Can you ever be too old to find your dream? By doing what she does every day of her life, Vani Murthy shows us that you can never be too old to dream big and never be too diffident to achieve those dreams, if you have passion and determination.
At exactly 5:30, Vani Murthy goes up to her rooftop garden, a ritual she maintains everyday, and amidst luscious shades of green, she enjoys her morning coffee. Her early mornings are usually spent working in her green haven. Her garden is a forest of luscious vegetables like beans, okra, eggplants, radish, greens, tomatoes, peppers and an arrayof herbs. Sitting in her garden, one would scarcely believe that one is surrounded by several containers filled with composting organic waste. If you compost the right way, there’s no bad smell at all, the passionate organic farmer tells us, beaming.
Vani Murthy grew up in the 1960s in a township located in the Indian city of Hyderabad. Ever since an incident of sexual abuse that she faced at the tender age of five, she lived in the shadow of her sister, father and later on, her husband. She avoided even mundane daily activities like going shopping or to the bank by herself. Not once during that phase did she ever leave the house alone.
The turning point in her life came at age 42, when she accepted an invitation to enrol for a course on Education for Life. Having been confronted with questions about herself for the first time, she began to come to terms with her personality and set about leaving the baggage of her past behind.
Her first step was to get involved with a community project. Working with other people and sharing a common goal made a new person out of her. Her introverted nature soon disappeared when she started to interact with people who respected her work, and this was the biggest gift in her life. Vani then started working on the problem of urban waste and became a founder-member of the Solid Waste Management Round Table of Bangalore. It was here that she found her passion to practice waste management and composting, and to connect with people to spread the word.
The warm and welcoming Vani today is a far cry from her once timid and distant self. Popularly known as Compost Queen, Vani is an icon in the area of composting and terrace gardening. YouTube videos featuring Vani demonstrating home composting have reached almost 400,000 views. Besides her online presence, she is invited to speak at various fora and is involved in several projects. Currently, she is part of the 2bin1bag project, which is an attempt to get Indians to sort their household waste into colour-coded bins. A uniform colour code of a green bin for organic waste, a red one for reject waste and a bag for recyclable waste is easy to understand and adopt. She also wants people to get a positive feeling about the food they eat by growing their own organic vegetables. That is the most exciting thing – if you learn to compost, you have simultaneously understood the basics of the circle of life and you can start producing your own healthy food, she explains, while she casually picks up a handful of earthworms.
This is the story of a woman who found her purpose late in life, and in doing so, found herself.
Vani, tell me a little bit about your background.
I was born in Bangalore, but grew up in Hyderabad in a township. I have three sisters, one of whom is my twin. Life in the township was very self-sufficient, and we weren’t exposed much to the outside world. The schoolbus would ferry us to school and back, and we didn’t need to go out again for anything else.
My twin was a tomboy, while I was the quiet one. We were always together – through school and college. I was completely dependent on her, and didn’t venture to do anything alone. We were both victims of an incident of child sexual abuse at the age of five. Much later, I discovered that I was terrified of being left alone.
So your twin sister helped you with not being alone?
Yes, I would tag along behind my twin. Or my dad. I wouldn’t go anywhere on my own. I was most comfortable when there was someone shielding me in any situation. The two of us even played cricket for the state of Andhra Pradesh. Though I never liked it, I joined the team, so that I could be with her. I accompanied her to morning practice, because I couldn’t imagine life without her. We both graduated from college at 21, and then she got married. Life was tough without my twin after that.
How did life go on for you then?
It was a struggle for six months till I was married. My father wanted us to marry early. He wasn’t very keen on us working before we got married – he said that we could go to work if our husbands were ok with it. Once I got married, my husband took my twin’s place in my life. He was very protective and did everything for me. I would never go out anywhere without him.
Did you feel in some kind of cage?
No, I was completely happy as this was totally normal for me.
Do you track that back on what happened to you when you were 5?
No, I realised that only much later. I attended a course in 2003 in order to get over my dependence on others and to tackle my low self esteem. Though I was a happy person, I didn’t have self-confidence. I always felt I was not good enough, and would shy away from a challenge. I would make excuses and never take any initiative. I was very daunted by the prospect of stepping outside my comfort zone. This course was the one that made me realise that I was like this because of what happened to me at age five.
