Growing up, I had seen Saalumarada Thimmakka, the grand old environmental activist, on television, and read about her exemplary work in newspapers and magazines. So, when I got an opportunity to meet and interact with this noble soul on the occasion of International Day of Forests, my joy knew no bounds.
I was told Thimmakka lives on the outskirts of the city, away from the hustle and bustle of the metro. So, I had assumed she lived on a farm, full of greenery, doing what she loved the most–planting trees. But I was in for a rude shock when I arrived at Thimmakka’s house. Standing at the gate, I looked around, trying to spot trees. To my utter dismay, it was mostly an empty, barren stretch of land.
I rang the doorbell, and a man who appeared to be in his late 20s showed me in. I had been told Thimmakka lives with a foster son. When Saalumarada Umesh was a student, he had read about Thimmakka and her work and had aspired to be like her when he grew up. Driven by her example, he had left home at a young age to join her in her mission of planting trees.
There was pin-drop silence in the house. The passage was empty, bearing no semblance of the icon residing there. But the moment I walked into the living room, the numerous awards and mementos, neatly arranged in the showcase, spoke volumes about Thimmakka’s achievements. Many were even stacked up along the sides of the walls, nearly blocking the path into the room.
As I looked around, something in the corner of the showcase caught my attention–a framed photograph of Thimmakka and her husband Bikkalu Chikkaiah from their younger days. Chikkaiah was Thimmakka’s inspiration. He had planted the dream that Thimmakka nurtured. Together, the couple toiled through harsh summers, wet monsoons, and cold winters to turn saplings into big and beautiful trees.
Even as I stood there, staring at the couple’s photograph, amazed by their commitment, I heard a shaky voice call out behind me. “Madam, how are you?” I turned around and there she was–Saalumarada Thimmakka. All of four feet and petite, clad in a dark green saree with a red border, she looked like an embodiment of nature itself!
In less than three seconds, she walked to the chair beside me and sat down. Her agility surprised me. “How old are you?” I asked her. “Six months short of 108,” she said with a grin. I saw old age had not defeated this centenarian’s spirit. Amazed by her–this time in flesh–I asked her to narrate her story. And so, she began, “After many years of our marriage, we could not have children. One day, Chikkaiah told me if we continue to live that way, society would not respect us. Let’s plant trees and accumulate good fortune, he said. That is how it all began. Today, 70 years later, I continue to nurture his dream.”