International Writers Magazine:
are ghosts in Ootacamund, fleeting, shadowy forms that materialize
in moments of brief and unexpected enlightenment. In the evening,
when the mist drifts down from the hills and dips below the pines,
fragments of an older town can appear: an image shaped from the
facade of a building, the curve of a wall or a flash of familiar
colour in a garden. Or so it seemed to me.
The journey from
the hotel in Mysore had taken just three hours. I had hired a chauffeured
car, an Ambassador, that venerable if antiquated icon of Indian motoring.
Joseph was my driver, a reserved, almost taciturn young man with the
striking looks and dark, rich colouring of the Tamil. His conversation
was limited, which suited me. I was content to sit back on the firm,
plastic covered rear seat and enjoy the ride. I was also feeling out
The problem with visiting India as a Brit of a certain age is that expectations
of the place can be based on completely irrational feelings of nostalgia.
Distant memories of the flags and parades on Empire day or of those
carefully coloured Sunday School maps are, I suspect, to blame. For
me this nostalgia manifest itself in the decision to forgo the comfort
of an air-conditioned tour bus and travel alone. The plan was to give
myself time to experience something of the real India.
The temperature had passed thirty degrees centigrade when we set out,
heading south across the great plateau of the Ghat. I was keen to leave
the plain and start our climb into the hills but it took more than an
hour traversing a semi-tropical landscape of jungle, rice fields and
small rural villages before I first saw the Nilgiris. They appeared
gradually, dim outlines through a blue haze on the horizon. At that
distance they seemed to be physically detached from the land I was travelling
through, their high, misty peaks, aloof from the mundane uniformity
of the plain.
The Nilgiri hills rise to more than seven thousand feet. They form part
of the massive Western Ghat, a mountain range that stretches a thousand
miles from the Tapti river in Gujarat, south along the Malabar coast
to the southern tip of the Indian peninsula. They were a place of mystery
and superstition for centuries, a seemingly inhospitable country inhabited
by reclusive aboriginal tribes; until the British discovered them.
I was obliged to ask Joseph to make an unscheduled stop. My stomach
was reacting badly to several days of unfamiliar food and my head was
throbbing from an excess of Indian whisky. He pulled up at a guest house
in the middle of a small town, making it clear by his silence that I
had disrupted his plans. The urgency of my situation helped me overcome
a personal aversion to the squat variety of lavatory; particularly to
using one in a humid, sweat inducing, thirty five degrees. The guest
house proprietor, a large, pushy woman with thick rolls of fat spilling
between the two halves of her sari, took charge when I reappeared. She
fussed, affecting great concern for my health and insisting on making
a special tea to fix my problem. 'Very good for the belly,' she explained,
thrusting a cup of steaming green liquid in front of me. And it was.
Our route took us through the Bandipur Wildlife Sanctuary, famous for
its elephants and tigers. Joseph reduce his speed shortly after entering
the area and, muttering about elephants, pulled into a car park. There
were several stalls selling soft drinks, Indian leather and wood carvings.
A coach from Bangalore that had arrived just ahead of us was disgorging
a noisy group of Indian tourists. It was clear that this was the rest
point Joseph had intended before my forced stop and from his new found
desire to please, I suspected he would be in for a cut of any purchase
I made. But I was not in the mood to humour him and, to Joseph's visible
irritation, insisted we moved on.
The road began its climb after Bandipur, rising at an increasing incline
as we entered the foothills of the Nilgiris. Rice fields were replaced
by forests of pine and eucalyptus; the temperature dropped and the sun
disappeared behind cloud. The road began to wind, turning through long
bends on the lower slopes then, as the climb became steeper, through
a series of increasingly sharp hairpins. Josephs silence deepened
as his concentration increased. I clung to the plastic, my delicate
stomach temporarily forgotten.
The town of Ootacamund - or Ooty to as it is commonly known was
founded by John Sullivan, Collector of Coimbature for the East India
Company in the early nineteenth century. His interest in the area followed
an expedition by two of his more adventurous assistants. Their report
of an "English Country with splendid views across fertile valleys,"
inspired Sullivan to make his own trip into the hills. His subsequent
enthusiasm led to the building of roads and the establishment of the
first British settlements.
A letter to the Madras Gazette in eighteen twenty one suggested, in
typical bureaucratic understatement, that the Nilgiri area:
"will became a place of resort for those whose state of health
may require a change of temperature, which it unquestionably affords."
The volume of whisky I had consumed the night before was largely down
to a birthday party. I had shared a table at dinner with an elderly
American couple, Laura and Arthur Branstrom. It was Laura's seventieth
birthday, an event she insisted on celebrating in our hotel's ornate
bar. The hotel, a former palace of the Maharajah of Mysore, was very
large and very grand but somewhat neglected. The rooms were musty with
an atmosphere of faded opulence that only the word maharajah can conjure.