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Was there a certain point where you wanted to find out what’s wrong with you?
Not really. I attended this course out of curiosity. Someone invited both of us, but my husband did not want to go. I did. So at age 42, I took my first independent decision. Also, I suffered from back pain and found it difficult to sit in one position for long. I learnt that the pain was caused by the baggage I carried in my mind – my fears, my anxieties. The pain was real, but it was also my creation. I needed to be free of it, and of the baggage. The course helped me unravel several layers to be able to see myself as a beautiful, strong person who could do anything she wished. It gave me the courage to step out, and I took on a community project. I had to face the challenge of speaking to groups of people for the first time! And I took it on head on!
“I HAD BEEN A HOMEMAKER, COOKING FOR MY FAMILY AND TAKING CARE OF THEIR NEEDS. I HADN’T EVEN BEEN TO THE BANK OR A POST OFFICE ON MY OWN. PEOPLE WHO MEET ME NOW WILL FIND THAT SO HARD TO BELIEVE.”
What was the first project?
You would have seen that many men in this country are in the habit of relieving themselves along the roadside. Such corners are foul smelling and very unpleasant for people walking on the pavement. The project was called ‘Stink-free Malleswaram’ (Malleswaram is an area in Bangalore where I live). I brought a few people together, and we got some artists and cartoonists to create posters and signs saying things like ‘You’re like a dog if you’re doing it on the road’. I found this project very exciting as it gave me an opportunity to get out of the house and do things I’d never done before. I spoke to so many people about the campaign, I went on my own to the printer’s and got the posters printed. Till then, I had been a homemaker, cooking for my family, and taking care of their needs. I hadn’t even been to a bank or a post office on my own. People who meet me now will find that so hard to believe.
So you saw that you are evolving into another person?
Yes, I was, and it was fun! I saw that people listened to me and didn’t ridicule me. It helped me develop self-confidence and independence. Earlier, I used to manipulate people to take care of me. This course and this project helped me see that I don’t need to be manipulative. A strong, capable person emerged from under all those layers and shed the baggage I had carried all those years.
How did your surrounding and especially your husband react to that change?
He was happy to see the change in me. It made a difference to our relationship too. Earlier, when I was insecure, I would be jealous if he spoke in a friendly manner to another woman. Once I changed, all the jealousy vanished!
How did it go on? Did you directly go on to the waste management project?
I started with an NGO called Janaagraha that worked with schools to help children understand and get involved in civic issues. I volunteered with one of their projects. I would go to the school every week, and help the children execute projects and hold an exhibition.
And how did you come to gardening in the end?
Gardening was born out of waste management. I became a member of the local Residents’ Welfare Association. We were approached by a paperboard manufacturing company that wanted to start a project with residents to save paper for recycling. We have a tradition of saving and selling our newspapers, but all other paper waste (bus and cinema tickets, bills, envelopes, cartons, etc) is thrown away. This project introduced us to the concept of waste segregation at source. I started a campaign to encourage people to segregate their waste at source along with a group of young schoolgirls from my apartment building. Soon after this, some friends and I visited the main landfill of Bangalore. It’s a humongous garbage dump, that can be smelt from almost 2-3 km away. The villagers living near the dump suffer from various diseases, and get black, polluted water from the ground. My friends and I and some others working in the field of garbage formed the ‘Solid Waste Management Round Table’ of Bangalore with the aim of preventing urban solid waste from being sent to the landfill. We wanted people to understand how their habit of throwing their garbage away impacts the lives of others in such a negative manner.
So from this recycling you went over to not just recycle but to a whole life cycle.
60% of India’s waste is wet kitchen waste or organic waste. This can be recycled easily to make compost that can nourish plants. So we visited a zero-waste project in Vellore, where we learned about composting. The first time I composted, it was a stinking mess. But I didn’t give up – I wanted to know what it was that I had done wrong. I finally figured it out and started doing various types of composting. I was invited by a terrace gardeners’ group to teach them to compost. That’s when I started using my compost to grow vegetables on my terrace. Safe, organic vegetables without any chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Thus completing the cycle of life!
