The miniature train, royal blue with shiny red trimmings, known fondly as the ‘toy train’, waited patiently on its narrow tracks at Neral Junction. We boarded, and began the slow, winding 800 metre ascent to Matheran, a small town set amidst mountains and forest – its name means ‘jungle topped’.
We sat opposite two Indian women: a mother in her mid-forties, wearing a pale pink sweatshirt and Capri pants, and her daughter-in-law, in jeans and a t-shirt. Iain’s backpack stood in the aisle, leaning against his legs, which poked awkwardly into the tiny train’s aisle. He had positioned the bag near the train’s door, where there was an area of unused space, but a woman in a green sari with a bright red bindi on her forehead had scowled at him and rattled off complaints in Hindi.
The lady in pink noticed the length of Iain’s uncomfortable looking legs, summoned her son, and watched as he moved Iain’s backpack to the end of carriage, in that same space beside the door. The sari wearer muttered, shaking her head.
“Just ignore these people!” the woman in pink said loudly, smiling at us. “Now you will be slightly more comfortable.” She was visiting Matheran for the weekend, with her son, his new wife, and her other daughter-in-law, who sat beside her. “We are Christians from Bombay,” she said proudly, in only faintly accented English. “And where are you from?”
We chatted to them sporadically, gazing out of the window as the train chugged above a dry reddish landscape, where dark green grew in thick clumps. “Isn’t this just wonderful?” the woman exclaimed. It would be her first visit to Matheran, she said, but her son went there often, as did many of her friends. Only a few hours from Mumbai, the hill station is many a Mumbaiker’s weekend paradise.
The train halted at a small platform, where a man squeezed lemons into glasses of water from behind a wagon. “I wouldn’t trust the water those drinks are made with,” said the mother-in-law and, turning to her son, who sat at the window where a drinks vendor had appeared, asked “Do they have Appy?”
Mountains receded into the distance; we had begun moving again. I watched the daughter-in-law opposite us clutch her empty juice box awkwardly, and say, “What are we going to do with these?” to no one in particular. The mother-in-law loudly declared that she had a plastic bag that they could be kept in. But the bag never appeared, and, a few minutes later, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the boxes being tossed out of the window, to lie amidst the unspoilt beauty that everyone had travelled to see.
We reached Matheran, a hill top town with a population of 5000, where motor vehicles and even bicycles are banned; a shady haven to rest the ears and lungs after the chaos of Mumbai. A huge portion of the town’s residents are dogs who sleep the day away, bundles of mongrel pups, sacred cows with calves, goats and bleeting kids, hens hiding chicks under maternal wings, horses, ponies and cats; it is a kind of giant petting zoo. And high up in the trees, are hundreds of mischievous monkeys, picking through the fur behind their babies’ outsized pink ears, bounding through the town, or sauntering into an unguarded home, to steal food which they greedily stuff into their cheeks for later.
A young man in a shirt and brown high-waisted trousers greeted us outside the small train station.
“Where are you going?” he enquired politely.
“To Pramod Lodge,” I told him. I had spoken to Santosh, Pramod Lodge’s owner, on the telephone the day before.
“Aah, yes, Pramod. I am Santosh’s brother,” he said smiling.
“Oh,” I said, surprised, but somewhat glad that he was there to direct us to the guest house, described as difficult to find in our guidebook.
We walked with him, making polite small talk: he asked where we were from; I enquired about the guest house. Halfway down a narrow dirt road, he pointed to the door of a small semi-detached room, with peeling blue paint and a porch. “I am very sorry,” he said. “But we are full at Pramod. Santosh asked me to give you this place.”
I was surprised by our naivety. In India, as in Egypt, the likelihood of the polite, helpful man that appears outside the train station being honest – and not seeking a commission from the hotel he escorts you to – is slim.
We found our own way to Pramod Lodge, where Santosh confirmed that he did not have a brother in Matheran, and that our room was waiting for us.
That evening, Main Bazaar, the town’s central red dirt road, was alit with fairy lights. Indian tourists wandered past stalls selling plastic toys that spun up into the sky, glasses of rainbow coloured sugary cordial, and the most beautiful handmade leather sandals I had ever seen. It was a carnivalesque scene: people wandered by, wearing luminous rubber necklaces that glowed in the dark; groups of girls strolled arm in arm, enjoying their new found freedom from hooting cars and zipping auto-rickshaws. The road was clean and litter free, thanks to the eco-minded town council, who have imposed a complete ban on plastic bags. ‘This place is pretty much Mumbai’s antithesis…’ I wrote in my journal that evening.
