Travelling menagerie

When you are travelling with dogs, you have to get your planning done right. This is particularly so when it's not one, or even two dogs, but – as in our case – four of them. You cannot just land up at a destination in the evening and wander about hoping to find lodgings. Most innkeepers would raise their eyebrows at finding such a muttly crew on their doorsteps.

Many years of dealing with this scenario has taught my wife Anjali and me a strategic process. After we have worked out an itinerary, I research accommodation options on the Internet, and give Anjali a list of hostelries to follow up with. She then coaxes, cajoles and charms the places into agreeing to let us and our furry brood spend the night. Some places are easier to convince than others. As a state, Gujarat has always been a stumbling block – we have never managed to find accommodation there that is, well, accommodating.

So the Sarita Mandvi Mahal seemed like a wonderful find. I had dredged up the place on one of those websites where travellers share experiences. Located at a place called Chandod, some 50-odd km from Vadodara, the Mahal, I had learnt, was the seat of the Mahidas, once rulers of the area. As with many such once-royal households, this one too now earned its keep as a heritage hotel. However, it seemed too remote and unsung to be a significant draw, and I felt there was an opportunity in that for us.

Armed with this information, Anjali made the call. The person who responded introduced himself as Narendra Singh Mahida, and went on to divulge that he was a 95-year-old ex-parliamentarian and practising Gandhian. The conversation continued for a long while. Anjali kept trying to hang up, only to become entangled in another skein of words laid by the genial old man at the other end. By the time she finally terminated the call, he had told us much of the history of his various pets. And he had welcomed the idea of our coming to stay at his place with our dogs.

Given that we were merely trying to book rooms, it had been a strange conversation. Anjali and I joked about whether we had run up against a lonely and senile old man, who enticed unsuspecting people to a hotel that did not actually exist. Amazingly enough, we were almost on the button.

Blundering around

On long trips, there's a natural protocol that falls into place. Chipku, the oldest of our dogs and otherwise elegant as a queen, takes up the entire back seat of the Scorpio, which is heavily cushioned and papered to deal with her tendency to throw up (we have a name for Chipku's travelling alter ego – Pichku). Jaya, the tomboy who oscillates between the rambunctiously masculine and the alluringly feminine, occupies the middle row. On the passenger's lap – usually Anjali's, since I tend to hog the driving – rests Bhaloo, the brat of the pack. Hero, the blundering brute and only male of the lot, leaps back and forth from seat to seat and window to window for a while before settling down with Jaya in the middle row. Once on the open road, it's smooth sailing both for them and for us.

The Sarita Mandvi Mahal was slotted as the third stop on a Delhi-to-Goa trip. At Vadodara, having just set a new land-speed record for ourselves – 143 kph – on National Expressway 1 from Ahmedabad, we found the turnoff to Dabhoi without much trouble. In the heartland of Gujarat, it was a Sikh speaking in very Punjabi Hindi who directed us – 'Siddha ja, tisdi chaukdi se bayen ko kaat' (Go straight and turn right at the third chowk). Having bayen ko kaated, we hit the state highway, a big comedown after the NE1. From Dabhoi, though, directions became progressively less available and progressively less accurate.

An aside, though a relevant one: The concept of isi rasta in India is a metaphysical one. In many places, throughout our various trips, we have been told 'Isi raste pe sidha chalna', only to find the road soon radiating out like a U-239 atom undergoing fission, and nothing to indicate which branch holds primogeniture.

On the Dabhoi-Chandod stretch, this vagary of direction was further complicated, for several reasons. First, not many people spoke Hindi. Second, not many of those who did had heard of the place. Third, the perils of romanising Indian language names, which tends to see the same name written different ways in different places. The name of our destination, spelt 'Chandod' locally, was marked as 'Chandod' on most maps, a spelling which led to us pronouncing the name (chan to rhyme with stun, and dod to rhyme with road) differently from how it is locally – cha as in tea, the 'n' as in Ravan, and a soft 'd'. After a helpful local gave us a diction lesson, though, things got easier.

As we got closer, the road went from state highway (sporadic potholes, at least two-Scorpios-wide throughout) to side road (mainly potholes, squeeze out on the shoulder for Bullets to pass) to veritable pathway (exclusively potholes with intermittent patches of tar, roadside vegetation falling decapitated by our passage). Eventually it petered out, the last stretch seeing our Scorpio yawing, rolling and pitching like George Clooney's boat in The Perfect Storm.

It was clear that no vehicle had made its way down this track in a long time, barring bullock carts that had created the two ruts we were following. We wondered whether we were even in the right place, but felt there was nothing to do but continue on ahead until we could either ask someone or turn the car around. When finally we spotted signs of a village up ahead, we stopped the car and gave the dogs a quick walk. If the village turned out to be Chandod, we reasoned, the dogs would be able to enter the Sarita Mandvi Mahal with empty bladders – something we always try to ensure before we reach where we are staying. You never know what the surroundings of a place might be like, and whether you can walk the dogs in its vicinity. Where houses rub shoulders with each other, householders tend to look askance at canine excrement being deposited on their doorsteps, so it's the wide open spaces that are best for us.

The village, it turned out, was indeed Chandod. Having gathered an entourage of local children yelling 'Kutra, kutra!' (Dog, dog), we rolled up outside a haveli rising out of the local village like pyramids in a desert. The façade of the building resembled a big maw, greedy to swallow visitors whole. A bedraggled-looking man sat on a platform next to the imposing gates that formed the teeth within that mouth. Upon our arrival he got up, shooed away some resident dogs and manhandled the gates open. We drove into the courtyard of the haveli where we were met by another bedraggled-looking man, this one much older. In cheap slippers and dirty pyjamas, he did not look the scion of a ruling family, but indeed he was – Digvijay Singh, pride of the Mahidas.

