Circumstances taught Kusumavathy to roll beedi, make pickles and snacks in her schooldays, today the knowledge hold her in good stead.
PANATHADY (KASARAGOD): Bright multicoloured buckets can be seen in almost every room of K Kusumavathy’s house. There are three storage buckets under the kitchen countertop, three under the hearth, another three lined up in front of the fridge in the dining room.
They are filled to the brim with pickles of lemon and mango to gooseberry. Kusumavathy’s finger-licking pickles are a favourite at weddings in Panathady panchayat and village fairs hosted by Kudumbashree. “But this year, there was no fair or weddings,” says Kusmavathy, 42.
But she has little time to rue the lost opportunities to sell her pickles. She is among the few who can make lemonade and pickle when life throws a lemon at her. And don’t even think of throwing a jackfruit at her. She has “a hundred recipes” at her fingertips to make from jackfruit. Except for the prickly outer rind, she uses all parts of jackfruit, says Salomi Roby, a master farmer, and her neighbour.
Jackfruit papad, payasam, chips, and vada from the rags (chavani in Malayalam), pickle and curry from the fleshy core, the list is endless. Last year, she was awarded the best chef when she made 23 dishes from jackfruit at a village fair at Kolichal.
“I can make a hundred types of food from jackfruit,” says Kusumavathy.
The villagers are in awe of her because she hardly buys anything from the market for her kitchen though she owns only 24 cents of land. “Kusumavathy runs a food-secure house. She takes land on lease and cultivates vegetables and paddy. She is a farmer in the fields and chef in her kitchen,” says Salomi.
Twenty years ago, Kusumavathy, a Marathi tribeswoman from Delampady panchayat, came to Cherupanathady in Panathady panchayat after marrying Gangadharan C, 52, a primary school teacher in GHSS in Balanthode.
A commerce graduate, Kusumavathy speaks fluent Marathi, Kannada, Tulu, and Malayalam. A government job was her aim.
“My childhood friend and I applied for a teacher’s training course. We both got admission but I could not join because I didn’t have money for the fees. Today, my friend is a teacher in the government school in Pandi,” Kusumavathy said.
The second of six daughters in her family, Kusumavathy had a tough childhood. When she was in Class VI, she used to be the caregiver of an old Brahmin woman who lived alone.
“Every evening I used to go to her house and return in the morning,” she said.
Kusumavathy’s cooking skills can be traced back to the old woman. “She taught me to make pickles without using oil and preservatives but using hot water and kumti chilli,” she said.
When she reached Class VIII, Kusumavathy learned to roll beedis. “We didn’t have money even for my bus fare and I did not want to trouble my mother. I had four more sisters younger to me,” she said.
In her “free time”, she still rolls beedi — up to a thousand beedis in a day. “I have rolled beedi for 11 years in Cherupanathady. Now I’m eligible for a pension,” she says.
“She never sits idle, that’s how she grew up,” says her husband Gangadharan. “We’ve only two jackfruit trees. But she’ll get jackfruits from our neighbours. Then I will also have to sit with her to dress them,” he says. “It can go on till late in the night. But time does not matter to her,” he says. Kusumavathy also owned 11 goats. “Once when she went to her mother’s place, I sold them off. She deserves some rest,” says Gangadharan.
A Farmer, an agri-entrepreneur
Every morning and evening, she spends time in her vegetable gardens for an hour each. She has leased three plots at different places to grow bitter gourd, bottle gourd, eggplant, okra, chilli, cucumber, watermelon, maize, tomatoes. “If we tend to the vegetables for two months, we can harvest every day for the next three months,” she says.
She has leased another two acres of land of Padiyalakova Durga Bhavavathy temple for paddy cultivation. “It’s a loss-making effort but we get enough rice for six months. We can do it because the government subsidises paddy cultivation,” says Gangadharan.
Kusumavathy has also teamed up with two Kudumbashree friends — Girija Sajeev and Salomi — to grow cassava, yam, colocasia, and plantain — as part of Subhiksha Keralam. “We get enough for our house and to sell too,” says Kusumavathy.
Asked why was she not distributing her pickles in neighbourhood shops, she said she was not able to compete with established brands. “My MRP and their MRP are the same but they can afford to give a bigger margin to shopkeepers, and I can’t compromise on my quality,” she said.
But a small board in front of her house saying ‘Nadan Achaar’ is attracting passersby. “Once an electrician came after seeing the board and bought 1kg of a pickle. Later he returned with his friends and bought 15kg,” she said.