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Businessman with green thumb turns sabziwallah for pleasure, not profit

ALL FOR THE LOVE OF FARMING

Some watch movies, some play cards and some go salsa dancing. For businessman Pawan Khaitan, life after work is largely devoted to playing sabziwallah.

Khaitan, a 58-year-old resident of Lake Road, exports fishing tackles for a living and plays golf at leisure but nothing gives him more pleasure than getting his hands and feet dirty on his 40-cottah Rajpur farm and carrying back a carload of garden-fresh produce for family and friends.

“Different people get a kick out of different things. Some people go to a bar, spend a lot of money and get a kick out of drinking. Planting seeds and seeing them grow gives me a lot of happiness,” he says of his love of gardening, which he inherited from his father.

Khaitan has been involved in hobby farming for four decades, investing money, time and effort in it without ever expecting financial gain. “I get a lot of satisfaction out of it. So I don’t want any monetary involvement. Once the produce is harvested, I call a couple of friends and ask, ‘Do you need some?’ That’s my way of gauging whether they share my excitement,” smiles the businessman.

He vividly recalls the day he told a chef at Taj Bengal about the different kinds of lettuce he grows on his farm and offered to send him a complimentary basket. “After receiving it, he and his general manager called back, offering me a year’s contract. I said no. I said I wouldn’t mind sending him a basket every Sunday but I won’t do business with this.”

Khaitan, who loves being on the RCGC green when not tending the greens in his garden, visits farms and agriculture fairs whenever he is touring. “From Delhi to Holland, there is something to learn everywhere because what grows in one place you might not find in another,” he smiles.

The businessman has reserved five hours every Sunday for his farm, “checking, watering, planting, instructing and harvesting the plants from start to finish”.

“I learnt how to cultivate vegetables from my father on his 80-cottah farm in Narendrapur,” he recalls. “Now there’s so much more information available, new technologies and reliable sources for seeds that I can bulk order online. Twenty years ago, we would depend on the para supplier or Chetla Haat and end up buying spurious seeds that would hardly sprout!”

This winter, Khaitan grew 13 varieties of lettuce alone. He is also fond of philodendrons (money plant), of which he has several species on his farm.

The most surprising thing about Khaitan’s hobby is that the bulk of the vegetable produce doesn’t go into his own kitchen. “Je ranna kore shey khaye na (the one who cooks doesn’t eat). I see these plants grow, so I don’t obsess about eating them. I give away the produce to friends, who appreciate it for what it is worth. That’s my way of being happy,” he says.

After every round of harvest, the produce is loaded in a van and taken to Khaitan’s Lake Road home, where he soaks the greens in ice-cold water. “I give them a cold bath with my own hands and put them in hibernation,” he says.

Khaitan then neatly arranges the produce in baskets layered with crushed ice, ready to be home delivered to members of his family and friends, “almost 20 of them”.

Even the Royal Calcutta Golf Club has benefited from having a green thumb like Khaitan among its members. It was while playing a round of golf at his club one day that the businessman realised the course didn’t have a flowerbed and proposed that there should be one. “I managed to trace a spot between tee numbers 9 and 11, collected flower seeds from my farm and planted them there.”

Voila! The RCGC course now has a flower patch, thanks to Khaitan. “I intend to get some summer flowers from my Delhi farm like sunflower and zinnia (for the course). I love nature. Even my business is linked to fishing. I interact with nature all the time,” smiles the businessman.

For the employees of his farm, Khaitan arranged a surprise feast of farm-fresh produce one day to show them how tasty a simple salad could be.

“I brought a big bottle of olive oil and balsamic vinegar to the farm and tossed some leaves in it and made a big salad platter for them to try,” he says.

Noorjahan Bibi, one of the workers, didn’t know what to expect but was pleasantly surprised by what was served. “At first, I thought what is this vegetable that we hadn’t grown before, let alone eat. Then, one day he organised a meal for 25 of us, including some neighbours, and we really enjoyed it. We have since learnt to prepare the soil with special manure for this type of lettuce and it seems quite easy now.”

Each winter, Khaitan grows vegetables different from the previous year’s mix. His next season is already planned — he intends growing varieties of spinach, greens and tomatoes that are not available in the market.

“I like to grow everything that you don’t get in the market. I plan to have six types of Italian spinach, six types of lettuce, six kinds of Chinese greens and different kinds of tomatoes, including Mexican and Spanish,” says Khaitan. “If I were to grow a flowering vegetable, it would take a long time to harvest. Leafy vegetables grow a lot faster. One can harvest in a month,” explains Khaitan, who also grows basil, celery, parsley and oregano.

His passion for farming doesn’t end there. Khaitan has printed a booklet containing traditional recipes to go with every kind of lettuce he has harvested this season.

So does he see more people taking up hobby farming like him to stay rooted to nature?

“Some years ago, there was a mass exodus from the villages to urban areas; now people are going back to the rural areas. It’s definitely happening in Delhi, Mumbai and south India, where people are setting up farms outside the city,” says Khaitan.

 

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