Decrepit detritus

We soon learnt that our jocular presumptions about the place had almost been true. As we unloaded the essential luggage, Praveenji, the original bedraggled figure, told us that the Mahal, built in 1886, had been a moderate success as a hotel, mainly as a home away from home for other ex-royals. But it became increasingly difficult to keep the business going, and it had been more than a year since they had stopped operating the place as a hotel. Praveenji, himself a faithful retainer of the family, had been the last employee, and he had left for his home village to look after his agricultural holdings quite a long while ago.

He had returned on receiving an urgent message, when the main Mahida – Narendra Singh, with whom Anjali had been speaking – had told him that guests were imminent. Though now too old to run the place, the erstwhile ruler was evidently not averse to telling people who enquired that they could get lodging and board. Especially when they sounded as charming on the phone as Anjali always does.

So, while Anjali discussed affairs of state and the state of affairs with Digvijay Singh, I was led upstairs to the Royal Mandwa Suite No 1, situated in one wing of the sprawling edifice. We passed through a green door and up a staircase glowing with the pinkness of its walls to another set of ornately carved wooden doors, chipped and worn with age.

Praveenji thrust the doors open, and air trapped in the decrepit room for the last year gratefully rushed out. The door opened onto a drawing room that had no doubt entertained the high and mighty, reminding me strongly of the preserved layouts in the Salarjung Museum in Hyderabad that displayed the lifestyle of the nizams. At the other end was the diwan-i-khas – a once luxurious, now seedy, sofa set under dusty, peeling portraits and sepia photographs of local and related royalty. It was an Ozymandias-type moral-of-the-story tableau.

Cobwebs were everywhere and caressed our faces like ghosts as we walked into the room. Praveenji opened the doors to an adjoining balcony that overlooked the aangan. I stepped out onto the balcony to find it overrun by weeds. There was ample evidence that monkeys used the place as a sulabh shauchalay (public toilet).

A corridor off this room led to the bedroom. Inside the pink-walled chamber, the bed was a rumpled mess, and it seemed as though it had seen some excitement more recently than a year ago. The sheets on half of the king-sized bed, in particular, looked as though they had seen heavy action, and the stains – extensive in nature – looked highly suspicious. During our trips with the dogs, the first thing we do in any hotel room is to cover the beds with our own sheets, in order to protect them from fur and dirt. At the Sarita Mandvi Mahal, putting our sheets on the bed served to protect the dogs and us from the detritus of someone else's passion.

Having deposited our luggage and set up food-and-water stations for the dogs in various corners of the rooms, I went back down to the car. The dogs, eager to disembark ever since we had come to a halt, were taken out on leashes. After they had had their fill of sniffing the entire courtyard, we guided them up the pink staircase to the Royal Mandwa Suite No 1.

Inside, we could let them off their leashes with the main door shut. Compared to the relatively cramped and unexciting quarters they have to accept during their travels, this must have seemed like a wonderland to them. They sniffed up and down the drawing room, the balconies and passages, the bedroom and even the huge bathroom, which sometime would have been regal but was now just rundown. Countless creatures big and small must have roamed these halls before our arrival, and the dogs were happy to make their olfactory acquaintance.

The last of the Mahidas

While the dogs and I settled in – Chipku elegantly occupying the sofa where other queens had sat in the past – Anjali went and met Narendra Singh Mahida. She came back to tell me that the man belied his age with his energy and sharpness. Well aware of seemingly everything that went on locally and globally, he was articulate and energetic. Among other things that he was involved with, he ran a social-work organisation in the area that provided assistance to women, especially widows, who had fallen upon difficult times. He also told her that he had served as a minister in Indira Gandhi's cabinet during her early years as prime minister. In the passage outside our bedroom hung a framed group photo of all the members of Parliament from that period. Our man Mahida cut a dashing figure with a turban in the back row.

As afternoon turned to evening, we drove down a jungle trail to the banks of the Narmada, and spent a little time on the mighty river's shore. This is the kind of sidelight that the dogs enjoy the most about our trips. They splashed in the water and rolled in the sand. They peed on pieces of driftwood, lining up one behind the other in a circular sequence, bidding desperately to be the one to leave a mark on top of all the others'. They had little acrimonious exchanges with local dogs affronted at their presence. This kind of interaction is, of course, their primary source of entertainment, whether at home or on the road. Sometimes, when we're at home, we take the dogs out for night-time drives to places where we know local packs hang out. The uproar that occurs, as our guys rouse the rival gang, which then gives chase, is our dogs' equivalent of a favourite television reality show.

Later that night, as we drifted off to sleep in would-be regal comfort, local village performers banged out a garba rhythm on a big drum that resides in the centre of the Mandvi Mahal aangan, as women danced. We suspected that this had been arranged for our benefit, as a popular means of making money, but we had planned a 4 am start (the next leg of the journey was going to be a long one at 600-plus km), and did not want to be up carousing Gujarati style into the heart of the night. Besides, we had little enough money, and did not want to be parted from more of it than necessary.

When we left, it was still dark out, but Digvijay and Praveenji were at hand to bid farewell. It had been a short stay, but I was again struck at why having the dogs makes our travels so offbeat and interesting. We are unable to stay at any mainstream places, and usually even avoid cities and large towns. As a result, we can discover some hidden gems, in beautiful locations. At other times, as in the case of the Sarita Mandvi Mahal, we meet unusual characters and have a surreal time. Either way, we're left with experiences we can't forget.

~ Aniruddha Sen Gupta has been spending most of his time writing since he moved to Goa five years ago with his wife Anjali and their four dogs. 

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