A young couple rediscovers the ‘kadr’ (value) of their 30-year-old ancestral land, spread over 40 acres, and decides to make a new beginning thereby benefitting not only the village community but also the residents of the city that they reside in
On a trip to Jodhpur, where we stay in a newly renovated luxury heritage boutique hotel, Daspan House, the ultimate payoff is a bite into nostalgia; a champimaalish (head massage) done with love, care – not to forget with a lot of vigour – even as you hum the classic ‘sar jo tera chakraye’ in your head. While that experience becomes an affair to remember, taking us back to our childhood days – to the terrace of our home in the winter sun when our grandmother would oil our hair lovingly – in Mharo Khet, a few kilometres off the main city of Jodhpur in Rajasthan, where we have a fabulous seven-course meal under the shade of a guava tree, listening to the birds hum, the leaves rustle, it’s hard not to remember the taste of our family picnics. Every bite of the delicious food, then, is a bite into nostalgia, the subtle flavours in dishes becoming an abiding memory of simpler times.
Is it wrong, then, to say that new beginnings, quite possibly, are simply experiences that are already rooted in nostalgia? To rediscover yourself, you can ditch air-conditioned sedans and climb on to a noisy tractor with all the bumps that greet you along the way. That becomes your moment to savour. You can bite into a sweet, juicy guava, freshly plucked from the tree – its dust wiped away leisurely by soft cloth – on a warm day and that becomes a lasting memory that you hold on to when times get tough. Or, for that matter, that moment when you relax on a charpai or sit on a swing, feeling the gentle breeze on your face? That’s a new experience, which is already a reminder of the good ol’ times.
Making a fresh start
What are new beginnings, after all? Surfacing, ultimately, from the subconscious, from experiences that are already lived and cherished, a new beginning could be your grandmother’s coaxing lullaby that comes back to you decades later while suddenly taking a stroll; it could be just a simple sentence from a loved one – ‘ah, this reminds me of home’ – while you walk leisurely, without a care in the world. A beginning is one – or another – step forward without retreating but still caring for what may have shaped you in the past. A new beginning, it wouldn’t be incorrect to say, helps you shine no matter how challenging the odds are. Nostalgia, then, to a large extent, allowed Vedika and Rajnush Agarwal, a young couple, armed with degrees from the world’s most renowned colleges, Columbia University and Oxford University respectively, to return to their roots in Jodhpur. The duo (Rajnush, a bio-molecular engineer; Vedika, a psychologist) have, literally, tilled the earth and paved a new path that has not only changed the landscape of Mharo Khet, their 40-acre ancestral land, but also quietly revolutionised all of Jodhpur in terms of providing fresh produce of fruits, vegetables, salad leaves, edible flowers, and many exotic produce that would leave anyone gobsmacked thinking that these were growing in a state that’s otherwise considered ‘barren’ land.
Inspired by learnings
Though the duo’s ‘new beginning’ came when Covid struck (more on that later), what initially prompted the couple to look at the farm in a new manner was when they visited Kyoto, Japan, on a holiday, and found that most of the restaurants, including Michelin-star ones, took pride in mentioning that all vegetables used in the dishes were coming fresh from the farms, harvested barely hours before they made their way into many of the professional kitchens or in the hands of the world-class chefs. If the seed for Mharo Khet was sown in Kyoto (“we thought, this was possible back home,” says Rajnush while showing
us a temperature-controlled room full of ecru-coloured oyster mushrooms), it was Covid that prompted them to visit the farm more often than before. Soon, the couple was building a seed library, planting new varieties of crops, including experimenting with exotic vegetables, while also taking steps to provide permanent employment for the women force from the village of Manai (where the farm is located) who, till then, were only working on contractual basis.
Rising to the challenge
Unsurprisingly, the journey was full of challenges – mushrooms getting spoilt; strawberries barely surviving; training the staff; getting the hang of all kinds of logistics – but eventually, through trial and error, Rajnush and Vedika created not only a haven of over 80 varieties of crops but also devised ways in which the fresh produce could benefit the residents of Jodhpur. Think about it; it’s largely due to the efforts of this couple that hotel chefs, bakers, home chefs, and several other families of Jodhpur, are now getting fresh produce of exotic vegetables that were, so far, tough to source locally. No surprise then that strawberries, Brussels sprout, arugula, fresh sage, jalapenos, zucchini, baby corn, are now delivered at the doorsteps of residents within hours of getting harvested thereby retaining the flavour, crunch and authentic taste. While Mharo Khet’s BYOT (Buy Your Own Tokri) concept allows residents to book and order fresh produce, it is the curatorial experience of taking a tour of the farm that allows you to pause and appreciate the hardworking farmers of India (“You have to breathe what the farmer breathes,” as Rajnush explains). The four-hour tour will take you through an immersive experience – you choose your salad leaves that will reach the table, you harvest baby corn, you walk through the greenhouse, overawed at how some of the best practices in the farm help in water and energy conservation without compromising on the quality. The seven- course farm-to-table culinary experience, then, makes you even more appreciative and aware of every bite that you eat. Interestingly, there are recipes that are zero-waste – a fabulous carrot dish, for instance, uses the root vegetable, its roughage even dehydrated and used in powder form, spiked with peri peri masala!
Fuelled by the past, marching into the future
It was through a mix of nostalgia and challenging times that Mharo Khet emerged in its new avatar. The shared passion and commitment of Rajnush and Vedika is unmistakable when you see how carefully the tables are laid, how generously and lovingly patrons get served by the local women, dressed impeccably in their traditional Rajasthani attire. No wonder, every bite into the food prepared by chef Sejal feels utterly emotional.
When the sun is setting, and the evening in Mharo Khet gets cooler, one is reminded of Rabindranath Tagore’s Santiniketan. As per some historical accounts, the Nobel Laureate was told that the arid land wasn’t conducive for trees and plants. Tagore, on his part, trusted the vision and converted that challenge into an opportunity, and what you see today are lush green environs of one of the oldest institutions of India.
Mharo Khet would have Tagore’s blessings for sure. After all, this too, is a story of unwavering commitment, of a journey filled with hope, of an experience that many tourists, locals, and communities cherish and benefit from. When a new beginning is planted with care and compassion, the yield will ultimately be one of success and glory.