She climbed every mountain and crossed every stream, to stand tall on her own feet. The hard soil of the 10-acre plantation in Udumbanchola high range in Idukki did turn gold before her determination, yielding an annual income of over a crore. The 21-year-old girl who first set foot on these hills could not have know that this inspiring success story would be 30 years in the making. What passed in between was a long and lonely battle.
Malarvizhi's story could well be the plot of a movie. Born into a landed 'zamindar' family of Bodinayakkanur in Tamil Nadu, she spent her childhood in the safety and security of the large family. "The house sat amidst sprawling fields owned by the family and the children grew up doing their fair share of chores. This would later stand me in good stead, though I could not have imagined, in those days of plenty, what life had in store," says Malarvizhi.
When she started her schooling, Malarvizhi was sent to her mother's home in Madurai. The remote Bodinayakkanur district had few good schools. She stayed with her young aunts for the first few years, but when they got married, she was sent to a boarding school.
She did well in school and passed class 10 with good marks. The news about marriage was a bolt from the blue for the 15-year-old. Her husband, belonging to an old landed family in Chennai, was given to an extravagant life. Soon after their second daughter was born, her in-laws lost all their assets in a property dispute.
"They owned thousands of acres of land. He never had to worry about anything in life. When it was all lost one fine morning, he couldn't cope with reality. He fell into severe depression."
Malarvizhi says she vividly recalls the day it became clear that it was up to her to take charge of the family. Her father, visiting her at the in-laws place, posed the all important question – 'Shouldn't Malarvizhi's husband start looking for a job?' "It was his mother who snapped back – 'how can someone who was employing hundreds of people under him till yesterday, go and ask around for a job?'
Off to Udumbanchola
Malarvizhi left with her father for Udumbanchola, where there was a 10-acre property in her name. She had left her little girls behind in the care of her in-laws. "I was so torn. My girls were just 2 and 4 years old. And I was going away to live in this forest in the middle of nowhere. Even to this day, I shudder at the memory of standing before that wilderness that was the 10-acre plot in my name. Most members of the family had land in high ranges like Rajakkad, Rajakumari, Chaturangappara, Udumbanchola, and so on. There was no land in my name; but seeing my plight, my grandfather had offered to hand this one over to me. In return for the favour, I gave away what little gold I was left with. And now, when faced with the truth of the intimidating forest land, I could no longer hear the voice inside me that said I was going to mint gold out of my little piece of land."
Learning lessons the hard way
All of 21 years, Malarvizhi realized she could either persevere or perish. Before leaving her at Udumbanchola, her father had left her with just two things to rely on - Rs 500 and a challenge to find a living out of the arable land.
"It hurt, so much that I was filled with a vengeful determination. I went to the nearby estates to find out what crops were grown there. I used some of the money to buy cardamom plants from the neighbouring plantation. With the help of some workers I could hire, I cleared my plot and planted the cardamom. To this day, I count myself among the hands at work on the plantation. When I paid my workers, I kept apart the same amount as my wages for each month. I knew it was important to start saving, from day one."
She soon learned that the Malayali family settled in the area reared cattle and it was proving profitable. So cattle it was for her too. "In a month's time, I learned all about taking care of the cows and milking them. The milk started bringing in some much-needed cash. Confident of my skills now, I tried my hands at rearing goats, hens, rabbits, and every other poultry animal. The dung was used to make organic nutrients for crops. Then I had another idea. The pond dug on the plot for irrigating the crops had surplus water even during summers. So I tried what I now know is called aquaponics – the system of combining aquaculture and soil-less growing of plants."
Slowly but steadily, Malarvizhi's plantation grew into the self-sustained unit that she wanted it to be. Vegetables, ginger, pepper, coriander, mint, fruits, and much more thrived on the land. "The motivational factor was that the more things I could grow on the farm, the less money I needed to spend for buying things. That would mean I could save more."
