Thursday, August 17, 2017

Head Over Hills - Ooty, Blue Mountains and Summer Tales: In The Hindu Business Line

Published on August 11, 2017

Read here or see below for a tad unedited version.


Every textbook cliché about colonial ‘hill stations’, a term that even the British no longer understand, is alive and kicking in ageless Ooty
Someday, most certainly, I will learn the names of the red pink yellow white purple flowers that are gaily distributed all around me this summer afternoon. But today? Today it is too much work to google away and learn their genus and species and common names in three languages. Let me, for now, refer to them by the rainbow colours that have seeped into each petal, like tea from a teabag. There are no roses around; roses being the only kinds I can readily recognize, anywhere you take me. Someday though, I will know how to differentiate my sorrels from my hydrangeas from my buttercups from my nasturtiums. 

Today, I have my socked feet up on a wrought iron chair that is painted white. The table top is glass and speckled with the remains of a light drizzle from half an hour ago. There are three generations of sparrows under the pine tree, chattering away. A gossamer mist will set in in a while, but for now the whole of Udagamandalam (Ooty or Ootacamund, if you prefer the colonial name) is coloured rose gold by eventide and lies sprawled beneath me. A crescent of the Nilgiris mountains – they really are blue-blue – circles the part of town that makes my view. I have a book and my faithful weathered- leathered traveller’s notebook before me. I could be journaling lines overloaded with adjectives – there is enough to describe around me – or I could catch up on the reading. I contemplate the choices and choose what I really want to do, which is nothing. Doing absolutely nothing, staring in the direction of the Blue Mountains, sipping on the tea R and his wife, the housekeepers of the century old colonial bungalow I’m staying in bring me and just…nothing-ing feels pretty darn good. “Summering in the hills” is something I could do for a bit of every year, I tell myself. For us non-believers, we make up traditions and rituals as we go along.

“How beautiful it is to do nothing, and then to rest afterward.”


Come summer, I complain about the heat, a lot. I am a pain that way. The heat is how I begin sentences and close all conversations with a sigh. “The winter you were born, it was a particularly cold year,” grandma used to tell me, in that tone she employed just before she morphed into the rajas and the princesses of her stories – I always thought, still do, that it was magic that turned her into a magnificent storyteller of the sorts they never make anymore. Maybe it was the particularly cold winter up in the hills the year I was born that made me detest every passing summer. At least that is what I tell myself.

This summer seemed particularly bad. We had skipped the feeble winter on this city and whooshed past a brief spring to plunge into a heat that seemed to justify murder. We were always on the edge, waking up and going to bed exhausted from the air that seemed to sap our will to live and laugh. We were constantly angry.

The heat was also driving brown ants out in their thousands. They were everywhere – on wheat, on soap, on glass bottles, on books, on all inedible things, on every ingredient in my kitchen. Summer seemed to have driven them mad too. We felt often like killing the other, or the ants – anything, something, to be able to take a long deep breath after. So for our sanity, we decided to go up to the hills when the search engine on the www promised weather in its twenties and teens, even a spot of rain. We packed a sweater, just in case, brandy for my half-there cold, and booked ourselves into an old bungalow that overlooked the lights of the city. I secretly hoped this might become that one place in those hills we would keep going back to each year, even when we were old and overused to each other’s company.


Ooty was ‘discovered’ hundred-and-ninety-eight years ago by the Brits, who promptly acquired it for a summer capital. This part of the country, it remains a much favoured weekend getaway, honeymoon destination, family holiday and next door picnic spot for people in mufflers and monkey caps far thicker than most times necessary. That Ooty is christened the ‘Queen of Hill Stations’, that hill stations are itself a colonial construct which they now in their own country no longer know the meaning of, that there are sights to see and things to do in their dozens if you look up travel websites, that several houses are old and large and breathtakingly beautiful is not new news. Neither is the fact that a hangover from certain ways of life is still thick as the water in Ooty’s man-made lake – thanks to which you are spoilt for choice over fancy locally made cheeses, preserves, jams and jellies, cakes, breads, sausages and other Western food.

The churches and old buildings now turned into government offices and bookstores are still marvelous. Some are well maintained, some are not. Some take the baggage of history associated with their homes and offices in their stride and get on with the business of daily things nonchalantly, for routine is very tedious work. Others wear this history like a heavy crown, uncomfortable, but still overtly proud of the anachronisms they won’t let go off. There are old quarters of town with stone bungalows and immaculately maintained colourful gardens within expansive compounds, and then there are newer, busier, more congested neighbourhoods. The former will shop at Modern Stores or pronounce Ooty to be too pedestrian and drive to Coonoor instead, while the latter will bring in the malls and supermarket chains but still patronize the local grocer in the shop around the corner. Members of the former will have memberships at the Ootacamund Club and ‘lunch’ in chiffon and pearls, while the participants of the other will go to Adyar Anand Bhavans and eat paani-puris by the roadways.

If these stereotypes of hill town societies sound archaic, it is because they aren’t. These clichés are alive and thrive in places where time is unhurried by the mountains that dictate its days and weather. I know, for I come from one such.


We rode through the night, arriving at the bungalow just in time for morning tea. Cold under my windcheater. The scores of wild spotted deer, an elephant and her month old child, wild boars, blue and green necked peacocks within arm’s distance along the Bandipur and Mudumalai Forest Reserves made up for all discomfort. On the return, taking another route, we passed through a pine forest, then a eucalyptus forest and then a bamboo forest, in quick succession. The eucalyptus trees, standing to attention in straight lines for just a brief stretch along a road that seems to swirl around you was surreal. It has become one of those things you need only to half close your eyes to conjure up an instant image of. Downhill and through the reserve forests – more animal sightings – then into bigger villages and bigger towns till this gargantuan city. This city where you always need to be doing things. Nothing is just not relevant here.


After not seeing the sights and not doing things, we meet the lovely T and A, poet and artist, respectively, who live within a tea estate. Tea turns to whisky on a balcony from where they say they sometimes spot bison herds and hear other wild things. The house is full of books and art and antiques, and stories, so many, many wonderful stories. A courtesy call turns into, I hope, a burgeoning friendship, promises of returning to stay and of meeting elsewhere to buy books and talk shop. Just as we are leaving, T points out that it is a full moon’s night. I remember reading that it is a pink moon – April’s full moon is called so, signifying the blooming pink flowers of spring and heralding new beginnings of the year. So it is a pink moon in the Blue Mountains. T even quotes Auden later,

“But once in a while the odd thing happens,
Once in a while the dream comes true,
And the whole pattern of life is altered,
Once in a while the moon turns blue.”

It all sounds terribly staged. We had not made these exact plans. The first time I went, it rained all along the way, the man-made lake was dirty brown and swollen and there was litter everywhere, the homemade chocolates were made in large factories and I had vowed never to bother returning. I gladly change my opinion of Ooty. “The mountains are in my DNA, I think, for this is where I am most content, the happiest and the most inspired,” I announce, sitting pillion, on the way downhill, with as much a dramatic flourish I can channel. A feeble grunt in reply. I am still basking in the pleasure of having done all those nothings to begrudge that insolent lack of ready agreement though.

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