Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A Malwani Sojourn in Dadar

Malwan, for the uninitiated is the southern coastal region of Maharashtra. Covering districts of Ratnagiri and Sindudurg, it is famous for its sun kissed, palm lined virgin beaches, the Alphonso and other varieties of Mango and of course the Malwani cuisine. People from Malwan speak a unique dialect also known Malwani which is a combination of Konkani and Marathi. The soil of Malwan is rich in iron and therefore red, the houses are made of red bricks and the sloping roofs are lined with red tiles. The staple food items include Rice and Fish preparations but Chicken (Kombdi) and Mutton preparations are also eaten quite frequently. 
But my introduction to Malwani was through the television. Numerous Marathi actors hail from this region and their plays, films and songs have an element of this roots. Vastraharan by Machindra Kambli is a masterpiece. It showcases the plight of a few Malvani actors trying to enact the Vastraharan scene from the Mahabharata. A large chunk of the mill workers came from the Konkan. The traces of their presence can be seen at Lalbaug and Parel where the traditional Malwani masala is prepared and sold along with other ingredients traditional to Malwani cooking. Numerous Malwani joints abound in Bombay, very few are authentic. 
One such unassuming, humble place is Raju's Malvani Corner on Gokhale Road, Dadar, next to Hotel Sachin (which incidentally sells similar fare). Run by Narendra Govind Sawant since over 20 years, this isn't an eatery joint. It's a hand cart with a side kitchen, all set up on the corner of the pavement. Raju, as Narendra is known serves up plates of lip smacking Malwani chicken and fish. On the side, in a large wok filled with piping hot oil batches of vade are being fried. A vada is made of rice flour, udad dal and spices, fried until fluffy and enjoyed with the spicy curries. On a weekday, I trooped over with my friend Rithika to try out their famed Kombdi Vade. The seating, as you might have guessed is on the footpath. Plastic chairs and a table make the set up complete. The streetlight nearby provides good lighting. Perfect. 
We called for Chicken Saguti and Chicken Sukka, both spicy curries native to Malwan(Although Saguti is served as Xacuti in Goa). The chicken pieces were on the bone and tasted quite awesome with the hot vadas. Our order came along with an extra bowl of curry. There were 4 vadas in a plate but we had to call for another one to polish off all the curry! Folks on the adjoining table called for rice instead. Deep friend Bombil or Bombay duck were next were served hot off the wok. Missed having the sol kadhi but I hear it is very good. Other options include fried Surmai, Prawns and Prawns pulao. The tables are located on a lane going off Gokhale road so it is generally peaceful to enjoy the meal. The only thing missing was the sound of the waves, of the surf breaking on the shore but then again Shivaji Park isn't very far from there . Service is prompt and the food is fresh. Some of the dishes are cooked at home in the Sawant household and hence run out by 9pm or so, especially on weekends. So to sample the best selling items, do visit early and let me know what you thought of the food! 
The items were reasonably priced, Chicken Saguti and Sukka - Rs. 100 each, a plate of Vade Rs. 35 and Bombay duck fry Rs. 70. 
Raju can be found on the corner of Gokhale Road and  Anant Patil Marg. 
Complete address: 1/23 Kubal Niwas, Gokhale Road, Anant Patil Marg, Dadar West, Mumbai, Dadar, Harishchandra Patil Rd, Chandrakant Dhuru Wadi, Dadar West, Mumbai, Maharashtra 400028 Phone:022 2446 2405 ( he is pinned on Google maps too)
Photos by Rithika Kumar

Chai Time in Fort

There are several times when a cutting chai isn't enough at four thirty, the lunch has long been processed and a hunger pang begins to set in. Over the past few years, at this hour, I have found myself hungry, low on cash and standing on the streets of South Bombay. This has led me to find some of the best budget places that offer a sumptuous evening time meal along with some good chai. If you are around, irrespective of whether hungry or not, you should visit these small places that hardly find a mention on the internet but serve authentic stuff. Also, I often end up taking most of my friends to these places if I am catching up, so ditch the 'Bucks and drop by here.

