“Madamji we’ve reached,” the man on the wheel said.
With my head reeling and eyes shut, I whispered, “Accha, utarti hoon.”
I was feeling nauseated when the jeep had begun moving up the hill in spirals. My stomach churned and I wanted to throw up, I had also asked the driver to halt, but he refused saying it was not safe to stop at such a height. Heights scared me, but I wanted to visit Matheran, there were too many stories told, too many to still unfold.
We had lost few and gained some here…They have all become part of our lessons learnt in Matheran.
I got down from the jeep, but I couldn’t hold footing on the red sand. “Madamji paani,” the driver asked. I refused as I knew I would be fine in sometime. We were still at the foothills of the hill. I tied my laces, wore my back-pack. The driver again courteously, asked, “Would you like to ride the pony uphill or do you prefer walking.”Matheran is the only pedestrian hill station in the state of Mahrashtra. Motorists stopped below, after which only a mini-train, ponies or your feet could take you to your destination.
“My journey begins here and yours ends. Thanks,” I replied in a rudely-soft monotone as I walked to climb the hill. My mother hated this habit of mine. If I did not like a person or was too disinterested to get into a conversation, I would end it on a very sarcastic note. She said, it was offensive, yet very pleasantly put. Dad to be more precise described it as sarcasm.
Yes, I did not like the driver, simply because he did not stop driving when I was uncomfortable. I could hate and like people easily and this is all I liked about myself. I was coming to love Matheran and had already begun to hate the driver. A balance I have maintained, right from birth. If there ever was a void, I knew how to fill it. My trip to Matheran was to fill the same space created in our lives 21 years ago.
After paying the toll, I began my trek. It would be only 20 minutes later that I’d reach the hill station. It was mid-January and the temperatures were freezing at around 7 degrees. My cardigan kept me warm, but my hands were still cold.
I had just passed a hawker selling cucumber spices with pepper, when my cell phone beeped…after already two messages of the same kind while walking my way up the hill, I wasn’t expecting anything different, “Welcome to Airtel Maharashtra, you are now on Airtel roaming. Your call rates will now be….” Nuisance!! I thought, the same message thrice.
Few minutes later, I received another SMS. I opened it irritatingly. “Hey sweetheart, give us a buzz when you reach Matheran…already missin u, tk of u r self, i hope v can trust u.”
I replied to the SMS, “rchd matheran…it’s a nice place…but won’t send more smses…on roaming…will talk ltr..bye.”
I switched off my phone. Staying off contact helps connect better with the place you are in…
As I was walking uphill, my eyes suddenly fell on the Matheran signboard; I was finally here.
Twenty-one years ago, I had come here, as a three-year-old. It is strange; my heart skips a beat when I think of coming here as a baby. We lost him in an accident the last time we came here. My parents never traveled after this. Today, they allowed me, but on one condition… I won’t ride on a pony.
The one-day trip to Matheran begins…
My best friend Payal stayed here, so it spared me the hassle of checking into a hotel. Payal and me are good friends from college. Incidentally, we bonded in college on boys, as our respective exes were brothers, later we bonded on Matheran, her native and my fairy tale land.
She knew everything about me, right form me wearing diapers till four to have never been kissed even at 24.
As I entered ‘Navya restaurant,’ I saw Payal, waiting anxiously. She rushed towards me and gripped me tightly by the hand; her eyes suddenly began to water. “Seeing you after two years,” she said. Payal had taken up hotel management in senior college while my interests lay in the social sciences. Payal had been handling her father’s restaurant ‘Navya’ for three years. “How long will you be in?” she asked, as she moved her arms forward to gather me in a tight embrace. “10 hours, Payal, that is all I have,” I replied.
“Then we must get going,” she said.
She pulled my hand forward and took me inside the restaurant kitchen that led to a small cottage. This is where Payal lived with her “ma”. After her father passed away, she decided to move back to Matheran so that her family business continued. I remember her telling me, “To see ‘Navya’ pass on to another hands would be sending my dead father an invitation to hell.”
Payal treated me to dosa for breakfast, after which we went shopping for chapals and chikki. Ponies passed me as I crossed the road, I trembled. “Payal,” I said, “This fear needs to run down.” After a long pause she said, “Wait till evening comes.”
Shopping, gossiping blew time like dust…it was 4 pm and already late. I shook Payal who was lying on my lap. “Lets go now,” I requested. She was tired, but got up and slipped into a good fitting pair of jeans. “Levis…Rs 5,000…hows it?” she asked. “Great…but lets go…I have a train at 6.30,” I answered. She had tried to put a damper on my object of coming to Matheran but I managed to get my way.
We came only at 5.45 in the evening. Her mother, by then had packed all my shopping items in a bag. Payal again had tears in her eyes, “You should have stayed,” she said.
“Thank you,” I said with a smile. I was planning to drive down to Neral station in a cab.
“How will you go down to the cabbie, do you want me to give you company?”
“No,” I said, “I’ll go alone….I shall ride the pony”
As I rode down, I hummed,
“Yankee Doodle went to town
A-riding on a pony
Stuck a feather in his hat
And called it macaroni….”
I couldn’t see Payal now, but i know she was smiling.
I am back home. Mom and Dad really missed me today… But I am happy for reasons I have longed to find an answer to. You know I sat on a Pony today. I can’t believe I did that, but, yes, I did. This wouldn’t have been possible without Payal. I rode the entire Matheran stretch while she behind me. She reminded me of Abhay, my 10-yr-old brother. He was sitting behind the last time, I remember. But then he slipped and fell. What happened after that was strange? I remember riding alone, then, my parents had looked at me with eyes of desperation, fear and pain.
Not the loss of my brother, but the fear I saw in my parents eyes while riding the pony had been eating me from inside.
Today, as I got down the pony Payal gave me a broad smile.
Later, she smiled again as I rode the pony down, alone. I no longer fear the pony…but I miss my brother and Payal. One I lost and the other I found in Matheran… and yes my parents never knew that I had been riding on a pony.