“What is the secret to your long life?” I ask ‘saalumarada’ Thimmakka, who, according to her foster son, Umesh, is 107 years old. We are at a Corporate Social Responsibility event, organised by Sowparnika real estate developers, in Bengaluru. The moniker, I learn, aptly, translates to ‘a row of trees’. The reply, however, comes from Umesh: “She doesn’t harbour negative thoughts. She’s always kind to others. She only wishes good for others.”
It is hard to dismiss this answer as an altruistic platitude after observing Thimmakka’s demeanour and gestures. Frequent on her face, shrunken with age, is a smidgen of smile. Her palms, during conversations, are often pressed together as a mark of respect towards the person she’s talking to. On spotting people standing next to her, she asks Umesh to get chairs for them to be seated. Thimmakka, as it appears, is innately compassionate.
One by one, people come, greet and click pictures with her. She touches their foreheads, mumbles a few words of blessings and smiles at them.
Last week, she blessed President Ram Nath Kovind in the same manner, whilst receiving the Padma Shri award for her “distinguished service in the field of environment” (according to the Ministry of Home Affairs).
But service, perhaps, isn’t the accurate word to describe what Thimmakka does; it is parenting.
Planting since 40s
Thimmakka, in her 40s, started planting saplings with her husband Sri Bikkala Chikkayya. The couple, after many years of marriage, was childless (Thimmakka adopted Umesh 17 years ago — long after Chikkaya died). So, the saplings were their kids. To nurture them, they would carry several pots of water every day from distant wells and ponds. About 28 years ago, Chikkayya passed on. Thimmakka was left with a crumbling hut, a tiny piece of land, hardly any savings, very little support and the stigma of being a widow.
She had her “off-springs” — nearly 400 of them — that she’d planted with her husband along a five-kilometre stretch from Kudur to Hulikal (where Thimakka and Chikkayya resided).
And, this is when the Kannada daily Prajavani , wrote about her. The then Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda heard of her story and conferred her with the National Citizens Award.
But it is not for the accolades that she plants and nurtures a sapling. It is perhaps not even for environment protection. That seems only like a by-product, not the intention, for, when asked why she plants a tree, she replies in chaste Kannada, “That’s what gives me happiness. Each tree is like a child to me. I like to plant and take care of them till they are old.”
Coffee and TV soaps
The slowness in movement, the slight difficulty in hearing and the wrinkled skin apart, there aren’t things that indicate that Thimmakka is 107. She gets scores of visitors everyday, seeking interviews, help, philanthropy opportunities among other things. On most days, she’d be up by five in the morning. At 7, she’d have a cup of coffee. She has ragi mudde (a local dish made of finger millet) at 9 am and at 7.30 pm, when she watches Kannada soaps. “Oh, she watches TV till 10 and, sometimes, even later than that,” laughs Umesh.
Most of her time and energy, however, she spends on “looking after her kids”. She travels about 10,000 kilometres every month to plant new trees or to look after old ones, according to Umesh. The Saalumarada Thimmakka International Foundation, started in 2014, attempts to take her environmental work forward (Karnataka Deputy Chief Minister G Parameshwara among others, fund the foundation).
“How many trees have you planted?” I ask. Thimmakka pauses to jog her memory. A few seconds pass. She gives up. The reply comes from Umesh again: “There are many… It’s countless.”
With Thimmakka, this answer, too, doesn’t seem like an exaggeration.