Planting Trees and Preaching Tolerance at Sadhana Forest

India Narrative
by Brittany Jordt Mar 30, 2012
This story was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program.

WE YAWNED WHILE THE SUN ROSE above the banana and papaya trees — a typical day started at dawn. Raj, a short, dark-skinned north Indian man with red henna-dyed hair accompanied Kate, a tall, lean, freckled Irish-woman, on a djembe drum. They sang one of India’s traditional devotional songs…ohm namah shivaya, ohm namah shivaya

Then they yelled:

“Goooooood morning! First wake up call, 5:40am!”

I rolled over in my sleep sack. I desperately had to go to the bathroom but tried to fight it. I was not ready to crawl out of my mosquito net and the comfort of two mattresses piled on the wooden floor. If only we were allowed to have coffee! But there was no coffee allowed at Sadhana, nor any caffeinated drinks, refined sugars, or dairy products.

Morning circle began at 6:15am. Sometimes we massaged each other’s shoulders. Sometimes we sang a call and response song: I traveled all day, I traveled all year, I traveled a lifetime, to find my way home. Home, is where the heart is, home, is where the heart is, home is where the heart is, my heart is with you.

Other times we went around in the circle, holding hands, and said what we were grateful for:

“I’m grateful for my health.”

“I’m grateful for sunshine during monsoon season.”

“I’m grateful for my morning banana.”

What am I grateful for? What am I grateful for?

“I’m grateful…to be me.”

We finished by singing an obnoxiously happy hippie song: Every little cell in my body is happy, every little cell in my body is well. I’m so glad, every little cell, in my body is happy and well.

Every morning circle ended in a round of hugs and how-are-yous. A lean, muscular Indian man engulfed me in a vice-like hug that lifted me off the ground. An aging woman with bright red dreadlocks down to her butt gave little pat, pat, pat hugs with her fingertips, arms loosely encircling a curvy Israeli woman. A man who called himself “Shine” overwhelmed me with the smell of stale sweat.

Jaspreet, a broad-shouldered and relentlessly cheerful Indian-American, rounded everybody up.

“We need six people for cooking breakfast!” she yelled, then counted off six hands and sent them to the kitchen. Once upon a time, Jaspreet was enrolled in med school. She took a couple months off to volunteer in India, and that extended to six months, and then a year. She committed to a three-year program at Sadhana managing the reforestation and doing some administration work.

“One person for cutting firewood…one person for hygiene! It’s important work; cleaning the compost toilets with the fabulous Kentado” — the Japanese Hygiene Manager grinned and waved — “and the rest of us are in the forest! Forest team assemble at the tool shed now…you should have already gotten water and a banana. Let’s go!”

* * *

I arrived at Sadhana after flying in from my home state, Wisconsin, in late October. I fled as the leaves were falling off the trees and arrived in the midst of a hot, humid Indian winter. I had committed to two months of volunteering, and would stay through late December.

I immediately found myself in good company at Sadhana. At 26, I was just above the average age of volunteers. We had chosen Sadhana for a number of reasons: to experience personal growth by living simply, to learn about sustainability, and to meet interesting people.

Aviram Rozin, Israeli expatriate and founder of Sadhana, had led a brief introduction to the reforestation project a couple days into my stay. There were about 15 bedraggled, mosquito-bitten volunteers gathered round him in the main hut, where community meals and meetings took place.

“We started this project just with me, my wife, and my daughter. It grew to the point where we have more than 1,000 volunteers a year that stay from two weeks to one month or more, who really integrate into the project. This is a large number. More than any other organization in India that I know of, in terms of residential volunteers.”

There were people from the Czech Republic, Kazakhstan, Iraq, Israel, France, England, Germany, Sweden, Turkey, Australia, Japan, Korea, and the United States…to name a few. We were together every day; we all ate three meals in the main hut, worked, and slept in the dormitories.

Volunteers fell into two categories, long-term and short-term. The former stayed for six months to one year, the latter from two weeks to five months. Long-term volunteers took on extra responsibilities: administration and PR, organizing bicycle rental, leading community meetings, and managing work teams.

