Josna Rege

75. The Long Journey

In 1950s, 1960s, 1980s, 1990s, India, Stories on September 18, 2010 at 11:43 am

Anant Nivas, Ratnagiri (photo by Josna Rege)

In the early days we could get to Ratnagiri only by boat or by rickety State Transport bus over the Western Ghats. The journey took three long days across the country by steam train, followed by a choppy trip down the coast from Bombay by steamer. Ratnagiri had no deep-water harbor, so the steamer anchored offshore, and we had to climb down ladders into little rowing boats. My memory of those boats is of a night-time arrival, with streaks of phosphorescence in the dark water as we were rowed to shore. From there the only mode of transport that was available to take us to the family compound was a bullock cart that carried us, swaying and lurching, up to the front of the house.

During the monsoons the steamer trips would be discontinued due to dangerous conditions, and the passes over the Ghats were subject to landslides, so Ratnagiri was very nearly cut off from the world. All that has changed now, of course, first with the luxury buses left over from the 1982 Asian Games and then in 1998 with the Konkan Railway, which runs down the Arabian Sea coast from Mumbai all the way to Mangalore, and has opened the town to development as never before. But our Ratnagiri house was all the dearer for its unreachability. Stepping over its threshold was entering another era, the world of our childhoods and our parents’ childhoods, a place where everything remained exactly the same, and the very smell of the place—wood smoke, ripening mangoes, bookworms, damp cotton saris hanging on the back verandah—recalled instantly all former times there.

The compound has a wall, now crumbling, with a narrow opening in it for people cutting across it on foot to slip through. Where once there may have been a main gate there has been no gate as long as I can remember, just an opening to the long driveway which curves around to the front portico. There every morning, rain or shine, when the earth-red tile floor had been freshly swept and decorated with rangoli, a steady stream of townspeople would begin arriving, supplicants seeking the help of Mai-atya, my aunt Kumud: a woman with marital troubles, a widowed man seeking a new wife, the director of the remand home, the head teacher of the childcare center. When she had bathed and done her morning puja, Maiatyawould step out of the front doorway, sit at the heavy teak table and meet with each one in turn. That old table had belonged to Thibaw the King of Burma, who had been deposed by the British in 1895 and exiled with his family all the way to the west coast of India, living and dying under house arrest in Ratnagiri. When the family sold off the furniture my grandfather bought the table, which has held up magnificently in all weathers this half-century and more.

My grandfather purchased the estate in 1939, on the brink of the Second World War, when the British still had not relinquished their colonial control of India. The house had been built for a high-ranking British civil servant and was designed in the grand old style, with a ceiling nearly twenty feet high in the main hall (so high that we could play badminton in it during the hot summer afternoons) and a roof made of the red Mangalore tiles found all along the Konkan coast. In recent years that roof has sprung numerous leaks, as monkeys displaced by development have wreaked havoc on the tiles. But inside the house, the monsoon damp notwithstanding, nothing is ever lost.

When, as a newlywed, I made the journey back to Ratnagiri for the first time since we had left India more than 15 years earlier, the same familiar smell welcomed me, and I walked Andrew round the house and compound showing him all the familiar sights—the framed photographs of my grandparents, my aunts and uncles, and my eight-year-old sister Sally playing the recorder; the letter from the President of India to Bhai-kaka when he was awarded the Vir Chakra; drawings by my father in his youth; the magnificent old chaffa tree we used to climb as children, each of its fallen flowers a sacred offering.

And the books. I showed Andrew my grandfather’s edition of The Arabian Nights, translated by Richard Burton, my eldest uncle Anna-kaka’s collection of English books (like me, he too was a student of English literature), and the old Penguin paperbacks my father had bought in London. But as I looked further I started to find others, ones that I had almost forgotten and never thought I would see again: American and British children’s books, some of which we had carried with us all the way from Greece, and a small blue hardcover volume with tissue-thin pages, a little damp but miraculously free of bookworm tracks, The Complete Works of Robert Burns. The flyleaf bore an inscription to my mother from her childhood best friend, Lily, a gift to her before she left for India. With permission from Mai-atya—the zealous guardian of the house who acquired next-to-nothing herself, having taken a vow of Gandhian simplicity in 1942—I carried that little book back to my mother.

I try to count the number of times I have made the journey to Ratnagiri but cannot be sure, since some of the trips were made when I was very young. Amazingly, the total cannot be much more than I can count on my two hands. How can it be that a place in which I have spent so little time can mean so much to me? But it is not just me; my grandparents spent their married lives there and died in Ratnagiri, and my father and his seven siblings were born and raised there. At least four of my cousins, my eldest aunt Tai-atya’s children, were born in that house; and Shubha and Meena, my eldest uncle Anna-kaka’s daughters, lived and went to school there for many years under the care of Mai-atya and Aaji, our grandmother. Now Mandatya, my youngest aunt, is looking after Mai-atya there, while the sale of the house is being arranged at last.

