Bangalore, India – She sits, basking under the mid-morning Sun, away from the shade of the huge banyan tree she planted many moons ago.
“Saalumarada” Thimmakka is unassuming, her demeanour betraying none of the accolades she has received in the last two decades.
Thimmakka is no ordinary woman. The huge banyan tree, overseeing her home, is one of the 284 similar ones she planted along with her husband several years ago.
Today, they majestically line a five-km stretch from Kudur to Hulikal, some 80km from Bangalore in southern India’s Karnataka state.
The awe-inspiring sight of the banyan trees got her the prefix “Saalumarada” (meaning row of trees in the local Kannada language).
As the trees she planted grew in height, her stature as well as a legend has grown.
A recent full-length feature film in Kannada called “Saalumarada Thimmakka” is based on her life.
Thimmakka is an icon, says environmentalist Nagesh Hegde. The majestic line of trees is there for all to see and one is forced to accept her enormous contribution, he says.
Planting scores of trees, and then having to maintain them, is no joke. As Thimmakka says, she along with her husband tended to them like “children” for many years, protecting them from the elements, animals and other predators until they grew gigantic and independent. Her age? “101,” she says, without batting an eyelid.
Don’t expect any birth certificate or any other document to prove it because there isn’t any. Her claim is no surprise either since her sense of time is a general approximation, like many among the illiterate in India’s villages.
Thimmakka is neither a book-inspired environmentalist nor a wannabe celebrity. Married into a modest land-owning peasant family, illiterate and dominated by her in-laws, like most Indian women married into traditional families, she has had to take life head-on for her survival.
Life is not easy for an Indian woman unable to have a progeny. And for a daughter-in-law in India’s rural back of beyond like Thimmakka, who belonged in this bracket, life was even tougher.
She says she was treated like a maid, working from morning till night, doing back-breaking work. A silver lining was her husband Bekal Chikkayya. He was more sensitive than the others, given that he stammered and had to experience the ridicule of people around.
Tending trees like our children
“One day we thought why not plant trees and tend to them like we would our children,” Thimmakka recalled.
She, along with Chikkayya, enthusiastically set about planting the banyan trees all along the stretch to the nearest town.
Some years later, Chikkayya died and Thimmakka was forced to live in a ramshackle hut out of sight from society, now that she was a widow – an anathema in conservative Indian circles.
Her trees had, by then, grown massively.
“Relatives of mine wanted to grab the small parcel of land I owned, and they tried all means to get it. Eventually, they did by paying me a small sum,” she says, resignedly.
‘Saalumarada’ Thimmakka in conversation [K S Daksihna Murthy]
But, Thimmakka’s dreary run was to come to an end soon.
From her obscure, unheralded existence Thimmakka shot into the limelight by a fortuitous combination of circumstances in 1996. In the federal elections held that year, a politician from Karnataka state, H D Deve Gowda unexpectedly became India’s prime minister.
At around the time, a local journalist N V Negalur broke the story about Thimmakka and her tree-planting saga. This caught the attention of the prime minister and his associates.
Soon, Thimmakka found herself on a train to distant New Delhi, accompanied by a retinue of mandarins. In India’s capital, the prime minister handed her the National Citizens Award, an event that changed her life for ever.
Since then, Thimmakka has received scores of awards, honoured on myriad occasions, felicitated by various governments, environmental activists and grassroots organisations, from left of the political spectrum to the right. In short, by all and sundry.
Her modest house can barely accommodate the plaques, certificates, cups and garlands. An entire showcase cupboard is packed with these. “There are more, in two other rooms,” she says.
Who are the people who are honouring you next week?
“I have no idea. People suddenly come, they ask me to get ready. Then they take me in a car to a function. There they give me an award and bring me back,” she says, half-amused. “I am always ready to attend these functions,” she adds, for good measure.
|Thimmakka in front of her awards [K S Dakshina Murthy]|
But then, Thimmakka is not entirely over the moon and has more down-to-earth concerns, like her livelihood. She cribs that people honour her with certificates and medals, but no money.
In fact, sometimes she even suspects that some people may be using her to get funds, but do not share them with her.
“See my telephone. It has been disconnected as I don’t have money to pay a bill of Rs 3000,” she says, even wondering how the bill came to this much when anyone rarely used it.
She concedes however that there a few well-wishers. The state government granted her land and built a house for her, where she lives now. Loneliness drove Thimmakka to adopt a son who takes care of her public appearances and events.
“My son is inspired by me and is into ecology-related activity in a nearby town. He takes care of all my paperwork etc, as I cannot read and write,” she says.
But, Thimmakka is not finished yet. “I have been wanting to start a hospital, but no one seems interested. But I will keep trying,” she says.