My two-month stay made me a short-term volunteer, though after a couple of weeks I felt like I had been at Sadhana for years. Short-term volunteers had a more open schedule. We worked Monday through Friday, from 6:30am to 12:30pm, with breaks for breakfast and lunch. We were all required to pick up one extra “community” shift during the week, like cooking dinner or cleaning up after lunch. We also worked an extra shift on the weekend.

In the afternoons we were free to do whatever we liked. We took workshops led by other volunteers, biked to the local village for samosas and chai, and toured nearby intentional communities and organic farms.

That morning, following Jaspreet’s call, we all stumbled toward the tool shed, clutching our water bottles and morning bananas.

The heart of Sadhana lay in eight years worth of volunteer efforts to revive 70 acres of tropical dry evergreen forest. Monsoon season, the best time to plant trees in southeastern India, was peaking right then, in November. The rain lashed down for days at a time, hydrating the trees and mixing up nutrients in the soil, giving them their best chance at survival.

Most of the time Aviram worked behind the scenes, but occasionally he joined the morning tree planting session, just to see how things were getting along. Maybe he missed the forest; in the early days of Sadhana, Aviram was out planting trees all the time. Now fund-raising and public relations work consumed his time, so he was most often found in his office.

He strolled alongside a crew of volunteers wearing a t-shirt with a slogan that read, “May there be more forests to grow people,” a quote from a Swiss volunteer who mistook her grammar, or perhaps had it just right.

He strolled alongside a crew of volunteers wearing a t-shirt with a slogan that read, “May there be more forests to grow people,” a quote from a Swiss volunteer who mistook her grammar, or perhaps had it just right.

When he and his wife, Yorit, first started planting trees eight years ago, the success rate was low. Most trees died. It was clear that the soil needed help retaining more water. Years ago, when the forest was razed by the Tamil people for farmland, nothing remained to hold the rich topsoil in place. With the land completely depleted of nutrients, new trees could not survive.

We arrived at the tool shed, where anything you might need to prune, weed, or plant was stored. While the tools were being distributed, Aviram explained that the Tamil people commonly used a “catchman’s pond” for keeping water. These were artificial pools made at the bottom of a slope. Village people used the water they caught to shower, cook, and do laundry.

“Without topsoil, nothing gets absorbed at the top. All the water runs down. If we used the catchman’s method at Sadhana, the land would stay arid and only the bottom would be lush.”

If a forest existed, he said, the land absorbed a lot of water and only the surplus flowed down to the bottom. Instead of catchman’s ponds, Sadhana used bunds (dirt that gets shoveled and packed down into long, snake-like rows to make a wall and prevent water from escaping), swales (deep, long trenches that catch runoff), or artificial lakes.

“Now, we catch the water where it falls,” Aviram said, gesturing to the lake and ponds. “Then it gets distributed evenly around the land. This in turn feeds the trees, percolates into the ground water, the aquifer…it supports the system. It supports the people, the trees, and other animals.”

There were, Jaspreet told us, 2,000 trees to plant this monsoon season. She handed out two trees to every volunteer who did not already have his or her hands full. We also brought composted soil from human manure and buckets of water supplemented with effective-microorganisms (EM).

We waited at the entryway to the forest, where a large muddy lake bordered the road leading away from Sadhana. Jaspreet unlocked the gate, which was always securely shut to keep cows from munching our cherished trees. Inside, little coconut trees reached their long, grooved leaves skyward. Many small ponds dotted the landscape on either side of the path.

Within the first two years of water conservation, Aviram said, the biodiversity at Sadhana grew to 25 species of birds and 15 species of mammals. Where once there was not one blade of grass, a whole field full of green swayed in the wind. Every morning when I woke up, bird songs greeted me. One morning I was lucky enough to spot a mongoose creeping along the pond near my hut.

The first week of November had brought an insane amount of rain, but not a drop of rain had fallen for two weeks after that. The rust-colored earth cracked and puckered, crunching beneath our feet.

“Water in arid and semi-arid areas is a really critical point. If you can do good rainwater harvesting, you don’t need to do planting. Nature will regenerate by itself,” Aviram said.

