If you ever find yourself in Guwahati with an afternoon to kill, head to the Umananda Temple. Located on an island in the middle of the Brahmaputra, it can be reached by taking a boat from the Kachari Ghat, right in the heart of the city. When I last visited this beautiful city, it was in the winter of 2011. As the waters had receded substantially, I had to walk on sand followed by a nervous balancing act on a bamboo bridge to reach the jetty. The sun had just begun to set over the horizon and the Brahmaputra looked mightier than ever.
From the jetty, a wooden country boat fitted with a makeshift diesel engine takes you to this tiny island, bang in the middle of the limitless expanse of water that is the Brahmaputra. My first encounter with Umananda was a completely different experience, however. Back in 2004, we were visiting the city’s iconic Cotton’s College for the prestigious Manik Chandra Barua Memorial Debate (bragging alert: we won). The day before the debate, my partner and I inexplicably landed up on a boat to the island while out exploring the city.
It was at the very end of the long rainy season and shortly after we set off from the jetty, as far as the eyes could see, stretched the Brahmaputra. To the residents of Guwahati, the island is popular for its ancient temple, to reach which, you need to climb a flight of almost 250 stairs. However, for me, the main attraction was definitely the family of Golden langurs which were introduced here decades ago by a whimsical monk.
After you have walked around a bit, it is time for you to climb down the rocky slopes of the island, right to the water’s edge, and it is here that the river overwhelms you. All of a sudden you come face to face with a force much beyond your comprehension. You sit down on a rock and admire the beautiful shapes made by the river’s churning currents, shapes that appear only momentarily before disappearing or transforming into another. Almost like thought itself. The river, to you, becomes a stream of consciousness.
At this point of time, the river takes over your being. You are hypnotized by its beauty and the sheer monstrosity; then the tide rises. (For all of you who did not know, rivers experience tidal cycles too). First, there’s a hint of a chill at the very end of your toes which are pointing downwards, resting on a sloping rock face. Soon, the chill changes into the feeling of the cold water. As moments go by, the cold water climbs up to your ankles, then to your shin and by the time it finally reaches the knee, you know that the river has had enough of you, sitting by its side, feeling like James Joyce. And you get up and head for the waiting log boat, to ferry you to where the rest of the humanity is.
On the way back, if you are extremely lucky, the Brahmapurta will treat you to a fiery red sunset, like only this river can!
It was an impossibly early train from a station impossibly far from my house. But there is something about leaving with your bags when it is still dark out. It is the promise that when the darkness of night descends, you will find yourself at an altogether different setting. You will find yourself at the destination. So between the darkness of the dawn and the eventual darkness of dusk lay what I enjoy most – a journey.
Those of you who excel at the subtle art of looking at maps would have noticed that the destination is somewhere in the Kumaon Himalayas. It was in fact, a tiny slice of heaven called Jilling Estate. The real journey starts when the train deposits you in the quaint, single platform Kathgodam Railway Station.
What follows is a one and a half hour journey on the winding hilly roads to the village of Matial. I say Village, but What I actually mean is two general stores and 5 houses along a bend on the road. We see off the taxi guy and start the climb on foot. Yes, there are indeed no motorable roads to Jilling and that is precisely why we chose to come here.
The cluster of buildings that makes up Matial
That’s about the whole village. I promise!
During the colonial times this swathe of the Kumaon Himalayas was owned by a single apple farming sahib. Post independence, the property was divided into various parts and the Lall family bought around 100 acres of this prime Himalayan property. Steve Lall, the bullet-riding, dog loving ex Mig-21 pilot decided to build 4 secluded cottages across the property and invite people to come stay there.
The cottages vary in size but all are slightly rustic, yet not lacking the creature comforts that we city slickers are used to. The food is mostly organic and home cooked, delivered to you piping hot by the estate employees who also double up as fireplace technicians, guides, bird identifiers and storytellers. Jilling is not a hotel. Neither is it a resort. It is one man sharing his little slice of heaven in exchange of some money. If you are in sync with his view of ecotourism (no TV, no motorable road, no noisy neighbour, complete seclusion), you are welcome. Otherwise, bugger off to your favourite Nainital concrete monstrosity.
