In a clear darkness

Why did one of our acclaimed young writers trade big city life for a small forest town? Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi’s dispatches on the slow life – and lessons on loss.

brunch Updated: Feb 25, 2012 19:37 IST
Bombay,Church Market,Vinod Book Mart

My growing years in Bombay were joyous. The beach was near our house and I spent hours on the shore looking through pools for seashells coloured burnt pink; even now, the memory of a marooned silver eel on the coast frees a shock of delight through me. I remember people were adventurous, laconic, spirited, debauched in an old-fashioned way: a drinking habit, a boyfriend too many. My father’s closest friends were an aphoristic doctor and his wife, a lively feminist; loud, amusing conversations were conducted around giant mugs of beer. The camaraderie was powerful, genuine, even the occasional resentment that sprung from a friendship losing a balance of favours paled; after all, they were having such fun together.

I went to school in north Bombay, trudged home down a laburnum-lined gully that flooded hip-high in the monsoon. One year the local veterinarian caught a young crocodile on 12th Road, a family bred peacocks near the local gymkhana. In Church Market, the local bazaar, I bought paperback novels from Vinod Book Mart, haggling for second-hand editions of Enid Blyton, later Shakespeare, then Toni Morrison; my literary education was not as sentimental as it was dusty. In wicker baskets I brought home injured, abandoned kittens and raised a green turtle in a stone birdbath. My life was not broad or cosmopolitan, there were no visits to the opera or lessons in the French – but its depth had incomprehensible beauty. There were gulmohars to sit under, a disregard for time, a curiosity for sex and books: it was a childhood against which adulthood registers itself as a disappointment.

So when did the love affair with Bombay start to crumble? Events need their invitation, writes James Salter in Light Years, dissolutions their start. There are three chief reasons I decided to leave Bombay: the failure of aesthetic, the failure of conversation, the failure of love. The year my father was diagnosed with brain cancer, a developer bought the bungalow next to my house in Juhu, demolished it overnight, built an eight-storey building. This structure is an ode to ugliness.

The solitary reaper: "I’d come to Matheran chiefly to think about the nature of loss," Shanghvi writes as he traces his life in a small forest town

As my father struggled to recover from cancer, the developer put up vertical parking, so apartment owners could disembark from garages to proceed into drawing rooms. But the vertical parking was a sham for it was soon converted into living rooms, temples and gyms. Repeated complaints to the BMC eventually brought a directive that was quickly quieted by a stay order from the court. In spite of the order, work carried on. Today, I live alongside a building where the ‘garages’ have marble bathtubs and shrines to Laxmi. This building became a metaphor for Bombay’s greed, political complicity, farcical civic bodies, weak justice system, lazy neighbours and webs of intractable, genius corruption. Bombay had turned into an ugly city and I do not mean this only visually: there was so much more that there was nothing left to see.

I noted the death of conversation in two opposing quarters. At Vinod Book Mart, I noticed the vendor no longer discussed the next stock of books coming in, didn’t offer his tart views on a Bollywood siren or a sleazy MP. By the time I had graduated, Vinod Book Mart stocked only stationery and computer accessories. The old vendor was replaced by his young son, who spoke with me in English. I wondered about his father, and the time I had sat next to a giant black weighing scale bargaining for tattered paperbacks and he had doled out the best piece of advice I received for writing fiction: Hurry up. Recently, I went back to Vinod Book Mart, where the absence of banter struck me as sad, as if I were entering a once-familiar room stripped bare, no fabric, no console, no photographs.

Another landscape where talk ceased: Parties. The lines outside marbled washrooms were long and restless, sometimes two or three giggling guests emerged from one booth. Naively I thought it was sex, until I was told it was better: Cocaine. I overheard things like, Mayawati is a total f*@#%ng rockstar! Or: I don’t know if I should cancel the wedding just because she died, y’know? People said to me, Have you lost weight? Where are you these days? Let’s do lunch! This newly minted lot had stepped out of the same buildings I raged against.

