Monday, 1 November 2004
The Brits, congenitally incapable of pronouncing names that originate West of Dover, called it Bombay, and proceeded to fill in the gaps between the islands.
Bombay, Bambai, Mumbai, call it what you will, still has oodles of coastline. The Arabian Sea to the West; and the Thane Creek separating it from the mainland on the East. Add the indentations of several creeks. And if, like most of us, you also include mainland municipalities and their littoral stretches in your concept of this megapolis, there should be an embarrassment of beaches to stroll around, paddle in and picnic at.
That, unfortunately, isn’t the case.
The bits of the West that aren’t concrete up to the waterline are more Bhelpuri vending zones than beaches. Or, in villages within the city, they host the the fishing communities that were the area’s original inhabitants, and the shore is lined with drying bombil and shrimp. Or they’re separated from the sea by mangrove swamps. Besides, the city’s effluents don’t make any of these the ideal place to waggle a contemplative toe in the water. The East is either navy or port land, or salt pans or mangrove. On the mainland, mangrove again, rocky shores, or water that’s so polluted it’s lightly diluted sewage.
So where does the city go for its sun, sand ’n’ sea getaways?
There are some pleasant alternatives for the shorter weekend getaways. And we visited them for you. Yes, tough job, but someone’s gotta do it.
We started just out of city limits, near the Vasai creek, into which the Ulhas river empties itself.
The Uttan-Gorai-Manori stretch.
Uttan isn’t much of a beach. Gorai was once lovely, now packed with all manner of riffraff on the weekends - avoidable. Manori is quieter, cleaner, but more expensive.
Getting there: Drive in via Bhayandar, or park at Marve (many of the family properties there offer Pay&Park facilities). Or a train to Malad, then bus or rickshaw to Marve, BEST ferry across the creek, autorickshaw or tonga to your resort.
U-tan Sea Resort
Nestled on the crest of a hill just out of Uttan village, the resort gives you a breathtaking view of the sea: it seems to stretch much, much further, wider and deeper than a view from lower down would have you believe.
The architecture is an acquired taste, but I found it growing on me over the night we spent there. Dr Gopal, who developed the resort on ancestral land, is a bit of an architecture buff, and has given his fancy free rein here. The “cottages” are two-storied cubes, all straight lines, sharp angles, white paint, black metal and glass, softened by the trees they nestle amongst, set in a staggered line, so that each room has its own share of the breeze and sea view through the trees, with a bit of the next cottage’s porch thrown in as well. Aside from the cottages, there are two suites, plus four service apartments. The restaurant’s glass walls and the poolside give you a truly panoramic view. The beach, a longish walk downhill is rocky, and lined with drying fish, and the water rather filthy from the creek and river’s effluents. Avoid. The resort has a pool, and a wooded stretch above the main buildings where you could stroll, or sit under a tree with a book while the brats play Veerapan-Police. You could also wander down to the “tableland” that overlooks the junction of creek and sea; take a boat ride across the creek to see the Bassein fort; visit the lighthouse or the old churches in Uttan. Esselword and Waterworld, if you absolutely insist, are also nearby.
Accommodation: 5 Classic rooms, 5 standard rooms, 2 suites, 4 apartments. All ACed, 2-bed, attached bath.
Best rooms: Sunset suite or top floor apartments, for the view.
Food: Limited menu, but good. No bar.
Service: Warm, friendly.
Tariffs: Rs 1500 for standard rooms to Rs 3000 for suites and apartments. Taxes extra. Discounts on weekdays. Packages available.
Contact: Phone: (022) 28451151, 28452345 (resort); 26206063, 26282653 (city booking). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Web: www.u-tan.com
Domonica’s Beach Resort and Domonica Hotel
Once a single entity, these two resorts are owned by brothers who once helped their parents manage the undivided place. They share a common entrance gate, access to the beach, and ambience, and are only separated by a knee-high wall and different staff members, so to avoid repetition, we’ll cover them together.
They offer unpretentious accommodation at decent prices. The cottages are strewn in friendly disorder around the tree-lined property. Most have a small balcony or porch, hammocks abound, plus a play area for the kids, games and indoor sports, and organised activity on weekends. The main drawback is lack of a sea view, with even the breeze filtered by the thicket of trees in the land between resort and sea shore. But it’s just a minute’s walk down to the beach.
On weekends, don’t expect silence and solitude. There’s a fair mix of people, with a slight bias towards the city’s Christian population. It’s light and cheery, lots of families and groups of friends, full iceboxes, music from either guitars and singers or boom boxes fills the air.
Domonica’s Beach Resort
Accommodation: 8 AC 2-bed rooms, 6 non-AC doubles, 5 4-bed rooms, 5 Dormitory rooms. All with attached bathroom.
Best rooms: N.A.
Food: Satisfactory. The standard Indian-Chinese-Mughlai mix, with a few Goan and East Indian dishes thrown in. No alcohol.
Tariffs: From Rs 150 per head per day in the dorms, to Rs 1000 for an AC 2-bed. Packages available. Lower rates on week days.
Contact: Phone: (022) 28452163, 28452178 (resort); 24462161, 24469735 (city booking).
Accommodation: Double rooms, 1 AC, 4 non-AC. 4-bed rooms. 1 AC 2 non-AC. 1 Dormitory room. All with attached bathroom.
Best rooms: N.A.
Food: Satisfactory. As above. No alcohol.
Service: Not tested.
Tariffs: From Rs 150 per head per day in the dorms, to Rs 700 for an AC 2-bed. Packages available. Lower rates on week days.
Contact: Phone: (022) 28452643, 28452280.
Across the wall from the conjoined Domonicas, the ambience here is more yuppie, upmarket. It’s quieter, with a lot more open space, and it’s more expensive.
Stone arches predominates, and no groves or other properties block view or breeze. Large, airy rooms, with the best ones facing the sea. There’s a machchan to watch the sunset from, and the beach just over the low wall. The restaurant roof is supported by stone pillars, but no walls, so you eat serenaded by wave sounds and the sea breeze flirting with the coconut palms. The restaurant serves set lunches and dinners at a reasonable Rs 200, one of which, supplemented with an extra item from the à la carte menu, is enough to feed two moderate appetites.
Accommodation: 8 semi-detached 2-bed AC sea-facing cottages (1 and 1A can be joined to become a 4-bed suite), 2 non-AC sea-facing cabins, 1 non-AC 3-bed apartment, 1 AC 4-bed apartment, 3 standard 2-bed AC rooms, 5 standard non-AC rooms.
Best rooms: Cottage 6 or 7.
Food: Good. No alcohol.
Service: Not really tested, but seems professional and warm.
Tariffs: From Rs 901 for a 2-bed non-AC to Rs 2120 for cottages 6 or 7. Price inclusive of taxes. (The refreshing feature in their price list is they clearly state room rates, exact taxes and totals.) Lower weekday rates. Extra bed at Rs 100. If friends visit you during the day, you pay Rs 100 per person per day.
Contact: Phone: (022) 28452806/7/8/9 (resort); 22691301, 22692108 (city booking). Email: email@example.com. Web: www.manoribel.com
Do not, repeat, do not swim here. Treacherous shifting sands claim lives every year. Nice to stroll on, but stay near the vegetation line. If you wander closer to the water, you might find yourself stranded on a sandbar as the tide changes.
Getting there: Tell the driver to turn left at Malad, darling.
We’re going high end now. This is 5 star holidaying, and if you’re here, it really doesn’t matter how inhospitable the beach is, there’s enough to keep you occupied. And of course you’re paying for the luxury, so you might as well enjoy it.
There’s all that you’d expect - large pool with great view, gym, sports facilities, kiddie room, massages, steams, business centre, you name it. Sea-facing rooms have their own private balconies. Suites are larger, with a sitting area and a bigger balcony. Overall, nothing to really blow you away. The villas - actually they’re semi-detached apartments - are more luxurious. two bedrooms, private lawn, plus your own steam, sauna and jacuzzi. Both Abhijit and I though the decor, was a little, um, loud.
Accommodation: 36 double occupancy rooms, facing groves of coconut palms, 54 sea-facing double occupancy rooms with private balcony, 2 suites, 2 semi-detached 2-storied villas.
Best rooms: The villas, natch. That’s if you’re ready to pay the price. Otherwise any sea-facing room.
Food: 2 restaurants (one multi-cuisine, with a leaning towards Indian food, the other a standard issue coffee shop). Good food.
Tariffs: From Rs 3600 for a standard room to Rs 14990 for a villa. Taxes extra. Includes breakfast. Packages available.
Contact: Phone: 022 28808888, 26443333. Fax: 28818641. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com. Web: www.theresortmumbai.com
Not much of a beach for the holiday-maker. The available sandy space is covered with drying fish, and the smell overpowers the sea air.
Getting there: As above, honey. Except keep going after you pass The Resort.
We’re still in Luxury Land. And this was pretty much the place where we pampered ourselves the most. There’s an overall feel of airiness and space here that won us over. The curved lines of the the pool, with its little island and waterfall, blending into a covered area with a sunken bar where you can swim right up to your drink and sip it sitting on a submerged barstool or clamber out for a snack, all make for a charming and attractive centre-piece. The hotel building curves around one side of the pool, lawns separate it from the sea on the other. There’s all the standard 5-Star amenities, of course, gym, health club, sports, lounges, including a dance floor with wooden flooring (unsprung, though). The suites are impressive, and huge. And they share a private lounge area on their floor. The pool facing rooms go for a slightly higher rate than the ones that look onto the land side.
