“…so the stuff you wanna do is the stuff they don’t wanna do and you make plans for the stuff you think they wanna do but you don’t wanna do and then they ditch you and you end up doing what you think they wanted to do and you didn’t wanna and you end up in a place like this, all alone and miserable.” – S, sitting by the spectacularly odorous (and poisonous) Ooty lake, enumerating her reasons for ending up there.
Ooty, to me, was primarily a transit town, a place to access good 3G, eat pizzas and drink coffee at the Sidewalk Cafe, use the great library at Willy’s Coffee Pub, buy books, get permits for Mudumalai and chill out in the spacious lobbies of the YWCA. The rooms at the YWCA Anandagiri were a penny pincher’s paradise with clean, spacious rooms that came with high ceilings, ornamental fireplaces and a writer’s table (you really cannot ask for more when you pay 400 Rs.) They were also a sonic nightmare where you could hear everything that went on, not just in the adjacent rooms, but also the ones way down the cavernous corridor. So my ears were treated to much sex, drugs and wedding music during the fractured couple of weeks I spent there. Despite the illusions of privacy, the feel was more of a luxurious hostel in Khao San Road frequented by a curious mixture of holidaying Tamil boys, big families, wedding groups and thanks to the Lonely Planet, lots of backpackers.
The restaurant downstairs, where I ate all my dinners thanks to Ooty’s utter lack of night-life, was a paradise for earworms. Every evening, I would be treated to midi versions of Boney M’s greatest hits, annoying songs from the Grease and Saturday Night Fever soundtracks, Eye of the Tiger and other such sweet and cuddly songs that refused to leave my head and had me humming them while walking on the streets of Ooty thus making the desperate men on the sidewalks take a break from leching at hot tourists and stare at some idiot mechanically humming “Tell me more, tell me more, was it love at first sight?”
I met S because she wanted to take a leak. She stayed in the room next to mine. The toilets to our rooms were exclusive but lay across the corridor. She had forgotten to lock hers and the wedding party, who had colonized YWCA for 2 days, had shitted, littered and turned her loo into a muddy wreck. Mine was the only relatively cleanish one around and she begged me to allow her to use it. I could hear her humming “Eye of the Tiger” in her room and that initiated a long conversation that never really ended, mostly bitching about the need to get a lobotomy to put those stupid songs out of our heads.
The Ooty lake is a spectacularly odorific place and it’s a miracle that a mutant monster hasn’t emerged out of all the sewage pumped into the lake. It was the perfect place for S to pour all her frustrations out. She didn’t really want to be here and had planned this hilly detour only to meet a Swedish couple she had become friends with in Varkala, who ditched her at the last minute deciding to go to Goa instead. Being two single people, we bitched and joked about “couple” behaviour for a few hours and came to a conclusion that the “couples” enjoying their paddle boats and splashing filthy, septic, toxic waters on each other certainly belonged to a different species.
The Ooty Botanical Gardens are a de rigueur for anyone who goes to the Nilgiris but de rigueurity is well-deserved. It’s among the handful of tourist hotspots that are actually worth visiting. Once you dodge the noisy group of kids rolling down the knolls and weave your way past innumerable couples doing it behind the bushes, it’s an oasis of peace and calm that teems with all manner of faunal and avian life. Yes, they could have done without the kitschy art and the artificial falls that look like rejected backdrops to mythological serials, but for a place that sees thousands of people every day, it’s clean and well-kept. We made it all the way up to the Toda Mund at the top, housed within a HADP complex will a group of bulls staring at us threateningly.
