“Learn and unlearn. Stay motivated and always be on the lookout for fresh opportunities.” That is the mantra Neil Law, a 54-year-old social entrepreneur currently based in New Town, has followed all his life. Be it playing golf at the national level, working in the office automation industry, setting up his own adventure tourism and tea companies or doing his bit to make Eco Park what it is today, Neil has always believed in taking on new challenges.
La Martiniere shaped me into who I am today
A lot of Neil’s worldview comes from his intense passion for sports, nurtured carefully during his school days at La Martiniere for Boys, where Neil was involved in everything from cricket to boxing to athletics and golf. “La Martiniere shaped me into who I am today. The school played a pivotal role in teaching me discipline and dedication and what it means to have a sense of collective ownership, to know that the school belongs to you and that you belong to school.”
'La Martiniere shaped me into who I am today,' says NeilTT archives
Growing up in the Kolkata of the ’80s, Neil fondly remembers the never-ending sessions of rock-er adda, cycling for miles across the city (which he still does), working out in the akhadas near Rabindra Sarobar, teeing off at the Royal Calcutta Golf Club (RCGC), frequenting the likes of Peter Cat, Mocambo and Blue Fox and cherishing his Walkman as his constant companion.
“My formative years were about cultivating a sense of community. I’m not sure how much of that kids get to experience these days, glued as they are to their mobile phones. Take cycling, for instance. How many kids in Kolkata cycle to school today, like my friends and I used to do back in the day? Nowadays there’s a car on the road for every kid in school, which isn’t helping the community or the environment,” says Neil.
One for Brandon, one for me and one for SSP
In his early twenties, Neil pursued golf relentlessly
After LMB, Neil pursued his bachelor’s in commerce at Calcutta University, opting for evening classes, as the first half of the day was all about golf. “I used to wake up at six in the morning, practise golf till noon, take a quick nap, then practise again, before heading to college for my classes.” Neil’s golfing career, between 1985 and 1997, coincided with the shift of the Indian Open, and with it the transfer of the power centre of the sport from Kolkata to Delhi. “The Indian Golfing Union (IGU) headquarters also moved from TATA Centre on Chowringhee to Hauz Khas in the capital. As a result, the North Indian circuit of players got more attention and access,” explains Neil, but not as an excuse for the golfing triumphs he seldom had.
But even if golf could not give him the laurels he sought, it did help him build enough contacts to seek something new. As for his golf set, Neil handed it over to a young man desperate to turn professional but lacking the means to do so. “Use it well,” said Neil to the recipient of the set, whose name was S.S.P. Chawrasia. That set, which Neil himself had received from veteran golfer Brandon de Souza, presently has three of its clubs with three of its owners as a keepsake – “one for Brandon, one for me and one for SSP”.
Tourism was going to be the next chapter
In the late 1990s, Neil decided that he was going to take up tourism as a businessNeil Law
According to Neil, the Indian stock market scam, engineered chiefly by Harshad Mehta in 1992, had changed the nature of the capitalist beast in India. “It convinced me that the right time had come to switch industries. I sold my office automation business in 1998 and went to explore the Himalayas,” says Neil, who trekked his way through Sikkim and Darjeeling, before deciding to set up a hotel in Gangtok in 1999. “I wanted to regain my energy and passion after burning the candle at both ends in Kolkata. Tourism was going to be the next chapter.”
Neil’s hotel business in Gangtok planted the seeds for what was to become Himalayan Footprints in 2002, an adventure tourism company registered with the Department of Tourism, Government of Sikkim. “I realised quite early on that there was a demand for corporate off-site programmes where employees and their bosses could zone out, engage in group-bonding activities and regroup. I began doing that by arranging for things like trekking, rafting, rock climbing, mountain biking, wildlife exploration and other adventures. Over time, I was able to curate a proper programme for outdoor experiential learning, which has benefited several clients, from TATA to UNICEF, from HSBC to Airtel,” says Neil.
It was also in Gangtok that Neil met his wife, Peden Bhutia Law, a police officer at the time who would often drop by Neil’s hotel in the evening, because “it had the best music in town”. They got married in 1999.
The Eco Park adventure
Eco Park could not have become what it has without Neil’s pioneering visionTT archives
With Himalayan Footprints expanding its trail, Neil went on to fulfil his childhood dream of embarking on a series of solo excursions in the Western Himalayas, with a classic Land Rover for company. Between 2005 and 2010, he completed driving through the entire Himalayan range from Kashmir to Arunachal Pradesh. Soon after that, he brought the spirit of adventure to the seaside resort village of Mandarmani, where parasailing, sea kayaking and zip lining took off on the must-do list for tourists. It was around that time that Neil met Debashis Sen, who would give Neil his next big project.
The chairman-cum-managing director of the West Bengal Housing Infrastructure Development Corporation (HIDCO) asked Neil to develop Eco Park as an adventure spot along the lines of his work in Mandarmani. “Eco Park was a real challenge because back then people used to think of New Town as back of beyond. There were concerns with infrastructure and safety. The craze for New Town as a weekend destination, let alone as a place of residence, had not yet emerged,” narrates Neil.
Within a few years, Neil had helped transform Eco Park into an urban recreational space. His signature contribution was the introduction of a nine-hole golf course, a part of Neil’s Golf For All initiative, which allowed an elite sport to become affordable and accessible to Kolkatans. “I’m proud of the work I did at Eco Park, not least because of the fact that I was answerable to the government,” says Neil, who, along with his wife Peden, took over the management of Eco Park’s tea lounge, even setting up a tea garden outside.
Giving small tea growers their due
With STG, Neil intends to improve the lives and livelihood of small tea growers in Northeast India
It was tea that would define the next stage of Neil’s career, once he discovered what was going on with small tea growers in the Northeast. “I realised that foreign brands were taking tea from the small growers in Meghalaya, Manipur and Assam and selling it abroad as boutique tea, which was very well priced. However, none of the profits were coming down to the growers themselves.”
Intent on giving small tea growers their due, Neil founded a company in their name. Small Tea Growers (STG) became a boutique brand of tea sourced from small tea estates in the Northeast. Organic, packed with flavour, free of pesticides, and hand-rolled, STG’s tea “isn’t just a beverage, it’s about sampling a certain culture and lifestyle”. To complement that further, Neil wedded his new love for tea with his old love for golf to come up with “‘tea and tee’, which underlines the class and the elegance associated with a drink and a sport that are both rooted in aristocracy but deserve to be enjoyed more democratically.”
With that in mind, STG has been actively participating in community building endeavours in the Northeast, which include awareness drives about health and hygiene, football talent hunts and more. “My motivation has always been to make people’s lives better, in whatever way I can. And it’s possible to do that without losing money, too,” says Neil, unable to resist a characteristic chuckle.
A one-stop hangout for travel, tea and tantalising momos
STG products are available in select cafes across Kolkata, including Bike & Blend on Hindustan Road, which opened its doors last October. Talking about his latest initiative, Neil, who is a member of Kolkata’s 1400 member-strong Cycling Network Group, acknowledges that his cafe “grew out of the need to have a place where cyclists could hang out, without being disturbed, judged or made to feel like they are an inconvenience”. Gradually, Bike & Blend hopes to grow into a one-stop centre for anyone wishing to immerse themselves in travel, tea and the tantalising momos that are prepared by Peden. For now, Neil’s time and attention are split among Himalayan Footprints, STG and Bike & Blend, all of which “keep me busy, occupied and content”. But if the trajectory of his life is any indication, Neil will soon return to his favourite formula, to find the right time and space to learn and unlearn, and embark on another road less travelled.