Spotting tiger pug marks, gazing at Himalayan peaks and savouring ‘Neembu Saan’, a Kumauni delicacy … Winter diaries from Almora

Eating only home-grown organic vegetables, looking after cows and consuming fresh milk, breathing in the fresh air, connecting with your roots, spotting tiger pug marks in your courtyard, and spending most of your day playing with dogs and pups and shooing monkeys away while working from home and fulfilling your professional commitments … if this sounds like an exciting life, writer, director, and filmmaker Kanchan Pant is actually living it

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In July 2020, as the world was coming out of a long and painful lockdown, Kanchan Pant, a writer, director, and filmmaker, took a brave decision. She, along with her husband and two-year-old daughter, moved from Bangalore to her 100-year-old ancestral home in Almora, a town in Uttarakhand … lock, stock, and barrel … to live a peaceful and stress-free life. Along with setting up a professional base in Uttarakhand, her routine now includes feeding the cow, gardening, and shooing the monkeys away. She is completely enjoying connecting with her roots; for instance, learning to make ‘Neembu Saan’ – a winter delicacy savoured in the Kumaun region during winters and letting her daughter play in the dirt. While her life may have changed, her dreams haven’t. She wants to give talented youngsters in Uttarakhand a platform so that they don’t have to flock to Mumbai, as creative people usually do, to showcase their talent. The idea is to help them create a niche for themselves so that they can dream big while living in small towns. In this interview, she talks about the big shift and life after.       

These days, the biggest pull for the family to come back home is that it gets to pick fresh vegetables from the garden

What motivated you to move back to your roots? Was the decision triggered due to the lockdown and the choices made available by the Covid-19 work-from-home options? How difficult was the shift?  

We moved to Uttarakhand in early July. Our ancestral home in Almora is about a 100-year-old beautiful building. My husband and I were always aware that at least one of us would have to eventually come back. We kind of knew that it would be me. I almost shifted to Almora a couple of years back. But then I became a mother and it felt wise to go back to Mumbai for some time. So, I wouldn’t say that we came back because of the pandemic, but it was certainly a catalyst. There are many things one needs to consider while shifting with a two-year-old … the climate, health facilities, schools etc. But once we finally decided to move, there was no looking back. It was as easy (or difficult) as it is to shift from one society to the other. The locals were extremely warm and welcoming although most of them still don’t get the point of us moving here. Many still think that we will go back as soon as the pandemic is under control.  

The family woke up to this view one winter morning. They could see the fresh snow on the Himalayan peaks

Having lived/worked in big cities, was it difficult to start living in a small town? Talk about the initial days.

I moved to Delhi right after my graduation. I was only 19. It has been almost 15 years since. I have lived in metros like Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, and even Tokyo. When you live in such big cities, you get used to a certain kind of lifestyle and comfort. You have machines and devices to help you with the daily chores. Good hospitals and schools are within your reach. These things change after you move to a small town. Soon after we moved, the family who used to take care of the house had to leave because of some personal reasons and we were left with a cow and a calf. We had absolutely no idea about what to feed them, in what quantity. We found a lady to milk the cow, but we had to learn everything else. On top of that, we were in quarantine, so we couldn’t go and buy basics like vegetables. But we were getting plenty of milk every day. So, we learnt to use milk in different forms in every meal … paneer, curd, cheese, sweets. We also utilized this time to clear the land, remove the weeds, and to make a part of the land fertile again. Those days were very exciting!

Spotting tiger pug marks in the courtyard in the morning

What are the advantages of living in a small town? How challenging it is to live in a secluded house like yours?

For me, the biggest advantage has been that I was able to get rid of the unnecessary stress and noise from my life. While living in a city, the noise becomes a part of your life and one gets used to the chaos. We breathe in fresh air now, we eat non-toxic, organic vegetables, and drink pure milk. The cost of living has come down substantially. These are some of the visible changes, but subconsciously, many things have changed. When you live in big cities, you are just a face in the crowd. You don’t get to meet your friends often. You are practically non-existent if you don’t have a job and a distinguished identity and you don’t fit in if you don’t have a fancy home or a big car. In small towns, these things matter a lot less. That gives a deep sense of security.

