March 25, 2006

Night Queen

It was several years later that I returned once again to Chorla ghat, this time with Raju, Ajay, and Donald. It is strange how when you return after several years to a place you like, the memory that you carry with you on the trip is the one you experienced just before winding up the previous trip to the place.

So, when the four of us drove in Raju's car recently through Banastarim, Marcella, taking the new bridge over the river Mandovi at Khandola to cross over into Amona, touching Navelim before passing through Sanquelim, then Querim, and eventually hitting the stretch to Chorla, the memory of long ago kept playing in my mind, that of Ajay and I searching for flowers in the dead of night in the Western Ghats mountain ranges. It took us some time to find them after we'd paused in sudden anticipation on being 'waylaid' by an intoxicating fragrance in the dark of night when on our way back from Chorla. We knew flowers are plenty in the mountains at the onset of spring, and that in daytime their bright colours draw attention, but we hadn't bargained on being 'stopped' like this in pitch darkness. This is what happened that night.

Years ago, Ajay and I had ridden to Chorla ghat on his white LML Vespa scooter. The mountain ranges at Chorla, part of the Western Ghats that runs along India's West Coast in a bewildering array of wilderness, had drawn us into exploring them. We thought it might be also be a good idea to see the Keri dam. We had always wanted to return one more time but one thing led to another and it was years before we made the return trip a few months ago, this time with Raju and Donald in Raju’s Maruti .

On that trip Ajay and I hit the stretch from Panjim, riding to Maphusa before crossing Sanquelim on our way to the mountains. As night fell, we rode cautiously downhill. It was a dark night, pitch black, and to our left the valley fell away rapidly to display ant-like lights miles away in the plains. There was a fair nip in the night, and it was silent except for the purring of the two-wheeler. We rode in silence, senses alert for any unusual sound the jungle on either side of the road might spring on us. It was then that we caught the fragrance as sudden as if someone had parted a dark curtain and punched us square in the face. There was no whiff of the fragrance building up as we drew near. We had ridden into its vortex on the turn on our way downhill. It was the kind of fragrance that can only find a home and jell in mystical mountain ranges. We stopped, turning the headlights back the way we came, searching the roadside for what we knew surely must be flowers.

“It has to be the Raat Rani (Night Queen),” Ajay said.

“Could be,” I replied.

The Raat Rani (Cestrum Nocturnum) flower is legendary in the Western Ghats (also known as the Sahaydris), particularly in the night when it opens its small petals to let an intoxicating fragrance suffuse the place. Originally a native of the West Indies and Central America, the Raat Rani, from the Jasmine family, is now cultivated in India, and can be found on jungle trails across the Western Ghats. The night-blooming Jasmine has been in use as perfume over the centuries. Jasmine flowers come in several varieties, and the Raat Rani is among the most well known, and is found in hot and humid conditions, opening up in the night to charm unwary riders of the night.

After several attempts we located the flowers on the side of the road. In the headlights, they looked yellow, but we knew them to be white. Only a Jasmine could stop someone in their tracks like this, I thought. They were Jasmine alright, but I wondered which. Chamelli? Mogra? Raat Rani? The small white, pointed petals, five to a flower meant we had found the Night Queen. We switched off the ignition. The silence of the jungle night fell heavily around us, in a dark blanket. The fragrance took over, silencing us. It was past nine, and we had a long way to go yet. I breathed deeply, washing my insides with the fragrance, holding it down, keeping it still. We couldn't wait long because we had a river ferry to catch. After a while, reluctantly we left her behind. That must have been the slowest we’d ridden back the slopes in all the traveling we did over the years. Looking back, I think it must have been in part due to the anticipation that rode back with us after the fragrant encounter, an anticipation of a similar experience further ahead. There weren't any.

Then we rode through Bicholim on our way back and took the river ferry at Amona to cross over to Khandola, before riding to Marcela, past the famous temple, on our way to Banastarim where we latched onto the NH 4A out of Panjim, past the bridge over the Zuari, heading to Ponda. The bridge over the Mandovi at Amona wasn’t up then but fortunately for us, the tide was in that night otherwise we’d have to sit on the side of the Mandovi for the tide to come in. I’ve been through 'waiting for the tide to come in' once at Amona, but if it was not for the fact that both of us had to get back home for dinner, I wouldn’t have minded sitting by the river bank one bit. It is one of those experiences one doesn't forget quickly, of waiting by the side of the river and watching the water come in little by little, rising all the time, timing its rise to keep busy, and of following the wake of barges transporting iron ore from Goa's mines as they materialise out of the dark in silence. It can be momentarily nightmarish to be surprised by a barge bearing down on you suddenly in the middle of a river at night. Sleep did not come easily that night, and I could smell the fragrance all the way back home. It was almost morning when I slept that night.

