(A narration of a true story that happened in April. Longish.) Part 1
Finally it's happened.
I won't say I wasn't warned. I was. I have head-high piles of old Cosmopolitan magazines, each comprising of maybe three issues, stacked away at home.
And every issue, alas my insolence, carried enough advice on how I could have prevented what eventually occurred. But did I heed any of them? No!
The numb-skull that I am, I ignored all the advice columns and concentrated on all the pages with all the pictures of the fine ladies in their frilly lacy little... but that is besides the point.
A couple of months ago we had our first marital crisis.
It all began with a phone call. The missus called from the office:
"Let us get out of the city this weekend no? Feel like leaving it all behind for a while..."
Oh my. Perhaps her excel sheets were acting up again, I thought oh so very, very wrongly.
The missus works for an insurance company and her job involves modelling the volatility of various financial instruments over multi-decade time spans. The results give an indication of what the long term expected returns on various instruments are.
(Or so she told me once and I wrote it down. I am one of those marketing/strategy type MBAs. "Sensex? What is that? A bengali's wife recently divorced?" I may be heard to say ignorant of the financial world.)
This modelling thing is a painstaking process.
Just last week she had completed a 24-hour simulation for gilt prices. She was expecting an output in the range of 7 to 8% per annum. After 24 hours of processing she was pleasantly surprised when the excel sheet threw up:
Average annual yield on gilt prices: @#blech!$
"Off by a little bit I think..." her boss said thoughtfully.
So I assumed she wanted to get away from yet another dodgy model (hee hee) and spend some quality time with the hubby man.
"Ah excel getting cranky eh?"
"No it's not that..."
"Err... the weather perhaps..."
"Then what happened?"
"Forget it you won't understand..."
OH DEAR GOD NO! DID SHE JUST "YOU WON'T UNDERSTAND" me??!! OPEN UP DEAR EARTH AND SWALLOW ME WHOLE...
The single reader has no idea what it means when a women utters that particular phrase.
The words ‘You won't understand' from a woman's mouth ranks up there with other ominous utterances like: "Howdy dear Iraqi people! We will restore democracy, clean up the place and be gone in a jiffy before you can say ‘What happened to all the bloody petroleum Mohammed?' Shia all very Sunni then..." or "Let's take a quick single Sourav!"
I immediately knew that something was up. Something was amiss. What could it be? Since I was already home early that day I decided to surprise the lady.
I cleaned up the dishes, did the laundry, took the garbage out, mopped the bathrooms dry.
And after those daily chores of mine I decided to go get her some flowers. You know, as a surprise.
Ding Dong! (Well actually wrrrr... sputter... squeek... wrr... cough, cough... wrr... thud.)
She was here.
I quickly opened the door and showed her the flowers but it was fruitless. She ignored the bouquet with a vacant gaze in her eyes and strode over to the sofa. She dropped herself in the two-seater and switched on the TV.
Suddenly, just a few moments later, everything was clear to me.
In front of me, channel after channel streamed the news that had embittered my wife so.
The great Bachchan-Rai wedding of April 2007.
But of course! How could I have not known it.
See the missus is, to be realistic about it, in love with Abhishek Bachchan.
Now I know that sounds weird coming from the husband of the gentlewoman in question. But that is, pretty much, the whole truth. Now when a guy is tall, well-built, great-looking, immensely talented and, not to forget, fabulously wealthy, you would expect his wife not to care two hoots about some bollywood nutcase.
But apparently there is something about the way the 'small B', unshaven face and all, holds his belt buckle and oscillates his hip to Dus Bahane that makes the missus all week in the knees.
She sat there looking at the screen transfixed. A frown simmered on her face.
Something had to be done. Maybe we should go out for the weekend. That should take her mind off things.
I reached for the Lonely Planet...
Half-way up the winding road the Bachchan-Rai wedding is no longer on our minds. We are tightly hugging each other whispering softly in each other's ears.
Love rekindled? Leisurely company triumphs over jealousy?
We were preparing to die.
Moments earlier we'd got off a packed local train from Dadar to Neral. The train was stuffed to the gills with lively Matheran trippers. I used the opportunity to get to know a wallpaper salesman from Worli in general and his left armpit in particular. A nifty hand with wallpaper but not so much with deo if you get my drift. Or his drift.
We'd not got any tickets on the toy train up to Matheran and in any case they said they wouldn't hold our rooms at the Hope Hall Hotel after noon. So we really couldn't take a chance. The taxi trip up would take just half an hour. The train took three whole hours.
