To market

When evening falls in Mahabaleshwar there is only one place that you can head to: the bazaar. Somehow all of these charming hill towns are known for leather accessories, fudge and chocolate, and the crisp peanut praline known as chikki. There was no dearth of leather shops. I could see some selling backpacks, belts, handbags or wallets, but it was mostly shoes. The shoes were mostly for women. I loitered while The Family examined some shoes. As you can guess from these photos, selecting a pair is not such a easy job.

While measuring the length of the street, I came across several doors. The one in the featured photo was really interesting. I wish it was open. I would have like to take a portrait of the versatile salesman who ran a tour agency along with a shop for handbags. What was it with leather anyway? Could it be because the town, when it started, was a British town (the Indian villages were on the other side of the plateau) and the sahib and mems who spent their time there were interested in the leather craft of the region? Their preferences would certainly explain the fudge and perhaps the chikki as well.

The only clear remnant of the British past here was the church, founded in 1831. I walked in for a dekko. One man had been sitting on a pew. I decided to rest for a while too, as I took in my surroundings. Life-sized plaster figures of Mary and Jesus flanked the cross over the altar. The painting on the wall looked colourful, but the light was too dim to see it clearly. The church was constructed with blocks of red laterite from the plateau. It would have weathered to a dark brown in the near couple of centuries since its completion. The colour of the facade was due to paint.

The Family was done with shoes. We strolled along the road, stopping to look for chana (roasted Bengal gram). That’s another specialty of this plateau. We found it in sixteen flavours! Elsewhere a cart was selling boiled corn. I didn’t remember that from before. I’d only seen roasted ears of corn earlier. I also hadn’t seen the “Crazy Chinese Food Best Cuisine” truck earlier. The Family vetoed my suggestion to taste their food. So I took a last photo of an interesting kiosk before leaving.

Darkness in Matheran

Good legs and comfortable shoes are what you need to visit Matheran. No cars are allowed on the plateau. You could drive from Mumbai and park at the immense parking lot below the plateau, or take the train in. A century old toy train may run from the station up, but it is often out of order. So you either walk or take a horse. A dozen years ago, we walked up immediately after the end of the monsoons.

No ID for the moth, and I didn’t notice the insect with the long elegant legs until later

Matheran is only 800 meters above sea level, but it seems immensely high when you look up at it. The youngest among us was seven years old. Lewis Carroll’s description “All of us were out of breath, and some of us were fat” fitted us to the last trailing T. Clouds had gathered over the plateau as we drove in. True Mumbaikars that we are, our rain gear had been packed away after the monsoon. We confidently predicted no rain, and began the walk along the tourist route. The hour long walk turns lovely a little way up. We stopped frequently to take photos and prolonged it a little.

After checking into the hotel, we decided to have tea before going out for a walk. It can take a couple of days to stroll all the way around the plateau. Although we were keen to do it, we had to have tea first. It was already late afternoon. A very lucky decision, because the clouds burst into a hard rain. The rain became a storm. And in no time, a tree fell on the power lines up to the plateau. It would take a few hours for Matheran to get its electricity back. The tea became an elaborate affair. Darkness fell before we could go out.

We love to take isolated hotels. This one evening it did not seem like a good decision. The mall road was a smudge of light in the distance. We walked out into a dark and muddy path. You knew there was a puddle to be avoided only after your shoes were wet. The Family did not mind. It was a little adventure, and Matheran is famous for its footwear. Each shop in the market had emergency lights. Power outages are frequent, but commerce cannot stop. Handbags, fancy footwear

I knew it was time for me to leave The Family, The Leafless, and the nieces to their devices. My cousin and I slowly melted into the gloom. The thin red laterite soil overlying the porous rock would drain away the water within a couple of hours. That’s also the reason why this place is not really fit for human habitation. There would have been no people here if it wasn’t for the 19th century craze to take the mountain air. That drew the British, the Parsis, and the Bohras to build little sanatoria here. Their remains, now largely turned into hotels, now draw crowds from Mumbai. The locals turn up to make a living off the city folk.

Leaving the women to the handbags and chappals, we walked around looking at what else was on offer. Training horses for riding across the plateau was a major occupation. Although the darkness was not the best time for it, there were lines of hopefuls who eyed us. We stopped instead at one of the many people roasting bhutta. After all, you need to eat a couple of times between tea and dinner. It was either bhutta or chikki. Why not both, I suggested to my cousin. He is an agreeable sort when you make such suggestions.