The distance from Matial to our destination – the topmost cottage – is just north of 2 kms but man is it steep. At the cost of repeating myself I am, to put it politely, a giant ball of lard and the climb, albeit punctuated by a thousand breaks, was arduous. Here is the cool part though, if you lack a spine or if you are old or otherwise disabled, you can hire a pony to the top.
The higher you climb, the prettier it gets
The entire route is paved with stones
Someone has built my dream house. Damn!
Taking a breather, right in the middle of the path
Of the four cottages in the estate, we chose the topmost. When we had spoken to Steve earlier, we had requested for something secluded and it was this cottage he suggested. The cottage is a simple two room affair with basic furnishings. The only disadvantage is the toilet which is not attached to either of the two rooms. While during the daytime, it is absolutely okay, at night when the stillness around you is broken only by the otherworldly scream of a wood owl, stepping out of the cottage to go to the loo feels like the beginnings of a grisly horror movie. Also it does not help if you have read Jim Corbett’s Maneaters of Kumaun cover to cover a dozen times.
Climbing up, this is the first view of our cottage
waiting for lunch to be served
Sunset from my porch
Sunset from my porch
Sunset from my porch
Sunset from my porch
Sunset from my porch
Sunset from my porch
Two absolutely glorious days and somewhat terrifying nights later we decided to enquire if some of the other cottages were free. Turns out they were. So we decided to move to the main cottage, about 100 m below us. In the middle of the 19th century, this building served as a warehouse for Jilling’s apples. When the Lals bought their slice of the estate, they turned this warehouse into the bungalow it is today.
This was a world apart from the rustic charm of the bungalow on top. It had a large dining room, a small sitting room with a stocked book-shelf, a spacious bedroom, an ante-room and a kitchen. This was more like your own cottage in the hills, complete with veranda, daisy filled lawns and an ancient tree guarding it all.
Our home for the next few days
The tall tree guarding our hill house
Daisies, daisies everywhere
The Path to our new home is lined with daisies
The small living room
The incredibly airy and well-lit dining room
Between you and me, this level of comfort is new to me. I am used to roughing it out on the saddle of my motorbike, shacking up at the end of the day in a budget hotel – my very definition of travel. But this…this was different. We had rooms, heck, a full bungalow. The bungalow came with Naveen, an extremely polite gentleman who brought us our food, lit our fires, took us for long walks and even helped me identify bird calls. Now, this I could get used to. This was my first “vacation”.
The days passed in a glorious haze of sunshine, birdsong and delicious aromas wafting out of the kitchen. The nights were a collage of twinkling lights on the distant hills, star-gazing and reading till the crickets chirped no more. In between all this, we had time to dream of our own little cottage in the hills. Not much – a couple of rooms, a small garden to grow some food and a group of furry, unruly mountain dogs. I do not want to climb the Everest neither do i want change the world. All I want is that little house in the hills and that, ladies and germs, is the very extent of my ambitions.
To cut a long story short, thanks to Jilling, I now know what my dream looks like.
At the end of the last post, we were in the scenic forests of Buxa. We were staying at the forest guest house at Rajabhatkhawa where we woke up to a bright autumn morning. Characteristic of the Dooars, everything was washed with dew. Everything seemed new and gleaming with colours that were a solid shade of brilliant.
Since we had wrapped up with the foresty bit the day before, we decided to go down to Coochbehar or Kochbehar, the largest town in Dooars after Siliguri. This meant driving more than a 100 kms through the idyllic countryside. The first town in our route was Alipurduar. The town is named after Col Hedayat Ali Khan, an officer in the British Army during the Bhutan wars of 1864.