Accommodation: 77 pool-facing rooms, 66 other rooms, 7 suites of varying degrees of magnificence.
Best rooms: The Presidential suite.
Food: Three restaurants - Chinese, a coffee shop and a poolside snackbar. Excellent food.
Service: Professional and warm.
Tariffs: From Rs 3000 for a standard room to Rs 12000 for the Presidential suite.
Contact: Phone: (022) 28816383, 28825335. Fax: 28825171. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Web: www.krahejahospitality.com
A short ferry ride from Ferry Wharf or Gateway of India, across the creek, another wonderful set of beaches beckon, most of them still unspoiled by the city’s marauding hordes, enough of them to do a whole article about, but for now, here’s a very small sampling.
As the crow flies (and ferries sail), Uran is level with South Mumbai.By road, it’s an hour’s drive past the Mankhurd check naka, down the Sion Panvel Road, and then turn off via either via Palm Beach Road, or at Uran Phata near Belapur, and then further south over the Panvel Creek to Uran.
Hotel Uran Plaza
Run by a retired Admiral, this resort has relied almost purely on word of mouth publicity from satisfied customers. Right on the beach, it inlcudes six acres of cocunut plantation behind it, and has played host to visitors from around the world, many of them from the oil rigs, the nearby JNPT port or other industrial projects further down the coast. Admiral Pereira speaks proudly of his cusine, which is truly international. Anything from Lobster Thermidore to daal chaval. His 6 ACed rooms go for Rs 1100 (+4% tax) and the 2 non-AC rooms for Rs 550 (+4% tax). Phone: (022) 7222318 (resort), 28510731 (city).
The Mandwa-Kihim-Alibag stretch.
Mandwa has no rentable accommodation - most of it is owned by Mumbai’s richest, the ones who sail across to their weekend bungalows in their own yachts or zoom over by chopper. If you move in those circles, you won’t be reading this article.
But if you cross over by the more plebeian ferries (an hour’s ride at most) there’s much to enjoy.
The central part of Kihim, thanks to MTDC’s Tent Resort (http://www.maharashtratourism.gov.in/mtdc/Beaches.aspx?strpage=beaches-mandwa-kihim.html, phone: (022) 22026713 / 7762 / 7784) can get moderately crowded, though not as bad as the Mumbai beaches. The rest of Kihim is mile upon mile of deserted, clean beach, rocky in places, but mainly safe. They’re deserted because most of the stretch is privately owned. I know this because I go there frequently - i have friends there. And no, i won’t give you their numbers. What i will - reluctantly - give you is Danny Denson’s number. He liaises with various private property owners, who let out their properties occasionally. He can get you a house for anything from Rs 1000 to Rs 40,000 a day, not just in Kihim, but in places as far south as Murud and Kashid. He can be reached at (02141) 232427 or (0) 9850239157.
There are also a bunch of smaller places - a few rooms, each, with meals as part of the deal. One example: Sanidhya, with three double rooms at Rs 700 per day, including all meals. Near the beach. Phone (02141) 232202, 232077 or (0)9822999085. Email: email@example.com.
If you prefer a resort and the attached luxuries, a little away from Kihim, but easily accessible, is the lovely Windmill Resort. 16 Deluxe rooms at Rs 3000, plus taxes, and 6 Super-Deluxe at Rs 3500. The rates include bed tea and breakfast. The resort is wonderfully green, has a pool and a few sports facilities, a good restaurant, and warm, friendly service. Phone: (02141) 232630. 232627. Fax 232629. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Web: www.windmillresort.com.
For a completely different experience, contact Dilip Mhatre at (02141) 237307. He runs a small outfit near Mhatre Phata (just ask for him by name), a short drive from Mandwa. A few huts artfully finished with mud walls and thatched roofs, around a courtyard of packed mud, the shade of banian trees to sit under, a large covered area for group activities and a short drive away from the beach. Rates: Rs 400 per person, per 24 hours including all meals. Phone: (02141) 237307, (022) 23610011. Mhatre also has relatives and friends who are opening small, very basic resorts at nearby Sasone beach and other places, and he will happily introduce you to them.
Tags: Outlook Traveller
Friday, 1 October 2004
Sated, they trundled out to the car, where A-bhai, who had preceded them, held the door open. As he closed the door behind them, to his horror, the car rolled backwards and crunched into a tree, smashing its rear window. The shaken chauffeur had no explanation for the car’s behaviour, but film folks are nothing if not resilient, and since there was no further damage to vehicle or passengers, the company moved on, unruffled, no doubt to make Better Cinema.
Many days later, Vijay managed to cajole A-bhai into admitting, “Saab, sach boloon toh, jab madamne humko khaane ko aane ke liye bolaa, to hum uss Pulao ke khayal me itne kho gaye ki handbrake lagaana bhool gaye.”
Such, gentle reader, is the power of Britannia’s Berry Pulao.
Britannia looks like a generic member of that fast-disappearing breed, the Bombay Irani joint. High ceiling, peeling paint, bentwood chairs, thick glass protecting chequered tablecloths, a wooden mezzanine, elderly gentleman presiding over high counter at the entrance, dispensing change to the waiters, unlocking drawers to ration out precise measures of special ingredients.
But it doesn’t offer the traditional Irani dawn-to-midnight chai, bun-maska and bread pudding. It is open for only lunch, six days a week, and serves mainly Parsi food.
The owner of the mischievous eyes that greet me from behind the counter is Boman Kohinoor, who has been here since he was a schoolboy (he’s a spry eighty-four now). His father, Rashid, opened Britannia in 1923, serving mainly western food to toffs – Collectors, Officers and suchlike. During World War II, the restaurant was requisitioned for use as barracks. By 1948, when it reopened, its time in the sun had passed.
We move to one of the tables, and he delightedly shakes my hand again, on discovering that I had studied in his alma mater. His late wife, Bachan, he says, spent many years working in Iran, and returned with a trove of Iranian recipes to add to the Parsi dishes she already knew. She trained the cooks to prepare all these, and Britannia revived.
Aside from the famous Iranian Berry Pulao, the other specialities are: Fish Patra, Fried Bombay Duck, and of course, Dhansak, which like the berry pulao, is available in mutton, chicken and vegetarian varieties. But, as that inimitable Bombay foodie, the late Behram Contractor, said: “Of course, there is nothing like a vegetarian dhanshak, just as there is nothing like a non-alcoholic beer or an eggless omelette. Still, there you are. And, while I am at it, I would like to add, the only bona fide dhanshak is with mutton, not chicken.”
The usual clientele is wall-to-wall officewallas. Today, a public holiday, the pace is filled with families out to lunch. People drive in from far and near, says Kohinoor. Gerson Da Cunha, Anil Dharker, Farzana Contractor, they’re all regulars here. Dilip Vengsarkar, like so many others, sends in for takeaway. And there was this editor who would sit alone at the table near the door, reading a book while he ate his lunch. (Later, when i am leaving, the old gentleman gently, but firmly refuses my efforts to pay my bill. Mr Vinod Mehta has given us enough business, he chortles.)
A rooster’s picture adorns one wall. A stylised version on the menus is surrounded by this cheery motto: “There is no love greater than the love of eating.” Kohinoor reminisces about that rooster, a family pet, which strutted the counter in the eighties. It drank only Mangola and ate only pista-badam, except now and then, when it ate chicken. “He was a cannibal!” he informs me gleefully.
Running Britannia is tough, Romin, Kohinoor’s son, tells me. He personally buys supplies, supervises the cooks – “It’s manufacture, not trading, not like those places that only open your beer for you.”
But change is imminent. Option One: a face-lift, spruce up the place, bring the old marble-topped tables back from the godown, and, abandoning decades-old tradition, open for dinner on Fridays and Saturdays. Or the family may sell – a potential buyer has come to talk to Kohinoor Sr as we chat.
If that happens, Britannia’s devotees will be bereft. But A-bhai has no cause for gloom. Romin will then start a small Britannia takeaway counter somewhere in Fort. So if Madam sends him to fetch lunch, all A-bhai must remember is to use that handbrake.
Britannia & Co Restaurant, Wakefield House, 11 Sprott Road, 16, (opp. New Customs House, nr. War Memorial), Ballard Estate, Mumbai 38. Ph: (022) 2261 5264. Open Mon-Sat, 11.30-4.00.
Berry Pulao: Ch. Rs 160; Mut. Rs 180; Veg. Rs 90. Dhansak: Ch. Rs 130, Mut. Rs 150, Veg. 90. (Huge servings: two moderate eaters can share one dish.) Also, Chicken Farcha Rs 110, Fry Bombay Duck, Fish Patra (price varies as per size), Mutton Sali Boti Rs 130. All chicken/mutton served boneless. No alcohol. No exclusively snack orders between 12.30 & 2.30.
Published in Outlook Traveller's October 2004 issue.
