On a recent trip to the Konkan region in Maharashtra, Mahabaleshwar was pretty much the only place where I got some respite from the blazing summer heat. Much of it has to do with the place's altitude, though the sprawling estate of the resort run by the Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC) where I stayed, along with 15 others, also played its part. Located very close to Raj Bhavan, the summer residence of the Governor of Maharashtra, it proved itself to be a most conducive setting to disconnect oneself from the hustle and bustle of urban life and indulge in detoxification. Thus, it was that the resort's quiet and calm environment finally allowed me to recall where else I had encountered Mahabaleshwar (apart from the news), just as I was about to turn in for the night.
It took me a while to finally grasp it. Mahabaleshwar forms the setting for Shaila Rahasya, one of the Byomkesh Bakshi stories written by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay. But I read the original story much later — instead, Basu Chatterjee's fantastic adaptation of the Byomkesh stories as a TV series for DD National in the 1990s proved to be a wonderful entry point for me. It wasn't long before I was thoroughly enamoured of this two-season series which I still consider to be the finest, most faithful and atmospheric on-screen adaptation of the Byomkesh Bakshi novels.
As I lay on the bed in the Mahabaleshwar resort, taking this happy trip down memory lane, I duly remembered 'Pahari Rahasya', Basu Chatterjee's adaptation of Shaila Rahasya for the TV series. In this episode, the ace sleuth (featuring a young Rajit Kapur as Byomkesh Bakshi) stays at the Sahyadri Hotel that overlooks a ravine and a dense forest. He stumbles upon a mystery involving the hotel's founders (Hemvati and Bijoy Biswas, a Bengali couple, and Manek Mehta, a Gujarati businessman), mainly because of a malfunctioning alarm clock that wakes him up in the middle of the night. Not surprisingly, I finally went to sleep at the MTDC resort wondering whether such a clock would also accidentally lead me to unravel some mystery here, and whether I would hear the roars of or encounter any man-eating leopard (as Byomkesh did, in the story) during the forest walk planned for the following morning.
We didn't come across the leopard that gobbled up Manek Mehta in 'Pahari Rahasya' (or any other leopard or their roars, for that matter) during our walk along the jungle trail the next morning. It was an absolute treat, however, to hear the ever-present, incredibly shrill chirping of the birds, small and large, that continued to flit, always just out of sight, over the dense foliage. The immense greenery of tropical trees and forests presents a unique challenge — birdwatching requires oodles of patience and a very sharp eye.
We carried on, and at the edge of the jungle trail, found ourselves on the top of a surprisingly open and grassy plain. For the casual tourist, the tall trees hinder what could have been exceptional views of the surrounding valley and the sunrise, but those trees at the edge of the plateau top keep maintain the ecological balance. The chase of the sun continued and at Sunset Point too, the surrounding foliage made photography quite difficult, even though the air felt really fresh and pure. In comparison, Panchgani, which we had only seen through the windows of a bus en route to Mahabaleshwar, seemed to offer better sights and panoramas from its many edge-of-the-cliff viewpoints.
Still, it can be argued that its wealth of trees, greenery, and freshness of its air and environment is what is keeping Mahabaleshwar alive today. Apart from agriculture and fruit farming, tourism is a major driver of the economy here — and understandably, the hill station is teeming with lodges, hotels, and tourists on every street. It is relatively clean as well, but unfortunately, signs of littering and plastic pollution can be seen today in a number of areas. For instance, while returning to the resort after the forest trail, we took part in a cleanliness drive in which we collected a staggering amount of plastic bottles, plates, and bags that had been discarded at different spots in the trail and along the sides of the road leading to the resort. To address this and nip the menace in the bud, constant awareness needs to be spread among the people, who need to be more proactive in order to cultivate a habit of not polluting their surroundings.
The marketplace — a wonderfully clean, nearly spotless, public space full of produce, crafts, and merchandise from locals as well as those within and outside the state — is the ideal template of what Mahabaleshwar should aspire to when it comes to cleanliness and hygiene. This was also where we tasted some of the freshest, most tender, and juiciest berries (strawberries, gooseberries, blueberries, and several others) we have ever sampled. While many of us were aware that the quality of Mahabaleshwar's strawberries is praised all across India and even globally, the high standards of the other fruits came as a pleasant surprise. One wishes for the management and cleanliness model it employs to be replicated elsewhere in Mahabaleshwar as well, to fight and overcome the menaces of littering and plastic pollution.
It was, at best, a little splash and I wish the visit allowed me to drench myself fully in the land's culture, heritage and charms. We could not visit any of its strawberry farms or the famed temples of Old Mahabaleshwar, nor could we explore the source of the river Krishna. The short nature of the halt meant that we also missed out on several other interesting viewpoints and features &mdash Arthur Point, Kate's Point, 3 Monkey Point, Wilson Point, Needle Hole Point (also called Elephant Point) and Lingmala Waterfalls, to name but a few.
But, as they say, every cloud has a silver lining. The comfortable accommodation facilities at the MTDC resort, the excellent strawberries and the tantalising nature of everything I have missed out on this time have all convinced me to revisit Mahabaleshwar. Above all, it is folly of the highest order to think of exploring Mahabaleshwar hurriedly, when the very nature of the town will make you want to slow things down and enjoy all the peace and calm it has to offer—just a little bit longer.