All through Mums life, and especially after we came back to England in 1947/48, she used to tell us stories of Mah and of the places in the town that she remembered, like St. Theresas Church and the Convent, her home, its gardens and so on. She had a multitude of marvellously enchanting anecdotes which she recounted to all of us to the extent that Pirkko, my wife, became totally imbued with the thought of one day visiting the place, and she promised that if she should ever do so, she would visit all the landmarks that Mum spoke about. She also promised that she would light a candle in the church for Mum.
As the years and months rolled by, Pirkko became more and more determined, nay obsessed, with the desire to visit Mums birthplace. She would talk to Mum endlessly about the place and regularly reinforce her promise that she would definitely visit it one day. It was almost embarassing to hear her determination showing through: I wasnt wildly interested because Mah really meant nothing to me, and I could just as easily have gone and lain on the beach in Mombasa, Kenya, for example, and really had a restful holiday..
In 1993, when we were travelling to India with friends, we decided to visit Goa and spend a few days holidaying on the beach and by the sea. I say holidaying because, truly, India can be a tough place in which to be on holiday unless you go there specifically to relax, as opposed to sight-seeing, and then preferably only to one location.
Pirkko and Kathy, who was along on the trip, had plans for a trip to Mah too, and since Mum was now nearly 94 years of age and ailing, I thought I might tag along for the duty of it. But, by the time we got to Goa, having spent about three weeks in the north of the country and, to add to my misgivings, when we could only find the smallest or no reference at all to Mah in any guide book we cared to consult, I gave up. Surely you would not condemn me when I tell you that the guide-book references included one which said Dont bother stopping in or visiting Mah. Even long-distance lorry drivers only pause in this tax-free town to have a beer before continuing on their way.
Look, I said, Its miles from anywhere and access would just about be impossible in the time we have left on this holiday. It seems that it can only be approached by a long journey by road or by rail. The nearest airport must be at least four damned uncomfortable hours journey by road from it. You girls go. Ill wait here for you.
But they didnt go. Instead, we spent the rest of the time in Goa eating, drinking and lazing in the sun.
By the end of the next year, 1994, Mum, though as compos mentis as they come, was fairly quickly fading away, constantly falling down and injuring herself and, worst of all, spending weeks at a time in hospital
Thats it!!, Pirkko said. Im going to give it another try NOW. Lets go!
I should tell you that a journey to India is also a slog. The flights are nearly always fully booked and, since we tend to stand by for flights rather than pay the full fare, Pirkko is the Station Manager for Finnair at Gatwick, London it is even more so.
OK, lets give it one determined and final bash. I agreed.
We had no idea at all, of how we were going to do the trip and whether we would finally make it or not . Nobody seemed to know where Mah was, leave alone how one got there. All through our lives, whenever we had said that Mum had been born there, people had looked blankly at us as though we had named a destination in Outer Space. But I am going to tell you a story of a Journey of Miracles with which we have regaled our many friends, many times over, but which bears another telling.
The Journey of Miracles
We set off from home with our stand-by tickets and virtually the clothes we stood in. We took biscuits, sardines in a tin, some tea-bags and coffee. Who knew when or what we were going to be able to eat en route? And, furthermore, we were due to be back in England to start a trip to the United States in five days time.
Getting to Heathrow, we were given seats immediately no standing by.
Hello!, I thought to myself, Thats nice.
The flight was virtually empty because there was a plague-scare in India at the time and hardly anybody else wanted to travel. Thus it was that we were able to spread ourselves out over the middle seats and sleep all the way to Bombay. Pirkko made sure that we picked up some more rations on board, including our wine, still unopened, and some chocolates, sweets and biscuits. After all, who knew what we might be eating and drinking and where over the next couple of days?
In Bombay we found that there was a flight departing almost immediately and destined for Calicut, which we reckoned was the nearest airport to Mah. We boarded it and found that it was nearly empty too. (This trip was becoming a lot less arduous than we had anticipated.) The reason for the empty seats was that it was an international flight out of Bombay to the Middle East and was due to pick up most of its passengers workers in Dubai, Sharjah and Saudi Arabia in Calicut.
It had been difficult enough in Bombay to find the flight because even people in the airline business had, for the most part, never heard of Mah. Admittedly, we were pronouncing it incorrectly with an emphasis on the h, whereas those who had heard of it, pronounced the name Maa, with a silent h. Eventually we met some airline fellow who came from Kerala and who pointed us in the right direction.
Once aboard, Pirkko started to ask the passengers how we could get to Mah, but no information was forthcoming of course the folk, mostly residents of Bombay, had never heard of the place either. When we disembarked in Calicut there were a bunch of school-girls who also got off the plane and knew of Mahs existence but, had never been there, they said. However, one of the young ladies who had very generously waited for us to exit the terminal introduced us to her mother who had come to meet her.
Oh, yes, the mother said, when she heard the purpose of our journey, I know Mah. I work in a bank there and, if you wish, I can meet you there and show you around... Let me see... she pondered, day after tomorrow. she decided. You see, tomorrow is a holiday in the town. she explained.
