Friday, March 17, 2006


The following is an article I wrote for a magazine sometime last year. It derives from two different trips to the same place. The first was with dhoomketu sometime in 2004, and the second was with a four friends on New Year's Eve, 2005.

Sand in My Shoes

It takes a certain kind of determination to turn one’s back on the establishment to minimise revelry and hit the sack early on New Years Eve. It takes a little more than that to wake up at five in the morning on New Years Day and make one’s groggy way to the Gateway of India to catch the first ferry to Alibag. The moral high ground from which one looks upon the remnants of a festive Mumbai night does little to please my sceptical fellow travellers.

The first ferry leaves at six from Gateway, and we make our way to the upper deck of the Nazia. The bracing sea air, the imperfect chill in the air, and the gathering light join hands and set about attempting to affirm the fact that this was actually a good idea. The ninety-minute crossing across the bay seems like much less, with the island of Elephanta, assorted ocean-liners and the occasional fishing boat all passing us by at a leisurely pace, setting down the leitmotif of the weekend.

The short bus-ride to Alibag has us warming-up to the salty air. The city and its various lures are readily forgotten. The small but busy coastal town has little in store for us weekend road-trippers. We wait in the bus-stand for the next State Transport bus that will take us southwards down the coast.

Most of the two-hour journey to Murud is spent staring out of the window in wonder. This is an awe-inspiring drive around half-hour out of Alibag. The highway makes its unhurried way between the hills and the sea. There are places where the highway is barely ten metres from the high-tide line, while gently sloping hill and dale commence immediately on the other side.

Murud is yet another quaint little coastal town, with a significant weekend crowd, recent tidal disasters notwithstanding. The palace of the Siddi king, atop a hill just before the town begins, looks interesting. But it’s private property, not for tourists. The town and its unobtrusive beach do not excite really. Its narrow lanes are animated with an equal mix of weekenders and townsfolk. We decide to move on, piling into an auto-rickshaw that proceeds along the same road, towards Janjira. “It’s just two hills away sa’ab”, the smiling driver informs.

Twenty minutes later, the auto groans around the bend that reveals Janjira fort, and the vision proceeds to place itself into our minds forever. Standing proud amidst crashing waves is a majestic fort in the water, roughly a kilometre from the coast. The imposing sight from high up in the hills looking down on the tiny town and large fort reminds our shutterbug of his mission, and he makes good time with his equipment.

We reach the little jetty and pay our twenty-rupee fare. An entire tourism economy of vendors and peddlers thrust everything from potato chips to soft drink at us as we pile into the crowded sailboat, which is frighteningly low in the water. Riyaz the smiling boatman doubles up as resident guide, and proceeds to narrate the proud history of the 16th century Siddi fort, which took a century and half to build, and was never conquered since. Janjira is a mangled form of Zizera, Arabic for island, we learn. The sailboat pitches and rolls, as we drift surprisingly quickly towards the impending monument.

We wet most of our lower halves getting into the small entrance of the fort at the uncomfortable makeshift jetty. The architectural marvel, however, is impressive. The impregnability of the fort makes itself readily known. Salim, in the meanwhile, regales us with the tale of the deception of Perim Khan and his two Abyssinian followers who entered the fisherman’s makeshift island fort as traders. After plying their hosts with sufficient wine, they captured the island and kick-started the construction of the fort. The Kalal Bangadi, an eighteen feet long cannon with eight-foot diameter, was built to impress, and it does such duty with pride.

The dilapidated queen’s quarters, more large guns, steep turrets and green stagnant bathing pools do their rounds. Our guide proudly points at the wreck of Shivaji’s descendant Sambaji’s attempt at a rival fort, further testimony to our bastion’s powers of defence. We wish to see the underground tunnel below the sea that leads back to the town of Janjira. No one really knows where it is, says Salim. It’s been years since it was used. “But it really exists”, we are reminded. Hunger coaxes us away back to the waiting sailboat.

You must eat at Patel’s Inn in Murud, everyone replies. Patel’s affirms the faith the populace have in it, and does well to reinforce our belief in coastal cuisine. The place is packed all through the lunch hours on weekends, and we’re lucky to get a table within ten minutes. The open-air feel below thick foliage, simple décor, and quick service reinforce the cooking, making it a popular choice. The limited bill of fare makes our order an obvious one. The best idea is a full meal (chicken, fish or crab) supplemented with one or more of the side dishes. Fried Prawn, Surmai curry compete with kokum juice and soul curry for attention. The well-worked appetites make room for all and more. The cooking is predominantly malwani, in keeping with the rest of the coastline. The seafood, expectedly, is very fresh.

After some post-lunch deliberation, we take another auto-rickshaw back up the coastal highway to Kashid, our last stop for this weekend. Kashid is a simple fishing village, barely a few square miles wide. The highway is less than a kilometre from the waterline; silvery sand and palm trees cover the intermediate portion. The compact little village is on right on the other side of the road.

Kashid’s beach tops off the weekend in style. Everyone and everything is on the same languid plane of consciousness. It is a beautiful world, one is gently reminded. Hammocks are quickly settled into, while the sun takes her time to down the lights. One eminently cinematic sunset and too many bun-omelettes later, we head back to the silent village, and turn-in for the night.

The plan for day two is obvious. The hammocks on the beach beckon, and are obliged as soon as is humanly possible on a Sunday morning. The sea is not rough, and the temperature is just right to laze about in the water. We walk the entire two-odd kilometre gentle curve of the beach, ogling wistfully at the row of picturesque beach houses, a stone’s throw from the water’s edge. We reach the end of the beach, where a tiny picture-perfect creek pours out into the sea.

There are a reasonable number of weekend getter-aways from Mumbai on the beach today. A group of European families arrive in their station wagons, and set up picnic table under the palms. The children jump readily into the water. The beachside shacks serve up a restricted, yet sufficient assortment of refreshment.

The delightful weekend draws to a gradual close. We decide to avoid the buses and use the auto-rickshaws back to Alibag. The open mode of conveyance is ideal for the ride, the bracing sea air being better accessible. There is a change of vehicle at an intermediate town. The soporific Sunday sunshine, and insistent waves cajole us to stay, or at the very least, return.


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