Working Title The Lawyer and the Farmer

Working Title The Lawyer and the Farmer

Anuj Agrawal

“Oh just ignore him”, she nonchalantly tells me, with a dismissive shake of her hand. Unfortunately for me, the “him” refers to Zulu, a gigantic Tibetan mastiff who has taken an undue interest in my elbow. When I say gigantic, I am not exaggerating – the local villagers refer to Zulu (and his friend Pasha) as karadigallu or “bears”. She resumes her narration while Zulu continues to sniff and prod at my elbow. I think I hear a soft growl every now and then. I smile weakly. This might be a bit of a tricky interview.

by Anuj Agrawal

“Oh just ignore him”, she nonchalantly tells me, with a dismissive shake of her hand. Unfortunately for me, the “him” refers to Zulu, a gigantic Tibetan mastiff who has taken an undue interest in my elbow. When I say gigantic, I am not exaggerating – the local villagers refer to Zulu (and his friend Pasha) as karadigallu or “bears”. She resumes her narration while Zulu continues to sniff and prod at my elbow. I think I hear a soft growl every now and then. I smile weakly. This might be a bit of a tricky interview.

“Grass Roots” is the name Arati Venkat and Naved Ahmed have given to their six-acre plot located thirty-odd kilometres from Bangalore city. It is also where they have been residing for the last eighteen months or so, growing their own fruits and vegetables. Most significantly, “Grass Roots” is also where the two have chosen to follow their dreams.

Graduating from the National Law School of India, Bangalore in 1997, Arati Venkat spent the better part of a year working in the chambers of Dr. Amardeep Kaint before going to Leeds University for an MBA in 1998. After finishing her Masters, Arati coincidentally found herself taking up small assignments and working out of Dubai where her father was working. These assignments were in the managerial side, something that she was keen on working on after her MBA. In fact, the brief stint at Dr. Kaint’s office would be the only time Arati would be a “proper” lawyer. Even while discussing her days in law school, Arati is more keen on talking about the friends she made (“We had such characters!”) rather than the pros and cons of her legal education.

For her, Dubai provided an opportunity to work on the business side of operations, something that she looked forward to even though the money wasn’t great. “I remember I got paid a hefty salary of 3,000 dirhams for my first assignment. I remember the exact amount since that was how much a Bose music system cost. I just wanted to buy it and come back to India.” Dubai was meant to be a temporary halt but as the number of assignments increased, she ended up spending more and more time in Dubai. It was also the place where she came across one of the most crucial components of her future plans: her husband.

The first thing which strikes you about Naved Ahmed is his calm demeanour, a characteristic which comes into great contrast after even the briefest conversation with Arati. If Arati is all bustle and excitement, Naved is all calm and thoughtful. For every excited sentence Arati utters, Naved has his own few words to add, carefully and slowly, almost like a professor. To have a conversation with the two of them is to watch a performance of two strikingly dissimilar actors in a single play. It can get terribly interesting.

Back in 2000, Arati met Naved at a cultural do organised by the local Indian Association, an event which she would have “never even thought of attending” in other circumstances. In fact Arati was a character in a Hindi play (“my Hindi was appalling at that time”) being held for the event, while Naved was the compere for the entire event.

Roughly a year later, in February 2001 the two got married. For the next ten years, they lived the corporate dream: hi-pressure, deeply rewarding jobs, and salaries which allowed them to travel around the world. Arati ended up working for the Dubai Internet City, an SEZ created by the Dubai government to encourage foreign investment. Her responsibilities included monitoring operations and planning future strategies. She then shifted teams and ended up working towards the creation of the Dubai International Financial Centre in 2005-06 and more importantly, the Dubai International Financial Exchange. Those were some heady, exciting days.

In the meanwhile Naved had built a successful consultation practice focusing on sales, marketing and advertisement. He had even started two magazines (one focusing on young adults while the other was on beauty and fashion) which were eventually acquired by WPP Plc, the world’s leading advertising company. In short, the two were successful and had done fairly well for themselves. They were also satisfied that they had done what they really wanted to do: travel the region. It was time for change; it was time to go back home.

So what prompted their return?

“If we didn’t come back to India, it would mean starting all over again” and this was something neither of them really wanted to do. Plus, the unused property was a huge incentive, (“Half the reason why I married her in the first place”, Naved grins) allowing them to do something which the both of them had always shown a tremendous interest in: farming. Even in their apartment in Dubai, they grew twelve plants. In fact, Naved’s association with farming can be traced even further back. When he was twenty-five years old, he took a three-year sabbatical to work in a farming village about a hundred kilometres north of Lucknow, a stint which gave him an up-close look at agricultural life in the country.

Looking back, the choice was a fairly simple one to make even though Arati had initially wanted to move to a foreign city like London or New York. But it was their “Indian values” and the realisation that they would always be “second-class citizens” anywhere else that brought them back. Back with two simple rules: one, they would have to have dogs, and two live in a place where they could not see their neighbours. And that is how Grass Roots was born.

