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June 5th 2020 dawned clear and bright, rain-washed and hauntingly beautiful  in their tribal hamlet of Sambarkodu in Attapady region of Palakkad , Kerala. Appu and his friends were all prepared to participate in the outdoor activities being planned today by the elders including their mothers and aunts. Amidst the lockdown that had taken away their freedom and lightness of mind, the children had made use of the free time to learn and gain expertise in activities like craft, percussion instrument playing, swimming, fishing, and cycling. Some like Appu were in the habit of assisting their mother in farming activities. At first reticent to work and sweat long in the sun, the children had started finding joy and fulfilment in sowing the seeds, waiting patiently for the first drop of rain and then finally watching the magic of the seeds sprouting and growing.

In the evenings the children would sit together and narrate stories. The best one is always the memory of Peelandi the wild elephant who visited their hamlet from the forested hills in 2017 that was caught and taken away to the training camp. They wondered if they could have visited him during these holidays – so much a part of their lives he had become in the few days he spread fear and insecurity around. They were still angry that his name had been changed to Chandrasekharan in the camp. For them he would always be Peelanadi- their beloved friend and play mate!

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Such was life when the World Environment Day dawned. The children remembered each year when some dignitary would visit the school and give long lectures on the need to protect Nature. Each year they would return home with a sapling from school, some of which would be planted but invariably neglected. Their hamlet did have a few that had grown a bit. This year things were different. And Sambarkod as usual was different and innovative.

After much discussions and deliberations especially with S. Santhi who was helping the team in the Mahila Kisan Saaktheekarana Paryojana of a National Rural Livelihood Mission project for food and nutrition security and sustainable livelihood generation it was decided to initiate a FOOD FOREST in the hamlets. The theme of World Environment Day 2020 being CELEBRATING BIODIVERSITY, especially wild and cultivated agro biodiversity was centre to the mindset of the Adivasi community. Prior to this, they made large nurseries of wild trees and plants and collected as many seed varieties as possible of millets, pulses, vegetables and fruiting trees in a number of tribal hamlets. In Sambarkode it was the children who were in the forefront of planting all of these on June 5th.

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After the formal function and planting was over there was an interactive session with the officer in charge of the agricultural activities. A typical question that adults ask children emerged “What do you want to be when you grow up?”  The answers start flowing loud and uninhibited –  “Police, Teacher, Nurse, Doctor, Jeep/bus driver…Suddenly one little boy who was silent till then feebly said he wants to be a farmer  and create food forests so that no one would ever be hungry. Another blurted out loud “I want to be a moneyed rich man” (“Panakkaaran”). This caught the attention of the elders who immediately started deliberating on what money and being rich means and what money can bring to a person.

Appu’s mind started reeling with questions. Though he knew one needs money and some riches, he was not sure about some things that are unattainable even with money. For example, can you buy happiness, health, friendship, peace of mind with money? He had understood that before each farming season, his mother would pawn her gold earrings and the one bangle she had to buy seeds and till the land. Life had become a bit easier after she had acquired this “asset”. He knew that when his little sister was ill last year, she was able to take her to the hospital pledging the same earrings which she got back after a year!

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Without himself knowing, as if by an internal impulse he shouted out loud “See that tree? Can we make it flower and fruit in plenty? No, only Nature can make a tree fruit and flower. After eating the fruits that we get free, if we pop the seeds in the ground, they will sprout and more trees and fruits will grow. But if we put money in the soil will it grow? All good things in life that come free like swimming, climbing the hills, fishing in a clear stream, walking and playing with friends, watching elephants and monkeys, hearing a bird call- all of this money cannot buy! Only Bhoomathai (Earth Mother) can give us these joyous things “

Appu sighed with relief after this long speech – he watched the elders look at him with awe. His mother came close and held him with tears in her eyes. She always told him his fingers had the magical capacity to make seeds sprout and flower. Many in the hamlet made him put the first seed in the soil before monsoon. He would never spit on the ground or step on the farmland with his footwear. He would tell his friends to leave the best jackfruits for the Rajah (King ), the wild elephant of the forests and wait for their visit…

Appu was not very good in studies in the formal education system that was being followed in the schools. Often he failed in exams and got scolded by teachers. This was a constant pain in his tender heart and his mother was also anxious about his future…But he knew how to count and measure, recite and read, draw and paint, sing and dance, fix a wheel, a motor, change a electric bulb, cook a simple meal when his mother was ill, carry water from the stream, narrate the names of plants and animals, their uses and value…Is that not the best way to live life –full and uninhibited, the birth of a true Human Being in tune with the world around with compassion and love, kindness and justice?

Like in Carl Safina’s View from a Lazy Point, Appu had his life’s compass’s bearings right: –

“The compass of compassion asks not what is good for me… but what is good? Not what is best for me but what is best. Not what is right for me but what is right. Not how much can we take? But how much ought we leave? And how much might we give? Not what is easy but what is worthy. Not what is practical but what is moral.”

Anitha.S in conversation with Santhi, Rajamma, Pappa, Maruthi and many friends in the Sambarkode hamlet in Attapady. The NRLM functionaries, Sindhu, Saiju and Meera also contributed. She can be contacted at anithasharma2007@gmail.com.


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2 Comments

  1. Radha Gopalan says:

    What a moving ‘speech’ by Appu…straight from the heart. That food forest will nourish their body and soul. I hope we are able to create such food forests here at the Chalai school and many other places in Trivandrum. That will be what we will want to do here Anitha!

  2. S.Santhi says:

    Being a part of the dream from the very beginning, it is heartening and thrilling for me to know that it is being fulfilled in small measures. I know that one should never search for evidences to prove that dreams are materializing somewhere…They are, even without us knowing…And youngsters like Appu or Resi or Pappaathi are surely blooming all around us…and suddenly we will realize that our dream of a green, sane, peaceable, healthy and happy world is already born…Thank you Anitha for painting the dream come true in simple words…