Inside the forest, acacia trees flourished; their pale green leaves almost overwhelmed the trail. They blocked out the sky in some places, casting an unearthly sea green mist over the hard packed, brilliant red dirt. We’d pulled many of the acacias out earlier in the season to make room for the original species of trees. Their roots mostly yielded quickly. Sometimes, though, the invasive trees locked themselves firmly into the soil. Yanking their strong yet strangely elastic trunks left raw, bright pink blisters on our hands. As we walked the narrow path deep into the forest, barefoot hippies dodged potential acacia stumps lurking under fallen leaves.

* * *

Over dinner a couple of nights later, we got to talking about communities. It was Wednesday, a favorite among volunteers because we always had hummus, tahini, and bread. Dipping a chunk of thick brown bread into creamy, garlicky tahini, Aviram said he believed the strongest communities were those with the most diversity.

At Sadhana, this meant people of all ages from all over the world. It also meant people with different strengths and weaknesses — some of whom were mentally unstable.

The thing was, the radio was broken. He was dancing to music in his head.

Aviram told us a story about a small village in Nepal where he and Yorit lived for several months before they founded Sadhana. There was one man in the village who was always listening to a radio, held up on his shoulder, close to his ear. He was always dancing. The thing was, the radio was broken. He was dancing to music in his head.

“Once in awhile, he would erupt…to an extent you can’t imagine and beat down everyone, salivate, shout, tear his clothes…go wild,” Aviram said. “It took four to six really strong men to hold him and calm him down. Then he would cry for hours and hours. I’m originally a clinical psychologist. At first I thought, This guy’s schizophrenic! We should send him to a hospital. Here are these people, managing this super symptomatic man. They didn’t know there was another option, like sending him to a hospital. They had a system. The men were always prepared to drop everything and go and hold him…this is the price you have to pay to be a part of the community. Then I thought, if we could do this in my country, in Israel, we’d be such a beautiful, healthy society. This resilience of society was my dream, and Sadhana and was my chance to implement this.”

When I hunkered down in hippie-ville, I expected a certain amount of crazy. But the subject of much debate in the community, Shree — a pregnant Indian prostitute — carried her crazy right on her sleeve.

A petite woman with dark skin and short, jet-black hair, Shree sat apart from the rest of the community at meals. I scanned the room for her, but she was nowhere to be found. Sometimes she took food back to her room, and sometimes she helped herself to dinner and rebelliously slurped her dhal while watching volunteers serve food to everyone.

Most afternoons, she could be seen sauntering around the property, flashing her mysterious white smile at every man who passed by. Shree had taken refuge at Sadhana a couple of years before I arrived, and many rumors followed her return. People whispered about her turbulent past: her street-life in Bangalore, her abortions, and the Frenchman who had finally knocked her up.

She had a child-like curiosity about everything, and remembered everyone’s name on first meeting. It was difficult to avoid her when she made eye contact and appealed to you by name. She did this to manipulate, and had no shame in asking for money or favors. Shree would often tag along with a group going out to dinner, but then have no money to pay. She borrowed someone’s scooter and did not return until late at night, having emptied it of gas.

During lunch one afternoon, Aviram made an announcement:

“Many of you know the Indian woman, Shree, who’s living with us,” he said. “She is maybe coming on to some of the men here. But I urge you to be cautious. You don’t know what kind of disease she might have. It’s probably a bad idea to have any sort of relationship with her. She will be staying with us another couple of weeks. She may feel like a burden, but I thank you all with your patience on this.”

He continued, glancing around furtively, “Please don’t lend her money. It won’t be good for her, she won’t make good choices with the money and she can’t pay you back. If she approaches you and asks for money, let us know immediately. Again, I warn any of you from having sexual relations with her.”

We saw her less and less after that speech. A couple nights later, in the wee hours of the morning, Shree woke the entire dormitory screaming obscenities about the stupid white man who impregnated her. The next morning she skipped the first work shift and appeared at breakfast dressed in a white, flowing gown and dark red bindi. There was no trace of guilt or self-consciousness on her face. During the morning announcements, in what seemed a desperate bid for attention, she claimed someone had stolen her maternity clothing off the laundry line.