Ten minutes later we were being thrown around inside a rickety old Omni van mutually agreeing that we would try to get in touch with each other in our afterlives.
"Scrap me on Orkut darling..." I muttered trying to keep breakfast down.
She looked at me doe-eyed. "Not if I meet Abhishek first..."
At the wheel was a young man who I was sure, if we pulled his pants down, still had large pink swathes of nappy rash. His young demeanour and smooth cheeks belied a penchant for self-annihilation which would have made him a shoo-in with assorted terrorist outfits all over the world.
And if hair-raising hair-pins and outrageous overtaking was not enough we also had to deal with the world's most bizarre audio cassette.
It was horrid, loud and potentially in violation of the Geneva convention. Highlights include the Titanic Theme Remixed, the (ironic this) Best of Aqua, a psychotic bassed-up version of Dancing Queen and, amidst all the other cacophony, a never-heard-before version of the Saat Samundar song along with rap vocals.
'Saat samundar.... baby... across the seven seas baby... paar mein tere... I reach across... to you baby... YEAH!'
The audio system was cranked up to a level that made our van audible to places very very far away. Like Alpha Centauri. Somewhere out there in space intelligent life will listen to our sound waves and never establish contact with Earth.
We were quite relieved to finally reach Dastur Car Park where the tarred road ended and the mud paths began. There we also saw, milling around this secluded, and sylvan locale often called the quietest and least commercial of West India's hill stations, over four million people trying to sell us hotel rooms and horse rides.
After paying the requisite donation to enter Matheran we decided to tough it up the path. The weather was exceedingly pleasant and we decided not use the horses or hand-drawn rickshaws.
Three seconds later the sun came out and decided to supernova.
"My god this is terrible My complexion is going to get all screwed up. Do you have my sunscreen in that bag? It must be next to my night cream and moisturiser..." I said to my wife.
We clambered up for the first half an hour well-motivated by the need to get some fresh air and greenery. We laughed at the idiots pounding by on their horses and lazy bums who sat awkwardly in their rickshaws.
"Get some environment on your holiday people!" we would have screamed if we were not hyperventilating like blackholes.One of the online Matheran guides had warned us about the possibility of monkeys. "Don't carry food in the open. And don't open any plastic bags in front of them. They may look cute but they can harass you."
Half way up the rail track, which we followed, we came across our first crop of the local simian populace. They were cute alright, in a Hulk Hogan sort of way. Some of them had bloodshot eyes and looked hungry.
What could have made them so aggressive, we wondered. Till it suddenly hit us that they had were often subject, some their entire simian lives, to the Best Of Aqua.
An hour or so after we began our trip we were finally there. At Matheran. One of the most quaintest of India's hill-stations. It was just past noon.
Matheran, in the local language, stands for "Place in the hills with the red dust that penetrates into every possible orifice on your person. Say good bye to your Lee Coopers. And if the dust does not get you the horse-dung will. Good luck with the dry cleaning."
The local language is remarkably efficient.
Matheran is famous for its brilliant red dust. Some people come all the way there just to get a glimpse of the soil. (And we sincerely hope the monkeys take them out on their way down.)
Just a few steps through the main town road and soon our footwear are covered with a hardy layer of red, super-adhesive Matheran dust. I am talking about resilient stuff here. Six months later, when you are showering at the gym, this is the sort of dust that suddenly appears from behind your ears like an old doping friend from engineering college at a family function who is still a little stoned but hasn't forgotten a thing.
But that didn't bother us. We were on our way to the wonderful Hope Hall Hotel.
You won't hear much about the HHH anywhere outside the Lonely Planet type circles. It is a place which really does justice to the term ‘quaint'. The rooms are moderately sized and you get bucket hot water in the mornings. If you are the type who don't mind a little roughing it out during your weekend retreats you must get in touch with the wonderful lady at HHH.
Oh and did I tell you about the cats? The lady of the HHH has a collection of some 29 cats. That's right. Twenty-nine. Some would be tempted to make jokes about the lady comprising words like ‘cuckoo', ‘rocker', ‘bina terrace ke building' and so on.
But some would refrain from doing that if they saw her long-haired biker brother who wears knuckle-busters and tattoos and had seventeen piercings. And that's just on his tongue.
We checked in, showered and changed and decided we must make the most of our time at Matheran. It is not often that one gets a relaxing weekend out of town with no traffic, no mobile coverage and no laptop or internet.
We stepped out for a spot of nice warm lunch.
I forgot to make a very pertinent point. Matheran does not allow any motor vehicles or bicycles into the town. The only modes of transport allowed are horses and hand-pulled rickshaws. This keeps the town clean and unpolluted and means agony for my right knee which has a cruciate ligament problem from my first day ever in a gym.
