This book covers Forest Essentials’ journey from soaps and candles to a luxury brand

We were still early birds in 2003. And those were our very early days. Our products continued to sit on shelves in our little section inside a bookstore. This way, we now had an interface with the public, with the market, instead of just word of mouth.

From that vantage point, we kept getting inquiries and more orders. We later also started a small store at the Ambawatta One Complex in Mehrauli, Delhi, which had a new shopping buzz in those days.

It was good to see appreciation for the real thing. People were willing to pay for quality.

One day, I got a call from The Hyatt Regency in Delhi. They had a new General Manager from overseas who wanted to meet with us. I told Sam. We both went to the meeting later that week.

He said, ‘Recently, someone gave me a gift. Of soaps. Forest Essentials.’

‘Um hmm.’ We nodded.

‘I really enjoyed using the soap, so I made some inquiries.’

We nodded again. We waited with bated breaths and looked up at him.

‘I want to introduce a product line in our hotels, which is not the usual substandard amenities that are supplied to hotel chains like ours. I wanted to try your company’s products for this.’

‘Sure,’ I said, completely clueless about how that could be done at all.

Sam shifted uneasily in his chair and tried not to glare at me.

‘Good. Then we are on…Could you give us a trial round of the usual?’

I looked at him and raised my eyebrows.

‘You know, the usual line – shampoo, conditioner, body lotion, shower gel and soap?’

We both stared at him. Before Sam could say anything about the fact that we did not do shampoos, conditioners, lotions and gels, I said, ‘Yes, of course we can.’

‘Okay. Wonderful. Give me some samples and I will see how I can work out an order for you.’

‘Thank you. Mr Fulton, please give me two to three weeks to get back to you.’

‘I’m actually travelling abroad,’ he said, ‘and will be back in a month. Let me have them then.’

We came out of the meeting and Sam said to me, ‘What are you saying, Mom? How on earth are we going to give him samples? Do you have any idea? We don’t make them.’

‘Well, Sam. Here’s where we start. We have to find out how to make really good-quality lotions and gels. We did make the soaps, didn’t we?’

It was crazy. But he saw what I meant. He went along with it.

Then the whole process started again – the discoveries were amazing. It was the same thing as the soaps: it appeared that many large companies would add bleached waste machine oils, synthetic scents and colours. They would then add stone dust to add weight. The soap would cost ten rupees in the market. These would be made in bulk, packed, labelled and sold.

I found a small contract manufacturer for my Hyatt trial.

‘Can you make these according to my specifications?’

He said no. ‘We can take your order and supply to you but the specifications will be ours.’

‘Please make them with our ingredients. We can do a trial order. You can keep your margins so that you are not at a loss,’ I said.

In the end, he agreed. We got a small order made with our oils, some herbs, some infusions, all according to the specifications of our Ayurvedic doctors. It was only later that the manufacturer saw that we were actually going to sell what we had made. After that, he began to be much more forthcoming.

In the meantime, we did manage to give Hyatt their samples within a month. They were delighted. Of course, so were we. The volumes were larger than anything we had done before. New challenges were before us now.

The garage would not work any more. It was time for us to move out.

We found a small office in Shahpur Jat, behind our Panchsheel house. It was in a narrow lane with no space for a car to enter. We had three small rooms, which became our offices. Upstairs was a larger room which became our warehouse.

We worked out of there for almost three years. Looking back, it never seemed like work. We were all always so excited about some new order or some new product and many days and nights were spent with our small team, who were all more enthusiastic than experienced.

Hyatt started us off with its Delhi hotel. We took another place in Shahpur Jat on rent where we could handle the growing volume and the variety that we were producing. We called it our factory.

Soon, we were supplying to the other Hyatt hotels – Kolkata, Mumbai…And what began with soap turned into all amenities required for a hotel room.

Meanwhile, we had to be on top of our game as I saw it.

I scoured different markets and little-known shops in far-flung corners of our country – the diversity, first-hand, was unbelievable. Each culture brought some nuance to what we were trying to discover.