Alipurduar was an important trading post on the famed ‘Silk Route’. It was here that two ancient trading routes, the first from Mathura and Pataliputra (modern Patna) and the second from the sea-port of Tamralipti (modern Tamluk) merged. From here, the road went on to Xi’an in China after passing through Bhutan and Tibet. Remains of the ancient road can still be seen in the nearby village of Santalabari. Since there was nothing extant from the time Alipurduar was a prosperous settlement, we decided to pass by it.
Covering an area of around 2500 hectares on the Alipurduar-Kamakhyaguri road is Rasikbil, a large lake that is famous for its large population of migratory birds. A deer park and a crocodile rehabilitation centre are located close by. Also around it are a leopard house, a python house, an aviary and a tortoise rescue and rehabilitation centre. The entire lake was covered with a thick growth of water hyacinth and could not see why any migratory birds would alight here if it was not cleared. It was although a very pretty sight specially how the little suspension bridge built above the lake seemed to span a sea of green.
After some time at Rasikbill, we decided to drive on to Coochbehar which was only 25 kms from here.
Seeped in history and culture, the town of Coochbehar is a veritable treasure trove for the historically inclined traveller. Coochbehar, is the only ‘planned’ city in north Bengal. This erstwhile princely state was part of the Kamarupa empire during 4th-13th centuries AD. With the weakening of the Kamarupa state in the early 13th century, a significant portion of their territory came to be controlled by the Khen dynasty which ruled from its capital at Kamtapur. The Kamta dynasty held sway over the region till 1498 AD when they were defeated by Alauddin Hussein Shah, the Sultan of Gaur.
Though successful in subduing the Kamtas, Hussein Shah was plagued by constant attacks from the local Bhuyan chieftains as well as from the kings of Ahom (Assam). During this period of political confusion, the Koch tribe became increasingly powerful and took control over Kamta, proclaiming themselves Kamteshwar (Lord of Kamta).
Thus established, the Koch kingdom reached its zenith under Nara Narayan (1540-1586). After his death, the kingdom was divided into two parts. The eastern part under his son, Raghudev came to be known as Koch Hajo, while the remainder under Nara Narayan’s nephew, Lakshmi Narayan, came to be called the kingdom of Coochbehar. The last ruler of Coochbehar, Jagaddipendra Narayan, transferred power to the Government of India on 12 September 1949. The Coochbehar state became a district of West Bengal on 19 January 1950 with Coochbehar town as its headquarters.
The beautiful Sagar dighi (lake) is located right at the centre of the town. It is surrounded on all sides by heritage buildings, some of which have been converted into government offices.
Located at the heart of the city is the famous Madan Mohan Temple, built by Maharaja Nripendra Narayan, and dedicated to the kula-devata (tutelary deity) of the royal family. The temple complex also hosts a Raas Mela every November.
The state of Coochbehar embraced modernisation quite early. Maharaja Nripendra Narayan (r.1863-1911) broke convention by marrying the daughter of the prominent Brahmo Samaj leader, Keshub Chandra Sen. He is also credited with building Coochbehar’s lasting landmark, the Victor Jubilee Palace, also known as the Rajbari or simply the Coochbehar Palace in 1887.
Built on a 1.5 metre-high platform, this double-storeyed brick building covers an area of 4,768 square metres. Modelled on the St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the Durbar Hall is dodecagonal in shape, resting on four arches supported by massive Corinthian pilasters with a lantern projected at the top. In the centre of the Durbar Hall, the marble floor has the insignia of the royal family engraved in pietra dura. There are over fifty rooms/halls of varied dimensions in the palace that include a billiard room, dancing hall, library, toshakhana and the ladies gallery.
After visiting all the sites in Coochbehar we started asking around if there were any other places worth going to around the town and it was then we heard about the Baneshwar Shivalaya. Baneshwar Shiva Temple is located about 10 kms north of Coochbehar town. Next to the main temple here is another temple which has the image of Ardhanariswar. This 400 year old temple had recently been whitewashed and made for a pretty sight afainst the backdrop of the blue sky. A big pond in the temple compound is home to a large number of tortoises, some of which are very old.
