Nothing beats the peace of Auroville on a Sunday in summer. It's late in the morning and sweating under a wide-brimmed hat, I am in the last stretch of an impulsive walk. The heat is searing and the light intensely bright. The earth radiates sizzling vapours creating watery mirages. All life seems to be aestivating at this hour. Only the smells of neem blossoms and crushed cashew flesh radiate in the mists of heat.
Agni Natchathiram has just set in, the season of the ‘Fire star'.
Passing briskly by Arati, I hear a rustle in the underbrush. Across the mullu fence and under the shadows of a cashew tree, I see a figure moving about – a young woman picking the cashews off the ground. “Vanakkum akka.” I call out. She pauses from her work and turns to greet me smiling shyly. “Vandhu paakalaama?” – Can I come and watch? I ask. She nods and points me the way.
It is a long walk, skirting the ‘elephant' – the gargantuan water tower, and across a few other topes to get to where she is. Kamakshi, she tells me, is her name. She lives in Edaiyanchavadi with her husband Murugan. This season they have taken lease of two cashew fields from Auroville. The only ‘condition' she says that was made of them is no marunthu or pesticides to be used.
Is she okay with that? Yes, the cashews go for a higher price, she explains and people are beginning to see the wisdom of that. The harvesting began a week ago. And every day for the next month, she and her husband will be doing rounds of their plots to collect the fruits.
I sit on a low branch and observe her work silently. The sun casts mottling shadows on the leaf littered floor. “Aren't you afraid of scorpions or snakes?” I ask. “No, we do a pooja to the spirits of the land,” she explains, “praying that all these creatures stay hidden from our eyes.”
Striped forest mosquitoes hum by my ear. A cloud of fruit flies hover over the vapours of the rotting fruits, and large scorpion ants dart about their business. “Would you like to try a fruit?” she asks as she plucks off a shiny vermillion one from a branch nearby. She deftly removes the nut which she drops in the stainless steel container, then rubs its skin clean against the edge of her sari, and offers it to me.
I bite in. The flesh is spongy and bursting with juices, pungent and astringent, scratching the back of my throat; but its sweetness is refreshing.
Kamakshi's basket is piled high. It is time to take it up to the front where Murugan sits with a growing pile of fruits, removing their nuts. It is a labour intensive work and hands and nails get stained black. But for the young couple this first entrepreneurial venture is exciting. “At the end of the morning we take our collection to Akash who will weigh it and buys it for Auroville,” they say.
Before I leave, Kamakshi insists that I try a tender green nut. With a sickle, she picks out the meat for me. “It's great cooked with eggs and eaten with hot rice!” she says, and proceeds to give me the recipe.