(Though if you ask me I think the locals wait for the tourist season to get over to bring out their scooters and Marutis and zoom around town burning their tourist money.)
For lunch we ate at one of the larger local restaurants.
I am not cribbing, I understand its tough to get all the ingredients up there and all. But seriously. The dal tadka had so much oil that it won't be long before someone begins to wonder if the Dal enjoys true democracy or not.
The rotis and omlettes were passable. In a court of law.
Over lunch we drew up a long list of must-see local sights. Matheran has some excellent views and good short treks to reach them. We knew we wouldn't to cover all of them. So we identified a handful we could cover by the time we had our train downhill the next morning.
But it was already well past noon and we were running out of time. No point in hauling yourself to a hill station if we didn't do it complete justify eh! So we immediately got on with the first thing on our list of to-dos.
A refreshing siesta.
When we stepped out all energized it was already beginning to darken up a bit and we decided we needed to run to check off a few things.
Echo Point: Screamed. Echoed. Screamed. Echoed. Screamed. Echoed. Screamed. Echoed. Scr... Wife nudged. Check.
One Tree Hill: Looked at spectacular view. Mentioned to wife about spectacular bounty of nature. Mutually agreed that more must be done to protect this fragile ecosystem we live in. Got attacked by Bumble Bee. Wife frowned at insect. Bee fell down dead. Check.
By the time we had marched back from One Tree Hill it was past sundown and the local market was springing up to life.
Matheran has one of the most charming night-time markets. Complete with gas lights and knickknack vendors and roadside food stands and all. In fact one of the provision stores had, proudly displayed in the small clearing outside by the main town road, that most traditional of hill-station revenue generating items, a pool table. I think I have a picture of it somewhere.
Dinner was a much more pleasant affair than lunch and we sat a restaurant perched on a rock step well above the main road. It offered a great view, a respite from the omnipresent dust and a tiny little mite of mobile network signal.
Then we went out for a bit of souvenir shopping.
Matheran is a real footwear freak's dream come true. You get the most wonderful slippers and sandals at excellent bargain prices. And in the world of footwear freakdom the missus is spoken of in hushed tones. I don't know exactly how many shoes she has but I have seen her using excel sheet in the mornings to pick a pair.
She hit the shoe shops while I went around buying the staple chikki and fudge for the people back in Mumbai. For the love of flat-soled slip-ons I can't recollect the name. But there is a chain in Matheran that sells the most divine chikki I have ever had.
It melts in the mouth. You don't even need to chew. Just bite off a piece and wait for it to vaporize into wonderful sweetness.
When I turned back with a few boxes of sweet goodness the missus had completed her spree and we took a long leisurely walk back to the HHH. The next morning we had to wake up at the break of dawn and quickly cover at least another half dozen mini-treks.
Good night. Yawn.
We woke up bright and fresh, just after sunrise in Johanessburg, with half an hour before our train was due to leave Matheran station.
We breakfasted on some misal pav and idli sambar and just about managed to catch our first class seats for the return journey.
At first we were quite gung-ho about the whole thing. The train was really quite tiny and the eight of us were packed into a space that in regular trains would hold the metal wash basin. But there was holiday cheer all round and we all looked forward to the leisurely descent ahead.
Now I don't know about you. But there are only so many times one can spot at a steep scary looking sheer drop by the side of the train and look on with interest. I lasted half a dozen. The wife managed around twenty. But this gujarati gentleman across us leapt around to catch every single sheer drop view. And there are some thirty thousand of these rather repetitive vistas. On a normal train this hustling is ok. But not on a train which had a board inside which reads:
"In rain and heavy wind please leave the windows open. Otherwise the coach can get blown off the track. You will end up us a large red smear. Wait! You already are a red smear! Ha! - By order."
It was unnerving to say the least.
There is one tunnel on the route called One Kiss Tunnel. Apparently it gives you time to pull off one quick smooch. I leaned over, brimming with passion, and caught the gujarati gentleman on the hip.
When we slowly chugged into Neral station we were more than a little relieved to be back on terra firma. Now all that stood between us and home was a Dadar train and then a short cab ride.
We got out of the lift and there lying in front of the door was the newspaper. The front page was mostly one large picture of the dreaded celebrity couple I had so desperately tried to shield my wife from in Matheran. I lunged for the broadsheet.
But it was too late. She had already seen it.
There was a sigh. A dropping of the shoulders.
"Darling don't get out of your clothes! I think we can just about make it to Lonavla if we leave now..."