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Alternative life: The call of country

Alternative life: The call of country
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First Published: Sat, May 19 2007. 12 32 AM IST

Updated: Sat, May 19 2007. 12 32 AM IST
The daily routine of Junaid Merchant, 43, CEO of East West Constructions, was typical of a stressful city life. Until he decided to invest in land in a relatively hard-to-access village in Maharashtra, and realized his long- time passion for all things green and four-legged.
Though my bread and butter comes from the construction business, for years I’d dreamt of having a farm with lots of trees and animals. I dreamt of open spaces for my dogs to roam, and home-grown products we’d put on our table, of silkworm production and vast orchards.
Sixteen years ago, I was in Khandala when I heard of land being sold in a remote place called Kusur, 65km away, and 32km off the Mumbai-Pune Highway, the last bit on a dirt road. No electricity, no water, no tarred road, no birds in sight, and just three trees on the entire 15acre property. Plus, I could barely speak the local language (Marathi). But the place had solitude, and I found great beauty in that solitude. On an impulse, I bought it. Friends told me I was absolutely stupid, even mad, because I hadn’t given even a moment’s thought to any of the logistics. I had an old Willys jeep and the right feeling, and I went ahead and struck a deal.
Since then, I’ve transformed my three-tree maidan into a green haven of 15,000 trees. Every spare moment I have, I race off to the farm, and from Friday to Monday, you’ll find me there, at least 45 weekends a year. I’ve hardly taken a vacation in 16 years; instead, I’ve spent all my free time (and money) building this farm. It hasn’t been easy. We’ve had bad monsoons, trouble with local people and various other crises, but, today, life is different. I have a wonderful rapport with the villagers. They appreciate and respect the fact that I’ve stuck around here through the bad times and that when I hire them, I pay immediately. It’s something I learnt from my late father; an Urdu proverb that translates: Pay your labourers before the sweat dries on their brow.
When I decided to construct a small cottage on this land, my first hurdle was that none of the building-material suppliers in the area were willing to deliver to Kusur, with its horribly bad (read non-existent) roads. After a long struggle, I finally got the construction material and then brought masons from Mumbai, who stayed in the simple karvi shack on the property. Forty-eight hours after they began work, they abandoned the site and were back in Mumbai. Apparently, on the second night, they’d heard what they were sure was the sound of a leopard; the next morning, they’d packed up and run.
I had to find a solution, and I did. I struck a deal with them. I came to Kusur with them and stayed on guard all night with my dogs and a fire. I slept during the day while they worked. And that’s how I completed the first stage of my cottage.
I used to keep emus and long-feathered chickens, but I’ve given up on my initial ideas of keeping exotic animals or of silkworm production. I love goats, and now breed dairy goats. I’ve bought goats from all over India and have cross-bred different varieties. The farm also has buffaloes, horses and dogs.
I still dream of giving up my construction business, of saying goodbye to high-stress weekdays and moving to the farm permanently. But, for that, one needs something more, and I’m now gradually transforming this farm into a place where people can come for what I like to call an old-fashioned holiday. A safe, friendly homestay for people who love nature, the wilderness and animals. I take people on jeep safaris (and soon, horse safaris as well) into the unexplored forest areas around and thrive on playing the host.
People come here for a weekend getaway, and I can share my love of this area with them. And, of course, there has to be good food. I love good food and it’s served here with traditional mehmaan-nawazi. People love the experience, but it’s only right for those who have a certain viewpoint about enjoying the natural world and if they’re willing to experience an alternative kind of holiday.
It’s been tough, surviving my impulsive purchase of land, but when I wake up to the sound of chirping birds, a cool wind on a blistering summer day or enjoy my crop of organic mangoes and chikoos, I know it will only get better from here on.
As told to Niloufer Venkatraman. Write to lounge@livemint.com
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First Published: Sat, May 19 2007. 12 32 AM IST
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