This army of misfits are the superheroes we should all seek to be.
One was thrown out of a mechanic shed; another held captive in his own home; yet another roamed the streets for years. They did not listen to our morning alarms, they could not drive those ever-honking vehicles and none of them had a Facebook account. They belong to an invisible spectrum of the society – the intellectually-disabled. India has over 1.6 million intellectually-disabled patients (2011 census) and most of them are hidden away from the public like some dark secret.
Over the years, I have visited various homes for these less-fortunate brethren and I could almost feel the after-taste. A sense of hopelessness. Even in the best kept homes, these men and women almost always had nothing to do. Imagine getting up day after day, with nothing to look forward to. No amount of money could take away the void in their lives and the worst part was, there really was no one to care.
Karthikeyan (34) knew exactly how it felt like. He grew up in an orphanage that took good care of him and his brothers. When the time came, most of his educated brothers and sisters took off to live an independent life. But there were some who were struck there. He knew they would be well-fed and well-kept. But no, he wanted something more for them.
He wanted them to know the dignity of labour and to have a tomorrow they could look forward to.
Out of this dream was born Sristi village – a 8.39 acre farm academy in Thazhuthali village in Villupuram district. This agriculture-based residential training academy for intellectually disabled was created with an aim to up skill its members in organic plant growing, dairy farming, honey bee farming etc and help them generate income through agriculture. This was our third visit to the farm yet the place never ceases to surprise us. The smell of fresh air and the sense of freedom though was as intact as ever.
Building blocks of love
When Karthik decided to initiate his farm academy here, the place was a desolate parched land. He had recruited his brethren with twin missions in mind – one, he wanted to reclaim the land and grow completely organic produce there; two, he wanted them to learn farming (hands-on) and lead an independent or at least a semi-independent life. With one local farm hand – Malaiyanooran thatha and 5 members, he began his journey in 2014.
Three years down the lane, the place is hardly recognisable. There are more than 300 local trees, four water ponds, dug wells, indigenous crops like thinnai, varugu, samai and more. Thanks to the untiring efforts of Sristi’s special educator Muthukrishnan and other volunteers, there are currently over 13 residential and 15 day care students on their way to a sustainable and less-dependent lifestyle. Karthi tells us that the lifestyle education here is totally. Customised based on individual capabilities – while some prefer animal tending, another loves to help with the manure and so on.
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The day I walk in, I see Rajesh and a bunch of other boys working hard at building adobe bricks from the sand, gravel and paddy straw sourced from their own land. These bricks will soon be used to build their dairy farm.
Rajesh was holding a volunteers’ hand and stomping the clay into shape. The minute he saw our camera, he came running to us. He was trying to grasp me, shouting, ‘Akka, how are you?’ . He had so much love for a stranger he hardly knew and no, he would not be bound by our decorum. It did not matter if I was a guy or a girl, he had to hold our hands tight and tell us how excited he was.
Arunkumar was the complete opposite of Rajesh. He would hardly look at us. After a few minutes, he did give us a big beautiful smile. It was a smile of pride as he brought the cow from the farm. After all, he was in-charge of the cows there. Even the dogs there would listen to his clicks and caaws.
Theirs is a primal love that humans with our complicated clauses would never understand.
Care farms across the world have shown that tending farm animals can be therapeutic to our minds and by getting Arunkumar to milk the cow and graze it selectively, the farm gets its milk and manure. It’s a win-win.
Not only is their farm completely free of pesticides and chemical fertilisers, these men lead an eco-friendly life in every possible way. The students are taught to use organic techniques like mulching, creating organic manure and pesticides like panchakaviya and even encouraged to use appropriate bins to help recycle waste. The farm school also has a compost toilet.
Unlike us, they do not use bore wells to suck the life of the land – they have dug trenches, wells and ponds to make the best use of the rains that fall upon the land. They use ash to wash their vessels (life hack – it’s a low-cost disinfectant) and even the waste water from the bathrooms (grey water) is recycled naturally and used for the banana plants in the garden.
These men who could not understand our tools, our rules, are here, changing our very perception of intelligence.
What is knowledge if we know not how to grow our own food without poison; if we have droughts just two years after a flood?
No, they are not great orators; they cannot understand that when it rains, you need not water the plants. But they live in a way that nature intended us to be.
As we are just about to leave, we meet V Mohan (47), a driver from Puducherry who was at Sristi to visit his brother Sukumar (41). His job, he says, made it almost impossible to take care of his brother. “He used to be constantly out in the streets, neither brushing nor taking a bath. I had almost given up on him. Three years back, a parent told me about Sristi and now look at him, he’s helping around in the farm and even combs his hair.” He smiles and adds, “We don’t have parents and tomorrow, when I am not there, I know, he’ll still have a life.”
Seed-funded by Kanthari , Karthik tells us that Sristi is still not completely independent; they have to take external donations to buy a bicycle, some vegetables or to improve their infrastructure. “We want Sristi to be a self-sufficient and sustainable farm. And we soon will be. We are already in talks with organic outlets like Nalla Keerai to sell our excess produce and are in the process of setting up a new diary farm.” He hopes that the day is not too far when we shall ‘receive’ from them. And it will be good food, untouched by man’s poison. And his ultimate dream is that someday, his brothers will be ready to leave this farm and create their own little heaven.
As for us, maybe we cannot change the world but we can try, like Rajesh there.
Get in touch with Sristi at firstname.lastname@example.org .