Famous among local residents in Manipur for its puffs, jalebis, samosas and patented Kerala-style chicken curry, Ukhrul’s Kerala Bakery has shut shop as its owners 68-year-old R Ranganathan and his wife Anila, moved back to their village in Alappuzha. Following the long lockdown imposed by Covid, they were unable to pay rent or their employees.
“I keep getting calls from Ukhrul, the people there asking me to come back and reopen Kerala Bakery,” says Ranganathan.
He’s tempted, half his mind wants to go back but he knows the eatery’s 25-year-saga has ended. “We tried a lot to survive this lockdown in Manipur and keep Kerala Bakery going. But we were unable to pay wages to our employees and we also needed to pay the rent of the shop and our residence,” he explains.
These days, Ranganathan and his wife busy themselves tending a small vegetable patch on their house premises in Kanakakunnu, a healthy recreation in their sunset years. “We cannot forget Manipur and its people till we breathe our last. My son Sachin was born and brought up in Manipur and he’s more Manipuri than Malayali,” says Anila. Ranganthan’s daughter Lakshmi is a nurse and his son an engineer in the Middle East.
Ranganathan left for Manipur when he was 28 and started working at his brother’s grocery shop. The brothers moved to several places in Manipur – Jessami, Kharsom, Maryam, Nungbi etc — where they ran small hotels named Kerala Hotel and Kairali before Ranganathan moved to Ukhrul in 1995 to start Kerala Bakery on his own. In between, Ranganathan ran Kerala Hotel at Waziho in Nagaland and later another Kerala Hotel at Meluri in the same state.
Apart from mainland Indian snacks, which were a novelty at that time in Ukhrul, Ranganathan catered Malayali comfort food too. His baked milk products were a huge hit. But running the establishment was not easy. “We had to trek through the hills for over 30 km either way from the wholesale market to Ukhrul carrying goods like sugar, soap and jaggery on our heads,” Ranganathan recalls.
It all started when one of his relatives who was working in General Reserve Engineer Force (GREF) of the ministry of defence in Manipur, came to Kerala for a visit. “He first took my younger brother Remanan to Manipur to try his luck at a recruitment event for Assam Rifles in 1979. But he didn’t get selected,” Ranganathan says. Later, Ranganathan joined Remanan in Manipur and they began running hotels.
They never looked back untill Covid hit them hard.