Personal Essay

Artwork by Manisha Kairaly

Nature’s Beautiful, Forever Invitation

By Manisha Kairaly

Nature and I get along like, well, best friends. In nature, I have come to know the almost delicious feeling of being crucial, critical yet completely immaterial at the same time. I am present yet absent.

In the early 90s, growing up in Timbaktu meant that nature was never outside of myself. Timbaktu is a beautiful valley surrounded by a tropical scrub forest in Anantapur District, Andhra Pradesh. It is a 32-year-old experiment in aiding the transformation of a drought-prone region, lived by my family and the Timbaktu community. I’ve had a front row seat – sometimes cot, swing and open pit-loo – to this wild laboratory. So, being here meant adopting the ways that people around me negotiated with nature through the seasons.

Every change heralded something that engaged all of the senses. I felt its constant presence. In the poky end of a quill hurriedly dropped by a porcupine while I rolled out my mat; in staring at the full moon around a bonfire while jackals howled in the distance; and in the smell of wildfire carried swiftly by the summer wind. I also learnt to appreciate the sharp astringent flavour of unripe berries on Carissa shrubs, and recognise the gentle gait of a mama sloth bear herding her cubs – stark black against the barren hills. During the day, all of my senses were alert, at attention – and I loved every single minute of it. And at dusk, I fell asleep easily. I know that I was fortunate to have had this childhood.

The open-air classroom taught me lessons day and night. And being boxed up, devoid of this daily schedule of the sun, moon and stars was never an option.

Molly in her natural habitat, photographed by Siddharth Rao.

Merging Universes

As a little girl I studied in several different schools in Chennekothapalli village, Dharmavaram town, and even a convent in Kottayam, Kerala. The quality of education itself was dismal. Soon after, along with a group of other school dropouts from the village, I was enrolled in Timbaktu’s first school, aptly named Prakruti Badi or the Nature School.

Our campus was at the far end of the village, behind fragmented farms, open land, and wild streams. All of my friends and classmates lived in the village and many hours and days were spent simply exploring our surroundings. It seemed like a world unto itself: a curled-up cat napping in a sunny spot. Comfortable in phases, passing time with nothing to prove.

At eight, I joined a boarding school in Andhra Pradesh with a vast, semi-wild campus, and I felt at home. There were hundreds of trees to climb and so much space to run around. Though, suddenly wearing footwear to class didn’t make sense to me – it was a kind and gentle headmaster who managed to talk me into wearing sandals for class and shoes for sports. At the time, I spoke a few words of English, but the trees, plants, birds and butterflies around me were familiar even if the language was not. This was the thread that tied together two similar yet different worlds – nature kept me anchored in those early days of getting used to a new kind of community.

Climbing up hills, swimming in seasonal streams, and long, leisurely walks are the ways that I still like to spend time with my closest friends. At boarding school – surrounded by thorn forests similar to my home – we would spend Sundays running up the many hills around the campus. We’d duck and dive between giant boulders and bushes to find shady spots to gorge on fistfuls of wild berries.

In both of these places – boarding school and home in Timbaktu – the city was always the outside, the unexplored. And I was able to glance outwards ever so briefly, and occasionally.

The Urban Jungle

My contact with towns and cities remained limited. Heading towards them meant treats like a movie with popcorn, the possibility of a fizzy drink, or browsing through bookshops. Whether it was Penukonda, Anantapur or Bangalore, it made no difference – the excitement was the same. But on joining a pre-university college in Bangalore, I was in for a real shock. I had never lived in a city before, with seas of human beings all around me, or had to negotiate their edges. Those two years were tremendously crucial. I learnt to cross busy roads, bargain, deal with sleazy men on the streets and buses, and remember complex city routes and inner lanes. Most importantly, I learnt to pay attention to my body responding to sounds, dust, pollution, and traffic.

Even today, living between two drastically different realities means that there are several compasses that I must employ to negotiate everyday life and work. Life in Timbaktu, which is closer to nature, still remains social, while life in the city boxes everything into tidy and sterile components. I am still learning to find my footing between these two terrains. Though, some days, I feel like a total beginner in cities. It’s a delicate dance between remembering the essence of who I am, and still keeping my wits about me. As I live between both spaces, I have learnt to adapt like a chameleon. But only at a social level. At a physical one, home is still in and with nature.

It’s only human to take things, experiences, places, people – essentially life– for granted. I am prone to doing it, but every so often, when I sit and zoom out on my awareness of this planet, spinning through endless space – I am deeply grateful and filled with awe. Today, more and more people get to dip their toes in nature, maybe through their weekend trips to nearby farmhouses before returning to their city comforts. But, I’ve also come to see nature in cities too, bursting through the concrete and making a case for itself wherever it can.

Artwork by Manisha Kairaly

Something else I’ve noticed on the rise nowadays is that there is far too much glamorisation of the sustainable lifestyle. It seems to have become all the rage. But, it is fraught with being viewed through a lens that seemingly romanticises it. While growing up, social mobility and its markers were the flaunting of branded clothing; non-accented, fluent English; owning multiple vehicles and fancy international vacations. An off-the-grid, totally in the countryside, lit by kerosene lanterns, mud home fraught with physical challenges as well as social dynamics was definitely not in vogue.