Shree behaved as if sex gave her power, and she wielded that power with careful expertise. Every hippie community had a token charismatic male — a cute shaggy blonde who played music and made the girls swoon. Sadhana’s version was named Sam. Shree seated herself next to him and batted her eyelashes, flashing a lazy smile.

“Oh Sam,” Shree said, cuddling up to him. “Do you see how the couples kiss and hold each other…when are you going to hold me, Sam? You have your own hut, don’t you, Sam? We can we go there to be alone…”

Unless her baby belly could be used to advantage, she pretended it did not exist. She had no glow, no pride or excitement for the little life she carried. She seemed utterly unprepared and angry – ready to use sex as a distraction. There were very womanly things about Shree. Yet she was still in her early 20’s, full of confusion, and now with child.

* * *

When I first arrived at Sadhana, I met Melissa, a French woman in her early 20’s. From the moment I met her, she was struggling with health issues: indigestion, cramping, and constipation. Her whole body seemed hunched with worry, her stomach the center of concern.

“Are you feeling any better today?” I asked her one morning.

“Today, when I get up, right away I am in the bathroom to vomit,” she said, brushing her matted brown hair away from her forehead. “But I think someone gets me a pregnancy test today, and then I will know.”

“You think maybe you’re pregnant?”

“Maybe,” she said, and shrugged.

The next morning I saw her sitting in the entryway to the kitchen, crying. Her eyes held mine for a moment; they were wide and wild, charged with vulnerability. It was as if she had heard the cracking of roots beneath her feet.

“Did you take the test?” I asked.

“Yes, it’s positive. I’m so stupid. So stupid…” she said.

Things happened fast after that. She debated flying back to France or getting an abortion in India. An Indian woman told her about an abortion pill she could easily get from a local village, so long as she was still in the first two months of pregnancy. Melissa went to get the pill, but there was some misunderstanding and they would not give it to her.

Next, Melissa got advice from several healers who stay at Sadhana and from Aviram and Yorit. In the end she went to the woman’s clinic and got an abortion. Before she left, people rallied around her, held her when she cried, and when it was time, two volunteers accompanied her to the hospital.

After the surgery, she was lying in the hospital bed, delirious from medication. The nurses brought into the same room a mother with her newborn baby. Through the blur of pain, she could hear the baby cry.

She stayed at Sadhana for only three days after her abortion.

* * *

The first week of December brought hot days in the forest. I worked up a sweat one morning while harvesting tapioca for lunch, and decided to have a shower. I grabbed a bucket and pumped nine times to get exactly the amount of water I needed. It was heavy schlepping the pail to the shower area, and I did not want to use any more water than strictly necessary.

The average volunteer uses 50 liters of water a day at Sadhana. In the western world, the average person uses closer to 350 liters a day.

For hand washing and bum washing, a large tub of water got filled everyday. We used Indian-style squat toilets, and many volunteers choose to wipe “Indian style” as well, using the left hand.

Some of the toilets were without a roof and others were inside a small shelter. The mosquitoes lay in wait for a bum to bite morning, noon, and night, and bathroom sessions were best accomplished as quickly as possible. On desperate days, we put mosquito cream on our bums.

At the hand washing station, I simply scooped water from the tub and into a small bowl that hung next to it. I held my hands under the bowl while water trickled from a hole drilled into the bottom of it. Aviram called this the “15 rupee method” because it cost very little to construct and saved a lot of water.

The toilets, dormitories, and main hut were all constructed from local and natural materials. None were completely closed off from the weather — most had large windows and overhangs instead of walls. If it happened to be a windy, rainy day, we got a fair amount of spray inside the hut.

Sadhana had an 1800-watt solar power system, connected to eight batteries. The sun charged the batteries and we could turn them on or off depending on time of day. We had lights only in the main hut, and one of the bathrooms. On sunny days, volunteers got power. On rainy days, we went without. Many rainy days in a row meant that people started to go stir crazy with lack of connection to the outside world.

Sadhana took sustainability all the way to hippie town. When I arrived I was handed a small bottle of biodegradable soap and shampoo. I was also shown a jar filled with “tooth dust,” a combination of spices and dried local plants that looked a lot like dirt, for brushing. Overnight, an animal ate my organic, biodegradable soap. I was bathing in the mud pool most of the time, so I didn’t miss it too much.