Ooty is not a heaven for a foodie (which I pretend to be every now and then) but it has a fair share of good eateries. The Sidewalk Café is certainly the place to go for wood-fired pizzas and pastas (whose quantities can be truly enormous and with the garlic bread, could almost qualify as a smorgasmabord) There’s a splendid Marwadi restaurant called Pankaj Bhojanalaya right opposite, which is quite popular. Run by Marwadis, it’s the real deal and the guy who runs it is very friendly. The only “kadak chai” I had in South India was here. Ask him nicely and he would even do a dal bhati churma for you. Shinkows is highly rated and very popular but I found the food disappointingly bland. Willy’s Coffee Pub doesn’t do great coffee but is a wonderful place to hang out thanks to its well-stocked lending library and homemade cakes. If you like having over-priced watery coffee in plastic cups, you can try the Café Coffee Day on Garden Road.
One evening, I finally found the mushroom and soy manchurian place in the Upper Commercial Road that everyone and his brother in YWCA kept raving about, thanks to a meticulously drawn map given to me by J. It was incongruously called “Pani Puri Center” and was packed to the gills with people waiting for their Manchurians. By street food standards, this was spectacularly good, a juicy, tangy, lemony snack that melted in your mouth. It had just the right amount of spice and made one crave for chai later. It was when I was having a watery tamilian chai at the stall next door, shivering in the chill triggered by the wind and drizzle outside, that I knew I would miss the town terribly. For all the misgivings I have about Ooty and the Nilgiris in general and there are quite a few – the noise, the pollution, the plastic littering once-pristine grasslands, the stink, the unchecked development, the toxic waters, maniacal bus drivers, the touts, the touristiness etc. – it has something most other hill-stations south of the Himalayas in India don’t, altitude. At 2245 meters, it’s higher than Manali, Shimla and Mussoorie and has year-round chilly weather, something that’s an extreme rarity this far south. Of course, most Tamilians know this and it explains the plunder and exploitation Ooty has had to endure over the years. Nonetheless, feeling the quasi-Himalayan chill after traveling for months in the heat and dust of Tamil Nadu and Kerala was an incredible feeling. And as I packed my bags to leave Ooty and meet SS in Mysore, I knew I would miss snuggling out of thick blankets for a morning cup of tea and feeling that nip in the air.
After calling a few ridiculously expensive “resorts” in Masinagudi and deciding that I certainly didn’t need to spend several thousand rupees a night on a place with a f’ing swimming pool (!) in the forest, I went to the unusually friendly Project Director’s Office in Ooty to see if I could book a room at one of the forest rest houses (FRH). My idea was to spend a few days in each of the FRH’s, taking long walks in the jungle and clear my head in network-less peace. My idea was resoundly rejected by the booking officer, because in his opinion, there was a danger of me dying of boredom if I spent more than a couple of days within the park all alone. I laughed and told him of the many lonely, intrepid days I’ve spent in desolate places only to find a cold, battle-hardened face staring back at me. Finally, after 3 trips to the office, he let me book 2 nights at Theppakadu and one at Abhyaranyam.
The man had a point because there is not much one can do around the FRH’s if you don’t have your own vehicle. Sylvan Lodge, where I was put up, was a clean enough place with a great location by the Moyar river but I was only allowed to walk the 100 meters to the bridge or around the property grounds. I am not the restless type and could easily spend days doing nothing but usually even those tranquil days involved a little walk on the beach or a traipse up the hill. After a few hours sitting by the river, I got stir-crazy and even my attempts to walk along the highway were deterred by a stern forest ranger who scared me off with many tales of unsuspecting amblers getting charged by a tusker or mauled by a leopard or gored to death by a gaur.
The reception center ran bus tours of the park every time there were enough people to fill the bus (20 to 26). It was the monsoonal off-season and in the afternoon, I had to wait for hours at the office for a jeep full of day-trippers or a big bus-full of package tourists to arrive making it the only time in my life that I was hoping such a mass of cheerfully loud humans would come my way. That evening, I felt incredibly fortunate to have seen any wild animals at all (a few gaurs and chitals) considering all the hooting and squealing that was going on behind me. A restful time in the jungles of India, this was not.
