“The corporate world suddenly stopped making sense.”
Menaka Ramanan tells me over a lunch of steaming rice, pachadi, aloo, rasam and appalam her mum has lovingly cooked for us. We’re sitting on the terrace of her family’s home in Wayanad, surrounded by farms untouched by commercialisation. I can hear birds that aren’t crows – unfamiliar to my ears. Her father comes in to check that we’ve eaten well and are comfortable.
Stay On An Actual Farm
When the brave and virtuous entrepreneur Menaka invited me to experience her new homestay, I was expecting to have a laid-back break, eat some local food, and maybe for once be lucky enough to see some wild elephants.
Instead, I experienced a luxurious farmstay, learned a whole lot about cash-crop farming, met someone whose values I respect deeply, had the most engaging, inspiring, validating conversations, walked through untouched land in Wayanad, indulged in the most glorious home-cooked food thanks to her gracious mum, and got pretty close to seeing an elephant. Well, I saw what it left behind anyway. Piles of it.
Calling Menaka’s Aham Anubhava a homestay perhaps misstates what she has put together. She lives with her parents on the ground floor of their home. The first floor, and the massive roof terrace on the second have been opened up for guests.
As a first-time hotelier of sorts, she really has thought of everything. The entrance to the guest floor is independent and through a stairway on the side of the house. There are 3 bedrooms, 2 balconies, 2 bathrooms, a living room, and a lovely little foyer with a breakfast table. She has personally handpicked everything in there.
The Essence of Aham Anubhava
“Let me show you the local cricket ground,” she offers. Not ones to turn down an invitation to see a new sight, we pile into her car to view a stunning sunset. On the manicured cricket pitch set against rocky hills, she tells me what she hopes her guests will take away from staying with her.
“I’m hoping my guests will experience at least a fraction of the wild and simple charm of my little village, in the most natural way. Today tourism is consumed by strategies, packages, pricing and activities. I want Aham Anubhava to be as far away from that as possible.”
“If you ask someone “why do you like to travel?” repeatedly, you will receive the usual responses – because they want to learn about a new culture, meet new people, or do a bunch of activities. But eventually, the deep-rooted reason will come out.
I believe the real reason we want to travel is to connect with ourselves, connect with life around us. Somewhere in the rat race we lose this connection. And this is easily attainable – by letting go of our masks and opening up our hearts to being receptive to the warmth around. All we have to do is look.”
That evening she takes us to the local temple where chanting is in full progress and we get to see our first temple dedicated to Sita. Rama’s wife Sita. Didn’t even know she was worshipped. When they open the doors to the shrine and unveil her face, she’s bald. She’s angry. I could tell you why, but now you have one more reason to visit and find out for yourself.
We sleep peacefully that night, the chirps of crickets and frogs white noise to us. Promises of Stone Age cave carvings and farming experiences await us the next morning. “Sleep well, we should get to the caves before the crowds descend on it!”
Black coffee from her farm, with a dash of fresh pepper also from her farm jolts us out of any remaining lethargy, and we’re off to confront our lack of stamina at the Edakkal Caves.
Leaving Behind the Cushions of Guarantee
I’m curious what inspired Menaka to quit her corporate job with a multinational company in the city and move back home to look after her family’s farm. And why did it take her a year to mull over the decision to leave?
“I just did not have the guts. I always wanted to go back to my roots and bring my farm back to its former glory. But that’s no easy work. That would mean letting go of that comfort your salary account gives you every month. I thought I would save up and then quit. I was working for promotions and visibility like everybody else.
I was increasingly unhappy but just couldn’t let go of the money my job brought. Once my yearly assessment happened, I realised how vain we are. A bunch of people who know nothing about the work you do, sitting on a high chair and judging your work. It suddenly stopped making sense. And I decided to quit and face the music.”
Meanwhile, at the Edakkal Caves
These carvings are estimated to be from about 6000 BC, a fact that takes a minute to sink in. It’s not technically a cave, but rather a rock shelter with three giant rocks forming a protected cave of sorts. The carvings on the walls appear random at first – like scratches. Look at them for a few minutes and patterns start to emerge. A person. A dog. A wheel? Surely the sun.
Menaka loses her usual composure at silly teenagers touching the walls and climbing them in their insatiable quest for the perfect selfie. There is nary a moment spent in admiration of the carvings.
Back at home, her mum feeds a famished lot of us hot idlis and the most delicious sambar. As we’re finishing up with filter coffee, it starts to rain. It sounds different at Menaka’s. It’s falling on leaves and soil, not concrete and metal.
We’ve made ourselves comfortable on the giant swing, as she tells us about growing up on a farm surrounded by the cleanest air, the greenest sights, and the wildest animals.
“I grew up a wild child, my mother had to lock me up many times so I wouldn’t wander away.
My mom will tell you stories of the time she found me playing under a tree next to a cobra, or the time she found me crawling between the legs of a huge cow and staying there. We spent most of our time outdoors, taking a dip in the river, walking around in the forest or getting drenched in the rain. As long as we returned by nightfall, our parents did not care.”
A Walk To Remember (Sorry!)
Menaka is joined by her neighbours’ kids and we all trek through her farmland and up to the local bubbling brook. She’s given us all wellies. I’m visibly struggling in this non-city terrain, and the lad has to hold my hand every now and then to make sure I don’t face-plant in their water source.
She’s talking about organic farming as we trudge through her rubber, coffee and other plantations. “If you see a wild boar, just climb up a tree,” she says with the ease that only a farmer who encounters wild boars all the time can.
“Thanks to the Green Revolution, we forgot that soil is a living being, that it needs nourishment. In the name of productivity, we used pesticides and killed the nutrients in the soil by killing even the pests and earthworms. Now that the soil has lost its natural structure, we’ve started dumping chemical fertilizers to improve production.
My hope is that more and more farmers go back to natural farming methods and protect our top soil. We should live in harmony with the insects and ecology.”
Definition of Success
The definition of success is something I’ve been personally seeking an answer to lately. When are you “successful?” Do you define it for yourself, or does someone else define it for you? Does it ever end or do you keep moving your goal-post? Is it even a goal with a post?
Menaka seems to have figured it out. “My definition of success is this. When you reach that place where you love life as it is, you are successful. Some people may see this as lack of ambition. But for me, at this moment I don’t have any regrets in life. And I aspire to be in a place where I can savour every moment for what it is. I am yet to reach there!”
I wish her more zen!
Stay at Aham Anubhava
Menaka grew up on her farm, watching everyone around her farm. This is where she belongs, where she is her best self, her true self. She told me of learning to deal with loans, panchayats, local governments. Of paperwork, seeking help when she needed it, doing everything wrong before getting it right.
She frowns at consumerism and has the greatest respect for every living thing on the planet. She defies norms and has learned to define her own aspirations and happiness. She will not treat you like God if you are her guest, but she will be your friend. She will build a connection with you, get to know you, give you your privacy. Her family will welcome you like an old chum. Her mum will feed you local food till you’re ready to burst, and her dad will watch out for your well-being every second you spend with them.
Talk to Menaka if you are looking for an immersive non-touristy stay-on-a-farm-with-an-Indian-family experience. Don’t talk to Menaka if you want to tick off twenty things to do in Wayanad, if you are hoping for a menu card to pick Sichuan noodles for dinner from, or if you’re looking to party all night.
She is also actively involved in community welfare activities in her village and is happy to partner with you on projects.
See her Facebook page here and send her a message to book a stay! She will make sure you experience local life like you never would on your own. If you go during a festival or picking season, that’s just more immersion for you!
Read Peter Claridge’s blog post on his stay here.