Category Archives: environment

Kandal Pokkudan’s legacy of love

“Education, if it means anything, should not take people away from the land, but instill in them even more respect for it, because educated people are in a position to understand what is being lost. The future of the planet concerns all of us, and all of us should do what we can to protect it. As I told the foresters, and the women, you don’t need a diploma to plant a tree.”

That was a quote from Wangari Maathai , the Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize winner , who founded the Green Belt Movement, and who devoted the major part of her life for environmental concerns and planted and motivated others to plant thousands and thousand of trees.

She died on 25th September 2011, leaving behind her a legacy of her love for Mother Earth.

Now, four years later , another such lover has passed away and the mangrove forest in Kannur district which he nurtured and help grow and flourish, must surely be sighing through their dense green darkness. May be many of the first 300 seeds that he planted way back in 1989 are still standing there, bent and gnarled. May be they would have many a tale to tell , if we only had ears to listen.


Kallen Pokkudan belonged to the Pulaya community of Kannur District. Way below in the social heirarchy, Pokkudan had never gone to school. He had joined the communist party and after many years of allegiance, had left it. Planting mangrove trees along the Pazhayangadi River became his passionate mission thereafter.

David Briggs who acted in the malayalam film Papillon Buddha , directed by Jayan K. Cheriyan , had this to say about his interactions with Pokkudan, who also played the role of a tribal chief in the film,

My Papilio Buddha experience with Kallen Pokkudan
By David Briggs
In 2011 I had the honor and privilege to play a featured role in Jayan Cherian’s powerfulfilm, Papilio Buddha. I had met Jayan as a student of mine in the Graduate Film Program of the City College of New York, where I teach Sound Design for Filmmakers. I knew him to be a great mind and talent, and he had told me about his plans for this exciting feature film project, so when he asked me last year to play the role of a gay lepidopterist in the film, I was thrilled.
As a middle-aged American who had resigned himself to never having the opportunity to visit India, I leapt at the opportunity. I arrived in India knowing only the basic outline of the story and the general concept for my character (I also knew that at some point I’d have to get half-naked in the rain forests of Kerala!). At the very first rehearsal, Jayan assembled the entire cast of principal characters together; all were experienced actors, with one notable exception: Kallen Pokkudan. Jayan introduced him to me and told me his remarkable story, and though our language barrier made it impossible to communicate with one another directly, I was immediately struck by his magnetic presence. As rehearsal got underway, Jayan directed Pokkudan to speak to us all in character, as the spiritual patriarch and leader of the Dalit community in the film’s story. As he spoke improvisationally, my own personal acting challenge became immediately apparent to me: I would have to be as natural, as simple, as honest, as AUTHENTIC as I could possibly be in my performance. For as an actor, Pokkudan was that rare thing: a total natural. As I would soon discover once we started shooting, he was someone who has that rare and much-envied ability to be fully, simply, authentically and truthfully himself in every moment before the camera. He simply appears to be living his life in front of the camera, not “acting,” which is the goal of every good film actor.
In one scene I had with him, he speaks at length to my character, who of course can’t understand a word he’s saying. But Kallen is so magnetic and compelling that all I had to do was sit and listen; though I did not understand the content of what he was saying, I was mesmerized and swept away by the total conviction with which he spoke. And while I sometimes found myself challenged by some of the shooting conditions (grueling locations, long days, difficult weather, leeches!), Kallen never seemed to tire or complain, even at one point in spite of severe illness. I had nothing but the utmost respect and admiration for him as both a person and a performer. His story of lifelong activism and his contribution to Jayan Cherian’s brave cinematic achievement are to be applauded. In my mind, both he and Jayan strike me as being two of the most patriotic people I’ve ever had the honor to know.”

Some great souls , instead of harboring rancour and vengeance for the injustices meted out to them by society, go on to pay back to the community with their labour and love. Pokkudan was such a man.
Bowing my head with profound respect.

