Zeena Nazar — The Queen
With a dream of starting something of their own, Zeena and Abdul, accompanied by 6-month old Zoheb, arrived in the picturesque town of Kodaikanal nearly 30 years ago. The young couple then took over Taj Lodge — a homestay that was meant to be a cozy retreat for travelers. Back then, Zeena handled the kitchen, and Abdul, the reception. Little did this duo know that their modest homestay would one day turn into the flourishing Villa Retreat.
The journey from Taj Lodge to Villa Retreat wasn’t all smooth, though. The property was first taken on lease, and the couple only managed to buy the place in 2005 after a fair bit of financial struggle. Zeena initially ran the kitchen all by herself, it was only after nearly three years that she hired help. Even so, life only got slightly easier.
But the ever-enterprising Zeena didn’t back down from the challenge — taking Zoheb to school, picking him up, looking after her youngest, Taslina, all while managing Villa’s kitchen. What helped was that Zoheb was a perceptive child who understood what his parents were going through, giving them next to no trouble. He now manages Villa Retreat, as he had a front-row seat to the inner workings of the business.
Nonetheless, Zeena’s imprint on the kitchen is firmly in place. Her chicken curry is still a force to be reckoned with, and her biryani is famous all over Kodaikanal! These recipes continue to be a part of Villa’s menu, and loyal guests are a testament to this culinary skill.
George, a guest from Ireland, is a fine example of this. He first came to Villa Retreat in its initial years to spend no more than a couple of days. But things worked out a little differently — the home-like hospitality and delicious fare won his heart, and incredibly, he stayed on till he breathed his last. In those eight years, he became not just a fan of Zeena’s culinary prowess, but also an adored member of the family.
And it’s not just guests who choose to stay on — employees do too. In fact, some have remained in Villa’s kitchen since they were first hired, while others have gone on to become executive chefs in five-star kitchens.
Now, almost three decades on, Villa Retreat has become one of the best-known hotels in Kodaikanal. And this is in no small part due to Zeena’s tenacity. From having never left Pathnapuram in Kollam, Kerala, she came to a town completely unknown to her — and not only set up a successful business, but also raised a family that now runs it. Now that’s what you call a woman of grit!