The new decade that was to change India forever was barely noticeable in the tiny town of Kodaikanal, cloud strewn, damp and verdant. Engulfed in the mist and dense forests, the town’s residents seemed unaware of movements and currents on the plains below. The white population, mostly British retirees, American missionaries and other hangers-on, relished the servility of their domestic employees, who addressed the men as ‘master’. This was a time when people still toasted the Queen on New Year’s Eve while also acknowledging the President of India.
Into this surreal colony arrived Israel Bhooshi, entrepreneur, conservationist, gourmet cook, artisanal baker, raconteur, cricketer and, above all, great friend to a great many.
Izzy, Israel, Bhooshi—whatever you wanted to call him—was an imposing man among the small-framed Tamilians of the town. His family was from Hyderabad but he had frequently moved following the transfers of his father, an army officer. Communicating charm and warmth through the softness of his friendly gaze, he would speak to literally every person he saw on the street; and they soon became part of his circle of friends, which stretches across the globe. Israel had impressive credentials as an elite chef and restaurant manager with years of experience with the India Tourism Development Corporation (ITDC) chain, working in Hyderabad and Bangalore, but his patience wore thin, serving the elite of India, so he gave it all up to follow the call: that somewhere lay a better home for him. Arriving on a scooter with a friend in 1979, he fell in love with the beauty of the Sholas and the majesty of the hills and decided that this is where he would live, love, work and raise a family, moving here in 1980.
Casting about for what he might do, he gradually developed what would become a grand vision, one that involved providing good food in an atmosphere of friendship, inclusion, and wholeness. Manna had vegan options, at that time—green salad with Manna bread, veg soup potage, a slice of apple crumble, lemon tea, he remembers, many years later.
‘When wheat was available I bought it, freshly ground and made wholemeal brown bread, which I used for the breakfast and lunch menu,’ he says, emailing in vivid detail from his current home in England. ‘Round loaves for sale, long loaves for restaurant purposes.’
His gift of connecting with people served him well, and he procured an ancient wood stove that became the centerpiece of a small cabin dispensing very basic food. Each eviction and demand for licensing (prompted, of course, by those powerful forces in the community that disapproved of a long-haired, bearded Indian selling snacks to American teenagers) led to his small operation eventually becoming the famed Manna Bakery, cited in the Lonely Planet guide to Kodai. ‘Bhai sahib, all our food is farm fresh, natural and free of chemicals,’ he explained to a tourist in his chaste Hindi. ‘You try the lemon tea—very good for cold.’
Being named Israel gave him a calling; he studied Hebrew and converted to Judaism. His children were also named to reflect the Hebrew story: Shalom, Rebecca and Rachel. It seemed natural that his restaurant would be called Manna, that miraculous food of divine providence that fed a lost people. So it was that Manna grew into that restaurant that could seat a symbolic twelve, providing warmth and wonderful food. The flimsy walls and the hard dirt floor added a contrasting charm to the elevated experience of speaking to the polyglot proprietor.
‘Manna was right around the corner from Winsford, our first home in Kodai. Israel would often drop by for a chat and bring a fresh loaf of his wonderful brown bread,’ says long-term resident and writer Lathika George. ‘Looking back over 35 years, Manna’s delicious apple pie, the cozy wooden shack, conversations with eclectic visitors from across the world, and of course the charismatic Israel himself, all firmed up my opinion – Kodai was a special corner of the world and I was glad we had found it!’
Casual diners were often amazed to discover that the other visitors were sometimes people of fame and fortune: dream psychologist Ann Faraday and her husband; the philosopher John Wren-Lewis; composer and guitarist Timothy Ward; Bangalore advertising guru Rajashekar. The legendary historian of cinema and distinguished civil servant, S. Theodore Bhaskaran expressed great admiration for all that Israel was doing, especially his environmental activism.
‘I took an interest in beekeeping, and took part in the first Save Kurunji flower march,’ says Israel, today. ‘I was a pioneer hiker, and part of the initial biodynamic farming class.’ He recalls that the Manna scrapbook kept all the environmental clips from newspapers and magazines; ‘Guests loved to know about the environment of Kodaikanal.’
Israel’s commitment to preserving a fragile environment saw him demonstrating alongside Greenpeace, pioneering a route up the hills via Palani, and participating in the protests leading to the closure of the HUL factory and against the weak investigation into the Union Carbide gas leak in Bhopal. He embraced a local development group that used Badal Sircar’s street theatre activism to highlight the plight of rural agricultural workers.
The concern that this tiny sky island was rapidly being destroyed by deforestation and pollution led to the formation of the Palni Hills Conservation Council, of which Israel was a founding member. This organization continues to fight the good fight. ‘Look at Chernobyl,’ he would implore, underlining the need to resist the tide of poorly planned industrialization that could lead to disaster.
To drop into Manna in the morning was to see the baker manually kneading 20 kilos of flour and water, a task that no modern baker would ever take on. Israel baked the most delicious bread; his Westphalian pumpernickel was particularly relished by the German residents Madame Puginiere and Herr Hans Helmut Baum. Those tired of South Indian food could hardly believe that wholesome bread was being baked here. ‘Even stomachs need rest,’ Israel would say with a chuckle. Later in the day he would deliver bread to residents who had no way of getting to the bakery. Stop by in the evening and you would be supplied with elegant dishes such as vegetable au gratin or potage parmentier, followed by the piece de resistance, the signature Sicilian cheese pizza with its incomparable crust. The charm of the menu multiplied when you considered the possibility of meeting musicians, motocross rallyists, poets, authors, future politicians and environmentalists.
‘Play one more!’ Izzy would shout out from the kitchen and sing along with the friend strumming on the guitar, his favorite music being the Beatles and Bob Marley:
‘Mingle with the good people we meet, yeah!
Good friends we have, oh, good friends we have lost
Along the way, yeah!
In this great future, you can't forget your past,
So dry your tears.’
Israel also intervened where he could to protect a family whose home was being invaded by miscreants, or simply to support the lonely traveler who had run out of resources.
Israel and his wife, June, raised their children through storms, roof collapses, power outages and other challenges posed by this hill. His daughter Rachel now looks back and speaks of the isolation of Kodaikanal as a blessing. Reminiscing about those times, she says, ‘We learnt to entertain ourselves. We made our own toys from sticks and stones and would carve wood, press flowers, go on adventures and enjoy the wildlife.’
A couple of decades later, the scene had changed. The secret of the hill station was now common knowledge, bringing hordes of tourists through the year. India was no longer open to an unrestricted missionary presence, international schools proliferated all over the nation, the population explosion and accompanying deforestation brought the wildlife into the town. And, as all good things surely come to an end, Israel moved to Sheffield in 2002, lock, stock, barrel and bakery, leaving behind a taste that all who knew him continue to savour.
*An earlier version of this article stated that Israel Bhooshi trained with the Oberoi chain. This article was corrected on 22nd May, 9:30 pm to reflect that he trained with the India Tourism Development Corporation (ITDC).