale was a cashew-nut rich milk payasam (pudding). At that time, Iyanar's situation at Brihaspathi was precarious, and talks were going on about his stewardship and farming of that piece of land. Recently at the Pour Tous vegetable counter, I bumped into Iyanar again. He was bringing in a large bag of fresh harvested produce – podalangai (snake gourd), thanndu keerai (a red-stemmed spinach), palak (a North Indian spinach variety) and cucumber. It appeared as if he had made it after all…
Brihaspathi or Jupiter in Indian mythology is considered to be the Guru of the gods, occupying the second position after the Sun in the Solar system – so goes the legend. In Auroville, Brihaspathi is a vibrant tract of land nestled in its Southwest corner, now a flourishing farm run by Iyanar. The story of Iyanar is a fairytale of sorts - the story of a young orphan who had to work his way through a turbulent life, grabbing whatever opportunities that came his way through providence, personal ingenuity and the benevolence of friends, and eventually securing his rightful place in Auroville.
Having lost both his parents at the age of five, Iyanar came to Auroville to live under the care of an uncle who was a watchman at an early beach community of Serenity. He grew up interacting with its residents, two of whom began to take special interest in the young boy. “This couple took me into their home. I learnt French from them,” he recalls. “They were both into ships and sailing. Once when I was 9 or 10, we travelled to Cochin in Kerala from where I understood that we were all going to sail to France . There were going to take me with them and give me an education in France – it was going to be a great opportunity for me. But then some local newspaper published a story that I was being abducted, at which point the police came and took me away.” He was returned to Auroville, while his benefactors sailed away. Iyanar still wonders how his life may have turned out had he gone to France .
Back in Auroville, a new adventure began. His uncle had passed away and Iyanar was homeless. “Then Anne and Bhavana took interest in me and had me enrolled in the boarding under Andrè and Babou, attending the school for Tamil kids at Fraternity.” Iyanar enjoyed the regularity of school, being with the teachers and playing with the other children. “I had a great time growing up in Fraternity. We were made to feel very independent, being responsible for ourselves and our lives, and even living in our own keet huts.” Though he was not too keen on academics, Iyanar picked up many skills from the activities he got involved in – gardening, landscaping, cooking... “But still I was very restless and feeling rather unsettled. And I think that was because I felt that I had nobody in this world,” he muses. In his late teens Iyanar met the love of his life – Tushitha – the one who would bring stability into his life. She was also a student at Andrè's boarding, and came from Kottakarai village. As the romance blossomed, Iyanar felt a deeper meaning to his life. He recounts, “From that point on, I began to live for her, wanting to make something of myself and to make her happy and proud of me.” They began living together without the usual ceremony of a marriage, something quite unheard of in the Tamil community. “There was much opposition to this and people were constantly advising us to get married. But I believed in the words of The Mother – that marriage is not necessary to prove that one is devoted to one's partner. For 7 years we could do it, but finally I gave into marriage so that Tushitha's family in the village would be happy.”
Life for the young couple was not easy. Iyanar tried his hand at a variety of jobs to make ends meet – from being a lifeguard at Repos, assisting in Discipline farm, setting up the community of Arc en Ciel, and even helping to run the restaurant there – it seemed like he tried it all. However his true calling seemed to elude him until a serendipitous conversation overheard at a tea stall in Edaiyanchavadi that proved to be the next turning point in his life. “There were a few French people discussing selling their farm and moving out of Auroville. Something came over me, and I boldly introduced myself, apologizing for intruding upon their conversation. I told them that I was interested in taking care of their farm and also confessed that I had no money to buy it!” To his surprise, the group heard him out and promised that they would discuss amongst themselves and then inform him. The answer came back in the affirmative. The group invited him to move into one of the buildings in Brihaspathi and start working on the farm along with them.
“It felt so natural; as if farming was a part of my blood,” confides Iyanar “and they were quite happy with me. I loved the work, and I think it showed.” Soon, the original residents of Brihaspathi left for France , and Iyanar was all by himself managing the farm. The period that followed became the most challenging time of his life. Suddenly questions were raised in Auroville about Iyanar's commitment and capability of running a farm, and simultaneously several individuals were expressing interest in the Brihaspathi land. A special committee was set-up to look into the matter. “At that time, due to a bad example set by one Tamil Aurovilian, some people were suspicious about my motives and they thought I would behave the same way. There were afraid I would sell the farm equipment and pocket the money for personal use.” Iyanar was outraged by these assumptions, “I have grown up in Auroville and I believe in its cause and ideals; and for anyone to think that I would treat collective property in such a manner – it was quite something!” But he also had the backing of good friends who trusted his abilities and encouraged him in his work. “It is to these people that I am truly grateful. They advised me to be calm and patient.” A decision was reached to allocate large part of the Brihaspathi land to farming under the stewardship of Iyanar, while the remaining area was given to the Red Earth Riding School operated by Eric and Katelijne. It was a satisfying solution and Iyanar was happy to share the land with the horse farm. “We have a good neighbourly relationship now, share resources and watch out for each other.”
