“I’m on a mission to rebel against myself”
Hari Chakyar wears many hats. A writer at an advertising agency, an upcycled paper artist and a popular eco evangelist/activist to name a few. Last year along with his filmmaker friend Anthony, created Project 35 Trees--a 4 month long epic journey across India to plant saplings and teach children/students to take care of them and grow them into trees. His project has moved and inspired thousands, setting a new bench mark as India’s first ever independent and crowdfunded eco education/action project. When we called Hari for this interview, he invited us over for lunch and to watch a Marathi (A local language spoken in the state of Maharashtra, India) play with him. This interview is a collection of all the conversations we had with him through the day
Tell us a bit about yourself and what you do.
I work in an advertising agency called Grey Digital in Mumbai during the day—that’s what I do for money (don’t tell my boss that). I like cutting used paper now and then and make art with it. I also plant a lot of trees. A little more than a year ago, on the 10th of October 2012, a friend of mine and I left on an all India tour. It was called Project 35 Trees and the idea was to plant saplings that would eventually grow into trees in all 35 states and union territories of India (now 36). After 102 days of planting, we got back in January this year.
How and where did your obsession with trees begin?
I think I’ve always been a little on the greener side. Both my parents come from very green backgrounds in Kerala. I remember visiting my mom’s place in Kerala close to the Tamil Nadu border for summer vacations. The days were beautiful and nights were horrible because there was no electricity. I miss that house we used to live in now that it’s gone. I think in a way, those summer vacations have been a great inspiration for me.
I really miss that. I think there’s this nagging feeling to bring all that greenery back. But more consciously, it was about three years ago when we used live in Ambarnath and it suddenly started getting very very hot and the Maharashtra govt.’s poor power management schemes didn’t help much either—we didn’t have electricity for 8 to 9 hours a day and I started thinking about a permanent solution - not the air conditioners, not the coolers that we can invest in. I think growing trees struck me as the only right solution to this problem. If you grow trees, it helps curb global warming—that simple. I’m sure it’ll take a long time to reach Ambaranth but I realised that we had to start somewhere and eventually create a movement to do this on a larger scale.
"It all started as a vague idea"
Tell us a little more about Project 35 Trees. Where did it start and what was the journey like?
So my travel partner, Anthony is a film maker and runs a production house called Rolling Films. I was just bouncing this idea off him vaguely and said “I want to travel around India and plant trees.” He immediately said, “I think I’ll join you and make a film about it” (he hasn’t reached anywhere on the film yet but I’m sure it’ll be great). He was more than 50% of project 35 trees.
It took a lot of planning—we took a three month head start because I had to convince my company to give me a 3 month sabbatical. It’s not every company that agrees to let an employee take off for 3-4 months. But they agreed and were very cool about it (a shout out to my former employer Jack In The Box Worldwide for that). We did not want to spend much on staying in hotels and stuff so we thought couch surfing could be a great idea. Not just the website but the actual concept as well. We took to social media and asked people to help us to find places to stay, schools and colleges to meet, plant with and people to contribute. In that way, it was very humbling to see so many people reaching out and making it a completely collaborative effort. I would like to call Project 35 trees, India’s first ever crowd funded and collaborative eco project.
How did you decide on crowd funding? Especially in India where the culture is quite new.
We were actually ready to put in our own money. I had about Rs. 1Lac of savings (around $2000) and Anthony said he’d put in the same too. We went to our guiding light, Prof. Sudhakar (he runs the Wilson College nature club in Mumbai and is the one who inspired us to take up something we strongly believed in.) with this idea and he thought it was great but pointed out that our financial planning was terrible (HAHA!). He said, “You’re already dedicating so much of your time and energy to do something good for the society and hence the money should ideally come from the society too.” He asked us to give crowd funding a shot and so we did.
We went about asking people for money, and if not, asking them to spread the word about it because it helps us reach out to more people. We got people to contribute as much as they could. The smallest amount we got was Rs. 1 and the largest was Rs. 20,000.
"A project by the people for the people. The way it should be."
You're in the digital advertising business yourself, how did that help?
We really wanted the project to trend on twitter (just like all those iPad giveaway contests) which did not happen. But at the end of it, we managed to generate about Rs. 4Lacs (around $6,500) out of which we used Rs. 3,50,000 and we have the rest of the money which can be used to get the film (when it comes out) to reach and educate far more schools and colleges. Our crowd funding platform was Wishberry—they set up a profile for us and we updated it with pictures and happenings every now and then so that people could contribute online too. So in that sense, it was crowd funded from start to end. We haven’t spent a single penny from our pockets—it is for the people by the people.
What are the most interesting experiences you've had during this project?
Fortunately, they’ve all been positive. I think when people come across such kind of initiatives which are for the betterment of everybody, they open up and help you as much as they can and a lot of times, even go out of their way to do something for you. For example, in Amritsar, someone who owns a five star hotel offered us a super cool suite to stay at for three days. That was awesome!
