Aparna Pallavi is not easy to reach. She has two phone numbers, but both are often out of range. On WhatsApp, she appears a few times a day, separated by long intervals of inactivity. When I email her, she responds a few days later from the hills of Kumaon that have a patchy internet connection.
The ‘explorer’ tag suits the former journalist and writer particularly well, thriving as she does on what you and I may call a nomadic life.
We meet at last at a workshop she is conducting on cooking with vegetables found in the wild.
It is being hosted by a farm in Delhi called Edible Routes, which promotes organic urban farming. On a warm September Sunday afternoon, a group of us bend low over the wild shrubs in the two-acre plot, learning to tell one plant from the other.
Aparna gently lets the leaves loosen from the stems into her palm, as if they are old friends. We gather, in cloth bags, aparajita flowers, the leaves of wild chaulai, bhui amla, mahadev paan, dandelion (Aparna rarely bothers with scientific names) and many more.
Curry in the forest
These, we will later sort, clean and stir in pans, adding some to lentils, another to beaten yoghurt, and yet another bunch to ragi paste, tempering them all with cumin, garlic and chilli in mustard oil. The food is delicious, we say, and Aparna smiles contentedly, telling us that this is exactly how she has seen tribal people cooking with plants from the forests.
In the course of over 20 years of being an environment journalist based in Nagpur, the 47-year-old has travelled to the interiors of the country, acquainting herself with the ways of tribal people.
What she has noticed in particular is the decline of their connect with the forest, which is no longer their chief source of food.
Going side by side with this is the condescension directed at Adivasi culture and the attempt to paint them all as people perpetually drunk on mahua liquor. “I want to remove this slur and re-establish their culture,” Aparna says.
Aparna quit journalism two-and-a-half years ago to devote all her time to her passion.
“More and more, I was feeling the need to engage myself with the question of values, moving away from the political struggle I was supporting as a journalist. I was also meeting interesting people who were working with alternative modalities like conscious ecological community living. A full-time job was making it impossible for me to explore these.”
This started her off on a self-styled “mahua yatra” across the country, which “rose out of a need to look at the wild-food scene at large.”
She was concerned that the traditional knowledge about the mahua tree — once worshipped as sacred — is dwindling at an alarming rate, and from being a staple in tribal-dominated forest areas of West Bengal, Odisha and Chhattisgarh, among other States, it has at best become an occasional treat.
“Traditionally, you could make 35 dishes out of mahua. It was a staple for four-five months a year, being highly nutritious. Now it is seen as a cash crop, with people selling it at abysmally low prices to traders, who sell it for liquor.”
Few needs, fewer wants
Aparna takes urban enthusiasts to forests to connect with mahua. She also tries to make dried mahua available in cities. After years of working with foods found in the wild, she has come to understand, more or less, which plants can go into her cooking pan and which may land her in hospital (which has happened a few times).
Aparna is also a firm believer in community living — she spent a good part of last year staying with friends, friends of friends, people from NGOs and tribal families, who were happy to host her. This gave her insight into the fears and insecurities of Adivasis, who are facing the pressure of development and its impact on food traditions. She is currently trying to write a book on people’s stories.
Making the transition from a comfortably salaried single parent to living off her savings and the generosity of others has been surprisingly painless for Aparna. Simple living comes easily to her. Her needs are few, her wants fewer.
“I have been rediscovering my love for art: so I need to fund art supplies. I have access to healthy food — with the occasional fancy treat.”
She now finds time to do the things that give her joy — like writing (especially on Facebook, where she can post what she wants without waiting for the boss’s approval) , travelling and meeting people without professional constraints, cooking, drawing, making art installations, and singing.
“Exploring wild foods is not my work. It is one of the main arteries in the series of things I do. The other pursuits are equally important.”
The writer is a freelance journalist, lover of cakes, chai, bookshops and good yarns.