One evening, she had sat down to work the stone grind to make idli batter when she suddenly felt she had to see her father. "My heart felt so heavy. I had to see him. There was a house some three kilometres away which had a telephone. I walked there right away and called home. When Appa picked up, I almost cried over the phone – 'I want to see you,' I said. 'Come over. You can meet me and go back,' he replied. I didn't have the money to travel home and I didn't understand why no one thought of that. I hung up the phone and told myself that I would not return home or ask anyone to come and visit until I had built an independent life."
She soon understood what had called out to her that evening when she wanted to see her father. "One night, not long after I had called home, I woke up from a bad dream to hear someone calling out to me outside the hut. Some relatives had come down in a car to take me home, my father had died. If they didn't bring a car to take me and instead had telephoned to let me know, I wonder what I would've done. I didn't even have the money for bus tickets."
"My husband's parents passed away years later. Time had changed a lot of things by then. I could take care of the all the expenditure related to the rituals. Most of the debts were cleared. My children were going to good schools. I had fared well, after all. But the pain that tugged at my heart just never left. Didn't I deserve a little more kindness?"
No going back
All is well in her world today, Malarvizhi says, recounting her blessings. "My elder daughter completed a degree course in interior designing and the younger one did MBA. They are both married and settled. My husband lives with them, he wishes to spend time with his grandchildren."
She adds after a pause, "Nobody wants to come down to this wilderness and live in the limited comforts. They ask me to sell the plantation and go settle down with them. Everyone keeps asking me now why I live here all by myself. But hasn't it been like this for too long now? Every grain of sand on this plot knows me. Can I just leave, after it has given me everything I now have?" She lets her voice trail.
She is focusing her attention these days on a new initiative that makes and sells squash and jam using fruits and vegetables from the plantation. "There are workers on this plantation who joined me years ago when I started out. Some of them are too old now to do laborious jobs. I started the jam and squash making unit for them. That will keep them active without tiring them out. The products are marketed under the brand name 'Organic World.' We add organic honey instead of sugar in all our products. Bird's eye chillies (kanthari mulaku), which we have in abundance all over the plantation, are also added to the juices. All the products are healthy and free of artificial ingredients."
She has thrown herself another challenge, says Malarvizhi. The cardamom plantations are known to use banned pesticides in liberal quantities. Planters who vouch for this notorious practice insist that it is inevitable at all stages of cardamom farming in order to achieve a good yield. Malarvizhi has devoted a good portion of her plantation to pesticide-free cardamom farming to prove a point. ''I have bought an additional 18 acres of land to extend this pesticide-free method of growing cardamom. It is possible to achieve a good yield without poisoning the soil," she says.
Her commitment to farming has earned her laurels along the way. "Some TV channels had aired interviews with me after winning awards. The fact that I earned over a crore in a year from farming was highlighted in those interviews. Malayalis living abroad, who must've watched the TV shows, started calling me to ask about the feasibility of moving into plantation business. They want to know the statistics – how many acres will help them earn the same amount etc. I tell them that I spent more than half of my life to get to where I am now. I have worked every day of my life on this plantation for over 30 years now, not knowing that it will ever be any different. Those who have infinite patience and a willingness to work hard can give it a try," she smiles.
"When my father once visited me at Udumbanchola, I was carrying stones on my shoulders to build a one-room hut. The mud house I was living in had snakes visiting it almost everyday. They would occupy my hut when I was away working in the plantation and left reluctantly when I returned in the evenings. My father must have cried inside when he saw me carrying the heavy stones. His eyes turned moist when it was time for him to leave. My anger burst forth. 'You are the one who left me here, asking me to show I can fare. Why didn't you choose to keep me close, what stopped you from caring more?' My father looked at me in silence for a moment and replied – 'someday, you will understand why.'
It took all these years for me to understand why. I look back and see a woman who didn't beg for favours and kindness, who took charge of all the lives who depended on her, who fulfilled all her responsibilities. My father wanted me to feel proud of myself someday," she winds up.