We did all our laundry by hand using a bucket of hand-pumped water and organic soap. My clothes never really got clean, and the humidity created a perfect environment for mold. Having a moldy backpack, shoes, and clothes were the norm. I started to re-evaluate the meaning of clean.

We used ash for dish soap, a coconut husk for a plate scrubber, and vinegar water for soaking plates, cups, and bowls. Aviram’s and Yorit’s solution for everything was vinegar. You needed underwear and found an old pair in the second hand box? Wash it in vinegar and it was as good as new.

Friendships were formed quickly and strengthened daily by the experience of living together. We were more open with each other more quickly, talking about our problems on the Indian toilet, work-related struggles, and the turbulent emotions brought up by our back-to-basics, communal lifestyle.

Many people considered the friends they made at Sadhana as close as family. Friendships were formed quickly and strengthened daily by the experience of living together. We were more open with each other more quickly, talking about our problems on the Indian toilet, work-related struggles, and the turbulent emotions brought up by our back-to-basics, communal lifestyle.

A few Indian volunteers helped keep us grounded in the country we were living in. Indians from as close as the village of Morathandi, not five minutes away, and as far as northern Rajasthan, came and spent days, months, or years at Sadhana.

Outside Sadhana, the larger Indian world was not more than a 10 minute walk. Thursday nights the kitchen was dark and all volunteers went out for dinner. We walked through the local village, where children flocked around us.

“Hello! What’s your name?” they yelled.

Some of the little girls grinned shyly. Chickens scattered at our feet. We stepped over huge cow pies and tried not to get run over by scooters dodging potholes while Indian men stared. On Koot Rd, there were a couple small restaurants, a pharmacy, a giant garbage pile, a bakery, and a chai shop. There were no tourists. The streets were filled with locals and Sadhana Forest volunteers. We ate paratha — a sort of savory Indian pancake with spicy sambal, samosas, and biryani, and the Indian version of fried rice, often served with raisins and cashew nuts.

* * *

In the last week of November, the rain came back with a vengeance. It lashed down overnight and in the morning Sadhana was one giant mud puddle. We gathered at the tool shed for first work at 6:30am. The forest team leaders nominated six volunteers, including me, for getting compost. We walked over to the giant pile of rich black soil. It was strange to think of it as the product of volunteers using the toilet over the years, but the trees loved it.

We shoveled it into large white potato sacks and slung them over our backs, then plodded through the forest, sloshing into puddles up to our knees. Everyone picked a spot to do their planting. Thunder rumbled in the distance.

I grabbed a handful of compost and tossed it into my hole. Then I grabbed another handful to mix with the soil that was removed when we dug the holes. Just days ago, the earth was so dry that breaking it apart to mix with compost was a sweaty task. Now the sopping wet soil clumped together and created mud balls.

With the hole three-quarters filled, I went to pick out a tree.

“What type of tree is this?” I asked Nick, a volunteer who has worked at Sadhana the last three years and managed the tree planting effort. He had curly blonde hair, a red bandana, and one of those handsome, gap-toothed smiles. The zipper on his shorts was broken, and he used a piece of string to keep them up, which didn’t work. Light pink boxers stuck out. Unless he had many pairs of pink boxers, I questioned their cleanliness, because it seemed I saw them sticking out every day.

“I call it ‘green, spiky, leafy’ variety,” he joked.

I laughed but wondered, How many of these trees will survive?

Nick went on, “Indian volunteers often think the trees with thorns are bad. They want to know why we bother planting them. I told them lemon trees have thorns. Aren’t lemons good?”

The topsoil cannot have compost in it, lest the tree get confused and send its roots up instead of down.

I dipped my tree into one of two buckets filled with water laced with EM. After carefully removing the tree from its bag, I placed it in the hole and filled the remaining space with compost-free soil. The topsoil cannot have compost in it, lest the tree get confused and send its roots up instead of down.

