Hema Sane: Meet The Lady Who Has Been Living Without Electricity For More Than 60 Years

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Retired academic and author Dr. Hema Sane, 78, has been living without electricity for over 60 years now. Silver Talkies meets her at home.

Can you imagine life without electricity? Dr. Hema Sane, 78, can. The retired Botany professor from Pune has been living without it for over 60 years now. What prompted her decision? “My parents and grandparents also lived this way and this is the life I learnt,” says Dr. Sane, who decided to continue living without electricity by choice even when she graduated from Fergusson College, Pune in 1960 and went on to study further, including getting a doctorate, for which studied and wrote under oil lamps at home.

Dr. Sane is fiercely independent-minded but no recluse. She has taught at Pune’s Garware College from 1962 to 2000 and also headed the department of Botany for some time. She has been an active academician, writing books and giving talks, all these years, until an orthopaedic ailment limited her mobility recently.

As she leans on her stick and walks around doing her chores in a plain cotton sari, Dr. Sane tells me about her life, spent in the company of her three favourite things — students, books and gathering knowledge. In her simple attire and surroundings, her story is also an eye-opening lesson of our own unconscious bias and perceptions. She herself is unperturbed by how people think about or view her.

“I have been living in this house since the late 1940s, when my parents and grandparents started living here. I did not understand the significance of their choice then. I have followed what they practised because I believe in it.”

Even now, she doesn’t make much of the fact that she has not been using electricity, despite living in Pune’s bustling Budhwar Peth area, surrounded by neon-lit shops, temple bells and the daily cacophony that a busy road in India brings. Her own home, a somewhat dilapidated old cottage in the middle of a garden filled with Ashoka and Sweet Tamarind trees and an ancient well in the backyard that she still uses, is a somewhat unbelievable aberration. She lives alone with a dog, two cats and a mongoose who lives on the premises.

“And birds, every morning I wake up to them,” she says, before pointing out a Fantailed Flycatcher hopping nearby, who she says loves sipping on milk left out in the pan.

Dr. Sane’s brother, who lived here with her after their parents passed away, died four years ago. “I don’t have any relatives and I’m happy to live this way,” she declares, adding that she does not welcome unwarranted advice from visitors even if well-intentioned, so only those who are comfortable with her way of life are welcome.

In the middle of chores

Though she won’t admit it in as many words, Dr. Sane’s decision to live without electricity has been driven by her deep love for the environment and a desire to live as simply as possible. The lack of electricity hasn’t meant a hindered life. She has a doctorate in Botany and at the age of 46, got a Master’s degree in Indology due to her love of History.

Dr Sane has written books on subjects ranging from Botany to Indian History, all in the light of the solar-powered lamps and oil lamps she uses for her daily needs. Some of her books on Botany are part of the curriculum for graduate students in the University of Pune. She has also given several talks on the Mythology of trees. She has never used the Internet (or for that matter, a television, refrigerator and other electronic items) and relies on books and academic research to gain knowledge and broaden her learning. Her trusted companion throughout the day is a radio and she has been honoured by All India Radio, Pune for being a long-time listener and scriptwriter.

Dr Sane’s book in Marathi on the Buddha and his teachings. She has been invited to speak on the subject many a time

Dr. Sane’s simple hut is crammed with books. They’re in stacks on the floor, inside two steel cupboards and even on the single bed where she sleeps at night. “They are my best friends,” she says, her conversation peppered with trivia – on history and trees.

Did you know that Flame of the Forest or Palash trees gave its name to the town of Palashi, where the Battle of Plassey was fought? Or that Samrat Ashok was one of the first conservationists our country had. “His stone edicts specified which animals could not be hunted, specified days for slaughter and even mentioned why chaff should not be burnt after harvest,” she says, alluding to the smog that choked Delhi in early 2018.
Dr. Sane’s last book was written in 2018, on Sustainable Development, in Marathi. She has written over 25 academic books and 10 books on general subjects, ranging from plants to Indian history.

Orthopaedic troubles notwithstanding, Dr. Sane potters around her home, beginning her day at 6 am. “l do everything myself,” she says, walking a step down to the well next to her hut and drawing water. “See, there are no mosquitos in the well! Though I cannot use this water for drinking any more, I use it for all other purposes.” She sweeps and washes the overgrown garden every morning, bathes and does a puja. She believes in God but doesn’t think rituals need to be followed, though she does have an idol at home. Her real belief is in nature. She points to two blackened oil lamps in the garden, at the base of a tree trunk. “I light these lamps every evening as homage to the tree Gods, I worship nature.”

Dr. Sane doesn’t believe in labelling herself an environmentalist or goes by modern day hashtags like green warrrior. For her green living has been the way of life since childhood. “I follow what I believe is the right way of life for me and I have no advice for anyone and won’t ask them to follow this,” she says, though as our conversation progresses, she talks about how sustainability is the only way forward. As we step out of her darkened cottage and the morning sun streams through the tall trees surrounding it, she does admit that the love for plants and animals is too deeply ingrained in her to imagine any other way of life. It was how her parents, whom she calls “liberal-minded” were too. “If we could manage to live this way, then why not? Our resources are limited here on earth. We need to reuse them as we cannot replace natural resources. We need to keep in mind the six Rs: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Restore, Respect.”

Dr. Sane has battled prejudice, misconception and ridicule for the way she lives all through her life. Her property being smack in the middle of the city has meant real estate agents and builders constantly trying to hassle her.

“People always have something to say. This looks like a jungle and some people say why don’t you clean it,” she sighs, looking around the sprawl of leaves, mulch and wilderness. “Some of them ask me if there are snakes here.”
Are there snakes, I ask.
“Maybe there are. Honestly, I’m more scared of human beings than I am of any animal. Humans are the most dangerous.”

The biases had followed her at work as well. “People had an image in their mind about how a Head of Department should be attired or the way she should be living. My only answer was, I’m good at my work, so why should how I choose to live matter to them?”

Indology remains her passion

All this has never mattered to her students, many of whom continue to keep in touch with Sane and have a lot of love and respect for her. She’s been a favourite teacher for many. She has guided students until recently and mentions that they are always welcome home.

“God has been kind, there are people who visit me regularly.” Her publisher’s office is nearby and Manish Agarwal, who works there drops in regularly to bring her medicines and other things of daily use. As we talk, a local vendor walks in to help her adjust the watering hose for the plants, given the dry season coming up. Dr Jagdish Bhutada, an Ayurvedic physician treating her since years, visits regularly to check on her health.
An ex-colleague of Sane’s lives nearby and drops in almost every afternoon with some home-cooked food. “We spend some time together, both of us doing our own reading. She gets some bhaji (vegetable dish) and I make some rice.”

“I don’t feel lonely at all. People keep dropping in but even when I’m alone, I stay occupied with my books and papers,” she says.

Her extensive reading and knowledge gathering make Dr. Sane is a treasury of information around the subject she loves – trees and plants. Trivia is never far from her mind, conversations easily leading to it. We talk about Pune University, where she worked as an advisor post-retirement and she tells me about the two olive trees growing in the campus, the only ones in existence in the city. “Go and look them up.”

Dr. Sane doesn’t worry over things out of her control, such as the future or failing health. She may not be ritualistic but likes to recite shlokas and stotras (devotional chants) to calm her mind.

“I live in the present moment. Don’t worry about the future and you will be alright.”

All photographs: Silver Talkies

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About Author

Reshmi Chakraborty

Reshmi is the co-founder of Silver Talkies. She loves books, travel and photography.