Desperate Organics

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In pursuit of the perfect fruit and perfect vegetable, hundreds of Indians are taking drastic steps

In pursuit of the perfect fruit and perfect vegetable, hundreds of Indians are taking drastic steps

BABBAN MASKAR HAS to stay disciplined. His job demands it. Every morning at five, seven days a week, the 38-year-old farm worker sets out with 10 litres of milk and 10 kg of fruits and vegetables from Bhadavli village in Pune district for Mumbai, 143 km away. “The vegetable thaila goes on my shoulder, five kitli of milk in one hand and five in the other hand,” says Maskar. It’s a balancing act the wiry man has perfected over the last 15 years of delivering organic produce to his employers’ home. “In winter, my knees give me trouble, but I’m used to it,” he says.

If he had to, Maskar could make the five-hour journey in his sleep: half a kilometre by bicycle to the bus-stop near his home, then a half-hour journey to Kamseth railway station, a 10-minute train ride to Lonavala, switch to the Deccan Queen, then three-and-a-half hours from Lonavala to Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in South Mumbai, and from there, a bus ride to CCI Chambers where his bosses, the Poddars, live.

Mayurika and Shrikumar Poddar don’t go to supermarkets or call for groceries. “When my husband decided to go completely organic 15 years ago, it changed the way we eat and shop,” says Mayurika. Every ingredient that makes its way into the vegetarian Poddar household gets there as a result of meticulous on-the-ground research, extensive strategy sessions and deliberate planning. The final element in the couple’s highly evolved stocking system is Maskar, who delivers a kitty of chemical-free produce to their home every single day of the year. It is not an extreme indulgence for the Poddars, who are part of the estimated Rs 100 crore Indian organic food market. While organic non-perishable foods are showing up on certain retail shelves in the country, organic fruits and vegetables are largely exported to the more profitable $100 billion international market. And what’s left is usually mixed up with commercial crop. For converts like the Poddars, who believe in the evils of pesticide-laden produce, compromise is not an option. As a result, they and others like them have become 21st century hunter-gatherers, constantly foraging for food that makes the cut. They have to be innovative, disciplined and willing to learn old wives’ tricks for cooking and storing food.

In the Poddar house, that means the aluminium drums hidden within Mayurika’s modular kitchen cabinets contain over 100 kg of wheat, rice and grains, kept fresh by pellets of cow dung and urine, turmeric, one-tenth of an ounce of mercury, neem leaves and cement. In 58-year-old Ayurvedic practitioner Sudha Shah’s house, even the children know these recipes: add 1 kg of castor oil to 50 kg of wheat to keep the grains germ-free; 30 kg of ghee will last if boiled with cloves and nagar veil leaves. Twenty-nine-yearold Mumbai restaurateur Meghna Raj became a farmer because she believed sustainable agriculture was the better health and economic option, while 30-year-old Amol Mundada was so convinced of the benefits of untreated food, he started Arogyam, an organic retail outlet.

But everyone pales next to 32-year-old Vishal Jaiswal. Guided by the maxim ‘I want to keep my health while I’m in the matrix’, the infotech professional eats only the little organic produce he can source. His diet is 60 per cent fruit, 30 per cent leaves and 10 per cent nuts and grains. The only taste he consumes is sweet; nothing contains salt, spice or any other flavour. After experiments with vegetables from Mumbai markets, he found a reliable source in Umbhargaon, a village in Gujarat, about 150 km from Mumbai. “My body is so fine-tuned that I know when something has the tiniest bit of pesticide,” he says. To give his constitution what it needs, every Monday morning, Jaiswal hops on to the 9.45 Vapi Express from Mumbai for a shopping trip to Umbhargaon’s most famous organic farm: Savé Farms.

But farmer Naresh Savé can’t give Jaiswal much. Set up by Naresh’s father Bhaskar, an award-winning agriculturist, the family plot has bananas, coconuts and, in winter, chikkoo. A week’s worth of each fruit ends up in Jaiswal’s sparse bunker-like bedroom/office inside his parents’ suburban Mumbai home. All around are signs of a drastic lifestyle: the 8 or 9 litres of water he drinks throughout the day stored in large steel canteens underneath his bed (“I don’t use plastic”); nut-filled steel bowls suspended above a plate of water to keep ants away; and a shuttered hole in the wall above his bed that once had a wall unit AC (“My body temperature doesn’t fluctuate much, so I don’t need it”).

