My friend spoke a lot about Nikki and finally he helped me setup a meeting with her. As I walked into her house that evening, I could not stop but notice a Coconut Shell Medal with her name inscribed …I smiled and asked her
Shivoo: So Nikki ..Who are you?
Nikki: <Smiled> What have you heard about me?
Shivoo: Marathon runner, animal activist, Golfer, A fantastic sales person …
Nikki: Yes, depends on what time of the year you catch me! I lead my life horizontal unlike many people who lead a vertical life
Shivoo: So how did you start running?
Nikki: I actually started to beat depression. But
Shivoo: Why barefoot marathon?
Nikki: Most spiritual things happen in life with bare feet. So barefoot marathon for wellness of Coorg, wellness of Coorgies, wellness of Bangalore. Less is more and least is the best. It ignites a sense of centeredness when you run barefoot. Food we eat is worse than the food we stamp !
Shivoo: What is the secret behind your love for trees?
Nikki: Candle light walks fade away after the walk. Footprint needs tone there when you fight for a cause. So plant trees. Mark your bark and pass your tree to your next generation
Shivoo: Are you an animal activist?
Nikki: I am an animal lover. Animals talk more than someone who has a voice. All you need is a heart to hear them. You see kindness, you will be naturally kind
IN CONVERSATION WITH NIKKI PONAPPA
How did you get started on your philanthropy journey?
I was an active participant of the rat race. Quite proud to say so. One of the “standing out” students in class – as I always wanted to be out there in the field than being inside the class. No offense to people who study very hard, but I have been a sportsperson all my life. Sport has been the build of my character.
I always wanted to do something with sports. Hockey was my favorite sport. I got selected to play for Karnataka, as the youngest hockey player. I had planned my career in my head at that time, that post class 10, I will not need to study and will join the Indian Railways while playing professional hockey. After a twist of fate with a very bad injury during a practice camp for the Indian Hockey team, which forced me out of hockey, I decided to take my studies seriously. I finished a B.com and followed it with an MBA and went straight into the corporate scene and played an active role there for 7 years.
My passion was advertising. Right after my MBA, burdened like any other student with loans I realized that my passion alone won’t be sufficient to pay back the loans and aggressively move ahead. I decided to take the plunge in the deep end, took up a sales job in an insurance company. It was the best decision of my life. I was able to repay back my education loan, also was armed with a lot of money at my disposal. The flip side was I got arrogant and I put on a lot of weight. I was getting complacent at the age of 25/26. I was a rockstar at work, I got to travel all-round the world. For me the driving force during this period was money. It helped me live the life I thought I wanted to live.
In 2006, I realized that I was turning into a person that I did not want to spend too much time with. I was becoming bad company for myself. Excessively overweight and a mammoth social animal. I used to deal with HNI clients, and that was the only way to engage with them to drive home a lot of money. Realizing that this was not the way I wanted to go ahead, I decided to quit my job. I had a 3 hour grueling exit interview. Also during the same time, I remember reading a newspaper article which said women golf was going professional. I took a year to decide. I hung up my corporate boots and decided to wear golf shoes. At 27, the only game I could play was golf. Golf teaches you 2 things – nothing is permanent and you have to stay in the now. Golf is life.