By the time i reached Coochbehar, dusk was setting in. Luckily for me, it was one of the typically brilliant and colourful Dooars evenings. When i was passing through th main market of Coochbehar, i happened to notice the soaring dome of the palace set against the painted sky. Unfortunately for me, the palace gates had closed and there was no way i could get in. So i walked around the palace walls and found a spot where i could stick the lens of the camera between the iron grille and clicked a couple of shots.
In the next post, we sample the simple charms of a tea-growing Dooars. Also in my thought, its going to be the most colourful of the Dooars series. So watch this space for more, or just SUBSCRIBE!
The new day began rather early. In fact it was still dark out when i woke up. The previous night, when we reached the Jaldapara Tourist Logde in Madarihat, he had made bookings for the elephant safari. The elephants, along with their mahouts leave twice a day – in the mornings and in the afternoons. However, if you really want to spot wildlife, take the very first safari which starts around 5:30.
The safaris leave in groups of 2-3 elephants, each carrying a maximum of four people and a mahaut. One should try and get a place in the first group which usually leaves at 5 am during summers and 6 am during winters. For its size, the elephant is an extremely agile animal and manoeuvres easily through the various streams running through the forest.
Around 5 AM, a car came to pick us up from the lodge. It must be told here that the safari begins from the Hollong Tourist Lodge, which is seven kms from the gate of the forest and around 9 kms from where we were staying. Apart from us, the only people we saw were the mahouts and a British couple.
Elephants have a distinct advantage over the jeep safaris popular elsewhere because it lets the visitor get much closer to the wild animal without it being put off by the noise of the engine. The elephants used for the safaris are employees of the state government and draw monthly salaries, have a retirement age, and upon retirement are eligible for a pension! Apart from safaris, the elephants, also known as kunki are used to round up wild elephants that have gone musth (a periodic condition in bull elephants, characterised by highly aggressive behaviour, accompanied by a large rise in reproductive hormones) and help in patrolling for poachers.
For its size, the elephant is an extremely agile animal and manoeuvres easily through the various streams running through the forest. At the start of the safari, we veered off the tracks used by the jeeps and entered the dense forests. As i had said in the earlier post, the forests had just opened after the monsoons and the foliage was at its thickest. Though chances of sighting wildlife in such thick vegetation are very slim (all we saw were a couple of monkeys and a yelping wild boar), the feeling of being deep inside these luxuriant forests, surrounded by a quietitude so thick that a mere snap of a twig makes you jump on your high seat is priceless. So thick is the foliage that at times, the sunlight does not reach the forest floor.
The dense forests soon make way for the grasslands. The grass here is so tall that they are popularly called elephant grass. This is where most of the rhinos can be spotted – feeding, resting or wallowing in the muddy pools. We saw signs of their presence – hoof-marks, flattened patches of grass, etc but failed to spot the actual rhino.
Having said that, i must also point out that we did spot a monitor lizard, carefully camouflaged against the tree bark.
Anyway, since we had gotten up so early and trampled around in the forest for hours, the hunger demons were on a rampage on my stomach. The entire day lay ahead of us and whatever had to be done, needed to be done quickly. So anyway, i gulp down half a litre of milk, a couple of eggs, snatch some sandwiches from the breakfast table and rush to the car to head off to Chilapata forest.
Torsha river flows through the southeastern part of Jaldapara and separates a stretch of dense forests from the main wildlife sanctuary. Chilapata, as this forest is better known acts as an elephant corridor between Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary and Buxa Tiger Reserve. Chilapata has some of the densest forests of the region. In a struggle to reach for the light, creepers crawl up trunks of small trees while shrubs and smaller plants sprout out from every possible free space on the ground. So dense are the forests here that driving through them feels like going through a green tunnel.
Originally, Chilapata forests were home to a large number of rhinoceros, but they have since vanished due to excessive poaching, especially by the erstwhile ruling family of Coochbehar. However, during the winter months, when the Torsha is reduced to a lean, fast flowing stream, the occasional rhinoceros is known to cross over from Jaldapara to Chilapata.
