Takeaway

Natural habitat

shabnam minwalla | Updated on November 14, 2014 Published on November 14, 2014

Country living: A cottage at Maachli in Sindhudurg

Deep forest: The Farm of Happiness, near Ratnagiri, veiled in green. -- Rahul Kulkarni

A tale of lost rubber chappals, charming farm stays, learning to cook on an open flame and uncovering the unexpectedly gorgeous countryside in Konkan

We knew we had veered off the beaten track when the Google Maps lady began instructing us to drive into haystacks and mango orchards. “Take a right turn in 100 metres,” she commanded, trying her best to drown us in a pond filled with wallowing buffaloes. “Take a right turn. Take a right turn.”

The babbling Android was not the only sign that we had parted ways with the convoy of tourists driving from Mumbai to Goa on that Tuesday afternoon. Suddenly the roads were narrow and deserted — barring the occasional ST bus, purple rickshaw and suicidal chicken. We passed a few sleepy stores in the middle of nowhere, signs for villages with names like Heloba, and a crude shed that identified itself as a “Phanas Stop”. Perhaps, a retiring room for weary jackfruit?

Otherwise it was just us and the glorious road. Endless ribbons of tar, fringed with jade green shrubs and moptop palms. Shadowy avenues that seemed to lead to a fairytale. Though actually, they were taking us to Maachli, a little farm stay in the heart of charming Sindhudurg. Or so we hoped.

For the fourteenth time, I read out the directions sent by our host. We had passed Pinguli village, where we had asked for directions. “You will be guided to take second right turn,” stated the instructions. “After taking right come straight for 14km. At village path, you will see statue of King Shivaji. Take right turn at statue. Come ahead for 4km. You will see Madhuram Paryatan board. I will welcome you there.”

We were relieved to spot Shivaji, maintaining his lonely vigil. And even more relieved to see the Madhuram board — and, Prathamesh Samant waiting to welcome us.

“We’ve reached,” my three daughters crowed at once.

Well yes. And no. The car had reached its destination. But we still had a short way to go.

Samant, an unflappable 25-year-old, led the way down a rough path that terminated in a clear, shallow stream. “You have to cross this water body to reach Maachli,” he explained, as if splashing through a knee-high stream was as commonplace as crossing Shahid Bhagat Singh Road in Colaba, Mumbai.

Rather nervously, we clutched bags and phones and iPods and wires and waded in. My three goggling, giggling daughters almost lost four slippers between them. Then Naima fell flat and emerged looking wet and mortified. Which is when we first heard the laughter that was to become the soundtrack of our Konkan adventures. Three local women were almost doubled over with mirth. Clearly, they found city bumpkins highly amusing.

Ten minutes later, we were ensconced in our spotless cottage — a cosy wooden structure tucked away in a dense plantation of cashew, mango, betel nut and kokum trees. My daughters rushed out to help Samant’s sister light clay diyas. And though they returned with burnt toes and tales of Jurassic Park-style insects, they were absolutely delighted with their newly acquired skills.

We walked to the dining area through a purple night twinkling with tiny flames. And then gazed in astonishment as a parade of dishes — fried fish, crab curry, fish curry, dal, a couple of veggies, kheer and a pot of pink, irresistible sol kadi — arrived at the table. All this was being conjured up in a kitchen with open fires, an army of women and implements that would have looked more at home in a torture chamber.

Samant’s mother, who ceaselessly supervised the kitchen and turned out magnificent treats like malpua for breakfast and fried tiger prawns for dinner, was clearly a traditionalist. But then her vast kitchen — which would give most modern homemakers conniptions — is part of the “village experience” that the Samants so proudly offer. And they are clearly delighted that people from far corners of the world are landing up at their “ancestral property”, crossing the stream, visiting the local temple, learning to cook on an open flame and exploring the unexpectedly gorgeous countryside.

Which is how we find ourselves heading the next morning towards a beach with the unpretty name of Bhogve. Panicked by the thought of crossing the stream and dirtying clothes, I’ve insisted that my daughters wear their pyjamas over their swimsuits. But all bashfulness is forgotten once we drive past Parule village and turn into an untouched golden grassland. Brown boards point the way to an array of beaches — Nivati, Tarkarli, Vengurla. But we remain Bhogve loyalists. And sensibly so.