There is also a movement around rooftop gardening in India nowadays. How are you involved in this?
The pioneer of terrace gardening in Bangalore is Dr Vishwanath. He saw that Bangalore was getting hotter as more and more trees are cut, and everyone has empty, white terraces. So he had an idea that people should grow plants on their terraces so that the city could become green and cool once again. He invited me to talk about composting at several large gardening expos, where gardeners met to exchange experiences and seeds. I didn’t have seeds, but I had earthworms to exchange. I planted the seeds I got in return and started my own terrace garden. My garden has spread now, and friends come over to work in it. We also collect dry leaves during the leaf fall season and compost them. This has also spread, and lots of people now collect and compost the leaves instead of burning them. When the compost is ready, some differently abled children come and help us sieve it. So this whole process of creating compost and growing food becomes a community activity!
“COMPOSTING IS MY FIRST LOVE. I DO SEVERAL DIFFERENT TYPES OF COMPOSTING. HERE, YOU ARE SITTING SURROUNDED BY COMPOST. CAN YOU SMELL ANYTHING?”
Would you say you found a real passion for life through this project?
Yes, I have found my passion in life. If I could, I would spend the entire day in my garden! I am not formally trained in agriculture, but as I experiment, I learn more and grow better. Composting is my first love. I do several different types of composting. Here, you are sitting surrounded by compost. Can you smell anything?
What’s your role in the project today? Is there a movement?
Yes, a movement is in progress. This is especially evident on social media. I have been able to reach out to a large number of people through Facebook and YouTube. Hundreds of people have started composting and gardening after seeing my posts and videos. There’s a huge gardening community that is growing in strength every day. I get calls and invitations to address various groups and organisations almost on a weekly basis. My friends and I also conduct regular workshops on composting and gardening here on my terrace.
What changed for you in your personal life?
Composting and gardening have made me calm and happy. I have freed myself completely from my earlier days of insecurity and crying and manipulativeness. I completely trust the universe now, and believe only good and positive things will happen. And they do!
Another change has been the shift to organic food. Once I realised how many chemicals there are in the food we eat, I totally changed my food habits. I no longer buy white rice or white flour or refined oils, and have drastically reduced the consumption of packaged food.
How many plants do you grow here?
Loads of them. Vegetables, fruits and herbs.
Which one was the biggest challenge?
Once, someone gave me medical cannabis seeds and I grew one plant. But it was a big challenge as it got infected with white flies and finally died.
Do you already have any future projects?
I want to live for a 100 years – there’s so much to learn and do! I wish that every household in the country would take up composting. The Solid Waste Management Round Table is launching the SwachaGraha project, which is a one-week composting challenge. We want to reach out to 1 million people in the city and get them to start composting!
Can you think about a worldwide roll-out?
I would be happy if we could roll it out all over India! We are getting messages from people in other parts of the country who want to get involved, so we’re keeping our fingers crossed. It would be wonderful if we are successful in reaching the 1 million target. We are trying to make the SwachaGraha kit as inexpensive as possible – around 5 dollars. We hope that organisations will buy these kits and distribute them to their employees.
You found your passion with 43. How did this affect you?
My life has completely turned around! The homebody who didn’t venture out on her own, now has a continuous stream of visitors to both her home and her Facebook page! My husband is so pleased at the transformation! This has given me a close-knit group of friends with whom I compost, garden, go for movies and parties, or generally hang out. I even have a fan following now. I could never have imagined that people would come up to me and say – ‘I’ve watched your video and learned to compost’ or ‘Aren’t you Vani Murthy? I follow you on Facebook!’ It amazes me everyday when I hear that!
Vani, what’s your dream?
My dream is that every household should take responsibility for the waste they generate. They should realise how valuable the organic waste is, and compost it and use it to grow food. Home composting is very simple and just needs each one to make a commitment. This one action by each person can make a huge difference to the environment, to the world.
Photography: Rahul Gudipudi