With a tensed voice and sweaty hands, I was about to ring in my first ever interview for Rightstay (powered by MakeMyTrip). My nervousness had gone through the roof when I heard that I had the amazing opportunity to interview Ms. Malika Virdi, a resident of Sarmoli Village who since ‘92, has been an activist and whose name is on the Parivaar register.
I did a bit of research in order to understand where Ms. Virdi was coming from and what her story was and later decided to just go for it. When I called in, the phone was answered by a sweet, respectful voice which gave out a tone of understanding, yet was empowering and of someone who is still ever so humble, even after managing to accomplish such noble feats throughout her lifetime! At the expense of sounding too generic, I had a couple of straightforward questions lined up for Ms. Virdi to answer, so that I could get to know her as a person well before diving into what she does. What followed was one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life.
One of her most favorite things about her hometown, is hands-down it’s breathtaking view of the snow-clad mountains, owing to it being very close to the Nepal-Tibet trijunction. The Sarmoli village boasts of being located on the first plateau of the Greater Himalayas, which means it will be displayed grandly from your rooms. Talk about a view! The sense of love for her village was striking in her words. She painted a wonderful picture of her hometown that even made me close my eyes, and visualize a serene, beautiful village myself.
When she is not encouraging women empowerment, as well as building employment for her fellow villagers, Ms.Virdi states that she enjoys mountaineering, trekking, and of course, traveling. So, if you ask her what is that she really enjoys doing? She says with a sense of joy “Well, I like living close to nature and land,”. She also enjoys the time that she spends as a non-commercial farmer, which means growing enough for their own need, and a few cash crops.
Upon asking what her inspiration was to start a Homestay, this was her take:
“So I have been living here now in this village for as I said, for the past 22 to 23 years, and in 2003 I was elected as a Sarpanch of Van Panchayat. Basically, the Van Panchayat is a forest commons of the village,” she stated. Her aim for establishing a forest-based homestay, where animals will not be in any danger of their habitat being disturbed. Where they live in harmony with the humans, in a safe and comfortable nature. Where there exists a deep link between the forest and its inhabitants.
Here’s where the Van Panchayat come into play. Ms. Virdi believes that usually when you have a private property, then you feel more inclined to protect it and conserve it. But, when it is a common property, then people tend to take less interest and rather shift the responsibility on the other owner to take care of their land. This results in not enough plantation. By taking over the role of a Sarpanch in the Sarmoli village, Ms. Malika Virdi engaged people with work. “Because when there is the matter of having something on the stake, people want to protect it more,” she believes.
She also brought in a tourism program, as well as increased opportunities for volunteering labor for her fellow villagers. This includes training young men and women to act as trekking guides for those who want to explore the nooks and crannies of the beautiful mountains.
Though the idea of Homestays have become increasingly popular (especially in hill stations), a week spent in the Sarmoli village is anything but same.
Keeping up with the idea of providing a comfortable, homely feeling, the houses provide a spacious kitchen, where traditional village food is cooked using wood fire (and sometimes an electric stove). Thus emphasizing the tone of unique-outdoor-experiences.
According to Ms. Virdi, “the unique character of our Homestays coincide seamlessly with the standard ambience. This includes: having white towels and sheets in order to create a clean, professional look of the rooms. Whereas still relating to their nature theme by introducing many exciting activities in which even the guests can take part in! In her previous interview conducted by The Hindu, Ms. Malika Virdi describes how “visitors have an option to become part of the village life: sowing potatoes in April and rajma in June, harvesting barley, wheat and mustard in summer, then planting out the same in autumn, and cutting and stacking grass as fodder for winter through October-November. They become part of the process of growing food with inputs that are locally available: free abundant sunshine, farmyard manure and farmers’ seeds and labor. They also learn to use solar energy to cook and even bake, to weave with wool, or to make bamboo artifacts for everyday use. They can collect the raw material from the surrounding forests and high-altitude pastures”
One of the Homestays closest to her heart, is called the “The Glass Studio” (available at Rightstay). Much like the offbeat name, this place itself offers a one-of-a-kind visit! Been done up with quirky paintings and rustic walls, it only accentuates the whole laidback and fun vibe. Here, you can stare at the exotic beauty of Panchachuli Range all day long, savor the cultural programs, go on long treks, engage in rural activities or give recreational bird-watching a try!
Like Helen Keller once said, “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all”, Ms.Virdi also recognizes some of the many challenges that she faced while making homestay a familiar term in her neighborhood. “One of the main challenges faced was the fear of not being able to work as a team”, she recalls, “Because it’s not just about the money. There is a popular saying in our town, “Dukh Sukh ka Rishta”. It means that Sukh should not be only when there is profit involved, and the homestay should maintain a strong link between livelihood and conservation from commons. Sukh should not be valued by money. But I think it is also easier said than done. On top of that, we as humans seemed to have the wrong perception that nature is limitless. The aim for tourism should be to make sure that we conserve nature, while giving it room for enhancement. The second challenge was to ensure that there was no private money-making enterprise. That the success gained was not hoarded by some selected people.
Who are the people that inspire her the most?
According to Ms. Virdi, “Firstly, the local people of this region. The village community has managed to overcome many hardships for the past 100 years to grow this village. Secondly, my grandmother, a strong, challenging, and determined woman.”
Ms. Malika Virdi is also part of a women’s organization called “Maati”, which is a Sangathan aimed to strengthen and empower women. According to The Hindu, “they fight for economic independence, and take part in movements against the liquor lobby, and opposing ecologically and socially damaging mega-hydro projects.”
To find out more about such great homes in Sarmoli, visit Rightstay and make your next holiday a unique one by contributing and learning about the noble tourism-conservation-livelihood initiative.
By: Nina Sharma