Fantastic storytellers and where to find them: Organic markets!

For the moment, these markets cater to a small section of society with money to experiment .

Here’s a joke I heard — Lalaji lands up at the nutritionist with all sorts of dietary problems ranging from cholesterol to sugar. Nutritionist tells him to switch from white to black rice and refined sugar to jaggery. Lalaji finds his solution at the Sunday organic market. It works him wonders. He goes on to tell ten more lalas. The nutritionist becomes Rujuta Diwaker (possibly the most commercially successful one in the country) and organic markets transform into a goldmine for entrepreneurs with the gift of a gab that can turn you lactose intolerant, even if you are not!  

It’s an early November Sunday morning at the restored 90 acre Sunder Nursery against the magical backdrop of a 14th century Serai. Old tombs stand firmly rooted in their colourful past, surrounded by endless gardens that bear generously spread trees and flowers no less in colour. If further plans materialise, then soon Humayun’s tomb on the other side of the road (and the Zoo behind) will be connected to it and Delhi’s equivalent of New York’s Central Park (and also one of Time magazine’s 100 greatest places in the World) will have an interconnected five-kilometre path winding through a commendable example of preserving a historic city’s heritage. But when I ask for a pancake at a stall at the ‘Earth Collective’ organic market that sets up here every Sunday in the courtyard, the story “made with our own home-made cacao, and ingredients sourced from our organic farm” to justify a single piece at `250, evokes the same ‘feel good’ sensation as the one about Sunder Nursery’s restoration. Only, the gardens and tombs don’t need words to words to sell. They are there to see. The pancake is sold entirely on Tanvir Logani’s word, with the invitation to visit his “Crumaco kitchen and farm and vet the ingredients for yourself”, should I want justification.

But at that time, in that place, the story is the backbone of the product at Urban organic markets.

To be clear — what we are talking of here are not simply raw organic ‘produce’ markets (though raw produce is available) where the seller spreads out carrots and tomatos straight from the farm with no exchange of words, other than haggling for price. Be it Chennai, Hyderabad, Chandigarh, Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Ahmedabad, Goa (all cities with urban organic markets), a common trend of weekend organic markets has emerged over the years that are held in malls, farmhouses, restaurants, historic sites and gardens.  The products cover a wide range of honey, organic red, black and brown rice (pardon me if I missed a colour), essential oils for the body and soul, homemade muesli, Himalayan pink salt, Kombucha tea, plantation coffee, craft beer and all sorts of other pesticide and preservative free ingredients for your meals. The sellers are an interesting mix of mid-career shifters, energetic young start-ups, retired folk and some very happy and glowing people who wear their brands on their sleeves and look the product (literally, in the case of the essential oils and ‘homemade’ items). Since the products are sometimes a complete shift from what the regular stores and markets offer, statements like “this honey comes from bees in Himachal that extract nectar from a specific flower known for its benefits”, “I source my rice from the Northeast so the lesser known Northeastern farmer and can get his due”, and the punch line from the white man in the corner who “loves India and figured If I’m here I might as well put out some gluten-free vegan pies”, start pouring out as hooks to lure you into arms distance. Once you actually show interest, some very interesting personal back stories of why a lot of the sellers turned organic, emerge. It is hard not to sample a product or buy that ‘gluten-free’ pie, when you hear of how eating ‘clean’ has helped some of them live better with Diabetes and in some cases, overcome cancer. Or when Annu tells you how she used work as domestic help at the house of an expat and learnt how to make ‘vegan khana’ there, and today runs a healthy catering business with her husband.

“I personally vet each story before I offer a space to anyone to set up a stall at the market. There are quite a few vague and superficial brands and sellers out there. Over the years I’ve developed a nose to sniff them out and keep them far from my market”, assures Meenu Nageshwaran, who charges `2,500 a stall at her year-round Sunday organic market — The Earth Collective. Having turned organic herself in the early 2000s after being diagnosed with diabetes, she went on to start a home kitchen, give organic cooking classes and slowly came into the organic business with the market, which has shifted many locations before settling in at The Sundar Nursery courtyard in Delhi. “you do know that we have become the largest and most trusted market all over India?” she states, based on the conclusion of being “told so by customers”.

The ‘story’ continues at the Bandra Farmers Market in Mumbai, where “there are those customers who come right at the start, get their products and leave. Those who come with time in hand, do their entire weeks shopping and sample all sorts of organic products while having conversations with the sellers about the story behind it, and those who come to eat and enjoy a Sunday morning and get to know more about the organic world and make new friends in the process.”

Kavita Mukhi, founder of the Bandra market, may have held herself back thirty years ago from “shouting about it from the rooftop” when she discovered how living and eating organic boosted her “energy levels and immunity”, but allowed her conversion to flow into starting (and recently opting out of) the organic brand Conscious Foods, as well as run an organic store and become a consultant to young entrepreneurs setting up organic cafes and brands. “The stories about where and how sellers source their products help in better communicating them”, she agrees. “customers can see through smart words and the ‘gut’ feeling, plays a key role. If the product does not make the difference it claims to, the story falls flat.”

Why organic is expensive and whether one should blindly convert to it is another debate all together with arguments on both sides. One fact is, that for the moment these markets cater to a small section of society with money to experiment (remember Lalaji?). Dr Shantiswaroop Dhar, a leading Gastroenterologist, points out a few more. “Before switching to gluten free/wheat free/dairy free products, one needs to first check whether they are actually allergic to gluten, dairy and wheat in the first place. Yes, eating clean and pesticide free food does make people (possibly) feel lighter and better, but there are many who have health issues despite that. Food is one aspect of life. A lot of people feel that as long as they eat clean, they can smoke and drink away, sleep at odd hours — all factors that contribute to rising stress levels, that eventually make or break health.” Hence, a large part of the country goes through life eating everything the organic evangelists shun, possibly not even aware of what ‘clean’ food is. Just happy to eat. You won’t find them in these bubbles (oops, I meant markets).

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