Nutritionist And Wellness Expert Dr. Vijaya Venkat
Photo: Viren Desai.
Founder of The Health Awareness Centre, wellness expert Dr. Vijaya Venkat passed away recently, but not before sowing philosophies that will help all of us live healthier and more ecologically-sustainable lives.
Travelling with this fascinating nutritionist-philosopher by train from Mumbai to Pune some years ago, I was taught a simple lesson in life.
It was cool and the open window and dust had me sneezing half-a-dozen times within moments of our journey’s start. Almost without thinking I dug into my pocket for my trusty handkerchief, then for the Actifed (anti-histamine) tablet that had become a security blanket for me to stay functional. What I was allergic to I will never quite know, but Vijaya’s reaction I will never forget. She took the tablet from my hand saying, “You don’t need this. If you don’t trust your body to deal with your allergy, it will continue to grow weaker in its defence and the allergen will overwhelm you.”
The next one hour was spent listening to her explain how the ecosystem that was my body was no different to the forests I lived to protect... how nature provisions the body for survival in precisely the same way that it does wetlands, grasslands, coasts and corals. Not surprisingly, her advice was so completely in sync with the success formula laid down by Kailash Sankhala, the first Director of Project Tiger way back in 1973: “Do nothing (to the forest) and allow little to be done.”
I was fascinated, convinced, hooked.
Sitting in Sujit Patwardhan’s Pune home over two decades ago, I remember her speaking reflectively of how the choices each of us make daily would determine the planet’s ability to support us, and uncounted other species, well into the future: “There is no difference Bittu, in the philosophy you propagate for protecting the planet and mine for protecting your body. The laws are the same. The systems are the same. The consequences are the same. The care is the same.”
That was Dr. Vijaya Venkat’s abiding belief to the day she died. That was her straightforward philosophy, her religion. All lifelong she advocated that people take responsibility for their own existence and that each individual lead by example. She was loathe to exporting problems to government, corporates, or politicians. I have lost count of the number of times she would say to me: “Forget what others say or do. You change your own habits that are not in sync with the planet or your beliefs and then let the cards fall as they will.”
Often referred to as a ‘Guru’, she actually disliked the word. Her constant refrain was: “Your body is your guru. Listen to it. Respect it. Obey it.” Way, way before her time… she passionately epitomised the ‘practice what you preach’ dictum. People meeting her for the first time, however, often felt disconcerted: “If your mother was a cow, then there would be nothing wrong with you drinking cow’s milk. No other animal drinks another animal’s milk… modern nutritionists do not practice what they preach. They describe sugar as an empty food, almost a poison, yet they have no qualms about approving foods that are over-dosed with sugar. Ditto for salt. Ditto for chemical preservatives.” Her views on health and nutrition were scientific, but counter-intuitive. If you fell sick, she would ask you to resist the knee-jerk response of popping pills. She asked that you eat as many raw foods as possible, particularly sprouted pulses and fruit. “Eat your way out of trouble,” was her constant refrain.
As an immunity booster she would speak about how an ‘attitude of gratitude’ could improve the quality of peoples’ lives and boost their immunity. I knew for sure that she was herself infinitely grateful for every breath gifted to her by nature. Yes, she would be angry at times, but less at those who advocated the wrong diets, healthcare and lifestyles… more with herself for not being able to reach out to enough people to counter the wrong ideas.
She did that throughout her life and gifted this strategy to her children and grandchildren. “Raising my children in a natural, holistic environment was a conscious decision I made for them,” she would proudly say, adding that they barely ever missed a day of school on account of ill-health.
I will miss Vijaya Venkat. She was undoubtedly one of the most positive influences in my life. At any point, when afflicted by self-doubt, cynicism, or diminished enthusiasm, a dose of Vijaya was the most effective cure imaginable. It goes without saying that she not merely approved of my life-mission to leave the planet a better place for our kids. She loved all that we represented and had a proprietorial air, a feeling of visceral ownership over Sanctuary.
Vijaya Venkat was a keeper of my deepest conservation values. She was family.
The Health Awareness Centre (THAC)
Dr. Vijaya Venkat founded the Health Awareness Centre way back in 1989 and lived her entire life using her unending source of positive energy to wean people away from the allure of corporates and their camp followers, who thrived by convincing a gullible public that force-feeding chemicals into our bodies would keep us healthy. ‘Wellness’ is the word I associate most with her. Deeply influenced by Marilyn Diamond’s iconic book, Fit for Life, a natural hygiene philosophy focused on eating fruit and natural foods, she launched a virtual war on policies that pushed ‘packaged poison’ masquerading as food. Along her journey, she was influenced by (and often influenced) the likes of Masanobu Fukouka, Bhaskar Save, Sunderlal Bahuguna, Baba Amte, Bill Mollison, and Winnin Pereira… all evangelists for organic farming and a better, safer, kinder, saner, more biodiverse world.
Planting ideas was her raison de etre. Her two daughters and a team of dedicated facilitators continue to operate the Centre as a way of keeping Vijaya’s flag flying. Now a much-respected institution, the Centre offers personal counseling, nutrition advice, re-education classes, workshops, study-groups and open-house discussions. THAC was started in a quaint little space in Parel, Mumbai, and moved six years ago to Worli, which houses amongst other resources, a library of books and documents. It trains people to become nutrition messiahs.
Naturally, recognitions and awards followed Dr. Vijaya Venkat wherever she went. The Rotary Club of Bombay (South) presented her with a ‘Vocational Excellence’ award in 2007. Chennai’s World Wellness Open University conferred on her their ‘Wellness Service Award to Humanity’ in 2008. Sanctuary spotlit her as a change maker before a gathered audience of 1,000 applauding people. Impressed, the Indira Gandhi Open University formulated a course on natural living based on her food and health philosophy.
iterally thousands of people have regained control over their lives and their health thanks to the THAC team that her daughter Anju Venkat now heads.
Author: Bittu Sahgal, First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVI No. 2, February 2016.