The bus ride from Mahabaleshwar to Mumbai, via Mahad took us through the Maharashtrian hinterland – a world so close to Mumbai; yet so far from the lives we know. The lines in bold are jottings from my bus ride and the rest were impressions I sat down to record, later.
Development has begun to leave footprints on the landscape. But they are still distinct from the rest – not yet assimilated so deeply that they were the landscape itself. Here and there, we’d see a pukka building, smirking at its lowlier cousins. Sometimes, we’d see entire stretches of paved roads and luxurious cars, making us wonder what the owners did to earn that much. But these stretches were fleeting and rare; the majority of the world beyond my window lay somewhere between wilderness and civilisation.
Day trips are under-rated. Why sacrifice the changing stories of the land to the veil of darkness? Most of us plan long journeys overnight but you might be missing out on beautiful routes and views of landscapes you couldn’t possibly take in, within a short trip of a few days. But with a journey of a few hours, you may see more than all you’d see during your holiday. I reached Mahabaleshwar by night but I returned to Mumbai by day and I saw how time had wrought a completely different history upon the regions beyond my glittering, developed city.
I can imagine the land flushing green under the benevolence of the monsoon. But now, there is only forlorn dryness – just a hint, of what could be. Yet, there is something piercingly beautiful about lofty mountains that brave the harsh sun with no aid from the Tree Gods. The landscape introduced me to new shades of brown and yellow, as everything had adopted the sun’s golden hues. States like Kerala remain green irrespective of the time of the year but not Maharashtra. Here the land mutates to reflect the flavour of the season; thus enticing you to visit over and over, so you may see the same sights soaked in different paints by the brush of the weather.
Only now do I realise how many of my stories – finished and unfinished – have been inspired by these very treacherous turns and these hypnotic mountains, that we negotiated twice or thrice a year, every year, in those days when I was convinced that anything was possible. Mountains and valleys have been a persistent leitmotif in my imagination and the stories and poems that sprung from them. I have a poor memory but some things break through the fog of forgetfulness that cloaks most of my past experiences. My visits to Mahabaleshwar are definitely a few among them.
So much of the world is shut to us – this world of small settlements and tiny spurts of development that surprise you like geographical Jacks in the Box. All of us live within our own little corners of the box; our worldview confined to the little we know and see of this vast planet; but those who travel, have an opportunity to break free – if only momentarily. Now and then, when you’re on a quest of discovery, you get glimpses of the truth that your reality isn’t the only one. There are so many simultaneous realities spinning around in the world; yet all of them are bound by one spirit – the spirit of creation. And so I created a life for myself here in Mumbai; a life of urban comforts but endless aspirations and worries and sometimes, loneliness and betrayals; and out there in the villages whose names blur together in my sandy memory, people have created a life of pastoral simplicity; lacking in what I have and replete with what I don’t. Every reality is a tradeoff and that’s the rule of this game – you can’t have it all. Yet with travel, you can have a bit of everything, for a little while.
Everywhere in Real India, the same tanned, worn faces. The ones for whom, vanity never takes the shape of a bottle of sunscreen. Whenever I leave the cocooned confines of Mumbai and venture into the largest slice of India; the small towns and the villages; I find a redefined version of beauty. This beauty is raw and untainted by the onslaught of modern cosmetics. This beauty is no slave to botox and technology; it is unfettered by the destruction of age and time. It is in fact a product of wholesome living, clean heartedness and guileless smiles, born of simplicity, friendships and sharing. The goodness of villagers is not a platitude; it reveals how far we have come; we who pride ourselves on being educated and intellectual.
Ever since I was a child, I never wanted journeys to end. Be it bus rides, train rides or car rides, the romance and anticipation of reaching somewhere; and being on the move while the world watches, static; of being privy to foreign stories, colours and landscapes in an endless, hypnotic onward passage; it has had the ability to stir something deep within me and to give birth to ideas, words and emotions that would’ve otherwise remained buried. In those moments when I’m on the move, heading somewhere even if it’s towards home in a local train; I don’t lack purpose and I don’t question my existence. Reaching destinations is akin to pausing. Travelling is akin to letting the music play.