Where the People are a "Friendly and Hospital Lot"

November 1986

"Aaay, col' drrrinks, fofcorn, chiffsss..." A vendor flashes a grin at me through the window bars of our "toy" train as it pants resolutely over the winding narrow-gauge track. Snack tray slung over his neck, he is swinging adroitly from one carriage to the next along the foot-boards.

Glenn and Susan, both in their mid-teens, are with me as we chug our way up to Matheran, a small hill-station resort. They were little more than toddlers when we left for Canada in 1977, and have only vague of memories of life in India. Eagerly planned for months, this 6-week trip across the sub-continent, is as much an adventure of discovery for them, as it is a journey of nostalgia for me.

We have switched from the main Bombay-Pune railway line to the Matheran Hill Railway, and are now in a tiny carriage sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with a young couple and their two children. The boy who appears to be about ten years old, peppers his father with questions in Gujerati, while his younger sister croons a little tune to herself as she gazes out of the window. At this initial stage of our ascent, the terrain is bare rock, interspersed with scrub and weary, stunted trees, their leaves ashen with dust. We pass a signboard alongside the track which gasps "Ah What A Sharp Curve" and the train then dives briefly into "One Kiss" tunnel.

The vendor has moved on and another face peers through the window. It belongs to Mike, a rangy, blonde-bearded student from Ohio. He too is hitching a ride on the foot board, clinging limpet-like to the door-rail, or the window bars. If our compartment wasn't so cramped he could have joined us-but he shrugs: "Aw…it's just as easy to hang out here. Train's moving slower than a Sunday sermon anyhow. No sweat."

The miniature train sighs to a halt at a small station half way up the hillside, and passengers get out to stretch their legs. The platform swarms with hawkers selling trinkets, bottled drinks, tea, coffee and snacks. A wrinkled old woman whines at the window, and I drop a few coins into her palms. Her smile is toothless and ingratiating.

The Gujerati family unpacks a picnic hamper of knobbly chucklis, and glistening potato bhajias. Before helping themselves, the father turns to us, "Please," he says, "try some home made Indian snacks." My Canadian teenagers exchange glances, apprehensive about accepting hospitality from total strangers. They have no way of knowing that in India it is customary to invite fellow travellers to share refreshments. In fact, it would be rude not to do so and, by the same token, churlish to refuse. I help myself to a bhajia. "Thank you," I say. "It looks delicious."

The mother beams. "You too, come, come!" She says to Glenn and Susan. "These are nice and fresh, you will enjoy!"

"Wow!" Susan whispers to me. "How kind of them!" Not to be outdone in generosity, she digs out two packets of gum from her backpack and hands them to the kids. The little boy is delighted and, the ice broken, his sister scrambles over to show us a sketch she has made of the train.

On the final stage of its ascent, the train snakes along a narrow shelf hewn into the hillside. Mike, no longer nonchalant about riding the foot board, squeezes his eyes shut. "Sheeit!" he says feelingly, "nobody told me about this!" Gripping the window bars, his knuckles like bleached pebbles, he is suspended over a sheer fifteen-hundred foot drop of unforgiving rock face. The train takes a turn, and ahead of us, about a hundred feet up, I catch a glimpse of the wooded plateau that is Matheran-looking for all the world like a head of broccoli sprouting on a stem of fissured rock. On the cramped, cliff-hugging side of the train, the vendors continue to bawl their wares. At the previous station they have prudently switched sides.

Mike's suffering is short-lived. We level out, travelling through a glade of spreading trees. The soil is now rust coloured and pathways meander through the forest. As groups of holiday-makers pause to wave and shout greetings, the train, in a burst of confidence, puts on a terrific show of speed. We steam into Matheran station with aplomb.

Tourism being Matheran's only industry, the town meets its municipal budget by way of a bounty on its visitors' heads. We stop at the "Capitation Tax" booth near the station exit to pay our fifteen rupees. Coolies-hill women with straight backs and provocatively swaying hips-heft our suitcases onto their heads, while we, duly "de-capitated" follow them to our hotel.

Matheran, which translates loosely as "large forest on top" has no paved streets or cars, and therefore no traffic intersections or gasoline fumes. The only motor road from Bombay halts at a parking lot on the outskirts of the town; from there one travels either by hand-pulled rickshaws, on horse-back, or by shank's mare. The main drag is a red-dirt road pretentiously named "Mahatma Gandhi Marg".

It is eighteen years since my last visit but, to my delight, nothing much seems to have changed. Many of the old shops are still in business. "Nariman Chikki Mart" is doing a brisk trade in nutty toffee bars and jars of honey-both of them local specialities. Deepak's Tea and Cold Drink House" still has rickety wayside tables occupied by honeymooners gazing soulfully at each other while sipping fresh lime juice.