On the way back, I saw more animals in 15 minutes at the Sylvan Lodge (wild boars, flying squirrels, peacocks, babblers, woodpeckers, eagles) than I did in an hour in the core area of the forest. In the evening, some entertainment was in store as M and his family checked in. M was from Chennai and had taken part in many a tiger census in Mudumalai. He was understandably dismissive of the bus tours run by the Forest Department and was here only to show his daughter (who runs a biryani restaurant in Edinburgh) and his grand-daughter (who squeaked Adele songs in a Scottish accent) a good time in the woods. He told me that I was wasting my time here and it was only worthwhile coming here if my aim was to gain access to walk or safari deep into the core areas of the forest. The trick, in his opinion was, “Come often, tip well, praise everybody. You never know where money can take you”.
Despite his pessimism, M was very excited about the bus tour the next morning. We went to the reception center at 6.30 a.m. to catch the first bus into the Park and as I expected, we were the only people around. M was understandably agitated but being a man of “soft words and hard deeds” (in his words), calmly asked a forest ranger how he expected 25 tourists to show up that early in the morning in extreme off-season. The ranger had barely reacted when two jeeps, one with a Gujarathi family and another with young Delhiites zoomed in. We had enough time to chat and know each other because the man at the ticket window arrived more than half an hour later, having been chased by an elephant on the way.
It was raining very hard and this time, even the gaur and chital visible to me yesterday weren’t around. M was sad that all little Adele could see were “water and trees”. Later, we went to the Theppakadu Elephant Camp where she was thrilled to bits watching tamed tuskers being fed and bathed. M was vehemently against domestication of wild elephants in theory but was glad they were being domesticated momentarily for the sake of his daughter’s happiness.
In the evening, I was joined for dinner by SJ and LK. It was Ramzan, they were Muslims and having fasted all day, were stuffing themselves silly with kebabs and biryanis. SJ was a rich, young politician from Bangalore who also dabbled in real estate. LK worked under him and SJ wanted to show him “how wonderful Mother Nature was”. He had been coming to Mudumalai for more than a decade, bought many properties in and around the area thanks to his rapport with Forest Officials and was being pampered and hero-worshipped by everyone around. He had been to “every corner of Mudumalai” and when asked how he managed that feat, he said (with a wink and a smile), “Add an extra 500 Rs. and you can get anything you want here.”
The next morning, SJ took me on a drive to the Moyar river and Singara Reserve Forest, where I saw more birds and animals than I did from the rumbling tourist bus. SJ wasn’t a bird-watcher but was impressed by my ability to identify many of the (easily identifiable) birds. He had been in these parts many times but was always on the look-out for big animals, which he seldom saw. I was excited too because, although the Mudumalai NP teems with bird-life, the bus would never stop to look at any of them. SJ was a patient man and at the end of our 4 hour trip, was very happy that he now knew what a Green Bee-Eater and an Oriental White-Eye looked like. In his Hyderabadi hindi, he told LK, “Dekha kaise parindiniyon ka majaa le re hai. Politics ke jungle me aise parindiniyan dikhti kya?” (Look at how he’s enjoying watching birds. Can we see such birds in the political jungles?)
SJ dropped me at the Abhyaranyam GH, where he was given a princely welcome by the staff there. After ordering them to show me around and take good care of me, he took his leave. I had known him for hardly 12 hours of my life and he had already made an impact with his extraordinary generosity. My days at Abhyaranyam were decidedly low-key because I was the only guest here and the staff were not very keen to make conversation. I walked about the little patch of grassland around the guest house, scaring whole herds of chital with my presence and watching little worker ants go about their business. I did enjoy the peace and quiet here, but I also felt very happy to take the bus back to Ooty the next morning.
Day 1 – A bus parks noisily behind me honking at me unnecessarily as it does so. A passenger jumps, whips out his willy and pisses into the valley below. Two more people slither out and follow his lead. 5 young boys (who probably think I don’t know Tamil) are staring at me and are wondering in hushed whispers which country I’m from. I stare back, they blush, laugh and walk away. Another man jumps out from his vehicle and relieves himself. Standing in the middle of this frenetic activity, I’m trying very hard to ignore the stench of urine and garbage and focus my attention on the magnificent landscape in front of me because this open toilet cum dumping ground opposite the Kotagiri bus stand commands the best views to be had in the town.