1. Café Bharat, Opp Churchgate Station

Tucked away in a small corner, next to a mini supermarket on Indian Merchant Chambers road Cafe Bharat is a bustling place, complete with a mezzanine floor. Generally overshadowed by the nearby Satkar and even fancier places all around, it goes unnoticed. The food served is simple, delectable and cheap. Puri Bhaji and Misal Pav rule the charts. I always prefer having a plate of Misal with Pav. Misal is nothing but Usal with some farsan thrown in. Usal is a spicy pulses curry eaten with rice otherwise. In this part of town, finding a good Misal Pav is rare unlike in Marathi strongholds like Dadar (Hotel Prakash) or Thane (Hotel Mamledaar). You may opt for the batata vada with some usal which again is a fantastic combination, not available at every outlet. The vada is made in the typical Maharashtrian way with the filling containing good amount of garlic and coriander.

Be prepared to share the table during peak hours.

Misal Pav: Rs. 30

Also, MLA Canteen, next to DGP office.

2. Hotel Deluxe, Pitha street, Fort

Now, Hotel Deluxe deserves not a small mention but an entire blog dedicated to their wondrous food items that they serve. One of the few places in Bombay serving Malabari cuisine, you can visit HD anytime of the day and come out satiated. Sadhya, Fish Thali, Fish Curry, Biryani are served and devoured with great delight during meal times but between 4-7 they have a special menu. Three baskets woven out of coconut leaves are laid on a small table next to the cash counter, filled with three types of snacks. Fried bananas, small vadas, chicken rolls, sweet preparations. The best part is that the options keep changing every day. One can even order for a plate of dosas which are served with a small bowl of fish curry or a dollop of chicken curry! Both curries, typical of Malabari cuisine with a good hint of curry leaves.

The chai is unique too. Served in a tall glass, it isn't milky but neither watery. It is frothy and packs a punch, I generally have it after my dosa and fish curry. I have had several good meals at this place about which I have blogged here and here. Also, it is probably the only place that remains open on Sundays when this bustling business district goes silent.

Meal for one: Under Rs. 50

Non veg options: MLA Canteen next to DGP office for Bhurji, Omlette Pav.

3. Hotel Poornima, on the junction of Bombay House

I am a sucker for south Indian snacks. I can have them at any time of the day. But finding good authentic, Matunga type fare is rare. Therefore, when I visited Poornima the first time, I knew I had found my SoIn place at SoBo. Entering Poornima is like stepping into an era goneby. The decor hasn't changed since the 90s (except for new steel tables on the floor and the cash register), there's no menu (sign of a real South Indian joint) but a board which states that it will be 50 naya paise for extra sambar and two waiters that recite the entire menu each time. They also have a mezzanine floor where orders are taken while on the ground, you have to serve yourself.

I love the Vegetable Upma here along with some coconut chutney. Worth trying are the Mysore Masala dosai, Idli Vadai and Onion Uthappa. And the best part is that they serve good, pure filter coffee (Although, recently they switched to paper cups and ditched the tumbler-dabara combo to save water and time). In the afternoons, they serve a very good veg-thali for Rs. 66.

A snack and coffee here should set you back by Rs. 50

Other Filter Coffee places worthy of mention: Hotel Ramanath, Colaba and Hotel Swagat, off PM Road, Fort.

4. Moti Halwai, Cawasji Patel Marg

Located at a short walk from Horniman Circle or Fountain, Moti is a fairly huge place that dishes up Chole Bature, Samosa Chaat, Kachori, Daal Pakwan and of course Chole Samosa. If you are in the mood for some heavy stuff, Moti should be your stop. They also have a wide variety of sweets on sale. I love trying out the warm Gulab Jamnus on display. Bhajiyas are passable so stick to the Samosa served with some Chole and finish off with a tall glass of special lassi(less creamier version is also available).

Alternatively, you could opt for the special chai which is quite strong and brewed fresh on order.

Meal for one should be again around Rs. 50-60 including a snack and a chai.

Puncham Puri at VT is a good option too.

There's also the Irani - Cafe Military on Nagindas Master Road that starts to serve beer along with Caramel Custard at around 4-5pm.


