Saturday, July 29, 2017

Snakes, scientific names and other Angadibail stories

Our intern Meena form Chennai  wrote her experience of her stay in Angadibail .

The thing about starting on a journey knowing that you are going to love it is that you just cannot be wrong.
On a grade eleven school trip, as I lugged a basket of leaf litter refusing help and inviting everyone’s ire, I knew that I would come back. And I did. This time, as an intern who was assigned the job of documenting traditional bath and cleaning products used in and around Angadibail.
With the cliched wind in my hair, I stood at the back of a pick-up truck as we (Savita Akka, her son, the cyclist and I) reached the forest centre in Angadibail. I quickly got introduced to comfortable forest living, but took longer to get to know the people that I lived with. 

At some point in the first week, Savita Akka’s son became Atmeeya, the crazy botanist who would walk through the forest and spew ridiculous scientific names of the green things that he came across. Most of our conversations would be about birds, snakes and scientific names and how he was incapable of making the truth sound true.

Somewhere between building walls out of palm leaves and learning to light lanterns, the cyclist morphed into Sailesh. Sailesh, the one I ended up writing an article about. From this architect-who-does-a-lot-of-other-things, I decided to learn as much as I could. From fitness lessons – that I am yet to start – to building a fire and navigation skills, I went to him with questions and he delighted me with answers.

Eshwar Anna, the house-keeper with a fan following, was another bundle of knowledge and skills. As he went about doing in seconds whatever I was struggling to do, I could not help but stop and marvel at this simple man. And by now, everyone in my city knows about his delicious Red-Rice Idlis.

Writing about food, Angadibail made me realize my intense love for Idli, Bella (jaggery) and Thuppa (ghee) - the Holy Trinity, the Tirumurti of forest food. Food cooked over firewood also has an irresistible smoked flavour. Jackfruit, jackfruit chips, jackfruit happalam, jackfruit idli and deliciousness aside, forest food is also about other things. I realized this as I stood over the firewood stove and kept stirring a mass of leaves, waiting for it to look edible. With coconut involved in every dish, I was also able to push myself out of my dislike for coconut, to a gratifying extent.

The other aversion that I was hoping to get rid of concerned snakes. The case was neither helped by four snake sightings on a particularly nice and sunny day nor by Atmeeya’s delighted declaration that a rat snake had been living in the house for a long time and shall continue to do so. The night of the four sightings had me waking up every few hours and checking the roof for the beloved rat snake. However, all was not in vain. I learnt a lot about the different types and ways of snakes as I braved through the well-illustrated Snake Bible. I now know more about India’s Big Four snakes and how they like to kill people than about India’s freedom struggle.

In the two weeks that I spent in Angadibail, I fed cows, planted sugarcane, irrigated the field, cooked on firewood, made forest jewellery, learnt the Kannada alphabet, played cards and managed to sit back and relax. While each was an experience, planting sugarcane was a revelation. It was after I was done that I realized how focussed I had been on the task at hand. Experiencing single-minded focus of that kind was truly refreshing. Over the next few days, I experienced it again with making forest jewellery and then with reading books. Reading in Angadibail is a combined feeling of drowning and levitating. With no electricity or network coverage, I felt myself drown in the world of the book and levitate in my imagination.

Something about the laid-back nature of the Forest Centre is extremely nourishing. As my overactive mind slowed down and the farce of multitasking broke, I began thinking, learning, doing and being in the true sense. While I can hope to put into words my interaction with the people at BuDa, I do not dare to try the same with the bond that I shared with the animals there. It was immensely rich and natural.

Amidst all this, I spent a few hours visiting villagers and documenting traditional cleaning products. With Savita Akka accompanying me for translation and local knowledge, I furiously took notes and had fun code breaking Kannada. We would be welcomed with warmth and sent back with bags and arms full of fruits, roots, saplings and relics. While learning that cow dung had been used in skin care certainly surprised me, I was more impressed by the lack of waste generation. Be it processing soap nut or kajal preparation, final product provided nourishment to the skin and the residue provided nourishment to the earth. Attempting some recipes, I enjoyed getting everyone to try out the ‘instant’ natural shampoo that I had prepared and feigned disappointment when the traditional way of preparing kajal refused to predict the gender of my future baby, as promised by local custom.

At the end of two gratifying weeks, Savita Akka declared that I needed an adventure and sent me packing to Gokarna (which is another engaging story). Thirty months ago, I had dumped a pile of leaf litter and grinned at Savita Akka. She had been amused. This time around, returning from Gokarna late at night, I grinned again at Savita Akka. And she grinned back.

Meena Chockalingam 

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