Our expedition into the woods, yesterday, had exhausted us completely and we slept till late today. After a quick breakfast in town, we decided to head towards the palace and inquire into the whereabouts of the royal descendants. Surprisingly, visitors weren’t allowed and we were told the owner wasn’t in town and that he would return tomorrow. We thanked him and as we left, we caught a glimpse of the palace windows from a distance. A tall majestic structure that was once the pride of Theni is nothing but a dilapidated structure screaming for attention in the middle of town. Scores of tiny tea stalls, grocery shops and hawkers lined its walls throughout the day.
Built by the then Rajah of Travancore, the palace was inspired by Jaipur’s architectural style. There’s a sense of romance involved with historical story-telling. And, sometimes, it is quite hard to imagine that a town that was once bathed in regal aura has now transformed into an overcrowded city. There’s an interesting story behind the origin of the name Bodinayakanur. It was once called Thenkasiyampathi. Back in the day, a wild boar wreaked havoc all over the town. It entered farms unannounced and destroyed most of the crops. One day, the Rajah announced to his subjects that whosoever shall kill the wild boar will be rewarded with the town being named after him. A young man named Bodayanayakkar accepted the challenge and hunted it down. Pleased with his actions, the king then fulfilled his promise thereby renaming the town to Bodinayakanur.
Later, we had to go to the automobile workshop to get some work done on Fayez’s jeep. As we entered the garage, a little boy with light eyes caught our attention. Dressed in a worn out brown shirt with grease stains, he stared intently at the engine of a car that was just brought in for repair. Working in the heat of peak Tamil Nadu summer could get quite brutal. And yet, here was a 14-year-old boy who was vibrant and full of energy analysing parts of a vehicle with great interest. Since we couldn’t speak Tamil, we struck a conversation with him through Fayez. He told us that he had been working with Khaja, owner of the workshop, for over a year. His father had left them a long time ago and his mother worked as a labourer in one of the cardamom plantations.
We had almost forgotten that we were talking to a young boy. We wondered if the circumstances he grew up in robbed him of his childhood at a very young age. It didn’t seem to bother him for he didn’t have any choice but to embrace adulthood and become the man of the house quite early in his life. Apparently, a year ago, Mari just showed up at Khaja’s workshop and expressed his desire to learn the tricks and trade of becoming a mechanic. Khaja was taken aback initially and told him to go away since he felt that he was too young to be working in his garage. But nothing could deter Mari from pursuing what he longed to do. Burdened with responsibilities, he was adamant about learning the skills required and Khaja decided to take him in. When we asked Mari if he regrets not going to a school, he said he doesn’t like the idea of school or studying and that his dream was to open his own mechanic shop some day.
The clarity and determination he had for a 14-year-old boy was quite remarkable. However, we felt that his ideas and aspirations stemmed from what he was exposed to so far. As a result of growing up without a father, Khaja had become a father-like figure for him. Therefore, his dreams of a better life included becoming the owner of a garage when he grew up. This is all he knew and all he wanted from his life. This was his reality. We were quite certain that Mari could outshine his peers if he had the right access to education or exposure within the automobile field. We hoped to talk to his mother and Khaja to see if something could be done to assist Mari in following his passion for automobiles to greater heights.
We left from the garage in a while and decided to head towards the old railway station that was built by the British. In a world that only moves forward with development, we were trying to understand why the once functional and ‘bustling-with-activity’ station was now deserted, and defunct. We had to see it for ourselves. When we reached there, we were quite shocked to see that the tracks had been removed, and the entire station was covered in an overgrowth of weeds and other plants. It almost felt like the ghost of a forgotten past. We wondered what it would have been like once upon a time and if anyone remembered how it felt to walk along the platforms with the aroma of spices wafting through the air. Would it have been as wondrous as we imagined it to be? We will never know…
At the entrance of the station, we spotted a few local boys sitting and smoking ganja. During our conversation, we found out that the station had been closed for the past six or seven years because the narrow railway lines that had once been laid by the Britishers was completely useless now. The government of Tamil Nadu planned to lay fresh railway lines and tracks from Madurai in the next few years. It was functional till 2010. However in order to convert meter-gauge railways to broad gauge, the railway department thought it was best stop operations temporarily. Since then project has been plagued with delayed action and poor funds.