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Posted by on September 27, 2015 in Community, environment, inspiration


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aaru valley

The stream chatting with the mountains
The breeze lending its ears
Confused they were with borders
And with mortal fears.

They try to dam(n) my freedom
Gurgled the chirpy waters
They blast us to deform
Said the slopes with cynical laughter.

Well, at least I’m better off
I still roam where I will
The breeze blew kisses to the ripples
And the meadows and the hills.

But hey , you still could have some fun
Just do a jiggle with your plates
You’ll see them run for cover
When they see a river in spate.


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Trek to the Pindari Glacier

I’ll be turning fifty five in two months’ time and this trek to the Pindari Glacier at the base of the Nanda Devi and NandaKhot mountains in the Himalayan ranges, is a birthday present that I’ve given to myself in advance. I must tell you that in spite of the arduousness of the tightly packed five-day schedule organized by the Kumaon Mandal Vikas Nigam, the one overwhelming emotion that echoed along with each and every heartbeat of mine was gratitude. I was alive, I was breathing in huge gulps of unadultered mountain air, my senses were being flooded with beauty from all sides, I was feeling wonderfully at harmony and at peace. What more can I ask for?

Just may be that the programme could’ve been arranged over a period of 8 or ten days instead of five. Apart from being utterly exhausted by the end of each day, the need to get to the next camp before dark and before the weather turned inclemental, deprived us of the leisure with which we could’ve enjoyed the breathtaking vistas that spread itself before our eyes.

We started from a place called Saung, some distance away from Bageshwar in Almora District.. Bageshwar is accessible by road from Kathgodam which is the nearest Railhead. We trekked after dark for 3 kms up to Loharkhet. There was a round moon shedding its soft silvery light on the path and on the trees around. The walk helped us acclimatize ourselves for what was coming in the days ahead.

Loharkhet (1708 metres) to Dhakuri (2608metres), the next point along the route is a steep climb of 11 kms. We should’ve been allowed to stop there for the day. We had started at around 7:20 in the morning and it was around 4.15 in the evening when the stragglers amongst us reached there. The youngsters of course had reached around four hours earlier. For some in the group, it was more than enough and they decided to stay back and proceed further at their own pace or just stay put till we completed the trek and came back there.

From Dhakuri to the village Khati (2210 metres) is another stint of 8kms, downhill most of the way thankfully . But then by dusk it began to rain and we were still about 3 kms away. Everybody was tired , even the younger ones. The baby in our group was just twelve years old.(I was the seniormost but one). Fatigue took over us completely . I was literally dragged along by the guide for the last half a kilometer . It was then that I realized with all of my conviction , the strength of a human hand stretched out to help another, for it was not my determination that kept me going then.

Khati is a quaint little village nestling in a valley, surrounded by mountains on all sides. Cute little houses with slate tiled roofs, golden brown fields rich with harvest, a few small private rest houses, a PCO booth et all. But we saw none of this as we plodded along in the dark, wet and heavy with our rucksacks on our backs. It was only on the return trip that we took in all the details of that beautiful village, which by the economic standards of those parts was almost thriving.

From Khati to Dwali(2575 metres), the next morning , was a beautiful stretch through forests, the climb not so tiring and the weather quite pleasant. There were times when those along with me, were either way ahead or some distance behind and those were the spells I enjoyed best. Imagine walking slowly along through the trees, their trunks and branches gnarled with age and covered thickly with layers of moss, wet with the moisture of the rains of the previous evening. I could hear no other sound except that of my heavy breathing and the palpitations of my heart and my footfalls as I tread over the brown leaves that now lay strewn all over. The sunrays filtering through the spaces in between the branches created a lovely dappled design . The river which ran all along the path was at first a distant murmur , but it would soon gather in width and speed and then it was a gushing body of white foamy water over big rounded boulders. Birds were few but the sudden trilling sound of an occasional one that revebrated in the depths of the forests, would immediately add an additional thrill to my already satiated senses.