I knew many such people who ruined conversation for me by speaking. Sometimes, late at night, on my way back from such parties, I’d recall Bombay originals like Bapsi Sabahvala, who once arrived for a ball at the Taj Mahal Hotel on a white stallion on whose back she cantered up the whorls of a grand staircase. I’d recall a family friend in Bandra, who played Chopin nocturnes, spoke fluent Sanskrit, whipped up gin and tonics that could knock you out for weeks. (“Don’t be absurd,” he told me the week he died, “we don’t get tonic water in India.”) These impetuous originals, failed writers, glamorous impressarios, sexual renegades had come through slaughter and then gone on to tap dance or ride bareback, or sit at a desk to write letters in longhand. I’d look out of the cab window, the Bombay air humid and exhausting, the neon lights pink and bright, the lovers on Marine Drive no longer audacious. People who live here, I reminded myself, read novels written by management school graduates.

The road ahead: Walks in the forest are the evening’s principal activity. "The hills made me see more with my eyes closed"

Mostly, though, I decided to leave Bombay after something like a friendship, by which I mean a kind of indefinable love, failed. This was an equal, an ally of solitude, lonesome and shy, a familiar of novels, someone who sat hunched in cafés writing, strolled through small towns and their ancient temples, forever transformed by beauty witnessed and sensed as inextirpable truth. But such people are often desperately melancholy, resistant to all animating joy, unable to live sex as naturally as a breath. Regardless, life feels sparse in their absence. I made for the hills with a moleskine diary and tapes of Ellington, to think more clearly of who had gone away and what had been lost.

Matheran is a small hill station two hours from Bombay. It is not remote, but its isolation can be terrifying: it is accessed only by foot or on horseback. After leaving the car-port, Dasturi, a forty-five minute walk brings you to the market or a hotel. Thickly forested dirt roads lead up to abrupt, vertiginous drops offering heart-halting views: a dale, the clotted forest, an asymmetrical ridge of mountains. The paths are red of colour, a deep laterite red. The weather is cool through the year, although winter can be fierce, the monsoon delirious. Local population hovers around five thousand; local businesses include cobbling and managing horses. I put up in a small cottage close to Paymaster Park. When I originally saw it, the first level had been propped up with bamboos to prevent it from falling down. White ants had left delicate mounds of dust. Monkeys had wrecked the roof. Snakes had overrun the garden. Slowly, as we rebuilt the house brick by brick, this gutsy little ruin came back to life.

Life in Matheran is not a picnic; it’s the kind of place people visit over a weekend, rejoice in its sanguine air and gloaming light, then leave it behind. There is no real hospital to speak of, and emergency health services are a good two hours away. Cellphone reception is dodgy, Internet access is not possible where I live, I do not own a television set; at sundown, darkness comes at you like a final verdict. Power cuts range between three to five hours a day. Summer brings water shortages. Last year, a leopard was seen perched on a tree close to Honeymoon Point, down the road from my cottage, feasting on a kill. In nearby Maria Cottage the caretaker’s wife lost three fingers to a rabid stray.

These might sound like complaints; they are not. These are merely reasons why most people find it difficult to live here. Now I want to tell you why it is impossibly beautiful if you decide to do so.

In the week I moved to Matheran I found myself returning to novels, which I had come to neglect in Bombay. I came back to the listening shade of sentences, the solitude of their writing, as their reading, the discovery of sullen familiars and the lovely strange. I re-read classics, I read new novels, I read critical supplements, I read froth. My concentration, diluted by diversions of big city life, bound again. I became a student of literature, which is to say, a student of solitude. The fear of a lion alone was calmed by imagined lives and their choices, anxieties, failures, reprises. I felt literature had come into existence not to perform for critics but to lay bare the disquiet of fate, to parent us across the waves; it was the art of experience, collected and communed, before it was ever literary endeavour.

I slept early under the cold, remembering sky, and I woke early to dappled light; I was alone in the forest, and what to make of the clay of hours was ever on my mind. Time, like a harmonium, stretched out, releasing note and melody. Slowly, the days lent themselves to measure: I had books to review, a door needed fixing, lunch had to be made. My sister often asked me: Just what do you do there? I had no clear answer except that here my solitude kept me good company. If Bombay had driven me away with its ugliness, then the hills had lured me with magnificence: a palace of trees. Unlike the civilised rhetoric of art – seen in the museum or the gallery – here it was everywhere, like air itself. An empty playground; the July mist on Charlotte Lake; hundreds of bats whirring through the drawing room of an abandoned house. I tried to capture some of this in photographs; it was futile, these things are inaudible, unseen; their strength is in their occurrence and, later, in memory.

