The first week of January 1972, we had returned to the Institute after the winter break.
It was just after lunch and a weekend ahead. A few of us were sitting around the dining table in the Mess and wondering how to make the best of the respite from classes. I do not recall whose idea it was, but someone suggested to make a trip to Matheran. Being the only Bombayite (Mumbaikar now) in the group I was considered the expert on local geography but my expertise was rather limited, from Bandra (where I grew up and went to school) to Churchgate (where I went to college). But I knew that there was a mini-train up to Matheran and that it was a fun ride. One had to take a local train to the base station, Neral, to catch the mini-train. Catching a local from Vikhroli (Kanjur Marg Station was yet to come up) did not seem exciting. Why not cycle to Matheran? We did not know the route, but that did not deter us. We will just ride along keeping the railway track in sight, was the brilliant solution provided by a brilliant IITian who could have gone on to invent GPS, but didn’t because he was ahead of the times. So it was decided, we would not spend the weekend lazing around the hostel, which was better than solving problems from Kreyszig or even worse, spending time in the library. As we were getting up to go to our rooms to change out of lungies and into pants, it dawned that not all had bicycles. The obvious solution was to borrow them from people who had sturdy bikes and a soft heart. But no matter how soft-hearted he was, no one could possibly be persuaded to lend his bike to go to Matheran. So a small ethical compromise was made and they were told, ‘Y-Point jana hai’. After all, the route to Matheran was through Y-Point.
So six of us set off, with the borrowed cycles starting first and singly, so as not to alarm the owners that some place other than Y-Point was the destination. From Y-Point we took the Gandhinagar slope down and turned left onto Bombay-Agra Road (LBS Marg now. The Eastern Express Highway existed only in the maps of the urban planning department of BMC, MCGM now). The railway track was to our right and we rode along with the reassuring sound of trains passing by every few minutes. Joe reminds me that a couple of daredevils among us latched on to passing trucks for a thrill. But after going a few kilometres, the sound of trains became faint and we realised that the people who had planned the railways were not on talking terms with the people who had planned the roads. We pedalled on taking every possible right turn that we thought would bring us close to the sound of trains. Today, I doubt if any of us would remember the route we took, even if we were arrested under UAPA and this was the only condition to get bail. It was dark now and Prabhu was calling out to the trains, ‘Awaaz de kahaan hai’. We saw a couple of villagers striding a little ahead and caught up to ask them how to get to the nearest rail station. They pointed to a footpath through the fields. We rode in the dark, single file, terrified, imagining steep falls on both sides of the path. This section of our journey I still remember clearly because on our return we realised that it was not a footpath but a fairly wide if unpaved road, sloping gently into the fields.
The rail station we reached happened to be Karjat, we had overshot Neral. By now we were famished and found a dhaba that looked like would suit our meagre resources. As we were having dinner, Prabhu overheard the owner speaking Tulu and got chatting with him in Tulu. He gave us bad news, there was no road up to Matheran that we could cycle. But when he saw our disappointment, he offered that we could park our cycles in the storage shed next to the dhaba for the night and collect them on our way back next day. It took us a minute to accept his offer and thank him profusely. How could we not trust a guy who speaks Tulu?
We took the last local to Neral and decided there was no point waiting the night to take the morning mini-train, we will hike up to Matheran. Again we adopted our brilliant strategy of following the train tracks. But walking on railway sleepers was not easy and besides, the slope was very gentle. We could do much better hiking up, so we thought. A short distance up and we were out of the glow from the lights of Neral and in pitch dark. Soon we could hear sounds, probably mating calls. But we were not looking to get mated. Discretion is the better part of valour, Kora reminded us, quoting Shakespeare from his Jesuit schooling and everyone heartily agreed. We returned, somewhat chastened, and spent the night on Neral platform, chilling, literally.
The journey up to Matheran next morning was pleasant, watching Ravi trying to chat up a fellow passenger, a school girl. The first thing we did on reaching Matheran was to find a place to eat.
Khan’s was just what we had wished for, the least expensive non-vegetarian dish on the menu was egg bhurji and we ordered several plates. The bhurji was excellent, cooked in copious amounts of ghee and served with soft pau. We gorged on it like only IITians used to mess food can. We could barely walk as we stepped out of Khan’s and struggled to reach Charlotte Lake and plonked down on the shoreside. As we were lying there, almost as if drugged, under the influence ghee-soaked egg bhurji, when Shekhar started recounting stories he would normally have laughed at. We laughed them off while he kept pleading they were true events. As a concession to him, the stories were called ‘ghee stories’ rather than fairy tales. I doubt if any of us can recall those stories but the term ‘ghee stories’ has stuck with us.
We had assured the Tulu speaking dhabawala that we would collect our bikes the next day, but we were in no condition to reach Karjat and ride back to Powai. We decided to spend the night in Matheran and started asking for a suitable place we could afford. A tout assured us he had just the place and took us to what looked like an abandoned bhoot bungalow, but the price was right. It had no furniture, lights or running water but it had a well in the courtyard. We had been on the road for one and a half days and were stinking but only Prabhu had the courage to take a bath at the well that night. We hired a few mattresses from the tout and slept soundly, covering ourselves with the thin bedsheets that we had brought along. Not a worry whether we would find our bicycles in Karjat the next day.
I do not recall much of the return journey, it was ordinary compared to the onward one. But the reception at the hostel was quite volatile for the guys who had borrowed bikes to go to Y-Point.
In case you suspect that this is a ‘ghee story’, let me assure you that it is a true event and there are five living witnesses to corroborate it.