There were many waterfalls on the way, flowing down from the summits of the distant mountains, like a still white chalky line , to join the river below. We would come across gurgling streams every now and them, some of them wide enough to need small bridges across them, made of wooden planks , while others were like little children running across the paths in gay abandon. We quenched our thirst and washed our faces with the refreshingly cool water.

In the kitchen at Dwali, where we sat having lunch , Vijaya and I chatted with Kharak Singh, who was positioned near the fireplace on a low stool, stoking the fire with logs. He was an employee of the Public Works Department. The entire mountain track up to the Pindari glacier, laid with stones to prevent the mud being washed away and the path becoming slushy and slippery, as also the bridges , were all maintained by workers like him. But Kharak Singh was quite cheesed off . He had been working for the past thirty two years , but had still not been given the status of a permanent employee. He was on a daily wage of Rs.200 /per day.

We would have loved it if we had been allowed to stay on at Dwali for the rest of the day. But the schedule had us trotting along again, immediately after lunch, this time to Phurkia which is at an altitude of 3260 metres. It was a climb again. I had left behind some of my stuff at Dwali to lighten the weight of my rucksack, but that was mot of much help. I would be panting after walking short distances and I had to stop often to catch my breath.

On the way to Phurkia, which was 7kms away, we met young Munna, who was hurrying along to catch up with his friends at Pindari. Munna had just completed High school and was enjoying the holidays going here and there in the mountains. A few days earlier, he had been trekking in another part of the mountainous terrain when a small avalanche had brought along some loose stones, one of which had hit him on the head. He had to go all the way down to Haldwani to get himself treated. So what happens when there is a medical emergency, I asked. Well, the patient would have to be lifted on to a chair, with its legs tied to horizontal poles, and then carried all the way to the nearest point where there there was a motorable road, by a group of around ten or so, who would take turns at lending their shoulders.

Munna had aspirations , but there were no job opportunities for those like him if he stayed put in the village. He was looking forward to going to Bageshwar to take up some part time employment there and perhaps also pursue a college education. But for those who were willing to be engaged in manual labour something or the other turned up. The NREGS also provided the villagers with some employment now and then, he said.

Not many children in the villages high up in the mountains, went to school. For one thing they had to go long distances up and down the slopes to Khati where the school was located and for another , even if they did make an attempt there was no guarantee that the teacher would be present.

The extension of the road up to a point midway between Dhakuri and Khati, was itself a recent one . This has been a great relief to those living in the villages at higher altitudes. Earlier , quite often, the porters who brought provisions in bags tied on to the backs of donkeys, would suffer losses when the animals slipped or swerved , throwing off the bags down the steep slopes. Now at least part of the transportation distance was covered by a motor vehicle and that was a big help. In winter, the villages in the higher reaches would be completely sealed off by snow and they necessarily had to stock provisions to feed themselves through the cold months, when they spent their entire time inside their dwellings.

The trekking route from Phurkia to Pindari was the most beautiful by far. Early morning, just out of our beds, with steel tumblers of hot tea in our hands, we stepped out to have our first glimpses of the snow peaks of Nandakhot and Sundardungha. The white snow took on different hues as the sun rose higher and higher. As we started on our trek , we were thankful for the clear weather. The skies were an unbelievable blue with the white peaks silhouetted against it, the dark brown of the lower ranges investing an effective contrast which made the whole panorama strikingly beautiful.

We crossed small glaciers on the way. The distance up to zero point was only 7kms and it was a lovely walk. Flocks of sheep scampered expertly down the inclines. Dogs guarding them barked loudly. A little way off , down in a meadow we saw a small shepherd’s hut. The whole scene was so idyllic or so it seemed to us.

