Sunday, January 15, 2006

Just looking

A short and bumpy drive south of Alibag is a place most people haven’t heard of, and for that I am glad. It makes writing this all the more wrenching; the dilemma is: should it be revealed at all, or instead clasped close to the heart? Will readers say to themselves ‘right, this place sounds nice’ and be off in a flash with packed suitcases and unsuspecting family? It could happen, couldn’t it?

So a short drive south of Alibag, when the narrow path ventures from fields into dense vegetation that thrashes by passing vehicles, and where houses are glimpsed fleetingly behind living walls of green, is a place called Chaul. Tall trees cross high above the path like a gateway. Along it were silent blocks, half enclosed in foliage, from where a disembodied voice asked, “Hey, you are tourist? Looking hotel?” “No,” I said, “I’m looking for a fort, a qila.” Six kilometers down the road that way, said the voice of the man I could still not see.

Revdanda was once a Portuguese fort now in ruin. Stone seals from that time are still standing, but the etchings have eroded and are less defined, and the fortress walls, in places where they haven’t collapsed, are coated with moss. A single road winds through the village – essentially a sparse collection of small homes in narrow rows on either side – and over the Kundalika River, due to which it has the underwhelming recognition of being a rest stop on the route to Murud-Janjira. But this is clearly a good thing. If this was the final destination on weekend itineraries, there would be horse-carts on the nearby beach, and bramble cut for a tourist pathway. As of now, there is really nothing.

The hotel owner was quietly curious. A thoughtful silence followed every answer before he asked the next question. He listened while leaning by the doorframe and rubbing his head, his eyes skimming over the large room, and some time passed before he suggested, “I think some years ago a man from Portugal arrived here. Academic man, about this tall, he had come for research. Since you don’t have a plan, look around a little bit and you’ll find something or the other. I will give you an idea. Maybe you will like it.”

Outside it had become warmer, hot almost, since the rains had stopped, but brown puddles remained, rippling with murky bubbles that rose and burst. A leafy side path was taken – a signpost announced a bakery further ahead. I think about that sign often now. It led to a bakery. That next to the bakery was a small chapel - St. Zavier’s Chapel – over 350 years old counted for nothing. It was in disrepair. The roof had fallen in and a green-tinged large stone with a seal carved into it lay peacefully, under creepers that had begun reclaiming the place. Some villagers had heard of the chapel, some had not, while a few had an addition to make. “St Xavier used to play here as a child with a Muslim priest, some Pir who was also famous. They were very mischievous! Can you believe it?” a local reminisced fondly. Think about it. Done? Good. Neither could I.

The morning passed as I staggered about from one area to another – it was a small place – touching walls, trying to find more stone seals, and generally marveling at how big and quiet the fort was. The seconds tend to skip by faster during times like this and, caught up in this history, you slip into a dreamy haze – I do this often – only slightly aware that there are others around, watching with growing amusement as you walk by their roadside store for the third time in an hour. It was inevitable then, that a storekeeper asked, “Are you lost?” He sat over a pile of chikkoo, and swatted away flies quite suddenly with a violence that snapped me out of my drugged mood into something more appropriate, like fright. “No, no, not at all. I’m just looking. Nice place here,” I said, stepping backward. “Hah! You are from abroad, I know,” he said, voice raised slightly. “There is nothing in Revdanda. Nothing. Nothing at all.” You know those old hunched single-eyed women with whiskers in the movies? He said it like that. I took his advice, packed my bags, and left for home.

No, not really. I asked if there was any Portuguese blood left in the village. He straightened himself, pointed at the river and said, “Go to Korlai.”

Korlai village, five minutes away, is what’s left of the Portuguese in the area, and everyday that history slips out of reach a little more. The local language, Korlai Creole, is slowly disappearing. “They teach the children one-two-three in Hindi, not our language, but Hindi! Hindi!” a villager later told me. Apart from this lingual unrest, it was a serene place. The roads were gray and of concrete, the homes were of brick and cement, and both were built on a narrow strip of land that expanded more and more until it suddenly curved and ended at the sea. From above it would have resembled a dewdrop. Behind the village was a large hill, and on top was the Korlai fort. I ambled through, happy to do nothing but walk around looking for blue-eyed villagers, certain that someone would ask me to leave. Nothing of the sort happened. They did their thing – sleeping, eating, sorting nets – I did my thing – fumbling with a camera, getting lost and squinting in all directions.

The path to the fort was carved into the side of the hill, and it was gorgeous. A steep hill on one side packed with goats and cows – agile cows! – and an empty beach on the other, barely ten feet away. Beyond it was the sea. The path wound around the hill, and ended at a lighthouse. Then there were steps (uneven stone blocks balanced optimistically on a steep slope) that were the only route to the fort. From above the sight was splendid. There was Revdanda and a watchtower! There was the bridge! From on high, everything looks interesting. Alas, the expedition did not last long. How could it, when you hear a rattle sound from tall grass and realize that you’re dressed in shorts and flipflops – completely inappropriate for a meeting with a rattlesnake?

Back in Revdanda, everyone was asleep. I stepped into the local police station and found the forces of law and order sprawled across desks and benches. One woke up and, after a friendly chat, decided that he hadn’t seen much of Revdanda himself, so off we went, into the little lanes and covered paths to find new things. “I’ve never been here before,” he said after turning his motorbike onto a new path. The path twisted and turned, and there was one final burst of green before a large tower appeared. I think we said ‘wow’ at the same time in two languages. It was in some condition – a floor had fallen through – leaving six – a tree grew on top of a half-collapsed arch on the first floor, rusting cannons were scattered on the ground. My first thought was not of the tower or what it must have been, but how my city would look centuries from now. Perhaps there would still be traffic jams and road rage and people swearing they would move to a quiet hill station in the north.

In a while we grew fidgety. There was clearly much more to see here, but where could we start? The vegetation was dense all around, and if a wrinkled fisherman hadn’t passed by, the underground tunnels – seen only after beating back many bushes – would have remained unseen. “I had heard about these tunnels,” the constable muttered when he saw the tiny doorways that were black beyond, “I heard that these are underwater tunnels to the Korlai fort.” Caught up in it all, I was willing to believe anything, regardless of the fact that the Korlai fort was two kilometers away, interrupted only by a river mouth and the incline of a hill. And when the fisherman took us to a tunnel that was blocked and had religious markings on it and he said that explorers had entered it and returned half mad, jabbering incoherently about a large hairy snake guarding the tunnel, I was skeptical, but it was a dying skepticism because Revdanda, a place with myth and history, is ripe for a mixing of the two, and really, who wouldn’t like a fairytale of their own?

This story appeared in the January issue of Travel Plus.

2 comments:

Patrix said...

Believe it or not, I have visited Chaul (I spell it as Cheul) for an academic study. Actually, more like a rural design case-study but we were half as serious as you were back then about exploring the place. Now I wish we should have.

Apurv said...

I was attracted to Korlai after reading your piece in India Today travel plus. Visiting this place has been one of the best lone wanderer exploration trips for me. Knowing a little Portuguese myself, I had a great time connecting to the Portuguese Creole that's spoken there. I spent two days at the house of the Father of the church there, and learned some mean creole myself, not to mention insights into the place's history. Thanks for your article, it opened a new world for me :)

Apurv Pandit