When you first meet this man, one immediately notices his quiet and reserved manner, which is not in the way of someone who is shy, but rather in the way of someone who is secure in his sense of self-worth and does not need to make his presence felt.

He is Aradukuttan and is a proud member of the Toda tribe. Kuttan, as he is fondly called, lives in a community of about ten settlements in a place known in the Toda tongue as Keraer Pisquasth and more widely as Bikkepetti Mund. The quiet manner of his is, perhaps, reflective of the larger philosophy he believes in, one that is not formalized in any way, but is organic by its very nature. He recalls his time as a young boy in Sri Sarguru Tribal High School. Among other things, he remembers playing all kinds of games with his friends with sticks and stones and climbing nearby trees. He recalls the many nights he had spent awake guarding his family’s fields. He spoke of this not as a chore he had to perform, but as a responsibility that he was proud to be entrusted with. When I asked him of what his ambitions and dreams at the time consisted of, he looked at me as if it was an impossible question to answer. He then replied that even as a little boy, he only wanted to do the same things his forefathers had done – rear buffaloes, farm, and be involved in general village life.

It is easy for the average urban dweller today to misconstrue this to be a lack of ambition, but I do not think this is the case. Instead, I feel that people like Kuttan hold on to a set of values vastly different from many of us today. It could be even said that Kuttan belongs to a world that is somewhat insulated, but it is important to understand the necessity for this.


Interconnectedness of things

Cultural imperialism has not only affected political and economic institutions, but also very deeply affected ecology, and is, by its very definition, homogenising. To be insular is perhaps the surest way for a community with its very unique perspective and philosophy to survive. Unlike Western Science which prides itself on its ability to effectively categorize things into very minute components, the stories passed on through generations in tribes like Kuttan’s emphasize on the interconnectedness of things. He remembers learning the histories of the rivers and lands around him through various folktales. These stories of theirs display a deep reverence for nature, not as something primarily different from Man, but as something that is inevitably tied to Man.

This is how Kuttan’s knowledge of the trees and folklore come together. He explained to me how the trees that are not native to this land are affecting the food habits of the animals, which is what drives them out of their natural habitats. This leads to the inevitable contact with humans, which people in towns and cities tend to classify as “conflict”. On the other hand, Kuttan spoke of how both he and other members of his community, though living in close proximity to wild animals, have never been in a situation involving the animals which they would classify the same way. To better understand this difference in philosophies, it might be helpful to consider that if Nature is seen as essentially separate from Man, then Nature can be seen only as something to be used for its resources or feared for its reactions.


Left the Forest Department

Having worked for over 10 years as a watcher with the Tamil Nadu Forest Department patrolling with the anti-poaching and forest fire control teams, Kuttan says he had left because he felt he was not able to realize his full potential.  One reason for this he said could have been the differences in perception of Nature that he had encountered within the Department. The difference is that Kuttan has learnt what he has through direct experience with a grounded perspective that lends meaning to the information he gleans about the world around him.


Passion for nurseries

Kuttan has been part for the Keystone team for more than nine years and is content with his job and the impact that he is seeing around him. Kuttan is in charge of the nursery at Keystone, caring for 2700 saplings from over 25 species. These saplings are supplied to various institutions such as schools and corporates who require them for their campuses. Kuttan is also actively involved in school outreach programs and is passionate about passing on knowledge in a cohesive manner to the next generation. As a result of one of these programs, the Blue Mountain School in Ooty has decided to establish a nursery of native plants in its premises.

The Happy Valley Restoration project was undertaken by Keystone with the help of the town panchayat and the local residents. It began with the planting of over 400 saplings from 26 species. Kuttan was given the responsibility to look after these saplings and gradually remove invasive (non-native) plant species. 10 years later, this healthy forest patch ringing with birdcalls bears witness to his dedication. A recently-conducted survey among the local residents has shown that both quality and quantity of ground water has improved considerably following restoration.


Speaks in stories

When I asked him what he liked about his job, he showed me a tree in the valley below that he had planted and told me of the joy he experienced from simply being able to sit in the shade of that tree was what he liked most about the job. Communicating with Kuttan is both a pleasure and a mental exercise as Kuttan speaks in stories, not in direct responses, and leaves the listener to come to his own conclusions.

In the future, Kuttan hopes to start something similar to the nursery at Keystone back in Bikkepetti Mund. Due to the time he has spent at Keystone, he is now more aware of the various ways in which he can empower his community. He hopes that his experience with the Forest Department and with Keystone will help his community lead better lives.

To end with, I asked him if he now has any big desires or dreams he wishes to fulfil. “I have no big desires,” he says. Kuttan knows that what he wants to do, what he can do and possibly will do. For him, that makes a ‘dream’ quite irrelevant. However, he does say that he hopes to help his community and to continue taking care of the Nature around his village just as he does with the Keystone Nursery here. “To go up the hills, singing songs that my father sang and his father before him, with my buffaloes ahead of me, and my family waiting back home – that is what I would like to do,” he says, and from the short time I have known him, I see him doing just that and much more in the coming years of his life.

Text: Ashish Isaac