Finding a Home for the Non-Resident Heart in Karnataka

A back-to-the-roots trip to Mulki, near Mangalore, reveals a longer journey within.  
Crew Cut
Photo by: Philippe Body/age fotostock/Dinodia Photo Library

Growing up, my summers entailed an inescapable peregrination to my hometown, Mulki, 23 kilometers north of Mangalore. My futile protests to plan an alternative vacation were met with an itinerary of temple touring and guest-hopping. The merciless Southern sun didn’t bring much respite either.

When I graduated a few months ago, I had a month-long sabbatical before a day job tied me down. I gloatingly declared to my mother I’d do away with my southward expedition. She teased me, predicting that reality would transpire differently.

As a teenager, our annual tradition felt like a missed opportunity to see more of the outside world. Now, I had a chance to plan my escapade. Instead, I inexplicably ended up buying a ticket to Mangalore for a week. Adulthood had allowed me to retrospect and choose. But nostalgia found my weak spot.

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Swathes of rice fields and backwaters flanked by coconut trees flickered past my window seat in the train. R.K. Narayan’s fictional village of Malgudi came to life. Earlier, travelling with my cousins, playing charades or UNO, the joy of the journey would double. Now, in the company of my dad, the 16-hour journey was spent listening to entertaining tales of his childhood antics. I shifted between burying my head in a Murakami novel and people-watching. Kids scuffled for the window seat or chattered animatedly whilst miming movie titles. I began to reminisce all that I had taken for granted all these years.

As the train pulled close to Mulki, the scent of the soil wafted through the balmy air. Pijji, my great-grandmother, eagerly awaited our arrival by the window of my ancestral home. At 93, her skin is deeply wrinkled, hair salt-and-pepper, and her cotton saree is always neatly draped. She peered at us through milky eyes before recognising each one of us spot on. “Baari bachidh potar, maga. Bonda neer parle (You look tired, child. Drink some coconut water),” she suggested in Tulu. A huge toothless smile lit her face as she embraced me in a hug.

Over the week, I began to see how returning to Mulki was as much about searching for time gone by as it was about looking towards a new beginning. I ambled along the huge courtyard that used to transition into the private cricket ground for a team of under-15s when my cousins and I took over. Every nook unspooled reels of childhood memories. The makeshift tyre-and-rope swing still hung from the lone mango tree in a corner. Every few years, we’d adopt a different indie pup, but invariably name him Tommy or Tiger. This time, I watched Tiger chase peacocks.

At home in Mumbai, I am neither a morning person, nor do I savour South Indian meals. But in my hometown, the simple mise en scène didn’t take long to grow on me. As always, I obediently woke up to the call of the rooster and wolfed down servings of semige rasayana, a breakfast of steamed rice noodles doused with sweetened coconut milk. Lunch as always was locavore. Banana leaves from the backyard substituted plates. I feasted on kori gassi (chicken curry with coconut paste) cooked in an earthen pot, and gorged on rotti—paper-thin sheets of rice crisps. Farm-to-table cooking has been a way of life here much before themed restaurants sprung up in cities.

My introduction to folklore and mythology lies in my grandmother’s stories, long before I laid my hands on copies of Aesop’s Fables and Panchatantra. No visit to Mulki feels complete without an evening spent at Bappanadu Shree Durgaparameshwari Temple situated on the banks of the Shambhavi River. Legend has it that it was built 800 years ago by a Muslim merchant, and the place is symbolic for worshippers of both faiths. When we visited this time, the annual nine-day festival was underway. A colossal chariot lay outside the entrance, and the temple was decked with jasmine and marigold. The air rang with the famed dolu (drum). Masked local actors enacted myths in Kannada, but the language barrier did not keep me from joining the revelry. It doesn’t happen to me in most other places, but Mulki has a way of drawing the best out of me. I thought of the indignation I’d feel before my parents and I set out for these trips, but how I’d eventually soften over the holiday and fancy extending my stay. Years have gone by, my cousins are caught up in academics. New houses have popped up where fields once flourished. But Mulki is the place I seek to revisit my juvenescence.

  • Pooja Naik is Junior Writer at National Geographic Traveller India. She likes to take long leisurely walks with both hands in her pocket; channeling her inner Gil Pender at Marine Drive since Paris is a continent away.

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