Last August, my family and I spent a day at the Periyar Tiger Reserve. By the time it was sundown, we’d hiked, boated, picnicked, and been sucked on by leeches. But it was only close to midnight, on a three-hour hike through the jungle with forest guards on their night patrol, that I felt like I’d finally slid under the forest’s monsoon skin.
At first, my urban self had struggled to sprout jungle roots. I had teetered on narrow, slippery embankments with only my father and two armed guards as a buffer against creatures on the prowl. Every few feet, the forest flitted between nutty and floral scents. And then, our swinging flashlights revealed a bloom that only unfurled in the dark, the gently falling rain, a sandalwood tree split by lightning, an owl’s giant sweeping wings, and deer that couldn’t hide their curiosity even as they warned us away with their air-horn bark. Bursting with excitement I coaxed the guards to switch their flashlights off for a few seconds. Though we weren’t entirely swallowed by darkness, for a few moments I felt the bigness of the forest move in.
When we travel, the day has its brightly lit delights, and the sense of endless hours to attend to all that beckons. But come twilight, the same terrain attains a shape-shifting quality. Night-time offers a sense of intimate knowing, when our senses are heightened, almost as if nothing can be taken for granted in the dark.
The surreal quality of night-time discovery came to me again when I was in Ahmedabad recently. I had topped my whirlwind visit with a guided night walk through the city’s old pols, or residential clusters.
Our tour guide took us through a restored haveli, its traditional architecture designed to keep it naturally cool and carefully conceal valuables behind, say, a wall mirror. Then he took us through the intermittently lit streets of old Ahmedabad. The pols were quiet, the only noise was our chatter, as the steady flashlight lit up chalkboards displaying neighbourhood notices. I felt nostalgic for a past I hadn’t experienced as I saw the decaying mansions, and encountered secret passageways once used as escape routes in case of an attack. The night walk allowed me to slow down and become familiar with the turn of each street, alive to its pulse.
We moved on to the illuminated chaos of Manek Chowk—vegetable market by morning and jewellery hub by afternoon. Its streets were taken over by food stalls by night. The chowk sits around the mausoleum of Ahmedabad’s founding ruler, Ahmed Shah. Inside the mausoleum, in a drab room located up a steep flight of stairs, two brothers played the shehnai and beat large drums in a 600-year-old tradition that has outlasted its purpose: announcing the daily opening and closing of the walled city’s gates. Standing there, immersed in the homage to a long-gone king, I felt I had slipped into one of the secret pockets of the city’s ancient, thriving heart. In that night-time glimpse of history in loop, Ahmedabad revealed itself to me as a city at once old and new, a city remembered and renewed.
What is it about the night that loosens the tightly coiled urges of the day? Why do night-time strolls unwind the passage of time or the boundaries of place and memory? When returning to my home city of Mumbai a few years ago after living elsewhere, I found myself walking around darkening streets in a daze. The twilit lanes had a surreal texture that made me feel like I had never really left, that I had returned each night to roam the streets in my dreams.
Every traveller has a moment, while unpacking a bag or waking up in a strange hotel bed, of not knowing exactly which room or which country one is in. That transient state is similar to the masquerading quality of the night—its anonymity concealing and revealing what it wishes. Night travel can feel intoxicating because it brings a sense of probing the hidden, whether you are in a concrete jungle or a moonless forest.
Wanderings at night allow the erasing of boundaries, painting me into the picture, even as I feel disoriented with images and sensations that question what I saw by the light of day.
Appeared in the April 2016 issue as “Night-Time Revelations”.