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Edith offered us a meal and refreshments, but time was beginning to slip by quickly. We declined and took our leave, promising to write and visit the next time we were in India.

Gosh! When was that going to be? But, in fact it has been on several occasions, almost annually, since.

Next, we went to the cemetery and saw Granny’s and Grandad’s grave. It looked unkempt and unattended, the headstone and cross being stained with mildew and the accumulated grime of ages. But it stood out from among the others because of its size. We took some pictures and decided that we must get somebody to clean up the cross and inscription on it. We arranged that we would pay some money to Edith’s house-girl to do the job.

We went on from there to see the house that Mum was born and brought up in. It stood in what was known as the Christian area of the town and, coincidentally, the grandson of the contractor who had built the house for Grand-dad, a non-Christian, had purchased it and was now living there. Mr Mahmooti is a highly educated chap and the Head of the Education Department in the Mah district of Kerala. He is also a Governor and the Headmaster of the local school.

Mum had often told us about the water-well in the garden of her home. “In the dry weather it was not uncommon for all the wells in Mah to dry up. Ours never did, and our family were so proud to be able to allow the towns-people and especially the convent girls to come to fetch water from it in the dry season.”

As proof of the authenticity of the house and garden having belonged to our family in the past, I just had to see this amazing well which, as everyone had told us “never dried up — even in the driest of summers”. I figured that its existence would finally validate the property as the one which had belonged to our family. So, without explaining why I was putting the question, I asked the headmaster if I could view it.

“Of course”, he said, as he directed me to one side of the house to look at the well which was covered over with a chick-wire protective screen to prevent anything or anybody falling into it.

“It’s interesting. Is it any good?” I asked.

“Any good? My dear boy, this is the best well in town. It never goes dry and in the dry season we sometimes supply the convent and others with water.” he said proudly and, with those words, I had received confirmation that this was indeed, the house in which Mum had been born and brought up.

Pirkko and I have since talked about this journey many times and we are convinced that none of these experiences would have occurred if we had, perchance, been successful in making the trip the year before. Maybe we would have just visited the town, looked around, taken a few snapshots and lit a candle in the church. But here and now, we were really touching our family history with real people as the “dramatis personae.”

We took our leave of the headmaster and quickly stopped by to say “goodbye” once more to Edith on the way back to Malcolm’s house via the church. Here, Pirkko lit a candle for Mum and said a silent prayer for her. Then before leaving, she went to one of the many International Telephone-Call Centres in the town, in fact mere shacks usually on the corners of streets, and made a call to Mum. You have to realise that in order to make a call from one part of the town to another, they continue to use the old ex-colonial set-up which is still in place after over fifty years. It can easily take several hours to get connected — sometimes inter-city calls have to be booked a day or two in advance. But, with the ITCC, connection is instantaneous.

“Hello, Mum, we’re in your home town of Mah and I’ve just lit a candle for you.” Pirkko announced excitedly.

For a second or two, Mum was silent, trying to figure out who was calling. Not knowing that we would get onto the flight, we hadn’t told Mum of our plans to try and travel to Mah. Then, suddenly it dawned on her, and she was overjoyed to hear Pirkko’s voice. There was so much to tell, but Pirkko managed to stall Mum’s queries and promised to call her again from England just as soon as we got back.

We left Mah less than eight hours after we had arrived there and after another four or five hours in the taxi, with Pirkko excitedly trying to explain to the taxi-driver how successful we had been — of course, the poor fellow couldn’t understand a word she was saying — we were back in Calicut. We went into the hotel and Pirkko was still beside herself with excitement and couldn’t help but tell everyone what we had achieved. She proudly displayed the newspaper that she had accepted from Malcolm.

I had said to Pirkko that nobody would be interested in our personal adventure and her excited story but one of the staff, a young man who was the night-desk clerk, asked if he might borrow the paper so he could read it. Pirkko became somewhat protective of her “trophy” and was reluctant to hand it over to him. Eventually, he persuaded her that he was a responsible chap, would not let it out of his sight, and promised that he would return it before he went off duty the following morning.

The next morning, true to his word, he knocked on the door with a tray of tea and the precious newspaper… but in addition, he had spent the night translating the text into English and had written it down in long-hand on a sheet of paper. We were both thankful and amazed, but Pirkko’s joy knew no bounds — I think she was equally relieved that the precious souvenir was being returned.

