Some weekends my dad and I would walk up to the base of the hill and buy two slim paper cones of hot, roasted peanuts for 10 paise each. Then we would hike our way to the top of the hill, peanuts in one hand, steadying our gait with the other. Once atop we would sit awhile and take in the sights below. Some weekends, my mom would accompany us on our expedition. On those occasions we would buy a single family-sized cone of peanuts for a rupee, munching as we climbed to the top.
You can’t get a family-sized cone of peanuts for a rupee anymore. Those hills, too, are being hacked to make way for apartment buildings. But those trips planted in me a lifelong passion for the mountains and the outdoors. This passion was revived during my early years in college when I discovered the endless beauty of the Sahyadri range in the Western Ghats in Maharashtra. It was the beginning of a love affair that makes me weak in the knees to this day.
Between June and September each year the rolling Sahyadris get drenched by the torrential southwesterly monsoon rains. The entire landscape is left dripping in tender green and scores of waterfalls glisten on the side of every hill. If you wish, you can stop beneath one and stand till the water nearly pounds the hair off your head. A quick change of clothes behind a rock, a bite of a snack packed in a rainproof plastic bag, and you are on your way, refreshed and energized, until another trundle across hills makes you weary and thirsting for tea at a wayside village.
My spontaneous revelry in nature stopped abruptly once I migrated to the United States. Undoubtedly, I was immensely impressed by the efforts at preserving vast stretches of land for recreational use of the public. Yet, between Mission Peak and Rancho San Antonio, Big Basin and Skyline Park, I began yearning for the intimate adventure that was the Sahyadris.
It wasn’t just the monsoon landscape that I missed. Or the times when I shared the ST bus stands overnight with cows while I waited for the first morning bus. Or the villagers who would say (in VST or Villagers’ Standard Time) that the peak or fort we were headed for was only “10 minutes” away. (And so would continue our 2-hourlong “10-minute” journey that was supposedly so close but didn’t seem to be arriving.)
It was the uninhibited nature of those trips that I missed most. It was the ability to knock on a door in any village, no matter how small, and ask if we could have a drink of water. It was the ease with which we could sit in a verandah patted down with cow-dung, and enjoy the hospitality and meal offered to us by complete and (poorer) strangers. It was also the unhindered manner in which conversation flowed at these occasions, irrespective of the educational accomplishments of the gathering.
Thus, along with their great beauty, I believe my treks through the Sahyadris were also lessons learned on life. We encountered many a school kid that literally trekked to get an education. Often they drove their herds of cows back on their way home from school. While we city slickers turned to “windcheaters” and raincoats to keep us from getting wet, they went about with a woolen blanket over their head, secured around the body with coir rope. I hadn’t known until then that wool kept water out.
Each year when I go back to visit my family in India I make an attempt to indulge in one such rendezvous with my old passion. One time it was rain-lashed Bhandardara, from where one can access Kalsubai, the highest peak in the Sahyadris. I recall that when our bus dropped us off around midnight and we weren’t able to secure any accommodation, a villager opened up his veranda, lit a fire, made us dinner and put out blankets for us. We stayed up the night with him nevertheless as he comforted his pregnant cow that was about to give birth.
More recently, I took my 2-year-old daughter to Matheran. This little hill station near Mumbai is a beloved retreat for walkers and trekkers and holds more than a single memory for me. I have visited there more than once—as a young child, as a pre-teen, and later as a trekker, climbing up the One-Tree Hill route; or up the Peb Fort route; or simply following the narrow- gauge tracks up to the top, the same way many of Matheran’s denizens ferry themselves and their goods between the hill town and its nearest town Neral.
I don’t know if Saachi gained any lessons from her trip to Matheran, but she did seem to enjoy herself. I didn’t stop her when she pointed to the horse-drawn carts that serve as transport in this town where automobiles are prohibited. I tried to explain when she saw children in school uniforms selling tourist trinkets after school hours. I also tried to reassure her that the train wasn’t going to topple down the hillside as it negotiated the sharp bends. And I was thankful that she didn’t seem overwhelmed.
For now I am content to give her the opportunity to see the sights and sounds of another part of the world. It is in the hope that this knowledge will one day bring about greater appreciation of life.
Nitya Ramanan is the assistant editor of India Currents.