The Story Of A Guy Who Changed The Lives Of His Mentally Challenged Friends Through Farming
Reported By - Catherine Gilon
“We met Karthik in the middle of nowhere. The 32-year old gentleman waved and welcomed us. He looked like some young musician with a happy hippy mane. With a wide grin, he made us sit in his tiny office space and we had no clue that within the next half an hour or so, he would take us on a journey that would change our lives.
We chugged down a muddy lane in the Konamangalam village in Tindivanam and finally arrived at the Sristi village ( a 8.3 acre farm land). A group of young fellows welcomed us on to the farm and we settled down for a cup of chai. So, how did a master graduate end up in a farm?
Karthik smiles, “I grew up in Baby Sarah’s home (an orphanage) in Pondicherry along with a bunch of brothers and sisters. We were like one big happy family. After a certain age, my siblings would finish up the education, find a job and then, move out to discover a new life outside. But then, I realised some of them were stuck in the home. Yes, our mentally challenged brothers couldn’t find work outside even if they were technically competent to take up certain jobs.”
The home was a good place but imagine having to get up every day, be fed and clothed and then look forward to the night to set in. Sounds like they were lucky, right? But what is life if we were to get up every day and just survive. Karthik explains, “About 70 per cent of mentally challenged patients are capable of doing certain activities or work.” But we tend to group them all together, label them and discard them like they do not matter. Karthik was clear that he did not want his brothers to live off charity, he wanted them to live an independent life, as groups, if not alone.
He added, “Initially, we tried different jobs. I remember how my brothers would painstakingly do a home decor item but people would eventually buy it as a charity. It was sad to see all their effort go unnoticed.”
Once, they had decided to set a vegetable garden in their home. And Anbu, a mentally challenged brother insisted that he help with all the garden chores. Karthik recalls, “I still remember Anbu running to me with a tomato in his hand and I have never ever seen so much happiness in his face. It just hit me then.”
Karthik had learnt that farming has been used a therapy for mentally disturbed patients and it made him wonder if the same could be used to build a sustainable lifestyle for them. Few months of discussions with experts, several books and a great farm hand (Malayanooran thatha) later, he founded Sristi village in 2013. With Kanthari organisation seed-funding the project, he brought this barren piece of land. Initially, the villagers were sceptical about having these brethren build an organic farm. But then, they saw them get up every day, toil under the sun, listen to Karthik and Malayanooran thatha’s valuable guidance as they joined hands to do the little they can with all the love they had for the soil. And as always hard work paid off, three years later, their farm is filled with greens, vegetables, chillies and millets. The team is now being trained for honey harvesting and dairy farming too.
Not only have they managed to build a self-sustainable community within the farm, they generously give their produce to all who visit their land. Karthik has plans to probably sell their organic produce to help sustain the farm and his brothers in the long run. And yes, the word spread and now, more and more mentally challenged youngsters (17 in total) have joined the farm and they are finally living a life that bears fruit every day.
Karthik introduces us to all of his friends in the farm. Some of them were shy, some more forthcoming to share their stories but all of them had a proud smile that lit up their faces, ‘this was their home and they have earned every single meal they eat.’ Karthik plans to set up a farming academy in the future and his dream is to see his brothers move out and live a semi-independent life if not a completely independent one.
Karthik knew that this journey was not going to be easy one, as he set out to understand the nature of the soil and how she gives back with brothers who did not follow the rules of this world. But here they are. One cleans the community hall, another feeds the farm animals while yet another gentleman handles the garden tools with thatha treading behind him. Karthik smiles, “You should see how earnest they all are at what they do,” and laughs, “Our friend Senthil here would so sincerely water the veggies every day. One day, it was raining dogs and cats, and there he was, holding an umbrella and watering his plants.”
We have all had that someone in the family with special needs, we often hide them or ignore them or maybe even take care of them but this youngster has gone one step further and showed them the joy of bringing life to this earth. Here’s to Karthik and his growing tribe of farmers.”
You can reach out to Karthik at [email protected]