I ran into Shobha Menon at a wedding sometime in November. We were meeting after quite a while. Last heard she was off to the Institute of Mental Health in Kilpauk. Upon my asking her what she was up to now, she replied brightly that she was leaving the next day for the Cuddalore Prison.
Before you run away with the idea that this friend of mine is a psychopath who after a stint at an asylum is being finally brought to justice, let me assure you that she is anything but that. In fact she is as normal as several of my other friends, though that is not saying much according to Sarada.
But let us get back to the Shobha story. We were first introduced when I was writing Carnatic Summer. Paddu the publisher pronounced that she would be the editor and so from then on we became close friends. I was flooded as time went to with calls that went something like this: “Ayyo Sriram, why should this Ariyakkudi do like this illa?” or “This Papa Venkataramiah looks such as paavam character” or “Ayyo Sriram, this Mali was really mad” etc. Shobha was very pally in real life with MS and DKP, being neighbour to the former in Kotturpuram and therefore living not far from DKP either. MS by then was too far gone but DKP was all game for trying all kinds of Mallu snacks that Shobha would take across.
Post Carnatic Summer, Shobha bade goodbye to the world of editing. Her first love was always Nature. Her husband was (and is) a pillar of the Madras Naturalists Society and daughter Sneha decided to major in something do with forests which I forget and is now well on her way to a PhD. Son Nishant wanted to be cricketer and wound up in hotel management. In short, a rather different family, not the conventional “My son is an engineer, my daughter is a CA etc.”
In September 2005, Shobha launched Nizhal, an NGO for saving trees and promoting greenery. Hers is not a Chipko kind of movement. She believes in educating (!!!!!) Government servants and public officials on saving tree cover. For a while Shobha had been helping Muthiah on some of his work and in this connection she had become very close to everyone in the Corporation, and in true Shobha style this was from chaprasi to top boss, in that order. Everyone knew Shobha, the rather strange lady who wanted to save trees. But such being her gentle nature, they all gave her a patient hearing. Not that it changed them a wee bit. Even as they smiled at her and gave her government regulation tea, they would cut down trees by the dozen, for road widening or by the hundreds for Assembly (sorry Hospital, sorry expunge that, it is all sub judice) construction. But somewhere it began to have some effect. The Corporation began calling her for advice on parks and the one near the Madras Club, on the banks of the Adyar, definitely owes its existence to her, though she wont claim any credit.
The public also began to know Shobha when she began doing tree walks. She would get experts on the subject to conduct guided tours in well-wooded areas such as My Ladye’s Garden, the Government Estate (before the sub judice nameless structure gobbled everything up) and the Museum Compound. These have had an effect too. Last month, a couple of residents of Adyar noticed that Corporation workers were preparing to uproot two trees in their neighbourhood. Protests were of limited use and then Shobha was called in. The drainage for which the trees had to go, were re-routed and laid around them and so some foliage was saved. Shobha is the person to call when you need advice on trees. Or when you need to mourn the passing of one. When the 45 year old mango tree in my garden keeled over one morning for no reason and died, it was Shobha to whom I turned, to weep over its passing.
Now what does Shobha do in prison? Plenty. She has been consulting with several of our state prisons to get them to put their vast acreage to good effect. Ditto with the Kilpauk Institute of Mental Health. Now, thanks to her efforts, these spaces are going green. Kitchen gardens are booming in the prisons and one of them has sold over Rs 4.00 lakh worth of vegetables, all organic mind you. In another prison, Nizhal has taught prisoners how to make bio-pesticides and they are supplying these to other prisons. Shobha hopes that some day the prisons will be allowed to market their surplus produce.
Nizhal is of course not Shobha alone. She now has several experts who help her when needed and several volunteers as well. How does she manage I ask. To discuss this I invited her over to the Madras Club where she spent most of the time talking about the trees in the place. Her fondest memory she told me is of a sarakkonrai tree near her childhood home in Chintadripet. I finally bring her round to the subject of finance. And that finally is when she says that Nizhal could do with a lot more money, most of its rather small budget now being financed by the members themselves and a few donors. “We need a full-time coordinator,” she says. And travelling to all these places, from loony bins to jugs, everything costs money. I have promised to do my bit. If you too feel like doing something, please see what Nizhal has to offer and then decide.
For more on Shobha and Nizhal read -http://www.theweekendleader.com/Nature/686/Tree-lover.html