Laura was a smart, well persevered New Yorker, confident in her view
of what was right and not afraid to pass that view on to whoever might
be listening. Arthur, her husband, was a few years younger and rather
more considered in his opinions. The trip had been Laura's idea following
the enthusiastic recommendation of an East Side, luncheon club acquaintance.
After three weeks on tour, Laura was beginning to question the taste
of her acquaintance. Her enthusiasm had faded to the extent that she
had spent much of the evening explaining to me why giving up the delights
of a Manhattan apartment for run down hotels in a hot, second world
country was not her idea of the best way to spend Arthur's money. Arthur,
on the other hand, had been captivated by India.
'I'm beginning to get a real feel for what you Brits saw in this place,'
he confided, when Laura was out of the room.
'It's what they used to call going native,' I explained.
Tea plantations become the feature above five thousand feet. Endless
acres of the compact, green shrubs with their tiny, shiny leaves, stretch
across the landscape. We travelled along a narrow ridge for a while,
a deep green carpet of tea dropping away either side. Then, as the road
began to rise again, we entered the band of cloud that had been hovering
above us since we left the plain. The view disappeared and Archie was
forced to set the Ambassador's ancient wipers against the thick, wet
mist that enveloped us. The cloud cover was not continuous. Deep, lush
valleys appeared for brief moments and were lost. There were tantalizing
glimpses of forests, great rock chasms and crashing, tumbling waterfalls.
The hairpins became points of terror as overloaded trucks lurched out
of the mist head on to us. A coach full of school children overtook
on one blind corner, grinding past, the children waving wildly, before
vanishing into a luminous white blanket of moisture.
We came out of the cloud as quickly as we had entered it, gently undulating
hills suddenly visible all around. The air seemed sharply bright and
a lot cooler. The road was narrow at that elevation, bounded by high
hedges that could have been transplanted from Surrey.
town of Ootacamund has changed significantly in the decades since
Indian independence. Much of the colonial architecture has either
disappeared or been allowed to decay. And the increasing wealth
of southern India has led to extensive, very Indian development.
The forests of pine and eucalyptus that once surrounded the town,
have been largely replaced by tiers of holiday homes for the confident
new middle classes of Bangalore and Chennai. The British interlude
was a brief one in the history of the sub-continent. India has moved
(Fern Hill Hotel)
While there is little
nostalgia for the past, fragments of the old Ooty do still exist. Incongruous,
mock Tudor houses with names like Lyndhurst and Glyngarth can be glimpsed
behind hedges, their gardens still stocked with roses and hollyhocks.
The Ooty club, where snooker was supposed to have been invented, is
thriving, and the town's main major road junction is still known as
The hotel Joseph drove me to was of that era. The Savoy is a carefully
maintained monument to nineteenth century Englishness. A single story
cream and brown building set in gardens of broad lawns and geranium
filled borders. The public rooms with their dark wood panels, polished
teak floors and turbaned waiters, have the ambience of a Victorian London
club. My accommodation was a detached bungalow, one of several in the
grounds of the hotel. It came complete with a fireplace made up with
eucalyptus logs ready to light.
My American friends were in the dining room when I appeared, waving
for me to join them. They had travelled up on the air-conditioned coach,
taking in tours of the wildlife sanctuary and a tea plantation. Laura's
mood seemed to have improved, probably as a consequence of the drop
in temperature. Arthur was keen to talk about the thrills of their journey.
'Some ride,' he said. 'Don't know what it must have been like in that
old car of yours.'
'Uncomfortable,' I admitted.
'And dangerous,' Laura added, her sharp eyes fixed on mine.
We avoided the bar after dinner and took a walk along a track that led
away from the town. The evening mist was descending, limiting our view.
It was cold, which my companions were prepared for. Laura had a shawl
that she hugged to herself and Arthur wore a thick, woollen pullover.
All I had was a light summer jacket that did little to keep out the
There was a house towards the end of the track, half hidden behind a
tall, trellis topped fence. It was in darkness, the windows shuttered.
The building was Victorian with black stone walls, a red tiled roof
and dark green woodwork. The style was reminiscent of the late Victorian
architecture found in the English lake district or the towns of the
New Forest. Laura seemed fascinated.
'Must have been like going home for those Brits who came up here all
those years ago.'
'It certainly would have been relief to get here,' I said. 'Especially
after a day or more climbing that hill in a bullock drawn carriage.'
Arthur pushed the gate and it swung open. We took a few steps along
a path of limestone crazy paving. It was quiet in the mist, the noise
from the town a muffled rumble in the distance. Laura looked up at the
'It feels as if it's waiting for them to return,' she said.
Arthur chuckled. 'Going to be a long wait,' he said.
© Keith Leonard
<keithleonard at dsl.pipex.com
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