Janaki Lenin talks to TNM about how reluctant she was to move to the paddy field, and how it became home to her later.

Paddy field to forest in 20 years A Chennai couples astounding green journeyJanaki Lenin
Features Human Interest Tuesday, June 05, 2018 - 13:16

This is the story of a paddy field that gave way to a verdant forest. A story of how the golden-green rice field was replaced by a dense, brown forest, of tall palmyras that followed the dainty paddy stalks.

This is the story of how an arid landscape is now a bountiful jungle that houses several varieties of flora and fauna.

When Janaki Lenin moved into this 13-acre rice field in 1997 with her husband, the snake man of India, Romulus Whitaker, she absolutely hated it. “I wasn't inspired at all. I didn't want to be here and the first time we visited this place was in May - the worst time of the year,” says Janaki.



The field, located 30 kilometres outside Chennai, was surrounded by hillocks on one side and was within driving distance from the Madras Crocodile Bank. This fact and that it was fairly close to the airport worked in its favour. “Back then, we were both filmmakers and were away for about 9 months in a year, so it wasn't much of a problem for me,” adds Janaki.

At first, they tried transplanting trees from the Madras Crocodile Bank in the field. But when this failed, they decided to do it the old-fashioned way. “We had done this in some other places, including Dakshinachitra, where the transplanting had worked successfully. But not here in the hard clay of our farm. Every single tree died. There was no choice but to go through the longer route - germinate the seeds, grow the seedlings in bags and then plonk them in the ground,” she wrote on Twitter.

However, this too failed as the hot summer breeze was not favourable to the growth of the saplings. “That is when the Dude said we have to change tactics. We planted the Australian acacia - auriculiformis or earleaf acacia,” she continues.

The Australian acacia protected the saplings from shrivelling up and soon enough they were able to  grow. Later, they cut down the acacias to let more native trees grow. They planted a number of native trees like nava maram, badam, tamarind, Arjuna, Kudukka and Iluppai. They also planted species like Gmelina arborea, lannea coromandelica, cassine glauca and pterocarpus marsupium, increasing the forest cover of the area. 

A feat like this, however, is no mean task. But did they get some kind of support from the locals? “Of course we had no local help, we were undoing everything their forefathers had done. Also, we never explained why we were doing it. It was a very utilitarian task for us and not social,” says Janaki. She also shares that later they learnt from the Irulas that the area was once a forest that was plundered for its timber. 

From her initial reluctance to live there to growing an entire forest, Janaki chronicled her experiences in her book ‘My Husband and Other Animals 1 and 2’. The area is now home to several species of birds, animals and reptiles.

Jungle cats

Spotted Civets



“We’ve been able to identify close to 200 species of birds, some not well known in the area - Oriental dwarf kingfisher, Paradise flycatcher, Indian Robin…” she names a few.

Janaki also lists some of the other animals that frequent her lawn and sometimes her house. “Rock agamas, common toads found in unlikely places inside the house, hares, palm civets that feast on ripening fruits, the ruddy mongoose and porcupines that frequent in the nights,” she adds.

Bonnet Macaques



Rock Agama

Common toads

Tree frogs

Her experience with a leopard, however, was something that changed her as a person. “When the leopard took away one of my dogs, I was furious. I wanted it caught. But then Dude asked me, ‘If it can’t be here, where else can it be?’ When people who’ve lost their goats and cattle (their monetary sources) to these predators and can co exist with them, what do I have to lose? It made me rethink my view of the world,” she says, adding, “It is the process of acceptance - to live and let live.”

Their land now stands out - a patch of green in the middle of the brown earth and the lighter rice fields.

All photos courtesy: Twitter / Janaki Lenin

Along the way, Janaki has grown fonder of the place that she was once reluctant to move into. “You invest all this time and energy into the place and you begin to develop an affection for it. It is now a hard decision for us to move from this place that has now become home,” she says with a smile. 

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