If you have been noticing the last page of the ToI lately you'll notice that on the last page for the entire week a series of adverts have been running, with all sorts of washed-up (and some famous) celebs talking about this wonderful place (methinks that they've done some sort of swap deal, because ToI's back page ain't that cheap). They make it sound like paradise on earth, well the place is Amby Valley, Subroto Roy's (of Sahara fame) insane development off Lonavala. Now as usual, I'll narrate a story involving me and Amby Valley. No it doesn't involve any mad sex.
The first time I went to Amby Valley, I had recently joined EchTee and my boss generally wanted to send me to Bombay. Never one to say no to a trip to Bombay, especially one which included the weekend, I went along. There was some 'Vintage Car' rally happening from Bombay to Amby Valley. I was the least interested in the vintage car rally, because I don't get off on seeing cars from the 1920's and 1930's, I'll take an updated classic like the Lamborghini Miura that the Italian company showed off at Detroit this year.
Anyway back to the story, after flagging off from Flora Fountain, we headed off in a much more modern car to Amby Valley. After spending the few hours through the city to make the highway, we eventually reached Lonavala, and then began the long climb to Amby Valley. The place is a huge 5000-acre place in the middle of the Sahyadri hills. On the approach to the place you realise that Sahara dude has even built an airport capable to landing a 737 over there. Pity that he sold his airline to someone else recently.
Anyway, we enter the place and suddenly you find yourself in a surreal make believe world. There are two giant gates through which you enter. We were then taken on a tour of the place, their website has some pictures. First we were taken to a two-bedroom Swiss chalet. Keep in mind this is India. In summer. In 30-degree heat. The chalet was supposedly made out of foreign granite and wood from Scandanavia. Very nice it was, it even had a jacuzzi. Its cost a mere Rs 3.5 crore (then - this was 2002 mind you). Then, we were taken to the 'Houses on stilts', three bedroom homes with wooden everything (fancy Nordic wood again, or was it Canadian?) and all wired up with some very fancy security system and lots of display screens and speakers. Unlike the chalet, this would be the apartment of choice (the stone required for the chalet didn't suit the environment - no shit Sherlock!), and there were even one and two bedroom units, prices started at Rs 2.5 crore then, going upto Rs 5 crore for the top of the line apartment. Thankfully, you could do up your own aprtment in coulours less weird than the colours in the demo units we saw. There was also a 5-bedroom independent bunglow, which I think sold for Rs 10 crore, or something like that. You can buy a private bunglow in Lonavala for less, but then again, you don't get an airport to fly into.
Then, we were shown the 'nightclub'. Modeled on the Titanic, it had plastic icebergs and athe bow of a ship outside. Sahara had trained their bartender to make some godawful cocktail named after Leo and Kate. Godawful acting, godawful cocktail, kinda made sense. There were also two lakes at Amby Valley, the Sahara group had put plastic sheeting on the bottom of the lakes so as to prevent the water seeping into the ground (!?!), and had even got swans for the lakes. There were elaborate flower gardens, and the entire place had this very strange, surreal feel to it.
By then I was bored, Amby Valley seemed like a large expanse, Sahara even planned to build a resort over there and a theme-park, but that was being worked on. Blah, blah, blah. I wanted to get back to Bombay, it was a Saturday and I wanted to go out party, and even though we were offered the opportunity to stay in the 'chalet', I decided to take my chances with getting wasted in the city.
However, that was not going to be my only time at Amby Valley. Two years later, I was there again. The Indian Cricket Team was each given a 'seven-star' apartment (the three bedroom unit) at Amby Valley for reaching the WC Final in South Africa. Where Ricky Ponting kinda killed us. We were taken there to hobnob and ask the cricketers questions - I'm not a sports reporter, but the chance to hobnob with the cricket team was something I couldn't pass up. After flying to Bombay (Air Sahara obviously and an awful flight, though I did manage to get the phone number of one of the air-hostesses) we were put up in the old Centaur Hotel, now owned by Sahara, and as awful as ever. The next morning we were bussed into Amby Valley, an irritating classmate from college who is a cricket reporter was around and he ensured that I got wasted. In the bus. By the time I got to Amby Valley, I must've had at least half a bottle of Old Monk. I was worried that when I approach Sachin, I'ld throw up all over him.
Anyway, another time, another guided tour with another ghati Sahara employee. I don't want to sound too snobbish, but you have to call a spade, a spade right? So I call a ghati, a ghati. Now, we were taken to the other side, I really didn't want to see the now Rs 7.5 crore three-bedroom unit on stilts and the private helipad or the airport in the middle of nowhere. I wanted to see the 'theme park', because if the nightclub (now un-Titanicified, instead of that it had glowing plastic rocks all over the place!) is so weird, then the 'theme park' could only be weirder.
And, sometimes my gut feeling is bang-on. Our friend had dammed a river, creating an artificial lake, upon which he planned to do two things - the first was to move a tribal village from the North-East here. Don't ask me the logic, I'm not the person behind this. And the second was the 'Pirate Ship' that he planned in the middle of the 'lake' with real pirates and cannons and what not. Now, I like pirate ships, especially if they have Kiera Knightley on board, but by god, I saw what they had planned, I prayed to god that lightning strike the architect down.
Eventually we saw the cricketers (I managed to speak to some of them, I didn't let my professional ethics slip and run behind for autographs, but I saw the entire team. They played better cricket those days), some random B-grade actresses from Bollywood, noticed a lot of air-hostesses, and also the great man Sahara Shri himself. Those were the days for the man, when the government didn't investigate him, and he could throw Rs 300 crore wedding parties (which I attended, but thats another story) for his sons.
Coming back, I wonder why the Sahara Group is promoting Amby Valley that much. If you live in Bombay, you'll notice a hoarding on the Western Express Highway at Bandra saying 'watch this space', well the space is for Amby Valley. Maybe they've realsed that they can mint money during the current realty boom, given that people are buying property for stupid sums of money, they might even sell those chalet-type thingies for good money.
Well, all I do know is that I can't afford it, and even if I could, the place seemed too weird for me to ever want to live there. sad to say, but I'm a city sort of person. That said, a collaegue who covered a Golf tournament there once, did add that the course over there is very good. Not that this would make Amby Valley any less surreal, but that said, it is less surreal than Sahara Shahar in Lucknow, which is in a different realm altogether.
(pics from www.amitkulkarni.info)
On another note, I have been following with interest the protests across the world by Muslims who are objecting to the images printed by the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten (and honestly, the lack of large-scale protests in India has been quite surprising though the Indian media in a moment of sudden responsibility didn't print the images or even show them and hasn't tried to stoke up a situation). While I'm a votary for freedom of speech and all that, I've seen the cartoons on this page (which a great historical archive of pictures of the Prophet through the ages - including Islamic art from the 1600's - be warned it is a heavy page - but tehn again you won't see these cartoons in India) and frankly many of the original cartoons and cartoons printed in reaction to the original are in very bad taste. Unfortunately the West, with its notions of superiority cannot quite understand other religions, I mean you don't make fun of other religions because you treat your religion with a degree of irreverence. The cartoons are upsetting and I can even understand why some people are protesting, heck I understand why people protest when they put Shiva's image on a pair of chappals. Religion is something that goes quite deep out here, and imposing different moral and social values on people is not a good way to make friends - especially when you do already have a rather infalmmed situation in Iraq.
OK, so now that we've dealt with serious stuff, this is a nice site to go for brainless enjoyment.