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The International Writers Magazine: Ootacamund:

An Indian Adventure
Keith Leonard

There 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 of sorts.

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. Joseph’s 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.

The 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 on.
(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 Charing Cross.

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 chill.
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 building.
'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 October 2008
<keithleonard at

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