He wasn’t always a nice man, living up to his name. A cantankerous coot, as someone described him. In the one aspect, he would growl and curse, and lament his travails, and in another, he was soft and sympathetic, caring and accepting. More a pussycat than a wild dog.

He had his reasons, and motives for grumbling too. Nerikuttaswami wanted a green holy mountain, and the world seemed against him succeeding. He planted and planted, and planted. Good for him, for having a try. Even if they were all eucalyptus; he did his planting in the seventies and eighties, before awareness of appropriate species gained root. I suppose that he just thought a green, forested mountain was better than a brown pile of rocks and clumpy grasses. Very few on his seedlings survived.

He was an aesthetic, living in a stone hut a hundred metres or so up, and as much as he had renounced the world of material attachments, his yearning for the childhood memory of the smell of gum trees in his nostrils may have gotten the better or him. Just one of his seedlings had survived as a rangy tall sentinel watching over his failures, right next to his hut where he was able to zealously guard it. The rest of them had long perished, some from drought and withering heat, but the majority hacked away as thin seedlings for the small but treasured fuel wood that they would provide.

Nerikutta was an Australian in his past life, and that origin still snuck out every now and again, in ways apart from the choice of the trees he planted. Built like the proverbial outhouse dunny (Australian slang for an ‘long-drop’ toilet shed, built separate from the house), he was short and squat, and usually skull-shaved; he would have made a good school rugby lock-forward in his youth.

I suspect he took a shine to me as a fellow rabid tree planter, as well as a fellow Ozzy. We spent some time together up on the mountain, discussing reforestation strategies, occasionally drifting away when reminiscences distracted him, of early days in Tiruvannamalai, where he’d lived for many years, and sometimes to escapades he recalled from his wayward youth. The consequences of his debauched life there in the western suburbs of Sydney finally jolted him to his senses and precipitated his flight from the city, and then the country, as he struggled to find reason in his life.

India was where he found it, in a life so far removed from booze and burn-outs on the tarmac of suburban streets. He dropped all that and entered another world, of renunciation and years deeply immersed in a search for truth and meaning. Whatever he found, he kept to himself, and his only outward activity beyond the bare necessities was devoted to the mountain, and how he might clothe the barren Siva lingam in trees.

He was ahead of the times though, when reforestation would become a crusade, and most locals simply ignored his passionate mission, or did their best to frustrate it, pulling out what the goats did not uproot, or burning them on their cooking fires. And if that did not thwart him, the mountain seemed bent on doing so. Apart from Siva being the Lord of destruction and re-creation, in His mountain manifestation as Arunachala, He took the form of Fire. So flames raged up the slopes every year, burning away what little vegetation existed, offering a little ready fertility in the form of ash to feed the grasses that would be harvested for thatching, almost the only productive resource that could be exploited from it. A forested mountain? The crazed fantasy of a God-touched fanatic, surely. Matches made sure of that.

He’d all but given up by the time Apeetha dreamed our project into being, and while he encouraged such efforts, his own experiences had embittered all hope he had for success. That cynicism seemed justified in our first futile efforts, which suffered the same fate as his. He railed about the lack of consciousness and sheer vandalism.

One day Nerakutti and I were walking together near the Ashram, heading for a chai shop to refresh ourselves. On this particular scorching hot day, he was chattering along, actually telling a profane tale from his youth. Very much in the “bloke from the suburbs” mode. A small woman in a sari of the poor, approached us, clearly recognising him, for she pressed her palms in devoted greetings, adoration in her eyes. She fell to the dusty street and prostrated, touching the feet of my craggy companion. I watched him transformed in an instant from that ordinary ‘bloke’ from Sydney, into the holy man of her devotion.

He bent and touched her shoulder, returned her Namaste respectfully as she hauled herself up from the dirt, and we moved on towards our chai, almost as if the interruption had not occurred.

A few months later, after a bout of illness, he was found one morning, in the cross-legged lotus position of meditation. Dead. Grace to a frustrated tree planter.


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