Relax County Drive

Vaitarna lake is four hours from Mumbai. We started at about eight on Sunday morning because we wanted to reach by lunch. Most of the drive was along the Mumbai-Agra highway: National Highway 3. It takes us more than an hour to leave the city behind. Then it takes another hour to drive through the old industrial belt north of the city. Things aren’t made easier by the fact that it has now turned into a logistics hub. This early in the morning, the trucks were parked in large bays visible from the highway. In two hours we were at our first stop.

Hurry was behind the wheels. He’s wonderful at driving. By that he means negotiating traffic and potholes smoothly and fast. So the navigation was my job. Fortunately, there is good connectivity on the highway, and our stop was well rated. A quick chai, a dosa, and we were off again. The next hour would be take us through the part of the road which is most full of history.

It is also tremendously picturesque, especially in the monsoon. You point your camera anywhere, and you get a beautiful photo of the lush green growth. Structures look weather-beaten. Human effort pales against the force of nature called the monsoon. The best way to live here is to work with it: sow when the weather calls for it, reap when it tells you to. Sell corn cobs by the road, and let the rain and millipedes convert the husk to humus. Hotel Paradise looked like you could meet Norman Bates there. We hurried past.

Soon we were in the part of the road with the steepest grade: the famous Thal Ghat. This was an almost impassable barrier in the medieval times. The ancient town of Thane to the south barely features in history because of it. The barrier also gave the Portuguese and British a safe space to establish the port of Mumbai. The tunnels and viaducts of this section of the roads and rails were built in the second half of the 19th century CE. These marvelous pieces of engineering connected Mumbai to the rest of the country. The advertisement by the road caught my mood perfectly. We were now in Relax County.

The steep grade is negotiated through many curves. I leaned out to look for Ehegaon Viaduct, a historical marvel when it was completed in 1865. It is 55 meters high and 220 meters long. Too bad I couldn’t see it. But soon we were near Igatpuri railway station. I remembered the times when I would wake in the morning up just before a train pulls into this busy station. The loco changes here to something powerful enough to control the steep drop in to Mumbai. That usually gave me enough time to follow the crowd and grab one of the vada pavs that the station is famous for. We stopped on the single lane north-bound section of the road to take a photo of the famous railway track. The electric pylons on the track also make a pretty picture I think. Late that evening the monsoon dislodged boulders which blocked the road and the trains. It was several hours before traffic started again.

Soon we reached the last toll booth we were to see. We’d climbed about 1500 meters from sea level. We were on a high plateau now. Kalsubai peak (1636 meters) dominated the landscape as we turned into a side road. This flat land is the last of the lavascape left over from the breakup of Gondwanaland and the extinction of the dinosaurs. We were nearly at the end of the journey. Four hours in a car, and we had traveled a hundred and fifty million years into the past!

Ghoti, population 30,000

On our drive back to Mumbai we stopped at the little town of Ghoti to buy vegetables. A large part of the vegetables supplied to Mumbai come from Nashik district, where the town lies. Ghoti is one of those places which has grown too large to be called a village, but has still not realized that it should really have a municipal corporation. The Indian bureaucracy has a name for such places, it is called a census town. We had expected the market place to be crowded. It wasn’t. Nashik district was pretty badly hit by the coronavirus, and people have learnt to stay at home and avoid crowds. Those who have the money to buy their groceries in bulk do it, and visit the market infrequently.

The market straggled along the main road to the highway, but there was a clear center. That was where the fresh vegetables were to be seen. A large part of the vegetables supplied to Mumbai comes from Nashik district. This was obvious from the freshness of the things on display. A variety of chili, many kinds of beans, huge bundles of greens and gourds, all at a price about a fourth of what you would be charged in Mumbai. The periphery of the market had grains and kitchen utensils (different vendors for metal and plastic!).

Less than a fourth of the people I could see were using masks, and many of them were not using it properly. Masking has become so common in cities that it is a little disconcerting to pass through small towns and see that masks are not yet in regular use. I suppose communication needs to improve. I don’t watch TV very often, and seldom in Marathi, so I don’t know whether it is just the frequency of messaging should be addressed, or something different needs to be done. Masks are such a simple and effective preventive that I really do think the message should be spread even better.

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