INITIATIVE Big Banana Island Retreat, a tranquil getaway, is V.S. Deepan's dream come true. PREMA MANMADHAN visits this organic retreat

He had a dream, this boy from Valiyapazhampilly Thuruth, a small island village with 150 houses, near Chendamangalam, an hour's drive from Kochi. This dream was to speak English fluently. So V.S.Deepan, a matriculate, and an odd jobs man, went to work in a five star hotel at Kollam, which gave him a chance to mingle with foreigners.

This experience added a different dimension to his dream and thus was born the Big Banana Island Retreat in his own village, on the banks of the Periyar, with the birds getting enough trees to live on and the squirrels enjoying their own territory. Six simple and clean cottages where guests enjoy rustic luxury, by the river, are in the one acre plot. The Swastha Ayurveda Retreat centre, has a qualified doctor and other staff. It is open to guests and the villagers. Also, the yoga centre.

Not a resort, but a retreat

“It is not a resort, but a retreat, where guests can relax and enjoy the simple pleasures of life. There is no airconditioning. There are fans and the food is cooked by ‘chechis',” says Deepan, 37, a bachelor. The name, Big Banana is derived from part of the name of the village, Valiapazham, meaning big banana! Deepan actually bought the land and built the cottages on credit, with friends and guests egging him on, with financial help. “It was a risk but it paid off,” he says, vowing to retain the retreat's exclusive original village ambience, not a cooked up one as you see in many places. So trees grow where they started sprouting and there are no regimented rows of flowering plants. Only the ayurvedic medicinal plants, about 90 varieties, are new entrants.

No brochures

Ask for a brochure and you will not get one, because he is yet to print any. It is not linked to any travel agent. There is a website which a friend got done (www.bbiretreat.com). “The signages on the way were just put up last month, though the retreat has been around for some years. The island got connected by a bridge just four years ago. Villagers are mostly known to one another. “Karthikeyan chettan gives us fresh fish as he passes by on the river and Kuttappan chettan guides me with the vegetable garden. The vegetables we serve are mostly organic,” says Deepan. Milk comes from a family with cows nearby and boiled water is given to guests in glass bottles, no mineral water. “The guests can watch us boil water in the kitchen. So far no one has ever been taken ill, drinking our water,” Deepan answers your quizzical look. With just a few helpers which include his family and friends nearby, Big Banana Retreat is frequented by French, German, Italian, Swiss, British, Israeli, Russian guests and Bollywood too (Anurag Kashyap's parents stayed for some days, recently).

How come? It is not ‘starred' space by any yardstick, no uniformed staff or any other trappings of tourism. It does not come under a homestay tag either.

Alcohol banned

Alcohol is a strict ‘no no'. There is no menu card at the small restaurant from where you see and almost feel the river right below. The ‘chechis' and the guest interact and the menu is decided. You get seasonal vegetables, fish and chicken. “No wastage here. Guests are politely asked not to waste food. We have a clientele base that visits again and again. They are mostly people I met while working in Kollam. Word-of-mouth recommendations bring in more guests. I don't want to expand either,” Deepan is firm about that.

Six cottages and peace, seems to be his motto. “The first day, their faces are puckered with tension and the next day, invariably, they look relaxed, after a yoga session. Most stay on for a while.” Sometimes people from the film field also stay here to write scripts.

Deepan wants the village to benefit and get the exposure that he longed for as a child. So he gets children to interact with the guests and has painting classes and talks by experts who volunteer to do it. “The guests often buy these paintings and the children are happy,” Deepan adds. Big Banana Island Retreat does dream big.