Die-hard nature lover and ecologist Mehr Fardoonji talks to P. Sujatha Varma about reversing the bio-diversity crisis

We all die. The goal isn’t to live forever; the goal is to create something that will.’ Mehr Fardoonji lives by this maxim by leading a simple life that yields great inner riches.

Born in 1930 in Lahore (now in Pakistan) to Parsi (Zoroastrian) parents, the octogenarian gently and creatively demonstrates how ordinary living can be transformed into extraordinary through experiments and adventures in simplicity.

“I have always been different and I am happy with the way I am,” says this 84-year-old who wears the world like a loose garment—one which touches us in a few places, now and then, lightly. “I have travelled extensively, far and wide, so much that at times I feel that I belong to nowhere…or I belong to everywhere. I am a citizen of the world,” she smiles.

Her father died when she was all of five. “My mother was a very independent and advanced woman. She has been the light of my life. She had met Gandhi and was greatly influenced by his philosophy which she infused in me. We went to England in 1937 with an idea to come back to India after two or three years. But war (World War-II) started and the Mediterranean was blocked,” she recounts.

Mehr went to the London School of Economics. “Before I knew my result, I set off for India with just a rucksack. I travelled by land, all by myself and I was perhaps the first woman to do so.”

It took her seven months to reach Pakistan. She then headed to Gandhiji’s Sevagram ashram and worked there for a year, learning to be a village worker.

In 1955, she walked with Vinoba Bhave to Orissa to attend the Puri Sammelan. “In mid-50s I also visited Vijayawada city which was a remote village,” she reminisces. She then worked in the Tarai region as part of Vinoba’s Bhudan movement. “For four years we lived in thatched houses, in the foothills of the Himalayas, redistributing land to the landless.” In late 1950s, family demands drew her back to England to Manchester where she had grown up; there she took up organic farming on a four-acre land her brother had bought for her and her mother. Mehr went on to set up one of the first organic market gardens, the Oakcroft Organic Garden near Malpas in Cheshire.

Jai Bhoomi

“During my stay at Gandhi’s ashram, I was convinced that land was the basis of life and that organic farming was the only way to the health of the land and people. Land is the most important thing in the world without which we don’t exist. The world has treated land like the poor. People have ruined it by raising concrete jungles and by using artificial fertilizers,” she rues.

To make people understand the significance of ‘bhoomi’ she coined the slogan of ‘Jai Bhoomi’. In a world where abundant has come to mean prosperity and simplicity is equated with scarcity, Mehr introduces us to a lifestyle of fullness--full in ways that only we can fill. “I don’t see television, I don’t use a mobile phone and neither do I have a computer. People’s lives have become so cluttered with electronic gadgets. I am interested in the beauty of life rather than mechanical things. I like people around me all the time and I love to work with my hands. I have done pottery, I can make clothes, I read and I also teach yoga and its philosophy.”

Inequality worries Mehr. “I have never understood why people are violent. It is self-defeating. But all hope is not lost. We will improve in certain ways. There is hope because countries have begun to open up to the idea of talking to their ‘enemies’,” she signs off.

Her Mr. Right

Mehr married very late, when she was 59. “I married Nicholas Gillett, an English person, an educationist working for world peace. I met him at a conference years back when I was young. He had come along with his wife and six children, five were his own and one adopted.

We met again after years by which time his wife had died. And I inherited six children, all of them grown-ups,” she says with a smile.

There was no specific reason, she informs, for the delay. “Though I was always travelling extensively, across the world, I did not find the right person. Most people I came across were almost like-minded. Things don’t work with such life partners, I guess,” she chuckles.