Tags: Outlook Traveller
Wednesday, 1 September 2004
The sun which services this part of the world has been up for a while now. Its customary vigour somewhat reined in by the odd black cloud, it is nevertheless doing its best to carry it out its duties and earn its daily rest and two weeks annual paid holiday. It shines with enthusiasm on the massive stately pile before us, nicely bringing out the highlights – domed turrets, little balconies, pigeons on the arched windows, some nice stained glass, a dignified, elderly car at the porch. It plays no favourites; it also illuminates the surroundings with equal enthusiasm. To enumerate: wide, sweeping drive, one; lawn, green, one; fountain, marble, one; horses chomping on said lawn, two; family retainers of assorted vintage going about their tasks, numerous; slim young man festooned with bulging bags full of photographic equipment pointing shiny camera with huge lens at the porch, one; scruffy long-haired chap in shorts with mouth agape, one.
The sun, having noted these last two, frowns, puzzled. This, it says to itself, was not in the contract. No one had said anything about having to light up strange visitors from Bombay. Huffed, it retreats behind a cloud, leaving no silver lining, and the slim young man swears under his breath. He’s going to have to wait for the next gap in the clouds to get his shot.
The disreputable-looking bloke ambles off in search of peers of the realm to discuss the weather with.
Somebody pinch me.
I’m in Blandings Castle. The stately pile in front of me is somewhat larger than VT station, I think, but its not a public building. It’s the home of a single family.
The animal snuffling its way through the shrubbery isn’t quite Empress class, but she’s undeniably porcine. And that slim, white-haired man who’s just walked slowly out of the front door, and is settling down in a chair is as close to my mind’s version of Lord Emsworth as dammit. At any moment now, a stray poet will saunter by, or perhaps a lissome lass, banished to the family manse to keep her away from some unsuitable young man. Or perhaps an Aunt will step through and shrivel me through her lorgnette as she surveys my wholly inappropriate attire.
But all is well. The elderly gentleman is wearing comfortable slippers, and a frayed jacket that proclaims that there’s no bossy female relative currently in residence to shoehorn him into formal regalia for public consumption.
Actually, this is better than Blandings. This is Ranjit Vilas, the home of the Maharajahs of Wankaner. The dignified gentleman who surveys his realm from the cool front porch is Pratap Sinh, who, but for 1947, I would be calling Your Highness, and genuflecting to as I approach. He is 97 years old, and a bit hard of hearing, so I decide not to inflict too much of my society on him.
Wankaner, which means “bend in the river,” is a small town that nestles around, well, a bend in the river Machchu, between the Kathiawad plains and the deserts of the Rann of Kutch. It was ruled by a Rajput royal family that moved here from Halwad to set up their own kingdom after a split in the family. They built their palace in the centre of the town.
Bane Sinhji, the twelfth Maharajah, died in 1881, when his heir, Amar Sinhji, was just three years old. Until he reached majority, a British Resident ruled in his name, from a Residency halfway up a hill overlooking the town. From the time Amar Sinhji came of age, a well educated, and much travelled young man, he left his stamp on his kingdom. He ruled for 49 years, and is remembered as great administrator and reformer. He loved blood sports, cars and planes, and had some decidedly individual ideas on architecture.
He decided to build a new palace on the Royal estate near the residency, where the family already had a palace. The foundations of Ranjit Vilas (named after the legendary cricketer, neighbouring royalty and a friend) were laid in 1907, the year of Pratap Sinhji’s birth, and took eighteen years to build. The first family occasion celebrated there was Pratap Sinhji’s wedding, in 1928.
Amar Sinhji designed the palace himself, and it is a dizzying mix of style and materials – a Venetian Gothic facade composed mainly of local sandstone, Gothic arches, Italianesque pillars, Dutch roof, Rajasthani domes, Mughal biradaris, Rajput jarokhas, European clock tower – but as far as I’m concerned, it works well as a whole. An Italian marble fountain stands in front of the palace, and inside, there’s more marble, from Italy, Belgium and India, Venetian blown glass chandeliers, and Belgian glass and French crystal and Burma teak, Persian and Indian rugs, twin marble staircases, Grecian urns, Venetian and Mughal mosaics, Roman pillars, stained glass windows, filigree ironwork, and, well, pretty much everything a jazz age Maharajah with global tastes could want.
The huge ground floor rooms – you could comfortable stack half-a-dozen city flats into the durbar hall – are lined with hunting trophies from around the world. A TV, a music system, and pedestal fans are the only mod cons in sight. The rest of the place is taken up with photographs and all manner of memorabilia. Not the family jewels, you understand, just stuff. Like a silver model of Wankaner House in Bombay (now the US Consulate), a pair of silver chairs, a Steinway, that kinda thing.
Our personal guide and companion is Amar Sinhji’s eldest son, the fascinating Yuvraj Digvijay Sinh. Among his other titles is Doctor (he has a PhD), former MLA and MP, former Union Minister, and Convenor of the Gujarat chapter of the Heritage Hotels Association.
That’s right, hotels.
We’re guests of the family, but paying guests. The family, we learn, was among the first in India to adapt to the economic realities of life in Free India. “Europe and India,” says Dr Sinh (word counts demand I use his shortest title), “are the only parts of the world where one can be a guest in former stately homes that still house the titled families who built them. And only in India can you stay in magnificent historical and architectural wonders belonging to former royalty.”
Right now, they’re open for business, but not at full throttle. The damage from the Gujarat earthquake was extensive, and the recovery has been expensive and painfully slow. The palace, where the clock tower dome caved in and the walls have huge cracks, is still being restored. The Sinhs have operated Wankaner Heritage Hotels independently thus far, one of the very few former royals not to have tied up with a major hospitality chain. But that’s changing.
The former Residency, in the palace grounds, has twelve rooms named for various family friends – other Indian rajahs, a viceroy or two, the famous jeweller, Cartier, and Karamchand Gandhi (the Mahatma’s father), who once served as Diwan of Wankaner. The family has tied up with Welcomgroup Heritage to run it. Though it will only reopen formally in 2005, it is currently taking limited numbers of visitors. By appointment, naturally.
Some distance from the palace stands Royal Oasis, formerly Purna Chandra Bhuvan, which they will now operate in partnership with the Ahmedabad-based Gopi Group, who also run the Balaram Palace, Palanpur. Due to reopen for its first group of visitors in a week or so, it is being pruned, polished and manicured. While the Residency has no major surprises in terms of decor – the brass bedsteads, planters chairs, carved tables, massive doors, tin bathtubs on clawed legs are are practically de rigueur in a home of this vintage – the Oasis is, well, different.
It stands in the only large grove I have so far set eyes on in Saurashtra (“flatter than Kansas, this place” said one website). As the Yuvraj drives us through his orchards, he tells us that this property was the family retreat, and a guest house when large celebrations meant more guests than palace and Residency could handle. The exteriors touch a familiar chord with any Bombay resident – large, solid, and Art Deco, but not aggressively so. Indoors, the plot thickens. The furniture is either restored from that period or painstakingly replicated. Art Deco plaster friezes line doorways, and curves and angles are everywhere. The theme peaks in two VIP rooms, which feature authentic furniture from Paris, and elaborately mirrored and neoned bathrooms that even, now, unlit, and covered with dust and workmen’s hand-prints, are just plain awesome. The main building also features a walled garden, and an Art Deco swimming pool, complete with statue of young woman poised to dive into the pool. Dr Sinh walks us over to “the only step well built in the twentieth century.” Fed by underground streams, its carved sandstone corridors, stairs and rooms descend three stories into the ground. The monsoon has been bad so far this year, but once the well fills up, the natural water pressure sends a fountain as high as the bas-relief Shiv image that adorns one wall. Now, though the well is dry, the underground rooms are cool and shaded, even if the air is scented with bat guano.
Back at the palace, the Yuvraj shows us the family garage, which houses a 1921 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost, a Buick from a few years later, a couple of Fords from the Forties, a World War II Willys jeep, aside from a few more modern cars. “My father lives for cars,” he says, “but I live for horses.” We stroll over to his loves, the beautiful Kathiawadi horses he was instrumental in getting recognised as a distinct breed internationally, one of four from India. He gentles a mare and her foal into posing for Abhijit, getting them to perk up their ears so that the tips touch each other in a way that is unique to the breed. A stallion whinnies loudly, pawing the ground. I step back nervously. The stable boy informs me proudly that the stallion stamped a King Cobra to death a little while ago. And his son was apparently a chip off the old block, having just that day snuffed a snake himself. This he tells me after I’ve spent an evening thrashing through the undergrowth on the hillside, in shorts and sandals. Shudder.
We eat our meals with the Maharajah and the Yuvraj, in a dining room lined with tiger heads, served by bearers who could give any hotel a lesson or two in promptness and anticipation. Chair-backs, crockery, glasses, all carry the Wankaner coat of arms. Plates are swept away after each course, and the table settings are European. But, in eminently practical fashion, disposable mineral water bottles fill our glasses, and next to the little antique table doodads sits a bottle of ketchup. Dr Sinh keeps the conversation flowing at all times, moving easily from family to national history, from politics to the environment to anything Abhijit or I care to talk about. He is well-informed, has strong opinions, and states them convincingly. Small wonder he was elected four times – twice to the Gujarat Assembly, twice to Parliament. Conservation is another passion. “More Trees, Less Children” was his election slogan, and he helped set up the Department of the Environment, and was its first Minister. “God willing” he says, “we will never have to sell any of our land.” He wants to maintain the family acreage – it sprawls over several hills and down to the river on one side – as a game reserve, and has so far succeeded in keeping the property encroacher-free and wild. Hence the snakes, and the peacocks we hear calling every now and then.