I am sure there are plenty of other joints that serve equally delicious and cheap fare in and around Fort. If you have any recommendations, do let me know!

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Mystery of the Missing Marble Canopy of Queen Victoria

The year was 1872 when the statue of Queen Victoria was revealed. As per a report that appeared in the Illustrated London News, 8 June, His Highness the Guicowar of Baroda (Maharaj Khanderao Gaikwad?) presented a statue of Queen Victoria to the Victoria Gardens and was unveiled by the Governor of Bombay (Philip Wodehouse). The Victoria and Albert Museum (Now Bhau Daji Lad Museum) was to be its intended home but later it was considered to be too exquisite to be kept indoors. It was later moved to the northern end of Esplanade Road (Mahatma Gandhi road now) and was site of reverence for the locals. 

However, in 1965 this statue along with statues of other foreign sovereigns and administrators were removed from public sites and kept indoors, mostly within government buildings. This statue however was moved back to the gardens of Bhau Daji Lad Museum, its initial home. 

In 1968, under the The Bombay Queen Victoria Statue Site (And Adjoining Land utilization for construction of Satellite Telecommunications, Exchanges of the Overseas Communications Service) Act, 1968 the land was transferred from the BMC to the State Government for the construction of the Overseas Communications building. This was to be known the VSNL building and now of course the Tata Communications building, that stands tall behind the gothic Central Telegraph Office. The adjoining chowk is named after the brave Chapekar Brothers of Pune, who assassinated the Plague commissioner of Pune and his military escort Lt. Ayerst in 1897.

Chapekhar Bothers
However, this post is not about the statue at all, in fact it is about the marble canopy under which the statue of Queen Victoria sat. 

On my last visit to the BDL, I was surprised to find her seated without the canopy and I wondered where it could’ve gone. Whether it was vandalised or just lost to the ravages of time (her majesty’s nose is missing). And then I forgot all about it, until I visited Juhu beach on Sunday. While running on the sand towards the Southern End, I saw something that made me stop in my track. 

A tall structure nearly 20 feet in height, made of white marble stood in the lawn of one of the bungalows facing the beach. It couldn’t be, I thought to myself as I slowed down and traced my steps to the boundary wall of that bungalow. The intricately carved marble canopy stood in front of me, I could make out engravings in Gujarati on the side panel but it was too far off to read clearly. 

A photo of that panel later, with the help of a friend we could decipher words such as Gaekwad, Baroda, 18something and I concluded that it was indeed the canopy made from Sicilian marble in 1872 by Matthew Noble, a famous sculptor from London.

I stood on my toes and peered in to find a lady taking a walk around of the lawn. I called out to her and asked her if it was indeed the canopy, she said ‘I think so, I could confirm and tell you, why don't you come tomorrow?’ On further enquiry it was revealed that the bungalow belonged to the Singhania family (Raymond group) and the canopy had travelled from their residences across Bombay, last being Breach Candy. An online source does mention that the canopy was indeed bought by an Indian industrialist and stands empty in his garden. When I combined Queen Victoria + Vijaypat Singhania on a google search, a small mention of the canopy being present at the Singhania bungalow at Breach Candy showed up on TripAdvisor! Although this needs to be updated it validated the latest info that I had gathered. 

I would urge anyone interested in colonial art and history to make a trip to the surprisingly clean Juhu beach to see this magnificent structure. Although it is a reminder of the relations between the rulers of the princely state and the British Empire, it is also symbolic of the wealth possessed by the king which enabled him to commission such a lavish work of art. Entry into the lawns would be ideal to appreciate the intricacies of the structure better( the news report mentions - The Royal arms are sculptured on the front of the pedestal, and the Star of India on the centre of the canopy. On the enriched part immediately above the statue are the rose of England and lotus of India, accompanied by the mottoes. "God and My Right" and "The Light of Heaven our Guide." Other accessories have been introduced into the design, such as the oak and ivy leaves, respectively the symbols of strength and friendship, adorning the plinths and capitals of the columns; with the oak, ivy, and lotus leaves enriching the mouldings that surround the whole. On the four panels at the sides and back of the canopy are inscriptions in four different languages - namely, in English and in three Indian languages) a look from the periphery is also satisfactory.

