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Saturday, January 14, 2006

Uran: My sunshine land!

Your weary nerves are screaming for respite and you have been ignoring them so far. You just cannot get around to doing any reservations because the mere thought of going away from a routine, creates an anxiety of its own.

There are places close to home and hearth that are waiting to be explored. Uran is one of them. It is one of many islands that circle Mumbai, so there is a regular ferry service to Uran. Commuting back and forth from Uran to mainland Mumbai is a matter of habit for many residents of Uran, who live there but come everyday to Mumbai to work or study. So to get there you have to hop onto a ferry from the Gateway of India or from Mazgaon docks. The trip takes about 45 minutes to an hour over mostly placid waters.

As you move away from the shores, the water gets deeper and cleaner. If you are on the deck, you can actually see shoals of fish goofing off for your attention. Most of the other people on board were Koli (fisherfolk) who lived in Uran. They caught fresh fish everyday and came to Mumbai to sell their catch.

I started out at 11.00 am and I was in Uran before 12.00 noon. The ferry was almost empty because most of the regulars had travelled to Mumbai and were already going about their business while I was going the other way. So my friends and I were the exclusive guests on board this yacht! We sat on the deck under the shade of a canopy on some nets that were spread out to dry. And we chugged along over the waves with just the seagulls for company. They skimmed on the waves and bowed over your head and then went into a free dive at the food you threw into the water for them. They truly are a marvel of aerodynamics - they swooped down on the crumbs in mid air and never let it hit the water!

When we got to Uran, we walked off the stone pier which the seawater hadn't been able to corrode and walked along a bridge straight into the heart of a placid village. The change of pace was noticeable and we loosened up considerably. We opted to walk a little, even though there are autorickshaws available. But the only other mode of transport seemed to be two wheelers. Atleast I didn't see any buses belching smoke in my face.

Uran village is all about little pathways leading down to someone's front garden or just overgrown trails that are a pleasure to explore. I went in the summer season but it felt cool in the woods because sunlight just barely peeked through the jumble of trees over our heads. Then since we began to feel hungry, we made our way to Hotel Uran Plaza, a landmark by itself. Everyone who's been to Uran and ofcourse the locals know about this place, just like all of Mumbai knows the Taj Hotel in Colaba.

This is a property set in a lush coconut grove with cottages as well as rooms to give out. The cottages can be rented on a last minute basis, depending on its availability. A lot of theatre and TV celebs have chilled out here. The cottages have an open verandah fronting onto a clean beach, which is not exclusive to the property but is secluded. The locals have their own patch of sand and don't feel the need to intrude. The cottages are strategically situated around a garden that is dotted with tables, chairs and hammocks and in a stroke of vivid imagination - a canopied bed! People chose to have their lunch in the garden and then snooze in the hammocks or the bed.

Apparently this place is happening on New Year's day. The garden is bedecked in lights and the booze flows. The adventurous even take their action to that strategically placed bed! It may be ideal to revive a flagging marriage but a bad idea when you have kids along. But rest of the year, this is an oasis of calm.

This place is owned by a retired vice admiral, Mr Pereira, who is a navy officer of the old school. He looked almost British, was still spry and had that erect posture that separates armed forces' personnel from us - slouchy civilians. He was in his eighties, tall, fair complexioned and blue eyed - a charming devil who can out-drink a lot of the younger crowd. He must have been a heartbreaker when he was young.

He walks around making sure his guests are comfortable and then sits down for a nostalgia-laced talk with a frequent visitor or a local who comes calling. His Man Friday, Dilip (who does the cooking for the guests as per their request) whips up some delicious chicken sandwiches and cold beer for us. I think there is harder liquor available but lots of people just bring their own booze and even food, if they wish. We munch on the sandwiches and pass the beer around. The weather was just perfect but we were sitting at umbrella-draped tables so the heat was not going to bother us anyway.

Dilip came to ask us what we would like for lunch and said he had some fresh catch that day. We opted for masala prawns and pomfret fish curry. He is such a gem of a person and an extremely good cook. He's the one who buys the fresh seafood every morning, stocks up on beer for the guests and generally runs the show for Mr Pereira. He lays out lunch for us under shady trees and it will always rate among the most scrumptious meals I've eaten. The prawns were plump and juicy and the coconut based masala was yum. The fish tasted of the sea, cooked in gravy of tamarind, chillies and a hint of tomatoes. He had even fried some pomfret for us, which was mind blowing.

After such a lunch, we went for a walk in the coconut groves and spotted a tennis court too. So guests who stayed overnight could have their game of tennis before they sat down to a hearty breakfast. Some visitors were frolicking on the beach where the gentle waves lapped on the shore. A few of them were already dozing on the hammocks around the garden. I claimed the bed and went off for my nap. It was a superb location to sleep in. Picture this: a shady garden that leads down to the beach, with birds chirping everywhere and the sun hidden above the canopy. This just could be my home away from home!

I saw distinctly the merit of owning a place like this. Mr Pereira lives in a bungalow with huge French windows on the right side of the garden. From his first floor, the view is even more dazzling. He has extended a wing from the left side of his home and these are the single rooms that he rents out. As you enter the property, you will see the cottages first, with Mr Pereira's house on the other side. So he had a nice business going and the guests provided him with company. I think he lives by himself with his children living elsewhere. Talk about having your cake and eating it too.

After my nap, I went in search of my friends and we decided we didn't want anything for tea. But Dilip being Mr Jeeves personified does things the right way! He served tea in a tea service - complete with a kettle covered in tea cosy - and put a plate of biscuits for us to chomp on. Mr Pereira came out and chatted with us while we ate and the man has good stories to tell from a time most of us pretend never existed. After all who has the time for old people and their stories. But they have a lot to tell us and I, personally love listening to them. Especially the ones who have had exciting careers or travelled a lot.

I know from experience what I was talking about because my school friend's grandpa was someone I would always run into on Worli Seaface. People watching us would probably think he was grumbling about his arthritis or giving me unwanted advice. But he would talk of a time my generation doesn't even read about anymore. He was a chemical engineering student who went on a scholarship to England. He was there all through the Second World War. So he had memories of blackouts, air raids, bombs falling, people dying, figher jets tearing up the skies but the mind only retains the good out of all the bad things that happens to them. So this man, (a grandpa I never had), told me that the World War was a nightmare come true but he still remembered going down to the basement bomb shelter of the house he lived in, with his French landlady. She was the one who taught him to make the best soufflé in the world! So talking to older men is really my style. They have depth of character and their lives are burnished with experiences that just can not be bought for love or money.

Mr Pereira was no different. I'm not going to let people in on the stories he told us. If anyone wants to know more about harrowing war machines or hear battlefield stories told with relish or just talk about an era gone by, then you know where to go. The food is also a very good excuse!

Written for www.dancewithshadows.com

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