Chelladurai is on a mission to reduce his carbon footprint on the planet. He takes Subha J Rao on a tour of his Low-impact Farmstay Experiment
It all started on September 1, 2010. Chelladurai aka Osai Chella, web media strategist, logo designer and White Hat SEO consultant, took the first step to make a difference to the world he lived in.
He drove his trusted Maruti 800 up Anaikatti and beyond, to Varakampadi, a hamlet in Kerala. His two-acre farm there, set in the slope of a valley and surrounded by windmills, was to be the venue of a unique Low-impact Farmstay Experiment (LiFE) — an attempt to return to the roots, in every way possible. He first stopped using everything chemical — out went toothpaste, toothbrush, soaps and shampoos. In came twigs, herbs and native products.
The energy spent on making every product was taken into account. “That's the reason I still use plastic; it is recyclable. A steel tumbler is more energy intensive,” he explains. He uses solar power. During the windy monsoons, a nano windmill (a cycle dynamo with fan blades) feeds the battery.
The attempt, financed by Chella's mother Sankaravadivu, was inspired by the Dancing Rabbits commune in Missouri where residents aim to live ecologically sustainable, socially rewarding lives, and Auroville. With the help of Raman, his tribal neighbour, he set about building a 144 sq-ft residence in the ‘tiny home' concept, using recycled wood and locally-made bricks.
For the first couple of months, this growing space was Chella's home. Residents of the nearby forest, elephants, wild boar, peacocks and cobras, do pay him the occasional visit, but let him be. “I do not have anything they want,” he laughs. “I learnt from the tribals. They never keep anything fragrant — jackfruit or banana — at home after dusk,” he adds.
Chella raises edible greens, beans, avaraikai and herbs in his miniscule garden. The rest of the space is devoted to anything that chooses to grow there. “It increases bio-diversity. Even ‘weeds' have a purpose,” he says.
Initially, there were no ants or termites on the farm; “the land was not alive”. Nine months later, it teems with life. Minutes after we deposit a used plantain leaf in the garden, black ants crawl all over it. “Once they have had their fill, termites take over, and leave me with rich manure,” he says. Earthworms abound too.
Chella also attempts to eat local — ingredients guzzling food miles were banned. “I switched to minor millets, aval, and rice kanji, inspired by my neighbours”. His “No oil, only boil” breakfast gruel is famous online too. He plucks some greens and vegetables and adds them to a pot bubbling with salt, red rice and unpolished, unbroken dal from Raman's farm. That's his kanji.
“The most difficult part of this transition was learning to ignore creature comforts,” admits Chella. “But, I wanted to make it work, somehow!”
Low-impact living also boils down to the community, believes Chella. Provisions are always bought at the local petti kadai. So is petrol. “Only then will the local economy and community prosper. Else, it will finally lead to migration and exploitation of natural resources.”
In the beginning, Chella spent weeks together on the farm, charging his laptop using solar power. Now, he splits time between his city home and office and pastoral haven — profession pays for passion. “Luckily, my clients understand me. It helps that my job does not require a fixed location.”
Some things about his abode rankle Chella, though — the asbestos roofing and ceramic floor tiles. “I tried to avoid these, but maintenance was an issue. It's a small compromise,” he shrugs. “But, I clean the floor using Effective Microorganisms solution.”
The best part about a low-impact life, says Chella, is that nothing is straightjacketed. You are allowed to modify to suit your lifestyle. “So, when I need extra energy, I use the local grid power (mainly hydel) at my friend's farm.”
Chella hopes to develop a sustainable farm in Varakampadi, planting lemon and other citrus fruits. “The jumbos will also keep away from them,” he says.
One with Nature
What has Chella learnt from this experience? “In this solitude, I live in communion with Nature. I've realised I'm part of a big whole. It's humbling.” There's a peculiar beauty about this life too. “Have you ever seen thousands of stars wink down at you through the night. You feel blessed.”
Luckily, his family — wife Shanti and son Jagan — understand his passion. Chella eventually hopes to work out of Varakampadi through the week and come downhill only for the weekend.
But, surely he misses something about city life? “Yes, relationships. Social interaction is limited here. But, Ilaiyaraaja's music, Facebook and my GPRS phone dull that pain.”
An alternative lifestyle
At the LiFE farm, set up at a cost of Rs. five lakh, Chella organises low-impact photo treks, artists translate the picturesque vistas on canvas and friends take an eco-friendly break.
Read Chella's chronicles at http://lifefarmstay.blogspot.com
Read similar stories at