But, personally what is even more satisfying is this find. After having wondered about it, the mystery has been solved and I am glad to know that it stands under the shade of many trees, facing the Arabian Sea, in open view, for anyone who notices it. 

Photo credits: Biswajit Dey(@busydey) - Queen Victoria at BDL
Rest - Wikimedia commons and personal clicks 

Friday, January 3, 2014

Palolem on a Personal Note

The first time I read about Palolem was in an article written by Frederick Noronha in a travel book brought out by the Outlook group back in '08. It seemed fascinating, I asked my mother who hails from Goa if she had heard of it, she told me that she hadn't. It seemed puzzling to me, so I asked her if she had heard about Cancona. And that seemed to work, she recalled her time spent at her Aunt's house in Cancona when she was quite young. She spoke very fondly of her aunt, who wasn't related to her but was a neighbour while they lived in Mahim. But as it is with most neighbours, she was as good as a close relative. Years passed and she eventually moved to Ulhasnagar and from there to Cancona where she ran a small eatery. Mom fished out two photos of her, one taken at her home while the other taken at Mallikarjun Temple. Rajani Naik, a plump, jolly looking woman smiled at me. She had a exuberant smile and I wondered if I would ever meet her. 

Last year, in November just before heading on an impromptu visit to Palolem I decided to locate the Naik family. I had photographs, their full names and some very vague directions to their house from the bus stand at Cancona. Nevertheless, by habit I ran a google search and I was surprised to see her name in a PDF file listing beneficiaries of a house renovation scheme of the Goan State government. It also contained her full address and the name of the locality - Chawadi. I was very eager on making this trip now, apart from the beach itself, this trip had acquired a new meaning. 

That Saturday afternoon, after some very poor Goan pulao at one of the shacks I hired an auto to go to Chawadi. At the auto stand, I began my enquiry. I approached two pilots standing there with their bikes, I asked them about the Naik's and one of them seemed to know her. I showed them the photographs and he quite blatantly stated that she was bed ridden, very ill and would pass away any moment. He offered to take me there for Rs. 30 since it was 3km away from the auto stand. I hesitated, doubting his recognition. I enquired about her son and he seemed to recognise him too. He directed me to the eatery that wasn't too far away. The Khanaval or as an eatery is locally known was located in a small lane, just off the main market road. A ramshackle structure, complete with red tiled roof. Inside there was a small eating hall with plastic tables and a smaller kitchen from which wafted the smell of fried fish. I entered and approached the man frying fish, he was her elder son, S. I recognized him from the photo. I quickly introduced myself and showed him the photographs. He was elated, he remembered my mother's vacation there. He must've been a child back then but remembered everybody quite fondly. 

The Goan hospitality soon kicked in and I was ushered to the nearest table and a fish thali was quickly laid out in front of me. It was simple but delectable food, very reminiscent of my grandma's cooking. A welcome change from the tasteless, expensive food served at the shacks back at the beach. My companions for the meal was an eclectic mix of professionals. Bank officials, Insurance agents, traders and even the local Postman was present. I wiped my plate clean and her son, S offered to take me to their home. In a few moments we were zipping across grasslands and fields, drongos flitted about on wires as we made our way through the typical Goan countryside. We pulled in front of the house, made of brick and a corrugated tin roof. He led me inside and we turned to the right, into a small room with pink walls. A marathi dance competition played on the 14 inch CRT, an old fan whirred overhead and on the small cot lay a frail old lady.

S, tried to explain to his mother who I was.. It took her a few moments and eventually she remembered my mother, her siblings and Mahim. S returned to the eatery to clean up and promised to meet me later. Rajani aaji(Grandma) enquired about the other siblings and explained how she had ended up like this. She had fallen down on her tailbone six months ago, to relieve her pain they saw a doctor. The doctor saw nothing but a minor injury and recommended rest and iodex. The injury was far more serious than what the doctor diagnosed. In a few months, they realised that water had formed near her spine. Sooner, she lost mobility in both her legs and she was bed ridden. Her appetite dropped and she lost weight rapidly, from her plump figure she had reduced to only skin and bones. Wrinkled flesh hung from her arms and she was completely immobile, below the waist. Her eyes welled up with tears as she recounted her story. She spoke in a slow, tired voice but she was absolutely coherent. We spoke about a lot of things, of her life and times in Bombay, her move to Goa, the death of her younger son, of the vacation that my mom had spent there. She explained sadly that she had to wear diapers, and the room had to be sanitised regularly. It did smell like a hospital ward but it did not bother me. I held her hand while she spoke.