Not thinking of the city as comfortable, and similar choices, have made others brand my way of life as brave. Often, I find myself in harm’s way – say from a cobra bite or a wildfire. But on the other hand, crossing roads in Bangalore makes me fear for my life more than any cobra encounter. And I find myself staring in wonder at all the city folks navigating it so calmly.

To me, the city is a battlefield. Every time I step outside, I’m ready for war. I feel fragile and overwhelmed, but still try looking at the bright side.

Making a fire to heat water seems more comforting than negotiating the knobs of an electric oven. Yes, there are conveniences in the city, but I haven’t found them comforting. Perhaps, it simply boils down to being creatures of habit. I feel safest where others do not. And the inside of an apartment, with the electric buzzing of a running refrigerator, feels unfamiliar.

Beyond the Barriers

Stepping out in the city reminds me of my rather long and wonderful history and friendship with nature. Today, I have come to see this clearer than ever. It might never make sense to some, and might seem quaint, aspirational, or even mortifying to others. In my journey with nature, there’s a sliver of injustice that seems to occasionally grow into a wide chasm. While as a child, I greedily gorged at this buffet of experiences. Of late, I’ve had to make do with just starters.

I’ve learnt that the social structure is similarly constructed in both these spaces – cities and at home in Timbaktu – and I find myself swimming in between. They both have an insidious way of making the unsaid clear or loudly declaring rules; the dos and don’ts for a gendered body. While in my childhood, I was simply in nature, part of its rhythms. It’s only much later that the ideas of shame, body, female body and the male gaze became solidly imprinted in my mind.

As I grew up, I began to see young boys, then young men, and then adult men continue to enjoy the seamless experience of their skin bathing in sunlight, jogging around manicured parks in cities, and swimming in streams, lakes, seas, and oceans. While I was learning with each year to slowly cover myself up. Grudgingly, I have made peace with wet fabric coiling around my limbs while swimming. Though I still detest it. I haven’t made peace with the rushed manner of finding a secluded spot to quickly and carefully change because god forbid a man somewhere might catch a glimpse of my naked skin.

My ease and freedom with my own body has been slowly stifled. Nature’s beautiful, forever invitation can only be accepted in super private moments – stolen here and there.

Photo by Manisha Kairaly

In my late 20s, I heard of forest bathing. Initially, I understood it as bathing in the forest. Because that’s what I had done. I would wander off into scrub forests around Timbaktu searching out stream-beds. These clear streams are still magical places. They are submerged, secreted away into the shallow dips in rocks – precious pools created by the seasonal rains. Here, I’d watch the tadpoles, baby spiders, and tiny fish swimming around. Then, I would look for and find the perfect spot for soaking in dappled sunlight, and sleep against the cool rocks. These memories of being in communion with the creatures around me still fills me with a deep sense of calm, of completeness. When hidden away in these secluded spots, I do not have a gender. I am alive, not attached, yet aware. The minute I remember or open my eyes consciously, the barriers come zooming back in. And lately, they have begun to occupy a space much larger, and a time much longer than I ever bargained for.

Going out into the wild with someone I trust is still my favourite way to spend time. By inviting them, I trust them to be open to the natural world, to receive her invitation to just be. There are no barriers between us, our bodies, and nature. Nature isn’t external to our skin, limbs, and senses. It is the actor and the audience: shifting between performing and participating with us in this theatre of life. Forever in step with us, just like a best friend is.

About the author

Manisha ‘Molly’ Kairaly, lives and works in rural Rayalaseema, Andhra Pradesh. She has over fifteen years of field based experience in nonprofit management, agro-biodiversity, handloom textile design and production, traditional foods and recipes, biodiversity conservation and establishing producer owned rural enterprises. Previously, she has worked as Director – Enterprise Development and Design with The Timbaktu Collective and was instrumental in establishing Timbaktu Weaves, a rural woman-owned producer enterprise of first generation handloom weavers. She also worked to establish the brand Timbaktu Organic, a farmer cooperative which works with over 2,000 small holder farmers members in Southern India. Manisha also served as Regional Director- South India for Slow Food International. She is alumni of the Political Education Course at Florestan Fernandes National School, Brazil; GX Global Exchange program of the British Council (London and Rajasthan); the ALGOA Leadership Course in Organic Agriculture as well as IFOAM Asia’s Training of Trainers and Masterclass (South Korea).

She is currently the Founder Director of Arugu, an agency for action towards regenerative practices. Manisha is also Founder Trustee of the conservation organisation Adavi Trust, an organisation working towards the conservation of India’s fast disappearing natural landscapes with crucial interventions spanning the fields of wildlife conservation, research and education. Manisha’s research interests are studying the innumerable ecological interconnections that keep rural craft and food cultures interlinked.