At five thirty the next morning, Ganesh, the man with whom we’d organised an early morning horse ride, knocked on our door. “Best time early morning, empty stomach,” he had said. The air was crisp and cool, and the only people we saw along Main Bazaar were other riders, mostly Indian tourists being led by their horse’s reins.
Matheran’s horses are in excellent condition – several also work as racehorses. Underneath their saddles, they all wear red cotton cloth draped over their middles, with their names hand-sewn in coloured letters: Amit and Abishek, our horses, were named after two of India’s most worshipped Bollywood stars.
Following Ganesh, who rode a small well-trained horse, we trotted until Little Chouk Point. A man in a small kiosk offered us chai or coffee, but we hadn’t brought any money. We joined the other riders on the edge of the cliff, to see the view. A fine mist obscured much of the valley ahead, but a few metres below the cliff’s edge, we could see clearly the piles of multi-coloured litter that lay on the ground, almost out of sight. Indian tourists took “snaps” with black film-fed cameras and mobile phones, posing in tracksuits.
We left the groups of riders lingering at the view point, and began a gentle canter along a path through dense woodland, a thick canopy of trees above us. The forest was a deep emerald green, shadowy with glimpses of yellow sunlight streaming through dark leaves. Ganesh released my horse’s reins and we cantered back to town.
Flocks of tiny school children were on their way to school, wearing boxy oversized satchels, white shirts, and navy shorts, or skirts. The girls had red ribbons in their plaits, and silver-belled anklets tinkled on their flip-flopped feet. They giggled and screeched when they saw us. “Hello! How are you? What is your name? What is your country?” and burst into laughter as we turned to answer.
At Main Bazaar, more Indian tourists were arriving; we were yet to see a foreign tourist in Matheran. Large ladies and their husbands were carted in by hand-pulled rickshaws, pulled by young swaggering men. Some arrived on horseback, followed by male and female porters, camouflage suitcases balanced on their heads. A group of ponies ambled along the dusty main road with gas canisters strapped to either side of their bodies and a hungry black cow poked its head into a dustbin that was mounted onto a pole; the bin was only fastened on one side, so it swung back and forth as the cow’s head searched deeper in the bin for breakfast.
After our own breakfast, we took a random route into the village that lay behind Pramod Lodge; it soon seemed like a route that few foreigners take. The villagers stared at us as we wandered slowly past their quaint homes; some retreated shyly inside.
A woman in a bright red sari stood in front of a tall tree, its big, gnarled roots exposed, cutting a bundle of wood into small pieces with a long dirty knife. Behind her, perched higher up, was a tiny sky blue temple, with a square base and a dome in the middle of its flat roof. We peeked through the bars that blocked the temple’s entrance, and saw a shrine of sorts: a poster of a bald man wearing glasses, his one arm raised, palm forward, adorned with marigold garlands and surrounded by small brass containers with lit candle wicks burning in oil, and incense sticks.
The homes on that narrow lane were mostly small, tin constructions – often rusted in parts – but were brightly painted, and had been built carefully, producing a pretty, homely-looking result. Burnt metal drums stood outside, surrounded by metal crockery sets, ready to be washed at the outdoor water pump by housewives on their haunches.
We passed a man painting his wooden rickshaw bright red and orange. He smiled and greeted us as we passed, asked for his picture to be taken, and posed, grinning, proudly holding his paintbrush.
Hay bales were stacked in golden bundles onto the roof of one of the village’s stables. It was the stable where one of the horse riding guides we’d met slept for eight months of the year; he went home to his family in Bangalore during the monsoon.
An old woman lay outside in the shade, on a charpoi: a wooden bed frame strung with criss-crossing pieces of leather or rope. Beyond the tiled entrance pillars to her home – Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth, was featured on a central tile – were potted plants and a brightly painted fence. The house next door was creamy beige. Artificial marigold garlands hung over the doorframe, bordered by brown painted swastikas. The swastika is an ancient Hindu symbol, with multiple positive meanings, including ‘Good Luck’ – also painted, in large brown letters, beside the door.
A few houses down, a balding man of about sixty, with a thick white beard, sat on a chair outside his front door. “Good morning!” he called, as we walked past. “Would you like to come inside?”
We entered a small room with a beige patterned linoleum floor, peach walls, a bookshelf, and a single bed, which the man gestured for us to sit on. Slowly, he brought his chair from outside and sat down.
