Kartik and Anuradha Budhraja jettisoned lucrative careers in Singapore to embrace a sustainable lifestyle in the Himalayas with apples
Luscious red apples shimmered as they weighed down the boughs of trees dotting the slopes of an orchard-studded valley. As the mist rolled in like a giant parachute, Anuradha and Kartik Budhraja, who were touring the enchanting apple belt in Himachal Pradesh, north India, felt that they had come home. Apple farming in Himachal Pradesh was a far cry from the shiny glass-sheathed high rises of Singapore.
Though Kartik had lived the good life in Singapore for 11 years and Anuradha for 7, both had felt a gnawing void in their hearts. The Himalayas beckoned.
“I can still recall the flavor of my mom’s Himalayan plum jam that we enjoyed as kids,” said Kartik, whose grandmother was born and raised in Shimla. Home also meant being back in the land of their birth, being close to their parents, and finding real meaning and fulfillment in their lives.
We first met the couple at the Banjara Orchard Retreat in Thanedar, the apple basket of India, located at 7,500 ft. Enfolded in apple and cherry orchards, Thanedar turned out to be a typical Himalayan town where the crisp air is spiked with a sweet piney fragrance. At the time, Anuradha and Kartik had jettisoned lucrative careers in Singapore, three years prior in 2013, to strike roots in the apple belt that they had fallen in love with as tourists.
And they weren’t alone in succumbing to the allure of the region, with its deep dense forests, quaint villages basking in the sun and multihued birds…
Way back in 1904, Samuel Evan Stokes, the scion of a wealthy Philadelphia family, traveled to India and, by a strange turn of fate, arrived in Thanedar, fell in love with the place and married a local girl. Legend has it that his mother bought him an existing tea plantation and that Stokes later brought a few saplings from his homeland and planted them in his orchard in Kotgarh (about 10 miles from Thanedar). The Red and Golden Delicious variety of apples bore fruit and seduced the taste buds of an entire nation – and apple farming in Himachal Pradesh was born. Local farmers in the Shimla hills in the western Himalayas, too, started planting them. Stokes was generous with help and advice to newbie farmers.
Initially, the Budhrajas lived in a rented cottage on the Stokes estate and handled challenges head on. There was some resistance from the locals getting the hang of the process of fruit and jam making, dealing with the hailstorms that damaged crops and the occasional jackal that gate-crashed their kitchen. They often glimpsed foxes and even leopards lurking on the periphery of the estate.
Those challenges are now behind them, thanks to their hands-on approach. They now know which fruits to buy from which farmer, says Kartik, and from which tree a particular fruit may have been cut! Their boutique jam and chutney processing venture, Kotgarh Fruit Bageecha, has become a brand in the area of fruits and preserves. Their production unit (with a capacity to produce 400 kg a day) is located in the village of Shathla, 6 km away from their new home, where they are assisted by a dozen local women and three men. “We work according to the needs of local communities,” says Kartik. “Sometimes, the women have to attend a festival or tutor their children for exams.” But these are not major issues! They are the perks of living on unhurried mountain time, of people involved in apple farming in Himachal Pradesh.
When we tasted some of their jams and preserves, hand-crafted at 7,500 ft, in India’s first and finest fruit orchards, the products seemed to snare in their juicy depths the abundant bounty of this sliver of land. The apple chutney spiked with the hot Naga King chilli strikes a sweet and spicy note; the plum jam is calibrated to nostalgia, based as it is on the homely recipe of Kartik’s mom; and the wild apricot jam happens to be Anuradha’s favorite. Then there are other lip-smacking flavors – green apple and ginger chutney, Xmas plum preserve, chunky Kiwi preserve with star anise, Himachal wild apricot preserve, etc.
“We both share a passion for developing new recipes and products,” says Anuradha, “and we will soon go into solar-powered dehydration of apples and apricots.”
Asked if they have any regrets, they responded with a firm “None at all.” The duo has fashioned a way to thrive in work and love, and the geographical move to India has only strengthened their professional and emotional commitments. The couple, now in their mid-forties, have their own home in the minuscule village of Saroga (host to just 20 households). Their three-storied home, of slate and wood, has been built in keeping with the local vernacular and perches on a ridge, 8,000 ft above sea level.
Imagine waking up each day to the amphitheater-like sight of the Greater Himalayas blueing into the distance; the centuries-old Hindustan-Tibet road curving beyond their home and the river Sutlej chortling past. The duo love their sustainable, carbon-neutral lifestyle. They grow their own food, a rainwater-harvesting system is in place, and a soon-to-be-installed rooftop solar power system will supply enough power for their needs and some. This is in sync with the philosophy that powers this region of sustainable organic farming.
But what the Budhrajas love the most is the white stillness of winter. At the end of the day, they look forward to snuggling by a bukhari (traditional fire place) in their living room, their two cats curled up beside them. That is when Anuradha and Kartik revel in a world that is as untouched and eternal as the Himalayas that soar protectively in the distance.