I immersed myself in the world of traditional skincare, looking at products, learning new methods and understanding techniques.

I watched for the little practical details that bring refinement and finesse, things that mould the product the way you want it to look, to feel. I watched displays, asked questions, took notes, observed, studied, many times till midnight.

I had heard, some time ago, from one of our senior Vaids about a small village in the South, around a hundred miles from Cochin, where a husband and wife used to prepare recipes handed down over generations.

He had also told me of some miraculously effective products that were painstakingly made by them according to Vedic principles. He knew the name of the village but not their names, and said that he had visited them four or five years earlier, but did not know if they still lived there. I was very intrigued as this was the kind of thing I was looking for. But a village in the back of beyond? No name or address? I decided that we must take a chance and at least try.

‘Malathiji, we should go and see if we can find them,’ I told her.

So the trip to Kerala was planned and both of us reached Cochin (now Kochi) and then left for the village. It was a crazy situation, as we kept getting different directions and then realised that we were going around in circles! It was already six hours since we had left Cochin.

‘Driver, do you know where we are?’ I asked him.

‘No, ma’am,’ he replied honestly. ‘I think we are lost.’

We were all hungry and thirsty. Then we saw a coconut seller going down the road.

‘Stop stop,’ I said, ‘let’s get some coconut water.’ We stopped the coconut seller. He cut off the top of three coconuts and handed them to us. We drank the fresh, cool water with relief.

The driver was talking to him and suddenly we saw the coconut seller nodding his head vigorously. He was pointing to the left and explaining something. The driver came back. ‘I have the directions. He knows the village,’ he announced. Finally, we were on the way!

We reached the village at around four in the evening. Malathi spoke to some people and made inquiries. The husband and wife seemed to be quite well-known. One man offered to lead us to their home. When we reached, an elderly man was sitting outside on a charpoy. He had a serene face and greeted us with a charming smile and a namaste.

We tried to explain to him what we were looking for and, though the language was a barrier, we could understand each other in some fashion. He called out to his wife and she brought hot coffee in stainless steel tumblers. She also sat down with us. Haltingly, we asked about the special recipes we heard they made. The driver was also called to assist in the conversation.

The lady then called out to her son. He came out and I tried to explain to him that if they could produce those recipes for us, we could buy from them. He said, ‘I understand. I will talk to Amma and Appa and I’m sure we can do it. I have been asking my parents to do something with their knowledge for many years.’

‘I didn’t realise that you speak English,’ I said wonderingly. ‘Yes, I have studied in the Christian school in Cochin,’ he told me. He explained that in their family they had undertaken this work to benefit society. Gradually, it turned out to be a treasure trove! Once I had explained what we wanted to do and needed authentic traditional formulations, they were incredibly receptive.

These recipes had been handed down from father to son, from poultices for pain and arthritis, pastes using fresh herbs for skin ailments, stretch marks and pigmentation, roots infused in aged ghee for glowing skin and directions on how to infuse real silk into bath soaps.

They then brought out dried leaves on which the actual recipes were written. The leaves were fragile and wrapped in muslin, but the intricate handwriting was still quite clear.

I could not believe it! I tried to work out how we could use these and if they could make larger quantities for us. They were not sure because the ingredients were seasonal and they did not have much help. We spent another hour with them and exchanged numbers, telling them that we would be in touch with our exact requirements.

When we left them, I was trembling with excitement and exhaustion. We reached Cochin at around two in the morning.

This family went on to become one of our key suppliers and built their business with us. The father has since passed away, but his ideals remain, with their meticulous attention to detail and adherence to ancient ritualistic methods of preparation. It is these which give the products their extraordinary effectiveness.

We then work on the textures, fragrances and delivery of the products to make them easier to apply, and more pleasurable – and it remains as it was envisioned so many generations ago.

Essentially Mira: The Extraordinary Journey Behind Forest Essentials

Excerpted with permission from Essentially Mira: The Extraordinary Journey Behind Forest Essentials, Mira Kulkarni, HarperCollins India.

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