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 appreared 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 mementoes, 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, the 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.”
Looking me in the eye, she said, “I ask the young and the old to plant more trees. Plant a sapling, and it will grow into a tree. It will do good for your community and society. It will make you better citizens.”
Together, Thimmakka and Chikkaiah planted several trees and cared for them, as if they were their own children. It could not have been easy for them, I noted; they were daily wage labourers. “But we had each other’s back. We were on a mission to plant trees,” Thimmakka assured me, beaming with pride.
Together, the couple planted over 350 trees on the highway between Hulikal and Kadur in the state of Karnataka. And this earned her the prefix name ‘Saalumarada’, which means ‘a row of trees’ in Kannada. Thimmakka continued the work even after her husband passed away.
However, though she received appreciation for her work, life did not change much for Thimmakka. She is still dependant on a meagre pension from the administration, and this was the only complaint the centenarian seemed to have, aside from the fact that old age has slowed her down physically.
Mentally, Thimmakka seemed fit as a fiddle and ever ready to plant more trees. “I have some land in my village; I wish to cultivate it,” she told me. I was in awe of the old woman’s zeal. At such ripe old age, she still wishes to accomplish more! She wants to plant more trees for a better tomorrow. From being a daily wage labourer to an eminent environmental activist, Thimmakka has come a long way. Her story is nothing short of extraordinary.
“So, what does this noble deed of planting trees mean to you? Has it filled the void of you not having children?” I asked her. Like a proud mama, Thimmakka said, “I feel elated when I go to my village and see those trees my husband and I planted. They are reaching the skies, and are a source of happiness to the people there.”
The grand old woman believes trees bring happiness to all and does her best to make sure she keeps on planting more. I wondered how many of us, even youngsters, truly have the zest and drive to do such a noble deed. So, on a parting note, I asked her what she wishes to convey to people. She addressed my question earnestly. Looking me in the eye, she said, “I ask the young and the old to plant more trees. Plant a sapling, and it will grow into a tree. It will do good for your community and society. It will make you better citizens.”
Her parting wisdom gave me a lot to think about. Thimmakka’s life is one worth emulating. The meaning and purpose she derives from planting trees is a testament to her selflessness. Her journey teaches us that life is not just about chasing dreams and ambitions, but also about being part of a larger cause, a greater purpose. This International Day of Forests, Soulveda salutes Saalumarada Thimmakka.