He died doing what he believed in. Organic farming pioneer G. Nammalvar may have passed away, but the revolution he started will go on

“Nammalvar is here!” called out someone. Standing at the far end of the crowd, mostly consisting of children, I peered at the huddle at the entrance of a car that had just arrived. I could make out a white thalappa and then the trademark green shawl came into view — there he was, the man who made it his life’s mission to spread organic farming to the whole of India. With the shawl around his frail shoulders and a smile behind his white beard, he walked briskly to inaugurate a children’s library at the foothills of Kaithamalai in Uthukuli.

That was the first time I met him. People thronged him — some, like me, did so for no reason but for a chance to listen to him. He was 73 years old then, and not in good health. His close aides said that he refused to be taken to hospital. He believed in Nature and its healing powers.

The next time, I found myself seated amid a group of eager listeners around him at an event in Coimbatore. Farmers, young and old, asked him agriculture-related questions. But noticing the mixed audience, he kept the discussion simple and warmly encouraged each one of us to say something. “The youth have to speak out,” he said as he ran a hand over his beard. This time, he was much healthier than before — his belief, it seemed, did cure him.

But it’s during the three days I spent at his organic farming training camp at Vanagam, his 55-acre organic farm at Kadavur that I realised that Nammalvar was not just the wise old man who was revered by farmers. He was a poet, a story-teller, and sometimes, when he was in a good mood, a child who cracked jokes and laughed endlessly. He was idealistic and sometimes stubborn — perhaps that is why he was so successful in transforming the minds of farmers who followed certain practices for generations.

As we sat in a circle in a thatch-roofed enclosure at Vanagam that morning, he introduced ideas and opened discussions effortlessly. When any of us spoke, he closed his eyes and nodded sagely. He often quoted J. C. Kumarappa, a close associate of Gandhiji and the many men of substance he had read about and met during his journeys. How much he knew! I wondered if he had read every book, every piece of paper on this planet.

People approached him for everything. They believed that a few days at Vanagam with Nammalvar was the best medicine for illnesses of the body and mind. There was something about the man — was it his voice, perhaps? Or that grandfatherly smile behind his beard?

It was a September morning and I was at a friend’s wedding in Tiruvannamalai. Nammalvar was to preside over the ceremony and bless the couple. I waited for him with a few others at the entrance of the temple. A car whooshed to a halt and Nammalvar walked out. He held my extended hands and smiled into my eyes as he walked inside, as briskly as ever. That was the last time I saw him.