Day 2 – After spending an entire afternoon in peaceful solitude on the steps of the Wesleyan Church, I walked down the steep steps that lead from the Church to the little village of Kannerimukku. Here, in the 1880s a Mr. John Sullivan had the brilliant idea of building a bungalow, growing tea and kick-starting a tourist industry. It is now an impeccably maintained building that looks as good as a well-restored film print and is taken care of by an ex-Hindu scribe Dharmalingam Venugopal, who has also penned a guide-book on the Nilgiris. I didn’t meet him but I met M and G, the friendly Badaga brother and sister who showed me around the little museum whose “before-after” exhibits and picture galleries with shots of Indian politicians looking at the building were livened up only by M’s scrambled, incoherent yet enthusiastic commentary.
Later, M (who was certainly a bit inebriated) took me to his home, served me awesome coffee, discussed football and Badaga rituals, introduced me to his kids who were just back from school, showed me off proudly as a “friend from Bumbaai” to all the people we met on the way and offered to hang out with me for the rest of my days in Kotagiri. His sister seemed embarrassed and apologized for her brother’s “openness”. I didn’t know what to say and mumbling some thank yous, walked back to Kotagiri.
Day 3 -The wind was lashing my face with what seemed like a lot of wrath and anger but I was finding it very hard to look away from the spectacular landscape that lay before me. On my left were the Talamalai Hills beyond which one could see the villages of the Mysore Plateau. Down below was the village of Tengumarada, remote and isolated, hemmed in by the walls of Talamalai on one side and the winding Moyar river on the other. The women who ran the tourist café seemed bored and started filling me with anecdotal information like how Bharathiraja, the Tamil film director, loves to shoot in Tengumarada. In front of me rose the insurmountably tall Rangaswamy Pillar and the Rangaswamy Peak which fell steeply to the plains below where the waters of the Moyar river had been dammed to form the Bhavani Sagar reservoir. This was the Kodanad view-point, among the best of its ilk. During a conversation with an idle forest guard, I mentioned that the views were somewhat hazy and he advised me to come at dawn when they are much clearer. I mulled staying at the desolate Deccan Valley View Hotel near the view-point but couldn’t muster up the courage to do it. Lonely nights in a lonely place are just not my thing.
The view was still extraordinarily beautiful though and as I was taking in its beautiful extraordinariness, a Gujarati family led by a patriarch trotted up purposefully. He was a businessman who had lived in Coimbatore for the last 50 years and certainly preferred the life there compared to the one he had in Ahmedabad when he was a young man. He spoke to his wife in Tamil but in Gujarati to his brother and sister-in-law and gave me crucial life-lessons (in Tamil) – “Marry a girl who wants to live here, not in Mumbai”, “Better still, take a girl from here, get married and show her to your parents. It’ll be a load off their shoulders”, “Youngsters these days think sex is everything, but you have to love first”, “We Indians are still backward and afraid when it comes to making moves, that’s why rapes happen so often nowadays”, “When we were young, the women used to do all the household work. They used to get a lot of exercise. Now, everyone has a maid in the house thanks to feminism and all that. That’s why they’re so weak. Women of my generation would fight back boldly.” etc. etc. He promptly took his leave when his wife yelled at him to get back into the car so they can go shop for tea in Kotagiri.
