A small, ramshackle hut stands in solitude on a tiny, barren island surrounded on all sides by the Neyyar river at Neyyatinkara in Thiruvananthapuram. A narrow, precarious bridge is all that connects this house to the wider world.
Outside the house, under a shabby shed made of coconut leaves sits Darly Ammoomma (grandmother Darly), dressed in a sari covered by a khakhi shirt, and wearing multiple covered-gold ornaments.
Behind her the shed is packed to the full with all her worldly belongings, since the 85-year-old woman refuses to enter the house that she believes is inhabited by kutti chathans (little devils).
When she sees two people walk towards her, she immediately sits up wearily, asking, â€śHave you been sent by those chathans?â€ť
But she visibly relaxes once she sees a camera, as sheâ€™s grown quite used to speaking to the media over the years.
Though she has never been a professional social worker or activist, Darly is a well-known face in Thiruvananthapuram, thanks to the decades of agitation she has carried out against sand mining in the region. In her current obsession with chathans is wrapped up a remarkable tale of a lifelong struggle, and the tragedies born out of this fight.
Once a local hero and a favourite face for media cameras, Darly now lives alone on her island. Her humble house still stands because a group of school students paid to have it renovated some months ago. A childhood friend, 86-year-old Kuttappan, takes care of her daily needs, bringing her water from the river and cooking food for her every day.
A lifelong struggle
Darlyâ€™s life began and has always revolved around the same small house, where she was born and once lived with her parents, four elder brothers and a sister. But it is the land around the house that has been completely and irrevocably changed.
Till the 1980s, her house stood not on an island but on a lush riverside plain surrounded by dozens of other houses.
Bridge to her house
â€śThis was all a rich plain and there were many people living here. The river marked only one side of our property. But now they have grabbed everything and there is water all around,â€ť Darly recalls.
Everything began to change for the region when sand mining began along the Neyyar river in the early 80s. Thousands of tons of soil and sand were mined out of the area over the next couple of decades, while the authorities allegedly looked the other way.
As profitable as mining operations were, sand miners soon began to buy up land along the shore of the Neyyar. And with handsome rates on offer, those around Darly quickly sold their lands.
The only one to stand firm and protest against the environmental hazards of large-scale mining was Darly, who retired as an Attender at the Neyyatinkara Ayurveda Government Hospital.
Soon, Darly turned into a nightmare for the sand miners. Not only did she not sell her property, but continuously launched strikes and protests on the banks of the river.
â€śIn those days, her day would start with visits to police stations, meeting senior officials, meeting the Collector, politicians, social workers and anyone else who she could meet. Her only aim was to protect her house and the land she lived on,â€ť recalls Kuttappan.
Going even further, when miners would arrive in the dead of the night to cart away sand, Darly would physically block their work.
By 2003, even Darlyâ€™s brothers decided to sell off their land and move away. But she was stubbornly determined that she would stay on her land till her death.
â€śHer brothers went away and fought with her for not selling off the land, but she was not ready to do it. She was a warrior,â€ť Kuttappan declares.
Inevitably, there was backlash from the miners.
â€śThey robbed me. They took away my costly sarees, they killed my pets and chickens. They would come at night to attack me,â€ť Darly alleges.
Kuttappan further adds to the litany of attacks. â€śShe constantly wore a sickle at her waist. They tried to burn her house. Every day, stones were pelted at her house in the night. Her things were stolen. They tried to kill her in a road accident,â€ť he alleges.
It is this backlash, explains Kuttappan, that has morphed into the fear of the chathans in recent years. â€śStill stones are pelted on her house, which she thinks the chathans are doing. But, till a few years ago, she knew that it was all done by them (the miners),â€ť says Kuttappan.
A life tied to the land
According to Kuttappan, the sand miners went to the extent of offering Darly an apartment in Thiruvananthapuram city as well as Rs 80 lakh in compensation. â€śBut she did not give it up. So people thought she was crazy,â€ť he explains.
â€śFor them it is just a house, but for her it is everything.â€ť he adds.
Darlyâ€™s hard-fought battle against the sand miners even tainted her relationship with her one-time husband.
The marriage ended because the man Darly fell in love with and married already had two other wives whose existence he had hidden from her, says Kuttappan. By the time their relationship soured, though, Darlyâ€™s ex-husband came under the influence of the sand miners.
â€śHe gave a case against her seeking possession of her property. She fought against him alone, won the case in court and got back her land and house,â€ť says Kuttappan.
It comes as no surprise that Darly has refused even local authoritiesâ€™ well-meaning attempts to move her away when land erosion and flooding threatened her precarious existence. In 2013, for instance, Darly made headlines when the police had to forcefully shift her out after soil erosion began to cause landslides in the area around her house.
First moved to a hostel, Darly then stayed with social worker Sheeja Neyyattinkara for three years. Her protests still didnâ€™t cease, and she held numerous dharnas outside the Kerala Secretariat demanding to return to her house. While numerous politicians promised her help, it was students from the Vishwabharathi School who finally collected the funds to have her house renovated in 2016.
In February this year, the Neyyattinkara Municipality sponsored nine electric posts so that her house could receive electricity for the first time.
When monsoon flooding threatened her little island just a week ago, she was moved out of her home again. But this time, Darly waited no longer than three days before going back. â€śI canâ€™t leave this place and continue living. This is where I was born,â€ť announces Darly in a quiet voice.
Photos : Sreekesh Raveendran Nair
Edited by Rakesh Mehar