Matheran (Maharashtra) has walking trails inside the forests that surround the village with 33 view points that look over the valley below and a lake. We walked along the trails and stopped and breathed in the view at some of the viewpoints. We arrived at one such view point after walking for about a couple of hours and decided to take a short hydration break. Every view point worth its view had a small shop selling hot and cold drinks. This one had one too.
Life to me always seems like a string of serendipitous moments, even the seemingly meaningless have a place in the bigger picture. The man we met in this tea shop, I suspect is one such piece of my life puzzle, deceivingly insignificant but valuable to paths I take or will take someday. This is other than the fact that the time we spent in his company was memorable and the stories he told us are etched in my memory as is his warm smile.
He was a skilled storyteller, through his stories I learnt that his name was Ravi. The conversation started when I asked him if he lived nearby. I was curious whether Matheran was a village or if it had always just been a getaway for Mumbai dwellers. I learnt later that it has always only been a getaway but a village full of bussinesses flourished with the tourism.
Ravi began by telling us he had grown up and now lived and took care of one of the many bungalows in Matheran. He went on to add with some nostalgia and shaking his head in displeasure about the Adivasi village in the valley below and how the land had been sold to the government for development and the Adivasi way of living was no longer a reality. They had come into a lot of money and preferred the city’s ways of living now.
He slipped naturally into stories of his youth when he had seen a tiger once in these forests and of another man was who was so ” arrogant” otherwise but once peed in his pants when he saw a tiger. He remarked at how different it was to see a wild tiger as compared to a caged one. He had also seen a leopard and a panther. By then I was listening enamoured by his stories. He lamented how there were no more animals left in Matheran except monkeys. He went on to say how he always advocated for leaving the animals alone, they never did us any harm anyway. He described these sticks he had fashioned to rescue snakes after having seen a visiting conservationist use them. “You have to be careful when you pick them up with a stick because if you hurt their skin even slightly, they would die of the wound.”
He had not been to Bombay in seven years, he didn’t feel like going down the hill anymore, but he spoke of his life in Bombay 35 years ago. He had lived in a chawl, it was a multi-storey building now and his heart raced when he looked down from the 10th floor window. He quickly came back to talking about the magic of Matheran, how the seasons changed the forests, the many medicinal plants that grew there, he pointed at one and told us that breathing in the leaves, revived people from a sun stroke.
All these stories seamlessly flowed into each other, following a stream of consciousness in his mind, interjected occassionally with a few questions from me. The twinkle in his eye was only one of the things that made this man special for me. This man who loved the hills and the forest, knew medicinal plants, called them ‘Vanaspati’, cared about snakes, noticed there were fewer birds these days and called tigers ‘beltwala sher’. He complained about the government taking money from tourists but not improving services for tourism. This man who measured exactly the salt and sugar in his shikanji and had a wide honest smile.
I almost thought him unreal, a figment of my imagination, like he and his shop were all a fantasy and would disappear as we turned around the corner, so perfect was the encounter.