Unencumbered by memories, Glenn and Susan walk briskly ahead. Then, like myself, they slow down, diverted by the bazaar scene. Groups of holiday makers exchange banter. Youngsters suck on popsicles or play hand-made paper-windmills against the breeze, while their parents haggle over the price of hand-crafted leather sandals, or embroidered kurtas. Rickshaw wallahs, their vehicles piled high with baggage or passengers (or both), toil up slopes. They swerve to one side at the sound of hooves, and the urgent call of "side! side!" as an occasional horse and rider thunders along the centre of the road, an anxious groom running in pursuit. Villagers, turbanned old men with nothing much burdening their day, sit on their haunches under spreading jambul trees, slurping tea from little earthenware cups.

Brightlands Hotel - 2001

Our holiday resort, a fifteen minute stroll from the station, occupies a large, shady compound with bungalows sprawled around its perimeter. The manager, his Bertie Wooster like spectacles flashing efficiently, shows us to our suite. Stone flagged floors, a large bedroom, an adjoining dressing room and bathroom. By western standards, the furniture, the hard mattresses and flat pillows are austere. But, the linen is clean, and the gargling toilet works-a big plus in India.

The dining table set on the veranda of our bungalow is laid with a fresh damask tablecloth and a small vase of marigold flowers. Lunch is mullagatawny soup, followed by a platter of fragrant white rice and a tangy fish curry. Our waiter is a gnarled old man who wears his starched white uniform and crested turban with immense dignity. Between courses, he shuffles back and forth from the kitchens housed in a building across the compound.

We are half way through our main course, when there is an ominous rumble on the roof.

Susan freezes, her spoon half way to her mouth.

"Monkeys," I say, and small army of them descends, swinging off overhanging branches and landing just beyond the veranda railings. A big male leaps onto the veranda baring his teeth and eyeing a slice of bread at Glenn's elbow. There is a shout from across the compound, and a small boy races towards us, sling-shot poised. The monkey beats a hasty retreat, and the whole tribe crash off through the trees, in search of easier pickings. The small boy squats on the steps of the veranda and grins triumphantly. It turns out that he is the son of the youth-now promoted to waiter-who performed the same service for my husband, Leon, and myself when we were honeymooners eighteen years ago. The art of monkey warfare is handed down from generation to generation in Matheran.

I find myself wishing for a slingshot myself as I sit enthroned on the toilet seat the next morning while a monkey gleefully eyes me through the glass skylight. I throw a roll of toilet paper at the skylight and the monkey smirks. Bored, it eventually takes off, thumping over the corrugated-iron rooftop.

Glenn is curious about the origins of Matheran, but all I can remember is that an Englishman, Hugh Malet, was the first to climb the Matheran plateau in the mid-1800s. In the fading years of the Raj, it became a popular retreat for expatriates seeking refuge from the congestion of the city. Even though it has no spectacular entertainment to offer-no skiing or water sports, no golfing or tennis-it remains a weekend get-away for Bombayites, particularly during the sweltering months of April, May and early June. With the arrival of the monsoon in late June Matheran all but closes down and the miniature train ceases to operate until late September.

"So," asks Glenn, "what are we going to actually do here for the next three days?"

"Ramble through the woods to various lookout points," I reply. "Maybe go horseback riding. Browse through the market. Or just laze around!"

"Maybe we'll find a guide-book, in the bazaar." Susan suggests.

We do. And I pounce on it gleefully. It is the same one (now in its fifteenth edition) which I'd once owned, but subsequently lost. The author, Mr. D.M. Utekar, has a narrative style all his own. The introduction, for example, assures readers that the residents of Matheran are "a friendly and hospital lot" and, as if to dispel any doubts about the salubrity of the place, he continues: "In the month of October-November the earth emerges in a green garment embellished by the beauties of nature, which has a medical effect on the health of a person" He devotes several pages to a section entitled "What to See." We decide to follow the trail to Porcupine Point which, according to Mr. Utekar, is "so-called because its shape is like the shape of the quill of that bird."

It is a longer trek than we'd anticipated, but the air is fresh and the sun-dappled trails wind gently through the trees. The only sound, other than our voices and the sighing of the breeze, is the shrilling of "croakers" - the local name for cicadas. En route we take diversions along short tributary pathways where the trees thin out and bring us to scrub covered promontories with names like "Coronation Point", "Echo Point" and "One Tree Hill". From some lookouts, rock formations like ancient castle fortresses loom across the abyss of the valley.

Porcupine Point - 2001: My Aussie cousins Noelene & Lionel Beardsley

Porcupine Point turns out to be a tongue-shaped projection which falls sheer on three sides. Fifteen hundred feet below us lies a quilt of paddy fields stitched by thin, meandering streams which glint in the strong sunlight. On our way back we meet a group of hill folk climbing up narrow steep paths cut into the rock face, and balancing loads of firewood on their heads. Thin and bare-chested, the men pass us by without a glance, but the women stop and giggle, their eyes sharp with curiosity.