The plot itself was purchased by Arati’s father more than three decades ago and had been more or less left alone. In 2006, when the idea of returning to India was slowly taking shape, they strengthened the boundary walls. Construction of the house only began in 2009 and after missing several deadlines, it became clear that unless they were present on the site, things would never get done.

In February 2011, the two of them (accompanied by a ten-week old Pasha) moved into the as-yet incomplete house. “We spent our tenth wedding anniversary in a room locked up with a bottle of Old Monk and Pasha”, Arati recounts with a broad smile on her face. “And no ice! There was no ice!” It took another three months for the two of them to finally settle in, and settle in they truly have.

Did they find it difficult to settle into a rural environment? “The warmth that you get from village people, you don’t get anywhere else. They are quite simple, even in their greed.”, says Naved. In fact the two have managed to integrate themselves into the local community, attending nearby festivals and family celebrations. This has meant that security, an initial worry, has never really been an issue. “When you are in a village, a stranger is noticed immediately”, says Naved. It also allows them to enjoy a one to one relationship with the local service providers; the electricity department, water and sewage etc.

Best of all, the village life means an unlimited supply of peace and quiet. In the four-odd hours spent at the farm, there was barely a single sound of “civilisation”. While sitting on the verandah and sipping freshly squeezed tomato juice, there were moments when no one spoke and you could really hear the silence. Along with the quiet comes the time, the time to do what you feel like even if it is just reading a book (“I finished a Rushdie in three days flat” Arati tells me with a content look on her face.)

A typical day starts around dawn, when Arati makes a round of the farm and figures out what needs to be done. The actual sowing of seeds is done by hired labour while Arati and Naved focus on the planning and strategising aspect. They are huge believers of organic farming, using well-documented ways to ensure that the produce is free of any chemicals and/or pesticides. General know-how and techniques have been picked up through extensive reading (Arati is a big fan of the One-Straw Revolution) as well as through word of mouth. The nearby Horticulture Institute has also been a source of advice. The morning session is followed by a heavy lunch (the main meal of the day) which can then be followed by a siesta or some reading. Dinner is a simple, early affair.

What is particularly striking about their lifestyle is that it appears to be a well-calculated and carefully thought out move. They knew that although they were going to live in a rural setting, they did not want to compromise on their standard of living and set goals accordingly. While working in Dubai, they laid down clear, financial targets which had to be met in order for Grass Roots to happen. The planning stage saw they literally list down all conceivable expenses (including emergencies, cost of construction, living expenses etc), totalling their savings and then figuring out how much they needed to earn to make Grass Roots a possibility. “You must plan these things through” concedes Naved. Unless you do that, trouble will never be too far away.

This financial planning also means that they are now free to pick and choose what they do, experiment with both farming techniques as crops. The duo also invests a lot of love into the farm. While giving a tour of the farm, they talk about the latest fruits with real pride in their voices. When Naved plucks a ripe guava from a tree and hands it over, there is a slight look of expectation on his face, waiting for my reaction to the taste (which was delightful by the way). When they talk about how fresh the produce tastes, you can see their joy and their pride. “They respond to love you know”, Arati tells as she looks at the various flowering trees planted around the farm’s boundaries.

Her initial plan was to have a delivery system set up (under the brand name of “Earth Kitchen“)  where fresh produce would be sold directly to clients. However the problem with this was twofold: one, it would mean having a predictable cycle of production (something she has not yet mastered) and two, the costs of transportation would mean lack of profitability.

Which is where “Earth Kitchen Bistro” (EKB) comes into the picture. Arati’s pet project, EKB  is envisioned as part-café, part weekend restaurant; a cosy, private affair where one can eat locally grown, healthy and hearty food. It would be unfair (and inaccurate) to dismiss this as some sort of indulgence; the two of them have thought this through. The neighbouring Taj Kuteeram as well as Nrityagram, both of which draw regular weekend traffic, means that EKB already has access to potential clients. Furthermore, the planned scale (not more than 30 seats) requires relatively low levels of investments both in terms of physical infrastructure and staff. Most of the raw material is either available on the farm itself or can be purchased nearby (at prices lower than city rates). If the food served in their house is anything to go by, EKB is going to be a huge success.

Currently slated for an April 2013 launch, EKB is something which occupies a large fraction of Arati’s time. The other projects she is working on include reviving Vasant Habba, a highly popular cultural event in Bangalore which was unfortunately shut down in 2004. In that sense, both Arati and Naved are doing what they really want to do. It is as simple as that. What makes this case a bit different is the fact that there is a clear balance between impulsiveness and adequate preparation. Both of them caution against being swept away by the romanticism of it all. “A friend and senior of mine from law school visited us once. [He was] a real hard-core Gurgaon person. And as soon as he comes here, the first thing he says is “How do you guys order pizza? Of course after the fourth drink, he was in a totally different frame of mind.”

I don’t find that very difficult to believe.

As pointed out by a polite Reader, Arati and Naved featured in a blogpost available here. In fact, it was the author of that post, Vinod Joseph, who helped me contact Arati.

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