Learning with Vasundhara
Part I: The Vegetable Garden
It was on a hot summer day last March that I first met Dr. P Vasudevan, the owner of the luxury resort I was holidaying at. Vasundhara Sarovar Premiere lay on the edge of Lake Vembanad in Kerala, and was proving to be the much-needed “peaceful getaway” I had been yearning to do for a quite a while.
It was after a leisurely breakfast at the Mystic Spice, the main restaurant, that I bumped into Dr. Vasudevan in the lobby. A member of the staff had told me that no stay at Vasundhara is complete without a conversation with this man. He usually made it a point to talk to all his guests personally, and I wasn’t surprised when he approached me and struck up a conversation asking how my day was going. A few minutes into the exchange, both Dr. Vasudevan and I realised that we had something in common: our love for gardening!
Dr. Vasudevan had humble beginnings. Son of a small-time farmer, he grew up in a village in the Palakkad district of Kerala. He later migrated to New Delhi, where he studied and worked hard to build a career for himself as a buying agent in the handicrafts and textiles industry. Today, his list of awards and recognitions is a long and varied one: a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Indian Government for his work in handicraft exports, the Karshaka Shree Award for his agricultural activities, a doctorate from the Viswaprakash International university for his philanthropic activities.
The fruit of his years of hard work and perseverance has today taken the shape of a luxury resort, Vasundhara Sarovar Premiere. This state-of the-art property is an ideal destination for all kinds of holiday goers: a family with kids, a couple on their honeymoon, or a solo traveller looking for a retreat, like I was. Adjacent to the resort is a plot entirely dedicated to an organic garden. Conceived and nurtured by the man himself, this organic garden is Dr. Vasudevan’s prized possession. When he learned of my interest in gardening, he offered to take me around his vegetable patch. Delighted, I agreed.
“Let’s go then,” said Dr. Vasudevan.
I looked outside. It was noon, and incredibly hot.
“Right now?” I asked.
“When else?!” he replied.
To reach the garden, which was outside the resort, we had to walk a long way: first by the waterfront, then along a ten feet wide creek, and ultimately, past a cluster of thatched huts. Before it became a garden, the area had been a fallow piece of land. Dr. Vasudevan had always dreamed of doing something with the land. So, about a year back he decided to use his agricultural expertise, and created the vegetable garden, spread over one acre of land. Neat rows of plants lined the length and breadth of the area, with little inroads along and within it.
So we began our “tour”—him walking five steps ahead, me struggling to keep up, dupatta around my head: my only protection against the vicious afternoon sun.
Our first stop was a small chilly plant. He held out two black chillies, and asked, “Have you ever seen anything like these?” I hadn’t. He told me how they grew chillies of various intensities, sizes and colours. “We have the cheena malag too,” he said, “that’s grown near the kitchen.” Cheena malag — small, bulbous and red — is the hottest chilly found in Kerala.
Because of the high emphasis placed on organic farming by the State Government, Kerala, today is on the road to self-sufficiency in vegetable production. Most households are converting their terraces, rooftops, and whatever bits of unused space they have into organic patches of green. And while it is quite a difficult practice to adopt for big hotels and resorts, Dr. Vasudevan is wholeheartedly trying to convert his resort into a completely eco-friendly and organic zone.
“This very garden supplies our kitchen,” Dr. Vasudevan told me with pride. He bent over a set of brownish leaves. “Red cheera, a hybrid variety of spinach,” he explained. I had eaten Kerala style cheera thoran once before. It was a light crispy dish of spinach stir-fried with spices. “Now that you have seen the ‘source’,” he said, his eyes twinkling, “you must order it tonight at our restaurant.”
Further down, I saw rows of green papaya trees, clusters of yellow brinjals, and small, round cauliflowers.
“Cauliflowers?” I asked him “I didn’t know one could grow them in Kerala.”
“Well, we usually don’t. Cauliflowers thrive in cold weather, not in a place like Kerala, which is hot and humid,” he said. But the enterprising Dr. Vasudevan had somehow devised a way to manage it. It wasn’t uncommon for him to pick up something for his garden, wherever he travelled — in fact, he always made it a point to.
The afternoon grew warmer and I struggled to keep up with Dr Vasudevan. “Don’t drag your feet,” he chided, “Come, look at this beautiful peacock flower, have you seen anything as unusual as this?” I was amazed how this man, who was almost double my age, was so energetic and fit, full of curiosity and wonder.
The coconut trees stood at one corner of the patch, not as tall as one would expect, but shady. Laden with coconuts, I counted at least thirty on one plant. Dr Vasudevan told me how he had sourced these special high-yielding saplings from Mannoothy. My eyes then fell on a tiny coconut which had rolled on to the gravel, and instantly took me back to my childhood. Many kids in my grandmother’s village would tie a stick to these baby coconuts and roll them around — “coconut wheelies”, I used to called them.
By the end of our tour, I was visibly tired, and Dr. Vasudevan visibly relaxed. And happy. He had thoroughly enjoyed the walk and talking about his precious garden. In a way, the resort had given him a new lease of life. When he was sixty, Dr. Vasudevan had suffered a major health setback, and was advised complete rest and relaxation. But, life had other plans for him: after treatment at an Ayurvedic Centre in Coimbatore, he slowly got better, and in a couple of years, he was back on his feet. It was then that he decided to build his resort, turning a deaf ear to his family members’ protests. I guess one could attribute it to his entrepreneurial spirit, which was a part of his personality.
At dinner that day, I asked the waiter to get whatever the chef recommended. But it had to complement one particular dish, which I absolutely had to have on the table that night: the red cheera thoran, of course.
cheena malag: a type of chilli found in Kerala
cheera thoran: stir fried spinach with spices