Later in the evening, we went to a spot with three banyan trees adorned by a stream. This was en route to Fayez’s farm. He had shown us the place when we passed by it yesterday. It looked quite inviting in the afternoon heat but we decided against it and thought we would come sometime later. Today, we were elated to spend the entire evening by the trees. Fayez parked his jeep and we walked down the trail leading to a gentle stream of water flowing under the trees. Whilst wetting our feet, we spotted some leaves that seemed to repel water. We also saw some villagers carrying stacks of hay on their heads walking in the stream and crossing over to fields of arecanut and coconut trees. We sat there for a while soaking in the spirit of the place.
The banyan trees had roots hanging from either sides that touched the earth. We spent sometime there sitting and talking about our different life experiences. There’s a memory lurking in every root, every branch of the banyan tree. It has perhaps withstood the test of time, seen mighty civilisations collapse and even its own kin being brutally uprooted by the children of the earth. We wondered if she remembers a better time when creatures did not set out to destroy everything they came across. It also made us think about our tendency to destruct and how primitive must mankind be to be driven by our animal instinct rather than the part that makes us human. We wondered if the banyan tree forgave us – children of the soil – for the brutality with which we have treated the earth; We wondered if the tree captured memories in its nodules to remind itself that we too were capable of compassion and kindness.
After a while, a few local men came to bathe in the stream, and were shy to change in front of us. So, we decided to give them their space and walked up to the road. We sat there on a rocky bench for a while staring at the sun slowly set behind a blanket of fluffy white clouds.
We soon saw Sounderrajan pass by us. He told us that he was going back to town from the forest and he spotted us. So, he decided to turn around and say hello. He mentioned that he didn’t see us at the land today, and wondered where we were. We told him we’d be going there tomorrow morning. With a warm smile, he told us that he was looking forward to seeing us there.
As he was leaving, Mari Muthu, Fayez’s friend and an active member of one of the tribes, from Kathapari village stopped by, and we discussed our lantana livelihood project with him. He said he would be more than happy to talk to his people and if 10 or more show interest in the initiative, he would let us know. That way, we could promote a training structure for the tribals if they were willing to learn! We were blown away by his enthusiasm and wholehearted support. We left from there and as we drove towards town someone remarked that the trees on the hillock resembled those in Africa.
Later in the evening, we spoke in length about how it felt wonderful to live in a natural environment amidst nature as opposed to leading a lifestyle that thrives on the erroneous notion of excessive modernisation. We also discussed the harmful effects of Lantana Camara or Unnichadi as we called it. Native to the South American tropics, the ornamental plant was introduced by the British in 1807 at the National Botanical Garden of Calcutta. It is an aggressively invasive species and it soon escaped into the forests and eventually spread all over the country from the Himalayan region to the Southernmost Tip. Since it could last a long time without water and it does not attract any pests or diseases, the plant was selectively bred in the 17th and 18th century. Depending on its age and maturity, its flowers have various hues of red, yellow, white, pink and orange. However, its harmful effects were realised only much later. Apart from secreting a chemical that causes stunted growth and inhibits root elongation, its berries are quite toxic to animals. It also leads to a massively degraded habitat and facilitates an unhealthy ecosystem. Today, lantana has spread like wildfire in the Kurangini Hills. This is a cause of major concern for both locals and tribals living in the area. With the livelihood project, we not only hoped to spread awareness on Lantana but also facilitate a holistic community-development project for the tribals.
After dinner, in conversation, we asked Fayez if he’d spotted any more king cobras after his first encounter, a few weeks ago. He said yes and mentioned that it was all a part of learning to live in harmony with the jungle. Unlike an urban environment, animals are often led by curiosity rather than hostility. They wouldn’t want to intentionally hurt any creature unless they felt threatened by them. We also realised that spending time on the land is giving us much more clarity on the concept of wilderness and harmonious co-existence. We soon drifted off to sleep wondering what tomorrow had in store for us…
Project ‘Rest of My family‘ is an attempt to connect back, re-discover our relationship with and understand our responsibility towards the larger family that we are a part of — the rest of our human family. Hence, it is titled Rest Of My Family.
Through #RestofMyFamily, we will focus on highlighting the social issues and human interest stories, documenting the triumphs of the ordinary man despite all the hardships they face constantly, and help these stories reach a larger audience and wherever necessary extend support to the individuals and communities that we write about. We hope to make a direct impact to the lives of those people we meet and find suffering due to various social issues; to connect the ones who need help to the ones who can help….
Find more about the campaign here: http://igg.me/at/restofmyfamily/x/539502