A holiday? Damn! That was a nuisance because of our limited time. However, we thanked her and agreed to rendevous with her.
Pirkko wanted to go straight to Mah, but I dissuaded her, explaining that it was almost dark and we would be better off staying in Calicut for the night and getting a taxi early the next morning. Bright and early, darling. Bright and early. I promised as I saw her begin to fret over the delay.
We found a most comfortable hotel and plumped for a giant room on the quiet side of the establishment. The room was equipped with private bath and air-conditioning. Having freshened up, we went downstairs and had a marvellously prepared dinner of soup, curried pomfret my favourite fish giant prawns and rice plus a couple of puris. We each had a bottle of beer and, to finish with, a cup of coffee. The nights hotel bill, including the meal, came to 7 for the two of us! Quite clearly not too many tourists had ventured into these parts and we saw none. The locals were friendly and insisted on exercising their amazingly proficient English language skills with us.
We took a great liking to the hotel and the town and determined to keep this our secret place. We went to bed.
The next day after breakfast, at about 6.30 in the fresh air of the morning, we set out on the last leg of the outward trip. As we got nearer to Mah, though still at least an hours journey distant, Pirkko kept a weather eye out for a large house with a wide flight of steps leading onto the road, as Mum had described the property.
Finally, the driver announced, This, sir, Mah. He only had a few words of English his mother tongue being Malayalam, the local Kerala language. To my dismay, I dont know Malayalam.
But what is all this? The town was covered in decorations, bunches of flowers, bunting hanging from street-lamp to street-lamp and all the people seemed to be, as my American friend, Ron, used to say, in their best Sunday-go-to-meetings clothes. There were buses and rickshaws, bicycles and cars, all gaily decked with flowers and decorations. What a reception, we thought!
But, disappointingly, it was not for us How could it have been ? Nobody knew we were going to be in town, still less until a couple of minutes before, did we ourselves. This was the annual Feast of St. Theresa, the Patron Saint of the town and Mums Saint ; it was the one day of the year when pilgrims come from all over the country to pay homage. We were absolutely astounded at the coincidence and the timing. There could be some good omen here after all, I thought.
We kept the taxi hanging around and even though our trips within the town were hardly more than a couple of hundred yards at a time, at the most, we used it because, believe me, even in October it was hot and humid, say 95 degrees F., and transport would be a real bonus.
First of all we looked into the Church. Ah! this must be Mums Church and where Pirkko would light the candle for her, we decided. Alongside the church there was a series of buildings set in a square and which we thought might be Mums convent. There was also a large open-air stall where they were selling rosary beads, holy pictures, candles and similar religious paraphernalia.
The stall was manned by several people of whom two were nuns. We asked the nuns if this was the convent. Yes, it was, they said but, on further questioning, added that it had been built only recently. So it wasnt Mums convent after all. Hmm! Disappointment. But when we asked if there was an older convent, they told us that there was, but that it no longer served as a convent It is being used as a beer storage and there are some shops there too.
We wanted to see it, so one of the nuns kindly accompanied us to the top of the main street and introduced us to an Indian lady, dressed in a sari, and who owned and ran a flower shop. She looked quite busy, making up garlands, posies, and bunches of flowers for her customers, but she was very hospitable and invited us into the open-doored premises, made us comfortable, and invited us to have a cold drink and some cakes which she had hastily sent out for. Then she surprised us as she began to speak in near perfect English. She was one of the last remaining colonial inhabitants who had taken the sari like most other ex-colonial women. Her name is Norah Jason.
We spoke for several minutes and discovered that the building she occupied was indeed part of the original convent, while across the street lay the main old-school building and the playground. The French nuns who had managed and taught there for several decades had departed for France soon after Independence in 1947, and now an Indian Order of Nuns ran the new convent.
We thanked Norah for her help and were about to leave when she asked, in a shy way not wanting to appear inquisitive, why we were in Mah, because there are rarely any foreigners who visit the town, she explained. She was fascinated when we gave her our reason. Then just as we were leaving, we asked, more out of curiosity than in the hope of getting a positive answer, whether there might be anyone with the name of DeRozario still living in the town.
Yes, she said, Theres Malcolm DeRozario, he lives just here on the corner. she waved her hand indicating somewhere outside the shop and proceeded to lead us to Sherwood House, the home of this person named Malcolm.
I could not remember ever having heard of a Malcolm DeRozario from Mum, but nevertheless, we now followed Norah with a growing sense of anticipation and excitement. I mean, Pirkko and I agreed, there arent that many people with that surname. Lets find out if this is someone we should know and even perhaps a relative of Mums.
Arriving at the house, Norah just shouted Hello, and casually walked in through the open door of the living room. A young man of about twenty-five came out to greet us and told us his name was Michael DeRozario. We explained to him the reason for our visit Mothers maiden name was DeRozario. We had decided to visit the town because she was getting old and we wanted to light a candle for her in the church.
Ill fetch my father. he said, showed us into the living room and invited us to sit down. Norah said her goodbyes as we thanked her again for her hospitality and assistance, and started off back to her shop.