On our last day, he takes us to the oldest buildings, the ones the family lived in while Ranjit Vilas was being built, which later became the Zenana. His wife is developing a novel concept: Zenana tourism, targeted at older western women who want to see life in the days of Purdah first-hand. Staffed exclusively by women, it will be the authentic experience, he says.
Saving the best for last, we trudge up and down staircases, to the cellar family museum, where steel safe-doors protect thrones, a collection of weapons ranging from ceremonial swords to pig-sticking spears to blunderbusses and oiled and polished shotguns, robes and raiment, a howdah, a massive elephant caparison whose fabric, I suspect, contains a small fortune in precious metals, and, in one corner, an old pair of wooden skis.
The museum, unfortunately, isn’t open to every guest, but the public rooms in the palace are. He plans to have every guest over to have a meal with the family at least once during their stay.
Work, and not a spot of embarrassment with a cow creamer, demands we cut short our idyll with the kings. If this were Blandings, it would have been practically noblesse oblige to tootle off to the city in a two-seater, or at the very least, sneak off in disgrace before dawn, by the first available milk train. But Dr Sinh sees us to one of his cars, and we are chauffeured to Wankaner station in comfort.
Abhijit is silent. He has, a few months ago, pledged large sums of money to the bank in return for a suburban apartment. Till we arrived here, he was pretty chuffed to be a house owner. Me, I’m quiet too. The King’s ransom I pay in rent and deposits probably wouldn’t keep the Yuvraj’s horses in hay for a month.
Ah well. There’s still this. I will never again envy friends in less real estate-challenged metros their larger loos. The residence we just left has bathrooms big enough to shove their whole bally houses into, balconies and all.
Wankaner is accessible directly by rail. Wankaner station is a short drive from the palace. From Mumbai, Saurashtra Mail (Rs1,165, 2A) and Saurashtra Janata Express (Rs1154, 2A)
By road, it is 50km north of Rajkot, 220km from Ahmedabad.
By air, connected to Mumbai via Indian Airlines (Rs1775, 21 day Apex Fare).
Where to Stay
Twelve rooms available. Rs 1850 per person, American Plan. Booking at the palace (+91 2828 220000, fax: +91 2828 220002). Rates may be revised in early 2005, when the agreement with Welcomgroup Heritage becomes operational.
Indian nationals: 2 Royal Suites (the flamboyantly art deco VIP rooms) Rs 3500 per day per room; 6 Silver Rooms (main building) Rs 2500 per day per room; 6 Bronze rooms (annexe) Rs 2200 per day per room.
Foreign nationals: Rs 2300 per day, per person, twin sharing; Rs 2800 per day single occupancy; American Plan.
Booking via the palace, or through the Gopi Group.
What to see and do
Wankaner town holds no charms – it is any small town in India. But whatever your main interest, the area has much to offer you, usually just a day-trip away, because of Wankaner’s central location.
Palaces and forts? Saurashtra has them like Delhi has politicians. And Portuguese-flavoured Dui, Porbander, Gandhi’s birthplace, even pre-historic excavations at Lothal are all within reach.
For the religious-minded, the temples of Somnath, Dwarka, Shetrunjaya, Girnar and Bhadreshwar beckon.
Wildlife enthusiasts can visit the Gir Forest, the last refuge of the Asiatic Lion aside from other wildlife, the Rann of Kutch, the last place you can see Asiatic Wild Asses, and the largest flamingo breeding ground in the world, Velavadar Blackbuck national park, Nalsarovar’s migratory bird sanctuary or Jamnagar’s Marine National Park.
Even the adventure sports fan will soon be catered to: the salt flats of the Rann are to host the first land-sailing operation in India, probably by year-end.
Published (in much-edited form) in Outlook Traveller, August 2004.
Tags: Outlook Traveller
Saturday, 1 May 2004
A little history
In the beginning was the home page. And heaven knows how much corny clip art, inspirational poetry and other such atrocities have been inflicted on the unsuspecting world in the name of one’s very own personal web space.
Disclosure: This writer has had many personal home pages on many free sites and has even, once upon a time, when he was young and didn’t know better, put his own poetry up on them.
But then, in the last few years of the last century (i’ve been wanting to slip that phrase into print under my name for the longest time), a strange new phenomenon began to take root.
A few home page owners who wandered far and wide on the still comparatively new world wide web began to gather links to the wondrous sites they saw, and share them with their friends. Rather than just email those links to their friends, some of them began keeping virtual log books of their journeys around the net, pages of links that they posted on their personal web sites, laced with generous helpings of personal commentary. Most of them were run by people who were either web professionals or self-taught amateur enthusiasts. Indeed they needed to be, because this was before the existence of software and/or web sites that made web publishing the type-and-send affair it is today.
That changed in July 1999, with the launch of Pitas, the first blogging tool. Like Hotmail, which had given email its growth surge, it was an online tool, and the price was right – it was free – and suddenly people who wouldn’t know a comment tag from their navels were able to release the fruit of their meditation to the entire world. Or at least the 83 close friends they emailed about it. Again like Hotmail, other providers quickly jumped on the bandwagon – notably Pyra with Blogger – and Blogging was on its way to becoming the Next Big Thing.
In 1998 there were just a handful of sites of the type that are now identified as weblogs (so named by Jorn Barger in December 1997). Jesse James Garrett, editor of Infosift, began compiling a list of “other sites like his” as he found them in his travels around the web. Cameron Barrett. ... published the list on Camworld, and others maintaining similar sites began sending their URLs to him for inclusion on the list. Jesse’s ‘page of only weblogs’ lists the 23 known to be in existence at the beginning of 1999.
Suddenly a community sprang up. It was easy to read all of the weblogs on Cameron’s list, and most interested people did. Peter Merholz announced in early 1999 that he was going to pronounce it ‘wee-blog’ and inevitably this was shortened to ‘blog’ with the weblog editor referred to as a ‘blogger.’
At this point, the bandwagon jumping began. More and more people began publishing their own weblogs. ... Cameron’s list grew so large that he began including only weblogs he actually followed himself. In early 1999 Brigitte Eaton compiled a list of every weblog she knew about and created the Eatonweb Portal. Brig evaluated all submissions by a simple criterion: that the site consist of dated entries. Webloggers debated what was and what was not a weblog, but since the Eatonweb Portal was the most complete listing of weblogs available, Brig’s inclusive definition prevailed.’
- Excerpted, with permission, from weblogs: a history and perspective, © Rebecca Blood)
How do i blog thee? Let me count the ways...
Right then. There endeth the history lesson. Now, what’s the blogging scene like today? In one word, bubbling. Thousands (that is probably a conservative estimate) of new blogs launch each day.
Blogs themselves have changed from those early halcyon days. The masses have taken over, and now easily outnumber the early pioneers and adopters. And, as with email, chat, instant messaging, and indeed the web itself, they have morphed it into something its trailblazers wouldn’t recognise. Or wouldn’t want to. “The bastardisation of the blogging ideal” is one phrase i saw as i was trawling the net researching this article, but, for better or worse, things will never quite be the same again.
The original blog style – let’s call it the Filter Blog – still exists. Heck, i have one myself. My blog is a generalist blog, a reflection of my mind, my interests, with regular sets of links, short introductions to each of them, maybe little ’taster’ snippets from the sites they link to, to whet the reader’s appetite, the stuff i used to email to my friends once upon a time. There are others far more specific in their focus – literary, political, journalistic, sports-related, fan blogs, you name it, again reflecting the minds of their owners, and their passions. In an ironical twist, there are blogs that hark back to blogging’s pre-web ancestors and inspirations – Travel Blogs, journals with maps and pictures and destinations. And incestuously, there are many, many, many blogs about, well, blogging.
But, a newer kind of site, also updated regularly, also with dated entries, and new entries appearing at the top of the page pushing older ones down, and therefore technically a blog too, has become almost ubiquitous. i call this type the Dear Diary Blog, or Journal. While the Filter blog is, as i said, a reflection of the mind of the owner (and since writing reveals, even in what it conceals, some perhaps reveal more than the blogger intends), in the Diary type blog, the focus is very definitely the blogger. Entries can be descriptions of what s/he is going through in life, what kind of day s/he’s having, books s/he’s reading, movies s/he’s watched, what s/he ate, who s/he ate, and so on.
Of course, these are not mutually exclusive categories, and many bloggers straddle the two with aplomb, mixing links with rants, comments with confessionals, the state of their love lives with the state of humanity.
Besides that hazy, arbitrary division based on content, other types exist too.
There is, for instance, the Commentary Blog, where the writer takes a topic or a link and presents a long personal view on it. As blogging software improved, one of the bells and whistles added on was giving the reader the ability to comment on blog postings, giving rise to spirited public conversations between blogger and reader, or among the readers themselves. i call these Dialogue Blogs (and as i do so, i’m hoping no one decides to shorten that to DiaBlog – or if they do, that they’ll give me money for it). Then there are collaborations between two or more bloggers, each presenting his or her own view and links, panel discussions rather than speeches, jugalbandis rather than solo acts (i gave up on a category here – CollaBlogs? JugalBlogs? –naah). And to take that principle even further, there are Community Blogs, which crossed the blurry line from old style bulletin boards and web forums, where membership, and blogging rights, are shared between hundreds, even thousands of contributors.