A specific incident worth mentioning—we reached Agra around Diwali last year and we wanted to plant saplings. Now, if you know anything about Diwali, it’s definitely not the best time to do this. We couldn’t get any of the families, schools or colleges to allow us to plant. In the end, our rickshaw driver who hadn’t spoken a word till then, took a moment and said “All you want to do is plant a sapling and someone needs to take care of it and grow it into a tree right?” I replied with a huge yes (and a big smile across my face)—he immediately volunteered and invited us to his place. That coming from a rickshawallah was awesome! He had a cow and buffalo inside his compound and we ended up planting there. That’s one of my favourite stories.
"Maintaining mental sanity while travelling so much is a big challenge"
What kind of challenges did you face during this project?
Something that I really liked and was equally challenging was crowd funding this entire thing. It is NOT easy. And it will sometimes even surprise you. One of the biggest surprises was when a friend whom I hardly know contacted me on Facebook (I was obviously spamming everybody every day. HAHA). She wrote me a nice message saying that her brothers who live abroad sent her money during Rakhi (an Indian festival) and this time, she would be sending all that money to the project. That felt great!
Also, maintaining mental sanity when you’re travelling so much is a big challenge. By the end of it I think, Anthony and I couldn’t even look at each other. HAHA!
Why is that?
The loneliness kind of gets to you if you’re not talking to too many people. Anthony kept calling back home and some friends. We were fine when we were talking to other people but otherwise we were like this couple who were going through a bad phase in their marriage. HAHA! (Maybe not that bad).
What was the puppeteering video you shared about?
One of the challenges was definitely getting the point across to students. Because the Indian education system emphasises SO much on text books and it revolves SO much around reading them, getting inside their heads about environmental awareness is a very very daunting task. So the message has to be as entertaining as possible (Advertising has taught me to sell anything so I thought I’ll try and use those skills). In one of the schools, I took out the Raja and Rani (king and queen) puppets I had just picked up from Rajasthan and jumped into character. I did not really have a script so I went with the flow.
The story was about an evil king who wakes up one day and says “I can’t see anything from here. Chop all the trees down!” and his minions go chop the trees off and the the queen is very “pareshaan” (worried). I used to do a lot of voices for fun when I was younger and it actually helped during this project. The story ends with a wise voice from heaven yelling at the evil king and things like that. I think these kind of things made the trip a lot more fun along with a purpose. You never know what skills might come to use when you’re travelling.
How many saplings have you planted in total?
Around 250 during Project 35 Trees and around 180 in Ambarnath earlier. I haven’t really been able to plant trees in Bombay because there’s a serious lack of space in this city.
What was the most satisfying thing about this epic journey?
I don’t know about satisfaction but more than anything, this feels like I’ve broken a barrier within myself. I have always been a very goody-two-shoes kinda guy through school and everywhere. I had always been that obedient kind. I never imagined that I could’ve done this if you had asked me a couple of years ago. I'm really glad I did this because it feels like it was a rebellion against myself.
Three places everybody should visit in India?
1. Nagaland - It should always, ALWAYS be during the Hornbill festival that happens between December 1st to the 7th of every year. It’s a common ground for all the 16 tribes in the state to meet and showcase their arts and cultural presentations. You get the awesome-est Rice Beer ever called Zutho too!
2. Pondicherry because of the grand human experiment called Auroville. I personally don't like it because it feels like a fancy NGO but is surely worth the visit.
3. Indo-Pak camaraderie in Amritsar.
If you had one advice to give?
This is not really advice but something I truly believe in - There’s a human cycle. You are born, you grow up, get a job, get married, have kids, buy a house and this goes on again and again. Even if you don’t lift a finger, these will happen automatically and if they don’t, our society is designed in a way to push you to do them. Complaining that you don’t have time for anything else apart from this is absolute bullshit. If you really want to do something, you’ll already be doing it in some way. You just need to acknowledge it and commit to it.
Oh…and, I think everyone should plant at least one sapling in a lifetime. Nothing beats the feeling of watching your own tree grow.
In what way has this journey changed you?
I think travel in general makes you a better person. You realize that just because you want things to happen in a certain way, they won’t happen that way. You learn to let go, to be more patient, to say ‘It’s okay’. You learn not to fret about things that are beyond your control. For e.g. a delayed train might ruin everything that you might have planned ahead but there’s really nothing you can do about it. But fretting about it will only make the journey more difficult.
What is that one thing that keeps you going?
Planting a tree gives me immense joy. There’s something very relaxing about digging the soil, raking the mud out with your hands, taking a sapling out of the bag, carefully putting it into the pit and patting the soil back in place. It is this serenity that I am after. It is this that makes me plant over and over again.
What does success mean to you?
I don't think about it.