Deep inside the forest are remains of an ancient fort which historians say could date back to the Gupta period (4th – 7th century AD). Locally known as Nal Rajar Garh (the fortress of the Nal king), the ruins are around three kms into the forest off the NH31A. While you are expecting soaring buttresses and sprawling complexes, do not get your hopes up. The heavy rainfall and the high humidity of the region, not to mention the 1500 years in between has really takes its toll. All that remains are some walls and a couple of neat looking arches. Anyway, it was here that we saw a baby elephant. While it was indeed a cute sight, i couldn’t but help think about the mother which would have been lurking nearby.
Further down the national highway, as the road leads towards Hashimara, a smaller track leads off on the right towards the Chilapata forest outpost. Located on a high spur of land on the banks of the Torsha, the building provides a stunning view of the forests on one side and the Torsha river bed on the other. During autumn, the bed of the Torsha river erupts with a profusion of kaash, white, fluffy, plume-like blossoms of tall grass.
So far in the day, we had completed an elephant safari and then driven into the heart of the forest for some wonderful sights. It would have been the day for the tourists, but one glance at the watch confirmed that it was not even lunchtime. We anyway had to get to this place called Rajabhatkhawa (literally, ‘where the king ate rice’), the ehtry-point to Buxa Tiger Reserve. Our driver suggested a shortcut through a village called Kodalbasti (literally, ‘a village of spades’). It turned out to be a narrow winding track through small hamlets, but in the middle the road had vanished! It was gobbled up by the Baniya River flowing alongside. So about turn and a longer drive to reach Rajabhatkhawa.
We reached Rajabhatkhawa by 2 in the afternoon and checked into the rest house operated by West Bengal Forestry. A quich shower and a change of clothes later we were off to explore the many mysteries of Buxa. Also in Rajabhatkhawa is a Nature Interpretation Centre, that helps the tourist grasp the delicate biodiversity of Dooars. It was here, via a mural on the wall and a very talkative guard that i found out how Rajabhatkhawa got its strange name. Long ago, the King of Coochbehar was in constant warfare with the king of Bhutan. The wars were severe and bloody and neither king emerged a clear victor. To put an end to the bitterness, the king of Coochbehar invited his Bhutanese counterpart for lunch to work out a settlement. As it turns out, the luncheon bore fruits and the two kingdoms never warred again.
Buxa Tiger Reserve, established in 1983 is sprawled over an area of 759 sq kms, of which 314.5 sq kms is the core area. However, the dense forests and the general shy nature of tigers make sightings here a rare delight. The northern boundary of the Park roughly coincides with India’s border with Bhutan. National Highway 31C runs along its southern boundary. A part of a contiguous forests that extend across North Bengal, Assam and Bhutan, it serves as an international corridor for elephant migration between India and Bhutan. According to the state wildlife officials, even tigers are known to move freely in to Bhutan through the continuous belt of forests.
We wanted to explore the more frequented Jainti beat of the forest. We paid for our permits at the forest check post at Buxa and headed in.
There are no permanent roads inside the forest. Like all forests in Dooars, the park is nurtured by a large number of rivers, most important of which are Jainti and Raidak. Jainti carves a wide basin across the Tiger Reserve. Most of the rivers change courses frequently and hence you have to cross a riverbed or two to get to your destination. At one such river crossing, i decided to get off the car and wade my way through. I was having a nice walk with the car ambling along behind me when all of a sudden i was startled by a loud honking. Turning back i was quite surprised to see an AUTO, full of people making its way through at breakneck speed. I quickly stepped aside to avert a collision and realised that even after a nuclear holocaust, the autos will survive, probably to be driven around by then roaches!
Anyway, re reached our destination without any more incidents. The wide bed of the river Jainti as it snakes through the forest is one of the most beautiful places you will ever see. Standing by the river, to the north one sees rolling hills, covered with dense forests. To the south, as far as the eyes can see, is the milky-white riverbed of smooth pebbles fringed by dark-green forests, known for their rare orchids and medicinal plants.