Some blogs aren’t even text oriented – i have seen beautiful ArtBlogs, where the owners show their artwork as their take on the world, instead of words. And VoiceBlogs and VideoBlogs, both pretty bandwidth intensive. Or PhotoBlogs. And their inevitable descendant, made possible by cameras built into mobile phones, where pictures are sent directly from cellphone to blog, the Moblog. Which is about as hybrid a word as one can get, considering it tacks half one word onto an existing word that was originally formed by the union of two other words. Wait, i take that back. Just yesterday, i read that the newest fad doing the rounds is the Cyborglog, which has already been shortened to ‘Glog.’ A Glog is kept by bloggers who use various kinds of portable or wearable computing tools, that they habitually carry with them. They see themselves as cyborgs, or at least as close to that as one can get without actual surgery. Glogs are just about the ultimate when it comes to a life that is blogged as it is lived!
Blogs for all seasons
People enter the Blogosphere (hey, that’s what all the cool kids are calling it, mom) for all manner of reasons – expression of ideas, their message to the world, self promotion, boredom... you name it.
Speaking for myself, it’s partly exercise – daily calisthenics for my writing muscles. It doesn’t take up too much of my time – the surfing i do is about the same as i did before. The only difference is that now, when i find something interesting, i reach for the Blog This button rather than my email program. If it also results in some visibility, and perhaps more writing assignments, so much the better.
Other bloggers i’ve talked with have different reasons: to reach out; to tell people about themselves; it’s a soapbox for some; confessional for others; a way to express parts of one’s personality that don’t get an outlet in one’s normal life.
Many use blogs a professional tool: to establish a presence and credibility in their fields; to propagate their views; to test and share concepts and ideas; to communicate and collaborate with other professionals, either in the same field or complimentary areas; as a research aid. Writers find many uses for blogs too: as ‘process logs,’ as ways to test out ideas and plots; as a medium complete in itself. Blogs are also finding a use in education, in news gathering and analysis, the list goes on and on.
There have even been scams and some very successful panhandling efforts. And if you need further proof that it’s in the mainstream is that marketing types are looking beyond spam email and training their beady eyes on blogs as tools to push products.
Is anyone actually making money off blogs then? From what i hear, not many are. Don’t do this because you want to quit your day job. Yes, it could result in income, perhaps indirectly, perhaps through advertising if your blog pulls in readers by the million. But don’t count on it. Do it because you want to.
As The Babu (in real life, a close friend, and my personal inspiration as a blogger – see the box / companion article at the end of this one) put it to me, “Some blogs make money. Some blogs get you jobs. Some blogs introduce you to new friends, new partners, new catsitters. None of this may happen; usually, it won’t. Do not expect to get rich, employed or laid. It might happen, and if it does, well, that’s a bonus. Blogging is a second job. Blogging is a social disease. Blogging is a virus. It can take over your life if you don’t watch out, and it will even if you do. Two words: have fun. That’s about the only reason to get out there, take your pants off in public, and ask a world of people you don’t even know by name to come over and have a look.”
Getting on the blogwagon
Now you, if you want to blog, how do you go about it? If you’re the cautious type, you could try my way: read a lot of blogs, figure out what you like, what makes them tick, then attempt to replicate it. Soon, you’ll find your own voice. Or you could just jump in, feet first, and swim. Either way, remember that its going to take up a regular chunk of your time, and you had better be doing it because you enjoy it.
Blogging services? If you’re HTML savvy, you don’t need any, but even if you are a web guru, there are services out there that take all the pain out of blogging. Things like automatic placement of new posts, archiving and the like. Services to try out: MovableType comes highly recommended if you already have your own domain and server space, and is free for non-commercial personal use. Among the sites which offer both interface and hosting: Blogger is still the best known, and pretty good for beginners, with some limitations; LiveJournal works well if you’re planning a diary-style blog; Rediff’s service has quickly acquired a large Indian following. Just fire up your favourite search engine and you’ll get lots more. Play around, experiment, network with other bloggers, and you’ll soon find one that best suits your needs.
Don’t underestimate the networking bit, especially if you hanker for an audience. Bloggers are arguably the biggest readers of other blogs. And by and large, a helpful bunch. They are also clannish, and link to one another, wearing their affiliations, friendships, peer groups, the groups they desire to be seen as part of, as proud badges, traditionally displayed in a row of links to other blogs (a 'blogroll’) on a sidebar. Trading links is a very effective way to get readers of your own. As is reading other blogs, commenting on them and entering dialogues with their owners.
So, if you need advice, pointers to resources, links to interesting articles, or just a reader for your blog, come see me some time!
Peter Griffin blogs at zigzackly.blogspot.com
This section of the article wasn’t carried in the magazine - guess i lost out to my other profession, advertising.
Voices from the Blogosphere
There’s a lot more to the blogging phenomenon. What do bloggers think? Why do they blog? Who do they blog for? What do they hope to get out of it? Rather than make this just my views, i posted a few questions to some message boards, mailed random members of the bloggerati, and got some interesting answers from around the world.
Scott Allen, as befits his area of specialisation, is one of the first to write back to me. He is that rare bird, a “professional” blogger. Besides getting paid to blog at About.com, he also runs OnlineBusinessNetworking.com/blog, which he uses as “a marketing tool intended to increase visibility and establish credibility as experts on our topic.” His blogs are “about 70/30 commentary/filter.” He takes his audience very seriously, tracking numbers, encouraging feedback and acting on it. Because, as he succinctly says, “No audience = no point.” He has oodles of advice on his site, which is well worth your attention if you’re looking at using your blog even semi-professionally.
Aldon Hynes replied at greater length. He runs several blogs, for several different reasons. “My personal blogging, is to let my friends know what I’ve been up to. At aldon.blogspot.com, i test programs that I write to interact with blogspot. I started posting to my MovableType blog, initially to learn MT, but now, more and more to talk about my political activities, which has also lead me to be active in greaterdemocracy.org and numerous Howard Dean related websites.” About the kinds of blogs, Hynes says, “A blog that is primarily ones own experiences can be interesting if the person is living an interesting life and is a good writer, but many of these get boring fairly quickly. Recaps of events without any great new insights also become boring pretty quickly. In many ways, a good blog is like a good op-ed piece in the papers, tied to what is going on in the world and written in an interesting and enlightening manner.”
Anita Bora, formerly at Rediff.com, and now an independent communications consultant in Mumbai, currently blogs at anitabora.com, and is pretty active in getting Indian bloggers to know each other, in real life as well as online.
She rebukes me for my attempts to pigeonhole the various kinds of blogs. “These categories have been created for your own convenience,” she says in her mail. “When you’re online, you tend to do diverse reading, rather than just writing in one genre. There are blogs which might or might not fall under these categories. Ultimately, it’s what appeals to you. Most bloggers browse around a lot, find blogs which strike some kind of a chord, either in their writing, choice of subject, or just their tone of voice. Communities develop around one’s blog and most pretty much stick to their own (straying once in a while), since there are only that many blogs you can read in a day. Blogging serves different purposes at different points of time. I might just want to know what readers think of a topic. Or give vent to my feelings on the state of affairs in my country. Or share a personal experience. The blog lets you ’publish’ like a magazine or a newspaper, and puts you in the editor’s seat. That’s what makes it interesting and challenging too! Audience is reasonably important. We might say we write for ourselves, but it’s going to be lonely if no one ever drops by. By and large, bloggers encourage feedback, and it is common to find groups of bloggers meeting offline and taking their relationships forward.”
Mihail Lari is the cofounder of Blogging Network, the first venue for competitive blogging that pays based on a blog’s popularity (50% of each member’s subscription fee goes towards the writers that person reads each month). His preferred blog reading is the Filter. “A good blogger who decides to serve as a filter on one subject is invaluable as we seem to have less and less time to deal with the overwhelming amounts of information coming at us.” He blogs himself, initially anonymously, but now under his own name “Because I wanted readers to know who I was, that one of the founders of the site is among them.”
He, obviously, recommends his own service “I suppose I am biased, but I really do feel that free blogging is fine for those who also want to spend time marketing their blog and finding readers. Blogging in a vacuum is hard and no fun. The reason why so many people stop blogging after a few days or months is because it is hard to find readers. New bloggers should start out on Blogging Network or some other venue where you can be sure to find readers immediately. We do the job of finding you readers so that you can focus on what you do best – write your blog!”
William Thompson is using his travelblog, Calles y Callejones, Backroads of San Miguel (there’s an accompanying photo gallery too) as a “trial balloon” for a book. The book will be “a guide to the little-known things I find. The colonial city of San Miguel de Allende is a tourist destination and I work (informally) with the local tourism office. I would probably explore these things on my own without the eventual goal of a book.” As to time spent blogging, he grins. “If you consider the time I spend researching and exploring the area, I’d have to say a lot. Actual time spent in front of the computer? Most of it is editing my photos for placement on the blog pages. Once that’s done, the blog more or less writes itself, arising out of the pictures and the things I want to say about them.” He isn’t making money off the blog directly, but has had quite a bit of success with his photographs and writing, with his work being selected for special publications from Mexico’s tourism office, and a photo essay in the BBC News Web site. “I would have to say that the blog has been a successful springboard into other things, which was one of my goals in starting it. I’m not realizing any monetary income from this as yet, although it’s obvious that I hope to eventually. One of my goals is to have travel magazines see some of my material and perhaps contact me to do articles on other locales in Mexico for them.”
