One hundred and ten kilometres from the megalopolis that is Mumbai is Alibag, likened by some to Martha's Vineyard with its weekend homes for the privileged. You can drive for miles in Alibag (used loosely to describe a group of villages in the Raigarh district) and not cross paths with a single citywallah or, as they're called with grudging acknowledgment, bunglawallahs.
But there is quite another breed of bunglawallahs only too happy not to be identified with those they're trying so hard to disassociate from. These are city-breds who made very conscious decisions to relocate at the zenith of their careers, opting out of one life and adopting quite another.
They live and work out of Alibag, and although it must be said that the lack of infrastructure doesn't always help their purpose, they are passionate enough about it to stay put. . . and love it.
Enter a rambling compound overrun by trees and protective dogs (all 10 of them) and you'll discover the potent presence of Durgabai Khote years after she has passed on. The Khotes' home is an extension of their personality, open, airy, comfortable.
Says Ravi Khote, "It really piques me when people say, 'You guys must have made a lot of cash to live here.' It's actually the other way around: we decided that our lives would never be cash-centric, and that's why we moved."
He continues, "So many people here have beautiful homes and want to make the switch to living here permanently, but they're all waiting for that perfect time when they've made enough money to move. There is no such point."
Khote hails from an enlightened family of media and theatre personalities. Grandmother Durga Khote made a graceful exit to Alibag after a lifetime of success (and excesses) in acting.
According to her favourite grandchild, from then on she lived in seven saris, grew enough vegetables to feed herself and prepared to leave the world with as little as possible. "I wanted to develop the land and live on the simple lines she set, but my family flipped and called it escapism," he rues.
At 35, he did return after rejecting a promising career chart in America to claim his dream. "It was quite a trip from New York to Jirad."
For some years, Khote continued doing freelance work in advertising, acting, and music direction. "As we speak, I am now actioning the next impossibility in my life," he says.
"I am a dehati, I live in a gaon, but I want my work to be of world-class standard that travels from Jirad to the world stage and back again with no supply chain running through Bombay," he laughs.
His next venture is a one-man show with, Khote explains, "nobody on stage but me and my dark and twisted view of what everybody knows, but continues to sweep under the carpet, especially in cities. Everybody says they are fine but are clearly not; I see a desperation creeping into urban life".
Guido and Shama Bothe are also actioning their dreams in the hamlet of Karlekhind. Shama's father Wasim Moizuddin was a professional rally driver and Shama grew up with a fascination for sports cars.
Guido made one trip to India, fell in love with it and was soon manufacturing watersports equipment in his boatyard in the north coast of Alibag. Together, they run Chinkara cars, a self-managed production unit that designs, manufactures and customises automobiles.
The Chinkara roadster, their very first product, is India's first indigenously built sports car.
The Bothes represent a new set of residents who are making conscious lifestyle shifts at a far younger age than most. "The only problem we have," says Guido, "is the lack of infrastructure."
"We get about four hours of power a day, which makes it very difficult to be efficient." Shama travels into the mainland to do her purchases, but Guido is content to not accompany her: "When I sit on Kihim beach and see Mumbai's lights twinkle in the distance, that's as close to the city as I need to be. Besides, when we have a house in the midst of a reserve forest area and a reservoir near home, why would we miss Mumbai?"
Ralli Jacob and wife Perrin moved to a nondescript but very charming hamlet called Dhokavade in 1976.
Senior potters, the Jacobs inhabit a largely lush green region, thickly forested in parts with supari and coconut orchards. "This is my substitute for my native Kerala; besides, I knew a lifestyle here would suit our love for pottery and farming." The Jacob home is elementary, bordering on the austere, enveloped by rambling trees.
"We moved from Altamount Road to gobar floors," Ralli jokes. The couple did pioneering work in the seventies, selling to Contemporary Arts and Crafts that was still an experiment in retail at the time. They are quite the perfect couple, him with his wry sense of humour, ribbing her, and her gentle indulgence; their work reflects the same togetherness.
But Ralli's voice takes on a completely different complexion when he talks about his pet peeve, bureaucratic duplicity. Such as when they wanted to shift the kiln from inside their home to a studio in the compound and were refused by the collector who claimed that since the village was part of a larger green zone, they could not permit "industry".
Ralli explains, "We had to go to the chief secretary and draw parallels between us and village potters and blacksmiths and explain that our attempt was the same -- to build a village cottage industry.
The only difference was that we used electricity instead of a wood kiln, and we had a small tiled home instead of a hutment." It took all of one year to get a special sanction to run an electric kiln in their compound.
"Ironically, the same year the government sanctioned 20-30 sq km of the same green zone for a Rashtriya Chemicals and Fertilisers petrochemicals project. I was devastated because even though my village was excluded, some of the most beautiful land would be lost forever," says Jacob.
After a year of agitation, the company issued a report that the area was ecologically sensitive. But 20 years later, Jacob is again at the heart of another frenzied agitation, this time against the new airport project in Rewas-Mandwa.
