“Freedom for me means they will allow me to make a mistake and take responsibility for it. I have made so many mistakes in my life, but I am glad for all of them. I have learnt so much. I would like people, at least my nearest and dearest, to have trust in me. I will make a mistake, but it’s okay.”
I’ve been talking with women in various countries to find out what freedom means to them. In this article I share the dialogue I had with Menaka Ramanan, a Financial Analyst cum Natural Farmer from Kerala, India.
In 2016 Menaka quit her comfortable job with a multinational corporation to return to her childhood home in Wayanad and manage her father’s farm. “I am a single child and my parents are getting older. If I don’t go back to my village and take care of my ancestral farm we will lose it. That I can’t let happen.”
She set out to introduce chemical-free farming to her village. As a woman with no prior experience, she faced challenges at every level. “First I am a girl. They think that it’s a man’s job. They look at me curiously, like I am a kid trying to do something,” she says of her own male relatives. “But it is a serious vocation. There is a whole colony dependent on our farm.”
Menaka hasn’t let the attitudes of others stop her. Two years on, not only has she gained the trust of her family’s workers, but she’s become an entrepreneur, transforming her childhood home into an immersive homestay experience for travellers. Her vision to build the best natural farm in Kerala is taking shape and her sincerity is drawing like-minded people from across the world to join in.
We’re sat on the open roof terrace of Menaka’s childhood home. Two stories up, her village is scattered red-tiled rooftops in an ocean of green. Menaka and I have just finished breakfast — puttu and kadala curry with a banana, two plates each — when her mums appears. “Just one more,” she teases playfully with a smile and scoops another puttu onto my plate. I don’t protest. “Seeing people enjoy her food gives her the greatest joy,” Menaka says. That works for me.
We head out for a walk. We pass the iron gates and step onto a dirt path. We cross a small juncture and I notice a tree with a newspaper tucked under one of its bare branches. “That’s the news tree. Not one, but a minimum of four different newspapers are read and analysed daily. That old man clad in lungi and sporting a big moustache can tell you what the North Korean nuke deal is all about,” Menaka offers explanation to my curiosity. As we walk through the the dusty roads of the village, striking conversations with the locals we meet, Menaka’s story starts to unfold.
“I remember the argument between my mother and father when I told them my decision. My mother said, ‘If she was a son, you would have helped him with everything Just because she is a daughter, you can’t do this for her? You have to give her the opportunity. If she fails, she fails. But you have to give her this chance.’”
Menaka was the only child, but she grew up with a home full of siblings. Her home was the one where you would go to after school for movies and popcorn. You could pop in at any time of the day and be welcomed as if you had been expected. “The experiences that I had growing up are so close to my heart.”
Menaka finished her studies and set her sights on the city. She moved to Bangalore, leaving behind the familiarity of the village life. She found an apartment, got a job and as the story goes, the years rolled on. “One day when I paused to look back, 10 years had flown by and I wasn’t as happy and excited about my life as I had imagined.”
Life in Bangalore was a stark contrast to life she had experienced growing up. Back home, everyone has a deep connection to the land and to each other. “I experienced such pretension in the city which I hadn’t encountered before. Nobody has the time to look beyond their daily job. It’s, ‘What can I get from you, what can you get from me.’ It’s all transactional. As the time passed I started to feel more and more empty in myself.” This was a lifestyle alien to Menaka.
She started having thoughts of returning home, but the safety net of life in the city was not easy to untangle from. “I hesitated for a year before making this decision because that salary coming into my account, that cushioning it gave, it was not easy to let go.”
It was when her father’s health started to deteriorate that Menaka told herself it was now or never. She realised then the importance of her home, not just to herself but to many others too. “When my father fell sick everybody lost hope in the farm. The farm is an entity that supports all of us. Everything started disintegrating. Everyone was leaving, going in search of work. I thought that I need to save our farm and continue to support the community that is dependent on it.”
Menaka became a pioneer in her village. Village girls don’t leave to return unmarried and without children to manage their father’s farm. That’s not how it works. Her decision was hard for locals to grasp. “They thought I was just trying out a new hobby. Our own workers would not take me seriously. They would not listen to me. If I told them to try a different way they would rather listen to the supervisor who is a man. I cried the first few months thinking that I am going to fail.”
She knew she will have to start from scratch, but she was ready to put in the work. “As a girl I was raised in a way that meant I didn’t have to take care of anything like that. It was expected that I’d get married and move somewhere to be with my husband and everything will be taken care of for me. I don’t have a background in farming, so I started visiting a lot of farmers in the village. I began talking to my father about farming. I started following a lot of farmers on YouTube. Technology has helped me. I am still learning, but I think I have a green thumb because whatever I plant, it grows.”
Slowly, those around her have come to terms with her life choice. “They have stopped discouraging me. They have stopped telling me that what I am doing is not right. They know that I am not going to listen, I am going to keep going. There must be some disagreement, some resentment, but it’s okay. I will do what I need to do. If I make a mistake I take responsibility for it, what’s the big deal?”
“One thing I learnt is that you have to be persistent. No matter what. Our workers saw my persistence. I stood my ground. If they refused to do something, I told them that they had to do it and why they had to do it. Now after two years they give importance to what I say. I do listen to them too because they have farming experience, but now they give value to what I say.”
After 10 years of city life, Menaka compares her decision to return home to ripping off a bandaid, “You just have to do it. You will realise that you don’t need so much. You can still be happy. Enough is good.”
Menaka worries that Kerala is being robbed of its charm and natural beauty in the name of consumerism. She feels a great sense of personal responsibility to act. She knows the name and age of each tree in her village and mourns whenever one is cut down to make way for construction. “I want people to change. I am trying in my own way. They don’t accept me now, I have not proven myself to them yet, but in another three years I will be able to prove to them and then they will accept me.”
Read more about Menaka’s village home experience Aham Anubhava, ‘I Experience’.
Read more from Dare To Dialogue, Women and Freedom project.