My house is my most favourite place in the world. I enjoy the greenery and the open space around it. But, living in a secluded house has its own set of problems. On the third day after we moved, we were baffled by a strong stench. It was as if someone was burning something. We later realized that there was a tiger around. It’s pretty normal here. It has become our morning ritual to look for tiger pug marks. We now know that a tiger crosses our front yard at about midnight and then early in the morning it returns. Then there are leopards. We have to let our dogs in the house after sunset as that’s when leopards usually attack. Spotting snakes is also normal. The first time I saw a baby snake inside my house in the middle of the night, I froze. I spent all night researching how to keep snakes away, how to identify poisonous snakes, and the immediate steps to be taken if somebody is bitten by a snake. During the monsoon, we spotted snakes in our courtyard almost every other day. It’s not that we don’t get affected by their presence anymore, but we have now started accepting their existence. To realize that the earth does not belong to just the humans and all the other creatures have an equal right to live was a humbling experience. If their presence is an inconvenience to you, it’s your problem, not theirs.   

Neembu Saan is a Kumauni delicacy that is savoured during winters in the hills. Rich in fiber, antioxidants, and Vitamin-C, it’s made using lemons (or any other citrus fruits like Malta or oranges) and bhaang (hemp seeds). Watch this video to know how Neembu Saan is prepared

Do you miss going to malls and multiplexes, dining out or the convenience of ordering food via apps, meeting friends over a cup of coffee, or other luxuries and conveniences of city life?

I lived in metros for nearly 15 years but didn’t really become a city girl ever. I always enjoyed having my evening tea sitting in my balcony, alone, rather than going to a coffee shop. Parties, multiplexes, shopping … these are the things I can live without. To be honest, small towns are not so small anymore. The options are limited, but many online shopping websites operate in Almora as well. I was surprised to see that a few restaurants do home delivery of food too. 

How does your normal day look like?  

It’s been almost six months since I moved here and believe me, I have not had a single mundane day. There is so much to do on a daily basis that even 24 hours seem limited. Our work keeps us busy, but we spend a lot of time gardening. I feel so proud that we turned around an entire area in just 5-6 months. Also, our family members now include two dogs, a recently adopted four puppies, two cats, a cow, and a calf. There are interesting problems. Like, one dog hates sharing the house with the cats, so we have to be attentive all the time so they don’t get into a fight! The other dog loves to tease the calf. A family of special guests – monkeys — keep visiting multiple times in a day! They keep us on our toes!

How has your lifestyle changed?

We have transitioned into consuming non-contaminated, non-toxic food. Junk food and beverages are completely out of our lives. We eat what is available to us in our surroundings and not the ‘branded’ food. These days, the biggest pull to come back home is that we get to pick fresh vegetables from our garden. Apart from potatoes, onions and some other occasional ‘change-of-taste’ vegetables, we haven’t really bought any vegetables from the market in the past three-four months. We have planted many medicinal plants and now I want to plant fruit-bearing trees as well. I was always into gardening but it mostly meant buying plants from a nursery. Now I preserve seeds for the next harvest, make new plants from the old plant cuttings … it’s really satisfying. We have started mushroom farming and the first crop is due anytime now. Water is a scarce commodity here so we restored an old water tank for rain water harvesting.

Pant is loving connecting with her roots. On Diwali, we per the tradition, she made a mud temple and placed a deeya inside it

Do you miss having a friend circle? Do you sometimes yearn to have meaningful conversations?

Yes, I miss my friends, the care-free conversations, and informal gatherings, but I am not completely disconnected from them. Most of our friends are fascinated by the hills, so, I am planning to create a getaway for them so that can spend some quiet moments. Creative people can work from anywhere and they connect irrespective of where they live.

Your daughter is still very young. What does this shift mean for her? Won’t she miss the city exposure?

Probably this dilemma stopped us from moving earlier. Talking from my personal experience, growing up in a small town laid the foundation of who I am today. I have interesting stories to tell, I am not dependent on material luxuries to get entertained, I connect with nature and find strength in it. But it’s also true that I grew as an individual while living in cities. So, I have no intentions of cutting all my ties from city life. Our work is rooted there, most of our family members live there. So, we are not going to be depriving our daughter. We want her to have the best of both worlds.

You are now trying to set up a professional base in Uttarakhand. Usually, creative people flock to Mumbai, but you came back. Talk about this reverse journey. 