Apart from being a holiday resort with several hotels, guest-houses and lodges, Matheran also has a small, but affluent, resident population. Retirees, mainly, who live in sprawling bungalows with winding pathways and curlicued, iron-wrought gates, reminiscent of the days of the Raj. Most of these homes are hidden within forest glades, but some flank the pathways.

"That one's haunted," I tell Susan and Glenn as we go by a dilapidated red-brick house.

"Really?" They say in unison, stopping to stare.

"Uh-huh," I say. "It's called "The Red House" and Matheran residents give it a wide berth. I sure as heck wouldn't hang around the place, specially after dark. Not after what happened to us."

"What…what?" Susan swings around to face me.

"Well, this was about twenty years ago. I was with a group of office buddies and we'd come up to Matheran for the weekend. About seven or eight of us were out on a late night stroll. We were just about here…" I walk back about fifty yards to indicate the spot. "As we approached the house, we saw a figure wearing a white shirt and loin-cloth walking towards us. It moved right under that lamp-post there by the gate of the Red House. As you can see, the light would have shone directly on it. One of us, I forget who, said jokingly, 'Now there's a ghost for you!' The words were no sooner said, than the figure vanished. Kaput. Gone. Nothing there. Just the empty road under the lamp-post. Yet we'd all seen it clearly."

"So what did you do?" Glenn asks.

"We turned and ran. Glancing over our shoulders all the way back! We puzzled over it for days afterwards, but it wasn't till much later that we heard about the reputation of the Red House."

I glance again at the bungalow, at its crumbling walls and gaping roof. It looks brooding, secretive.

Susan is intrigued. "Take a photo of us on the veranda, Mum," she says. "So I can tell them about it at school."

I feel a prickle of unease, even though it is broad daylight. I shrug. "Well, okay, but let's make it quick."

She and Glenn stand by the rotting veranda rails and I click the camera. (The photograph when developed later shows a figure standing just behind them. It's just a trick of light and shadow, but the effect is eerie nonetheless.)

In the summer season when schools and colleges in Bombay are closed, the peace of Matheran is shattered by youths engaged in noisy horseplay, their transistors blasting Hindi film-track music. But now, in November, the place has a timeless tranquillity. Particularly in the early morning. I stand on the veranda of our bungalow, sip my first cup of hot, milky tea, and sniff the familiar smells of rural India-dust and dung, mingled with the scent of smoke from charcoal fires. The pale dawn sky washes everything in a silvery light, and lacy-leafed trees tremble in the cool breeze.

Glenn and I go for a stroll. The pathways are deserted at this hour, but the morning is alive with movement and sound. A couple of hens pecking busily in the dust, flutter agitatedly at our approach, and a defiant cockerel stretches his neck into a long "koo-koo-roo-kooooo" before strutting off after his wives. Parrots, dawn-flashed into emerald bursts of colour, screech in counterpoint to the raucous bickering of crows. In a small clearing, a group of tethered horses snuffle and neigh as they feed from jute bags.

The main street is just beginning to stir. At a small wayside laundry, a man hefts an ancient steam iron over a pair of trousers. A few rickshaws rattle towards the station carrying over-fed matrons on their way to an early morning train. A jut-ribbed man with a glistening sausage-shaped skin of water slung over his shoulder, splashes the road to settle the dust. He stares at my camera, his eyes as ancient and fathomless as India. I give him a ten rupee note and he touches it to his forehead in thanks.

Across the road and down a couple of steps is a meat and produce market. Despite the early hour it is busy. Factotums from various hotels haggle over their purchases, filling their shopping baskets with fruit and vegetables. A vendor lifts old fashioned scales with iron weights on one platter, and glistening chillies on the other, and then tosses them into a jute bag carried by a bent old woman. A yellow-eyed goat picks its way between the stalls, nibbling on detritus. Further on, a small boy, naked except for a tattered shirt, squats over an open drain, excreting a thin stream of waste. Nobody pays him any attention.

Beyond the market, we follow a short, winding pathway and the hillside drops away into a sheer gorge. It faces east, and the sun, an enormous orange ball, rises above the surrounding peaks, swings out of the mauve mist and seems to roll towards Glenn and myself. Behind us, women gather at a communal tap, thwacking garments against a concrete platform, scrubbing their shivering kids, and exchanging gossip.

Sister Phyllis Beavan, myself, Noelene & Lionel - Brightlands Hotel 2001

By the time we get back to the hotel, the pastel light of morning has given way to brisk sunshine. It is our last day in Matheran, and we are booked on the afternoon train down to the plains.