She had stopped eating completely and her diet largely consisted of water and some juices. We both marvelled at how we had ended up meeting after all these years and how computers were such a wonder. She told me that she was exhausted of living and she just wanted to close her eyes and sleep peacefully. I assured her that she would get well very soon and be walking about. But we both knew that it wasn't going to be so. It was incredible how close I felt to her, someone whom I had never met but had only heard of. We seemed like old friends, sharing stories of our lives with each other, catching up as they say. I updated her on all the recent happenings related to my mother’s siblings, the passing away of my grandfather and other such details. After what seemed like almost an hour, we sat for a few moments in silence and watched kids perform a mix of hiphop and bollywood dance moves on the TV. Her daughter in law served me tea and I drank in silence. 

Just after tea, I bade farewell and decided against taking her photograph as I had initially planned in order to show it to my mother. I didn't want her to see her favourite aunt like this. A passing biker gave me a lift upto Chawadi and S greeted me with a pack of cashewnuts. He asked me to visit again and told me that I now had family back in Cancona, so I could count on them when in Goa. He dropped me back to Palolem, another 3 km away. We exchanged numbers and promised to meet again. As I walked back to my beach hut, I couldn't stop thinking about the past few hours. How many memories I was taking with me, how incredible it all had been. I really hoped that she would get well soon.

On reaching Bombay, I passed on his number to my mother and my aunt. They rang him up after a few days and he informed them that Rajani aaji passed away on Wednesday. We were mildly shocked at the turn of events, but also quite relieved. Her suffering had ended and she was free. The entire meeting seemed all a matter of chance, had I gone there the weekend after, I might have never met her, she would’ve always remained a legend to me. She wouldn’t have known that my mother still remembered her fondly and her memories were cherished, even after all these years. For me, it was another lesson that travel had taught me. It was important to reach out to the people who once meant something to you, and had drifted away over time for some reason or the other, it didn't matter how far they were. You just have to make that trip, before it is too late.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Cutting Chai on SV Road

I looked up from my laptop and saw her moving away. She was nearing the glass door that led to the lobby which led to the main gate which opened out to the SV Road. This office on the ground floor didn't give us the time to meet in the elevator and share that little awkward time, which definitely leaves some possibility for small talk. There were no water coolers either and Chotu, from housekeeping got us a glass of water when we asked him to. So no small talk there too, no ice to break. The restrooms were at the each end of the hall, separate for Gents and Ladies. But there was the lobby, so I thought of running to meet her in the lobby and ask her if she wanted to have the pumpkin spiced latte at the new Starbucks that everyone cool seemed to be raving about. I personally didn't like pumpkin except in the Sambar from Ram Ashraya. She seemed the sort who hung out at 'Bucks and had frozen yoghurt for dinner. But by the time, I locked my screen and wore my shoes ( I like to sit without my shoes, even at the dinner table but would that be okay if I were at Starbucks?) she was out of sight.

I thought of running bare feet and accosting her in the lobby or maybe on SV Road directly but then thought against it. Tomorrow, I would set a reminder and wear my shoes and lock my screen much in advance, I promised myself. All this excitement had left my weak bladder flustered so I slipped on my shoes and made my way to the far end of the room, the Gentswala Toilet. There were no urinals, only two Englishstyle toilets and a wash basin and above it, hung a mirror that reflected the light of the setting sun. I made way to the commode, picked up the lid and without bothering to shut the door behind me, emptied my tired bladder into it. As I was enjoying the feeling of eternal relief flowing through me, I heard the door of the restroom open.

