Bhavana Apte (69) or Mangala tai as we know her, has been one of my inspirations when writing my second book ‘If You Love Someone’. She is someone who is constantly on the move doing several things at once - travelling across the globe whenever she can, working with an NGO that helps farmers in Thane district and generally carrying and distributing smiles and good wishes wherever she goes. I have known her for two decades now and what struck me always about her was her easy mobility, her positive attitude and a joyful energy. She brings with her a lot of energy and is soon immersed in doing a million things, one of those people who never sits quietly, yet is always at peace.
When I saw her first, perhaps in 1993 or so, her two daughters were married and she had grandchildren. Not much later, unfortunately her husband, Apte saab passed away at an early age. What I saw of Mangala tai after his demise was what inspired me. Jovial, action-oriented, open to life, articulate and a great student of life, Mangala tai, I felt knew and did a lot more than what she revealed. So when she was in Hyderabad last week, I took the opportunity to ask her how she went about her life and her travels of which I had heard so much.
‘I was always interested in travel,’ she said smiling broadly as she made herself comfortable on the divan. There is no hesitation as she begins. ‘My story starts in 1943 in Amalner where I was born. We moved to Indore later and travelled all across Madhya Pradesh where my father worked as Deputy Collector in the Revenue Department. I remember when he was posted in Bhanpura, a town on the Rajasthan border, we had to change four trains to reach Amalner. But every vacation we would all certainly make it to Amalner. Maybe that was my initiation into travel. Of course I was aided by many books that I devoured, and my great liking for travel increased for new places and new people.'
I asked her if she remembered anything else of her early years, the years when Indian became independent. She shook her head. 'I don’t remember too much of my early years, of the freedom struggle, except the time when Gandhiji was assassinated. Everyone went into shock at that news.’
‘My travel wings took flight in an uncharacteristic manner when we visited Bombay in 1961. Me and my sister, who was two years older to me were visiting Bombay for the first time and were quite excited. We were staying at a relative’s house and stepped out to buy vegetables one day. We saw one thing and another in the big city and soon we boarded a bus to the Gateway of India. Now this house was near Matunga and the bus took its own sweet time to get to the Gateway. We never realized how big Mumbai was and kept asking the conductor when Gateway would come to the point of irritating him. The moment we reached Gateway we were so scared we never saw it and just took the next bus back home. Of course everyone was worried that two young teenage girls had gone missing for over four hours. We were ashamed of ourselves.’ Ah, here's an incident that points to the spirit of the early traveler in her.
The host Mr. Sudha Shintre called the girls over and gave them a dressing down later. He told them that he would chart out their travel route so they could see some sights, told them to inquire from policemen if they got lost. From that day on the girls found their feet and went all over Bombay – Malabar Hill, Metro Cinema (where they saw a movie called ‘Pillow talk’.) Mangala tai was pleased with her first trip in Bombay.
Not much later Mangala tai married Apte saab and moved to Bombay. Apte saab was musically inclined, and was a creative director at a leading advertising agency as well. Their two daughters Aparna and Aboli were accomplished musicians who gave many performances all over India and abroad as well. ‘In 1981, my travel bug caught me and I took a long trip of 1 and a half months by myself and my two daughters by train. We travelled from Bombay to Baroda, then to Bhusawal, then to Hyderabad, and then to Kothagudem meeting friends and relatives before going back home.’
That is when the action started to heat up. Mangala tai had promised a friend of hers who was keen to go to the Himalayas but who was not getting female company (because her husband seemed to go off in all male groups) that she would join her the next time they planned a visit. Hardly a week passed after Mangala tai’s return to Bombay after her long trip when her friend called her and told her that a Himalayan expedition was happening in a week’s time and they should go.
‘I had promised her surely, but how could I ask my husband after just having returned from such a long trip. I pondered about it but then decided I must ask at least. So I softly put up the proposal wording it in such a way – Shall we go to the Himalaya trip I asked (and not, can I go with my friend?) Apte saab thought for a moment and to my great surprise, agreed.’
They decided to take their two daughters along and so they started off on their Himalayan expedition. The trip was to be made by train to Delhi and onwards to Haridwar, Kedarnath, Badrinath, Valley of Flowers, Hemkund and so on in a week. The ticket reservations were not easy those days as one had to stand in long queues, send telegrams for onward booking and suffer many such complicated procedures. They finally got everything done but just a week before their travel, the trains were cancelled due to heavy rains. They cancelled their tickets and took alternate trains with few confirmed reservations, made it to Delhi and moved onwards.
