A woman forest guide's gritty tale of survival

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Sudhamma, 64, is no alien to the forests of Thattekad. For, she has taken in the forests like no one else. It has been her provider for years now. Sudhamma had little to aspire for when her husband died 34 years ago. Sudhamma, grieving in her home, quickly realized that she had two more mouths to feed – that of her two children.

She started off with a ramshackle teashop. From there, it was a long and arduous journey of transformation for Sudhamma - into a homestay owner and a guide with a huge repository of knowledge on the flora and fauna of Thattekad.

In Thattekad, there is no forest trail that Sudhamma has not taken. One cannot miss the woman guide who reels out info to visitors in English.

Up the forest trail: A woman forest guide's gritty tale of survival

Sudhamma got married to Chandran in 1971. “The Thattekadu of those days had no amenities or travel facilities like now. My husband had a boat and we had a small house near the river bank. Thattekad was notified as a bird sanctuary in 1983. We had a teashop there. I used to assist my husband in the shop. He passed away and my life turned bleak all of a sudden.”

“After a week or so of mourning, I revived the teashop with help from my mother and a boy in the neighbourhood,” she said.

To birdwatching

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Sudhamma says she owes it to Dr. Sugathan for making her a bird-watcher. In Thattekad, Dr. Sugathan used to organise nature camps and ornithology sessions. “We used to supply food, refreshments, and snacks to those attending the camp,” she said. She said she started taking an interest in the sessions.

Sudhamma said some visitors started staying in her house. She was eager to talk of birds and animals to them and Dr. Sugathan’s classes helped.

Dr. Sugathan noticed the tea-supplier listening intently to his lectures. “He sat me in and that is how I became a licensed guide,” she said.

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Into the forest

Mostly, scientists and ornithologists come to Thattekad and stayed in Sudhamma’s homestay. She said she started going into the forests with them. She picked up English too, on the way. She says now, she is confident of speaking to anyone in the world. “I can write English. I understand French and a bit of Tamil and Hindi, too,” she said.

Sudhama says she has spotted over 165 varieties of birds. “Thattekad is my world. I have learned from my bird-watching experiences first-hand,” she says.

Cancer years

As she was building up her life from scratch, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She had to undergo 25 radiation sessions and five chemotherapies. It was but a short break. Sudhamma but was on her feet soon after.

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Changes in life

Sudhamma says cancer made her modern. “After cancer treatment, I fell down and broke a limb. I could not wear my blouse. I had to switch to churidar.” She says she found the new attire comfortable. She says she could even run if a wild elephant chased her.

Sudhamma says she never fears the forest. She believes the essence is in understanding the forest. Sudhamma says there are not many forest guides in Kerala. Sudhamma says women could be good forest guides if they desire to be. And, the attestation comes from one of the best guides in Kerala.

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