To understand how a man in a typical 21st century profession ends up living an ascetic life, you have to go back to the summer of 2002, when Murphy’s Law took hold of the life of a Bay Area techie with a turbo engine Audi A4, $6,500 in monthly salary and $13,000 in credit card debt. He lost his job in the dotcom debacle, couldn’t find any other employment, and then his H1B visa expired. “I studied Computer Science in California State University, and I had a life, I did ballroom dancing, hiking, mountaineering,”  says Jaiswal. Always a vegetarian, he shopped at farmers’ markets, and other than his distaste for tea and coffee, Jaiswal’s diet resembled that of most liberal yuppies in the area.

Things changed when he returned to an insignificant tech job in an insignificant company in the industrial zone of Vashi in Navi Mumbai. “I was miserable. I had respiratory problems, and a lymph node infection the size of a golf ball,” he says. It was during his eight-month bed-ridden recovery in 2005 that he discovered the benefits of a raw organic diet, and a yogic way of life. “Nothing else worked,” he says. Four years since, Jaiswal swears he’s healthier because of his sparse lifestyle. “I haven’t put back my 69 kg, but I feel much better.” He is four kilos short of his target.

Eventually, Jaiswal would like to move to rural India, where he’d live studying Sanskrit and enjoying Calvin & Hobbes’ adventures. “First I want to earn some money in the US,” he says. “I have few expenses here, but still it’s hard to pay my study loans, save and live. And there I could just go to Whole Foods.”

Jaiswal’s personal experience has made him a passionate, if sometimes misguided, critic of the Green Revolution that increased India’s food production through the use of fertilisers (plus irrigation and high-yielding seeds). “We are filling our bodies with carcinogens,” he says. “But I have stopped spreading the word because I’m getting a bad image.” On the other hand, there is plenty of criticism that ‘organic’ is just smart branding. “People lack understanding. It has nothing to do with money,” says Shrikumar. “People are naïve enough to say that if chemical fertilisers were bad, then the government would ban them.” Even within families, people who prefer organic food can be marginalised. Some store and cook separately, many never eat in other homes and most avoid restaurants.

If someone is trying to revolutionise and educate, it is Mumbai Vegans, a city-based group that eschews dietary animal products, including dairy. Its members have just taken what is possibly the biggest step in connecting the dots between supply and demand of fresh organic food in an urban centre. After spending months canvassing farmers, middlemen and possible customers, in April, organisers sent an email informing their associates that they had found farmers in Maharashtra and Gujarat willing to supply two to five tonnes of fresh produce. So, starting May, the Mumbai Vegans’ Organic Supply Network will ensure that anyone who signs up for a fee of Rs 100 can pick up Rs 500 worth of chemical-free vegetables, and some fruits, every month from pre-ordained collection centres.

It is a hallelujah moment for folks who don’t have their own Maskar. But even his employers don’t take the trouble they do simply because they can. The Poddar household is about more than just the anomaly of a 143-km-long daily delivery system. It reflects Shrikumar Poddar’s larger philosophies about the right way to live. He first moved to the US in the 1950s, and founded a very successful direct mail marketing business. He came into contact with organic principles 30 years ago, when he met the late Cesar Chavez, a prominent civil rights leader and union activist who used Gandhian tactics to improve the lives of American migrant farm labourers. A trained farm worker, Chavez was a critic of the use of pesticides in agriculture, and even led a boycott of toxic Californian grapes.

Inspired by Chavez’s strict dietary rules, Poddar initially switched to organic produce on a trial basis, then found it so beneficial that he stuck to it and even promoted the concept through an organic restaurant he ran from 1996 to 1998. Today, even Shrikumar’s large retinue of household staff only consumes organic food.

But it is Mayurika’s logistical genius that lets Shrikumar live out his doctrine. The couple now lives part of the year in Michigan, US, and the rest in Mumbai. But eschewing commercially-produced fruits and vegetables has complicated their lives in both countries. With the organisational skill of a procurement officer, Mayurika has trailed and traced organic farmers across the country for every ingredient she requires: when at home in India, rice, grains, milk, fruits and vegetables come from the Bhadavli farm; during the monsoon season, she taps producers in Baroda and Pune; even pappad is home-made with organic ingredients by a batch of housewives in suburban Mumbai’s Borivli.

Since American organic grocers don’t stock the more rustic pulses and grains indigenous to India, once a year, an air cargo of 200 kg of various dals arrives at the Poddars’ Michigan home. “I make the order while I am in India and oversee the packing,” says Mayurika. “All the grains are sealed in home-made cotton bags with cow dung tablets to keep everything fresh. I leave on a Friday, and by Tuesday morning, everything is at my doorstep in Okemos.”

For the trouble she takes, Shrikumar is a 69-year-old who doesn’t suffer any of the lifestyle diseases his friends have. Jaiswal’s respiratory infections haven’t come back since he changed his lifestyle. And Shah’s adult children, all three of whom have never been inoculated, haven’t taken an allopathic tablet in several years. Is it the power of organic food? They certainly believe it is.