Mumbai is an amazing place to work, but I had realized long back that I would not be able to keep up with the pace. I don’t want to be a part of the ruthless competition. For me, life is more than work and money. As far as creating good content is concerned, it can be created from anywhere. The only challenge that I am facing in Uttarakhand is to start everything from scratch. It is exhausting, but I am thoroughly enjoying it.

There isn’t a functioning entertainment industry in Uttarakhand. Pant’s dream is to set one up

The young people of the region must be immensely talented, but do you think not having the right connections and exposure can deter their prospects.

Exposure and connections are important. I faced these problems 15 years back when I had started out, but things haven’t changed much even today. That’s the precise reason why I came back. I know that most of the talented youngsters here will never get access to the film industry. Even if they do, it will take them years to rip off the self-doubting image of themselves and to accept themselves as equal to the people they are going to be competing with. I am trying to help them create a niche of their own so that going to Mumbai is an option and not a necessity. I have met many writers, artists, singers, musicians, and cinematographers in the past couple of years who didn’t or couldn’t go to Mumbai. They lack professional exposure, but they are raw and fresh. Since they don’t know the set pattern, they don’t follow it, which makes them unique. I am trying to create a platform for them. We don’t have a functioning entertainment industry in Uttarakhand. My dream is to set one up.

Pant’s two-year-old daughter has adapted very well to her new life

How has your daughter adapted?

Not long ago, I used to show pictures of animals to her. Mosquitoes were the only insect she knew and occasionally she would spot street dogs. Fast forward a few months, she now recognizes the sun, the moon, the stars … she even points at Mars and Jupiter. How many city kids have the advantage of learning things by looking at them, touching them, and not from the books? She plays in the dirt, scares off (at least she thinks she does) the monkeys and pigs, she knows the difference between a pebble, a stone, or a rock. She tries to climb trees and feeds the cow … and she is not even two! Every time I see her do all this, I know I have made the right decision.

(Image and video credit: Kanchan Pant)

The coronavirus-induced lockdown and work-from-options have encouraged many people to try connecting with their roots. But Bangalore-based Harini Srinivasan, who describes herself as a natural farmer and children’s writer, made the shift to a rural, farm-based life much before the lockdown happened. Read her story here.

“We had a wonderful time driving around within a 50 km radius of Bangalore, looking at land. A year of picnics!”

says Harini Gopalswami Srinivasan, who describes herself as a natural farmer and sometime children’s writer. In this interview with Prerna Shah, she talks about how she made the shift to a rural, farm-based life and if, inspired by the choices made available by the Covid-19 work-from-home options, you want to consider a shift too, read on…

Harini, if you could tell us a little about yourself, also about your life in Bangalore before you moved to your farm?

I’m part of that bad generation, the baby boomers. Grew up in the 60s, came of age in the 70s, lived all over the country (my father was in a transferable central government job), and loved being rootless. The consumerist lifestyle crept up on us unawares in the late 80s, but within a decade I had its measure and began to make conscious decisions. I think of myself as primarily a homemaker. I taught briefly in a school, and edited for an academic journal for many years, but it was always part-time. I liked to reserve so much time for my family – usually including an animal or more. I also wrote a few books for children. That got squeezed into the busy schedule somehow, and I remember them as fun times with my daughters, who participated enthusiastically in whatever I was writing. Once they grew up and moved away, I lost the motivation and the momentum.

What motivated you to look for a piece of farmland and to then make the move from Bangalore to your farm?

I’d always dreamt of living on a farm, leading an outdoor life, having a lot of animals. My husband and I also love mountains and, for a long time, we thought we’d move to the Himalayas someday, live in an apple orchard with a view of snow-covered peaks. But ‘someday’ seemed far off, and by the time we were both in our fifties, we realised we wanted to live close to our daughters. So we decided to compromise — do what we could here and now. 

We had a wonderful time driving around within a 50 km radius of Bangalore, looking at land. A year of picnics!

How did you find the land that you now call your own? How does one go about finding a piece of land to own and (then) farm or cultivate?

Each state has its own laws regarding agricultural land. Early on we realized we could not own farmland in our state, Karnataka. Fortunately, Tamil Nadu was within easy driving distance. We answered ads, talked to people, met brokers. We wanted land with a view. At last, we were lucky to meet a retired state government revenue officer, who was very knowledgeable and reliable. He helped us buy our land, and also became a good friend. We bought our land (in 2011) with three friends. (And built our house there by the end of 2013). That’s a nice thing, to have good friends for neighbours. Though only one of them so far has built a house there and visits regularly.

