After a walk in the rain around the lake and waterfall in Lonavala, The Family asked “Should we drive to Amby Valley?” Why not? One can’t enter Amby Valley without prior permission, but there are many things to see on the way. One could easily drift away from the road and into interesting places, I imagined.
I had not really thought this through. The Lonavala area was considered to be a desirable location in colonial times, and much of the land was parceled out to individuals. The properties changed hands many times since the early 19th century, but they are still guarded by massive gates. Amby Valley incorporates many of these old properties after all.
In many places there were massive cast-iron gates guarding the property. Some were in worse repair than others. A few were mere suggestions to stay away. If the rain was not pelting down as hard as it was, I would have tried exploring at least one of these places. It had a break in the wall next to the gate with a well-trodden path leading in. In these old deserted properties the garden is often taken over by wild plants, and you can see flowers, insects, and birds in plenty.
I mentioned to The Family that there are unlikely to be vicious dogs roaming free behind broken gates and walls, but she was not to be moved. We were kept on the narrow road to the deep north by these gates and walls, and the notion of private property that they implied, however sketchy. On a drier day I might have been more tempted to wander in and photograph the decayed ruins of colonial era bungalows which probably are being eaten away by the weather inside. But this was not that day.
Traffic flows like tar along the highways out of Mumbai these weekends. With the easing of travel restrictions and the simultaneous start of work, people need a break. Mumbai’s youth always had a rite of passage. A teenager would join friends for a trip to the nearest hills in monsoon. Monsoon rains trickle down from the hills over impermeable volcanic basalt. These seasonal streams falls over the frequent cliff faces in these hills to make monsoon waterfalls. Gangs of the young spend drunken weekends under random waterfalls . Even decades removed from that age, The Family still longs to get out to the waterfalls every monsoon. In trying to avoid these crowds we decided to walk around Lonavala one Thursday afternoon.
We drove up for an early lunch and then exited on to the road leading to the lake. Pandemic restrictions have not gone completely. Just past the embankment was a police checkpost where a few people were turned away. We looked decrepit enough to be allowed through. “What are they checking for?” The Family wondered. My speculation was that they are denying the right of passage to gangs of the nearly-adult. Bad times for them. Not only do you face a tough negotiation with parents, but then it comes to nought because of the police. “Your three cameras are passport enough for us,” The Family declared. It was an overstatement; one was a phone.
It had started raining, and it would continue all evening. I wished I had fewer cameras with me. I couldn’t bring out one because of the rain. Even the waterproof camera gets drops over its lens in rain. I huddled over it to dry the cover. The rain had grayed the lake. The clouds had come down over it, hiding the far side. I loved the serenity of the place. Could it make a decent photo? I wasn’t sure as I clicked away. You can always delete things which don’t turn out halfway decent.
On the far side a stream staggers down a cliff every monsoon. We ambled round to it. It had attracted a few other people. Some couples, a family with exuberant children, a small group of young people. The light was getting worse. We didn’t have the right footwear for getting close enough to it. We looked at the falling water for a while and then moved away. Across the road there was an attractive symmetrically spreading tree. It deserved to have its portrait taken.
Even in these sparse crowds a couple of people were trying to run a business. A middle-aged man was selling roasted bhutta (corn). A more enterprising lady was offering everything from her version of a food truck. From under that awning I spotted a group of hikers walking up the slope towards the top of the waterfall. “They have the same footwear as us,” The Family remarked. The lady asked “Do you want a tea?” The Family was torn, but then decided on the tea.
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.
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.
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.
You will definitely not find me in Lonavala. Once upon a time, perhaps a century ago, this was a little town nestled in the Western Ghats. The train station and a market tell how the pleasant getaway began. It is still different from Mumbai: sunbirds can still be seen in trees. But now the best parts of it look like the crowded urban landscapes of India’s small towns. A highway runs through the heart of the town. You smell burnt diesel here, not flowers.
Mahabaleshwar is a little like Lonavala. Too much "development" has spoilt what people used to come here for. The charming little village is now a crowded bazaar where weekenders frantically shop for honey and jam. The farms which produced them in small quantities earlier are now large concerns; their products can be found in shops in Mumbai. It does not make sense to go all the way to this no-longer-beautiful hill town to buy the same bottles. The sole reason why I still go there now and then is that behind the crowded temples of old Mahabaleshwar one can gets a spectacular view of the Krishna river.
On the plateau called Matheran is the one little town near Mumbai which still retains some charm, perhaps because motorized traffic is forbidden. There are long walks across the wooded plateau. From the edges of the plateau you have views of the spectacular rock formations in the area. This weekend will be really crowded, but it is the one place in the neighbourhood of Mumbai where I might go.
Mumbai has mountains and the sea. One weekend many decades back we took a ferry from the harbour, and a bus on the other side to get to a pleasant little beach called Alibag. This has now grown to a massive destination, with a festival this weekend. Going there would be like dropping into your favourite bar: live music and friends. It is no longer a place where you can step out of Mumbai.
The double barrelled Murud-Janjira is similar. Murud was once a deserted beach where you could camp out. If you felt like it, you could take a fishing boat out to the spectacular Janjira fort. I haven’t been there for years, and as I write, I suddenly feel like looking at it again. But it is too late for this weekend.
If I leave Mumbai this weekend, at best I will be drifting off the coast in a fisherman’s boat, helping to haul the net back.
Lonavala is not “real nature”. It is bungalows with gardens, but that is enough of a change from Mumbai that you might want to dash there now and then during busy times. Locked up old bungalows with imposing gates and no fences were common some years back. They are slowly giving way to weekend fortresses with high walls and closed gates which shut off concrete aprons. But there are few of these as yet. So the colourful birds and insects are still there. Bulbuls still scream in the trees, and purple sunbirds glitter in gardens.
We made a quick weekend dash to Lonavala with friends: just an evening and a morning really. The air is already beginning to get warm. It was not too crowded, you could go out to eat without having to wait for a really long time. What do you do in Lonavala? You wind down the tempo of life. You go for a long walk, debate where to eat, decide on one place and then go somewhere else. Then you go for other long walks. You laugh at the kilometer of shop frontages along the highway, all announcing that they are the original Maganlal Chikki shop. We went in once to the crowded market outside the railway station to the usual pilgrimage: Cooper’s Fudge. Not that we are really that fond of fudge, but is it really a trip to Lonavala if you have not been insulted or snubbed by the irascible Parsi owner of this institution? We spent half an hour looking for a place with an old fashioned espresso machine which can serve up frothed milk with a dash of instant coffee which they call espresso. The pace of life really is that slow.