Sekar was familiar with organic farming long before it became fashionable. 'Back in my village, Devadanampettai, near Gingee, I worked in a rice-mill, but also did some agricultural work. I learnt the technique of preparing the soil. After ploughing, we used to put a layer of finely-cut leaves — neem, konnai, etti — and dung. This compost readied the soil for planting,' he says, sitting in the shade in Shakambari Gardens, (Adyar) where he earns over ten times what he did, ten years ago.
Ten years ago, Sekar — working at one of the three rice-mills in his village — was given ten marakaans of rice (1 marakaan = 3 measures) every week, and, at the end of the month, a salary of Rs. 900. 'That was enough, until I got married. And then, that work also started phasing out.' So Sekar came to Chennai, and became a gardener.
Sekar, however, wasn’t the first person in his family to migrate to Chennai. His parents and siblings did, 20 years back. A loan to build a house indebted them, and, ironically, drove them from that very house to the city, from where they worked to repay it. Sekar, his wife, and two daughters now live near the Velachery check-post. 'The rent is Rs. 5,000, but,' he points out, 'there’s no water problem.' And, despite half his salary going towards house-rent, Sekar has enrolled his children in a private, English-medium school. 'They study well,' he says, smiling as he mentions the fees using English words. 'I have learnt all this (to say the numbers in English) even though I don’t have an education, and what I don’t know, I ask and find out.'
Surrounded by flowering plants and crotons, Sekar explains that gardening is both easy and hard. The actual planting, he says, is easy; his work includes laying down squares of turf for lawns, besides regular flowering plants and shrubs. 'We use a mixture of eru (dung) and semman (red soil), which is completely organic. When there are no flowers, we change the fertilizer.' Cutting grass, on the other hand, is very hard work. 'When we use those big scissors, it strains our shoulders and stiffens the back. Shifting material for terrace gardens — that’s also very difficult work. And terrace gardens are very popular right now,' says Sekar.
'Some people like rock gardens, and others like kitchen gardens. But space is a constraint,' he says, of the city. So, while some waterproof their terraces and grow plants directly, others opt for the cheaper option of pots.
Organic gardening — with no chemicals –— is also catching on in the city, says Sekar, but he adds that it is only 'five or ten people who ask for just natural compost. Chennai’s climate actually suits a lot of plants, as flowering plants do well with sunshine.' But growing flowering plants itself is a city culture, feels Sekar. 'In my village, few grew marigold or sembaruthi; and rarely, nithya malli. There are trees though — mango, pomegranate and guava.'
Sekar, in fact, is just back from his village; he had visited for the Aadi festival.
In Chennai, his workday stretches from 9 a.m to 6 p.m. and he travels around by bus. 'I’m somewhat familiar with the city; my mother stays nearby, in my brother’s house. Living in the city is okay; you can earn, but you can save only if you are careful.' But there are days when the children ask for an apple or a chocolate, luxuries, that are normally out of their reach. 'I buy it for them occasionally. After all, I work hard for them...'
(A weekly column on men and women who make Chennai what it is)