We met the shepherd himself a little way further. Himmat Singh would be spending six months up here in these altitudes, where there were plenty of grassy meadows. The only company he would have was the occasional trekker or another shepherd like him who came that way with his flock. He tended to around 500 sheep, he said, which belonged to different people in the villages of Khati, Dwali and others. They paid him Rs. 200/ for looking after each sheep. But he would get it only when the beasts were handed over safely to the owners at the end of six months. If there was a casualty, he had to pay for the loss. He also had to pay for the bags of salt which had to be fed to the sheep and that cost him around Rs. 35000/ in all. The porters which brought up rations also demanded a lot, which did not leave him much to save for his family , who lived in the village down the mountain. So, was he able to recognize each of those sheep, I was curious. One had to, he smilingly replied.

At the top of a slightly steep climb, just before the small stretch of snow which extended up to the Zero point, from where the Pindari glacier extended upwards, we came across the Ashram of Swami Dharmanand. He gave us steaming hot tea and puris that he had prepared in the morning. The Swami hailed from a village in Andhra somewhere near the Orissa border. He was only sixteen or so when he left home . He had spent two years at Gomukh, but had found the place too crowded. And then he had heard of Pindari from another Swami who went by the name of Pilot Baba and had proceeded to set up base here. He’s been here for the past twenty three years. In those early years, the permanent snow cover started at the lower ranges itself. With each passing year, it had been receding , said the Baba and now the white stays permanent only at much higher altitudes.

The Baba stays put here for most of the year. In the month of February when the snowfall is at its peak , he goes down to Khati, returning a month or two later. He makes another trip down in the months of July and August when the rains become incessant. For the rest of the year he is all by himself , quite at home with the mountains and the meadows for company. Had he gone to school at all? He didn’t remember. In any case he didn’t believe that one could learn only by going to a school. He had learnt a lot about different healing practices and medicines , including ayurveda , all on his own.. Did he ever think of his people back at home? This is home and everybody is family, he said. It was amazing to see how comfortable he was with his way of life. He had a very pleasant smile and a calm expression. He charged nothing for the tea and snacks. But of course those wanting to make a contribution could drop something in the donation box. Without actually preaching anything, this young Swami (He must be just above forty) makes a point about our eternal search for peace and happiness, I felt. We , with our worldly dispositions seem to be forever chasing it outside ourselves in temporal things. He seems to have found it by just staying put in one place.

I just felt like sitting there and didn’t cross the snow stretch to the actual zero point from where the Glacier started. Vijaya who did, said she was sorely disappointed to see the bare patches where the glacier had melted. Here were the effects of global warming to be witnessed first hand.

We returned a while later to Phurkia and then proceeded back to Khati in the afternoon. We could’ve skipped the rest of the return trek along the same route had we been able to get a vehicle at that midpoint between Khati and Dhakuri. But a landslide had blocked the road ahead and that option was therefore ruled out. So we ended up traversing again through the forested area , in darkness and rain. It would’ve been really scary, had we not stuck together in groups.

And then the last day of trekking from very early in the morning from Dhakuri to Loharkhet , which we completed a little before mid-day. After lunch we hopped on to a vehicle which took us all the way to Kathgodam, from where we boarded the train back to Delhi.

We were a group of forty to start with. But the hectic schedule had taken its toll and only a little more than half that number actually completed the entire length of the trek. Those who stayed behind at the different camp sites had, however enjoyed little walks and watched the mountains and the clouds and the sun throwing up different compositions of colour and form with each passing moment.

Back here in the plains, the recent gale and rain has brought down the temperatures. The difference would’ve been starkly uncomfortable otherwise. I’ve been sleeping in spells and repeatedly looking up at the photos I clicked on the way when awake. My camera is a basic digital one (Kodak Easyshare -4 mega pixels). So the pictures are not anything like it looks for real. But then if it gives you some idea of the beauty of the Himalayan ranges, I’m more than happy. Hope you pack your rucksack too, one of these days and get going. It’s worth the aching ankles and the blisters on your toes and the whole week going by without a bath and the discomfort of the pressure building up in your bowels at odd hours and the longing for the sight of that tiny teastall on an elevation and the disappointment when you reach there and find it closed. It’s worth it. Just try it 


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“The world is too much with us”

One of the books that I had long wanted to read and has stayed teasingly in my mind long after I had read it is,  “One straw revolution” by Masanobu Fukuoka.