Some bloggers prefer anonymity. Like “Nancy,” who writes Desi Bridget Jones Diary. She is a finance professional in Bangalore, but has plans to write professionally one day. i have her word for it. Because i know nothing about her (even the “her” is on trust) that she does not choose to reveal in her blog, which aside from the occasional link, usually to entries on other blogs in her online circle of friends, or extracts from articles or news reports which she comments on, is largely a personal journal. “I blog anonymously” she tells me, “Simply because it allows me to be more honest.” Nancy is one of those people who revels in the ease of use of blogging sites: she confesses to being decidedly technically challenged. “Audience is important to me, but I don’t track numbers. Simply because I don’t know how to! But I read all comments, even if I’m not able to personally respond to them. The fact that there are visitors makes me more diligent about regular posting – heck, i got customers!”
“Hurree Chunder Mookerjee,” a.k.a. “The Babu” also conceals his real identity, though his blog isn’t a personal diary. Kitabkhana is filter with a touch of commentary, and focusses on the world of books, writers, writing and publishing. “I like playing with alter egos, and thought creating the Babu might be an interesting experiment. He’s far more outspoken than his creator, and has more swash and buckle, though these days I need the ’screen’ less and less. Initially, it dismayed me when people discovered his identity: Now that I’m more relaxed with the blog, it doesn’t matter all that much, though I’d prefer the blog’s creator to remain as anonymous as possible for as long as possible.” The Babu, whose site attracts thousand of readers from all over the world, didn’t start out searching for an audience. “Kitabkhana began out of enlightened self-interest: I kept coming across articles that I wanted to save for future reading and then forgetting where I’d seen them. It made sense to start a blog that collected those links. The blog dragged me willy-nilly into a community of book buffs whose views and opinions I found fascinating. Geography is unimportant on the web; the community is far-flung, but we all know each other and share a sense of creating something new, perhaps even an alternative literary culture.” On making money off the blog, he says, “Directly, no. Indirectly, yes, an indecent amount of work has come my way thanks to the Babu’s profile. Never expected it, so it’s icing on the cake. More than work or money, what the blog has done in a peculiar way is to change the way people in my field see me. The real me is fairly prissy; the Babu is more flamboyant. I get people doing a double take, which is not always comfortable, but it is interesting as a social experiment.”
These links weren't intended to be part of the article, merely my own research. You may find them interesting if you're interested in the subject.
How to blog
Making money blogging:
Published in It’s a Guy Thing (GT, for short) the Times of India Group’s Men’s magazine.
Tags: GT (It's a Guy Thing)
Thursday, 1 April 2004
For the first time in our four years together, I’m philandering. And I have no excuses. She’s been good to me, faithful companion and helpmeet through good times and bad. She’s never been one of those greedy, high maintenance lasses, she’s always been there when I needed her. But, I have to confess, there have been times when I thought she was a trifle, well, staid. And that, I try to tell myself, can cause a man to stray.
Still, as I back my 800 into the shade of the awning of Shama and Guido Bothe’s workshop in Karlekhind, near Alibag, I cannot help but silently apologise to her for my brazenness.
But when I walk over to the sleek, powerful creature that will be my ride for the next few days, all decency is left behind.
She is the Chinkara 1.8 S roadster, and I have known her all her life. Her creators are dear friends: Shama I know since she was five; and Guido I got to know when they were courting. The Chinkara is, in a manner of speaking, the first child of their marriage. I was privy to the first sketches; watched her chassis being welded together; had long encouraging chats with Shama as they scrimped and saved and borrowed time from his original business, boatmaking, to put her together; helped create their logo and sales literature. And I watched like a proud godparent as she made her debutante entry at the Mumbai Auto Show last year, and continued to steal hearts at expos in Goa, Bangalore and Delhi. The metaphors are getting incestuous, so I’ll cut to the chase.
This is the first time I’m going to be in the driving seat, and I am intimidated.
I’m not one of your vastly experienced drivers who hare off cross-country at the drop of a long weekend. I only got my driving license three years ago. And I’m a cautious, safe driver. Or as less automotively-challenged friends put it, I’m a wimp behind the wheel.
And this is a lot of car. Her pared down body is powered with a 1,800 cc Isuzu engine, the same one that hauls the Ambassador’s bulk around. While her road clearance is as high as a jeep’s, the seat of your pants is just a few inches of the floor. She has a small racing steering wheel, and wide tyres. She is open to the skies, with a roll bar rising above the driver’s head.
We load up the Chink and the Bothes’ Nissan pick-up, and Atul Loke, the photographer, and I slide into the low seats. If Guido is apprehensive about me driving his baby, he doesn’t show it as he helps us adjust the three-point racing seat belts. This is his personal test vehicle, and all his cars are custom-made to the owner’s body and preferred driving style. The distance between the pedals is just enough for his size eight moccasins. My size ten sandals overlap the gaps; so I resign myself to driving barefoot for the next three days.
I turn the key, and am rewarded with a powerful roar. It’s amazing what that Isuzu engine can sound like when it’s out from under the hood of its usual home.
Our first stop is Alibag, 10 km away, to fuel up. As we drive through its crowded lanes, Atul and I have our first taste of what it must feel like to be part of a celebrity’s entourage. In your heart you know the attention is not for you, but you can’t help basking in the reflected glory.
I am now beginning to understand why sports cars play such a large role in a mid-life crisis.
The attendants at the petrol pump are proudly possessive; this is, after all, her home pump. Children gawk unabashedly. Even blase city slickers fuelling up for their drive home to Mumbai after a weekend at their beach houses cannot conceal their curiosity and power down their tinted windows to steal a wistful glimpse.
Rather than backtrack to Vadkhal Naka to catch NH17 to Poladpur, we have decided to take the scenic route to Mahabaleshwar via the coast. So we head off South to Murud. At every street corner we hear words that will be repeated countless times by onlookers over the next three days: “Thé bhug! Gaadi bhug!”
When we reach the open road, I tentatively step on the gas. And she leaps forward, free at last from speedbreakers and narrow by-lanes. Within seconds, my eyes are streaming despite my dark glasses. For, while the Chinkara does come with a windshield, Guido think they are effete things, and has taken it off the test vehicle. The wind, as a result, roars in at you, almost drowning out the engine. This is just like riding a bike - if the bike had a 1.8 litre engine, and the stability of four wheels.
The road twists and turns, so we can’t really give the Chinkara her head. Even so, she seems to be straining a bit, and in the middle of the next village, the engine shuts off and refuses to start up again. We dig out cellphones and SOS the Bothes, and they backtrack to us. We, meanwhile, have been surrounded by a curious throng, who loudly exchange theories about the car’s provenance.
Guido hasn’t been having a great week. Busy with the launch of a client’s boat for most of it, he had been reluctant to make the trip. Our Chinkara had been up on blocks; he had to pull his mechanics off another job to get her ready. Now, his face turns beetroot as he finds that while he was at the pier, one of his boys has taken a shortcut and stretched the radiator hose to fit rather than add a join. The pipe has worked loose, and the radiator was dry. My inexperience has almost lost them a brand new engine. A shopkeeper gives us buckets of water, and Guido fills up the radiator, showing amazing forbearance in not cussing me out.
We set out again, and the beauty of the wide curves of the coastal road wipes away all the stress of the last hour. In the twilight we stop off at Kashid beach to breathe fresh sea air, pluck a few aloe plants and check the car. The engine temperature is higher than it should be, and Guido is sure there’s a leak somewhere. We decide to press on to Murud anyway – the car uses two Maruti radiators in tandem, and our ad-watching tells us we’ll soon find a Ladakhi lad who’ll tell us where the nearest service centre is. It is dark now; I have to doff my glares. Not anticipating night driving, i have no clear lenses. Insects on steroids aim unerringly for my face; despite the cooler air, I am sweating at the thought of being unsighted and losing control of the car. Somehow we do not wrap ourselves around any trees, and a couple of radiator-replenishing stops later, we pull into a guest house at Murud. We dump bags and immediately head out in search of service centres. Alas and alack, the nearest radiators seem to be back in Alibag. But Shama has friends here, members of the extended royal family of the former Nawabs of Murud, who introduce us to their bespoke mechanic. Who finds nothing wrong with the radiator.
Baffled, but relieved, we go in search of dinner and beer. At a sea-side restaurant, we feast on prawns, curried and fried, while Atul, the only vegetarian, wolfs down a fried rice.
Early next morning, Atul and Guido head off to the beach to take some photographs. When they return, the frown is back on Guido’s face. The engine is overheating again. He departs in search of another mechanic. Several hours later, he returns, and confirms that there was indeed a leak. Repairs finished, we set off in the heat of the afternoon sun. Having breakfasted heavily on eggs and poha, we decide to skip lunch. Guido is pretty sure there’s a road South and East of Murud which would take us to NH17. As the road rises, we get a magnificent view from above of Janjira fort, that Siddi bastion that had defied all human efforts to conquer it, and is only now losing its battle against time. The road rises and swoops down in long curves, before ascending a small slope and passing through another fishing town.
Then civilisation is left behind and it’s a full technical rehearsal for the Mahabaleshwar ghat. Step climbs, hairpin bends, bumpy descents, State Highway 96 has it all. I can feel my confidence growing. SH96 joins NH17 about 45 km before Mahad. Though the road is now wide and mostly straight, I can’t really put pedal to the metal because of the number of trucks and busses on the road. Still, having all those horses pulling for you makes overtaking a pleasure. Besides the wicked joy of seeing an entire busload of people gape as we shriek past.