As a kid, every winters, our family, along with some friends would come here for picnics on sunny, winter days. The last time i came here, i was prolly 11-12 years old, but i could remember flashes of fun i had here. For once, i remembered that if you dug into the sand on the riverbed, you could get water.Then there was the hapless look on the face of our cook. All the housewives and my mother had nothing to do on the picnics, but get after the life of the cook and interrogate him for every additional ounce of ginger paste put in the mutton curry simmering on the wooden flame. Then there was my father, who is, without doubt the worst player of any card game in the world. So he would usually stand and watch others play and indulge me with stories of fantastic creatures that would come out of the forest once we left for the day.
We stood on the river for some times. shooting, talking but mostly enjoying the sight. As the darkness started to descend, we made our way to the forest lodge. The next day we would head to the beautiful town of Coochbehar where there would be more stories to tell and more roads to travel. Until then its time to say goodbye with these two pics:
I didn’t know I loved the earth
can someone who hasn’t worked the earth love it
I’ve never worked the earth
it must be my only Platonic love
– Nazim Hikmet, Things i Didn’t Know i Loved
When i was in Siliguri, being what every geeky Bengali teenager was like, i tended to take the bounteous nature around me for granted. Sure, there were the occasional trips to Darjeeling, Gangtok or the forests; sure there were the winter-time picnics in Sevoke and Murti, but the sense of belonging had not developed.
Then came the big shift to Delhi. Then came the longing for home. Whenever i managed to get back, i would spend almost all the time in our little apartment, without even feeling the need to step out. This was back in college when i had not yet tasted the charms of travel.
Then came my job. I still maintain that this was probably the best thing to have happened to me. I discovered photography and i discovered travel – two things that have gone on to define me ever since. My initial travels were in central India across Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, but it was not long before we got a project on West Bengal and images and experiences of a not too distant childhood came flooding back.
A trip to North Bengal was soon planned and with gentle manipulations on my part, it was extended to cover almost all parts of the Dooars region of North Bengal over a period of five days. I only realised this later, when i was back in Delhi, that it had been a return to the familiar sights, sounds and smells. It was a a long chain of deja vu’s.
I was accompanied on this by my boss Swati. We landed in Siliguri on a sunny October morning and were met at the airport by my dad who had arranged for a car (a brand new Tata Sumo Grande) and a driver for our trip. We intended to reach Madarihat by the end of the day. Madarihat happens to be 141 kms from Siliguri and is the gateway to Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary, home to the largest number of Indian Rhinoceros in India after Kaziranga National Park in Assam.
We got out of Siliguri after a quick lunch at home and headed to Jalpaiguri via a smaller back road that cuts off from the bridge over the Teesta canal at Fulbari, south of Siliguri. Fulbari is famous for its pantuas, otherwise known as gulab jamuns and needless to say, we stopped at one of the many sweet shops for a taste. Luckily we had some fresh of the pan and still warm. See, i am not a big sweet fan so any comments i make will not do justice to these dollops of heaven. Here’s a pic instead:
From Fulbari we followed the road to Belacoba, a small town known for another sweet, cham-cham (no translation this time). For the first part the road ran along the canal. Autumn had just set in the pujas were just around the corner. It is that magical time of the year, when you suddenly feel light-headed for no apparent reason. The sky was a clear shade of blue, and there was greenery everywhere. The kaash flowers had just started to bloom and the forests opened their gates to tourists after the customary monsoon hiatus. Everything had been washed clean, awaiting the daughter’s return.
The paddy fields were a shade of emerald washed in the first dew of the year, the rivers were calm, reflecting the skies above. There was harvest in every barn and yearning in every heart.
It was the day of Vishwakarma Puja. Vishwakarma, one of the 33 crore gods that my ancestors created, is the lord of everything mechanical. On our was to Belacoba, we passed a group of tea estate workers transporting the idol to the factory where he was to be worshipped. While the god was on a truck, the mortal retinue followed, armed with incense, drums, gulaal and a very infectious urge to break into a jig!
