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Bugs, Botany and the big questions

A year after giving up a salary and a big city life, a writer confronts new answers in the company of curious critters

Neha Sumitran holding ‘Salea anamallayana’, a genus of lizards endemic to the southern Western Ghats. Photo courtesy: Neha Sumitran
Neha Sumitran holding ‘Salea anamallayana’, a genus of lizards endemic to the southern Western Ghats. Photo courtesy: Neha Sumitran

There are ants in my pants. Big, orange ones, that gleam like drops of caramel in the morning light. A few have made their way into my hair, and another, more industrious troop, has managed to invade my shoes where they are launching a strategic attack on the gaps between my toes. I try to summon my inner Oogway, fail miserably, and resort to cursing loudly as my companions stick the weaver ant nest in a large garbage bag, and seal the opening. Next, we put the bag in the freezer for a bit, separate the ants from the nest, and finally use the insects to make Sunday lunch at the farm in Goa. My weekend plans have changed dramatically in the last few years.

Back in 2017, my life was as I had imagined it would be at 30. I had a cosy Mumbai apartment with wooden furniture, funky art and shelves full of books and knick-knacks from my travels. I had a job I enjoyed, in an office that was a 10-minute walk from home, and over the weekend, my husband and I would meet friends, get drinks, and binge on Netflix and takeout. It was a good life, filled with comfort, love, and laughter.

But somewhere along the way, we noticed a rumbling in our bones. A restlessness for something different: trees, moss, hills, hands-on work that allowed for a more meaningful relationship with our habitat. As a food writer and passionate cook, I was keen to understand where the vegetables, grain, and meat that I ate came from. My husband Vahishta worked at a medical start-up at the time. His interests lay in creating a self-sustaining lifestyle, where our food and energy needs are fulfilled by living off the land, independent of larger systems (he thinks of Mad Max: Fury Road as a cautionary tale).

So after two years of meticulous saving, we quit our jobs and sent our possessions to my parents’ house in Goa for storage. We put our essentials—clothes, laptops, camping gear—into the trunk of our car, and set off for the hills of Kodaikanal, in Tamil Nadu. We picked Kodi for three reasons: It had sweater-weather; I could speak Tamil; and Vahishta’s uncle had offered us his house for a few weeks. We had no idea where we would live after, how we would support ourselves financially, or how we would learn to farm. But there was only one way to find out.

Within two weeks of arriving in Kodaikanal, the stars started to align. We met the host of a permaculture workshop who let us take her course in exchange for help cooking meals for the participants, and we received our introduction to the world of natural farming. It was the first of many barters, which allowed us to spend an entire year gathering experience, without spending any money. That fortnight was a game-changer. It opened our eyes to the wonders of our natural habitat, its beauty, harmony and incredible efficiency. We learned about soil, microorganisms, trees, and the ethics of farming.

Permaculture is a design philosophy that can be applied to many aspects of life. Where farming is concerned, it is about growing food organically, in an ecosystem that encourages life and diversity, so that the act of farming regenerates the habitat, rather than strip it of resources. The ultimate goal is to create a food forest, a thriving jungle inhabited by animals, birds and insects, that also happens to feed you, and meets your water and energy needs.

We scored our first gig right after the course: working on an organic farm near Ooty, with cows, chickens, cats, dogs and dazzling lake views. We spent a month there, then went to Auroville, worked at a mango orchard in Faizabad, Uttar Pradesh, for another month, and finally landed in Goa, where we have been working for the last nine months. Under the watchful eye of our mentors, Peter Fernandes and Rosie Harding, we’ve begun to experience the joys and complexities of growing food.

Our mornings are spent at the farm in Assagao, planting, pruning and making compost, and in the evenings, we study botany, bugs and microbiology at home, engaging in heated arguments about mycelium and manure management. The first few months felt like being at university. Every day brought new learnings, and I could feel my understanding of the world expand.

Keen to apply our new-found wisdom, we started our own vegetable patch at home with pumpkin, basil, corn, beans, brahmi (Centella asiatica), brinjal, and okra. Our garden was a hotbed of activity, but every time a plant was colonized by insects, or yielded unpalatable fruit, I would get upset. So upset, that I began to ignore my home garden altogether until I realized how deeply my expectations were colouring my experiences. Of course I would fail. In fact, it is of paramount importance that I do.

With this awareness came liberation. The pressure lifted, and I came to see my plants as experiments, rather than successes or failures. It did wonders for my temperament too.

On Sundays now, I cook with ingredients we have harvested. I’ve discovered pumpkin leaves, the fruity heat of ripe pepper still on the vine, and that many weeds are actually delicious salad greens. When a banana tree keeled over, we harvested the inner stem to make thor ghonto (banana stem fry); when turmeric was harvested, we pickled slivers of it to add crunch to our meals (and good bacteria to our gut). Occasionally, we ate pests too, making chutney and rasam with big, red weaver ants. The diversity on offer is gob-smacking, and I can’t believe I spent the last 10 years eating the same handful of vegetables every week.

Other learnings were unrelated to farming. For instance, my relationship with my husband has changed dramatically. Neither of us really noticed until one day in Ooty, when we had the nastiest fight of our lives: about compost of all things. We didn’t talk for days (especially hard when you live in the middle of nowhere). Eventually, after soul-searching and solitary walks, I realized that this confrontation was probably a long-time coming. We had gone from having lives with independent work routines and friends, to spending 24 hours a day together. My husband had become my colleague, competitor, and confidant, all rolled into one.

It was rough, but with honest conversation, we learned to navigate our new dynamic. I realized the importance of “me time", of doing things that bring me joy. I began taking evening walks alone, scheduled regular Skype calls with girlfriends, and started making jewellery with pebbles. Eventually, I understood that my need for space was not a betrayal of my relationship, neither was my husband’s.

Money was another concern for me. Not having a monthly salary made no difference when I was in the boonies, but every time I visited Mumbai—with its ramen restaurants, gorgeous clothes, and bakeries where croissants gleam in the morning light—it would get to me. I felt frumpy, awkward about turning down dinner plans. Initially, I felt embarrassed that I couldn’t afford any of it. I even questioned whether I wanted to return to the city, but that wasn’t it. The truth is, I was scared that my inability to fit into my friend’s lives meant that I would eventually fade from them. It was a realization that blindsided me.

There have been quite a few of those in the last year, a process that is both challenging and rewarding. I am more self-aware than ever before, more curious, more knowledgeable, more “me". Yet there are times when this alternative lifestyle still feels like something I got away with. Despite how much I grow as a person, there’s a voice in my head that whispers: But you haven’t earned a salary in over a year! Perhaps this is because I come from a world where productivity and self-worth are intrinsically linked with money. Perhaps my sense of identity has always been rooted in what I do for a living: I was a food writer, therefore a food person, travel writer, traveller. For the first time, my way of life isn’t bringing home the bacon, and it has raised the biggest questions of all: Who am I, and what do I really want out of this life?

Some days I find the answers in the rush of a stream, the shimmy of palm trees, the joy of cooking beans I’ve grown from seed. On other days, I have only questions that make me feel vulnerable. And this is perhaps the greatest gift the last year has given me: the ability to sit with the questions, even enjoy their company from time to time.

One year and three months after we left Mumbai, I understand that I will grow with my plants, parts of me will die, and parts will bloom, and all of it, every tear, gash, and giggle, is what makes the process so beautiful.

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