An Island In The Sky

Let me tell you about a place to conduct an affair. It must be a little illicit, your friends don’t know about him. He’s shy and adoring, with a mood of darkness hovering over him (it reminds you of Byron and cognac, and certain parts of the Scottish countryside). You’ve only just met, perhaps at a noisy party in or a farmhouse outside New Delhi, but even through the drunkenness you recognised in each other enduring worth, shared codes of absurd humour. There are messages he has sent that you will save, there are books he has left with your durvan, in the anticipation you will read these French novels and meet each other on the pathways of sentences. Already, the climate around you has changed, the colours are more vivid, intense, alluring. There is a freshness to all that you eat, your skin has that gleam of plums ripe for picking, and every hour away from his listening shade is fraught. You are lost to yourself, to the world, your friends are worrying for you. Don’t worry. Let them be. Run to the . I know just the place. 

Set 2,600ft above sea level, two hours from Mumbai, is Matheran. Accessible only by foot or on horseback, at one point this hill station was prized by well-to-do Indians as a charming escape (sadly, it has now been traded for the allure of certain South Asian nations). Rather like a small town, Matheran has long, winding roads, except here they do not run across rolling countryside but through the jungle: like veins cut open, these red earth tracks lead you to old bungalows nestled in coppices. Forgotten houses, slabs of black obsidian rock, thick green jungle vines and the distant clip-clop of horses’ hooves—all these create the impression you have trespassed on a dream. And you have.

Dasturi Naka, the car park where you can leave your vehicle, or the train station (where you will disembark from the toy train that brings you up from Neral) is roughly a half-hour walk from most hotels. Ignore the marketplace, don’t let the crowds interrupt what is tentative and fresh (you can return later, in evenings of subsequent familiarity, to enjoy fresh copra chikki from Nariman Chikki Mart or to stay at the charming Lords Central Hotel and swim in a pool that overlooks mountains and valleys). Ignore all this right now, but not the little Municipal Reading Room in the market, where you can mention the novels he left for you, casually refer  a sentence of memorable density.

It might be afternoon, and if it is winter—I hope so, a chill in the air will make you bring out the old cardigans—then you can pack a picnic (egg and cress sandwiches, oven-baked crisps, the local pao to dunk in a preserve of Seville oranges) and lunch out on the bluff. There are several suitable outcrops. Make sure you carry a stick or a catapult—you don’t want monkeys running off with the champagne flutes.

My favourite such retreat is about 1,500ft before Honeymoon Point; here the head of a rock lends itself wonderfully to a meal al fresco. But I know you’ll discover other promontories, or find an alcove amid the trees encircling Charlotte Lake. There you can open that old bottle of full-bodied Barolo and see how the breeze amplifies intoxication.

After lunch perhaps you will go for a walk: this is the principal activity here, though you must be careful, as many riders trot past on hack ponies, riding being the second most popular leisure pursuit in Matheran. He will point out baronet butterflies in flight, and if you are lucky, a barking deer or a grey mongoose darting for cover. You will pick flowers—perhaps an amarkand, or clutches of the adulsa that grow near Malet Spring (named after Hugh Malet, a British civil servant who discovered Matheran in 1850).

There will be gifts of sudden views—the mountains from Celia Point, over which waters from Charlotte Lake overflow during the long rains. Or the distant tributaries of water flung like silver ropes from King George Point (these, he will tell you, are the floodwaters of the Morbe Dam, which forms a distant gleam in the sunshine).

If you have come out in the monsoon, most paths will be obscured by mist; you will negotiate your way across barely visible paths, and if he offers you his arm then take it. You may pause at Garbut Point to look out at the Sondai Hills near Karjat, and in the valley below see the thatched tops of village homes in Karvan. If it rains then you will see giant silver curtains in the air; across, black mountain rock will have broken into the heaving sprays of a waterfall. You will wonder where you are, and whether you might be separated in the passing clouds. Then, as if to soothe your gathering disquiet, he will remind you of the words of the poet Sembula Peyaneerar:

In love our hearts are, Red earth and pouring rain: Mingled beyond parting.

At teatime, sleep on in your room. In Matheran you will rest like nowhere else: your sleep will be thick and deep, with prescient dreams. Your rest will be profound, something nameless in you will have begun to exhale. You may want to slumber on but by five o’clock a steward will knock and a platter of biscuits and tea will appear. You will rise from sleep, and notice details of his physiology that you will add to the inventory of your memory.

