A couple of months ago, I spent a few days in the Tamil town of Vellore to shoot its streets and its people. Here’s the first five shots from that time…
I walked around the periphery of the Yelagiri lake on a Wednesday afternoon when its surroundings were pleasantly free of any touristic activity. A stray family or two were paddling in its waters and the only people around were the people who lived and worked in the town. The place had an air of lethargy about it and I half felt like taking a cue from the people running the canteen and slumbering on the bird-shit stained benches lying about.
Part of the periphery of the lake was embellished with a walking track of sorts. A little ahead was a bridge where I idled for a while watching kingfishers leap into the waters for a meal. Also fishing for a lunch by a cabin near one end of the bridge were two fishermen whom I managed to distract from their routines by pointing a camera in their direction. They signalled me over to sit by their side to watch them fish and take their pictures. When I began talking to them, they indicated with their hands that they were mute. So I sat silently watching them fish. Their technique was crude with a long line of string and a bait at the end of it. But judging by the catch they had accumulated, it must be highly effective.
Further down the trail, I came by a small straw-roofed shack where the woman running it was on the verge of packing up. I asked for a cup of tea which the woman gleefully made. I was her only customer for the entire day, she said sorrowfully. It was only on the weekends that she made any money but since it was her only means of livelihood, she lugged her shop all the way here every day. A sombre-looking man was watching our conversation from the sidelines and when the woman went away, I tried engaging him in conversation. But he began pestering me for money and I scooted away as quickly as I could.
One of the more adventurous things to do in the Yelagiris is to take a rickshaw to the village of Mangalam and climb Swami Malai, the holy mountain that’s also the highest peak in the area. I read a few blogs which claimed this place offered panoramic views of the entire region. I wasn’t witness to these legendary views because I was a cheapskate. I went alone without a guide and had to abort the climb halfway after two snarling dogs blocked my way. Back in Hotel Aruvi, the manager looked at my depressive shell pitifully and offered to escort me to a point which he insisted had the best views this side of Swami Malai.
So we rode on his bike, stopped at the Tourist Information Center and crossed what looked to be a broken fence wall to enter a dense forest area. The climb was gentle over a rocky terrain punctuated with rocky shrubs. When we reached the top, the sweeping views down to the plains made me swoon. The manager beckoned me to a ledge at the edge of the precipice. I have vertigo and avoid all edges as a rule but he pulled me over and made me sit on a rocky shelf.
From the ledge, one could see all the way from Jolarpettai on the left to the larger town of Vaniyambadi flickering in the haze on the right. In the deep distance in front of us, we saw the Andhra Pradesh border bisected by the Kothur Hills with their misshaped heads and abstract outlines. Sunset was a couple of hours away and I told the manager that I could be done with my pictures and make a move in case he wants to get back to work. But he was insistent that I stay until the sun goes down.
While I was clicking a ton of pictures from the precipitous ledge, I tried to learn more about the manager and where he came from. He wasn’t from the Yelagiris, he said, but from a village much further south. He came here a few years ago with his friends for a holiday. While they were having fun, he got to speak with the owner of the property. The owner offered him a job and he never left. With time, the owner became so comfortable with his work that he let the manager handle everything from bookings to housekeeping. His mother too lived in the property now and whenever he had to take guests like myself on an excursion, she took care of the people who arrived in his absence.
I couldn’t converse with him for too long because he was bombarded with phone calls from people looking for rooms on the weekend. Soon, he climbed a spur to sit and answer the barrage of calls in peace. Judging by his side of the conversations, everyone appeared to want a cheaper deal than the already ridiculously inexpensive rates the Hotel was offering. I admired the calm resilience with which he dealt with these requests.
I sat quietly by the ledge the rest of time. Having taken exponentially more shots than I needed earlier, all there was left to do was to sit quietly, stare at the hills in the distance and wait for the sunset hour. My attention was momentarily distracted by a gecko which peeked out of the rocks. It slid, jumped, tumbled between the holes and crevices of the terrain. I watched it lash its elastic tongue and catch a fly out of thin air. It must have been a satisfying meal because it disappeared back into the cracks in the rocks after this bit of action, presumably back home.
Sunset was quite spectacular. All the haze in the distance meant the sun turned orange long before it hit the horizon while the hills and the plains turned bluer and murkier. As the manager and I were enjoying this spectacle, we heard noises behind us. A group of two boys and two girls came huffing and hurrying up the rocks. “See? I told you. It’s beautiful, right?”, yelled one of the boys as soon as they made it to the ledge. “Wow”, screamed the girls, “this is amazing.” They were from Bangalore, I learnt in a minute’s small talk, and it was a long weekend owing to an Id holiday. Since the serenity of the moment had been well and truly destroyed and I’d had my fill of peace and quiet, I climbed down and let them have the ledge to themselves.