‘I was very excited at seeing the Himalayas. Though I suffered from mountain sickness early on I recovered and enjoyed the trip so much that I would take the extra parikramas around the lake at Valley of flowers. Crossing the icy glacier at the end of that lake was an experience and I almost thought I died. Somehow the eventful trip concluded with our family staying back and we visited a relative in Dehradun as well. I got hooked on to the Himalayas after that and to travel. That whole trip cost us Rs. 450 per head,’ she said triumphantly.
And that started an amazing journey for her. In 1984 she went on a trip to Jamnotri and Gangotri with her aunt and uncle a few friends. And in 1986, when her two young daughters Aparna and Aboli (sitar and sarod players of repute) were proficient enough to play on stage, the whole family decided to take up an invitation to play in the USA. The family went and gave shows in New York, Kansas, Los Angeles, San Francisco and ended up giving 19 programs where they were to give 5 programs. Mangala tai was the tour manager, and she did an efficient job of it.
‘We spent our life savings on that trip, something close to a lakh of rupees in those days, but it was great fun. Once I remember forgetting my bag in a car that dropped us to the train station and rushed back even as the train was about to go. Luckily the train master stopped it for a couple of minutes and allowed me to come back. The bag had everything, our documents, money etc.’
Things happened rapidly after that with both daughters getting married around 1987. Mangala tai was busy with part time work in a school. In 1994 Apte saab passed away suddenly, leaving Mangala tai to figure out the rest of her life by herself.
In 1995 she organized a tour to the Himalayas and was the tour guide. A motley group of friends and relatives joined the group. Being September, there were heavy rains in Delhi and all reservations were cancelled. ‘But from Delhi we took a taxi, a 10 seater, with a young sardar as our driver and drove off to see the Himalayas. It was a 10-12 day trip and we were a group of 8, 7 female and 1 male! We completed the tour successfully and returned. I guess in those days we spent something like Rs. 2000 per head.’
‘In 1996 we went to Nepal. Pasupathi, Everest, Sonauli were on our list of things to see. We went by road and had a tough time with a cranky taxi driver. He would leave us and take others for rides while we were sight seeing. One day when I took away the keys from him he got angry and we decided to terminate his services. But that trip was tough because emergency police squads would appear now and then and ask for bribes all along the way. Though we bought nothing in Nepal we ended up paying many bribes. It was sickening.’
‘When Chhaya, (a younger cousin who lives in Germany and who is featured elsewhere in this blog) got married in India I met her father in law, Mr. Kruger, a wonderful person who invited me to Germany. I took up that offer seriously and in 1997 planned a trip to London where my nephew was staying and onwards to Germany. I had also planned on visiting Scandinavia and Norway. As usual I had researched about these places extensively beforehand.’
‘In Germany I took the train to Berlin and saw the War museum and other sights during the day. I was also fortunate to see a Love Parade while I was there. I was surprised to find that the railway station had three floors when I took the return train! I saw the Black Forest on my return to Chhaya’s place. I remember Mr. Kruger had invited us for dinner and kept plying me with some fine wines which I used to water some plants as I did not want to appear rude! I then moved on to Denmark, Norway, Sweden. In Oslo I remember seeing the Humanity sculptures , in Stockholm the Vaza boat museum, in London the many museums there. It was lovely.’
‘Once in Tubingen Germany I remember a young Indian accosting me on the road and asking me if I was an Indian. When I said I was, he asked me if I knew how to cook pulao. When I said I do, he was very insistent that I go with him to his place and cook pulao. Of course I did not go with him but I gave him the recipe for pulao.’
In 1999 Mangala tai set off to Beijing for a month. Her plan to was visit China, Hong Kong and Bangkok. Her niece was in Beijing so it helped immensely. ‘I remember going to Tianenmen Square on the tenth anniversary of the Tianenmen square revolution. I enjoyed going around the place. One day two art students met me and asked me if I wanted to see their studio. I went with them and they took me deep into the city, into lanes and bylanes, to a studio where they showed me what they did. I had no money to buy anything but they gave me a couple of souveneirs. But now when I think of it, it appears so risky to just go off by myself with two strangers. But I trusted people and they repaid my trust.’