Bhogve is a curvaceous ‘C’ of pristine sand, enclosing a bay of pellucid water through which we can see shells and tiny fish and green crabs going about their business. The only other soul around is a villager walking his dog. My husband swims. Aaliya, Nisha and Naima launch into a game of Mermaid Mermaid. And I read a juicy murder mystery. And it’s noon before I pop my dehydrated daughters into their bedraggled pyjamas and we head back — with a quick stop for a Limca at the Parule restaurant, where villagers in their Diwali finery gape at the three damp and sandy girls in pyjamas.

On the way back to Maachli, Aaliya’s slippers succumb to the rough and tumble of village life, which is why we are back at Parule that evening, standing outside the chappal shop. The Diwali celebrations have kicked in and a loudspeaker is playing bhajans so loudly that the entire bazaar is vibrating. The shop owner takes one look at us and produces fancy purple slippers which have shoe bite written all over them. “No, no,” I mime and holler, trying to communicate through the high-decibel celebrations, “Simple rubber slippers.”

The shopkeeper is not best pleased. He sniffs. He sighs. He rolls his eyes in a manner that indicates ‘cheapskates’. Then he shuffles to the back of the shop, pokes a couple of boxes and returns with a sturdy black pair with patterned straps. They fit, they are moderately comfortable. Only one problem — one has a green strap, the other has a blue strap. And my fashion-conscious 11-year-old doesn’t agree that “mismatched is funky”.

More eye rolling, more shuffles. Then the Salesman of the Year produces basic black slippers with blue straps. “They match,” I exclaim encouragingly. But Aaliya is staring at her feet with a perplexed expression. One slipper fits. The other is a different size altogether. The salesman gives a ‘just adjust’ shrug.

It’s another 10 minutes before we leave Parule with matching slippers, loudspeaker-induced migraine and the embarrassed sense that half the village has gathered around to watch our shopping spree.

From Parule we drive through the tranquil grasslands and walk along a path that runs between the serene, silver river and the famous mangroves of the Konkan. We spot kingfishers and listen to birdsong. Till a cow, that was hitherto munching stolidly, develops a frisky interest in us. We skedaddle.

More amused laughter. But now we are used to it.

The next afternoon, we hear the rumble of distant thunder. Samant, though, is unfazed and urges us to go along on a nature walk through a jungle filled with wild mango trees. We’re standing on a plateau covered in waist-high, coppery grass when the storm arrives. A crack of lightning, a roar of thunder and a wind that ripples through the grass in waves of silver and violet. We’re transfixed. We’ve never seen a celestial Diwali firework display such as this.

The rain starts as we scramble back to our cottage, and drums on the asbestos roof all night. By the time we are packed and ready to leave the next morning, the stream is deep and swirly, and my daughters put on a bravura Titanic performance.

Then, after an uneventful drive on the lovely, old Bombay-Goa Highway, we return to village roads in our quest for the Farm of Happiness. This is a farm stay near Ratnagiri, and even more remote than Maachli, with directions like “Drive till Manjare Fata. This one is a V junction. The major road turns left here for Guhagar. DO NOT TAKE THIS LEFT. Take the road to your right towards Phungus Fata.”

We arrive at Farm of Happiness in time for a fabulous fish lunch, and a lazy afternoon spent on the porch dotted with hammocks and comfy chairs. The Farm of Happiness is run by Rahul Kulkarni, who, sick of his life as an ad man in Mumbai, returned to his ancestral village and fashioned an organic farm out of a patch of jungle. He built a large, traditional Konkan house with porches and verandahs and creeper-clad courtyards, and now shares his patch of peace and paddy with visitors.

We ask for tea, so Rahul takes my daughters along to milk the cattle. Then we wander around the vegetable patches and fields and I watch gobsmacked as my veggie-phobic threesome munch their way through a cluster of sweet potatoes yanked out of the mud. Then we take a long walk in the deepening dusk to a little village temple standing alone amidst pewter rocks. “You can go and collect your eggs and eat them for breakfast,” Rahul promises the girls.

It will have to be next time, though. For in the morning we’re once again navigating T and V junctions on our way back home. But these challenges are a small price to pay for our wonderful rambles in the Konkan. And for realising that golden grasslands and sparkling bays are just a drive away. All we need to do is pack plenty of rubber slippers, summon up Google Maps and head south.

(Shabnam Minwalla is a Mumbai-based journalist and author of The Six Spellmakers of Dorabji Street)

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Published on November 14, 2014
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