I was born in the picturesque hill station of Madikeri in Kodagu district, Karnataka. My childhood is an album of sweet memories, and I was raised in a family that loves music. While my siblings carried the musical tradition forward, I was the only exception to it. I guess music had to come to me through a different source – Nature. In my hometown, almost all houses have a garden and I found inspiration wherever I looked. When I was 5, we shifted to Bengaluru but continued to spend every vacation in Madikeri. The time spent with cousins was dedicated to understanding different plants and flowers. I benefited from their knowledge and brought cuttings of whatever grew in the ground to our home in Bengaluru. I did my own little experiments while growing them. Every holiday spent there made me richer in the greens and encouragement from parents led to creating my small happy place with nature’s bounty.
After finishing school, I worked for various organizations and through a common friend, I met Mr. R. S. Yegneswaran. Lovingly called Raja at home, he was calm, pleasing and a good-humored man. After a few meetings, we developed a liking for each other and got married in 1980. I was 29, he was 14 years older, and it was an inter- religion marriage. Yet there was nothing that came between the love we had for each other. To add to his charm was his intellect that earned him 30 Master Degrees! His name appeared in the 'Limca Book of Records' for having the highest number of University Degrees. Ours was a great marriage that made us the best version of ourselves. While Raja pursued his love for academics, I continued to cultivate my fondness for plants.
Soon after, I left my job and took to gardening full time. He was happy and proud of how I maintained our home and garden. We kept shifting from one rented accommodation to another and I continued to convert small spaces into lovely green patios.
With all the time to foster my plants, I also participated in competitions conducted by the famous Lalbagh Botanical Garden in Bengaluru under the ‘House Garden’ category and won the first prize consecutively for a few years. My laurels ushered me into giving a commercial angle to my hobby when my neighbors asked me to curate their gardens. Gradually, offers came from companies and factories to create and maintain their gardens. From lawns to roof top gardens to land scaping, I did everything. I had also grown my own nursery at home with a huge collection. For offices, I rotated plants every 15 days by bringing in fresh seasonal ones and taking back those which needed nurturing. Sometimes my husband helped me carry the plants for house gardens on his scooter and other times I negotiated with the tempo drivers to ferry the greens to plantation sites. My work diversified with my love for all kinds of plantations. I recall making the garden for Sree Kanteerava Stadium in 1.5 months where I had to employ around 100 daily wagers to get the work done within the stipulated time!
Meanwhile, Raja joined the Rotary Club to contribute to social causes and became popular among everyone. Life was fragrant and I was enjoying every moment, but in a turn of events, he passed away in 2003.
I was exposed to situations I either hadn’t faced before or at least, never without him. I realized I depended on him for everything – from bank visits to bill payments. I loved him deeply and now, in his absence, I found myself vulnerable. I knew I had to start a new chapter of life by myself and to honor his memory, I joined the Rotary Club to continue the noble work he was doing. Social service brought solace and for 7 years, I oversaw Rotary’s community projects in villages and tribal areas. Along with it, I continued to nurture and nourish green spaces.
In 2005, with the help of family and friends, I created a trust called ‘The Rajanet Yegneswaran Charitable Trust’, combining our names Raja and Janet. At the same time, Bengaluru was undergoing a major transformation vis a vis development. Scores of trees were being cut to widen roads and make room for the fast-growing IT city. I felt I should start planting trees and put my knowledge to use. The Charitable Trust became a road which helped me walk towards my dream of having a greener world, one tree at a time.
I started with morning walks. Seeing my enthusiasm and will to make it happen, a group of friends, neighbors and volunteers joined me. Every day, we went knocking at every door, requesting people to plant trees in front of their homes. The lure of a parking space or the commitment to keep the area clean when trees shed leaves discouraged the residents. We often received a ‘no’ as a response to our appeal, but the volunteers managed to convince quite a few, and I prepared a list of people that agreed. On weekends, we went and planted trees. After two years and over 100 trees, our story was covered by the media and our initiative became a familiar name among tree lovers. We were now getting calls from different areas of Bengaluru to come and plant trees in their localities. By then I had a hatchback car that helped me carry all the trees and tree guards to assigned destinations. A few years later, the car broke down due to its constant contact with soil and water. Without a car, I didn’t know what to do as the volume and variety of trees to be carried had increased manifold, but I knew that God would show us a way out. The volunteers raised funds and we purchased a ‘Camper bolt’. 11 years since that day and it continues to be the carter for our trees!
Our efforts also grew like a tree and with sweet fruits of recognition, we coined the word ‘Trees for Free’ for our initiative. In simple words, it communicates our intention.
A few years ago, we started agroforestry to help farmers. Covering 100 kms almost every day, we travelled to help marginal farmers make a sustainable and profitable use of their land. We also planted trees for tribals in areas where resources were hardly accessible or available and began afforestation in calamity hit areas. After discussions with Panchayats, we made carbon sinks by planting 500 trees in each of them. I am now working on building ‘Food Forests’ in barren lands of farmers who haven’t been able to cultivate it due to paucity of money and resources. With a leap in our vision and endeavors, we now call our initiative as ‘Reforest India’.
So far, we have planted more than 88,000 trees and we have a record of each one of them! I have never set a target of numbers. The aim is to plant trees and see them grow. When I plant them, I ensure that they are taken care of. I check the soil, climate, availability of water, proximity to road and vicinity of residential areas. I assess if the surrounding conditions would let it blossom like it should. Like an individual, a tree needs its space to be at its most beautiful. In cities, it is imperative to examine which tree can match the demands of urbanization.
My journey that started from requesting people to plant trees, to where it is today when people approach me if they want trees, has been long and enlightening. I have learned that when we do something with the purest desire of helping others and contributing to the society at large, everything becomes possible. When ‘Gaja Cyclone’ hit Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu, I wanted to reach out to devastated farmers. I expressed my desire on a Kannada radio channel during an interview and incidentally, a man from Thanjavur had tuned into the same channel while driving. He immediately took my phone number and called. Subsequently, he made necessary arrangements and with the help of more than 100 local volunteers from all walks of life, we planted 2000 trees in two days!
I have found my bliss in the joy of others, in their smiles when they see a tree grow and turn into a giver. Planting trees makes me happy but what makes me happiest is that their presence benefit everyone. I am indebted to them. In a life that could have been afloat with loss and grief, trees gave me a purpose. Or let’s say, they gave me roots to rise higher.