The next morning, when I was checking out, I realised I hadn’t paid the manager anything to guide me up to the viewpoint. I quit my budget traveller mode and whipped out a couple of hundred rupee notes as a tip. But the manager refused to take it. I was a friend, he said, and the next time I visited, he would happily escort me to Swamimalai.
Beyond alluring places and landscapes, it reminded me why I still traveled over 9 years on. Being on the road makes you less cynical and believe genuine goodness and humanity still thrived in the world.
Yelagiri, about 90 kms south of Vellore, is an unassuming cluster of villages at an altitude of over a 1,100 meters providing welcome respite from the heat to people living in the scorching plains around. It’s the closest thing to a hill station around Chennai and the hotels and restaurants, I heard, are packed to droves with people on holidays and weekends.
I took a train from Chennai to Jolarpettai, a town about 13 kms from Yelagiri. Here, at a junction on the highway, I had to wait for hours for a Yelagiri bus to come by, hours that felt like an eternity in the bright summer heat. Rickshaw drivers saw my unhappy face staring cluelessly in the distance and asked if I wanted to go with them for 500 Rs. But I was playing in extreme budget travel mode and absurdly controlled my urge to take the easy way out. Matters were made considerably worse by the fact that, when one of the buses did arrive, I had been taking a respite from the heat in the shade of a tea stall and before I could leap over to where the bus was, it had bolted away. After this fiasco, the rickshaw guys appeared even more willing to give me a ride but my resolve had only toughened. After pointlessly wasting another hour by the roadside, this time not moving an inch, eventually I found myself in a tottering bus on the winding road to Yelagiri.
Since I went on a Tuesday and left before the alleged crowds hit on Friday, I wasn’t witness to the spectacle of mass tourism I had heard about. In fact, in my case, the opposite was true. Many of the restaurants were shut, the tourist sites felt forlorn and unloved and the hotels were vacant and lonely. It was difficult for me to imagine the place overrun with tourists because there was so little infrastructure to support such an influx. Nevertheless, I was assured by the amiable and moustachioed manager of my hotel that come the weekend, I would find it difficult to find a room no matter how much I was willing to pay.
My hotel was called Aruvi and appeared to be custom-built for cheerful families, complete with a garden, a play area with slides and swings and a big, gaudy sculpture of snow-white swans with yellow beaks perched on a bright-blue platform adorning the entrance. At 500 Rs. a night (thanks to fabulous discounts on goibibo), my room was a steal. It was impeccably clean, there was a western commode and a geyser for hot water. The manager apologetically informed me that they had shut down the in-house restaurant on weekdays because of a lack of clientele. If only I had arrived on a weekend…
Food, was a problem. The closest place open was 200 meters down the road and was filled with what appeared to be locals and people working in the area. Generally everyone eating here knew everyone else and as the protocol went, they had to stare suspiciously at the one person who didn’t belong. On the first night, the man I was sharing a table with proudly announced to everyone assembled that he had had a fight with his wife and was thrown out to fend for himself. The food was terrible and the only edible options were (extremely greasy) dosas and parotas accompanied by (extremely oily) omelettes. After two days of eating here, I wondered how I hadn’t collapsed with a heart attack.
When I told the manager how terrible my meals were, he suggested I walk down to Hotel Hills, a somewhat fancier dining place. The restaurant here was so desolate, two of the waiters had slumped over the table catching a siesta. Neither of them looked happy when they saw my hungry face staring expectantly around the room waiting for someone to get a menu. I waited patiently at my corner table until a more senior staff walked in and nudged one of the dozing waiters in my direction. They didn’t have any of the thalis or the South Indian dishes and only served the more expensive Punjabi food. Thankfully, it wasn’t entirely the catastrophe I thought it would be as (and I’m sure it had something to do with the terrible food I’d been eating) the vegetable korma was, if not delicious, certainly satisfying and the rotis to go with were soft enough without being chewy.
I spent my first day walking around Kottaiyur and Athanavoor, two of the main settlements in the area. There was an informal market at the junction of the two near the main entrance to the lake. Here street vendors selling colourful trinkets and fluffy, obscenely gaudy dolls sat glumly waiting for customers to show up, women laughed and gossiped by the fruit stalls selling locally grown guavas, pineapples and watermelons in front of the bright red and yellow striped temple walls, tourists tested their plastic gun skills by taking shots at balloons hung on a white cardboard wall and the pungent odor from a cluster of street food stalls that lay cluttered on the pavements selling fried fish fresh off the lake filled the air.
Here are some of the shots I took of the people I observed in the markets of Yelagiri –
“…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.