Go for a walk, I beg you, for it is all too easy to fall prey to sensual distractions in Matheran. Go and see Olympia Race Course, sit out in the pergola at Paymaster Park, go to the Pisarnath , something about the sound of bells tolling through the forest will remind you love is holy and formidable. Why don’t you stop at the Parsi cemetery? It’s one of the few in India, perhaps the only one at so high an altitude. Notice the marble angels hovering over moss-struck graves of children, some deceased in infancy, and notice the deep remembering, the finality of the epitaph. Notice lovers who have lost each other, and the one inscription that reads: 

The cup was bitter The sting severe To part with one I Loved so Dear.

Look up, the sky will have changed colour by now, going from chardonnay to streaked violet. Hold his hand, as if in assurance that this too will end—all you will have from now on are these few days in the forest—but they will have been perfect, a lifetime, their memory parenting you through bleaker days. He will disagree, he will speak of endurance, but you know better, you are not without your ironies.

I hope you will lodge at The Verandah in the Forest, the old Dubash Bungalow exquisitely restored by Neemrana Hotels. A long veranda, finely patterned, runs the length of the property. There are plantation chairs and circular tables where you can sit and look out through the trees. The rooms are large and airy, their restoration thoughtful and generous, the old teak four-poster beds summoning up another era. Under a huge vaulted ceiling a dining table decked with silver candelabras seats 24. Dinner will be served slowly, course by course, and in these public hours the romance must yield to conversation: you will discuss the solitude of Matheran, its fine houses you both wish were restored to their full heritage glory, the soil erosion threatening some cliffs, the sight of Prabal Fort rising in the western distance, the leopard attack at Bella Vista, the noisy tourists, the quaint boards advertising local honey (thick, with small bubbles, in mason jars).

You will talk about how Matheran has allowed you to come away from the disquiet of metropolitan life, from the inertia that had made it impossible to recognise beauty in a glance, the tenderness of unsaid things. The food at The Verandah in the Forest is delicious, the service understated, and before other guests notice your presence and try to engage in banter, ask for a torch and go for a stroll around the estate (four acres, giant trees, a tennis court fallen to disuse). Sit on a hammock, it is likely you will have company: fireflies in their thousands, irradiating the dark like constellations of longing.

Tomorrow you will leave Matheran. It is unclear if you will ever return together—although the hope is severe, the promises sincere. But you will leave knowing the hills were parentheses for something larger than love. It is the knowledge that the jungle had entered you, transformed you with the force of its beauty and isolation, borne witness to your private affinities. So no matter where you go, alone or together, a part of you will live here and lie in wait for your return. Perhaps much of your life will be spent in recollection—the stone bench near Lord Point, the sprawl of water visible from One Tree Hill. Or you will go back, and then it will be as if you had never come here before, the trees will seem larger, the rocks darker, and you will ask each other in an exultation of discovery, ‘Did we really come here?’

Of course not, of course you didn’t, for you remember nothing but everything.

NEED TO KNOW: MATHERAN GETTING THERE The drive from Mumbai takes two-and-a-half hours. Vehicles are not allowed inside the hill station, so leave your car at Dasturi Naka car park. Alternatively, you can board a Karjat-bound local train from Mumbai’s CST station and disembark at Neral. From Neral, you can take the toy train, which operates four times a day, travel by taxi or on horseback. Entry into Matheran costs 40 per person.

WHERE TO STAY Lords Central Hotel A colonial-style property with a pool overlooking the mountains. (+91 02148 230 228) Doubles from 4,000

The Verandah in the Forest This hotel has 12 grand rooms, and a veranda overlooking the woods. ( ) Doubles from 3,000

WHAT TO DO Visit the points Take a tour of the hill station’s most picturesque spots, which include Celia Point and King George Point, both featuring waterfalls; Garbut Point, from where you get to see the Sondai Hills; and Lord Point, for sights of the Sahyadri Mountains. Another popular activity is zip-lining from Louisa Point to Honeymoon Point, both 3,000ft above sea level.

Marketplace Go shopping for leather goods and footwear here. Nariman Chikki Mart is popular for its wide range of chikkis. Visit the Municipal Reading Room for an afternoon reading session. (MG Road)

Charlotte Lake Pack a picnic for lunch at this scenic spot. The Pisarnath Temple is located at one end of the lake.

Paymaster Park This quaint park has a statue of Hugh Malet, the British civil servant who discovered Matheran.

Olympia Race Course Visit this course in summer, when races are still held.

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