For 43 years now, K.A. Nagarajan has single-handedly planted and raised thousands of trees in his hometown of Kanchikovil. He is better known there as Maram Thatha, finds out Akila Kannadasan

Nagarajan realised it was already dusk, and time to go home. He had been planting flowering plants along the path leading to a hill temple in Kanchikovil the entire day. He knew he was in trouble when he encountered his furious dad who was on his way uphill looking for him. Says Nagarajan, “When my father said ‘Go home, I’m coming’, my blood curdled. I knew I was in trouble.” Today, almost 43 years after that day, Maram Thatha Nagarajan recalls the beating he got that evening. But not even that thrashing stopped him from doing what he wanted to do: plant trees.

Nagarajan has single-handedly planted over 7,000 trees in and around his village near Erode. He started when he was just 17 years old. Today, most of the saplings he planted are tall, strapping trees that are the lifeline for the people of Kanchikovil. The trees are almost as old as his children, and Nagarajan treats them no differently. For a living, he weaves towels on a loom at home.

Star struck

Seated on a wire-cot in his small, whitewashed house, he speaks of how as a little boy, he was a huge fan of MGR. “I grew up listening to the songs of Pattukkottai Kalyanasundaram and looked up to Kamaraj,” he says. His heroes inspired him to “do something” for the people. “I thought, why not plant trees that give shade to people.”

He collected seeds from around the village and raised the saplings himself. At the break of dawn, he would get on to his father’s cycle, his precious aruval and kadapparai slung around the handlebar. Two plastic pots of water held by a string hung on either side of his cycle carrier. Nagarajan would meticulously plant the saplings, build a fence of thorns around them for protection and water them. “If I plant a tree, it is my duty to look after it till it is strong enough,” says the 60-year-old.

Nagarajan’s wife Prema is very supportive of his mission. “She packs lunch and tea in a wire koodai for me when I go to work,” he smiles. The man on a cycle with his lunch basket, sickles and saplings became a common sight in Kanchikovil and somewhere along the way the children started calling him ‘Maram Thatha’. Nagarajan will stop at nothing to help a tree grow. He has braved thorns and brambles, irate authorities…he has even collected water from a ditch to water a tree. The soft-spoken man says that nothing angers him more than the reckless cutting of trees. Age has slowed him down, but even today, he is often seen shirtless in the hot sun with a mundaasu, fighting weeds with his sickle.

Anytime, anywhere

The village folk turn to him for any tree help. Tell him you need a custard apple sapling and he will make sure it is planted in your backyard. He even broke the myth surrounding the pungai tree by planting twenty of them in the village. “People believed that ghosts inhabited the tree,” says Nagarajan.

Nagarajan’s love for trees is immense. He has just recovered from a heart attack and he says, “It is the blessings of all the trees that saved me.”

He then speaks of the ‘Police station’ arasa maram. “When it was a young tree, people planned to cut it down to make way for a canal. But I didn’t let them do it. I said I will fast if it was cut.”

The canal was built, but the tree was spared. “It’s huge now. It is home to hundreds of little cormorants. They are beautiful, in the evenings you can hear them sing.” Even when Nagarajan is weaving at home, his mind wanders to the trees on the hillside. “When I close my eyes, all I think of is where to plant my next tree and which tree is in need of help,” he says.

What does he feel when he sees the saplings he planted all those years ago now as glorious trees? Maram Thatha falls silent for a moment. “Words cannot describe the feeling. The satisfaction…sometimes, I even feel a slight tinge of pride.”