One piece of advice for anyone buying land: Make sure the papers are good, of course, but also make sure that the people around are friendly.

One piece of land we looked at was lovely – huge old trees, good soil, sloping down to a lake. But the minute we got there several scowling men turned up to say the land was under dispute. On enquiry, it turned out the people in that village were very quarrelsome. We’re glad we stayed away. Where we live, we are lucky to have generous and friendly people around and don’t have to waste our energies in protecting our property.

In your blog, you talk about keeping a lot of things in mind while designing your house, the well, and a number of other things around the farm. What were the thoughts and ideals that guided you to take these decisions?

We didn’t know a thing. If we had known half as much then as we do now, we’d have done many things very differently. We were scared to death and the house reflects that. We were told not to have glass windows as people would throw stones. So, we have wooden shutters. Our younger daughter insisted we should be able to make a quick getaway in case we were raided by elephants, and that was built into the design. Then we were sure leopards would eat our dogs, so we built a high-walled courtyard. Now we know: the villagers don’t throw stones, you can’t get away from a herd of elephants, and there are no leopards in the adjoining forest (at least for now).

The main thing we got right was deciding to be off-grid. We didn’t want electric wires going across our land and electrocuting elephants. And, of course, there was a kind of romance about the idea. Anyway, it makes us self-sufficient and not at the mercy of an unreliable power supply, especially as we are so isolated. Our house is built of stabilized mud blocks and has recycled windows from a demolished 100-year-old British-era school. It’s quite a small house, considerably basic. When people come to stay, which isn’t very often, it’s a bit of a crush. Fortunately, the two bedrooms and bathrooms are spacious, and we can be outdoors all day. We have a solar-powered water pump and a solar water heater, and we now have rainwater harvesting and a large tank to store the rainwater. These were all good decisions.

Can you also tell us a bit about your efforts in minimizing the use of plastics in your daily life — from food in plastic packaging to cleaning products that come housed in a plastic bottle or container.

This is such a long and boring story, I’m sure no one wants to hear it in detail! Suffice it to say that I have for many years now been dedicated to cutting out plastic – products as well as packaging. I buy groceries, fruits and vegetables in cloth bags for choice, and occasionally in paper bags. I use natural toiletries, laundry powder and housecleaners – things like shikakai, reetha, besan and neem-twig toothbrushes. Many are homemade or homegrown, and some bought from organic stores, almost all with no packaging. I’ll trudge miles to avoid a plastic bag, driving everyone around me nuts. My partner in crime is the Navadarshanam CSA.

What do you grow on your farm? And what grows wild and uncultivated that you find useful as well?

We grow the traditional crops in our area – ragi or finger millet, avare or bush beans, peanuts, and small quantities each year of different things like moong, urad, tuvar dal, til or sesame. We have 22 mango trees, about 10 papaya trees and a few guava and sapota trees that bear fruit. Not yet bearing, but tended lovingly, are several coconut trees, banana, custard apple, jackfruit, lemon, orange and sweet lime, gooseberry, avocado, breadfruit, mulberry, moringa, etc.

The main trees that grow wild in our farm are non-edible species – honge or pongamia, Malabar neem or melia dubia, palash, laburnum and a kind of thorny acacia. They provide much-needed shade, mulch, firewood, and food and habitat for non-human critters. They also add beauty to the land and, when they are flowering, the perfume is intoxicating.

The author with Punkin, her tomcat

Tell us about a typical day at your farm, a day in your life if you please.

Wake up at an unearthly hour, get breakfast and laundry out of the way, potter around looking at how the plants are doing. Once it’s light enough to see an elephant if one is lurking, we go for a long walk. The views are as nourishing as breakfast! From about 8 am to noon I slog – digging holes for saplings, making new beds, planting, watering, weeding, mulching, pruning, picking vegetables. propping up climbers, etc. In non-Covid times I also used to make breakfast for our farm hands and anyone else who was helping out. I have cut that out in the last couple of months. My work is easier for that, but I also miss the daily chats and the happiness of seeing them enjoy the snack. In non-Covid times, we also had friends dropping in for a chat, to exchange seeds, saplings and goodies like pickle or cake. Life is rather lonely at present. At noon we knock off. Bath, lunch, and a few hours of lazing. I spend a lot of time on a lounger under a tree, reading, snoozing, and watching the birds that flit to and fro. Then a couple of hours of light work before dinner. We are in bed by 9 pm with our books and music.

