Interview and translation by Mibu Minami
Delivering organic fruits and vegetables to the Japanese community in Delhi and Gurgaon since 2013, Tomato Project founder Noriko Tsuchiya has been an unwavering presence within the community. I’ve been a regular online customer since arriving to Delhi in 2016 as well as the Tomato Project’s stall at school melas or at their hosted events. She was a lifeline for many Japanese families during the pandemic lockdown and she continues to support the organic farmers in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh while encouraging the importance of sustainable natural farming. I sat down with Noriko at Blue Tokai Coffee, (me with a cappuccino and Noriko with a healthy dose of kombucha) to talk about her connection with India, establishing Tomato Project and their new English site.
Mangoli Mag (MM): When did you first come to India?
Noriko Tsuchiya (NT): The first time was in 1984. I did a month-long homestay with an Indian family who ran an NGO organization in Calcutta. They traveled the country teaching the importance of sanitation and hygiene to people living in rural areas by enacting plays. Plays were a way to reach out to people who could not read or write. I didn’t think to buy any guidebooks on India even though I knew nothing about the country or culture, I just went with the flow. I arrived around the end of February, just around Holi. I remember after a few days of arriving to Calcutta, I took an auto-rickshaw and noticed no one was walking outside and all the shop’s shutters were shut. Suddenly, a car comes screeching to a stop in front of us and a bunch of kids came dashing out shouting “Happy Holi!” and threw color powder into my face. No one told me about Holi! Can you imagine my shock!? (laughing)
MM. What motivated you to do a homestay in India in the first place?
NT: A close friend in Japan who is a pantomime performer was a member of the Japanese Theatre of the Deaf. She invited me to the theatre’s workshop one day and that’s where I was introduced to the Indian family running the NGO organization and was invited to do a homestay. I flew through Bangkok and Dhaka and landed in Calcutta. Seeing the poverty in Dhaka back then had quite an impact on me that it lightened my culture shock of India. India was also very different compared to what it is now. I never imagined then that I would be back living and working in India as I am now.
MM: Really? Then what brought you back to India?
NT: It was the strangest thing. That first trip, I took a train from Calcutta to Varanasi and then a bus to Kathmandu, then back to Calcutta. I was exhausted after that and looked forward to going back to Japan. But when the plane landed at Narita airport and I unfastened my seatbelt, a sudden thought came to my mind that I want to go back to India. It’s still a mystery as to why that happened. After that, I traveled to India several times with my little sister.
MM. India calls you back..
NT: Perhaps…and I grew curious. When I lived with the family in Calcutta, I saw the women were prohibited to answer the door if the men of the family were not home. Not even when the vegetable vendor came by! It came as a shock to me. Yet, the women who were made to stay indoors seemed so happy to me. Clearly, my definition of freedom and happiness was different to theirs and I grew curious to understand more about that. I decided to go back to India in 1992, this time to study in Varanasi. There was no internet at that time and the post took so long that I just flew there to apply for my registration. I studied In Varanasi for 2 years, then went back to study for another 2 years from 1997 to 1999.
MM. Did you find an answer?
NT: It’s hard to put into words. Let’s just say, the women at the time may have had a smaller world view but they were clear about their role within the family, their religion, their everyday life. Fulfilling that part seemed to be connected to their happiness. I may come from a “free” world, but I was still searching to know myself and looking for that place or role in life. Perhaps that’s the difference.
MM. And how did you come back to live in Delhi?
NT: After my studies I returned to Japan. I got a job and started a family and stayed there until 2011 when the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster occurred after the Tohoku earthquake. Though I was living in Tokyo, I grew concerned about the effects of radiation, especially for my daughter and started to think about moving back to India. My daughter always liked watching Indian films and though the films only showed the beautiful parts of India, we took a family trip that summer to Varanasi. We stayed a month and decided to stay. However, I realized I couldn’t find any work in Varanasi, so my plans switched to Delhi.
MM. Please tell us how you started Tomato Project.
NT: There used to be a guest house in GK1 run by a Japanese person I knew, so I stopped by one day for tea. I met another Japanese person there and we struck up a conversation about life in Delhi. I mentioned how myself and other Japanese mothers in Delhi wished we could have access to better quality vegetables for our children. To that, he replied “What a coincidence, I work for JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) working to support farmers in Himachal Pradesh. We’re looking for a place to sell our organic vegetables.” I had experience in sustainable development in my twenties and so I decided to take on the mission to sell organic vegetables in Delhi and started Tomato Project in 2013. In the beginning, we sold our products mainly to Japanese customers at Yasu Craft on MG Road before expanding to online delivery.
If I didn’t stop by for tea that day, I don’t think I would have started Tomato Project.
MM. Now you have an English site and are back to hosting Tomato Project events.
NT: Yes. Though keeping up with orders we receive from the Japanese community is still a lot of work, we realized that in order to balance the business and support the farmers, we need to let more local and international people know about our service. This is why we decided to open our English site.
We also plan to collaborate with Blue Tokai Coffee and hold monthly events featuring our organic products and other vendors we are friendly with.
The next event hosted by Tomato Project will be held on the 10th & 11th of November at Blue Tokai Coffee in Vasant Kunj.
Organic fruits and vegetables from Tomato Project as well as lifestyle goods from HitoMi, Black Pottery from Manipur and sample clothes remade from Japanese summer kimono fabric, Zori slippers and more.
Hope to see you there!