For 25 years Abdul Kareem has put his protective arms around a rocky hill side- to let it bloom.
It is dark at noon. A thick, wet leaf pile squelches underfoot. Often your way is blocked and you must crawl under branches or take detours. The silence of the forest is sometimes unnerving. Every now and then you are lost and can't tell the way.
Abdul Kareem, in front of you, wends and weaves through the thicket with a proud ease. But then he has been around here - for 25 years, in fact. He has seen the 32 acres of a lateritic hillside grow into this wild forest. He had simply dreamed it, willed it, kept vigil, stood guard, ran a few errands- and the forest happened. And is still happening: it's a work in progress. Abdul Kareem has created and saved forever a piece of wilderness for India.
The pull of Kaavu:
Abdul Kareem is one of India's midnight children. He was born in 1947 at Nileswar, a small town on the NH7 between Kasargod and Payyanur in Kerala. His father Abdullah was a small time businessman. After passing his high school and a year in college, Kareem decided to venture out to India's Big Apple - Bombay! He worked in a private dockyard as a labourer to learn the ropes. Just when he thought he had found himself a vocation, he was shaken by parochial riots in 1969. Back in Nileshwar he taught himself book-keeping and typewriting with assistance from the Muslim Waqf board. He began to earn a steady income as an itinerant accountant. Marriage followed and also some good fortune.
The Persian Gulf boom began in the early 1970s and Abdul Kareem sensed an opportunity. He began a travel and placement service for the thousands of Keralites eager to flood the Gulf. These details are relevant, for, we have so far no indications of the man he would become. His wife came from the village of Puliyamkulam, about 20km from Nileswar. He would often visit there with her and spend some weekends. And that's how he came by his hill.
"I would walk around the area and see barren hill sides," he says. "It was a heartache of a sight and yet the pull on me was strong. I suddenly realised that I had often --though only for brief moments-- dreamt of the Kaavu of India's collective memory. They were the Sacred Groves that every village had once upon a time. I had been told of them as a child. I think I had sub consciously yearned for one."
So, on an impulse he bought 5 acres of barren rock with a pathetic well. And instantly became a laughing stock. The well [-the one in the picture] would yield about five litres a draw and one then waited for it to slowly recharge. During the next monsoons he stood on his land and was nearly washed away by a roaring flood along the rocky laterite surface. Yet,the well just blinked and had no water to show.
Kareem was a man who was neither lettered nor connected to any source of information that would help him. He trusted his guts. He was a man haunted by his desire for a Kaavu. After about a year of helplessly watching his property, he began to plant mature saplings of wild trees in spaces between laterite rocks. During the summer he would fetch water in cans lashed to his motorbike from a source a kilometre away. The reasonably successful travel business was seeing all its surpluses flow into this impossible dream. Landowners nearby found in Abdul Kareem an exit route. For decades their rocky spreads had produced nothing and here was a crazy man willing to buy them. As his family watched in panic amazement, Abdul Kareem bought 32 acres of a rocky slope.
For three summers, he nursed his plants with water ferried from afar. And then nature sent him a feed back. "In the third year, when my plantation was but of young adult trees, the water level in the well rose!' he says. "That itself seemed an end for me and I began to plant the whole extent in a frenzy." He chose a variety of plants plucked from the wild and let nature do the rest. He learnt that you enable nature, not direct it. Birds began to arrive and discharge all manner of seeds. Weeds grew and amidst them rare herbs and medicinal plants - none chosen by Kareem. Water levels in Kaliyanam, Varranjnyur and other villages within a 10km radius rose. The once barren hill was now a water sponge.
He has never weeded his acres, never lopped a tree, never swept the leaves, never hunted game, never selected a species and of course, never used a chemical of any kind. "My rewards are the highly mineralised, herbalised water, the fragrant air, the daily walks through the woods, a healthy life and an enormous peace," he says. He has for over ten years, lived in a house, built in the forest. Not a shred of plastic or paper is seen anywhere. They are a part of his long list of no- nos along with cars, noise, smoking, fire or partying.
Notices and needs:
Recognition has been trickling in. Environmentalists and the media are beginning to take notice of this self taught man. The 5 litre well of yore fills to the brim and spills over for weeks after the monsoon subsides. Hare, fowl and other small game have colonised the forests. Beehives --the size of a sack-- are emerging. There was a dry inherited tank on the land. He says today, he can pump a 100,000 litres out of it at a go and the level will bounce back in a few minutes. "The forest is actually producing water!' he exclaims. The water is almost like a meal. The soil under a thick, wet, leaf pile crawls with soil animals that are almost angry at being disturbed.
His children have grown and the growing family has its monetary needs but Abdul Kareem having put all his eggs in this forest has no cash. He hopes now to strike a balance between preserving his growing dream and his growing responsibilities. He talks of marketing the water for the table. With a sensitive business partner, the acreage would be a great eco-destination. Nileswar railhead is a comfortable motoring distance. It should also be possible to aid Kareem if academics with grants wished to spend time researching his forest. A small eco-school is another possibility. GoodNewsIndia appeals to its readers to connect this man with an opportunity. He is willing to discuss any sensitive proposal.
We are about to part. "Deep inside everyone of us is a call to the wild," he says broodingly. He then adds in many simple words: "Much of the impatience, discontent or violence around us is due to a lack of opportunity to reconnect with where we came from. For sanity and generosity of spirit, we should be able to witness nature at its unceasing, rejuvenating work."
He waits for us to leave. In a moment, he will return to his forest, his soul.