Almost the minute I got my first tree in the ground the storm broke and it began to pour. The ground, already soaked from the night’s rain, could not hold any more moisture. All the tree holes started filling with water. Using bowls, we tried bailing water out of the holes and quickly filling them with the soil/compost mixture. The rain came down faster then we could bail out the holes. It seemed impossible that a tree planted in those conditions would prosper. Some of us teamed up to get the trees in the ground faster. I extracted my tree from its bag, taking care that its roots didn’t get tangled and break. A small Indian woman with delicate features and large brown eyes gathered mud and we built a small mound for support.

“I keep thinking of your American saying, if a tree falls in the forest,” Sneha said with a shy smile, shifting her glasses back up to her eyes with the edge of her palm. “If a tree falls at Sadhana, we all will hear and catch it together, won’t we?”

Water was dripping from my eyelashes too quickly to blink it away for a clear view. Having finished with our tree, we cleaned our tools and trudged back to the main hut. We forged across new rivers that rushed swiftly downhill.

* * *

In India, a southerner prayed for me for the first time. Daniel was born in Alabama and spent the first half of his adult life in Florida and the second half in Israel. Now, in his 60’s, red sunspots flecked his leathery skin.

“God bless you today, child. May the lord look over you during your stay at Sadhana and keep you safe,” Daniel said to each volunteer at morning circle.

We were all God’s children, Daniel reminded us daily. He played guitar, but he only knew songs of worship. He made up his own songs from verses of the Bible. In every song the theme was the same: God loves us, let us pray for His Guidance and be humble before Him.

“How are you today, Brittany?” he asked.

“Doing just fine, Daniel. Would love a little bit of sun to dry my clothes,” I said.

“Every day’s a gift from God no matter what it brings,” Daniel said. “The thing I love about God is, no matter what happens, he forgives and forgets. My wife who divorced me after 44 years of marriage, she couldn’t forgive me. She divorced me because she couldn’t see the path to forgiveness and she still won’t talk to me. But when I ask God for forgiveness, he asks me, ‘For what, my child?’ He suffers for my sins, and when all I want is to kill my wife and have her burn in hell, he suffers that pain for me too. He suffers for her sins. So I can let go and be free. That’s why I’m so focused, because I’m free.”

A couple of weeks after Daniel arrived, his partner from Israel, Joy (an American woman) flew into Chennai and came to stay with us at Sadhana. Joy’s sudden arrival made me wonder if his wife was perfectly justified in divorcing him. Then Joy announced that she and Daniel were praying to get married. I was unsure if that meant they were waiting for a priest to manifest out of the forest, but I didn’t ask.

Joy felt an equal passion for the good Lord. She brought the Bible to meals and gave sermons on fallen angels. Sometimes she preached creationism.

“If anyone wants to quit smoking but is having trouble, and I know there are a lot of you out there, please come and talk with me. I’m happy to pray for you,” Joy said before dinner one evening.

The volunteers averted their eyes or exchanged glances. The majority of people staying at Sadhana were spiritual but belonged to no organized religion. Every Monday we sang Kirtan — call-and-response chanting of India’s devotional hymns of mantras. We sat in a big circle; Raj from Rajasthan led the chanting with a hand drum, and a lanky American with dreadlocks joined with his guitar. No matter what we believed, the songs brought us together and, like chanting “ohm” at the end of a meditation or yoga practice, gave us a sense of spiritual unity.

We all needed to believe that our tolerance made us stronger.

Most evangelical people I’ve met on the road are missionary types, driven to leave their home country and spread the word of God. Sadhana’s policy of inclusiveness means they take in everyone, without question. The community expanded to accept their fanaticism and strengthened itself in the process. This was what I told myself, listening when Daniel offered to pray for Shree and her bastard child, or condemned a young Swedish woman to hell unless she gave her allegiance to the good Lord. We all needed to believe that our tolerance made us stronger.

* * *

We gathered in the main hut for dinner at 6 pm. The dinner bell rang and four small dogs howled alongside it. Several volunteers plated and served whole grain rice with peanuts, pumpkin soup, and a cabbage salad. We waited until everyone got served and announcements were made. A moment of silence was observed before we ate.

Shree, now seven months pregnant, strutted into the main hut and requested an audience with Aviram and Yorit. She had mysteriously disappeared for a couple of weeks. Now here she was again, with an old French man trailing behind her. He looked miserable. We all wondered, is that her baby-daddy?

