The landscape on the drive to Ajanta is absolutely beautiful — bucolic, mild, rolling fields that remind me of the central Italian province of Tuscany. Tuscany is where the city of Florence is located, and it is home to some of the most exemplary heritage conservation projects around. The cities, towns and countrysides of Tuscany are so tastefully managed that you’ll be wont to find a patch of land that doesn’t look like a page from a stylish coffee-table book. Florence, a living and breathing city, has carefully curated itself so that it evokes the Italian Renaissance at every turn. “Cultural landscapes” — places where humans and the environment co-create beauty — abound in places like Tuscany, and places, perhaps, like Ajanta.
Ajanta itself is a small city, so most visitors to the caves stay in the nearby city of Aurangabad. We decided to stay in Ajanta itself, because we had found a place that would suit us just fine. It was called Sathe’s Heritage Home Stay.
I’m almost as intimidated by the prospect of writing about Sathe’s Heritage Home Stay as I was by the massive, grizzled, manacled dog that kept watch by its front door, welcoming us in with an energy-conserving, subterranean growl.
“It’s okay, just look at the room, and then decide,” the elderly proprietor told us as we got out of the car. Anticipating our arrival, he had waited at the gate to let us into the premises, and was therefore the person to whom we expressed our shy concerns.
Actually, “expressed” might not actually be the best word here. We didn’t express any concerns, per se. I rather thought that the home stay expressed everything for us quite well.
Sathe’s Heritage Home Stay (or “Sathe’s,” as it is endearingly known by their preferred customers) gives the word “desolation” a new lease on life. It was located on the vast, dusty, dirty, scary grounds of an old, crumbling fort. It took me a moment to realize that the hotel was not near the fort — it was the fort. But lest this conjure up images in your mind of Mughal fortresses or (for the more whimsical) the Scottish fortresses that have popped up in a couple recent Bollywood films, let me enlighten you at once.
In some ways, the fort began and ended with the terrifying dog at its door. But in other ways, that was simply the beginning. When my father and I asked to see the room — my mum refused to get out of the car — we were handed over to the elderly man’s wife. With a crooked but not yet sinister grin, she took us through the concrete archway that at one point may have marked an entrance, and into an inner courtyard. Two younger women were sifting enormous amounts of a grain — millet, perhaps? — onto equally enormous swaths of cloth. When we passed through they paused their work and offered us two of the most radiant smiles I had seen on the trip. In my naiveté, I smiled back. The owner and owner-ess (Mr and Mrs Sathe, perhaps?) seem a bit freaky, I thought, but at least I have some people to turn to if life here is grim.
But why should it be grim? Mrs Sathe led us up a flight of crumbling concrete stairs and pulled out a key to show us our room. “We haven’t prepared it yet,” Mr Sathe had told us downstairs; and as his wife found the key and turned the lock, I had a sinking feeling — this isn’t our room… this is the room.
Perhaps Sathe’s isn’t the only homestay in the world with one room. Perhaps it is a selling point in many cases: It provides the guest more cozy time with their hosts. In a place like England, that cozy time might entail hot cocoa by a fireplace, with novels by Austen and Dickens available for happy reading. In India, it might involve cup upon cup of chai, incense, and if the hosts are older, a bhajan or two. In a one room homestay, all sorts of intimacies are possible. But here at Sathe’s, I was having a hard time visualizing “intimacies” that did not involve poison, or the underfed, thoroughly horrifying dog that was chained outside. And in any case, the room looked like it had been slept the night before, but had only been cleaned after the body of the latest guest had been disposed of years ago.
Am I exaggerating? Maybe. I mean, these people were nice, right? They allowed us to see the room without making a commitment. The river adjacent to the fort was a radioactive shade of green, clearly filled with all sorts of toxic waste. But that’s not really a big deal either. Trying to silence my bourgeois hesitations, I smiled at Mrs Sathe, beamed at the ladies sifting millet, exited in the fort, and waited outside as my mother was taken inside to make the final judgment.
Fifteen minutes later, my mother was back in the car, dividing her time between two activities. The first was trying to explain to the Sathe’s that we were planning on leaving, with no intention of returning. In the brief time that we had been there, the Sathe’s demeanor towards us had transitioned from gentle and accommodating, to disconcertingly insistent. “What are we supposed to do now?” Mr Sathe demanded of my mother. “If you leave, then we are left alone. You cannot leave. You cannot leave.” Mrs Sathe supported her husband in his aggressive, creepy supplications by reminding my mother of her own name. “Nalini Natarajan!” Her voice was low, husky, and carried well. It was perfect for both growls and threats — and as she approached the car door, I got the sense that she has had ample practice in both. My mother had to explain that we did indeed intend to leave — and to be sure, we would not return. The gentleness of their first words to us — “It’s okay, just look at the room, then decide” — now seemed as removed from reality as their self-description on Booking.com
The second activity in which my mother — Nalini Natarajan! — was engaged was urging our driver to leave, leave now, now! A generally taciturn sort, our driver agreed with a bright grin. As all of this took place, I found it impossible to ignore something else: the large number of children, mischievous urchins, tapping on the car’s windows and snickering whenever I made eye contact with them. It was a tremendous scene, something out of a murder mystery with obvious answers, and worthy of any heritage certification that the state of Maharashtra has to offer.
A couple hours later, we had settled in a place that was altogether different. In a disarming act of generosity, we had been given the room of a lodging manager, a short walk from the shuttle that would take us to Ajanta’s caves the next day. Our room had a small patio, with a wicker chair swayed in the breeze. As the sun set, it cast a gentle golden light over the landscape. Rolling hills and a pastel sky and the sounds of a tapestry of birds… I was reminded of Tuscany. We’d returned to a place where people strove for harmony with the land. Though of course, a little cacophony, and a little desolation, make that return all the more reassuring.