Oona : Mountain Wind
by National Book Trust, Jasjit Mansingh
by National Book Trust, Jasjit Mansingh
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“I am a little past page 195 of Oona Mountain Wind , a book I picked up on the advice of a friend… There are points in your book which are familiar. The name ‘Theo′, IRMA, Anand, the NDDB…perhaps more as I read on.” The letter was dated 2 October 2001 and it was forwarded to me by the publisher, Srishti.

I was touched that a stranger should feel compelled to make contact with me even though he was not even halfway through the book. He introduced himself as Managing Director of one of the Tata Enterprises.
Further down, he wrote:
I wonder if IRMA would plant a tree in their compound called ‘Oona′ and another one beside it called ‘Ilya.′ Left to me I would choose….
He had understood, even by page 195, that trees, the lungs of the earth, had been Oona′s life, so to speak.
He continued:
How do we bring out the ‘Oonas′ in us? Could this be another purpose of your book? India needs Oonas. Not one, but thousands. May your book provide the inspiration.

Life Well Lived

Ranjit Lal remembers Oona who set different goals for herself in these dollar-driven days and worked at reaching them.

As V.B. Eswaran writes "about some facets of her personality and her chosen field of work; of her concerns and caring, for the environment, for people, and doing something about those concerns, and learning from practice how to do better."

“But first, let me introduce you to Oona. I first met her back in the early 1980s (she must have been about 19 or 20), when she was in Delhi University and a member of Kalpavriksh, an environmental NGO, which I had just joined. A trim, attractive girl, with dark intense eyes and a smile that could knock your socks off and make a cactus drop its thorns. She had a wonderful knack of making friends and a marvellous hands-on approach to issues. Above all, there was an intense sincerity about her fuelled by an open honesty that made you feel scared for her at times because this world is so full of villains ready to take advantage of such people.”

Eventually Oona went off to the Institute of Rural Management at Anand, in Gujarat, and I lost touch with her. Snippets of news drifted in from time to time — I heard she had gone to England to study further, then got married and settled in Kumaon. And then, in late August 1996, that she (at 33) and her little daughter Ilya had died of mushroom poisoning.

When such things happen, you sort of blunder around in circles (like a buffalo around a well) trying to make sense of it, because it seems that without an explanation, we human beings are never satisfied and can never let things rest. This book goes beyond that, and tells us why it is important that we must pick up the baton, so to speak, and carry on.

I had very little idea of what Oona had done or achieved in the intervening years, until I read this book (and the bigger, earlier one Oona: Mountain Wind, also by Jasjit Mansingh and published by Bluejay). And, perhaps, more important than her "achievements" per se was the way she went about reaching her goals and making her ideals work.

Oona knew she wanted to work in the field of environment and rural development, and that the way to go about this was to get to the grassroots level. She had a passion for trees and the mountains, was immensely curious and loved to travel and meet people. She didn′t pass judgement on people, but was intensely observant, writing reams of notes (some in extraordinary detail) and long letters about the places she had been to and the people that she met. She was hugely idealistic ("each one of us must be crusaders, for this giant nation which is blundering on"), but backed that up with a professional education, solid hard work, sincerity, and a practical hands-on approach ("only action counts," she wrote).

And she was aware of the pitfalls too: "I get frightened at times," she wrote to a friend. "It is so easy to join the club of parasites and slip into a life where one takes without giving." (How many of us can plead "not guilty" to that?) And she was aware and acknowledged that it was the stable and solid backing from her family that enabled her to take her chosen path in life.

After graduating from IRM (A) and working on several projects for a couple of NGOs, Oona and her husband eventually founded their own NGO, Aarohi, based in Satoli in the Kumaon hills in 1992. By 1995, Aarohi′s work roster included women′s development, water resource management, forestry and land use, upgrading common land, sanitation and health care, farmers′ organisations and education. The NGO continues its work.

Sport was another passion with Oona. She was a crack swimmer (and would happily plunge into the nearest river or canal wherever she was), played tennis, flew Tiger Moths, scuba dived, and skied, among other things. As she wrote, "I can′t tell how much I enjoy sport, to be taught how to perform well, and to be skilful enough to look good while doing it."

"It is just wonderful to know that so many people are willing to care for their environment if they are given the right type of help and approached in a way comprehensible to them," Oona wrote. And for those, who think such a life is tough and unglamorous, well yes, tough it is but here′s what Oona had to say about it: "I love to live in an area where one can walk at all hours of the day and night; talk to any old person and it is not misconstrued. It is living in a happy human way. I think how much on guard one has to be in a city." A happy human way, that′s how Oona lived her life. We owe it to her that now, we should.

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