The news spread that Shree was going to carry her baby to term and give birth at Sadhana. She was going to raise her child with help from Aviram and Yorit as long as she abided by some guidelines. Shree and her partner, Philip, had to stay at Sadhana together and share the communal work responsibilities.

A couple days after Shree’s return, she tried to move out of the hut she shared with Philip. It seemed she did not like Philip, though she was bound to him at Sadhana. In her street life, she was in charge. She began to shun Philip and flirt with other men in front of him. Unfortunately, Shree needed Philip’s financial support. So did Sadhana, because Aviram and Yorit would not grant Shree sanctuary without him.

Several long-term volunteers created a support group for Shree and Philip. They made time to talk to them everyday and provided for any needs that arose. When Shree needed advice on some pain the baby was giving her, a German midwife volunteering at Sadhana attended her. These volunteers counseled Shree when she tried to run away, and went to great lengths to make Philip, who spent a great deal of time just looking after Shree, feel included in the community. They sat next to Philip during meals if he was alone. He could often be seen mournfully staring into space on the steps leading into the main hut — the German midwife often stopped and asked how he was faring.

A couple days after her reappearance, Shree lumbered into the main hut with a large backpack. She was dressed in black from head-to-toe, including a black headdress. She asked to borrow someone’s scooter.

“I am trapped here,” she whispered. “If I don’t go, I will die. My baby will die.”

She asked everyone she saw. Volunteers kept their eyes trained on the floor and looked uncomfortable.

“I don’t have a scooter, Shree,” they said. Or, “I’m sorry, but I’m using it.”

Eventually, when no one lent her one, she sat beside the bag and stared outside.

Later, three of us made the 20km trip to a local beach near Pondicherry, a French port town, on a scooter. We saw Shree and Philip sitting next to their scooter by the side of the road. They looked visibly strained in each other’s presence. Sweat shone on Philip’s forehead, salty drops running from his salt-and-pepper hair into his eyes. We stopped and checked to see that they were ok. Shree wore a gray t-shirt that hugged her belly, a small knit hat, and sweatpants. She grinned broadly.

“Are you two doing ok?” I asked.

Philip shrugged, “Yes and no.”

“Where are you going?” Shree asked.

“We’re just heading to the beach for the afternoon.”

Her eyes gleamed like she was trying to hatch a plan. We did not have any room on our scooter. Even if we did, we would not aid her escape. We said our goodbyes before we got in too deep.

There was nothing we could do for them. I couldn’t force Shree to go back to Sadhana, or convince her in that moment that raising her baby in our community might give the child a better, brighter future.

* * *

As the sun rose we gathered for morning circle. There were some 100 people stretched out in a circle. Holding hands, we sang another Kirtan song called “The River Is Flowing.”

    The river is flowing, flowing and growing
    The river is flowing, down to the sea
    Mother carry me, your child I will always be
    Mother carry me, down to the sea

    The moon, she is changing, waxing and waning
    The moon, she is changing, high above me
    Sister moon, challenge me, a child I will always be,
    Sister moon, wait for me, until I am free

Twenty of us gathered at the tool shed, picking up our trees and tree-planting implements, and walked together out into the forest while the birds sang and a cool breeze rustled the acacia trees. We climbed a hill and arrived in a wide, open area. There were holes everywhere, ready and waiting.

I bailed water out of my hole and then plunged my hands into the dirt, mixing it with compost. I walked over and picked out a tree that looked promising, with wonderful white roots and a long trunk. Some of them had been waiting a long time for their turn to be placed in the earth. Many had bug-bitten leaves, or no leaves at all. Under the bark, the stem still looked green, so we planted them.

We planted many varieties of tropical dry evergreen trees. They looked different: thorns, needles, small leaves and big leaves. Some had already grown tall and strong, others had nearly no roots and could not hold themselves upright. We put a stick in the ground next to them, where they could comfortably lean while they soaked up the Indian sun.

[Note: This story was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program, in which writers and photographers develop long-form narratives for Matador.]

Discover Matador

Save Bookmark

We use cookies for analytics tracking and advertising from our partners.

For more information read our privacy policy.