The lights came back before we had finished inspecting all the food on offer. We decided to find the rest of the party before less adventurous tourists decided to leave the safety of their hotel rooms. A mall road is a magnet for moths and men after dark. I took a last photo of two men in animated conversation in a small eatery. It was time to go find how many shoes and handbags a woman needs.

Food and art fair

The Family had already explored the route our evening’s stroll was to take, so the walk was more purposeful than usual. We gawked at life on the streets of Guangzhou as we walked up Di Shi Fu road to a pedestrian section of the Kangwang South Road. A fair was in progress. I love these little fairs whether they are the Christmas markets of Germany, the weekly farmer’s markets of rural India or a different flavour of fair in China.

My eyes caught on my favourite Chinese sweets, versions of the Indian chikki or tilkut (tilgur). Nuts or sesame seeds are bound together with sugar or molasses. Wonderfully high calorie snacks. When I first found them in Japan, I was astonished. Then I found them in Korea and China. I suppose they independently invented, although it does not seem unlikely that Buddhist monks would carry these as sustenance as they trudged across Asia. In any case, this seems to be too humble and readily made to be carried as trade goods.

I tore myself away to get caught at the stall of dried fruits. This is something done well all over Asia, from the west to the east. Having seen the incredible variety in a food market in Xi’an a few years ago, my guess is that it came to China from west Asia over the silk route, and then from China it spread to the rest of Asia. I’m guessing, but one reason this might be true is that the only dried fruits in India are those that came directly from trade with Arabia. China and India had very little contact in the last thousand years. Even today, if you see dried pineapples, jackfruit, or Kiwi in India, it is likely to have come from Malayasia or Thailand.

Food was the main purpose of the fair, of course. But the peculiarly Chinese touch was that there was a large area where an art auction was in progress. I’d noticed in Guangzhou how invested people were in art: it was not uncommon for people to be seen doing painting or calligraphy, and it was not uncommon for others to stop and watch. Here in the middle of the fair I saw people were buying paintings and works of calligraphy at the auction; those are the red plastic covered tubes in the hands of people.

The Family and I stood there and watched the auction for a while. We are ignorant of the niceties of calligraphy, but the quick brushwork and washes of the paintings were techniques I’d learnt as a child. The mastery of these methods was very evident in the work being shown. Chinese contemporary art is very avant garde, but it seems to be rooted deeply in traditional techniques. The auction proceeded rapidly, much too rapidly for us to follow. We enjoyed the paintings as they were displayed one by one, and then walked back into the thicket of food stalls.

What can you eat in Lonavala

Lonavala is full of shops which say “Maganlal Chikki” in large friendly letters, usually gold on red. The Family never fails to tell me that these shops are fake and the original Maganlal’s can be found in the market just outside the Lonavala railway station. In fact, it is on the main road, and not hard to find. (The sadhu in front of the shop is not a fixture).

I normally wouldn’t name a brand, but the fact of the matter is that the generic chikki no longer exists in Lonavala. A decade ago you could find several brand names. But the name Maganlal drove out almost everything else. The Family believes that all the other shops make their own chikki and sell it under the name Maganlal, and nothing can be done about it because the name was never protected. I’m not a connoisseur of chikki; they all taste nice but indistinguishable to me. My theory is that Maganlal has a large factory which make chikki in bulk and supplies it to all the other vendors. Every old hand from Mumbai says that there is one shop which is better than all the others. When you ask, each one names a different shop. It just reinforces my belief that all chikki is the same.

Cooper's fudge shop in Lonavala

Instead of being involved in these wars of faith, I’ve found the complete cultural antithesis: walnut fudge. There is exactly one shop in Lonavala which makes and sells fudge, and that is Cooper’s. It also stands next to the railway station, and is hard to miss. When I discovered Cooper’s it was presided over by a cantankerous Parsi gentleman who would dispense the fudge with utter randomness. I’ve never managed to get more than 100 grams of fudge from him. The Family has occasionally been handed a quarter kilo packet. He would open at 11 in the morning and close as soon as the small batch of fudge he’d made got over. I was relieved to see that he has been replaced at the counter by his daughter. But she put me in my place, literally. The counter was surrounded by customers. I waited until one left, and quickly slid into his place. The lady gave me a withering look and said “You will have to wait your turn, you know. Just because there is no queue does not mean that I have lost track of who came first.” She did give me a kilo of walnut fudge, though.

Vada pav with dry galic chutney, chilis and slice onions

The one lovely bit of food which remains gloriously unbranded is the ghat special: vada pav. The lovely sour-dough roll called the pav goes wonderfully with hot batter-fried potato vada. You always get a generous helping of a dry garlic chutney with the combination in the hills. Its just the thing to keep you going on a long walk.