We had not eaten any of the snacks we had brought from England, nor had we used any of the “bog”-paper or tissues and Pirkko had not opened the wine from the aircraft. She gave the lot to the young man and, while I thought that that was a bit niggardly of her, I saw her fetch out a good sized note from her handbag and give that to him too. He was well “chuffed [1] ” with the “bounty” and scurried off, murmuring his thanks and probably thinking how nice it would be if more “wealthy” — even maybe “millionaire” — western tourists visited the hotel. We knew that the simple gifts of English supermarket products and airline stuff would have him the envy of his family and friends and that there would be many “Oohs! and aahs!” as he showed-off with the “loot”.

Our trip back to England was not marred by anything untoward. We got seats on another empty aircraft and slept all the way back. When we got home we were fully rested, went around to the instant-print shop and had our rolls of film developed and printed. The pictures were good and Pirkko made up a special album for Mum.

We snatched a bit of breakfast and sped off down to see Mum in Newbury. When we told her our story she was overjoyed and hardly able to speak with the emotion which was flooding over her. But the best was yet to come — While I had been looking around Mum’s home in Mah, my outstandingly thoughtful wife had been picking bits and pieces from the garden, a baby coconut here, some peppercorns there, chillies, coffee beans and, where there were no fruit in season, she had collected the leaves of bushes and trees instead. Now, she had laid a tray with all these bits and pieces of nostalgia neatly spread out on a crocheted tray-cloth and presented it to Mum.

“Here you are, Mum,” she said. “These plants, fruit and leaves are from your own garden in Mah, from your very own garden. Hold them… feel them… smell them… and bring back your dearest memories of childhood. I bring them to you with love.”

Mum was utterly overcome. Her eyes filled with tears and she dabbed at them with the handkerchief she always carried. She fondled the display with so much deep affection, memories of her youth and her family flooding back.

I was thunderstruck. I hadn’t the foggiest idea that Pirkko had collected the souvenirs, let alone that she would prepare such a touching display and, tough “old boot” that I am, I still had to choke back my own tears.

Mum’s day was complete. She sat deep in thought and memories, repeating over and over again, “You’ve given me a new lease of life. You’ve given me a new lease of life. May God bless you, child.”

Mum was delighted to hear news of Edith once more — of course, she remembered her — and, now again in touch with each other, the pair of them exchanged several letters in French. How pleased that must have made them! For our part, the whole momentous trip, we realised, had taken less than seventy two hours from start to end.

Mum died peacefully two months later, aged just one month short of her ninety-fifth birthday.

May your soul rest in peace, Darling Mum.

The Sequel

The story of the Miracle Journey would not be complete without adding this sequel.

A couple of years later, in 1996, Pirkko and I had tried a different route to Mah from England. We flew to Trivandrum and took the train northwards to Mah. We had a couple of days to spend in Trivandrum before going north, and decided to pass the time in a tiny beach hotel north of the city.

The hotel was owned and operated by a couple in their mid-thirties. The owner, Harikumar — he became Harry to us, — was a highly educated Keralan journalist who had been to Moscow and completed a University degree there. When he asked how we had come to be in that part of India, I explained that my mother was from Mah, Kerala, and proceeded to tell him the story of our adventures in finding the place.

I recounted the story I have just told you about Mah, and Harry had listened fascinated, nodding from time to time his mouth slightly open, yet without a word. When I finally stopped speaking, Harry’s expression, which had during the recounting become more and more intense, was one of utter incredulity.

“I know that story”, he said. “I remember the article which appeared in the newspaper. It was a Sunday supplement and I can remember the photographs which were in it.”

He proceeded to describe the newspaper article and then…

“There is a book written in Malayalam about the days of the French colonials in Mah. It is called ‘On the Banks of the River Mah’ ” and I am sure it must be based on the lives of the family you have just been telling me about. In fact, because I have always been interested in colonial history, I bought a copy of it. I have it here.”

He went inside and brought out the book. “Here, look at it.” It was written in Malayalam.

“Is it translated into English or French?” I asked, eager now to read it.

“I don’t know,” said Harry, “but there is something about the author written here.” He read for a second or two and then informed us, —

“ He works for the French Embassy in Delhi.”

We noted down the name of the author and decided to drop him a line when we got back to England. We have written to him but have never received a reply… However, we also wrote to cousin Edith in Mah, told her about the visit to Harry’s hotel and the book, and sent her a copy of the letter we had written to the author. You’ll never believe this reply from Edith.