In sauntered a happy looking Sumesh, the Associate Area Manager and my team leader, singing an old Dev Anand song. He seemed in an unusually good mood(we were no where close to our targets) and hollered out to me. "Bhaeee, waat is up with you yaar! Waat you doing?" When you were talking to Sumesh, he considered you his brother. Clients, chotu, colleagues, interns and even occasionally our boss everyone became his brother. Our MICA return boss frowned each time that happened and continued to work, he was not to be bothered by such things.

What I was doing was quite evident so I instead asked him why he was in such a exuberant mood as I zipped up and came out to wash my hands. He was looking at himself in the mirror, surveying his right cheek, looking for any hints of the five 'o clock shadow. There was none, his fair cheek shone like that of an adolescent boy after his first shave. "Bhai, kuch nahi yaar, bus ek chotti see meeting hain" he replied as he tried to comb the last remaining strands of hair over his balding plate. Could a meeting make anyone so cheerful, I wondered in my head.

I didn't like this fellow too much so I said bye to him and made my way out for a chai as he whipped out his iPhone and tried to command Siri in a fake accent, which Siri always had a hard time figuring out. Chottu was useless, I thought. He would never bring us chai. The chai stall was across the road, across the compound overlooking the talao. I pushed the glass door and reached the lobby. On the black fake leather sofa, I saw her sitting, furiously typing something into her phone. She barely noticed me and I didn't want to interrupt. Tomorrow was the day, I promised myself and walked over to the tapri.

The chai had been boiled over three times minimum since four 'o  clock, there was just a hint of ginger in it but it was comfortably hot. A few cormorants were basking in the evening sun, perched on the defunct fountains that were installed as a beautification project by the Municipality public. I tried to spot any other evening visitors but there were none. I turned around and looked at the office entrance, the glass building seemed dusty, it reflected hazy moving images of the traffic back to SV Road but concealed very well all that happened within itself. Right then, the watchman was swung the gates open. I saw a shiny new green sedan pull out on the SV Road. The unmistakable shiny green sedan belonged to Mr. Sumesh which he had purchased last month for 8.76 lacs, which everyone at the office was aware of.

It took a u-turn and turned south, it was about to pass me, I wanted to look back towards the talao and avoid his gloating goodbye. But right then through the windshield I caught a glimpse of her. She was seated next to him, smiling stupidly as he probably droned about his trip to Pattaya and the villa that he rented out just for himself (and the two Thai women, that all male colleagues were familiar with). The sedan sped past the stall and I caught a glimpse of his gloating smile. I hated that look, him only showing me the thenga was remaining, I thought angrily. I ordered another cutting and let the hot brew soothe my burning insides as I watched them drive towards Hill road. 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Lady Luck from Munich in South Bombay

It was a day that dawned as ordinary, although sure it was the day when the 10 days of the madness aka Ganesh Festival commenced. I was in South Bombay meeting a friend who was visiting Bombay after two years. She told me she chose to come here because her parents were going to be in town for work. She lives in Munich and was happy to be back in our city. As we walked about SBS, catching up over the last two years, since we never managed to stay in touch in the interim period. Towards the end of our meeting, she mentioned that she was expecting a call from her mom, who was going to be at NCPA, as her dad was performing at a concert. It seemed unlikely but I jokingly asked if he was playing with Zubin Mehta in the Bavarian State Orchestra. And she beamed at me and said a yes! That call never came so we decided to go visit her mom and somehow try to find her, maybe she was looking for my friend too. So off we went, entering from the audience gate laughing at the VVIPs of the city, standing in a queue, getting their passes verified.

There was an Additional Director General of Police, who was until recently one of the commissioners of Navi Mumbai, a popular film director and many socialities whom I had seen only in the newspapers. Consulate cars shone in the evening light as most diplomatic staff stationed in the city was present there. We tried looking for her but she was nowhere to be found. Dejected, we walked around until we came across another gate, and asked the guard if we could, maybe, visit the artist entry. Maybe because I spoke in Marathi or maybe because of my friend's complexion he assumed she was a musician too, he let us in. And sure enough at the glass doors, we spotted the cheerful lady. She waved at us and rushed outside. She complained about her phone and poor reception within the hall. As I was preparing to say goodbye to my friend and her mother, she produced two Passes of the show and handed them to my friend. She insisted that we entered and watched the performance!