“My name is Karim Sheikh,” he said from his chair. “Where are you both from, England?”
“South Africa,” I told him. “But we have lived in England.”
“I am very famous in London and Sydney,” he began. “At BA and Quantas.”
He told us proudly that Matheran’s toy train had been featured on British television. “I have many important people coming to visit me here,” he said. “From London and Sydney. They all know me at BA and Quantas.”
Apparently an enormous annual horserace attracted Mumbaikers and Brits alike to Matheran, when the town’s grand horseracing track, left over from the Raj, was put to use again during a week long carnival.
Karim lived with his wife and grandson, who had been sent to Matheran by his parents to attend an excellent English-medium missionary school. The child was about five, and had already made his presence known to us by throwing an unusually heavy toy truck at my legs. His catapult lay on the floor of Karim’s bedroom, where the boy slept on a mattress on the floor at night.
Matheran’s population had recently declined, Karim told us sadly. “Now there are not enough Muslims to eat a whole cow. We cannot keep it more than one day, so we have no beef.”
His grandson announced his presence again by throwing the truck at me with all his might. Karim laughed, and did nothing. We decided it was time to leave.
Muscles aching from a week of horse riding, we dismounted after a sunset ride, and prepared to leave Matheran for Goa. We had tickets for the Konkan Kanya Express, which departed Mumbai at 11pm, and planned to catch the last train to Mumbai from Neral Junction at 7pm. As Matheran is a vehicle-free town, the taxi stand, from where we would be driven down to Neral Junction, is located three kilometres away from the town’s Main Bazaar. Horses and porters plied the route, but cost money, and were no faster than walking.
We reckoned we had an hour to spare before leaving; enough time for a beer. I fetched two green 660ml bottles of Kingfisher from Santosh’s restaurant-cum-bar, wrapped in brown paper bags, and we drank them on Pramod Lodge’s balcony, looking out onto the dusky plains below.
Beers finished, we strapped our packs on and started walking to the taxi stand. We’d walked a few minutes through the town when I realised I’d left my flip flops in the guest house room. I went back for them, but the room was locked and I could not find any staff to open it for me. I ran to Santosh’s restaurant, and he followed me back to the room, bringing its key. Ten minutes had been wasted when I arrived back at the spot where Iain had been waiting with our bags.
It took five minutes and the start of complete darkness for us to realise what exactly we were walking through: a deserted forest where our horse riding guide assured us he had seen several cobras, one tiger, and a few panthers in his five years in Matheran. We began to make a noise: stomping our feet and raising our voices, hoping to scare off anything that we might bump into en route.
The path forked unexpectedly. I could see the lights of a nearby guesthouse, and ran up to it, ignoring shoulder muscles that groaned: my backpack’s twelve kilograms had begun to weigh me down. “Go straight,” a man on the guest house patio said. “Twenty minutes more.” Twenty minutes more and we might miss our train.
We began to walk fast – as fast as we could – each swinging our water bottles upwards by the handles to land on our moving legs with a loud thump. Predators didn’t like noise, we reasoned, neither did snakes. Nothing was going to come looking for what sounded like a crowd of people. So, a crowd we became: shouting and singing as we tore through the forest in a paranoid frenzy, our torch waving from side to side before us, surveying the bushes.
The path continued, with no sign of light. I thought of the long sweaty hour we had spent in a Mumbai train station, queuing for our tickets to Goa, and of the hefty waiting list that every train for the next few weeks had. Another fork appeared. We argued over a route, chose one, and a few dark metres down, realised that it led to nothing. Cursing, we ran back to the fork, by now soaked with sweat from this never-ending journey, and took the other branch, at the end of which shone the yellow lights of the share taxis to the train station – all empty.
“Neral Junction!” I called to the nearest driver, gasping for breath. We would have to pay for the full vehicle; there was no one to share the taxi with.
“Two hundred and fifty Rupees,” he said solemnly.
“Yes, yes!” I panted, trying to open a door.
“Two hundred fifty,” he repeated, his eyes wide.
“Yes, yes, lets go! Very fast to Neral Junction!”
We reached the first of a series of hairpin bends on the dirt track that wound sharply down toward Neral. Headlights flickering wildly, the vehicle tore round the unbarricaded corner into complete darkness, its horn honking loudly at any oncoming traffic we might meet. And thus, the journey continued, for twenty teeth-clenching minutes (our guidebook estimated forty), until we reached the train station.
