Saturday, June 27, 2015

A Weekend In The Sahyadris

I chuckle quietly as the kids argue and fight. We are playing cricket - three of us from Mumbai and a bunch of 10-12 year olds – on the patio of a abandoned decrepit house in the village of Kelichapada and one of the kids has hit the ball out into the street and is adamant it bounced on the parapet before it went over while the rest are busy trying to pry the bat out of his hands, because ‘direct bahaar jaaye to out’. I was once one of these kids, I think to myself. Except, I was not. I am here in Kelichapada, about 7 kilometres from the town of Jawhar, nestled in the gorgeous Sahyadris, a region dotted with tribal villages of the Warli, Kukana and Kolchas. I grew up in a city and went on family trips during my summer vacations and these kids here have never stepped outside Jawhar and their only assured meal of the day is the one the village school provides.
About 160 kilometres north of Mumbai, beyond where the local trains can bring legions of daily commuters and cheap housing, lies the town of Jawhar. I visited Jawhar in February this year as part of an initiative called Rural Mania. The group works with the tribal-folk in a village near the town, to provide for basic necessities and infrastructure and avenues for generating income. But more on that later.
The town of Jawhar lies about 160 kilometres north of Mumbai, beyond where the local trains can bring legions of daily commuters and cheap housing. The town is largely nondescript – rows of small stores with decayed doors, haphazard houses and garish telecom signage – but all around it the Sahyadris rise and fall majestically and create gorgeous vistas that change colour with the seasons, browns and yellows in the summer months and intense greens in monsoon. Sprinkled throughout are the striking reds of Semal trees. Tiny tribal hamlets, clusters of thatched and red-tiled sloping roofs, dot the landscape. The ancient art of Warli paintings is still alive in them. They are simple stick-like drawings that depict profound messages on life and its harmony with nature.

During the rains, water weaves through the many fields of red millet (known as Nachani locally) on the slopes and accumulates in paddy fields and provides the region with its annual harvest. The air is fresh and the sounds of automobiles are rare and when a breeze blows the trees bristle and the grass rustles and smoke from a farm in the distance unfurls and hangs languorously in the air. I imagine the gentle guitar strains of a Kings of Convenience song in my head.
It is a place perfect for a refreshing family expedition, filled with leisurely strolls and invigorating hikes. With me are a group of ten people, ages ranging from the twenties to fifties, and by the time the trip ends, each one of us will have found something in Jawhar that will make it worth our while.

On a hill overlooking the town, stands the now decrepit Jay Vilas Palace, inside which entry is forbidden. Some structures still stand, however, and against the backdrop of blue skies and rolling hills, they make excellent subjects for a photograph.

There is a lake called the Jaysagar near the city. It swells in the monsoons and then recedes through the rest of the year and leaves in its wake, smooth rocks imprinted with intricate patterns of moss. We stroll on the lake’s banks in the early morning sun, under a cluster of trees, and the water is clean and blue and resplendent and there is not another soul in sight.

There are two waterfalls near Jawhar and they do not run dry even in summer. Dabhosa, around twenty kilometres away from the main town, is the more popular. Somewhat closer, is the lesser known but equally pretty Kal Mandavi waterfall. To reach it requires a short but steep hike, perfect exercise for the younger members in the group. Kal Mandavi rarely sees visitors and its pleasures can be had without intrusion.
There is another, less pretty, side to Jawhar, and that brings us back to the Rural Mania initiative. The region is one of the worst in India on the issue of malnutrition in children and the initiative’s primary objective is to provide balanced meals for the kids at a local village school. Each weekend, a group (such as the one I am in) travels there with supplies of grains and other necessities and spends a day with the locals.
The village – Kelichapada - is a tight little cluster of low buildings. The road which leads to it rises abruptly into a hill beyond and a short walk up provides a vantage from which the entire village is in view. Against the backdrop of low rolling hills, it forms a grand sight. The sun sets directly behind the village and for a few precious moments, the houses turn into elegant dark silhouettes with soft reddish edges. Roosters loiter on the street and rarely react when people walk past, except for when a kid chases after them. Women carry vessels from a well outside the village throughout the day. There are DTH dishes on the roofs of several houses, a curious detail given how expensive they are and the frequent power-cuts in the region, and when I ask a local, I learn they are remnants from a ‘goodwill gesture’ by a political party during last year’s election campaign.

The village-folk are warm, friendly people. Most of them can only speak Marathi, but language, really, is only as much a barrier as one allows it to be. People get along perfectly well with simple monosyllables and broad smiles. We hang out with the kids for a while, playing board games and cricket. The extent of the effects of malnutrition become clear only when we ask what age they are, and they turn out at least 3-4 years older than what we estimate from their appearance.

We leave the village after dark, pensive but also warmed of heart, and return to our splendid holiday cottage. A light rain falls and the air is cool and we stay up for a long time.

Article First Published on Livemint in slightly modified form here