It is sentimental, no doubt, to cling to things, but it is human nature to become attached to places. Coming from the branch of the family who had traveled the farthest from India, the homecoming to a place that had never been my own home always had a special poignancy for me. Since almost everybody in Ratnagiri seemed to know or know of our family (until recently, at least), I could never be anonymous there and I loved it. Complete strangers to me, rickshaw-wallahs, shopkeepers, passers-by, would stop me on the street or in the bazaar to tell me that I looked like one of my aunts, or to ask if I was the daughter of “the one who left.” Now I must build an image of the Ratnagiri house in my mind’s eye, and find home there—here, that is, within.

(For another story of our family home, see The Mango Room.)

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

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  1. What a lovely post Jojo tai; and with so much emotion as well. I guess the sale of the Ratnagiri house will mark the end of an era. Ratnagiri – a place that we have loved and cared for so much – will cease to be a destination any more. Ratnagiri, for me has always been more than a place to visit, it was a state of mind to be in. Thank you so very much for putting that emotion so very succinctly. As much as I will miss my visits there in the future, the Rege Compound will stay in my heart forever.

    • Thank you, Pinu, for your sweet response. I suppose my story was so emotional because I’m still working through my feelings about it all. A few nights ago, during the Ganpati festival, my father and I called Ratnagiri and spoke to both Mai-atya (or at least, she and my dad had a shouting match across the world–he is hard of hearing and she is now almost completely deaf) and Mandatya. I wrote that post coming out of that long phone call.

  2. I spoke out loud to my computer screen (“Oh no!”) when I read that the house is now to be sold. This is a dear post, and one that reminded me a little of THE BIG HOUSE by George Howe Colt. I suspect you could write an entire book about your family’s Ratnagiri house. Thank you for giving us this sweet glimpse of such a meaningful and story-laden/-layered place.

    • Thank you, Mary. I love that you cried out in protest! I’ve just looked up The Big House. It looks like a fascinating book, and the story of its genesis is equally interesting. I could not write a whole book about Ratnagiri based on my experience alone, but pooled, the memories of two, even three generations of the family would certainly fill a book. My aunt has written a memoir in Marathi which has a chapter on the family and tells a few such stories.

  3. Oh, Josna, what a place and what memories! It’s easy to see why you’re attached to this house, and I’m sorry it’s being sold. It boggles my mind that you were taking 3-day steam train journeys and steamboat rides while I was taking 12-hour car drives from Cleveland to Toronto at about the same time — not quite so exciting! Your description reminds me of my mother’s summer rides from Manitoba to Saskatchewan in the 1920s and ’30s, which I think I already told you about. Anyway, I wish I could go to Ratnagiri and see this house (I love the photo).

    • Thank you, Sarah (and I have more photos if you’d be interested in seeing them). I would love to hear more of those romantic-sounding Canadian stories sometime. And your childhood road trips: it would be interesting to compare a road trip then to one now. More later, J

  4. I love the Ratnagiri house! And I can visualize Mai-atya sitting on the lovely pillared, high-ceilinged veranda daily with open heart and hands, receiving souls seeking solace.

    Thank you for sharing your precious memories and always passionate emotions. What a gift for expression you have!

  5. Lovely, and that word doesn’t capture the weave of your stories. You are so gracious to share them. thank you

    • Thank you, Connie and Anna. I was afraid that I was being too sentimental (and perhaps I was), but I’m glad that this little piece could evoke even a little of the atmosphere of the family home and the daily rhythms of life there.

  6. hey jojo atya…..this one’s really beautifully portrayed…….i envy Nakul and Anuja who could see this home.and thanks to you that me and Gaurav could see it thru ur eyes…….

    • Dear Pallavi,

      How sweet of you to write. Glad you liked this story, since I tried hard to convey the feel of our Ratnagiri house. I think I was feeling quite nostalgic when I wrote it, especially knowing that next time I come to India it will no longer be in our family. But I think that my conclusion was that it is part of us no matter what. I wrote one other, shorter, story set in Ratnagiri, called “The Mango Room.” The URL is if you want to check it out. Love to you and Gaurav and to all. x J

  7. sorry for a late reply….I would love to read the other story. Please let me know the link for the same. Regards to all from me and Gaurav..

  8. Thank you Josna for sharing your cherished memories.I accidentally happened to come across your blog, while i was searching for my grandfather’s house. Rege compound was and is a well known landmark, and it has distinctly featured in conversations with uncles in ratnagiri, and with my mother too. Thank you again.

    • Thank you for your lovely message, Vikas. I’m so sorry for this long delay in replying it. I was traveling broad and visiting different family members every day, but I am home now, and have showed your note and the map–thank you for sending the link !Did you mark it in that way?–to my father, who was really touched. It was almost magical to receive them; we were really delighted. As you well know, Ratnagiri is a beautiful place, and before the Konkan Railway, when its quite hard to reach, it was even more beautiful, since it was so unspoiled–like Goa, say, but without the tourists. Did you go there in your childhood? I wonder how you see the changes? Thanks again and best wishes.

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