“Oh, I know the author.” she said it as a “throw-away” line. “His brother has a beer shop in Mah and they are the sons of Chaplay.”

Chaplay was grandmother’s house-girl and companion.

We are convinced that the book must be based on the lives of our grandparents and their families and are hoping, one day, to obtain a copy in English.


Mum — circa 1928

Chapter 2 — More about the Early Days

Dad’s great friend in Mt Abu was Sgt. (inevitably, “Spud”) Murphy, a retired Connaught Rangers man who was the General Manager and Food-Steward of St. Mary’s High School, a Catholic school, also in Mt. Abu, but isolated in the hills some two miles from the centre of the town.

In 1934, one of the senior boys had got hold of a shotgun and shot three other boys who were in the habit of poking fun at him because he had spoken of the possibility of becoming a priest when he left school. The boy was sentenced to life imprisonment in the Andaman Islands which are situated in the Bay of Bengal and off the west coast of Burma. We never heard what had happened to him after that, though brothers and cousins of the victims still attended St. Mary’s well into the 1940s.

“Spud” became Philomena’s god-father and remained good friends with all of us until we lost touch with him in 1946, but more about him later.


You will remember that I had been on my way to school, the Lawrence College, Mt Abu, when I met Zahir – the cook. Being stationed in Mt Abu, my parents had placed me at the school as a day scholar. But about six months later, when father was posted, I was installed as a boarder. Boarders in the hill stations in India went up to school in the first week of March and stayed there until the first week of December. It was a nine-month stint at school without contact, other than by letter, with one’s parents. At first I hated it but eventually got used to it and, by the time I finished school in 1946, I had been “tamed” and, instead, rather missed the companionship of my class-mates when I went home for the long winter holiday.

More and more I began to miss the comradely mischief we had got up to in school as we approached “Seniors” status. Even so, one had to be a really “hard nut” to exceed the “acceptable” norms of “mischief”. Exceed them and it would almost certainly result in expulsion. During my school-days I can remember only three boys being expelled. Expulsion from an English-speaking school was a disaster for a pupil: There was no such thing as compulsory education and so, if one was expelled it virtually meant the end of one’s education, for no school in India would accept a pupil expelled from another school.

English speaking schools encompassed Missionary Schools, Railway Schools, Military schools and suchlike. In many of them education was funded in much the same way as state schools in the UK are today. However, funding was usually by the appropriate sponsor, (rather than the State), the Railway or the Army, for instance, with only a relatively nominal fee paid by the parents — I believe Military schools were completely free for the children of military personnel but they were almost always Church of England establishments. — The amount, otherwise, was often dependant on what status the parents had in the community or, as my father used to say, “what the teaching staff or the Board of Governors thought they could steal off you.”

Later on, during our school days when my father was promoted and, proud as we were of this, we were always discouraged from passing on such information to the school staff because of the almost inevitable hike in school fees. So, even after Dad was promoted to the rank of Lt. Col., we still addressed our letters home to him with the rank of Major!

Missionary Schools were funded by missions and the church.


Lawrence College, Mt Abu

The Lawrence College, Mt Abu, was one of four schools associated with the name Lawrence. It was a military-funded school and my eldest sister, Kathleen, and I were there during 1935. It was, like other Lawrence schools, a co-educational establishment. The senior staff were mainly retired, ex-military personnel.

The Headmaster was Major Tarbottom (retd.), an unfortunate name. I had never heard it before and always wanted to see his backside to find out just where the tar was spread or, was he born with tar on his bum? I would ask myself. Furthermore, I was intrigued because I felt that, if the tar had been applied after he was born, the application must have been very painful. I had seen hot tar being spread on roads and, on one occasion, had seen a labourer get some on his bare feet and yell as though he was about to die. Poor Major Tarbottom, I thought, it must have been so painful.

I was the youngest boarder in school and all the girls used to want to fuss over me. On one occasion, three or four of them, teasing me and telling me that they were going to kiss me, tried to pull me into the girls’ dormitory. I struggled without success and finally, just at the door of the dormitory, I must have decided that attack was the best defence because I leapt forward and bit the girl immediately in front of me on the chest. I bit hard.

She screamed out in pain and let go of me, likewise the others. I didn’t get kissed, — more’s the pity when I think of it and, many times since then, as I grew older and “discovered a thing or two”, I have wondered how nice it might have been to bare the young lady’s breasts and service her properly.


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[1] English slang. To be pleased with oneself.


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