Do you remember how as kids, most of us were awestruck by the life of Mowgli? The carefree, naked, feral child from the forests of Pench in Seoni, a fictional character, was immortalised by Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book series.
While most of us only dreamt of living that life, a little boy living 50 metres away from the core of the Pench forests of Madhya Pradesh is doing exactly that!
Swinging from branches, running barefoot through the forests, imitating monkeys, chasing butterflies and enjoying tiger calls by his window at night, three-and-a-half-year-old Kaizen is unleashing the Mowgli inside him, and living life to its fullest. All thanks to his parents, Harshita and Aditya Shakalya, who gave up their corporate life to live close to nature and raise him in an unconventional way.
Kaizen was only six months old, when his parents quit their business in Indore in two months, to become caretakers of the ‘Tiger N Woods’ resort in the core of the Pench Tiger Reserve.
While Aditya was born in Delhi, Harshita was raised in Indore. The foreign-educated couple, with their exceptional marketing qualifications, has worked across industries. Harshita, a professional chocolatier, started her own business as early as 17! Aditya, who is a novelist, worked with several brands and publications.
The couple first met when they were working at the same firm and hoping to set up their own company. Sharing similar ideas and beliefs, they began their own social media and designing start-up in Indore. What started as a business partnership, eventually turned into a partnership for life.
Calling the couple workaholics once upon a time would be an understatement. Married in 2013, the couple even worked on their honeymoon! Harshita recalls their trip to Thailand that turned their lives around. “We were on our way to Krabi in a nice little van. But instead of looking out of the window at the visual treat that beheld us, we continued to worry about the network so we could work again,” she says.
That was the moment of truth for the couple. It dawned upon them that this clearly wasn’t the life they wanted to live for the rest of their days, especially with their future children. While deciding to quit was impulsive and easy, they had no backup plan, whatsoever.
It was only when everyone around them was welcoming the dawn of the new year that the opportunity came. At the New Year’s Eve party of 2014, Harshita and Aditya met a few acquaintances who started discussing Aditya’s new book, and a friend said he knew a place where Aditya could write peacefully and that he was anyway looking for a family who could manage the resort.
“By that time Kaizen was only six months old. We thought, why don’t we take it up? We were anyway thinking about raising him in a different environment, away from the exhausting city life,” says Harshita.
While they were lucky enough to receive a good education in city schools, that they are ever grateful for, she feels the current education system is flawed and schools have become commercial. “I knew in my heart that I did not want him to be a part of this never ending rat race. We did not want him to be worried about succeeding at something because the world expected him to or think that grades define success in life,” she says.
This was their opportunity to explore a life beyond the concrete jungle and do everything they ever wanted to as a family. By March 2015, they had stepped into their home with their backpacks.
Was the big switch easy? No. “We had lived the city and corporate life, partying till wee hours in the morning. So, the big switch was difficult. Visiting a park is way different than living in the core of a Tiger Reserve,” she says.
While living this close to the wilderness makes you feel one with nature, it continues to strike fear too, confesses Harshita. “It was scary, it still is. I, once had a cobra walk out of the bushes and Kaizen has had alpha monkeys growl at him. But the truth is, we are living in an area which is dominated by wildlife. It is their home, and we’ll always be encroachers here. So it was important for us to live in harmony with them and keep this place as close to nature as possible,” she says.
The first year was difficult when they were trying to rebuild the resort from shambles and struggling with electricity.
She remembers days when her heart ached while a young Kaizen would keep turning over, sleeping in the heat. But today, when she looks back, there are only happy memories. From watching birds in the forests from their 10-ft high machans to spotting deer, jackals, nilgais and other wildlife, they not only see, but also experience the changing weather every single day.
The nearest village, with over 30 to 40 homes, is right outside the Tiger Reserve’s main gate. Kaizen is an absolute hit among the villagers. Harshita remembers how he first ran to her crying out, “Mamma, machchar chaap gaya” which meant a mosquito bit him in the local dialect of the village. “He is more flexible and adaptive than most city kids and even adults. He strikes a conversation easily with new people. When guests arrive from other countries, he speaks to them in English and speaks to our village staff with the same ease in their local dialect. He also signs to our hearing and speech impaired staffers,” she says.
From knowing his way around the kitchen to growing fruits, vegetables and herbs, he assists the staff and continues to stay grounded. While most parents struggle to give their kids maximum exposure, Kaizen has the world coming to him.
Even though the kid might not write like most kids his age, he is learning all the basic skills he needs, to become self-sufficient. He started going to an open school this month, 60 km away from home called Caterpillar Labs. This school format has no age-specific classes. Instead, it holds different language and activity labs and helps them progress as and when they master each of those skills.
One of the reasons for sending him to school was that he started missing children his age. He’d get really excited when guests arrived with their kids but would be heartbroken when they left. With the resort giving them time for themselves, Aditya, who is also a qualified yoga teacher, holds workshops for guests and children. His recently launched Bodhisattva Yoga Foundation — for the emotional and mental wellbeing of young children — is teaching them to embrace the philosophies of yoga to fight early anxiety and depression.
While running a chocolate business was certainly not an option, Harshita went around the village and understood the local ingredients — rice, seasonal vegetables etc from the villagers. She launched her project called Pench Pickle Company, which manufactures marmalades, pickles, jams, squashes etc from the local produce.
So what if Kaizen wishes to move to the city when he grows up? She smiles and says, “Honestly, I know the city life would lure him someday. It lured us too. But it is his choice and call. We didn’t listen to our parents when we decided to take this leap of faith. But we hope we did our groundwork well with our young boy.”
And if you think Kaizen is restricted only to the village and forest all the time, you are mistaken. “Who are we to restrict him, honestly? In fact, we make sure he experiences everything. I want him to be what he wants to be. We take him to places within and outside India,” she says.
Embarking on several road trips, flights and trains, Kaizen has already travelled to Goa, Delhi, Indore, Varanasi, Sri Lanka, Andamans and other places.
Get in touch with Aditya and Harshita at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article first appeared in The Better India (www.thebetterindia.com)