Day 4 – I took a walk to the Longwood Shola which is one of the only shola forests that exist close to Kotagiri. As I walked in some general direction, I thought I had lost my way. So I asked a gentleman who was just parking his car where the Forest Office was. After enlightening me of its location, he asked me if I’d like to have some tea. So, instead of going ahead and taking a nice walk in the forests in good weather, I spent the whole afternoon drinking tea and talking to him. He was a pharmacist and Kotagiri being a small town where everyone knew everyone else very well, started filling me in on unnecessary details about the life of the owner of my guest house. After a few hours of idle gossip about his family life, adventures in Sharjah and Dubai, more cups of tea, plans for the new house he’s building, some cookies, lunch, a tour of family albums and a lot of other nonsense, I bid farewell. It had started raining by now, very heavily too, and it was getting late. Yet, I soldiered on to the Forest Office, met C, the super-friendly caretaker of the Forest Rest House there and drank more tea with him. He laughed when I said I wanted to see the Longwood Shola saying I should have been there earlier because the whole track would be covered with leeches after the rains. I told him very quickly about my little time-wasting session with the gentle pharmacist and he shook his head and agreed to take me on a little tour. We walked for a little while inside the thickest forests I’d walked this side of Taman Negara and C very excitedly showed me some Malabar Giant Squirrels, leopard tracks, bison shit, porcupine squills, some mynas and some red-whiskered bulbuls. I’m definitely going back to Longwood Shola someday.
I wouldn’t have made any of those trips if my stay at the “Heavenly Stay” had been truly heavenly. It was a little lodge-like place, very clean, overlooking a not-very-busy road but the hammering noise from the construction site next door made sure I didn’t spend any time in my room during the day (the nights were quiet and peaceful). At 750 Rs. a night, it was also the most expensive place I’d stayed in the Nilgiris with little of the homely atmosphere that even an institution like the YWCA managed. The family was friendly and helpful enough but I wish they were visible more often. D, the care-taker, was among the more annoying people I’d met. If I spent even a couple of hours in the room during the day, he would either look very suspiciously (I don’t know why) or very pitifully (because I was alone). His typical “Good morning” message went something like this – “Good morning (beaming smile). So what are you doing today? It must be very sad being alone, no? Where are your friends?” My trips out of my room were primarily a way to convince him that I was “doing something” in Kotagiri and was “happy”. And, just for that, thank you, D! Caveats aside, it certainly is a good value place to spend time when you’re in Kotagiri.
Kotagiri is the smallest, cleanest and the most pleasant of all the Nilgiri Hill Stations. It doesn’t have the polluted haze of Coonoor and Ooty and the people (even D!) go out of their way to be open and friendly. My favourite haunt here was the Friend’s Bakery which was hugely popular with locals. It had a little café where the evenings were spent discussing World Cup matches, politics, DMK-AIADMK wars, movies –why Rajnikant is awesome, why Vijayakant is awesome, why Tamil movies are the best movies in the world, gossip – why so-and-so person working in the PWD didn’t get his pension, how this man was ruining his family by piling on debt, more gossip and more politics. In a way, it made me feel warmly nostalgic for the small Himalayan towns and villages in that, in many ways, the people in these hills weren’t so different from the easy-going, affable people one encounters in the Himalayas. Once the altitude drops and the population rises, the smiles start to disappear and the faces appear more tense and unhappy.
The rest of my days in Coonoor were spent relaxing in the upper storey verandah of YWCA Wyoming and drinking a lot of tea. A colonial building over 150 years old, now converted into a guest house, it’s probably as good a deal as one could get in the hills. My room, which would have cost an arm and a leg in more business-minded hands, cost only 414 Rs. It was the perfect place to linger without the pressure of making the days count and the fear of losing my bank balance. My regular visitors were the house sparrows and red-whiskered bulbuls that chattered endlessly in the green surrounds. One day, a herd of gaur (wild bulls) made their way into the pastures of the property compound. Another day, V showed me bear’s paws marked on the building wall. It was a wild and remarkably peaceful setting, in perfect contrast to the cacophonic mess of Lower Coonoor Town.
