Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Into the Rainy Jungle

Sujata Massey

Monkeys are everywhere in Matheran. They work in teams to keep the wild dogs from getting scraps of tourist food they fancy

All of us seem to be exploring.
About a month ago, I slipped out of my ordinary life in Baltimore and traveled solo to India for some necessary book research. The fall is a great time to visit India; there are plenty of seats on the plane, and while the weather isn't winter-wonderful, isn't hell either.

I based my research in Maharashtra, the beautiful southwestern state with mountains and sea and the country's artistic heart.In the British period, Maharashtra was part of Bombay Presidency, a collection of several provinces overseen by a British governor based in  Bombay. My next book features a young woman lawyer leaving her hometown of Bombay for special assignment into these hills. She's a fish out of water and has to deal with complicated social customs as well as the hostile environment.

The Sahyadri Mountain range lies about two hundred miles northwest of Mumbai. It's not a difficult journey. I planned out a visit to include the hill towns of Lonavala, Khandala, and overnighting for a while in Matheran, a hill station that had never built roads. I was dead set on avoiding glitzy, modern India and sinking into nature at its most natural.

At  Lonavala, and the sky cleared enough to show some detail of the striation of the hills. 

 I'd planned to take a regular train from Mumbai and switch to the historic narrow-gauge railway that ran up the steep hill to Matheran, a famous old British hill station. Fortunately, I checked in with a travel agent before getting on the train. A few months earlier,the toy train had been washed off the tracks during rainy season and was still out of order. In fact, the line might be dead forever. However, the driver I'd hired to help me during the 16-day trip could  bring me to a drop-off point where I could either walk or ride the remaining 5 kilometers uphill to my bungalow-hotel. It was the only way; and the thought of taking myself up to a pedestrian-only hill station was enticing.

Once my driver, Namdev, brought me up the steep misty roads to Matheran, I realized it could be very easy to get lost among the thousands of twisty trees and thick mists. It resembled the set for a horror film. Still, I kept going. This was a part of India not ruined by tourism. But I decided not to walk or ride alone. 

My driver and interpreter, Namdev was a good sport about riding a horse

The horseback ride was slow and waterlogged, but Namdev was with me, and we had a male guide leading the party and two teenage boys holding the reins. It was over an hour of slow, careful plodding until we reached Verandah in the Forest, a Neemrana heritage hotel occupying the home of Captain Harry Barr. He's the Englishman who built the second bungalow in Matheran. The house,wwhich eatures a thirty-foot ceiling in the sitting room, is a period model of elegance and function.

My hope had  been to explore Matheran and see gorgeous hill views from specific points. And according to everything I'd read, October was not rainy season anymore; it was supposed to be a shoulder season between rain and winter. Yet on the early day in October that I traveled, Matheran was still gripped in late monsoon season. After my first twenty-four hours in Matheran, the rain fell so hard and constantly that it gave me--a lover of thunder and lightning and the pitter-patter of raindrops-PTSD.

Waterfalls are everywhere in these mountains that spill over with rains.  

The historic gates to Verandah in the Forest

Another view of the bungalow; I couldn't hang out here because it rained too hard

Hundreds of different kinds of trees and reptiles in the Maharashtran forest. There was a delightful rain forest feeling everywhere.

The actual verandah where one can sit and watch the rains

Verandah in the Forest is furnished with Victorian and Edwardian Indian furniture with a Parsi aesthetic. This is the tallest settee i've ever encountered.  For what reason?

The rain stopped for only about 2 hours during my three day stay in Matheran. I rushed out with another woman staying at the bungalow. Still, the mists did not left--and because of the plateau-like structure of the hill station, you can't roam around without danger of fear of falling over the edge. We were able to reach  the historic dam built by Mr. Tata, which provided hydro-electric power to Bombay.

A friendly man explained that stones are taken out of the dam wall during rainy season to allow water to spill into the lake and not flood the land. Because rainy season was drawing to an end, he was tightening up the wall with missing stones. He was happy about the change of season--but I couldn't see it.

What do you do at a romantic historic resort, when you are one person and it is keeps raining?
The hotel had no wifi or telephone. There were only three books on a table in the sitting room, and they were coffee table books with photographs, not murder mysteries. The only other guests were couples on anniversaries who were lost in their planned event.

So: I worked on editing my next book, and I took overly long naps where I fell asleep listening to the rain and woke up to realize it was thundering. I understood what it might mean to be confined to a place to months on end with only the rain as your soundtrack.

I got an excellent sense of my next book.

Namdev shot this picture of me at an odd angle without my realizing it. I think he was rather Hitchockian in his composition. Bravo. The Sahyadri mountains were gorgeous--but not at all relaxing.


  1. An amazing adventure, Sujata! Thanks for "taking us along."

  2. What a great adventure! And what a place to visit. Can't wait for your next book! Or drafts thereof.

  3. That was certainly a different experience and terrific adventure. Thanks for bringing us along for the ride.

  4. How interesting and unusual.

    I wonder how many of us could "survive" several days without phones and wifi -- and no books. We'd be calling for "mercy."

  5. I think we need aroma blog now- I bet the smell of that place was unique ! It sounds lovely, rather enchanting in the mist and rain.

  6. Sujata, all of the above. What a fabulous sojourn. I can't wait to read what the experience inspires. Our characters have to deal with the unexpected. It's wonderful that you put yourself in such circumstances in real life.

  7. Looks like the perfect setting for the thunderous debut of Matheran Noir!