Two days ago, while Mr. Mehta and his orchestra played at Shalimar Gardens, Srinagar, I sat glued to the TV set watching them play live on Doordarshan. Although, ridden with controversy, it seemed such a beautiful performance. And here I was, standing on the steps of NCPA, with the prospect of watching it again but only this time, live! The concert was sold out as I had read elsewhere. But my friend was keen on seeing them too so we decided to go. Finding ourselves in the same line that we had mocked at, we were soon ushered into the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre. Our seats turned out to be just one row away from the stage. I looked around and found the Top Cop, sitting two rows behind! I wasn't dressed for the occassion as most present came in fit for a Sunday mass.

There wasn't much ado and without any announcement the musicians appeared on the stage. After a quick sound check, the maestro Zubin Mehta took center stage and the evening of great music had commenced. I could recall some of the parts from the DD performance but I was too mesmerized to take any effort to remember. It was an amazing feeling to watch so many instruments played together in complete harmony. It was only the music and nothing else that bound together everyone in the hall. I won't go into the detail of the performance, as this post is not about the music only, it is about the element of chance that I happened to encounter that evening. Maybe this is what it must be to feel lucky, to have friends who share a bond with you, which is strong without needing the crutches of Facebook or Skype.

After the performance we waited at the same glass door and I had the chance to speak to many of the musicians including the band master and of course, my friend's father. Dressed in casual clothes, a change from the tuxedos, they spoke of the beauty of Kashmir, regretted the very little time spent there under heavy security cover and hoped to come back. Touring for them was rare as Opera seaon keeps them stationed at Munich. I was also invited to share dinner with them, which as luck might have had, was at the Taj. But I politely refused, thanked my friend's family for the great opportunity, wished her a 'Happy Journey' and walked back towards the station. Sure, with a spring in my step.

Photo: Hillpost

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Lost and Found at Naneghat - The case of the missing trekker

Prologue: I visited Naneghat recently, and this incident that happened on my first visit came back to me in complete detail. Penning it down with due permission from R, my friend whom you will read about in the next few paragraphs.


The year was 2010, the holy month of Ramazan was underway. During the week I had eaten like a glutton at Mohd Ali and on the same weekend I set off on a trek to the ancient trade route of Naneghat with 11 other trekkers. Located in the beautiful Murbad region, not far from Bombay. The trek was long and indeed taxing because the rains had evaded us. We ran out of water and collected water from streams running down the walls of the rocks. But once at the peak, we forgot all our tiredness and enjoyed a sumptuous biryani with views of Jivdhan and a lot of laughter for company.

The descent was pretty much the same as any other trek; but we were looking forward to soaking ourselves in the second stream that we had encountered on our way to the top. It had rained in the meantime and the stream which earlier had looked promising was going to be a lot of fun. We rushed towards it and finally settled down, soothing our tired limbs in the cool, gushing water. But one of our friends, lets call him R decided to walk back to the bus and wait for us there instead.

The bus was barely a kilometer away from the stream and the arrow marks en-route made it possible to navigate your way back. So, I gave him the green signal and asked him to notify me as soon as he reached the bus. Most of the group sat in the water for some more time before resuming the retreat. The sun had already set and it was the twilight hour. The clouds at the peak cleared out.

I saw the magnificent Nanacha Aanghtha jutting out majestically, we recalled the moments spent there just a few hours ago and a sense of accomplishment overtook all of us. However, halfway into the final leg, I received a call from R saying that he was unable to locate the bus and was walking straight ahead in the direction of the road. I told him to continue as eventually he would come to the main entrance, for, there were no other routes.

Nevertheless, I rushed back to the bus and on boarding it, found it to be empty. There was no sign of R, anywhere. I rang up him again and he told me that he was not sure where he was. This was not good, I said to myself as I found myself dumping my bag and returning back into the forest.

