Manjunath Pankkaparambil gave up dreams of a Green Card to start his own green organic movement back home
For someone who never bothered to even water a plant during much of his life, turning an organic farmer must have been a quantum leap in his attitude to life and his thinking. More so, if you suddenly gave up a flourishing 15-year software career willingly, and the aspiration for an American Green Card too, to see your green thumb sprout.
But Manjunath Pankkaparambil did precisely that and sounds pretty content as he talks about it, driving me to his organic restaurant Lumiere. The journey from the farm to the restaurant table, though, wasn't as simple as navigating Bangalore's traffic to Marathahalli. He was in homeland Kerala for a quick vacation before he could go back for his visa processing. A chance meeting with Kochi-based Ambrose, a mason who had embraced the Gandhian movement and was running an all-natural restaurant, got Manjunath thinking. “After much discussion we decided that food is one of the most important things for humans, and what is currently available to eat is not really healthy,” says Manjunath. Ambrose suggested that he try “jaiva krishi” or organic farming. Neither knew much about it.
Manjunath started reading up, bought a few acres of land in Munnar, attended a farming course in Kodaikanal, and coaxed his farmers to start growing carrots. “The farmers themselves were stunned with the colour and taste difference between the regular carrots and the organic ones,” says Manjunath. Slowly they moved to garlic, cabbage and cauliflower. But Ambrose and he wondered how they could fully utilise these vegetables — in Kochi there wasn't much appreciation for the organic vegetables they tried to sell. So they started an organic restaurant there.
Friends from the U.S. assured Manjunath that Bangalore was the place to try out the concept of a completely organic restaurant and that's how he landed here. Today he's got a good network of farms in Kolar trying to grow babycorn, a dairy farm on Hosur Road where they make 100 per cent organic milk, small farmers in Nelamangala and Hosur who get group organic certification for their produce and sell to him, and farms in parts of Kerala growing other produce. They also have their own poultry farms where chicken are cage-free, and fed only natural substances (no growth hormones and stimulants are given). Spices and pulses too are sourced from certified organic farms. Trust is what the entire enterprise runs on, specially where small farmers are involved and high costs of certification comes in the way.
But sourcing produce for the restaurant on a regular basis is not easy. Very often he chances upon farms while driving from Bangalore to Munnar. “In the U.S. most supermarkets have an organic section. Here we have to go directly to the farms and farmers,” he says. Or the nearly 15 organic food stores in Bangalore. Educating people, even his own staff is difficult still. “I have to make sure that they don't go to a regular shop and pick up non-organic tomatoes because they ran out of them suddenly!”
Manjunath's almost fairytale transition from techie to farmer is really hard to believe but the proof of the pudding is there for all to see at Lumiere. “I want everyone to be bothered about what they are eating,” he says, reasoning why he gave up a high-paying career. “Instead of paying a few thousands on a monthly car loan, spend it on getting good food.” It's all about making right choices in life and taking charge of them, he believes. Manjunath can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This column features those who choose to veer off the beaten track.