After Belacoba, we hit the badly potholed Siliguri-Jalpaiguri highway and in some time reached the bridge over the river Teesta just as the sun was going down over the horizon. The mile-wide river was broken at places by sandbanks and spanned by a road bridge and another for the trains. I spent my early childhood in a small town called Falakata, deep inside the Dooars. Every weekend, we would make trips to Siliguri to meet friends and family, and every week the bus would cross the river. I would usually be asleep on my mother’s lap, but somehow managed to wake up to see the Teesta. The river amazed me. At four years old, it was the biggest thing i had seen. Now, more than 20 years later, it seemed even bigger.
Darkness descended suddenly, like it always does in my land, except for the crimson afterglow still lingering in the fluffy clouds. In an hour we would reach Madarihat and check into the Jaldapara Tourist Lodge. In a day, the ardours of travelling, taking notes and shooting would catch up and dilute the feelings of being back home. In a week, i would be in Delhi, worrying about what to cook, when to service the bike and what movie to watch next. Till then, just like the afterglow, the familiar sights and sounds and smells persist. Just like what Colin Hay said. ‘yes, this is as good as it gets’.
PS: In the next part of the Dooars story, we explore Jaldapara and Buxa, two of the most famous wildlife destinations in the Dooars.
Mumbai could be very unsettling for someone who is used to life in Delhi. My first impression of Mumbai was marred by the nightmarish flight. It was the middle of August and i had added some leaves to the Independence day weekend and come to meet Anindita, who was working here for a media agency. The monsoons were hitting Mumbai with their full fury and we began to feel the effect as the plane began to begin its descent towards CSIA. I had a window seat from where i could see the wings of the plane and i could see them almost flapping up and down. Scared would be an understatement..,i hate flying with all my heart. Every time i need to travel on work, i try and go by train. In my mind i was waiting to hear the captain announce “Mayday!” anytime.
But then we landed and i headed out where Anindita was waiting for me with a broad grin on her face, which did calm me down a little. I was still a bit unsettled, though. But that was taken care of at the Vile Parle station from where we needed to catch a north-bound train to Borivili, where she stayed. So there was my first encounter with the legendary Mumbai suburban train. I finally managed to get into a first class compartment, luggage and all and stood there, sandwiched by people on all sides, Anindita nowhere to be seen. After Andheri, the crowd thinned a little and Anindita materialized magically from behind a fat Marwari aunty-jee. Phew!
This was in 2008 and i have been to Mumbai twice more and come back with more memories. All my trips to Mumbai have never been about exploring the city, although i always meant to. Its been about spending time with my best friend. And in between long walks on Carter Road, boat-rides to Elephanta, Chicken Peri Peri in Inorbit Mall in Malad or simply sitting on the embankment on Marine Drive, i did get a glimpse of the city. Sometimes i hate Mumbai because of the constant claustrophobia, the ever-present crowd and the way the weather reacted to my then long hair, but all said and done, it is also where some of my most important memories are. Some of these memories are good, and a couple of them, not so, but important they are, nonetheless.
I have always visited Mumbai at the same time of the year – the August 15 weekend. Being the heights of monsoons in Mumbai, i have always got bad light and as a result of which i have resorted to shooting in black and white with increased contrast and spiked ISO for the grainyness. At times, the sun did come out and i reverted immediately to colour!
We usually hang out at home in Borivili. Anindita likes to go to the movies so we usually average a movie a day while in Mumbai or when she comes to Delhi. The funniest part of the movie going experience in Mumbai is rising for the National Anthem. Works for a Manoj Kumar Movie but not so much for Singh is Kinng!
Sometimes in the evenings we would go to places by the sea to sit and talk. Carter road was nice but i liked Bandra Reclaimation (i think!) even better. Its like a promenade by the sea with a park that runs alongside. To your right is the Bandra-Worli Sea Link while in front of you, across the little bay is the constantly rising Worli skyline. A perfect place to sit and watch the sun go down. If any Mumbaikars are reading this and you happen to identify which place i am talking about, please do tell me because next time i am in Mumbai, i would like to go back there.
