For all good reasons, I define by the jingoist lingoism of being woke. A little too woke about everything that crosses my path — something my partner’s friend once termed as ‘utopian idealism.’ Sarcasm? Yes. The reality for most people I know? Definitely, yes.

And that’s precisely why I think people like me have a special place in hell.

Because you see, there is us, and then there are women like Molly Kairaly who find it necessary to experience the actual struggles of the poorest of communities, to be able to call life,
a living.

Molly, who only likes being called Manisha for her “physics homework sheets and official things of the sorts,” stays in one of the driest regions of India — Anantapur District in Rayalaseema, Andhra Pradesh. She was four and a half when her Mallu-Bong power couple parents moved to the region, to rejuvenate CK Palli village in the district. Thanks to a translated book, and what documentarians have called a “mad mad experiment”, 32acres of lifeless land fit for heathens, now supports the livelihoods of thousands, all thanks to the art of permaculture and some serious persistence, via what is known today as the Timbaktu Collective.

And that has been life for Molly since. Studying at the local village schools, working with her parents for women empowerment and disability rights at eight, moving to Bangalore for further education, and coming right back to encourage enterprise, organic produce and local sovereignty of those products — this is Molly.

She lives under thatched roofs, family et al, with no running water, dry toilets with no roofs, and no electricity — she freshly brews life every day, out and off the grid.
But, how?

Because this is it. And that’s the best bit about Molly’s lifestyle — she is not presumptuously ‘woke’, she is not even angry. She plain and simple is. She has enjoyed the best-of-the-best city life on the cantonment roads of Bangalore for a few years, trying to sell millets to friends happy to buy them for their grandparents’ dietary requirements. But she truly is at home on the sandy streets of Anantapur district, at CK Palli village, a place that has seen no sign of a monsoon even as a cruel joke in the past five years; encouraging sustainable farming, women upliftment, quality hands-on education, enterprise creation, organic production and wildlife conservation — not for the city supermarket a few miles away, but for the community of 20,000 rural families who grow, own, and create their own economy and sustain their
own livelihoods.

Molly and her partner Siddharth also run a parallel initiative called Adavi Trust, which focuses on wildlife conservation and ecology, which often intermingles with the work Timbaktu Collective does. They take no moral high ground on who should be practicing sustainability how, or who should be interacting with nature why — they do what they do, in the hope that lives for them and those around them can be self-sufficient.

Who knew this ‘utopian idealism’ did exist after all, and all along at the tip of our angry tongues threatening to move right next door to Timbaktu!


I am going to jump the introductory sections here and straight up tell you that this is the woman I want to be when I am old (if I live up to a qualifiable age of being ‘old’ that is). Because nothing spells adorably-bold than a 106-year-old grandma tending to her 384 banyan trees, and breaking presidential protocol by blessing him, instead of thanking him for the Padmashri she just received.

Hands down the best grandmom of the century — Saalumarada Thimmakka!

A conservationist by accident, a lover of trees by choice, Thimmakka began planting, fostering and becoming the ‘mother of trees’ as early as the 1950s. After all, what she wanted to be was a mother, so she became one — of 384 banyan trees and 8,000 other trees in Hullikal and other villages around it, in Ramanagara, Karnataka. And believe me you, Thimmakka and her husband didn’t need Google guru to teach them environmentalism, or fancy fellowships to hashtag their #GreenThumbs.’

What they did need, was hard work to water a four-kilometre stretch of banyan trees even on days when the water had to be drawn further away from the village. And of course, a whole lot of compassion.

On a very personal level, this is the kind of activism I dig, activism driven by love; activism so organic, that you embark on it without knowing that you are on the path to something bigger —you journey it because you care for so much more than just you, that it never feels chaotic — just loud enough at the right places.

Thimmakka found her first name, thanks to her plant children. She became Saalumarada — a row of trees – Thimmakka, because of those big, unforgiving banyan trees she had raised between Hullikal and Kudur. And I must say, the prefix of Saalumarada for a non-Kannadiga like myself, adds such a sense of largeness to the poetry she personifies through her own life. You almost want to take refuge under the warmth of her smile and be nurtured like those huge aala maragalus
(banyan trees).

Contrary to popular belief, rural uneducated women like Thimmakka are probably a lot more resourceful to our social fabric, until capitalism kicks in. And that’s what makes the beginnings of the lives of several Thimmakkas, those of daily wage labourers. And that’s also what marks the ending of a global phenomenon like herself, living on meagre pensions of `500 per month. And like she rightly pointed out in an interview, she can’t eat awards!

But in the socio-political look-alike of rock-paper-scissors, feminism beats capitalism. Sustainability and conservation get lost somewhere in Sheldon’s version of it, but we figure it out sooner or later. Thimmakka refused the measly excuse of `500 the government gave her and continues to live with her adopted son, dependent on the cash money she receives at the several award functions she is invited to, as their personal trophy grandmom.

But Thimmakka is 106, and life is not easily given up on when you have many to love you — so money becomes a necessity, but still remains far off from being an identity. Maybe those BBC interviews and Oakland organisations named after her will turn up someday to at least dust up their trophy grandmom for the keeps, if nothing else.



You know what surprises a democracy the most? Politicians who work.

You know what shocks a farcically patriarchal democracy even more? A female politician who works.

“Oru stree ottaikku engane cheyyum?” (how can a woman do this on her own?)

When Kerala went into the hazy maze of the Nipah virus last year, it wasn’t a state concern anymore — it was a national security threat. Even the WHO turned around and called it one of the deadliest viruses that may have made its way through India. West Bengal had earlier seen 70 deaths to Nipah almost a decade ago, despite clear knowledge of it having travelled from bordering Bangladesh. How was unprepared Kerala to handle it?

