It was a black night. And cold, for December. But it wasn’t all that quiet.
‘Frogs,’ Chandra said. We were sitting outside her house in Melakadu village, Sivagangai district, Tamil Nadu. The chorus got louder. ‘Sometimes,’ she sighed, ‘they croak so loudly, we shut every window and still can’t sleep.’
‘And there are snakes,’ Ilaiyaraja pointed out. He had a nasty habit of bringing up snakes ever since he knew I didn’t care for the reptile’s company. Both of them laughed when I quickly checked the area with my mobile phone’s torchlight. They spent much of their time outdoors. Chandra Subramanian, a single mother, was a small farmer, raising vegetables and sugarcane. Ilaiyaraja, also from Melakadu, worked part-time in his family’s fields and as a helper in a private farm. They weren’t frightened of the dark, they didn’t take mincing steps along mud tracks. They didn’t jump when they saw two small, white lights in a field faraway.
‘What is that?’ I asked them, when I suddenly noticed the lights moving towards us.
‘Oh, they are flower pickers. You know saamandhi (tuberose)? You must have seen the fields when you came here, the ones behind the green netting… Those have to be plucked before the petals open. Otherwise, the price drops,’ explained Chandra.
‘I pick them myself,’ said Ilaiyaraja. ‘I go between 3 and 5 a.m. I get hundred rupees for a morning’s work.’
The flowers are at their best just after the rains. They are bigger, fresher, easier to pluck. And their fragrance is heady. Except the moist fields also attract the crawlies and creepies. Ilaiyaraja wears a sack over his waist, gum boots and a small round (miner’s) light over his head. The plucking is done either at night, or before the sun rises, so that the buds can reach Madurai city by 9 a.m.
‘They cannot use opened flowers in garlands,’ said Chandra. She has plans to raise a field of tuberose herself. But for that, she needs to grow a patch of greens (agathi keerai) around the land. Or opt for the ugly green netting. I ask if it is to keep away cows and goats. Both of them laugh.
‘No, if someone sees a field full of beautiful flowers, they will cast an evil eye. We live in fear of losing our crop.’