Just past Mahad, we stop to fuel up. We are more than 24 hours behind schedule and Atul is muttering darkly. He’s missed the best light. Again. But at a pit stop at a lone roadside tea stall, he does manage to get some shots of some ancient Buddhist cave temples on the nearby hillside. He decides that he will salvage something out of the day by driving for a bit. We hit Poladpur, where we leave NH17 and take the road to the foot of the Mahabaleshwar ghat.
The sun is now almost down, and we start the serious climb in the gloaming. We make two stops on the way up, one to watch the last of the sunlight struggle to penetrate the haze causes by dozens of grass fires on the slopes below, another in pitch blackness, just to drink in the silence and the starlight. Atul has surrendered the wheel to me now, and I am enjoying myself hugely. The car makes easy work of the climb, managing all but the steepest gradients in third gear. We reach the top near 9 p.m. The lads at the Visitors’ Tax booth are fascinated with the Chinkara, and assume, seeing Atul’s camera, that we’re one of the three film crews shooting in the vicinity.
Instead of crowded Mahbi, we’re heading for the quieter surroundings of Panchgani. We wend our way through the busy streets and then the quick half hour drive to Panch. I had misread a friend’s directions, and we are soon the star attraction of the bazaar as we try to locate out guesthouse. Several passers-by volunteer contradictory directions, but a phone call later, we get into our rooms, stow away the luggage and head out in search of dinner. Atul has commanded us to be awake at dawn, so we settle down early.
My insomnia rising, I go out and sit in the car. The silence, and the clean air, are balm, but the insects beg to differ, so I duck back in, and, surprise, fall asleep immediately.
Early next morn, we head off to Harrison’s Folly, just out of town. An elongated oblong plateau that pokes far out into the Krishna valley, it is a wonderful alternative to the much larger Tableland above Panch, where the guidebooks insist you should watch the sunrise from, and which is consequently crowded and litter-strewn. In relative solitude, we watch a tandem paraglider attempt to lift off, and take skidding turns to raise dust clouds for Atul’s camera.
At breakfast, we decide that the delays warrant an extra day. While the others wander around the market, I head off to visit friends of my parents. The Wyebrows, after an early retirement, had sold their Navi Mumbai house and now rent an apartment that is a part of the 150-year-old Maidstone Virjee estate, a stately olde worlde property with a magnificent view of the Krishna Valley. As we chat in their verandah, one again I wonder why I continue to live in the city, and once again i make an addition to the list of places I’d rather live in.
After a late lunch, we head back to Mahbi. En route, at the strawberry stalls near Venna Lake Shama tries to charm various shop owners into letting her pluck a few kilos of strawberries, apparently a fantasy she has nurtured since childhood. Winning smiles do not work, however, and she sulks as we drive through the town. Our fan club at the Tourist Tax booth wave indulgently as we head back down slope. While Shama drives the Chinkara behind us, Atul balances precariously on the flatbed of the pickup, with me anchoring him to the vehicle as we sway through the curves by clinging to a rope around his waist. Wild people, these photographers!
We head back to Panch for a late cuppa, and decide to move base to Eco-camp, run by Megan and Andre Savard. Andre is an old paragliding buddy of Guido’s, and their property stretches down the hillside. On a flat area, they have pitched tents for rent with all mod cons (fans, lights and mattresses, loos and baths in a separate block), and a breathtaking view of the valley. Megan tells us that the paragliding fraternity, who have adopted the place as a kind of local HQ, now take off from there, and think nothing of making landings in the entrance flaps of their own tents. I step gingerly back from the drop, my vertigo going into overdrive.
Andre wakes us with filter coffee that would dissolve a teaspoon, and we breakfast with his family before heading off down to Wai. SH72 is easy peasy on this side of the mountain. The roads are getting their pre-monsoon resurfacing and are in much better shape than the Mahbi side. We hit the flat land and zoom through Wai and Surul, where we get on to NH4. After a few kilometres of “normal” highway, the road changes dramatically. Expressway-standard, it is broad and well maintained, and the curves are long and smooth. I callously ignore Atul’s offer to drive and for the first time, I push the speedometer needle above 100 and leave Shama and Guido well behind. When we stop to pay toll, I reflect that it’s the best Rs 11 I have ever contributed to the powers that maintain our roads.
But soon we come to the long stretch before Pune where road widening for the PM’s Golden Quadrilateral is in full swing, and the driveable width narrows to two lanes. The Chinkara grumbles as we get stuck behind a convoy of trucks who refuse to leave enough gaps to overtake. We bypass Pune’s traffic by taking the Katrej turn-off, and join the Mumbai Pune Expressway.
This is the Promised Land. Once more, I floor it, but she is not as responsive this time around. Several Qualises – the ignominy! – pass us. And the engine temperature is rising again. We pull to the side at the toll plaza, and wait for the Bothes to catch up. Again, my inexperience has almost cost them a small fortune. A nut had worked its way loose, and the exhaust pipe was close to falling off. Guido gets to work once more, and refrains from making any remarks about the nut behind the wheel, remarking mildly that I should have stopped when the engine first changed sound.
Chastened, I keep the needle at a demure 80kph till we reach Khopoli. Atul and I need to go west pronto, and the Bothes South to Alibag, to get their new three-seater Chinkara variant ready for its buyer’s visit in two days. So we switch cars, and Atul and i find ourselves feeling out of place within the enclosed cabin and seemingly stilt-high seats of the Nissan. It’s a good vehicle, and we cruise effortlessly at 90, with renewed respect for windshields, but... it’s not a Chinkara.
Oh yes, my 800. I must go pick the old girl up from Alibag one of these days.
Drive - The Information
From Mumbai, head out via Chembur and the Thane Creek Bridge. At Vashi, you have two choices. The straightforward one: stay on the Sion Panvel Road, turn right at Panvel to follow the Goa road (NH17) via Karnala and Pen to Vadkhal Naka (36km from Panvel)
The road less travelled: get through the Vashi Toll Naka, cross the Vashi bypass flyover, and immediately as you come of it, take the exit to the left, that curves underneath to join Palm Beach road. Zoom down the best road in Mumbai and its neighbourhood for 10km, and when you hit the first signal, turn right. The road first crosses Panvel Creek, then the road from Uran to Panvel. You could either go left to Panvel, and then follow the route above, or if you’re in the mood for a little adventure, go straight ahead. The narrow road, in surprisingly good condition, especially considering I haven’t seen it on any map, winds through forested stretches of land, fields, a small ghat, and a few villages. You will pass, at most, one ST bus and a couple of motorcycles en route. The road joins NH17 about 10km short of Pen. From there, head on to Vadkhal.
At Vadkhal, whichever way you chose to get there, you might want to stop and have a chai and its famous vada-pavs. From Vadkhal, you again have two alternatives. Either turn left at the petrol pump and follow the Goa road, NH17, to Poladpur (108km), which means trucks and busses all the way, or continue on South, to Alibag (24km), which is what we did. From Alibag, head on down the beautiful coastal road towards Shrivardhan. You will pass Revdanda, Korlai, Kashid (worth at least a brief stop, if not a halt) and finally, Murud-Janjira (54km from Alibag). We were way behind schedule, with a dicky radiator, so we didn’t carry on down to Shrivardhan as planned. But the essence of a drive trip isn’t the destination, it’s the journey. If you decide to carry on South, you’re in luck if you’re doing the trip on a two-wheeler: you can take the ferry across the creek, otherwise it’s a longish detour inland before you can swing back to the coast.
From Murud (after you’ve filled up on petrol and food), head out South and West, to SH96. The road is demanding, with plenty of slopes and hairpins, and will prime you for the more difficult Mahabaleshwar climb. There’s precious little in the way of service stations or petrol pumps en route, so make sure your vehicle is in good shape before you set out.
SH96 joins NH17 about 45km before Mahad. Pass right on through, and look out for a petrol pump on your right as you leave the town. If you haven’t filled up already, or if there’s any suspicious noises emanating from under the hood, get it checked now. On the way, keep a look out on your left for some ancient Buddhist cave temples carved into the hillside. There’s a roadside chai stall where you could park your car if you’re feeling energetic enough to clamber up to the temples. 20km from Mahad, you come to Poladpur, which is your turn off for Mahabaleshwar.
From Poladpur to Mahabaleshwar, the map swears there’s s straight 42km road. We were in too much of a hurry to check the distance, but I can tell you that that straight line is a lie. The road twists and turns like a snake with an itch. You should try to make sure you get here way before sunset. The climb is something you’d rather do in daylight. There are parts where road maintenance work has narrowed the carriageway considerably, and while the drops are not as dizzying as, for example, the mountain roads of Garwahl, they can be just as fatal. Added hazards are overloaded local jeep taxis who know every curve by heart and drive accordingly, motorbikes saving fuel by driving with their lights off, and city types who haven’t learned to dip their headlights and who want to overtake whether there is place or not.
At Mahabaleshwar, there’s plenty of places to eat and stay, but I recommend heading on through to quieter Panchgani. (18km). We stayed one night at a pretty spartan private guest house, just out of town, run by Mayflower Restaurant (Rs 400 per double room Ph: 02168-242040/70, email: email@example.com ), and moved the second night to Eco-Camp, which has tents with mattresses, fans and lights (Rs 150 per person, ph: 02168-241164, 022-22021409, email: firstname.lastname@example.org). Both places have fantastic views, though at the guesthouse you have to walk down the lane to see anything. There is plenty of other accommodation, though we didn’t have the time to check them out individually. Prices range from a few hundred for a room with a bed and shared loos to a couple of thousand rupees a day that gets you health club, disco, kiddie play area and suchlike thrown in.
