It’s not every day that you get to speak to a grandma who is 105 years old. So I suppose it was natural of me to make some assumptions about her routine and quality of life. Which is why when I first called Pappammal (alias Rangammal) around 3 pm for this interview, I enquired if I was disturbing her afternoon siesta.
However, I was rather surprised to be told that she, the 105-year-old Pappammal, was out in the fields working, so I should call back later!
By the time she got back, and we spoke, it was late in the evening. This is pretty much her regular day. In a fascinating conversation with The Better India, Pappammal shares little nuggets from her life and lets us in on her secret of good health and longevity.
Born in 1914 in Devalapuram village in Tamil Nadu, Pappammal lost her parents at a very early age and was brought up by her paternal grandmother in Thekkampatti, Coimbatore district. She continues to live there.
Over the last century, Pappammal has lived through two World Wars, India’s Independence, multiple natural calamities, and now the COVID-19 pandemic.
To give you some perspective about the times that Pappammal belonged to, let me mention here that during Pappamal’s early years, a cup of tea would cost not more than 1 Paisa.
If you thought that because she was born in 1914, her life was one of the domestic chores and stereotypical gender pegs, then you are sadly mistaken. This lady has never let her being a woman come in her way of getting what she wanted, and through her experiences, we get a fresh perspective into life over the years.
“There were no formal schools when I was growing up. Whatever little I learnt was all through games – Pallanghuzi (traditional ancient mancala played in South India) was how I learnt counting and mathematics,” she says. She mentions that if one studied until class five, they were qualified enough to become a teacher themselves. From a very early age, Pappammal was keen on agricultural practises and spent time learning about it.
After the death of her grandmother almost fifty years ago, she inherited a small provision store in Thekkampatti. Pappammal broke the glass ceiling and all barriers way before it became a ‘cool’ thing to do. She managed the provision store and started a small eatery selling snacks and beverages.
Explaining the importance of saving, Pappammal says, “Agriculture was something that always interested me. I would save money from the earnings at the provision shop and eventually had enough to buy 10 acres of land to cultivate.”
Pappammal started with cultivating corn, various kinds of pulses, and also a few fruits and vegetables that she used for the family. Somewhere down the line, she also joined the Tamil Nadu Agriculture University (TNAU) to learn formally. When asked which year she enrolled at the college, she says it was a very long time ago, and she cannot recollect the details of the year.
What she does remember is how she almost always had a question to ask as a student. “I do not remember a class or session in which I did not ask a question, and soon everyone knew me and started liking me,” she says with a chuckle.
Grandma Today, Pioneering Farmer Then
In the decades since then, any Vice-Chancellor who took charge at the University would address Papammal as a ‘pioneer farmer’, what with her having spent close to six decades farming. She was also a special invitee at the debates organised by the University.
Incidentally, Pappammal was also elected as a councillor of the Thekkampatti Panchayat in the year 1959 – the first year such elections were held after the Tamil Nadu Panchayats Act was adopted in 1958.
With the passage of time and age catching up, Pappammal could not manage the entire 10 acres, so she sold a portion of it twenty-five years ago, but continues to hold about 2.5 acres, which she manages and organically cultivates.
When today’s generation is contemplating retiring by the age of 50, Pappammal is not just an example but an inspiration, since even today, every day this grandma goes to her land and works on it. She remains a great crusader of organic farming. She says the younger generation only wants quick results and does not really have the time to invest in organic farming.
A Community Celebrates The Centenarian Grandma
Five years ago, when Pappammal turned 100, the entire panchayat came together to celebrate a life well-lived. Papammal says, “There were about 3000 people who attended that gathering. It was one big celebration – we made a lot of food to serve that day. From payasam (kheer) to mutton and chicken biryani and vadai, we ensured that everyone ate heartily and went back home.”
There were flex boards installed across the town announcing the birthday, and Pappammal says that these things made her feel extremely special. “I am often called to weddings to bless the couples, and I am thrilled being a part of all such events.”
She also mentions how people now flock to her to take selfies and even tell her how to stand and smile. She obliges and never turns anyone away.
Akshita, Pappammal’s great-grandson’s daughter, says, “There is so much to learn from paati (grandma), but the one thing I have learnt is to not waste time by sleeping. There is so much to achieve in life.” Her grand-daughter-in-law, who is also inspired by paati, says, “She has made us all so proud. Even now, she is so careful with what she eats – local, and fresh produce is what she always picks. Whether it is the millet porridge or the mutton biryani, she enjoys good simple food and encourages all of us to pick local foods.”
Dr Pavitra, who has a clinic in Pappammal’s village, says, “Paati (grandma) comes to my clinic regularly, and till date, her blood pressure and sugar are 100 per cent normal.”
As our conversation draws to an end, Pappammal asks me where I stay and when I tell I live in Gurgaon, she is quick to say, “I have visited Delhi a few times, even had tea at the Rashtrapati Bhavan at the invitation of the then President R Venkatraman.”
“Name the leader, and they have come to see me and seek my blessings,” she says. “There might be only a few who haven’t,” she goes on.
At 105 she is sharp, clear, and in complete control of all her faculties. This grandma not just an inspiration but a living legend.
“Age cannot be the barrier for anything and always remember that there can never be a substitute for hard work,” she says. Coming from a 105-year-old, it’s an advise we cannot ignore.
(Edited by Vinayak Hegde)