Five years ago when I moved to Mumbai, with little else than a small suitcase and a bank balance that was even smaller, I did not immediately fall in love with this city. I spent months since, getting away with calling Babulnath, a neighbourhood in South Mumbai, Babloonath and conflating the concepts of vada (which is a fried potato fritter) and veda (or, crazy), as if they meant the same thing. To be honest, it took a national lockdown for me to fall in love with Bombay, and its upliftment to begin seeing the beauty of the hamlets and towns surrounding this Maxim City.
Truth is, all those years back, nothing would ever make me consider taking a trip within Maharashtra; even Goa would be a compromise. But as I observed throngs of city sleekers flock to the summer state, facilitated by the merits of WFH and more flexible routines, I found myself asking if I really wanted to be there. No, I needed something quieter. And that's how, Karjat—a lush green getaway, hugged by blue skies and green lakes—surfaced as a destination of choice. Some research later, I discovered Saffronstays, a travel venture that refurbishes private villas, sprucing them up with amenities and elemental services you would expect at a boutique or small hotel. But the moment I lay my eyes on the first image of Kairos Athena—their newly acquired bungalow near Kalota in the pastoral and leafy town—I knew I had to spend at least one night there.
I pictured myself waking up on their pristine, cotton-candy-like beds to the magnificent view that's conveniently accessible from all three bedrooms and the gorgeous living room that doubles up as a lounging area. Or, sipping on a cocktail, propped up on my elbows, inside the small-but-practical pool, subsuming in the calmness that blankets the entire villa. And I lived it, along with two colleagues through a Wednesday spent at the property.
Between meetings we couldn't get out of and stories that just had to be edited, I snatched moments of stillness as I peeked over my laptop to soak in the boho-chic interiors, the minute details that went into the macrame wall-hanging adorning my bedroom's wall, the omniscient whiteness of this Greek-inspired home that as if burrowed it's way through the verdant expanses around it, and found a spot to simply exist in.
Lunch-break turned into a stolen soiree in our company of three, as we passed around platters of falafel and salads made with produce so fresh, you could sense the earthy smell of soil, if you closed your eyes and let the imagination run amuck. There was the aptly named rocula by the lake, a sprightly combination of gingerly plucked arugula, tossed with juicy apples and oranges, cubes of cottage cheese, cherry tomatoes and a sprinkling of sunflower seeds and candied walnuts, dressed in a balsamic reduction. Or, the rainbow chards chomp, made with Swiss chard, apples, green oak, seeds, pomegranate, bright red pimentos and plum tomatoes. As we passed the bowls around, each taking a picture first, we took notice of the other side of the table, coated in distressed white paint, laid out with a homespun spread. There was the robust Malvani chicken, and a version so true, you could find it only in the interiors of Maharashtra; the lasooni palak, brimming with a raw nuttiness from the generous amounts of garlic and phulkas as soft as a baby's bottom.
It was only after this fulfilling meal—one that did justice to the provenance and culture around Kairos Athena—that we learnt why the menu has a dedicated salad section. Which if you think about it, may seem odd at first: where else do you find a poached egg and mizuna mesclun salad and a koshimbir on the same page? Turns out, it's the product of a likely friendship between the folks at Saffronstays and Max Green Farms, a hydroponic set-up 2 kms from the property. Of course, it had to be on our itinerary.
So, after officially signing off from work, earlier than usual (and mainly because we got to call this work, too), we set off for the farm. We made our way first through interminable roads and then, through rickety terrains to arrive at the greenhouse located atop a hill. Inside, we received a crash course on aqueous solvents, temperature control and passive sub-irrigation as we poked our heads around bushes of basil, mizuna and lettuce. By the time we were ready to get inside the car—with a missing window—the sun began to set on Karjat's butterfly-pea-blue sky. And we returned for a dip in the pool with gin cocktails we made ourselves, just like I had imagined.
Dinner was a quiet affair in the company of salads and Indian staples. Like a dum aloo that I should have remembered to take the recipe for from the in-house cook at the villa, a good but forgettable butter chicken and a peas pulao dotted with fresh matar and ghee. While my colleagues settled down to enjoy their bowls of ice cream on the couch, I chose the nippy weather and indigo-black sky covered in a million stars instead of dessert. And while I sat there, on the plastic chaise longue, listening to the rain making splashes on the pool, I remembered a time from five years ago, when I used to ask rhetorical questions like, "What's there to see in Maharashtra?" And there it was, my answer in plain sight. It's just crazy how clearly you see things in the dark of the night.
Suman Quazi is a Writer, Host and the Food Editor with India Food Network and Start2Bake. She believes that while food is cultural, societal and intellectual, it is also deeply personal and is keen in contributing towards a dialogue around food in India that's meaningful. Her work has appeared in leading Indian publications like Midday, Living Foodz, Zee Zest, Deccan Chronicle, 101India and DailyO.