By Punya Srivatsava
Punya Srivastava talks to Jyoti Deshpande, a former Mumbai-based chartered accountant who vaulted over the urban-rural divide four years ago when she converted plans for a holiday home in the country, to a permaculture farm
There is a crack in the smooth surface that is my life, and a great void gets bigger and bigger every day. I feel the little tug again, as if something or someone is softly calling me. I have had this feeling for quite some time now. Actually, now that I try to remember, this feeling has been haunting me occasionally for the past many years — only, till now, I have chosen to ignore it. Eventually, I start to dream of a forest calling me, the trees swaying and singing a song. I can’t ignore it any longer and I realize, the sound that I hear is of Nature – calling me to be with her, to nurture her, and to find peace within…
This is one of Jyoti’s blog entries, written a few years back. Today, she has her own organic farm abundant with grains, vegetables, fruits, spices and livestock.
Jyoti Deshpande, a Mumbai-based chartered accountant, had never liked city-life, but practical and personal reasons as well as some silken ties with the city, made it impossible for her to say goodbye to it. However, living in a concrete jungle filled with terrible smog, ammonia stench-laden air, and the cacophony of traffic often made her long to leave it all. Happily, these powerful moments of intense longing birthed a dream which eventually became a reality in just three years.
Four years back, she bought a three-acre patch of land in a small town named Rajgurunagar, under Pune district, to build an escape from the city. Along with her husband and kids, she wanted to be in the midst of nature at least on weekends. “But suddenly, I realised we didn’t know what to do next! We tried hiring a landscaper and it didn’t work. We didn’t want neat lawns and bottle palms in a straight line. What we really wanted was a place that would remind us of all the sweet holidays spent at our native place amongst coconut trees, playing in the shade of mango trees, moulding mud to make utensils and animal figures, plucking berries in the summer, pulling up water from the well and climbing guava trees to enjoy the sweet fruit with salt and chilli powder. But most of all, we wanted our children to have a childhood as awesome as ours,” she says.
It was while searching for ways to plant trees on the internet that she stumbled upon the word ‘permaculture’ and knew her life’s calling. “I never looked back after that day,” she says, adding, “Originally, Chaitraban (as the place is now called) was supposed to be a weekend home for us and we started by building a house for ourselves, which soon went on to be a place to invite friends. Sometimes we had more than 20 people staying over the weekends. During this time, as I conducted experiments from books I had read, Chaitraban slowly turned into the dream that we had envisaged so long ago.”
While looking for books on soil and gardening, Jyoti stumbled upon Toby Hemenway’s book, Gaia’s Garden which opened the doors to the magical world of permaculture for her. “Permaculture had all the answers to so many questions I’ve had lined up – about soil, about garden, and about life itself!”
Permaculture is a practice that produces all the local materials needed for the survival of each person, such as food, fuel and shelter. In this process, a diverse range of vegetation and animals are utilised to support each other to create abundance. Once the farm is fully functional in a few years, it yields the necessary things required for its own survival.
After exploring permaculture over the internet, reading from books, and watching videos, she decided upon getting a formal training. The universe conspired to assist her in every step. Around that time Rico Zook, the renowned permaculture designer, consultant and educator since 1996, was teaching an ‘Introduction to Permaculture’ course in Mumbai. “That was the time when I realised that what I had started exploring as a hobby could be something more serious. Later, I enrolled for a Permaculture Design Certificate course in Bali, Indonesia, with renowned names like Rico Zook, Jeremiah Kidd and soil biologist Steve McGrane as my teachers. It was a wonderful experience meeting people from all over the world with the same interests, each with an inspirational life story, staying together and sharing their life experiences while learning permaculture from the teachers,” says Jyoti.
So exciting and satisfying was the experience that it inspired her to travel alone to see the world; to learn about new cultures, draw inspiration from wonderful people, and to make new friends. She also went on to volunteer in Australia at Tom and Zaia Kendall’s farm. “It is heartening to see so many people working towards the common goal of making our world a much better and more sustainable place for us to live in,” she adds.
The couple started retrofitting Chaitraban to the permaculture design made by Jyoti. Today, four years later, they have more than 175 varieties of plants and trees all growing together. There are more than 25 varieties of birds coming in different seasons. “Chaitraban boasts of a new nursery, annual beds which provide us fresh vegetables and spices, main crop beds on contour which double up as water harvesting features and provide us with staples, an orchard converting into a food forest, chickens working on the compost, ducks providing manure for the abundant banana circles and also working on the seasonal paddy. There are many more new experiments under way, most of them successful, though we learn so much also from the failures,” adds Jyoti.
The design of Chaitraban aims at placing the individual elements in such a way that the output of one element becomes the input of another. For instance, chickens kept in the compost area ensure that the chickens will turn over the compost pile. Similarly, ducks kept near the banana circle enrich the soil with their droppings, hence providing organic manure.
“Permaculture is a holistic approach at making systems more and more sustainable by conscious design where the designer works with nature and not against it to benefit humans and at the same time all living creatures without harming the environment as a whole. Overall, Chaitraban is getting more and more sustainable by using permaculture techniques in the right place and at the right time, as the years go by,” she supplies.
Ask her if her permaculture experiment has yielded any profit, and she muses over the definition of ‘profit’ itself. “The answer would depend on one’s perception about profitability. The very definition of sustainability stresses on the fact that there has to be a surplus in any system which is important for its perpetuity. If this definition is studied, it can be said that permaculture is profit-oriented. At the same time, permaculture has a set of ethics and principles which are to be followed while designing such a system. This ensures that there are no unethical practices which would mean harmful to nature or the society as a whole,” she supplies.
Apart from tending to Chaitraban, Jyoti started an endeavour called ‘Nature’s Rendezvous’ two years back under which she designs edible gardens and farms. The initiative aims to spread education and ideas to build a sustainable future, while also providing designing and consultancy services to gardens and farms. “The idea is to design and implement sustainable edible landscapes and collaborate with partners working in this area in the near future. Since its inception, I have designed a sustainable edible garden for the Shelter of Rescued Women, Deonar, Mumbai, under the aegis of The Rotary Club. A project of designing and building a sustainable homestead of over an acre is underway in Pune. This involves rain water harvesting in the dry lands and advice on building soil, integrating animals in the landscape, among other strategies,” she says. Not just these, but Jyoti is also working on consolidating information and knowledge in areas like water harvesting, soil building techniques from other countries, and working to make them useful in the Indian scenario. She is also experimenting to establish a food forest as a prototype for many other such projects in Pune district and over time, maybe other districts in Maharashtra and other states. “The main aim will be to use unused lands for growing food and also to restore degraded lands,” she adds.
Having ultimately found her purpose in life Jyoti wishes to use her knowledge and experience to spread the idea of a sustainable world. “I feel ideas like permaculture are definitely the most useful tools to make this vision a reality,” she concludes.
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