There were four minutes until the train to Mumbai departed; it was the last train that would get us there in time. We were at the ticket counter when I realised I would not last the two hour journey without a toilet. I left my bags with Iain and sprinted down the platform, searching for any sign of a toilet. A middle-aged woman noticed my panic, and approached me, miming an enquiry. “Toilet, toilet!” I said, and followed her as she darted across the tracks and pointed to a small concrete building. Two perpendicular walls, each about two metres square, formed a corner in front of a locked door. Whether or not the woman had realised that the door – presumably to a toilet – was locked or not, I did not know, or care. I was concealed behind the concrete, which, I imagined, was a better place than the toilet itself, sure to be vile. When the woman reappeared, poking her head round the concrete corner, neither of us flinched.
I dashed back across the tracks, and onto the train with Iain. We slumped onto a hard seat in one of the third class carriages, and noticed the fine layer of Matheran’s pink dust that coated our bodies; our shoes took on a dusky hue. Streaks of dark red had formed where dust met sweat on our legs. Adrenalin still surged through my blood, but my body had begun to give way to complete exhaustion.
Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus – still known as ‘V.T’ (Victoria Terminus) by many abbreviation-loving Indians – was heaving with people. We dumped our bags at a pillar in the station and I sat on my backpack, guarding our belongings. Iain went to ascertain our train’s departure platform.
Entire families were sprawled out on the station floor, lying on large squares of cloth, or asleep, barefoot, with their head on their sandals. Some were surrounded by bulky canvas-wrapped packages, others appeared possession-less. Ladies spooned curry into chapatis spread out in their palms. A man clasped a small mirror, and shaved his white foamy face.
Tiny beggars in rags trudged through the station aimlessly. Men wearing only strips of grubby white cotton wrapped around their miniature builds plodded through the station, carrying small bundles. I knew nothing about Indian dress codes: they all might have been beggars, as might none of them. I sat, concentrating on the ground before me, hoping to deter the aggressive beggars I had already encountered in this city, intermittently flicking my head left, then right, to check that our four pieces of luggage still surrounded me.
Iain returned, saying a porter had informed him that platform number four was our departure point. A uniformed man escorted us to sleeper car one. Sleeper class is the fourth of five descending classes, and less than half the price of the next class up, which is air conditioned. More than this, we did not know.
Our overnight travels had thus far been on buses in the Middle East, which had been clean and comfortable. We’d taken one overnight train in Turkey, and one in Egypt, both in carriages with plush reclining seats. Journeys within Western Europe had been short; our only other overnight train experience had been on a Swiss-run express from Barcelona to Geneva, complete with white sheets, hospital corners, a basin in each single sex four bed compartment, complementary earplugs, mineral water, and a reading lamp. It had been one of the best night’s sleep we’d had in Europe.
I stepped onto the carriage, and strode past noisy passengers who overflowed into the passageway, from beside padded blue shelves, triple tiered, where they were arranging their luggage. Searched for a compartment, I noticed our berth numbers, 54 and 55, nailed beside two of the padded shelves, one above the other, in the middle of the unpartitioned carriage, where about eighty others would sleep that night.
“Oh my god… This is it?” I said to Iain. “It can’t be… I thought we were in compartments.”
We shoved our bags under the bottom bunk, onto the filthy floor, and sat down, caked with our coating of pink dust. I ran my hand over the bunk; it hadn’t seen a wipe in a while, and was left with a hand as dusty as the floor. Iain chained our bags together, while I retrieved a bar of soap and washed my hands and face in the toilet’s basin, careful not to let the soap touch the unidentifiable slop on the basin’s edges. The train began to move, past what smelled like a sewage farm, but could not have been: the smell remained potent – toe-curling, Iain called it – for some time, and when I peeked through the shutters to identify its source, I saw that we were travelling along the banks of a river.
Iain took the bottom bunk to keep me further from reach of any potential misdemeanours: a friend we’d made in Luxor had woken on an Indian train to his girlfriend screaming as a man climbed into her bed.
The berths were about five foot long, which left over a foot and a half of Iain to be contorted into some form of repose. The sound of chai wallahs, selling tea, traipsing up and down the carriage, howling, “Chai chaaai-ya! Chai chaaai-ya!” sent us into agitated, intermittent slumber. The same sound woke us at four the next morning, as the wallahs leaned over, toward our ears, offering chai in wails that resonated through the sleeping carriage.
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