‘Another interesting experience was travelling by train in China. I went to the station and found no one there. There was no drinking water tap as well and I remember going out to a garden outside and filling my water bottle. In the station someone opened a locked gate and let me in, and locked the gate again. Not a soul on the platform. The train cabins were all locked from the outside. A collector came and opened a lock to my cabin, let me in, took my ticket and locked it up again. On the train I met a young Chinese boy who was returning after some studies in Hong Kong. He was very nice to me and we talked and shared our food. But the moment some people got on to the train in the next stop, he behaved like I was not known to him.’
In 2003 Mangala tai went to Malaysia, Bali, Singapore and Ausralia. First she stayed in Singapore with her niece. From there off she went to Jakarta, Jog Jakarta to see world Heritage temples by herself. In Bali she met some wonderful people including a very rich man who played host to them for a whole day in some of the finest places in Bali. She remembers how patient and warm the host and his wife were in entertaining guests for a whole day! Several adventures later she came back to Singapore and headed out to Australia and visited Sydney and Melbourne. She toured Australia for a month and visited Shubha another cousin.
In 2007, Mangala tai visited Taiwan and spent a month there with her niece. And in 2009 she was out again visiting Istanbul and Finland on a month long tour. A detail of her trip is written elsewhere – I will rustle it up. It is amazing how much she travels and how well she travels.
I asked her how she raised money for such long tours. She said she planned well in advance and planned her finances as well. Among the travel tips she shared were about saving well in advance for tours, being flexible about weather, about the stay and most importantly food. One cannot get too picky about food and must be willing to try different varieties and tastes which is an integral part of travelling she says. She packs carefully, carrying a bare minimum of clothes, 4 pairs she said. She looks up and books budget hotels on the net, plans her tickets in such a way that she gets good prices, plans her entire itinerary about all the things to see and how and when in advance. When abroad she looks to pick up city cards which come in handy for use in local travel, local sights etc. She hardly ever travels in taxis when abroad and always prefers public transportation. Shopping is minimal and whatever souveneirs she picks up are small and special gifts of that culture or country. Most times she carries her own ready to eat stuff to munch along and on day trips abroad carries her own sandwiches fruits and fruit juices. She advises that one is better off checking with people who have been there before so one gets more information.
While the travel bug is on, she also helps out with a NGO, Dr M.N. Dhawale Trust which runs a 100 bed hospital in Palghar, Thane district. The Trust also runs a 10 bed hospital in Bhopoli. Apart from the medical help, the Trust also involves itself in actively supporting farmers in the Palghar region by disseminating information about crop rotation and making their farming yield more so they stop migrating to the city. Concepts such as crop rotation, planting vegetables, and other advanced agricultural information is provided to about 25 farmers who constitute a core group in that area. The NGO work is more for her satisfaction as she probably ends up paying more than she earns there. It was with regard to a seminar on sustainable agriculture that she was here last month and we had a fine opportunity to catch up with her and share her experiences.
‘I would love to go and do the Narmada Parikrama,’ she says. I did not know that such a thing existed. ‘It takes a long time, many months. I did 10 days once. You have to walk along by the river side and survive on what you get as you go along.’ The next international foray? ‘I would like to go to Kenya and South Afrca,’ said she
Mangala Tai epitomizes to me, the true spirit of travel. She travels because she loves travelling, seeing new places, meeting new people, having new experiences. It is not about luxury, about knowing people, about the comfort of weather or food. Mangala tai claims she never faced problems because of language. ‘People seem to understand,’ she says. ‘I always trusted people and I never had a problem with them.’
Mangala tai is one of those people who seemed to have suddenly caught on a current that gave her a second life at a time when most people would have withdrawn from life and stopped participating in life. Instead, she gave full expression to herself, taking out into the world what she always had in her head – that the world is not a far off place – it is right here in my mind. Nothing seems to hold her back, she always has something or the other to give always, and most importantly she carries and spreads a joie de vivre wherever she goes. It is not so much her travels as her attitude to life that never ceases to amaze me. I think she is a great example for everyone who has excuses to feel limited. Mangala tai’s life seems to say one thing – that all limitations exist only in our heads. Thank you Mangala tai for sharing your experiences and making me richer by your experience. And may you travel farther and may you experience deeper joy and satisfaction in all the forays in your life!