During this time, I was still at my insurance sales job, I rescued a cat called Alfie. Alfie changed my life in return. I was headed for a movie – Honeymoon travels (I can even remember the movie), I stopped at the magazine store. The magazine store had these little kittens, mostly Persian. I saw Alfie he was playing with his siblings, and he had this little wound in his buttocks. Till seeing Alfie, I never liked cats. I always felt cats never made great pets, reva was a waste of 4 wheels and Pomeranian dogs were a waste of a dog. All of this changed; as whatever I said was a waste became a part of my life. I met Alfie, and while I was leaving from the magazine store with the magazines, I told the owner, I think you are feeding the little kitten adult food and that’s why he has constipated and hence the wound. The owner looked at me and said, I have been keeping cats for 15 years, so I know how to take care of them. Then I thought to myself, that maybe he knows best and left. Mid-way through the movie, my mind kept wandering back to the magazine store and the little kitten. I was thinking that this poor little kitten would never get the attention. So I went back to the store, and asked if I could buy the kitten. I had no idea at that time on what to do with cats. I had always grown up with dogs. But all I knew was I wanted to take that kitten away from the space. The owner of the magazine store, was quite adamant that he did not want to sell the kitten. Well him saying no ensured that I spent a night without sleep and now I was determined that I needed to buy this kitten of him. I was telling myself, I could sell ice to an Eskimo, yes he will sell it to me. Let me go back. I called him back promptly at 8 am next day morning, and asked if he changed his mind today, I want to buy the kitten. He again told me the same thing, I don’t sell my kitten, don’t call me. Now this became a challenge for me, I decided I had to get the kitten. From 8 am to 8 pm that night, I called him every 30 minutes. Over the course of the day, we got to know each other and became friends. By evening, he told me I could come over and pick up the kitten. I went there and he said I would need to buy the kitten. I was thinking, this kitten can’t be more 3000 or 4000 INR. He turned back and told me, that this kitten was a pure-bred Persian and I would need to pay 15,000 INR if I needed to buy him. I was in that zone, where I was arrogant and had scant value for it, so I gave him the money and brought the kitten home. Viva my roommate and I were living together at that point in time. Alfie was as scared as us. We did not know how to take care of him and he was wondering why we separated from his siblings. The only thing I wanted to do was to treat him for his wound. Now that I brought him home, he was going to be my child. This was the start of my motherhood. Alfie changed me completely. The funny part is I treated Alfie like a dog. He would get excited when the newspaper came, he could play hide and seek or he would get upset if I went out and came back late. He would keep staring at the wall. My association with animals started because I rescued Alfie.
“I was one of the “standing out” students in class – as I always wanted to be out there in the field than being inside the class.”
“The flip side was I got arrogant and I put on a lot of weight. I was getting complacent at the age of 25/26. I was a rockstar at work, I got to travel all-round the world. I was becoming bad company for myself. Excessively overweight and a mammoth social animal.”
“Golf teaches you 2 things – nothing is permanent and you have to stay in the now. Golf is life.”
“I joined this NGO in Hampi called anegundi kishkinda trust. Ms. Shama Pawar is a good friend of mine, she does a lot of work with women empowerment.”
“I felt that by doing what I wanted do, I felt that my thinking had become different. I turned Vegan thanks to Alfie.”
Please tell us about the successes on this journey?
My parents come from a defense background. I grew up in a home which had dogs, especially Labradors. I wasn’t so crazy of them, but I liked having them around. One thing, I used to notice, is that my parents always took great care of them. But after taking care of Alfie for over 5 years it changed me. Also during the same period, I also quit my insurance sales job and started playing golf. That made me look at life from another perspective. It made me realize that I could do so much more. I joined this NGO in Hampi called anegundi kishkinda trust. Ms. Shama Pawar is a good friend of mine, she does a lot of work with women empowerment. All of this also steered my sensibilities making me think, that there is so much one can do, and not let go of the rat race.
I was also brought up very differently, and always asked to follow my heart. I felt that by doing what I wanted do, I felt that my thinking had become different. I turned Vegan thanks to Alfie. I am the best person when it comes to animals, and don’t care too much about human beings. With animals you can build a relationship with them, without saying a word. It fascinates me. If you keep your heart filled with unconditional love, you will receive it back in abundance.
Being a professional golfer, 9 months of the year I travel, so when I left my home, I left Alfie with my roommate Viva. Viva is my inspiration for conservation and sustainability. I felt it’s unfair to take him away from his known surrounding and his girlfriend Pearl. I always felt a tug when I saw an animal that might need some help. During the time I was at Anegundi village, I felt that all that I needed to be was to be “kind”. That’s the only religion that we should preach.
The first year, after I stopped working, my CA called and asked me if I felt that I had done the right thing, as there was a subsequent drop in earning. But that year I was extremely happy with who I was and what I doing. I felt my life had expanded horizontally and I was enjoying the various shades of it. I was doing work with women empowerment and I was seeing how I could help at the Anegundi village. During this period, we found out that 63 children of the village were arrested by the police due to drug trafficking. These were kids of 16 years of age. The peddlers used the innocence of these boys to transport the drugs, as these boys were school dropouts. We worked with these kids to help them. These kids whom we worked with, aren’t drug peddlers anymore. Some have become plumbers, electricians, carpenters. We were able to touch their lives. Also some of them did not want to go back to school as they felt it was shameful. To help them we started a mobile library. They could borrow books and also volunteers who could go and teach or coach these students. Shama has really made a difference to Anegundi.
I am a type of person, and I cannot do just one thing at a time. I would like to whatever I can and however I can help.
What are your future plans?
