CHENNAI: If you’ve read Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, you’d know that Spiro Hakiaopulos was the Durrell family’s wonderfully loquacious Greek driver who solved all their difficulties in his own way and more important — on his own terms. He might appear the perfect factotum; he was. It took us months before we realised this about our newest friend, but on that scorching morning in January, when he walked purposefully into our farm with a handful of groundnuts, we beheld a saviour.
Spiro held some sort of position in the local government as well although what, he couldn’t explain. “Ward Councillor,” he grinned. “Or maybe Ward Member. Or Panchayat?” He hazarded.
“Well, which is it?” My father demanded. “Who knows, saar? I also work in the local ration shop where I take —” He stopped abruptly. “So, komiyam? How much you want? And for what?”
Our detailed description of jeevamirtham made his jaw drop, while our organic farming methods made his eyes nearly start out of his sockets. “No complex? No DAP? Then how you will grow crops? You will put something else, I am sure,” and he glanced at our hands as though we’d been holding invisible bags of chemical fertilisers.
“Otherwise how?” He looked puzzled and rather suspicious, at our car, our clothes and general demeanour. He shook his head as we began all over again but this time, there was a hint of indulgence in his eyes. “Oh, iyarkai vivasaayam,” he rolled out the words carefully. “Now I understand. You also use single sapling method?”
We were awestruck and gratified at his instant grasp of what had been seen, until then, as a complicated system. “Will not work,” he shook his head, and our spirits sank. “But if you want to do, you do,” he offered magnanimously. “Now, coming to cows, I have 10.” He sat back, threw a groundnut into his mouth and offered us some. “I sell kadalai; you buy komiyam?”
Although, like GoldSpear, Hill and KingKong, it turned out that Spiro too was rather prone to exaggeration — turned out he had 3 cows, not 10 (“Well, I have more than 1,” was his explanation) — he and his wife were at least willing to come to an agreement; more important, aside from looking mildly enquiring, Spiro’s cows seemed fine with him standing guard behind them with an aluminium vessel.
Our next problem would be to arrange for jaggery and here, we ran against more of a roadblock than just unwilling farmers. “Either you need to buy it wholesale, or get the wastes from a jaggery-making unit,” Spiro explained. “And where on earth are you going to find one here?”
Surprisingly enough, it was History that came to our rescue.
(The writer is a journalist, artist, translator, historian and editor but not necessarily in that order)