In the low season, a beach town is a strange place. The skies are mostly gray, water laps at your feet besides pattering upon your head. Hotels are deserted and disconcertingly, there’s no one to pitch you a sale. The touts flutter to crowds, and at this time the town has few guests. Alibag was like that. So were Ganpatipule, Murud, Gokarna and Revdanda.
At Alibag, the mood was contemplative, and the sounds were muted. This is what one saw: bored horses standing by, tied to rocks, while their runners viewed the rare visitor with undisguised disinterest. A few dots, people, bobbed in the sea. Stretches of beach were occupied by only dog and crow. Hotels otherwise used to activity are quiet, taking a breather, before the season begins. And this is otherwise a weekend retreat. Even the Kolaba fort, floating nearby in the sea, was made inaccessible by a rough tide. So with history and colour both unavailable, a day here was enough.
This was an unpleasant start to a Konkan beach trail. It hinted that squelchy beaches and deserted towns lay ahead. The reason for setting off then seems foolish now, but here it is: some choose to walk in a garden, some choose to walk down the Konkan coast. Also, one does not find ruined Portuguese forts in the neighborhood park.
An hour’s ride south of Alibag, past open fields, an area of dense vegetation appears. Trees curve over the brown road from either side, and homes are camouflaged by a barrier of green. There are no sounds but the bus’. This is Chaul. Not too far from here, down a winding road that turns into a sparse market, and then beyond it, is Revdanda. There is a beach here, clean and quiet, unoccupied, with a view of the hilltop Korlai fort in the distance. Behind the beach, beside the Kundalika river, is an abandoned Portuguese fort overrun by vegetation. The roof of St. Francis Zavier’s Chapel has fallen in, and its walls are caked in moss and creepers. A large stone slab lies at the entrance, with a seal and a message carved on it. A story describes how a visiting Portuguese historian came by it, knelt to brush the moss off with a toothbrush and, upon reading the message, fell back in delight, scarcely believing its value.
It is now a sleepy town; so sleepy that during afternoons the town’s police force is found asleep on benches and desks in the station. Nothing happens here. On average, a solitary crime is reported every month.
Then, normal service resumed. The bleak sights of Alibag played themselves over and over, beach after beach. Murud-Janjira was uninhabited except for a horse-cart and five fishermen untangling their nets. The tanga-waala offered a ride and the harried story of the off-season for people whose lives depend on seasons.
At Ganpatipule the sun shone on the quiet temple town and its vague myth. Its streets were empty, its inhabitants were at home, and visitors were a few months away. Inside the luxurious temple glittery ceremonies were conducted with noise and dedication; outside there were religious reference books on sale. Here a priest sidled up and announced that a circuit of the hill behind the temple would bring wishes to life. Atop the slippery moss-covered hill, at the end of the circuit, another temple hand declared the exacting round incomplete unless a monetary donation was made. Below it was a glorious white beach and a roaring black sea. Both were empty.
A hop across Goa (too done, too done) to Gokarna proved futile. Along the way, animal skulls were placed on thin wooden sticks in the middle of fields. Adding to the overall strangeness, faceless scarecrows launched off rooftops, arms raised to the sky. A road was washed away. And boy, it rained. Drops pattered relentlessly on the eardrums of Gokarna. When things go wrong, in hindsight the omens are everywhere. Rains had swallowed the beaches. By this time rains had swallowed Bombay, too.
Misery had begun to sink in. Of being on the road alone, of waking up in desolate beach towns. I pined for a traffic jam. Traveling here in the low season was to know a particular kind of helplessness: like attending a circus without performers, animals, and the band. Where were the people? There is such extreme solitude that it is disquieting.