In Panchgani and Mahabaleshwar, there’s plenty of lovely walks to be had, and for the more atheletic, hikes to the nearby plateaus, horse and camel rides, bicycles to hire, and paragliding. Strawberries are just hitting the market but even if you go off season, Mapro and Mala have outlets that sell jams, crushes and preserves. There’s also mulberries and raspberries and lots of other fruit to bring back home at a fraction of the cost that you’d pay at a Mumbai traffic signal.
For the return trip, you could retrace your steps, or if work demands your quick return to the city, take the longer, but much faster Pune route. Head down from Panchgani via SH72, through Wai to Surul (25km) and then North via the mostly excellent NH4 to Pune (77km). Unless you have a hankering for Shrewesbury biscuits or yearn to visit the German Bakery and the Osho Ashram, you could bypass Pune by taking the Katrej cut off, which joins up with the Mumbai-Pune Expressway. This is one stretch of road you need not worry about getting stranded on. Regular patrols cruise the entire route, there are clearly marked phone kiosks at regular intervals, and the signage is very helpful, telling you at least a kilometre in advance of exits, tunnels, and stopover points. These stopovers have petrol pumps, restaurants and shops, in case you want a quick fill up of body or machine. You can cruise all the way back to Bombay or detour at Kamset (33km, to visit the Bedsa Caves), or make chikki-and-fudge-purchasing halts at Lonavala (50km from Pune) or Khandala (another 5km). 42km from Khandala, and you exit the Expressway just after Panvel, and take the Sion-Panvel road back into the city.
Meals are available at any of the places along the way. The basic travellers’ rule applies: make sure it’s freshly cooked. You might want to carry your own water though. Along the coastal leg of the route, you’re in luck if you’re a seafood fan. Better still, I recommend that you carry a picnic lunch along and stop under the shade of a nice tree or at a deserted beach somewhere far away from the nearest town to devour it.
Neither Panchgani and Mahabaleshwar seem like great foodie places, but there’s as much variety as you’ll find in any Mumbai suburb, from idlis and dosas to Gujarati thalis, via burgers and pizzas and strawberry milkshakes and filter coffees. We did hear of wonderful Parsi food at Prospect Hotel, but we didn’t get the chance to sample it.
Remember that highway driving is a very different prospect from city traffic jams. Average speeds are much higher, and accidents happen frequently, mostly when someone, drunk on the thrill of speed, tries a foolish overtaking manoeuvre. Trucks and busses abound, and while they are more courteous than their reputations would have one believe, you will get the odd roadhog or drunk, so it pays to be careful. My driving school instructor’s first bit of advice to me holds good: drive like everyone else on the road is a ch******.
In the night, particularly, beware of the ones who do not dip their headlights. The instant of blindness after an approaching headlight catches you full in the face can be terrifying. A useful tip: do your best to look down into the beam thrown by your own lights, though it’s difficult to avoid the hypnotic pull of the lights approaching you.
On the ghats: honk (and flash your headlights after dark) before blind curves around shoulders; overtake with extreme caution; and the vehicle going up slope has the right of way.
The climbs are not nearly difficult enough to demand a four-wheel drive, but it wouldn’t hurt. Check fuel levels and any problems with your vehicle in the bigger towns.
The round-trip route we took gives you a taste of everything barring snow-covered passes and deserts, with fabulous scenery, especially on the way out.
You don’t really need a night halt. Panvel-Mahabaleshwar via NH17 is roughly 190km, Panchgani-Panvel via Pune is 215km, and you could cover the length of either route during daylight hours, even at moderate speeds and with frequent halts, especially if you have someone to share the driving with you. But if you have the time and inclination, Kashid or Murud are good places to halt, and perhaps take a dip in the sea. On the way back, you could detour to Khandala or Lonavala before you hit the plains.
Published (in a much-edited version) in Outlook Traveller, in a column called The Drive, April 2004
Tags: Outlook Traveller
Monday, 1 March 2004
On the Attractiveness of the Eligible Bachelor
A man writing the one article in a men’s magazine that would be better written by a woman. Except possibly the one that helps you understand why the woman in your life needs so many pairs of shoes. Or the one that lays bare for your feeble male understanding the pleasures of a day spent shopping without buying anything.
Ah well. Here goes.
First things first. “Attractive,” “eligible” and “bachelor” are not synonyms. Being one does not imply you are both the others. Or even one of them.
Now that we have that straight, let’s continue.
My research involved focus group discussions and media analysis. (Sorry. Force of habit. More than ten years spent in advertising, you see. It means i dredged a rather faulty memory for past conversations, and checked out magazines.)
Scour the matrimonials, a wise journo friend tells me, when i confess i have no idea what eligible means in this day and age. So, leaving out the religion and community bit, here’s a quick “what’s hot” list, based on the totally random scanning of three Sunday newspapers and several web sites.
One definition of eligible is “someone you can take home to Mama,” so let’s start with what the parents of the to-be brides seem to prefer: well-settled (preferably doctor, engineer or professional, even more preferably in the USA); cultured; fair, or even wheat-complexioned (someone explain this to me - is it ripening stalks swaying in the breeze, wheat grains, aattaa, maida, bread or chapatis?); between 25 and 30 (stretchable to 35 in exceptional cases); good family background; tall would help, but it’s not essential; widowed is ok, just about, just no “encumbrances”; divorced is fine, as long as you’re an “innocent” divorcee, whatever that means.
And the boys’ folks, what do they think will get their pride and joy the right bride? The buzzwords are: any post-graduate degree; well-settled; USA; good family; with car and house, own or company-provided, doesn’t matter; below 35 (or if older, then “looks younger” or is “very well settled.”). And all of them seem to want “homely” girls. Which, if they knew what it meant, would be truly liberated and refreshing. But those are rants i’ll save for another time.
Ok, enough of the Situations Vacant. Pick up a women’s mag, and it’s pretty likely that there will be a poll in it. And that poll will say the highest points in the eligibility stakes go to A Sense Of Humour. Ha ha. And there’s Broad-mindedness. And Caring. And Should Understand Me. Sneaking into that noble list you’ll also find many PC-speak aliases for well-settled. Which also figure in conversations i’ve had with women friends over the years. Some lasses confess to being impressed by swank cars, great clothes, cool apartments, elite degrees and other status symbols. And Green Cards. The sophisticates who would not admit to such material desires use terms like Security, Makes Me Feel Special, High Achievers, Good Taste and Appreciation For The Finer Things In Life.
Which, Gentlemen, brings it down to this: If you want to be considered eligible, you better have trophy value.
Where does this leave me?
The women who seem to place my eligibility score highest are the wives and girlfriends of buddies. One cynic’s theory (no, not me, certainly not me) is that they want all seemingly carefree bachelors safely settled down and domesticated, because that way, their men won’t go all envious and wishing they were single. But i digress.
Technically i am a bachelor. i can’t deny that i’m demonstrably single.
As to the attractive, well, my dearest friends will go no further than to say (now and then), “Hey, nice shirt.” Or, when i look in major need of cheering up, “Ah, you shaved?”
Eligible? Since i passed the age of consent, which was a long time ago, i have spent roughly 75 percent of the intervening years being also unattached. Some of it was voluntary, i admit. You know, the normal thing: you see your madly in love friends getting married, and proceeding to either live unhappily ever after or getting divorced; and you think, not me, never me.
But i’m no misogynist. Quite the contrary. Since my voice broke, there’s always been at least one woman occupying disproportionate amounts of my mindspace. And i’m not anti-relationships either. But i’ve never quite figured out what women want.
The much-trumpeted Sense Of Humour? Doesn’t work. They’ll complain that you can’t take anything seriously. The ones that admit to liking money will complain about the inordinate amount of time you spend earning it and seek consolation with toy boys. The ones that say they like a well-toned body will cringe from the sweat worked up attempting to achieve it. If you’re possessive they’ll call you jealous and insecure. If you’re not possessive, they’ll condemn you for not caring.
Er. Yes. i know. i’m ranting. Sorry. But you get the picture.
And despite all i’ve said so far, i’m a romantic at heart. No, really.
Where was i? Ah yes, my eligibility.
Going by the wish lists, i’m screwed. Or rather, i’m not going to be, not in the foreseeable future.
My bank balance has seen better days. My butt is the kind Botticelli liked. Plus i’m over the age limit, don’t have a 9-to-5 job, earn a decidedly irregular income, drive a battered 800 when i’m not taking the busses, don’t even have a passport, live in a rented flat that’s so far away from the city centre it’s in another city.
But perhaps there is hope. A dear friend - a woman, i hasten to add, and she was consoling me after the last jilting, and she’s happily married - said to me once, “Single women above a certain age, go sour. Single men get better with age.”
So, by that reckoning, if i get that post-grad degree, save up for a house and get a job in an MNC, i’ll be just oozing with eligibility by the time i’m about seventy. And women will throw themselves at me as i hobble down the street. i had better start stockpiling the Viagra.
Hopefully, all the women i know would have forgotten this article by then.
Published in It’s a Guy Thing (GT, for short) the Times of India Group’s Men’s magazine.
Tags: GT (It's a Guy Thing)