KK Shailaja, better known as Shailaja Teacher, given her erstwhile position as a school teacher before her full-time tryst with state politics is the current Minister for Health and Social Justice for the Kerala State Government and one of the only two female ministers under the CPI(M) cabinet. When the virus hit the state, Shailaja had a clear to-do list — 1) Control fake news 2) Prevent panic 3) Get on-ground and ensure that the virus doesn’t leave the state.

But when human lives are threatened, fear is the only answer to survival. So the minute the virus was confirmed on national television, Shailaja and her team camped at Kozhikode —considered the epicentre of the attack —set up 24X7 helplines manned by herself and the others, for weeks and days on end, until 1,400 potential Nipah affected individuals were narrowed down on. They were quarantined, them and their families studied for the stipulated period to observe symptom manifestations, and finally 19 were confirmed as direct victims of the deadly virus. By this time, medical precautions were also taken, in case of a second wave of Nipah was to occur. Fortunately, there wasn’t one, as all the suspected 1,400 patients were instantly cut off from spreading the virus any further. Unfortunately, 17 of those 19 victims of Nipah, passed away.

While Shailaja was being lauded with the “quick response, swift action” jargon, some of us appreciated her for an entirely different thing — the art of following up. A job is not well done if it is not going to be done better next time — certainly criminally shoddy if it involved human lives. When Nipah arrived again in the state in 2019, just a few weeks ago, there was 1 confirmed case — 7 suspected ones. The latter few were ruled out, and Nipah took no lives.

Why? Because soon after the last outbreak, a team of researchers were sent out to find fruit bats, assess their droppings, spread the awareness required, from grassroots to the cream, every case of fever being screened for the virus, and the required international medical associations made in case of an unexpected attack.

Shailaja and her ministry were prepared for its return. And it had certainly helped not just a state, but an entire nation, to rest their daily rests.

The one Nipah infected patient is currently under treatment, and the threat in the state has ended in less than a week. A job well done, by a woman who knew what it meant for anything to be a well-done job.

So how can a single lady save a thousand lives, not just once, but twice?

By showing the sheer temerity to be a tenacious female leader in a
functioning democracy.



Theatre is not art. Feminism is not modern theory. Anyone who says otherwise clearly thinks we are playing golf for status quo.

Let’s get this straight — these are tools of revolution. These are politics of the personal staged to poke on guilt, anger, injustice, and maybe
well-deserved change.

Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy theatre for its talent, for the enthusiasm its seen in the recent times from so many, and how much people are accepting it as a necessary art form meant to learn. But I despise this modern theatre of glamour and glitz, which either places these ‘circles’ on some elitist intellectual platform, or glorifies some kind of moneyed ‘hippie’ culture lifestyle.

And this is why regional feminist theatre persons like Mangai — pseudonym for Dr. V Padma, who is a professor in English, an academic and an activist — become vital to the length and breadth of artistic dissent. As an artist, writer and director, Mangai has a clear definitive picture of what she wants to do with her plays — she wants to question patriarchy form histories bygone, up until today, and place power at the feet of equality. And while all this sounds like a posh invite-only type of dissent, it really isn’t. Because what Mangai and her contemporaries do is tell tales of subordinate structures on the streets, in the rusticity of the world’s oldest language — Tamil.
All the way back in 1983, when some of us social-media warriors were still wobbling in the nebula of nothing, Mangai co-founded the Chennai Kalai Kuzhu to perform street plays across Tamil Nadu, raising awareness on various topics such as literacy and social oppression. Soon she began working with more traditional theatre artistes from the state, mostly women from marginalised backgrounds, as well as from the isai natakam style of theatre. This, Mangai says in one of her interviews with The Hindu, made her feminist journey in theatre “less lonely.” As an activist, performer and writer, she has done various plays in Tamil with her group Marupacchi. Throughout the journey, she has explored popular female personalities like Avvai and Ambai or even Manimekalai, fleshing out their characters to give them their own context and stand-alone presence — a dignity not very much present for them, in popular historical narratives.

More recently, Mangai was awarded a grant by the Indian Foundation for the Arts (IFA), to study Tamil theatre pioneered by 20th century writer, Pammal Sammadha Mudaliar. The grant would help her critique theatre as a tool of expression at the time, set against the backgrounds of the anti-Colonial and anti-Brahminical struggles.

It is good to remind our white-washed brains once in a while that feminism was never a concept imported from the West. It has always remained in the memories of the broken dusty streets of our grandmother’s lanes, in the taste of their hand-ground chutneys, and on the tips of our angry tongues and our language… passed down from those women who loved and lost. And language intermixed with theatre traverses such complexities of feminist identity, mired with caste and class politics — aspects of theatre, language and gender that Mangai touches upon in her book Acting Up: Gender and Theatre in India 1979 Onwards.

When the #MeToo uprising hit the theatre scene in Chennai, my mum, a teacher and theatre enthusiast, found herself swallowing some hard-pills. In a conversation we had about a year later, I remember wondering what it is that the big and dignified theatre companies/groups had done to investigate these individuals who were pulled up for harassment. Why did it end with condemning these acts on social media? Why was it a signed petition that lead to radio-silence? Why weren’t there plays about plays which optimized on the quiet fears of so many women?

I’ll probably never know. All I do know is that when theatre is used as a stage to reiterate what should not be silenced, it educates and empowers. Mangai and her conscious body of work, willingly or unwillingly, has done exactly that for so many of us — enough to hope that maybe next time the loudest cries, are the clearest heard.

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