Earlier this year, Veena Torchia was sitting in her garden in Pushkar in northern India, eating a very ripe mango. As she bit into it, she let the juice drip down her. If she had been in east London, where her family is based, she would have cut the mango into pieces on a nice plate. “But I wouldn’t have tasted it,” she says. Torchia’s senses have sharpened since she turned 60 last year and moved to Pushkar with her husband to open a vegan cafe – the first, she claims, in the whole of the state of Rajasthan.

It was in Pushkar that Torchia and Maurelio, who is from Calabria, Italy, became a couple 40 years ago, having travelled there as friends in their 20s. It was a very different India from the one Torchia knew from childhood visits to her father’s family, when it was all “big hotels, air-conditioned buildings, jewellery shopping”.

When she and Maurelio returned to the city last autumn, they went to a hotel they knew. The owner had space in the garden in which they could run a cafe and the couple rented a bedroom for £5 a night. The owner told them: “Make your tofu; do your whatever.” Two weeks later, they opened the Arty Vegan cafe. In Pushkar, Torchia says, “There’s a can-do attitude. No matter how little you have, everything is possible.” It’s a spirit she is trying to harness.

Torchia’s clients are a mix of tourists, businesses, yoga retreats that book for groups, and walk-in customers. In the first half of the week, they prepare their homemade tofu, soya milk and dishes based on okara (soya pulp), and as the weekend approaches the menu switches to dishes from around the world. Customers can bring a container and buy food to take home.

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Torchia was born in South Africa but at eight moved to London with her mother and younger sister. Her father, who had an Esso franchise, stayed behind and sent money for the girls’ education. But living in England “was a grim and isolating experience”. In Durban, under apartheid, Torchia experienced “a very institutionalised segregation. But I did know which bench to sit on.” In Dulwich, south London, the racism “was much more subtle” and some of the signs harder to spot.

Veena Torchia and her husband in India
‘He showed me unconditional love’ … Veena Torchia with her husband, Maurelio, in India. Photograph: Abe Kleinman

Not at school, though, where she “was the only brown girl”. People joked that she was the lavatory cleaner. There was always “this sense of feeling valueless”. She self-harmed. “I had anorexia, bulimia, in those teenage years.”

Maurelio, who was “very much into cooking and did his exams to be a restaurateur”, was the catalyst for her recovery. “He showed me unconditional love,” she says. When they married, Torchia worked full-time in overseas education posts with the British Council while Maurelio looked after their four daughters. “For about 25 years, we travelled,” she says: Turkey, Sri Lanka, India, Tunisia, Japan. They came back to England for each birth, but there was a nagging sense of not belonging.

This became more than a feeling when the family returned to England hoping to spend time with Torchia’s mother, only to become homeless. Spells in a succession of B&Bs followed, before they were offered accommodation by a housing association in Hackney. Torchia started working for the homelessness charity Crisis, first as a teacher, then as manager of learning.

Her upbringing had given her a sense of “a very linear progression. You move from A to B and if you don’t get to C you are a failure.” But daily life was full of disorder, challenge and pressure. When she got breast cancer five years ago, the diagnosis hit hard. There had been no lump, no obvious sign. But, she says, “I was always living under so much stress. I thought it was the end of the world when I went for radiotherapy each day. I felt very isolated.”

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But in Pushkar she feels at home. The Arty Vegan began life as a food label in Hackney during lockdown, with Maurelio making tofu and their second daughter making vegan cheese. Their products were stocked in Planet Organic and Whole Foods Market. Now, some people who find the cafe in Pushkar recognise the name.

“I used to feel I needed to belong somewhere, or needed to identify with something, or needed to conform,” Torchia says. “I felt quite battered. You perk yourself up, but you constantly feel this very heavy feeling. Now, for the first time, I feel I’m my own person.”

Their room in Pushkar is simple. The bathroom leaks, the paint peels, the bed is basic. “But I really couldn’t be happier,” she says. “I am learning each day to shed the traumas of the past, and I’m finally living for the moment.”

In the UK, Beat can be contacted on 0808 801 0677. In the US, the National Eating Disorders Association is on 800-931-2237. In Australia, the Butterfly Foundation is at 1800 33 4673. Other international helplines can be found at Eating Disorder Hope. In the UK, Mind is available on 0300 123 3393 and Childline on 0800 1111. In the US, Mental Health America is available on 800-273-8255. In Australia, support is available at Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636, Lifeline on 13 11 14 and at MensLine on 1300 789 978

Tell us: has your life taken a new direction after the age of 60?

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