Ordinary people doing extra-ordinary things and extra-ordinary people doing ordinary things make news. Abdul Latheef’s story may not exactly fit into that category. But it’s worth knowing the life of this ordinary man who does not-so extra-ordinary things that we just fail to do, or conveniently avoid doing, as we chase seemingly larger things in life.
At around noon on an intolerable summer day, Latheef stands before me like a character straight out of a zen story: happy, contented, and smiling. "We need to walk a bit to see the farm," he says and starts walking. I open my umbrella and scurry a bit to catch up with the 49-year-old farmer who lives a few kilometers away from Technopark in the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram. As we walked through a rut along coconut groves and barren parcels of land, Latheef rues that not so long ago, they were all paddy fields. On some plots along the way, construction of houses is under way. The area around the technology hub has become a concrete jungle, as multi-storied buildings have come up on farmlands, targeting easy rental incomes.
With the enthusiasm of a child who sees a playground, Latheef hurries toward a small plot of land divided into rectangle platforms. He tells me that the vegetation is black gram and peanuts. He checks the plants and informs me that they would be ready for harvest in a few months. Just about a month back, he had grown paddy in the same field. Latheef then takes me to two more such fields nearby where sweet potato, tapioca, beans and plantains are growing. Later at his home, he shows me rabbits and ducks in the backyard, creatures that his wife Tahira raises.
All those farms that Latheef showed me won him the best farmer in Kadinamkulam village panchayat in 2014. Yet, he doesn’t own any piece of land except for the 10 cents where he has built a house using his savings from 23 years of toil in Saudi Arabia. He has taken most of the land on lease while some Samaritans have allowed him to use their plots free of charge. Latheef says he doesn’t use any chemical fertilizers, instead depending on cow dung, ash and other natural substances to boost output and protect his plants. And the entire neighborhood is his market place. During the recently held Attukal Ponkala in the capital city, Latheef supplied as much as 90 kilograms of rice.
Latheef doesn’t make tons of money from his small farms, but he is one of the happiest souls I've come across. "Whatever I do is profitable and gives me enough money to look after my family," he says. "More importantly, my wife and children get to eat healthy food and we are together. And the satisfaction I get is priceless."
The man who changed Latheef’s life was an Arab. A few years ago, when this young Arab visited Latheef's brother, who too works in the Middle East, Latheef was summoned to be the interpreter as he could talk Arabic. The Arab, surprised at the greenery around, asked Latheef why was he slugging it out in the desert when he can have a much better life in Kerala itself by just making use of the resources around.
"The Arab told me: 'You people are really foolish. Mother Nature has given you everything in plenty: water, nutritious soil and abundant sunlight. Then what on earth makes you people come to the deserts for a living?' That made me think the whole night, and I decided not to go back to Saudi Arabia," Latheef recalls. "I realized, why should I leave my loved ones just for the sake of money? Why shouldn’t I find my fortunes here itself?"
An expert in tile laying and other construction work, Latheef could've earned more money had he chosen to work in that sector, especially given the massive construction going on around his place. Most of the paddy fields and farmlands in the area have been filled up to make way for houses and apartments. But the man chose to take to farming, his first love.
Latheef, who had worked in date palm fields in Saudi Arabia, says he has learned a lot from Arabs, especially about the need to give back to the nature. "The land owner there takes only half of the harvest every year as he lets birds eat the other portion," he recalls. The Kadinamkulam Agriculutre Officer also offered a big helping hand, he says.
I realize that Latheef isn’t leading a luxury life. He has his daily battles. He has needs that only money can fulfill. He and his wife work hard under the sun, day in and day out. But he has chosen to do something that makes him happy, and in the process, set himself as an example for people around. After seeing his produce from the tiny farms, so many in the neighborhood have started cultivating vegetables at their backyards. Some have taken to organic farming.
For a state that shuts down if trucks from Tamil Nadu don’t come, where farmlands are fast disappearing and where cancer has become a routine curse, it's time to celebrate people like Latheef, and not just the superstars who take to farming for the heck of some different kind of fun.
As I was leaving, Latheef gives me a handful of seeds. "Just put these in a flowerpot on your balcony," he tells me with a grin. "You can have a dish a few weeks later."