The hills made me see more with my eyes closed. Sometimes in the morning, as I lay in bed, I felt ineffably calm; I came to think of this as the happiness that was reliant neither on incident nor encounter, it was the thing in itself. I had forgotten this in the city: joy that cannot be measured or named, joy inspired only by itself. In Matheran I saw it in dogs lying in the sunlight, limbs drawn tight, tail tucked, nose to brisket, somnolent gestures containing warmth, dreams, thrill. The doubt that this is how things were meant to be – slow, uncertain, true – was persistent.

One time I came down with the flu. Too weak to walk down to the car park I decided to ride it out. I lay in bed for days, fighting a fever, my muscles cramping. I relied on a few Chinese herbs, some kadha, a lit sigri under the bed. Here’s the key difference between suffering in Bombay and up here: I came to watch my sickness as if a witness. In the city the disease was quickly banished. In the city the disease could not be known as what it was: another life form – a bacteria, in this case, marshalling strength to survive and flourish. But surrendering to anguish, small or giant, is to fail to know it. Something about the forest, its profound, edifying stillness, gave me the cool remove to watch the pain, to see it, to be with it as if a stranger on the same train as I, going across a great distance.

I had come to Matheran chiefly to think about the nature of loss. People, over the years, had repeated to me trite truisms: Time heals all. You’ll get over it. All you need is closure. So I waited, I wrote, I photographed, I travelled, I took long walks. I watched obscure Iranian cinema, I cared for men around me who were dying, I sat on a bench on the seashore. In this way, time passed. But, after a few years of being unable to give up the ghost, it occurred to me I’d have to learn to live with the loss of my friend; it was to be permanent, unyielding, like a battle scar or birthmark. The idea that there was any closure, or healing, seemed repugnant, too easy to be true. What truth, after all, might be closed as easily as if it were only a door?

After I had started to spend more time in Matheran – even before I moved here – I found myself being with the loss as if it were an instruction, and later, when I felt I’d taken out of it what I needed – its derivative, its meaning, its purpose – it stayed on as a reminder of how I had chosen to live my life, and the lightning bolt of love that had left it so distinctively damaged. When I think of friends I am fond of most I see they have some sort of a nervous tic, a limp, a stammer; it seems to come from something they have given up, or something that was taken away: the impediment is a reminder of the courage of their existence in light of what has gone. They will never be the same again.

Also: In the hills the enormity of the scarring became entirely known; on some days it felt giant, insurmountable, destructive. In those lightless hours I began to gather the ash of longing and offer it back to the air around me, to the trees, the night sky, as if a common prayer. That’s all I could do, really, accept that it was larger than me, summon it together, then throw it up to the big sky: this didn’t mean that it would go away, but at least now it had seen its resting place. Early in life we come to see it either as a tragedy or a comedy; great literature is a result of these choices. Speaking for myself, I veered to the tragic mode: there was consolation in the essential impermanence of things, a relief in knowing it would all come to end. The tragedy was not the end but a knowledge of the end foreshadowing all things. However, my brief time in Matheran makes me believe that life might not be as tragic as I had originally believed, but comic – possibly even a total and complete farce. For, in hindsight, the allegiances of my heart were brittle, formed from an absence of full information; my political convictions had been well meaning but quite unrealistic; all the friendships had been painfully temporary.

Everything, it seems, is ultimately drowned out by a great laughter in the distance. Karen Blixen, the great Danish writer, after losing her farm in Kenya, and her lover, Denys Finch-Hatton, in a flying accident, returned to Denmark in 1931. She came to writing, she said, with ‘blood on her hands’. She took on a nom de plume – Isak, which in Danish means ‘the one who laughs’. Finally, this morning in Matheran, before light breaks, at this hour of a clear darkness, I know why she chose the name she did.

(Shanghvi’s photography show, Postcards from the Forest, is currently on view at Sakshi Gallery in Bombay and at Seven Art Limited in Delhi. Visit

From HT Brunch, February 26

Follow us on
Connect with us on

First Published: Feb 24, 2012 16:31 IST