Although I am told that my first visit to Lonavala would have been at around 1-2 years of age, my earliest memories of this place go back to when I was 6. In those days, my family followed a weekend routine – every Friday after my school got over at 3 pm, my sister and I were picked up straight from school by our parents and were driven straight to our bungalow in Lonavala. We would spend the weekend there and then wake up very early on Monday morning, get ready, change into our uniforms and be driven straight to our school! This continued for a very long time, so Lonavala was second home to us, a home that I truly cherished. Just traveling there from Mumbai would be an adventure in itself. We had to cross the city borders via the bridge built over Vashi creek and I still remember how our grand mother would make us stop the car at the start of the bridge to throw a small coconut and some flowers in the creek water below to pray for our safe journey!! Next stop would be in this small town called Panvel to pick up vada pau (fried potato balls with bread) and samosas to last us for the rest of the journey as the adventurous part was yet to begin – crossing the ‘Ghats’ (a narrow mountain pass) to reach the hilltop. The Western ghats in those days were quite treacherous to drive and waiting in long queues was quite normal. Accidents specially those involving trucks were a common sight and people used to stop their cars at the ghat ‘mandir’ (temple) to throw in coins praying for a safe journey. I have had a lot of different experiences on these ghats – some funny and some scary. I have mostly traveled in my father’s car or his jeep with him driving at breakneck speed (my father was a rally car driver) while my sister and I would be fast asleep in the rear seats. I have also traveled in local buses (from luxury to the most basic buses which have benches instead of seats!), in local trains ((struggling for seat space- preferring to sit at the airy doorway instead, quarreling with fellow travelers in my ‘shudh’ (pure) Marathi)), in a truck along with my dog, and also on a motorbike once with my uncle (slowest journey ever!).
My father was a large-hearted man and enjoyed hosting people at our bungalow so every weekend we would have some relatives or friends staying over with us. As kids we would have a wonderful time together – whether it was plucking jamuns (violet colour berries) from our garden tree or playing hide and seek and nargolio (classic game involving 7-stones) or making miniature cooking utensils using mud and water – there was never a dull moment. My mother used to hold fort in the kitchen making sure everyone was well-fed on time and her best recipes were saved for these trips. My father loved keeping livestock and I have had ducks, hens, turkeys and goats at one point or the other as my ‘pets’, though some of them used to disappear sometimes and while I would be looking high and low for them, they would land in our plates for afternoon lunch!
My father also used to take us for drives up the mountain in his jeep – no mean feat considering that there were no proper roads and he would just make his own path with a jeep full of people! I remember one such scary trip up a mountain late at night after dinner. After we reached the treacherous mountain top, my father switched off the car headlights. It was pitch dark so much so that we could not even see each other but after our eyes got adjusted to the darkness we could see the twinkling lights of houses in the valley below. It was such a captivating scene that it is etched in my memory forever.
There are some nice hills located near our bungalow and I would go for long leisurely walks along with my cousins and my dogs walking through the tall grass, crossing streams, finally making it to the top and then heading back home after some rest. I would also venture out on my own sometimes with my dogs and sit in the quiet surroundings for hours together thinking about everything and nothing.
The best thing about Lonavala is the weather, which is not only cooler than Mumbai but also quite rejuvenating. It is as if there is a whole new world waiting at the end of Khandala tunnel and one could close their eyes and feel the difference. ‘Yeah, we have reached Lonavla’ we would scream at the first sight of waterfalls. We had to cross a railway crossing to reach our bungalow and after the usual wait at the crossing guessing which train would be coming up- whether Deccan Queen or Deccan Express, my father would allow us to sit on top of the car bonnet or at the front of jeep (he had made special seats) as he would slowly drive to up to our bungalow…..what excitement!
Riding in the back of a bullock cart while my father raced the two bulls at full speed, being caught off guard by sudden hailstones showering on our roof, driving our car up the ghats in the middle of the night with the heavens pouring down on us, spending hours feeding, bathing and petting each one of my seven dogs or using one of them as a pillow while I read my novels, playing carrom with my cousins, walking on the railway tracks on the way to the market and just moving to the side if a train happened to pass, literally pushing my dog out from the train about to leave for Mumbai– all these and more form a part of my childhood memories – memories that come alive every single time I visit that place.