“You want to go to a farm in Ratnagiri in the middle of May?”
“Yes! And we can go mango picking.”
“But in May?”
My reaction was not that unexpected. Temperatures often reach 40 degrees in Mumbai and parts of Maharashtra in the summer. It’s hot, sticky and uncomfortable. There was no way a farm in Ratnagiri sounded like the best escape. But I’d already missed a few family holidays, so I went along with Ma’s choice. Two weeks later, after a seven-hour drive on a sultry Friday morning, we arrived at Farm of Happiness in Ratnagiri’s Phungus village.
As soon as we’d arrived, my apprehensions about the heat melted away. The air smelled intoxicatingly sweet. I could almost hear the glee in Ma’s smile and saw Baba’s wondrous one as he looked up at bunches of perfect, green-yellow mangoes on trees. “The scent is of the fruit. Mangoes, jackfruit and cashews.” Rahul Kulkarni, the farm’s 48-year-old owner, greeted us with a smile. Over the next three days, I’d learn that this sustainable organic farm is Rahul and his 47-year-old actor-wife Sampada’s paradise. On the 20-acre farm is a traditional Konkani style home, with a large porch with tables and benches, many reclining chairs and even a couple of hammocks. With the signal gone on our phones,and this setting, I knew that we were not spending a lot of time in our rooms.
That evening, after a meal of taandalaachyaa paanagya (rice and jaggery pancakes steamed in banana leaves) and tea, I was tuning in and out of the conversation around me, focused on my Kindle, until I was distracted by shrill birdcalls. I didn’t know too many birds that called out after dusk—unless, like in this case, they lived in a phone. Our fellow guest was making his 12-year-old son hear the birdcalls he’d recorded. Focusing on the group gathered on the porch properly for the first time, I realised what a motley crew it was. My parents were enamoured with their game of carrom and with the other guest family’s precocious little daughter who had joined their game. Her mother read on the bench nearby. Her father, brother and Rahul were discussing the different birds the man had spotted on his trips here.
Noticing my interest, Rahul explained to me that the family had been visiting his farm at least three times a year for the last three years. “While adults usually come here to unwind and relax, children have the most wonderful reactions to the farm,” he said. “They are always curious and full of questions because the farm is like a science or geography lesson come to life. And there is the first-hand experience of meeting your food. They often think everything is grown on trees, from apples to rice. Seeing the vines, grass, and bushes for the different fruits, vegetables and crops leaves them in awe.”
Couple of hours later, trying hard not to smack my lips loudly over some komdi masala and bhakri at dinner—which is served on the porch—I learnt that Rahul used to be a city-bred advertising professional. “But at the peak of my career, I felt I was no longer creating something, and I was constantly looking for happiness.” Soon, the couple realised that visiting the farm, an ancestral property in Rahul’s father’s birthplace, always seemed to lift a weight off their shoulders. “Luckily for me, Sampada stood by my side encouraging me to pursue anything I wanted even if it meant that our finances would change.” It took a few years and many ideas until Anandache Shet (Farm of Happiness) finally took root.
“But I had to first learn to be a farmer,” he said. Walking around the farm next morning was an insight into that journey. The perennial fruit trees came with the land, but the various seasonal crops, vegetables and herbs that grow in the farm now were a result of years of learning. The carpet of leaves beneath our feet was strewn with buttery yellow cashew fruits. Breaking into the syrupy pulp, he cut out a cashew. Nibbling on the soft nut, we walked past a small biogas producing unit, a chicken coop, buffaloes and cows, and on to acres of farmland being prepped for the monsoon.
I spotted a pineapple growing by the house’s front steps, a scurrying gecko, a nest of red ants who had sewn together leaves with cottony saliva. By a small grove of bamboo, I saw the most lush jamun tree I had seen in a long time. Mangoes are the attraction here, but I have always been partial to the little fruit. Teeth stained purple, we walked towards the mango trees. I noticed that the adjacent field was already set for visitors coming in the monsoon. “We sow rice and many other grains in the monsoon. Growing your own food, that’s
a pretty unique experience.”
For the next hour, we were all kids again. Armed with a long pole that ended in a contraption of net and blade, my father and I engaged in the battle of the mango pickers. My young arms finally won me a better count of alphonsoes. He gave it his best shot though, not to mention stopping every few minutes, to pick and feel and smell the fruit plucked by the farm help that lay in crates around us. His proudest moment though, was probably slurping on a mango he’d picked at lunch afterwards.
Skins still cool from a bath in the backyard spring pool, and tummies stuffed with a delicious Konkani lunch, Ma and I walked to the machan we’d spotted earlier. Lying on the sun-speckled twin beds, she spoke to me of childhood adventures climbing guava trees. The gentle whir of the fan on the machan’s pillar, and the balmy breeze rife with the scent of ripening fruit was like a lullaby. Just as Ma’s soft snores reached my ears, I felt myself drift away to peaceful slumber.
Walking back to the house early evening, I learnt another lesson. Never ask what there is to do when you’re here. Because there will always be an answer. Time seems to stretch infinitely at Anandache Shet, and you can spend it birdwatching, hiking, walking around, lying on a hammock with a book, watching the night sky through a telescope (as we did later) or getting on a boat.
The Baav river, flowing past Phungus, leads to the Arabian Sea. As Rahul spoke about how guests often came fishing here in the evenings, standing with nets in knee-deep waters, I saw a twinkle in Baba’s eyes. I’d suspect hearing this probably took him back to all the times he went fishing with his father in the pond behind their home. I have similar memories with my grandfather too: summer mornings spent unhooking tiny mackerel from his fishing rod, and trying to catch the slippery ones that jumped on to the mud bank.
Over three days, we relived our country childhoods one step at a time. And we paid attention to each other. Conversation and laughter filled our time. We learnt a lot about the kind of food we eat and grow. I even got a license for being a good bullock cart driver after a ride on the morning of our departure.
However, the best souvenirs I brought back weren’t just these experiences and lessons, it wasn’t even our handpicked mangoes (along with two other crates) or a stray bloom picked off the red earth. The getaway took me back to summers spent at my family’s ancestral home. Even better, it gave my parents back the summer of their childhood, which was filled with the scent of freshly-plucked ripe mangoes, devoured on sunny verandahs with sticky fingers and sweet pulp dribbling down salty chins.
(Farm of Happiness is in Phungus, 300 km/7 hr from Mumbai; doubles Rs6,000; minimum 2-night stay.)
Rumela Basu is former Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. Her favourite kind of travel involves food, literature, dance and forests. She travels not just to discover new destinations but also aspects of herself.