The Hush of Long Time

Part 8/13 of Travel Writings: Listening to Maharashtra and Goa (2017-18). Music & the Earth International, 2022. Available here.

“It’s good you came,” the architect mused, his bright eyes touched with laughter. “I’ve been in contemplation for far too long.”

I wished the conversation could have gone on longer. It began with great seriousness, but over the course of the afternoon, it became more and more joyful. As the subject matter became heavier, the tone became lighter — a feature of some of the best conversations. By the time we left the Verandah, I felt so unencumbered that even the thought of contemplation made me laugh.

Right now I am in Matheran, a hill station in the mountainous interior of Maharashtra. Matheran is a few hours’ drive from Mumbai, the geographic and social variations between the two places are pronounced. A confirmed city-dweller may go stir-crazy here. A nature-lover may feel claustrophobic there. It is possible, though, to hear both soundscapes, and let them counterpoint each other.

I’ve been fortunate to see many “slices of life” here — some of which almost contradict each other, even though they are historically linked.

When I set out this morning, I wasn’t entirely sure that my destination existed. We were looking for a place called “The Verandah in the Forest,” which had been recommended by several of my friends. Like most places that refer to themselves in the singular (i.e. The Terrace, The Vista, The Palace), the Verandah was bound to be upscale.

The search took me through Matheran’s town center. No cars — in fact, no wheeled vehicles of any kind — are permitted in Matheran. To travel through the town, or up any of the slopes that surround it, you must walk. Or go on horseback. The clip-clop of horses’ hooves is a cornerstone of Matheran’s soundscape.

Travelers to rural or otherwise “removed” areas of the globe often relate their experiences as though they have traveled back in time. I do not want to succumb to this trope, and there is no justifiable reason to. As I learned when I finally made it to the Verandah, daily life in Matheran is deeply shaped by globalization (to name one phenomenon of the modern world), and the shifts in manufacturing and in markets that have resulted from it. Yet at the same time, being here really does make me wonder what life was like everywhere, before cars existed. The world’s geographies vary so profoundly, but are there things that we all have lost?

After a couple of kilometers, I started to notice signs for The Verandah. Another kilometer or so followed, this time through wooded paths that led deeper into themselves. When I made it to the Verandah, I immediately appreciated the capital letter. What I mean to say, is that I understood why this place came so well recommended.

The Verandah was a large dwelling, built in the mid-nineteenth century, before the Indian War of Independence (also known as the Sepoy Mutiny) took place in 1857. The house was originally inhabited by a British man by the name of Barr, who was associated with the British East India Company. After a few decades, a wealthy Parsi family assumed ownership over the property, and the house remained theirs for many generations. The Verandah is now under new ownership (a French boutique hotelier), but the current caretaker’s family have been custodians of the property for well over a century. From the outside, the Verandah looked serene, august, and totally uninhabited. It looked elegant and inaccessible, and I wondered if I should just turn around and leave.

A couple of hours later, I was very glad that I did not. We had been fed a delicious vegetarian meal, and had also been given a tour of the house. All this was thanks to the generosity and candor of a man, an architect, who treated us with a natural, unceremonious comfort and confidence. It was as though he had lived in this house forever. I wondered if he had. It turned out that he had only been working in Matheran for two months. He was born and raised in Kerala. A specialist in historic preservation, he works in places such as this, lending his expertise to the ongoing, hushed process of maintaining the dignity of the past.

In Matheran, this work is both easy and difficult to do. Matheran lies within a government-protected nature reserve. In a dramatic and rather refreshing reversal of many of the politics that I am used to, new construction projects must adhere to extremely strict regulations, intended to preserve the ecological health of this area — No exceptions. This makes renovations difficult to execute, because of the permits and inspections that are involved… But it also ensures that the house can remain surrounded by the same, pristine mountainsides as it ever has.

As I looked out onto this landscape, from our perch on the house’s wraparound terrace (wraparound Verandah, if you will!), the dynamic silence of nature took over. It, too, was august. Slightly smoky, and slightly misty as well. It conveyed a silence that not only harkened back to an earlier time: It also seemed to transcend human time altogether.

Eventually, we returned to the big, tall-ceilinged living room for coffee and chai. Here, our conversation really began. It started off with a certain sobriety. Our host (whose name I withhold for reasons of privacy) told us that the Verandah plays host to many writers, as well as certain celebrities such as the film director and actor Aamir Khan. “Writers enjoy contemplation,” he said with seriousness, and I nod my head soberly. Yes they do! I think gladly.

Over time, it became clear that our host was a man with whom one can talk easily. Conversation thus turned to far more complex and difficult topics, which I cannot presume to recap here. Questions of religion, caste, political partisanship, and the lived consequences of social policies wove out before me. My parents were frank with their observations, and though I piped in on a couple of occasions, I generally stayed quiet. This was one of the most fluid discussions about modern India that I’d ever heard in person. It felt best to say little.

Voice reverberated beautifully in the space, and I found myself wondering if the Verandah had ever played host to musicians and dancers. Did concerts take place here, in this room? I slipped out of my private musings when I heard our host comment about renovations that need to be done to the moulding of one of the windows. The renovations were minor, he told us, but still… the process might take a year or more. Then, after a few moments of silence, he said:

“I enjoy this work very much. It allows me to contemplate” (by this point in the afternoon, he had turned “contemplate” into a comical trope) — “and it also teaches me patience.”

In the calm of the room, my own impatience — and the impatience of so many in my generation— became painfully apparent. I thought of how much we expect from each other and from ourselves… how much we demand out of life each week, each month, each year. It occurred to me that, while Wall Street and Capitol Hill and the offices of countless enterprises and nonprofits buzz with (hyper)activity, heritage experts like our host wait, patiently, for beauty to be preserved.

Sometimes, rifts like this — between different lifestyles, value systems, and approaches to heritage — seem so much greater than the borders between countries, or ecologies, or artistic traditions.

On the way back, I visited a deep and striking valley. Since I am from the coast, I do not see sights like this every day — or ever, to be honest. It took my breath away. Other (Millennial) travelers were present, snapping selfies. I was reluctantly reminded that the year is 2018, and that my generation is not growing up in the silence of places like the Verandah. But despite this, the majesty of the valley’s tranquility prevailed.

And within me I heard, with a little leap of glee, the hush of long time.

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