We have decided to introduce our team to you through interviews. We begin with Maasilamani, who has been working with us since the start of the project. He leads a team of workers from Adyur, who plant trees, create and maintain the fire lines, put out fires etc. When he is not on the hill he helps in the farm and on building projects. His team made all the bricks needed for the library building working right through summer, the hottest time of the year. Maasilamani has been a big source of inspiration for all of us in the Forest Way.
He has a deep understanding of the hill; its many folds, gullies, valleys, ravines, and slopes are known to him intimately. He can find his way around any thorn thicket, boulder, even on a new moon night. A few years ago we had issues of fires breaking out at night and many a night the fire fighters wouldn’t be able to reach the exact spot due to not having a good enough understanding of the terrain, but Maasila and his crew would always get to the place in no time at all. We always say that he has a built in GPS and Google earth map inside him! He actually has a name for every rock on the hill.
Another fascinating facet of Maasila is his boundless energy. He is over 50 years of age, is a grandfather several times over, yet none of us can reach even a fraction of his energy levels. There is this by now famous anecdote when on a particularly sunny and hot day of tree planting we were exhausted after an hour. Maasila remarked “it is rather tiring isn’t it? I too went home and rested for ten minutes yesterday before starting my next job”…
Maasila has remarkable people skills. He leads a team which can swell to around 50 workers during the planting season. He co-ordinates the work force, ensures that the required work is done, then does his own share of the work.
All of this he does with much grace which earned him respect of all. He has to liaise with different sets of people, such as the forest department, the supervisors of projects on the ground, project coordinators and so on, and he manages to keep everyone in the loop and work with everyone with dignity and poise.
Here are snippets from the our interview with Maasilamani:
Interviewer: Have you been to school?
Maasila: Yes i went to school till 3rd standard in my village, Adaiyur. I dropped out as i was not motivated to continue further.
I: When did you start working?
M: I started working when i was around 10. I did tree planting work near the Srilankan colony. I worked with a team for the Forest Department for wages of Re.1/- per day. [This is about 45 years back] Real work started at 18 though.
I: What was the main income for the family then?
M: The main income for my family and many others came from cutting firewood to sell in Thiruvannamalai. They used to cut trees from Kavuthi hills area.
I: When did you join the Forest way?
M: I have been working here for the past 13 years. Before that i worked for the Annamalai Reforestation Society for a season. I joined with a team of 6 people and we have all been together ever since. We helped build the first kottai in the park.
I: What do you feel about your work?
M: I feel happy that we are working for the Annamalai hill. We have all done so much planting work here together and we feel a need to protect that. We try to put out fires as soon as they occur, even the smallest delay increases the risk of the fire spreading and destroying the young trees that we planted as small saplings over the years.
I: How do deal with the others in your team?
M: I have been working with so many people; those that function with a work ethic are only a handful. I explain to them that the plants are like our children and that we should take care of them; I try to inculcate the right attitude and feeling in them. But those who are still careless I send back. Bringing the right ethic into our work is most important for me.
I: You interact with so many different people, how do you feel?
M: When relating to different people one must be aware of how to talk to youngsters, how to talk to older people, people from different organizations and even different cultures. If we start categorizing people as good or bad then where do we go to work and how are we to survive? Whatever the nature of the people I deal with, I try to understand them and learn to work with them.
I: Everyone says you are running around so much… what’s the point?
M: The impetus to work is completely from within. Those who work full time with me understand me well, but I can’t expect that from everyone!
I: Is your work tough?
M: We have got used to the work – if we have to survive we have to work. When we see a snake nearby for example, we do get scared but we do our work with trust – if we are to die this way then so be it!
I: Can you share some of the tough moments in your life?
M: There are a lot of family problems; if we just stay at home then the problems will loom large. It is therefore better to get to work where other things grab our attention!