Written by Aishwarya Phadke
This story is about Panshet. Yes, the same overtly popular 1-day destination near Pune. Don’t be mistaken though, it’s not about bhajjis and aerated drinks at a resort. I promise. It’s a story about a local family and their encounter with two strangers.
It was a chilly morning in January as my roommate and I set out on the bike, wrapped in jackets, scarves, and helmets. I had heard about a site near the backwaters of Panshet dam, and I wanted to explore it to plan a possible survival camp for Travel Dirty. We found the beautiful site after walking around a bit but there weren’t any locals nearby. To consult with them about safety and other matters, we rode a bit further ahead to look for the ‘vasti’ (human habitation).
On spotting a cluster further ahead, we parked our bike and started walking down a narrow pathway dividing the earnest looking abodes on both sides. At the end of the pathway, we found a small wooden gate, restricting entry to the lush green fields behind it. A tiny woman, with a baby in her arms walked over, smiling knowingly as if she was waiting for us. We walked in and were also greeted by an older couple, the woman's in-laws. We politely explained why we were there and that was it.
The next thing we knew, Anna (the older man) was taking us for a tour of their farm (it was a heaven in the midst of nowhere), describing all that was growing in those fields (dill, spinach, coriander, onions, and more) while walking us down to the lakeside.
My friend and I exchanged glances, not believing what we’d chanced upon. When we came back to the house, the two women and the kid were waiting for us. The house itself was a simple yet homely structure built with mud, cow-dung and stone, with a mango tree lending shade.
“Chaha ghenar na?” (have tea, won’t you?) was almost a rhetoric question, and we were served cups even before we could respond. We sat down in the aangan (the front yard) and in a matter of minutes found ourselves laughing and exchanging stories, with the baby now in my friend’s lap, while I casually petted their dog.
Anna’s son, as we found out, drives an auto rickshaw for Ola in Pune, and he has two sisters who are married in nearby villages. He leaves early morning and commutes 40 kilometres to Pune everyday, to and fro, for his job. He comes back home to his family every evening.
We were brought back to reality with Kaku saying “ata Puran Poli khaunach ja!” (‘Don’t leave without eating puranpoli!’). We’d quickly learnt that polite refusals were unnecessary, but also useless with these generous, wondrous strangers. So we quietly followed them into their home and to the backyard where the kitchen was. We all sat down together yet again. Tai (the younger woman) quickly started rolling out dough and filling it with the lentil mix sweetened with jaggery, as Anna lit up the chul (the earthen fireplace). We heard more stories. We warmed our hands and hearts by the fireplace. My friend and I kept exchanging glances every so often, with the wordless question ‘what is even happening?’ on both our minds.
We belong to a city. In cities, special food like Puran Poli isn’t easily offered to strangers. Well, in cities our walls are so high up, that we’d rarely invite a stranger for any kind of meal for that matter. Inundated with guilt and gratitude equally, we silently ate the smokey Puran Poli with Katachi Amti (a spiced dal, usually served with Puran Poli). Goes without saying that it will always be THE best Puran Poli I’ll ever eat in my life.
With a promise of visiting again, we said goodbye. In just a couple of weeks, I did go back. This time with 12 of my Travel Dirty participants. We picked fresh shepu (dill) from the fields and helped cook it for lunch.
Shepuchi bhaaji and bhakri with raw onion (smashed with the fist of course) made for a perfect farm meal.
Everyone fell in love with the family and their generosity. I stayed over that night with a friend even after everyone left. We ate with them and slept in the comforts of their home. Anna and his family think of me as family now, and I couldn’t be more grateful to have them as mine.
Anna still calls up once every couple of months, to ask about my well-being, share corona updates from Panshet, but basically to say how he never lets people he’s called his own once, feel alone. Anna and his family are now one of Travel Dirty’s local partners and if I can through work or otherwise give back even 1% of what they offer so generously, I’d consider it my honour.
The thing about traveling deeper and with curiosity is that you can encounter genuine moments anywhere. Panshet is one more home, that travel has gifted me, where simple homely meals await and boundaries dissolve.