After five years of political intrigue and scandal met with a formidable front by anti-airport lobbyists, the project was finally shelved.
"This area will always be under the threat of mindless, corrupt urbanisation, there are just too many pressure groups stalking the region. People think that just because we live in villages in Alibag, we are stupid, but we can put up a fight just as well as anyone else can."
Anjali Aney is also a potter. She derives tremendous joy from sinking her hands into tactile clay. "Clay is wonderfully therapeutic. In fact, it is the greatest ego-breaker because you learn to create just as much as you have to learn to destroy. You never know what a creation will turn out like when you fire it."
Along with her cinematographer husband Mahesh, Anjali moved her workstation to Alibag a few years ago. Aney recalls, "There were only three mango trees when we came -- we planted the rest. Also, the ground was uneven, so we decided to build the house at different levels instead of altering the natural quality of the ground level."
The Aneys grow their own food; the house now is surrounded by chikoo, mango and coconut trees, and smells of cinnamon, clove, peppermint and all-spice fill the air. A pair of parrots are thankful for the chikoo trees.
Aney expresses a sense of guilt for not visiting her children in Mumbai in a span of 10 days. "I love being here because I spend my days in the studio," she says. " I get restless and crabby in the city, at which point my children send me right back."
It's odd, but the tourist/weekender's Alibag seems far removed from the Alibag these people inhabit. Perhaps, it's the way they make the effort to blend in inconspicuously. Their lives are plugged in to match the pace of living in a village.
Sunanda Gupta, textile designer, inveterate traveller and grassroots worker says, "I never wanted people to identify me as an outsider so I don't own even a pair of sunglasses here. It's important to blend in because certain urban symbols can frighten people off."
Gupta designed her brick home, carefully studying Laurie Baker detailing, to work with, rather than against, local skills, materials, culture and climate.
In April this year, she opened her courtyard to 100 people who attended her weekend craft and food festival. She sourced crafts from all over the country, created a special local menu, called a tarot card reader, everyone had a great time. Come October, when the monsoons are officially over, this will become a monthly occurrence with different themes each time.
Tarini, her niece who has been visiting Alibag ever since she was a baby, reflects all of the spontaneous affection and unconcealed sincerity of her aunt; she is a busybody climbing trees, playing rough and tumble with local dogs and swinging off a tyre tied to a branch. "Someone once told me to grow grapes on my trellised verandah and make my own wine, so I grew karela instead," she laughs, "Karela is such a country vegetable. Shall I make you some karela sabzi?"
Papri Bose, a popular Mumbai artist and a close pal of Sunanda, also decided to design her own Kihim home, featured in design magazines for its use of indigenous materials. The plaster on the walls is an unlikely composition of methi and gud.
After building the house Bose found that a lot of nature inadvertently crept into her work.
She claims she is going through a green and turquoise phase, the colours of the sea. "I never go there with the intention of relaxing, but that just happens. I come away feeling recharged. I take a lot of friends with me and for the first day or two, I find that their movements are very jerky. Then they begin to relax and their shoulders droop, and they start smiling a lot more," reflects Bose.
Sajid Peerbhoy couldn't agree more. In Nyasa, the home he shares with Niloufer Patel, there's no television, no alcohol and no smoking. Friends who visit notice how much more real they are when they separate themselves from their city personas.
Sajid conducts corporate training programmes teaching an ancient system called sunga zen, which combines methods of sufiism, tantric yoga and zen with the aim to stretch people to develop to their fullest potential, live a good life and blossom. Niloufer does one-on-one yoga training in the Satyananda school of yoga.
Nyasa acts as the consummate retreat with seven airy, bright and functional rooms, a terrace for morning meditation and an amphitheatre with a bonfire for night sessions. "Working here is fantastic," says Sajid "because there are none of the distractions of the city. Alibag offers all the peace we need to introspect."
But there is much that threatens to disturb the precariously balanced peace of the district. For one, there is the proposed road link project after the completion of which Alibag will be a one-and-a-half hour drive from Mumbai.
Notwithstanding the convenience factor, it could mean that in about 10 years, a protracted Navi Mumbai could nibble at the coastlines along Alibag.
Kihim, flippantly called Millionaire's Row with its unfortunately filthy beaches, for example, has had builders pilfering its white sands for years. And local farmers are sceptical about how long they will be able to save the lush green belt from displacement.
Add to that the more insidious effect of consumerism. As Khote, who has been observing the sociological impact of ads in these areas, remarks, "Today everybody here wants mobile phones and Nike shoes on a Rs 3,000 salary that used to comfortably sustain a whole family of eight. People here are more in debt today than they ever were."
"Advertisers and marketers should realise it's not just about the stocks of Nike going up -- there are other stocks that are affected. People here were really happy before and proud of their humble jhopdas and their quiet quality of life. They're now beginning to feel the pressure of not being good enough."