By Sharon St Joan
Amirthalingam, the third child of his parents, came into the world on January 15, 1961. Nakkambadi, in the Ariyalur Taluk district, in south India, was a small hamlet surrounded entirely by water. To this day, there is no ground transportation, and no cars or buses.
The child’s father, A. Murugesan, was the administrative officer of 16 villages. His mother’s name was Pichaiyamml. Owning 100 acres of farmland, the whole family worked in the fields, planting and harvesting rice.
A bright and stabilizing force, his oldest sister, Danush, cared for and guided her four younger siblings like a parent. The boy Ramalingam was the second oldest.
Their little hamlet was 280 kilometers (174 miles) south of Chennai, with Ariyalur being the nearest city. There was a small government arts college there.
To go out of the hamlet to anywhere else meant walking two kilometers (a mile and a half) – to the station to catch the train.
Having already earned a master’s degree in history, in 1977, Danush passed her preliminary exam in administrative service. With big dreams for herself and for her brothers and sisters, she saw herself as an IAS (Indian Administrative Services) Officer, Ramalingam as a police officer, and Amirthalingam as a forest officer – it was clear that he was drawn to trees and plants, and an occupation in the forest would be a good fit for him.
Most of the other village children attended school only up to the fifth standard (fifth grade) and became agricultural workers like their parents before them. At one point, all five of the children in Amirthalingam’s family were in college.
At city college, Ramalingam earned a Batchelor of Science and a Batchelor of Labor Law degree. But when Danush asked him to go on to get his master’s degree, he expressed no interest and said he didn’t want to. Instead he joined the National Cadet Corps becoming a Senior Under Officer.
As for Amirthalingam, he generally tried to do whatever he was asked to do, and of course, in a traditional family, he would have been expected to obey his elder sister. Fortunately, she always had his best interests at heart, recognizing his keen interest in plants.
In 1980 though, tragedy struck their family. When Danush went to take her main examination in administrative service, she fell ill and passed away suddenly.
The family never recovered from this tremendous blow. The guiding force who had held them all together, Danush, was gone. Without her, everything seemed to fall apart. His uncles started to spend money recklessly. His father and mother fell into despondency. In 1984, Amirthalingam left the village and set off to Madras to work on his master’s degree in botany.
By 1990, he got a job offer to become an assistant professor. In terms of his career, this was a good step, but Amirthalingam was all too aware that it might also be a final step, a point beyond which he could not go. Without any funding from his family to continue his studies, he would never be able to become a full professor.
Meanwhile his father had devised quite different plans for his third son. He had arranged for Amirthalingam, then 25, to marry a young girl, aged 13, who was a close relative. A rural custom, this was commonly done. Not to do so would be considered an affront to both families. This marriage seemed all wrong to Amirthalingam, and he refused to go through with it.
Losing his temper with his son, his father angrily threw him out of the house. Forbidden to ever return, he was given no money, no food, and told not to enter the house again, not even for a drink of water. Surviving on the not-to-clean public water from the common village well, for a year he slept on a cot outside in the open, near his family’s house, buying food with the small amounts of money that his younger sister, Selvi, was able to slip to him from time to time.
Devastated first by the loss of his beloved older sister and then by the rejection of his father, he wandered around the nearby villages, following the inner voices that spoke to him – he spent his days collecting animal fossils, reading ancient inscriptions, and digging up old coins left in the dust many centuries before.
Gradually, he began to acquire a reputation as an unusual person who had some special knowledge. People would approach him to ask him questions and to seek information. He first explored ancient megalithic sites, then neolithic sites, covering half of the district.
During that time, he traveled to Madras and found temporary work as an exhibition guide at the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation.
A year or so later, he received an unexpected phone call one day from Dr. Nanditha Krishna, then Director of the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation, who remembered the intense interest the young man had shown in exploring the past and his great love of plants. She asked him to come back to Madras to work for her foundation.
In July 3, 1993, he joined the CPR Environmental Education Centre as a Research Fellow. No longer a lost soul wandering the desert, he had found a place where he could pursue his passions, where his interests were valuable and much valued.
He plunged into a study of the trees of Tamil Nadu. Visiting more than 500 temples all over Tamil Nadu, he documented the surrounding trees and plants and wrote his first book, Sacred Trees of Tamil Nadu. Next he wrote the Sacred Groves of Tamil Nadu; both were published by the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation.
It is common for junior writers not to be given credit for the research they do and the books they write. It is all too common, in India and elsewhere, to give credit only to senior, well established authors. The C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation does not follow this practice. Instead they give full credit to those who do the work. M. Amirthalingam has written a number of authoritative books about the plants and trees of Tamil Nadu.
While employed at the CPR Foundation, he spent four or five years at Madras Christian College studying botany, earning a Master of Science degree and a Master of Philosophy.
During that time he researched varieties of rice; recalling his childhood working in the rice paddies, he was able to appreciate the true value of rice, a staple of food in south India. He says that there are 66 varieties of rice in India, though really only a handful in Tamil Nadu. He spent much time researching the physiology and biochemistry of rice, especially the Sativa variety. He studied plant growth regulators which cause the rice to grow. Studying the growth rates, he understood the morphological changes and acquired great scientific expertise in his field.
Amirthalingam’s wife, Geetha, works as a clerk in a law office, and they have a fourteen year old daughter, Priyadarshini. His younger sister, Selvi, the one who gave him money for food, now also lives in Madras.
The young man who wandered through the villages, lost in his study of rice, trees, and old coins, now shines a light for others on to the amazing the world of plants.
Continued in part two
Top photo: Sharon St Joan / M. Amirhalingam with G. Balaji at CPREEC.
Second photo: Beckamrajeev / Wikimedia Commons / “This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 unproved license.” / The grand Anicut Dam was built in the second century on the Kaveri River by the Chola King Karikalan.
Third photo: Sharon St Joan / M. Amirthalingam outside the offices of CPREEC.