The author with her husband at their farm

Do you spend all your time, most months in a year at the farm or do you divide your time between Bangalore and your farm?

We planned on one week a month in the city to meet family and attend to business things, but it’s been pretty erratic, what with interstate passes and lockdowns.

Do you miss anything about city life at all? 

Not at all when we’re there. But when we come to the city, after the initial culture shock, everything is an exciting novelty – shops, restaurants, newspapers, and TV!

Are there any stereotypes that we may have about life on a farm, and about villages and village folk? Did you learn and unlearn a few things about the rural way of life when you moved to the farm?

Well, they are better informed than you might think, but as superstitious as you’d expect. What I found surprising was that they are all there by choice. Almost all of them have spent some time in the city learning a trade or doing odd jobs. And everyone will tell you how much they couldn’t stand city life, the noise, and traffic, the lack of food security, the commercialization of everything, the polluted air, and water. Here in the village, they say, no one starves. We’re always losing money, but there’s enough to eat, and people will help you out.

I know this is contrary to the reality of farmer distress and suicide elsewhere in the country, and I can’t explain it. Among the farmers of the current generation, the 30-50 group, there is an entrenched belief in the high risk-high return model. They invest large sums of money in a single crop for the market and, if that fails, they lose it all. I hope in time they’ll realize the value of the old model of subsistence agriculture, and grow enough of everything for their own needs.

Another thing that fascinates me is that their brains seem to work differently from city-bred brains. Is it that their spatial intelligence is greater? I love how local and rooted are their memories and stories, their excellent mental maps of places, and their instinctive understanding of natural processes and creatures, which is different from mine at any rate – so much of my knowledge of farming is from books. Of course they are sometimes wrong, but it’s still impressive!

In a blogpost you address this question about ‘after the honeymoon’ and I ask it here again. Has your commitment to the farm and the way of life sustained and grown? 

Yes and no. I love being close to nature and the idea of growing our own food. But I am 62, and Srini, my husband, is 68. I am beginning to realize that we can’t sustain this amount of work as we grow older. It’s deeply satisfying, but certainly not easy. I am committed to work at it until we can really live off our land. Then I shall sit back and let someone else do the maintenance.

‘Anilodharani’ – their home at the farmland

And what were some of the biggest challenges that you have overcome?

Ignorance, poor soil, an inhospitable microclimate. Being at the top of one valley and the foot of another hill, we get a wild raging wind most of the year, sun radiating from the rocks in summer, and not enough rain. We are working hard to improve our soil and capture rainwater. We read a lot, experiment a lot, and talk to the local farmers as well as permaculturists elsewhere. We still have a long way to go, but the journey is fascinating.

What piece of advice would you have for someone who is a novice but has a keen desire to move to rural India and try and live the way you do?

Just do it!

Have you found it useful to document your journey in your blog ‘The Long View’ and how does your writing (not just the blog but your work as a children’s author) come about or is helped by your life on the farm.

I haven’t written a thing since we moved more or less full time to the farm. I have neither the time nor the inclination right now. But that’s not to say I won’t sometime in the future.

And if you could tell us about a native tree or two that grows in your part of the farm or around it and the joy it brings you.

It’s amazing how many trees growing wild around us are NOT native! One beautiful tree that is, is the silk cotton, bombax ceiba. I was thrilled to find two growing on our farm a couple of years ago. The flowers are beautiful, and I love the softness of pillows and mattresses stuffed with its cotton. I’m eagerly watching them grow!

The villagers keep introducing me to interesting new trees. I’ve recently got to know the naarve, with citrussy, rough leaves that are traditionally used to scrub vessels; the jaalaari with scented flowers that, in the season, perfume the whole forest; and the taare (terminalia bellerica), which has nuts almost as good to eat as cashews, but which I later discovered has ‘mind-altering’ properties!

(You can read more about Srinivasan’s life on the farm at her WordPress blog)