By the end of my 3 weeks in the YWCA, I had come to know everyone who lived and worked there. V, who worked at the reception, was a Coonoor boy and would march me off to his favourite eateries in the town. His suggestions were unfailingly good. So, thanks to him, I got to taste the masala varkeys and biscuits at Crown Bakery (the oldest bakery in the Nilgiris, possibly even in Tamil Nadu, still run by the same family from 1880), veg rolls at the New Bangalore Bakery on Mount Road and the twisted varkeys and Nendrampazham (Plantain) chips at the New Indian Bakery near the bus stand. He also made me go to Hotel Ramachandra on Mount Road, which became my favourite restaurant in all of Nilgiris, to gorge on their biryanis and parottas that were served with spicy curry and watery raita and wash it down with splendid coffee from Tamizhagam. I made a trip all the way to a small bakery in the Barracks area called Needs only because V told me it was the best black forest cake he had ever tasted and he wasn’t far off the mark on that one either.
G, the cook at YWCA, had worked at the Fernhills Palace with the Mysore Maharaja and had a knack for making one crave for even basic dishes like chappati and dal that were cooked simply yet tastefully (and with a lot of pride!). His meals were always delicious and healthy and made sure I never got sick when I was there. S, one of the security guards, had served in three wars for the Indian Army, got hurt multiple times and yet was having to work post-retirement to earn a living for himself and his family because the pension he received was a pittance. V’s principal obsession was tracking prophecies and conspiracy theories and his many weird, surreal youtube video recommendations kept me entertained days on end. Thanks to V, G and S’s appetites for long conversations, my days at Coonoor were never lonely and when I left, it was with a feeling of sadness and a promise to return some day.
The evenings were invariably spent in a couple of cafes in the Bedford area. My personal favourite was Dew Drops, a cafe which served supremely well-brewed tea and succulent snacks like cheese sandwiches, veg cutlets and uh, stuffed capsicum. This was a new place but seemed to have already developed a loyal customer-base. It was a convenient stop-over for my trips to the Bakers Junction where I shopped for locally-made jams, bread, honey and Acres Wild cheese.
Apart from gastronomic excursions and the jaunty ones I wrote about in the previous post, my only trip out in Coonoor was the one I made on the first day, to the beautifully wild Sim’s Park. After getting exhausted wandering its many labyrinthine tracks for hours, I settled down for a meal at La Belle Vie, known for its French cuisine. It’s housed in an old colonial bungalow nestled amidst tea plantations on a cliff-side that commands a stupendous view of the valley below. These were early days, so I still wasn’t jaded looking at tea plants everywhere. I wish I had just looked at the view and left though because the food was an inedible, expensive and oily mess. I know nothing about French cuisine but I’m pretty certain they don’t dunk their veggies in 3 inches of oil. When I narrated my Belle Vie ordeal to V, he told me of an old French couple who had gone there after hearing rave reviews. The exchange went something like this –
“Did you like the food?”
“It was okay.”
“So was the food really French?”
“A little bit, yes. The names were French, the food very Indian.”
I felt vindicated.
My favourite place in Coonoor though wasn’t Sim’s Park or Dolphin’s Nose or Lamb’s Rock or the Tea Museums. The place I loved the most was the terrace of the Ayyappa temple that served as a short-cut for the steep yet peaceful hike from Lower Coonoor to the YWCA. It was an ideal location to break the journey which worked both as a rest-stop and as a place which gave unobstructed bird’s eye views of the Lower Coonoor town below.
Sitting on the steps on the terrace, I could spy on a hundred roof-tops, get a perspective on the urban mayhem down below, listen to the chaotic symphony of honking cars, hooting trains, the hammering and drilling of construction work and the chirping of countless red-whiskered bulbuls and oriental white-eyes and watch the clouds decapitate the hills in the distance as they find a way through the valleys enveloping entire villages in opaque mist in the process, and all of this in good privacy. Barring the few who used the stairs of the temple to cut across to the town, I had the whole place to myself. I never took my phone or my camera with me when I went there and it was a blessed relief to be disconnected, if only for a short time, from the trigger impulses of checking and clicking and being busy.