My eyes were slowly adjusting to the morning brightness when a shape emerged out of the nearest tree. The creature moved sensuously in its descent, one clawed foot at a time, an elegant slow motion- very much like a panther on the prowl. Eyes half-closed, almost meditative, it didn’t seem to be in a hurry. It inched towards a brown leaf, effortlessly gliding from tree trunk to the precarious stem of an adjoining plant. It was undoubtedly the biggest chameleon I’d ever seen. Only last evening, a baby snake, black with yellow markings, had slithered across my path on my way to the stream. In one day, I’d spotted frogs, crabs, earthworms, large spiders, moths, red dragonflies and even grasshoppers that made themselves comfortable on one’s shorts.
It’s always been that way at Van Utsav, the yearly forest festival that celebrates community living at Van Wadi. Located a two-hour train ride away from Mumbai, this naturally regenerated forest farm can be viewed as a modern day sacred forest. The ten-day festival is usually organized at the end of monsoons, when land is lush, the natural rock pool overflowing and organically grown vegetables are chubby and ripe to eat.
Creating Van Wadi
Sprawled on the cool mud floor at Van Wadi, peeling a fresh cucumber that’s eaten barely a two-minute walk from where it was grown, it is difficult to imagine that fifteen years ago the land was not a full-fledged tall forest. Vegetation was thick, but short- and it was cut regularly for use as firewood. Streams were non-existent when the rains stopped and hand pumps would run dry in the downstream Vara village during summer.
Today, more than ninety percent of the sixty-four acres is a forest , with ten percent of planted vegetation, after a group of twenty-four people pooled in contributions with the aim of earth-care and healthy living. Bharat Mansata, a co-owner, says the group decided on specific objectives such as retaining half the land under tree cover, avoiding agro-chemicals completely, practicing conservative water-usage, shunning monocultures and working towards bio-diversity through integration of various edible and local varieties.
In the early years, they concentrated on planting lots of forest and medicinal plants suited to the conditions. Later, realizing they had plenty of these, they began concentrating more on food/fruit species like black jambu, custard apple, mango, cashew, mahua, drumstick, especially evergreens, which were (and still are) much fewer in the forest. Useful species like bamboo and also some fast-growing native species like gavti-god (sweet) nimbara were also introduced in the forest. Today scores of bottle gourds swing cheekily on their trellises, lady’s fingers wave from their stalks, and cucumbers peek shyly from the ground. There’s aloe vera for scraped knees, and lemongrass and tulsi for our herbal tea.
The ‘Adivasi’ backbone
A local Adivasi family takes care of the land all year round. Sixty-year old Madhu Bua, his wife Ambi Bai and their son Daulat work hard and their knowledge of forests is invaluable. Bua’s vigour can put a youth to shame. He’ll patiently answer all queries about what to grow where, what seeds to plant when and even which creature those tiny drop-shaped eggs nestling cozily in the soil belong to.
Give Ambi Bai half an hour in the forest and she’ll be back with all sorts of delectable herbs and plants that you didn’t know could be cooked so deliciously. Nothing fills the stomach better than her hand-ground spicy chutney with steaming bhakris (ragi chapattis), accompanied by few slices of raw onion.
Creating useful items from the most basic materials is an ability that comes naturally to twenty-five year old Daulat. Bamboo baskets still fresh with the smell of peeled barks, a sturdy water-ladle made with the hollow of a coconut shell, his wooden tool-belt with neat grooves and even an elegant waterproof hat made of dried palm leaves are casually strewn around the house. Daulat visits the city now and then, but finds it too noisy and cramped for his liking; he prefers his forest home where he can wander and work at will.
Living the forest way
After the noxious fumes, never-ending construction and jostling for space in Mumbai, Van Wadi, as a space signals immense potential if one wants to experiment. As soon as one crosses the makeshift rusted gate, the difference is obvious. The air is significantly cooler, tree branches are meshed thickly, grass threatens to take over the mud path and all around, the insects are trilling, though it’s broad daylight. Basheer, a visitor from Kerala to this year’s Van Utsav suggests that the temperature difference should be recorded scientifically; the carbon-absorption, groundwater-recharging and biodiversity must all be measured to show how such projects are important in the context of the ecological crises we are faced with.
The land has no electricity, no modern conveniences- just one brick house built with a mixture of mud and gobar. An open shelter with a strong bamboo roof near the rock-pool also houses the kitchen. The latter is the main congregating-point during Van Utsav. The rock pool dug to contain water draws us like a bunch of water-buffaloes and the cool clean mud collected around the edges due to the flow of the stream beats any face-pack on the supermarket shelf. Even going to the spacious compost toilet is an experience and a lot of fun: take a bucket of water from the stream, watch the open blue sky and hear the trees rustle.
Sharing and Creativity
Over the years, Van Utsav has seen people of all age groups drawn towards community life. There is cooking, planting, discussions, music; the adults and children are all on common ground. There are diverse lessons to be learned from a six year old who dives into water with assurance and a forty year old who sits quietly for hours, working a delicate pattern on a bamboo piece.
Last year, one of the most interesting sessions was a night forest walk led by a 15-year old snake-catcher and his younger brother. With torches in hand, we walked through the forest and got to see hairy moths, a tiny lizard-like creature that froze under the glare of the light, a plant infested with sleepy caterpillars, mammoth female spiders stiff on their webs, and even a toad which came along for the rest of the walk in someone’s palms. It was moving to watch a long line of eager adults lap up various animal facts with unbridled enthusiasm.
Every evening, in the flickering shadows of the lamps, ending the day with music seems to be the most natural thing to do. Against the backdrop of a crackling battery-run tanpura, diverse instruments like the flute, the sarangi, the didgeridoo, Bua’s dhol and our voices complement one another for hours. How do they catch the beat? How does one musician know where to join in? How does improvisation work when all are playing together for the first time; are they even connected? There’s an open night sky and clean air to ponder.
Then there is planting- this time we helped prepare the spinach bed. After spending months relentlessly keying on a computer, working directly with soil is therapeutic. Feeling the moisture, breaking the clods between your fingers to find an earthworm wriggling, spreading the mud evenly with a spade and scattering seeds – everything is enjoyable. Scraping wood for the scaffolding of tree house under construction teaches you the rhythm of tools. It gives you a settled feeling that goes well with the mild breeze and the overhead September sun.
There are some questions which come and go; are we romanticizing this experience because we’ve forgotten how natural, a natural way of life is? Are we so disconnected from engaging with our surroundings and its elements that the idea of a community and life in it has become exotic?
Contrast and Learning
Adjoining Vanwadi is a barren clearing exposed like a bleeding wound in the earth. The mud is red and the sun beats down on the cracked surface. A few stalks of wild grass struggle despite the merciless deforestation-attempt.
The land has been bought by builders for development. Their idea was to bulldoze the existing vegetation and construct plots for vacation homes. With it they planned to bring truckloads of concrete, lay pipelines and roads and construct swimming pools; undermining everything that Van Wadi stands for. Perhaps even this served a purpose: It was reminding us that Vanwadi is only a brief respite from city life and also of humankind’s interminable quest for development.
Yet, Vanwadi is an attempt to find some meaning and ‘do one’s bit’ for the planet. I remember a quote by Robert Allen, ‘Everything you want is just outside your comfort zone’; You need to go outside your comfort zone to create a Vanwadi; or even to join a forest festival there – but you certainly get what you want – a magic space, a nourished soul and awareness of some carbon absorption.