If you have read my ‘about’ page, you will be familiar with the excerpt “The Importance of Elsewhere” by Paul Theroux. That about describes how I felt growing up in the small port town of Mangalore. It felt…small and restrictive. I rued the lack of opportunity. My ruling obsession was to get out, to experience a ‘better’ more sophisticated world ‘out there’. I assumed home would always be waiting if I ever decided to return.
When I did leave, I spared little thought for this childhood home of mine. Built on the banks of the river Nethravathi by my grandfather when he started his (roof) tile manufacturing business, this wasn’t the typical ancestral house of our villages. This had not much architectural merit. Starting out with one little room and extended haphazardly over the years as he climbed the ladder of success and when he decided to move his wife and only son here. This was now home, and here, everyone lived happily…….for some time.
The house was always full of people. Full of visiting cousins and aunts and uncles from every branch of our family. Mom seemed to live in the kitchen (except when she was obsessing about our homework!) although we had a retinue of servants, some that came with my grandmother from her ancestral home. And somehow, there always was enough food to go round – usually rice and wonderful, aromatic fish curry cooked on a firewood stove – even for anyone who dropped in unannounced. Even for any labourer that knocked on the kitchen door requesting a coconut shell full of curry for his dinner. Mealtimes were fun and noisy and there was much fighting and bickering and scolding. But laughter as well. Lots of laughter. What else could you expect with five children and four adults and as many guests at all times?
There were orchards at the back – mango, coconut, arecanut, cashew, even paddy for a while. And a bullock cart from the days before the advent of motor vehicles. Imagine that, just a few minutes from the center of town! We kids never cut mangoes. We just bit off one end and sucked the juice out….oh the joy of it. And I bet none of you would know the joy of cooking real grains of rice in tiny tamarind pods. Or creating little figures and utensils from clay that we begged the workers to fire in the tile kilns. And oh, the sheer delight of playing marbles and seven tiles with the boys in the yard. And the exasperation of being chastised by my grandmother for such ‘unladylike’ behaviour.
Then there were the boats. Not these motor boats you see in the pictures, but old row boats once used to transport tiles up to the mouth of the harbour and onto Dhows from the Arabian gulf. We clambered onto them on occasion to head to the island across the river, to have a picnic with friends on the beach facing the Arabian Sea on the far side. Those were good times.
But we know that all good things must come to an end. And thus it was that our idyll started unraveling. My grandfather passed away and took our laughter with him. My dad, overwhelmed by his legacy followed him within eight months. I found my escape through marriage. The older brother messed up, and then abandoned ship. And my grandmother succumbed soon after, to the stress of it all. Mom was cruelly yanked out of her haven in the kitchen to hold it all together…..run the ailing factory and care for my kid sister and young brother. Within a few years, he was gone too, the victim of a tragic car crash.
Stricken but not beaten, mom plodded on. Ever smiling, never complaining, never once expressing a wish to get away from it all. Her faith never wavering even for a moment! She refused to let go of the property, despite our entreaties, till my sister was married. She was determined to give her away from ‘home’….which she did. She also leased out the factory, paid back every penny and singlehandedly turned around her fortunes. Mom certainly was special.
Through all of this, we – my older sister and I – kept flitting in and out of the house. For weddings and funerals, to have our babies, and whenever mom needed us. But mostly, we hid in our colonial plantation bungalows (both our husbands were managing tea plantations at the time), so far removed from home. Not because we didn’t care. But because there was little we could really do.
Mom eventually let go and sold the house she had stepped into as a young bride. She moved into a beautiful apartment high atop a building with a magnificent view. I like to think she was finally at peace and happy in a home she could call her own after a lifetime of living in the shadow of others. I helped her do it up and we all spent some good times there, before she left us too. But not enough. Not by far. Us girls were all reasonably successful by then and oh so busy……elsewhere.
On a recent visit we were heartbroken to see the factory pulled down, the rear of the house demolished, and the space in front turned into a boatyard. Gone were the stone benches by the river where we had spent so many happy evenings. Even R, who had never lived here, was teary-eyed. We all regret not having been able to afford or had the desire to hold onto a small piece of this land. I don’t have many pictures of the house during happier times, but the memories are etched in our hearts forever. And every time I hear the strains of this melancholy ghazal, my eyes well up with yearning for the very things that I was in such a hurry to leave behind.
“Take away this wealth, this fame as well
Snatch away my youth from me, if you must
But do give back to me the monsoons of my childhood…
those paper boats, those rivulets of rain (water)”
~ Chorus (Translated from the original in Urdu) from the Ghazal “Yeh Daulat Bhi Le Lo” by Jagjit Singh