Astrid Rao

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The monsoon has finally departed and a group of flight thirsty Paraglider pilots are off to Kamshet hoping desperately for good flying conditions. Along with them is a trio of new students bracing themselves for their first flying experience.
A three hour drive on the Mumbai – Pune highway, and we catch sight of the river snaking alongside the railway track. The quaint little railway station, normally tucked out of sight when you take the bypass, is now visible as we come into Kamshet town. We then cross the railway track and head for lake country. We pass all the familiar sights: the guava seller at the corner, the patshala, the little tea stall. Everybody waves frantically. Even the local dogs bark in excitement. Our arrival has signalled “circus time in the sky.”

We are headed for our base camp at Golden Glades, but first we take a detour via the evening flying site for a quick inspection of the conditions. The paddy has not yet been harvested, so we have no landing area. The local farmer Shelar, whom we fondly refer to as our site met officer (meteorological officer), comes rushing out to greet us and give us a detailed report on the weather conditions.
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Shelar never fails to amaze us. From the very first time we met him two years ago when we first discovered the site, he greeted us warmly and came out to watch our antics in the sky. Within a couple of days he had figured out the fundamentals of paragliding and could tell which pilot had a specially good flight and which student had the best landing. He soon knew the regulars by name and even nicknamed some of us. A micro-meteorology expert, he can look up at the sky, feel the wind, and tell us if conditions are good for soaring, or if the evening will be a washout, which is something that every paraglider pilot has to learn if he wants to contend with the sky.

The next morning after discussing with the villagers, we head out for Shinde Wadi. An hour’s drive down a bumpy village track, the hills come into view. Even from a distance the site looks promising: a gentle, sloping hill, perfect for training ops. As we unload the gliders and begin ground-handling the village kids start to appear as if from nowhere. The boys are bolder and come closer for a better view, the girls stay at a distance. Sanjay ties the ribbons onto a staff and impales it into the ground. The colourful flying ribbons indicate the wind direction and strength. The kids look on in wonder, their necks craning upwards like fledgling birds. The multicoloured gliders inflate in the air soaring like colourful birds high on unseen cloud streets in the sky.

The colourful gliders could charm just anyone, but one little girl is mesmerised by the ribbons dancing in the wind. She makes a sudden swoop towards them and without stopping, plucks one off the staff running madly, her little gathered skirt flapping around her. This causes fresh excitement among the kids and the students, and the commotion takes a while to settle. Then before the sun sets the pilots inflate their wings and take to the sky, soaring on the winds along with the Brahminy Kites.

We walk down to the little tea shop for a refreshing cup of tea. An old man there tells us about a battle of long ago where Madhavrao Shinde’s soldiers fired a cannon from the top of the hill and blew the head off the leader of the advancing British battalion. This was how the area got its name he says, which goes to prove that there’s history hidden under every stone you turn in this area. Already we have flown over ancient Buddhist caves and fortresses of medieval chieftains, a reminder that we are traversing an ancient trade route from the coast to the hinterland, once the haunt of caravans, Buddhist monks, Greek merchants and Chinese travellers.
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What makes Kamshet so special to us, you may wonder. It’s the people, of course. The oneness we feel with them, the realization that every Indian farmer, even if he cannot read or write, is a micro-meteorology expert. Centuries of accumulated knowledge create traditional wisdom. And when we think of the children, their exposure to paragliding – the newest form of personal flight – we wonder how the ‘circus in the sky’ will affect their lives.