Folks familiar with Naneghat must be aware of the initial first few meters, it is a walk on a flat meadow like region until the streams start to appear, from where the route ascends gradually to the top. I retreated my steps, running at first and then slowing down as I reached further in. On my left was a dense forest while on the right, a deep gorge plunged into the valley. The stream that we had sat in flowed like a mighty river through this gorge. Descending down that steep slope was not possible for goats too and it was largely left alone by the locals.

I trudged up towards the peak and rang up R once again. I asked him to tell me his location with respect to the peak but the clouds had returned and it was difficult to pinpoint the direction of the peak. We then decided to rely upon the age-old A-O call. I shouted A-O as loudly as I could, and immediately heard R’s reply somewhere towards the north. It definitely was coming across from the gorge but it was muddled by the sound of the stream. Since I hadn’t seen a route to get there, it was unlikely that he would’ve been in the gorge. I tried to peer over through the dense foliage but couldn’t see any sign of him. I started climbing up, passing the second stream, to gain some higher ground for a better view.

There was only one fear in my head, of losing him to the darkness, as the light was quickly fading and we had to meet fast. I reached higher and shouted again, but his reply seemed to resound from all directions and pinpointing its source direction became difficult. I called him again but the phone calls were meaningless because we couldn't convey much through them. I then decided to conserve battery(for the small flashlight on my phone, just in case) and retreated back to the stream.

I stood there for a few moments, the gushing sound of the water punctuated the silent atmosphere. The birds had gone back to their nests and the insects of the night were soon to wake up. I tried to rewind the farewell scene with R that I had experienced a few minutes ago. I called out a desperate A-O (to which I didn’t get any reply) and just by instinct decided to walk downstream and instead of walking on the right, walked along the left bank of the stream. The normal route goes past the right bank and turns sharply to the right and follows a straight path. However, the stream widened just after that bend, turning into a menacing river and the left bank only kept going farther apart from the other bank. I had crossed over and I had no intentions of leaving this one stray route unchecked before seeking more help.

So I trudged along, and gave out another A-O and heard a faint reply, that seemed to emanate downstream. My heart was beating faster, it could’ve been an echo, it could’ve been my imagination but I had to rely on this, the last lead that I had. I increased my pace, my trusted Converse shoes were now slipping on the muddy bank but I kept walking on. And I kept shouting, and the response kept getting clearer.

I then whipped out my phone and instructed R to follow my voice. But it was confusing for him too. He told me that he had entered the forest and moved away from the river. So, I asked him to retrace his steps. I was hoping desperately that he had not moved too deep in the forest to have lost his way to the river. I rushed further as the light continued to fade, the day was slowly being swallowed by the night. And the level of the water seemed to be rising.

I called out to him once more and sure enough I heard him, barely 10 meters away. And slowly through a small clearing in the bushes, emerged R. I rushed to him and we shook hands and hugged. But this was not over. The river had to be crossed and we found a spot where it was narrower than the other parts, so helping each other we managed to scramble onto the other side. The main route lay above the steep incline, which we decided to skip and walked back to the point where he had strayed off the path. At the same spot where a few minutes ago, I had made the decision to take the left bank, at the same spot where I had rested my tired limbs a few more minutes ago.

We got onto the main track and had a good laugh over the entire incident, the light was out, the night was the queen. The stars were twinkling as we made our way to the bus where our fellow trekkers eagerly waited for us! In complete darkness, we walked along two trekkers, two friends, united by an adventure! He confessed that at a point he was scared but following his survival instinct, he had already scouted for a spot to spend the night! We reached the bus within a few minutes to a host of sighs of relief and we were soon zipping onto the NH-222 on the way back to our warm homes. But R insisted that we stop over for a quick round of chai and misal pav and it was going to be his treat! At the highway hotel, we ate and we laughed and marvelled at the day that it had been! Naneghat, since then remains close to my heart.


Epilogue: Since Naneghat 2010, I have visited the ghat twice and it still holds the same charm for me. R, on the other hand treks with us, as and when his Marathon-running schedule permits! On a recent trek to Visapur, we both joked over this incident and he gave me the go-ahead to pen it all down.

It is a lesson worth learning for both trek organisers as well as trekkers. The forest is an enchanting place to be but exercising due caution and according safety of others and self should always be the first priority!