New Delhi: The backwaters at Muthukulam village, in Kerala’s Alappuzha district, were calm and beautiful, but nostalgia nipped at R. Ranganadhan as he sat in the veranda of his house and called his friend, nearly 4,000 km away, in Manipur.
Ranganadhan had been running the most popular bakery in Ukhrul, a remote hilly district in Manipur, until last month when the prolonged economic impacts of Covid-19 pandemic forced Ranganadhan and his wife Anila to shut shop and relocate back to their native village in Kerala.
He misses Ukhrul, but had little option but to go back.
Established in 1995 in Ukhrul’s Viewland area, the Kerala Bakery not only introduced items such as puffs, rasgulla and poori-sabji to its residents, who mostly comprised the Tangkhul Nagas, but also porotta and chicken curry, the quintessential Malayali delicacy.
“No one from Kerala did business in Ukhrul at the time. There were only a few shops, mostly essentials. I thought a bakery would introduce residents to newer items. I bought a wood-fired oven from a local person and brought some people from Kerala and West Bengal to make cakes, puffs, biscuits, sweets, etc. That was how the Kerala Bakery was born,” Ranganadhan told ThePrint.
A 1-kg cake, he said, sold for Rs 75 at the time. Over the years, Ranganadhan’s bakery became the go-to place for local residents craving cream puffs or a birthday cake.
“Ukhrul is such a small town and having a bakery meant a lot to us. Kerala Bakery introduced us to so many snacks we didn’t even know existed. I remember my mom coming back from office with goodies from the bakery. We would rush to get them,” said Ukhrul resident Phiphi Leisan, who now lives in Mumbai.
A 40-year love affair with Ukhrul
Ranganadhan’s love affair with Ukhrul began over 40 years ago — much before he opened the shop — when he first set foot on its scenic Nungbi village in 1979.
His brother, Ramanan, had come to Imphal that year to take part in a recruitment drive for the Assam Rifles. Ramanan failed to get through but an acquaintance in Ukhrul asked him for help in running a grocery store at Nungbi. The acquaintance soon left for Kerala and Ramanan was later joined by Ranganadhan.
“I was looking for a job too and this seemed like an opportunity,” Ranganadhan said.
Lack of infrastructure, however, proved a bigger hurdle than differences in culture or language for the two brothers as they began setting up their business. “There was barely any road and no electricity in Nungbi, which is around 60 km from the district headquarters of Ukhrul. We would fetch our supplies mostly on foot,” Ranganadhan said.
What kept them going were local residents. Ranganadhan said they were never made to feel like “outsiders”.
“The villagers we met on our way to Ukhrul from Nungbi would often help us carry our supplies. At times, we even took shelter in some of these villages and the locals gave us food to eat, fresh clothes to sleep on. I began carrying small gifts for them but they never took anything from us.”
In the next 15 years (from 1979 to 1995), their business expanded to various parts of Ukhrul and in the Phek district of Nagaland. Ramanan later started the Kerala Hotel at Jessami and Ranganadhan the Kerala Bakery in the Viewland area in Ukhrul.
“Profit from the bakery wasn’t much at the time. But money wasn’t everything. This bakery earned me a lot of love and respect from the locals,” Ranganadhan said.
His son Sachin Ranganadhan, who was born in Jessami, said his Tangkhul (spoken by the Tangkhul Nagas in Ukhrul) is better than his Malayalam. “I love tribal food…pork is my favourite,” said the 30-year-old, an engineer working in Saudi Arabia now.
For the local residents, Ranganadhan and his family became one of their own. “They are very close to us. We lived together for over 20 years,” said Ngashanhao Sareo, 40, whose father had rented out a house to the Ranganadhans near Viewland.
Sareo, who is a sub-inspector with the Manipur Police, said, “I used to tutor Sachin and take him for football practice. Our families would often share food…we would give them Tangkhul delicacies and they fed us Malayali items. I also learnt a few Malayali words.”
‘Didn’t know if the lockdown would ever be over’
There were setbacks and competitions in his business but Ranganadhan said he had never faced anything like the pandemic.
“Six months of shutdown was difficult. We paid salary to our staff for two months after the lockdown in March. They then found other jobs and left. We didn’t know if the lockdown would ever be over. Supplies were hit hard and I was getting old. My wife and I knew we had to leave Ukhrul,” Ranganadhan said.
For the Ranganadhans and the local residents, it was a tearful farewell.
“I didn’t meet them as they were leaving. I knew it would break my heart. But I couldn’t stop myself and called uncle (Ranganadhan) when they were on their way to Kerala. I was nearly moved to tears,” Sareo said.
Leisan said, “Kerala Bakery is so close to my heart… I still remember the rectangle-shaped pink and yellow slips that had Kerala Bakery’s name left inside the packets of snacks.”
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