We waited for about five minutes and in walked Malcolm, a gent in his late-fifties, dressed in a crisp, white shirt and tie and freshly pressed trousers. He had quite clearly got himself quickly dressed-up for the occasion. Without hesitating he approached us and hugged each one of us in turn with affection, kissing us on the cheeks as the French do.
Welcome, my beloved cousins. he said. You must stay for lunch while we talk and make our acquaintance more complete. He insisted. Son, he turned to and addressed Michael, please bring our cousins a cold drink.
Yes, he told us, he belonged to the original and only DeRozario family in the town. Working in the Nilgiris, as he had done for a British Tea Company, he had stayed on after Independence and now, retired, he had continued happily, to live out his years in Mah.
He spoke of other DeRozarios who had long since died or left the country and, as he spoke I tried to make a connection with him and our DeRozario family. When he started to talk of the judge and the mayor, things started to lock into familiarity. It appeared that my grandfather and his grandfather were brothers, so we could only be second or third cousins at best, but that was a start. Then, when he mentioned Auntie Theo, my ears pricked up. He showed us some photographs and sure enough there among them was one showing our beloved aunt Theo. OK, so he really was related to us, but were there any other DeRozarios?
Yes, theres Edith But she married a Hindu, and we do not have much to do with each other,, he seemed almost embarrassed to admit it, and changed her name to Etheraje. She still lives here next to the church. Ill introduce you to her after lunch.
Then our questioning took on an excited and hurried, note.
Do you know where Granny and Grandad are buried? Is the grave still there? Do you know where they used to live? Is the house still there?
Malcolm let us fire off a stream of questions, then Havent you seen the newspaper article? he asked.
No, which newspaper article?
Go, bring it, son. He said, directing the order in a gentle manner to Michael.
Michael brought the newspaper to his father who showed it to us. It had a picture of Sherwood House and a couple of others, one of Edith and another of the entrance to the churchyard. It was written in Malayalam. Other than for the picture of Sherwood House, we couldnt make head or tail of it.
Take it and keep it. Malcolm generously offered it to us.
No we cant take it. It must be precious to you.
No, I can easily get another one.
But it must be old, a real souvenir. When was it printed? we asked.
Three days ago, on Sunday.
Pirkko and I looked at each other in amazement. Here, after over fifty years, was an article about the family, and printed, almost by Heavenly intervention and instruction, on the Sunday before we arrived. First, the easy journey from England, then arriving in the town on the Feast of St. Theresa, then meeting up with a relative, now this newspaper article. This had to be a something truly extraordinary and certainly more than simple coincidence.
We ate lunch and talked about other things. Michael, almost with tears in his eyes, looked longingly and lovingly at Pirkko and myself Gosh, his very own cousins!
Malcolm explained that his sons had often asked him why it was that they did not have any relatives living near them and Malcolm had described how the aunts and cousins had all gone away to other parts of the world after Independence Now, at last, Michael could see real cousins who had come back to Mah. He was overjoyed.
After lunch, we went to the church and Malcolm requested the key to the cemetery. Everyone was very respectful of Malcolm. He was the top-man in town as far as the church and the Christians were concerned. He had supported the church and arranged its new paint-job, plus he carried out many charitable works for them.
Having picked up the key, Malcolm took us next door to Josephines, a cute little house which could easily have once been the home of the local priest. There we were met by Edith. I took one look at her and the same misgivings as I had felt when meeting Malcolm started to form. She wore a frock as opposed to a sari like the other women even Malcolms wife, Mabel, wore a sari. Later I discovered that she had acquired the name Edith, Frock from the locals. Her name, Edith, was quite popular within our Mums family so she might be related, but who the heck was she?
So, who are you then, Edith? I asked.
Im Edith, the daughter of Florenta.
Florenta? Florenta? Who the hell is Florenta? I wondered.
Who is Florenta? I eventually asked the question out aloud.
Hes the son of my grandmother. Well thats pretty obvious I thought to myself. He is the brother of Dimples and Theo and Margot and . Her voice trailed away as I concentrated on my own train of thought and tried to think of who this Florenta might be.
Suddenly, with a flash of inspiration, You dont mean Uncle Flo, do you?, I asked.
As far as I could remember, I had never met Uncle Flo, nor had I realised that his full name was Florenta, but Mum used to talk about him quite regularly, and always with a smile on her face as she remembered the wild capers that he had got up to as a boy.
Yes, thats right, Uncle Flo, and now, who are you? she asked, with an air of aloof superiority at having established her claim to legitimacy. Yes, who are you? She demanded, with more haughtiness.
Im the son of Elise, I said, using the French form of the name which I thought might conjure up recognition.
Do you mean, Auntie Elsie? she asked, correcting the pronunciation I had applied.
Yes, I do. I replied, brain blasting, groping in all directions Then we must be first cousins. I added, still with a question mark in my voice.
But by this time real cousin-contact had been recognised and before long we were all kissing and hugging. I hadnt known that we had any relatives left in India and though Edith knew that Mum had several children, even the faintest notion that she would ever see them, had not crossed her mind.