Fukuoka, who had been trained as an agricultural scientist, left his job to take up traditional farming in his village, minus all the modern techniques of agriculture, the chemical pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Following a method of farming that was as close to the way in which natural vegetation thrived, he has been able to make a convincing case of how Man’s departure from the natural state of being has in fact been detrimental in more ways than just leeching of the soil and failure of crops.

Here are some excerpts :

“ Human beings with their tampering do something wrong, leave the damage unrepaired and when the adverse results accumulate, work with all their might to correct them. When the corrective actions appear to be successful, they come to view these measures as splendid accomplishments. People do this over and over again. It is as if a fool were to stomp and break the tiles on his roof. Then when it starts to rain and the ceiling begins to rot away, he hastily climbs up to mend the damage, rejoicing in the end that he has accomplished a miraculous solution”.

“The farmer became too busy when people  began to investigate the world and decided that it would be good if we did this or did that. All my research has been in the direction of not doing this or that . These thirty years have taught me that farmers would have been better off  doing almost nothing at all.”

“The more people do, the more society develops, the more problems arise. The increasing desolation of nature, the exhaustion of resources, the uneasiness and disintegration of the human spirit, all have been brought about by humanity’s trying to accomplish something. Originally there was no reason to progress and nothing that had to be done. We have come to the point at which there is no other way than to bring about a movement not to bring anything about.”

I wonder how many will agree with that and yet there is an increasing acceptance of the view that  the human race has perhaps  really  over estimated  our control over nature. The long term dangers of chemical farming, the adverse effects of global warming and the threat of global food shortage looming large have all been responsible for a  renewed interest in the traditional methods of natural and organic farming .

Most of the time, we are not even aware of the subtle ways in which the chemical toxicity of pesticides and fertilizers affect our health. But sometimes, the consequences are too obvious to ignore. How the usage of endosulfan in cashew plantations of North Kerala caused major health problems for the people there, particularly the children, is one such sad story.

Apart from the farming aspect, I’m intrigued by the philosophy of not wanting to accomplish something and just letting   ourselves be. People talk of “quality of life”, but what exactly does that mean?

What Mankind has constantly been trying to achieve , I feel, is to prolong the period of our stay on this planet , to postpone death. Just think, if we were willing to die just as readily as animals die , if we just considered ourselves as a part of this whole flora and fauna phenomenon, exulting in our existences , just accepting each day  from dawn to dusk  , eating of what was available around us, when we actually felt hungry , growing just enough for our needs, resting in the shade , listening to the gurgling brook, finding warmth in an embrace at nightfall, making love with a mate , slowly falling asleep after silently talking to the stars, having children , watching them grow and then when the time came just happily passing away, letting others continue , where we had let off, then none of any “scientific and technological” interventions would’ve been necessary. Left to the natural processes of balance , the population of our species would have maintained itself at a level of sustainable stasis.

But somewhere along the way, we alienated ourselves and having done that, we became scared of perishing, of not being there at all and so started the attempts to push death further and further away. What we have been taking  pride in the  most, is that we have succeeded in increasing the longevity of our life span. And now we rue the fact that the population increase is the basic reason for all the problems that confront the modern world.

It has become such a vicious cycle ,  more diseases than ever before because of the increasing rate of interferances in the natural order of things, more  effort being put in to contain them , more longevity and there it goes on spiralling upwards…I vaguely remember a poem by the famous Malayalam poet Kunjan Nambiar,  in which he wondered at a state of affairs where no one died. The poem was satirical , but it clearly has been lost on us.

After exhausting ourselves in the heat and hullabaloo of the madding crowds, why do we long to run away to some isolated retreat , where we can just be doing what our ancestors who roamed around in animal skins were doing…watching the clouds pass by, listening to the raindrops , sitting by the waters with our feet playing with the ripples, watching the sunrays kiss the snow? Why does that harmony still spell unadultered joy?


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