“My day begins at 4 a.m. ; that's when the cows get milked,” says Iyanar describing his schedule. “And it usually ends around 9 p.m. ” He has a small crew of five that help him - Segar who is his ‘right-hand', another helper, a watchman, and two ladies. “We work as a team, and it is to them that I truly owe the success of the farm,” he says modestly. The work is labour-intensive. Besides the cows having to be milked twice a day, there is also the work of harvesting the vegetables, preparing the compost pile, transporting manure from the cowshed to the fields in metal pans and cow urine in buckets, maintaining the bunds, watering the plots by rotation, and planting seeds continually to ensure a constant supply of vegetables and herbs. “I sometimes wish I had a little vandi (bullock cart) to do some of the transport work. Right now, my budget does not allow for it, and we have to do all the work manually.” Iyanar's work also extends outside the farm – delivering milk and produce at various locations, getting seeds and seedlings from Pondicherry or Villupuram, and regularly attending farm group meetings. He recollects the period before he was accepted into the farm group when he had to sell his produce at the village to make ends meet. “Vasanthi, one of the ammas, would take a basket of whatever we harvested that morning and go street by street through Edaiyanchavadi to sell it. It was through those two rupee and three rupee sales, that we survived in the beginning.” Now all his clients are within Auroville – the Solar Kitchen, the Visitor's Centre, and Pour Tous which get the produce, and individual Aurovilians who get their morning supply of milk (sometimes afternoon too) delivered personally at their doorsteps.
At Brihaspathi, Iyanar follows the concept of multi-cropping where companion plants are grown side by side resulting in a maximal use of space. Radishes flourish in the bunds alongside the cucumber vines and banana stems. “I observe a lot,” he says. “I am always on the lookout to learn new techniques, and introduce good varieties to the farm.” He shows off a few dwarf drumstick trees that he brought from Bangalore prized for their ‘over a metre and a half' long drumsticks. In the banana thoppu (orchard), Iyanar points out two little trees, “They are the rasthali variety, and I picked up those saplings from a trip to Madurai .” The rasthali, more available in the southern Tamil Nadu, is considered a king among bananas and renowned for its delicately fine flavour. He also has other fruit like papaya and cashewnut, and plans to diversify into others like lemon and chikoo in the future.
But theft is a problem that the farm has been facing, especially during the cashewnut season in summer. His past cashew harvest was a measly six bags. But Iyanar feels that there is not much he can do since the land is spread over a wide area with a few patches even reaching up to the main road. While he has erected a fence around his vegetable plots, he feels that such a treatment for the entire property would be an impossible task. His cows are also in danger of being stolen, and so the need for a night watchman. “Cows are expensive,” he explains, “and it has taken me two years to build up to this present herd.” In the cow-shed a dozen bovines are seen chewing cud benignly amongst four frisky calves. “I started with a gift of one cow Kalavathi who had a female calf, and subsequently two more!” He goes on to share how the birth of a female calf is a matter of great rejoicing for the dairy farmer, and that he has been pretty lucky in that respect. Besides the milk the cows give, the cowdung and urine are used as fertilizers for the fields. Like most Auroville farms, Brihaspathi is completely organic, using no artificial fertilizers and only natural pesticides. He adds that Lucas will soon be introducing EM technology to his composting efforts.
Finding time for his family is a challenge Iyanar faces, but his family understands and supports him wholeheartedly by blending their lives around the farm. His two sons 12 year-old Gurudev and 10 year old Anand who vociferously declare that while they ‘love going to school at Transition' they also enjoy hanging out in the farm when school is closed. Tushitha, his partner, helps him more actively. Every morning, it is she who sorts out the produce for him to carry, before setting out to her own job at the Solar Kitchen. As an expression of his love for her, Iyanar has created a big flower garden where he tends some of her favourite flowers – kanakambaram, which The Mother named ‘Supramental influence in the subconscient' and saamanthi, ‘Plasticity'. “When she weaves them into a garland and puts in on her hair, it makes me very happy,” he says shyly.