3 years ago I wanted to do something for Coorg. That’s where I come from. The highest rate of depression is in Coorg. This report shocked me, as Coorgis are known for their gregarious nature. I felt that I needed to do something about this. I had a freak introduction to Milind Soman and I wanted to check with him if he will be interested to be a part of this initiative. I felt that may be running will help, as it will help with keeping depression in check. So I asked Milind, what do you think? Three years ago we planned to do a run in Coorg. What happened a year and half years ago, also was that 54,000 trees were getting cut to make way for a power grid that wasn’t required. It was a part of the timber mafia – where they decided to take the longest route to transport electricity and supply to Kerala, which Kerala did not need. Kerala farmers said they did not want trees to be cut in an eco-sensitive space to transport electricity. My community failed this resistance. A few of us stood up, wanting to make a difference.
This 54,000 trees had an everlasting effect on people across the neighboring states of South India. As the birthplace for river Cauvery is Coorg. Cauvery is the lifeline of the South of India touching 80 million people.
During this period, what my mother told me constantly kept echoing in my ears. “You have to do what you want to do for the love of your land, or what your ancestors have left you with. If other people come with you or don’t, that should not reduce what you want to do with your life.” I know every time I touch the boundary of Coorg, I know I have done something or contributed where I have made a difference.
We wanted to do the run, but we did not want 10,000 + people congregating there. We decided to do something differently, let’s do the barefoot marathon. Incidentally, last year’s barefoot marathon was the world’s first barefoot marathon.
We wanted to convey symbolic messages through the run – first being most spiritual things in your life happen barefoot and next, we wanted the people of Coorg to connect to the core, and how do we do it? Get them to run barefoot. We had 250 people who ran the world’s first barefoot marathon. Barefoot running ignites a sense of centeredness in oneself. We got international recognition from Christopher McDougall, the author of author of Born to Run and Natural Born Heroes. Our entire run was eco-conscious that there were zero plastic and garbage. The next day, we had no plastic or garbage lying around to clean.
We organized this marathon for the wellness of Coorg, people of Coorg (anyone who were staying in that region) and drive the awareness against deforestation of the trees for the power grid project.
Via the barefoot marathon, we were able to do elephant rehabilitation with an association called Anne Mane Foundation. We have lost 60 odd lives in one year due to man-elephant conflict. With more deforestation these incidents were becoming more frequent. I felt that we needed to engage in constructive activity that would help solve some of this program, instead of just slogan shouting and hugging trees. I wanted leave a footprint behind. So volunteers part of the program, made a pledge to plant as many number of trees as the ones taken out of the forest. Instead of going loggerheads with the forest department, we decided to work with school children and plant fruit trees in the forest. The first of this initiative has been completed in the forest area with 50 school children. Another round of plantation is expected in late May and mid-June. Every school was provided with 200 saplings which participated in the December run.
Also, during our first run in December 2015, we planted 150 saplings. Tata Coffee works were our venue partner and have converted the area of this sapling as a sacred grove.
We have also identified 150-200 volunteers who will be taking care of the saplings in their regions/zones where they have planted.
The next run that we are planning on December 11th 2016, we are joining hands with an initiative started by a friend Akash called “Mark your Bark”. Each participant of the run, will have their name written on the sapling and is very similar to adopting a child. One can keep coming back and seeing the growth of the tree. So what it does is, instead of the one photo opp it creates an emotional connect. This creates greater ownership. To know more about the barefoot marathon 2016 – http://www.coorgwellnessfoundation.com/. We encourage a lot of kids to come for the barefoot marathon. Change can begin early! This year we are looking at crowdfunding to run this event, instead of the corporate funding. We are looking at 1000 people to participate in this year edition. Looking to create a Guinness World Record.
“This 54,000 trees had an everlasting effect on people across the neighboring states of South India. As the birthplace for river Cauvery is Coorg. Cauvery is the lifeline of the South of India touching 80 million people.”
“You have to do what you want to do for the love of your land, or what your ancestors have left you with. If other people come with you or don’t, that should not reduce what you want to do with your life.”
“We got international recognition from Christopher McDougall, the author of author of Born to Run and Natural Born Heroes.”
All that anyone wants is love. If you give it unconditionally, you will receive it in abundance. That is something I have learnt from all the animals. Biggest lesson I have learnt from animals, even if you don’t have nothing to give, they have lots to give back. You don’t have to have much to do much. We can use more volunteers for our barefoot marathon. Just come with a big heart. Feel free to reach out to us at – firstname.lastname@example.org