The hotel bill arrives, and I'm disconcerted to learn that the hotel doesn't take travellers' cheques. The hotel manager phones the local Bank of India office. There is a long exchange in Marathi. I gather that the Bank Manager is frantically looking up his book of regulations and seems to need reassurance about (a) our economic/social status in general, and (b) the financial viability of American Express in particular. Eventually we are informed that cashing my cheques will be "no problem."

The bank's exterior is unpretentious-a small building with a corrugated tin roof and a dusty signboard. A bespectacled clerk, behind a barred window, noisily sips his tea while reading a newspaper. He stands up as we enter and dusts off three creaky wooden chairs. "Pliss to sit. I am informing Manager of your arrival.". A stenographer pecking at an old manual typewriter steals sideways glances at us, while the peon standing outside the door of the Manager's office gawks at us with open curiosity. There are no other customers. We are the event of the week.

The Manager is a thin young man with an anxious expression. It grows even more anxious as he scrutinises my hundred dollar Canadian travellers' cheques. He hands them to me. "Pliss, you must also sign your backside," he says. Susan and Glenn exchange glances, but remain commendably straight-faced. Fifteen minutes later I am presented with a thick wad of rupee notes.

Business completed, the Manager turns expansive. "You will have some chai, no?" Without waiting for our response, the peon is despatched to bring four cups of steaming tea. Meanwhile, tells us that he once had a Canadian pen-pal. "But now I am not knowing his whereabouts," he says wobbling his head regretfully. Before we leave, he marshals the bank staff into line and, flanked by Glenn and Susan, they pose, self-conscious and unsmiling, for my camera. "We will be waiting for a copy of the photo," he says in farewell. "And, maybe next time you come, you will do me the honour of visiting my house. My wife is very good cook."

"Jeez," Glenn says as we exit the bank. "What 'a friendly and hospital' man!"

On our way back to the resort, we pass two men sitting cross-legged on a mat, absorbed in a chess game. A group of rag-tag spectators offers unsolicited, and at times jeering, advice. It turns out that this is the final game in a match which has lasted a week. The two protagonists are scruffy-and one of them belches frequently between moves. The other rubs a thoughtful finger between his large toe and its companion, rolling away the dry skin, and flicking pellets into the dust.

We stop briefly to watch. The belcher eventually makes an 'aarrh' sound deep in his throat, expectorates a stream of red betel-nut juice to the side of the road, and disgustedly tipples over his king in surrender. The audience claps. The toe-cleaning winner beams and invites Glenn to a game. But we have to move on. Our train leaves in a couple of hours, and we still have to pack, eat lunch and check out of the hotel. "Come back tomorrow then baba," urges the winner, hoisting his other foot into position and going to work on the rest of his metatarsals. "I will estill be here..."

Noelene, Lionel and I aboard the little choo-choo at Neral: 2001

As our little train shudders into life and we pull out of the station, I say a silent farewell to the little hill resort where, sequestered from the urgency of the world around it, the days are as gentle as the breeze through its jambul trees. Perhaps in the years ahead, Matheran's hotels will install swimming pools, TVs (some already have), and hot water plumbing. But the red-earth trails will still meander serenely through the glades, and ghosts of the past will still inhabit the bungalows tucked away in the woods. Matheran "chikki" toffee will still be sold in the shops and the cheeky monkey population will continue to mooch tidbits from the unwary. And, likely as not, the bazaar's chess champion will "estill" be there too, with the skin between his toes scoured to depletion.

* * * * *


This visit with my son, Glenn, and daughter, Susan, took place in 1987, but when I went to Matheran again in February of 2001, (along with my sister Phyllis Beavan, and Aussie cousins, Noelene and Lionel Beardsley) much indeed had changed. Several multi-storied hotels have sprung up, and with their garishly painted "modern" architecture, they are hideously incongruous among the gently forested glades.

Brightlands is now an upscale resort with a swimming pool, outdoor bar and restaurant, a sauna and exercise room, a concert hall-cum-theatre and a large indoor dining room. Their meals are superb-and on request they are happy to serve these on the verandas fronting the guest rooms. Guests have a variety of activities to choose from: billiards, tennis, badminton and even a miniature golf course. All the rooms have been spiffed up-the interior décor and furnishings are comfortable and tasteful, the bathrooms are fitted with gleaming taps, washbasins, toilets and soak tubs, and each room has its own refrigerator and TV. To their credit, however, they have retained the original bungalows, which are dotted around prettily landscaped gardens-and the entire estate is still charmingly wooded and tranquil. And, yes, they now accept all major credit cards and travellers' cheques too!

The Red House is no more. It has been demolished and a sprawling luxury hotel now occupies the site. We didn't enquire whether the resident ghost had also been demolished.

The monkey population hasn't decreased; they still make their presence felt at mealtimes, and the young monkey chasers continue to heft their sling-shots!


Sunset at Porcupine Point

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