Last year when i went to Mumbai, Anindita took me to Carter Road, again in Bandra. Off the park by the road, a little strip composed of boulders juts out into the sea. We tried to walk right till the end of it, but it was broken at several places. We however, did make use of the ice-cream vendors loitering about the area.
In September 2008, Aamir had to go to Mumbai to meet ‘someone’ and since he had no other place to stay in Mumbai, decided to stay at Anindita’s.. and that gave me an idea. In the evening he was leaving for Mumbai, i asked him if it was okay for me to tag along. It was a Friday and all i had to do was call in sick on Saturday. So i bought my ticket in the same flight hardly two hours before the takeoff and in another three hours Anindita found both of us knocking on her door rather than just Aamir.
That weekend was a flurry of activity. Since i had come unplanned, Anindita had to go to the office the next day, while i stayed at home watching TV and cooking. In the evening, Anindita’s friend Ananya came over. I had gotten friendly with him during my last visit and he took me to a nearby restaurant where we feasted on some delicious Marathi mutton curry and biryani. Anindita came back at night and the next day Aamir, her and me roamed around the city and in the evening both of us left on the last flight to Delhi.
Other than this surprise trip, on both the other occasion, i had made it a point to go to Elephanta Island. Other than my personal interest in history and heritage, it was the hour long boat ride that attracted me the most. As you leave the Apollo Bunder and make your way through a large variety of ships of various sizes, the Bombay coastline recedes gradually to the distance and you see what you rarely do in Delhi – a skyline! I usually bribe the boatman to let me sit in the tiny triangular patch right in front of the boat where you can feel the sway the most.
The island slowly comes into view and in a few minutes the boat docks. It usually does so alongside another boat and you cross from one boat to another till you reach the jetty. The most fun thing about Elephanta Island is the tiny train that takes visitors from the jetty to the ticket office. When Anindita and I went there, we were hungry and went to a restaurant for lunch. Time flew by and before long the caves had started closing down. So basically, we went all the way on the boat, took the train from the jetty to the ticket office and then spent like three hours there, but never really saw any caves.
When the Portuguese were building their base in India, the island’s jetty used to be dominated by an enormous sculpture of an elephant; hence the name. Numerous attempts were made by the Portuguese to destroy the sculpture, until it was broken down in pieces. The fragments were later transported to the mainland and joined together. Today it can be seen in the Bhau Daji Lad museum in the suburban Byculla.
As i said already, the best part about Elephanta is the boat ride. In the evenings, when you take the boat back from the island towards Colaba, the sun is usually setting and a thousand other suns dance on the surface of the waves. Here are a couple of images i took on the trip back from Elephanta:
On one of the trips, Anindita had to be in office one day and i decided to walk around the fort. I was told that it would be deserted as it was Sunday. So i walked around. I started at VT and walked all across the Fort and the narrow bylanes and following the recommendation of a friend, had lunch at Jimmy Boy Cafe. I dont know if anyone would agree with me, but Fort did feel a bit like Kolkata, albeit better organised.
Bombay is too hyperactive for me. Everyone seems to be travelling all the time. From home to the station, from the station to catching a bus without any time to spare. I have seen women chopping vegetables on the the train so that they can get home and cook and get a few hours’ sleep before the next day begins at the same pace. I am not that ambitious a person. All i need to have is enough money to tank up my bike and my camera slung on my neck. Bombay does not make any sense to me, but then its my personal, honest opinion.
Sometimes, i did feel that i was travelling to Bombay to bring back memories that would sustain me till the time i came to Bombay next or Anindita came here. But i guess after some time, you need something more than memories… you need something that stays in the preset – with you. So Bombay, in a way is synonymous to distance, as far as i am concerned – a place where memories are made, the Chocolate Factory, if you will! Thinking about Bombay does make me feel nostalgic but at the same time makes me realise that there is more to life than nostalgia. There is life itself. Things change, as do people. I know i will go back to Bombay and when i do i just hope i stop manufacturing memories and just be in the moment, at one with the environment.