Takeaway

Tales from No Man’s Land

prathap nair | Updated on January 23, 2018 Published on April 10, 2015

A feathered visitor. Photo: Prathap Nair

Home turf: The cottage at No Man’s Land. Photo: Prathap Nair

Green miles: Walking trails in the forest and the stream that flows by the cottage Photo: Prathap Nair

Green miles: Walking trails in the forest and the stream that flows by the cottage Photo: Prathap Nair

Home turf: The cottage at No Man’s Land. Photo: Prathap Nair

An organic farm in north Karnataka becomes the ticket to R&R for the city-weary

The sun is a tiny speck, tenaciously grappling its way out of the rain clouds of the previous night as we arrive in Islur, 10km north of Sirsi town in North Karnataka. The only bus stop in the village, a spot near a pond hugged by a massive banyan tree, is gradually filling with children clad in white and blue school uniform. The cattle egrets, roosting in the tree, contrast the bright green of the tree’s tender shoots as they slowly stir to life. We are waiting for George Varghese, the owner of No Man’s Land, the organic farm we are headed for.

It isn’t difficult for Varghese to find us even without the cellphone signal. After all, how hard is it to spot two, backpack wielding, city-bred men in the middle of a village in north Karnataka that is only waking up to the morning? He drives down in his sturdy, weather-worn jeep with his three home-schooled, marvellously articulate children in tow. Sleep has barely left their eyes but they are not cantankerous. “We don’t study or go to school,” the elder one, Amrita, says. The middle one, Deepu, corrects my vocabulary. “No, there is no river… but there is a stream around our house.” The youngest of them all, Mridu, tells me their dog’s name is Silk(u) with child-faced nonchalance. She is not clued in on her dad’s curious custom of naming their animals after controversial figures; they have another dog called Veerappan.

As we arrive at the Vargheses’ eight-acre organic farm, I realise it is truly a no man’s land. The approach road leading to the house, a stretch of three kilometres, is a slush of thick red mud even during summer. That’s because rains are a persistent presence in the thickly wooded forests of the Western Ghats. To beat the family’s monotony of living in a remote corner of the Western Ghats, Varghese and his family invite people over to their homestay — a roof-tiled cottage with interiors in earthen colours and furniture from wood salvaged from the forest — located on a slope in his property.

Varghese, like many city dwellers, had dreams of buying a farm in a remote jungle for his family, of growing his own food, of raising cattle and keeping dogs, of waking up to the chirping of birds squabbling over fruits on a tree. But unlike every man that has the dream, George acted upon it. He took a deep breath, took his equally crazy and matter-of-fact wife’s hand, gathered his life’s savings and bought a property in the thickets of the Western Ghats and called it No Man’s Land.

As soon as I settle in the cottage, the windows of which overlook the dense forests, I fall for the charms of the farm. No Man’s Land is along the periphery of the forests of Western Ghats — where the farm ends, the forest land begins. George and Susheela are trying to fill their property with trees native to the region. There are indigenous trees like the kokum alongside other common fruit varieties like guava, gooseberry, pomelo, custard apple and sapota. They are, however, deprived of the yields of these fruit trees. Each morning I wake up to the raucous calls of the vernal hanging parrot and brown-headed barbets devouring the fruits of the guava tree facing the cottage.

Like rains, birds are the other constant in this corner of the world. An olive sunbird whizzes inside the cottage one day, perhaps in her drunken stupor, and immediately becomes disoriented. To help her find the way out, I open the doors of the cottage wide but it proves futile. She crashes into the glass panes of the window, mistaking it for an open space and lands on the bed. Frazzled and her tiny head spinning, she opens her slender beak, perhaps seeking for help in bird tongue. I hold her in my palm and seat her on the bed. Should I feed her some water, I contemplate. But she flies away, merrily, in a moment.

Another day, I take long, bird-watching walks into the forest, waddling across the stream on the fringes of the property. The forest floor is a hotbed of activity. In just an hour I spot grey hornbills, nuthatches, white browed bulbuls, rufus treepies, white bellied flycatchers and yellow wagtails. I exchange notes with Susheela, also a birding enthusiast.

We eat meals with the family at the floor-level dining table. Susheela has abolished flour and their solar-powered oven has only seen whole wheat. We make risottos for dinner with brown rice from the farm and mushroom gathered from the forest floor. Amrita teaches me the art of eating a passion fruit without the juice and seeds dripping and staining my forearm — you make a tiny opening from the above and suck the juice through the hole, she instructs.

Time seems only relative, for the days we spend feel much longer than they really are. It seemed like we already knew the family and the children well enough. We make trips to Sirsi with the family in the jeep. When Susheela and her children go for music classes, we take a walk around the market.

By the end of our stay, my companion, who revolts at the thought of being around children, has thawed towards Varghese’s progeny. He laughs heartily at their goofiness, lifts Deepu and throws her in the air and plays word games with Amrita. That reaffirms my belief that travel changes each of us in certain ways.

Travel log

Get there : Nearest town is Sirsi. From Bengaluru, the distance is about 400km and there are plenty of overnight buses.

Stay : No Man’s Land www.nomanslandfarm.in. Tariff is ₹1,500 person/day; no charge for children below six years, 50 per cent discount for children aged six to 15. Tariff includes home-cooked vegetarian meals (breakfast, lunch, evening tea and snacks, and dinner). There is a 20 per cent discount for artists, writers, musicians, farmers and other such self-employed creative people.

BLink Tip : Visit the monolithic rock formations in the village of Yana, off Sirsi. This can be done as a day trip from No Man’s Land.

( Prathap Nair is a freelance writer based in Bengaluru)

Published on April 10, 2015
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