The memory stayed with me for a long time, and when the four of us decided on Chorla recently, the fragrance of the night five years ago returned anew. We drove up the mountain, stopping by the side of the narrow road to see the mountains to our left rising pyramid-like over the plains and valleys. Grass had turned to copper, setting off the green of the mountains. Spring was setting foot in the mountain ranges and colourful flowers graced the sides of the road that crosses over Goa’s border on its way to Belgaum in Karnataka.

On seeing purple flowers, I asked Raju to stop the car, and while Donald and Ajay waited outside, Ajay training his binoculars across the expanse that stretched between us, uphill, and the neighbouring peaks to our left, I adjusted Ajay’s Minolta camera to Macro mode, and took some pictures of the flowers. Nearby were two other varieties which I photographed. For a moment I wondered if there was a chance I might find the Raat Rani somewhere around. It was nearing evening, and I wouldn’t know until night fell.

We crossed over into Karnataka, drank tea at Tulsi Hotel four kilometers across the border from Goa, unpacked chutney sandwiches on our way back that Donald had packed for the trip, and ate them under a Ficus tree ripe with figs that we had passed on our way up earlier in the evening and which I had climbed to photograph the figs, the mountain sloping away beneath the branch I hung on to.

The velvet of the fruits was heightened by the sun beginning to drop behind the mountains. It was dark when we stopped by the tree on our way back from the hotel. The full moon was coming up from behind the hill to the side of the road, across from where we'd parked the car. We sat on the edge of the hill, letting our legs dangle over its side. Below us the open valley stretched for miles, our eyes blurring from looking across its expanse. The lights of the new bridge connecting Khandola to Amona shone bright in the distance. Initially we mistook it for Verna until we came upon it near the Sesa Goa mining plant later. Then we waited for the full moon to come up from behind the mountain to light up the valley and turn it to silver. It was then we heard a leopard, or so we thought on hearing the sharp, piercing cry that I knew to be similar to the one a leopard is known to use, but there was no way to know for sure in the darkness. Then we got into the car and went further downhill, stopping on the way to sit on a parapet where valleys opened up on either side of the mountain road. Other mountain peaks rose across the valley, and bathed in the full moon, the night turned silver.

There the four of us sat and talked, of now and of long ago, of growing up, of people we'd grown up with, remembering our foibles, laughing at incidents of years ago, of dreams we'd left behind to pursue our reality. There was no one but us where we sat, nor any trace of Raat Rani that night. Our memories turned silver in the moonlight, and precious as a result. In the peaks that rose opposite, where water running off the mountains had cut deep, wide clefts in their sides, I imagined silvers of moon tracing the clefts, leaving shadows to hide in the full moon where the clefts ran very deep, chiselled by water rushing down from god-knows-how-many-years ago. We argued over the width, and the height of the cut as it ran down the mountain opposite. “The cleft must be atleast 100 metres wide, and its height, not less than 250 metres. That must be a real impressive waterfall to see in the rains,” I said.

Raju and Ajay disagreed. “Less than 250 metres surely,” they said. But no one knew for sure. I wondered for a while what it must be like to go down there. It didn't look like anyone had been there before for, it looked fairly inaccessible. And so we talked into the late hours.

No one was in a hurry to go home that night.


Akshay said...

Thank you, Anil for transporting me vicariously to place I rather be, if only momentarily.

Its always good to come across a travel blog. Great pictures

Sanchez said...

Hi Anil,
Looks like you have been travelling to Goa quite often. I hope the gang agrees to take me to Chorla when I visit home. I can almost smell raat rani and taste Don's chtney sandwich.

adios amigo.

Kizzy said...


I was in search of a Cestrum Nocturnum sapling, on Google, and that search led me to your prose on Night Queen and to The Bridges of Madison County . You write beautifully. There is more to your version of The Bridges of Madson County and it has gathered my interest. If you ever attempt to write it wholly, I would like to read it.

Thank You,

Anonymous said...

Few have ever seen raat ki rani let alone experienced its intoxicating scent, until now!!

soothing fragrance...


Anil P said...

To Akshay: Thank you. Once there, you'd want the moment to become eternity. :)

To Sanchez: Goa, yes. One trip is enough to come up with stories to fill up a blog :) Most of these stories are from a couple of trips, the rest are from years ago. Howz life in Pasadena? Lucky guy to be working where Richard Feynman once did. Me and Ajay envy you for that. :)

To Kizzy: Kizzy, thanks for visiting. It's a pleasure to know that you enjoyed reading Night Queen and The Timeless is Temporary.

Yeah, there is more to my version of Bridges . . . though I'm not sure if I'll adding to the one I already posted, but if I do then I would surely let you know. :)

To Anan: Thanks. Out in the wilds, the setting heightens the fragrance.