I had forgotten the smell of the hills. The fresh clean smell of rarefied mountain air mingled with the spicy fragrance of eucalyptus and the aroma of crushed tea leaves. But as we negotiated each tricky hairpin bend on our drive up the Coonoor ghat, it was the colours that opened the flood gates of my memory. The lush verdancy of the sholas bordering the highway, fading into a smoky blue haze that gives these hills their name – Nilgiris or Blue Hills. And as we climbed higher, the endless light green carpets of tea.
R brought me here as his bride oh so many years ago, and our new life began in a little cottage in the first estate on the highway approaching Coonoor, with the propah Scottish name of Glendale! Our proximity to town, and to Ooty, was the envy of every planter around. Within a year we moved to a palatial manager’s bungalow on another plantation nestled in a valley over an hour away, and accessed by the narrowest and most winding road ever. The drive after particularly ‘happy’ parties could be terrifying, but our vehicle always seemed to find its own way home, however inebriated its driver!
Life on a plantation replicated the life of the English pioneers who hacked their way through these jungles to set up the first gardens a couple of centuries ago! So we had butlers and bearers to serve us food, and bungalow servants to clean the house and wax our floors. We had two full time gardeners to ensure every inch of the enormous garden was in full bloom in May and an ayah to look after our baby girl. English high tea was the norm, with dainty cakes (baked in cast iron firewood stoves!) and thin cucumber sandwiches, although spicy pakoras did make an appearance every now and then. And we had call bells in every room, even a foot switch discreetly concealed under the dining table, to summon the servants! Really!
Pretentious? Very. But R and I drew the line at not allowing his staff to enter our bungalows, a tradition inherited from the days when native underlings were unwelcome in their white managers’ homes! R, the faithful follower of every rule book, broke this one by inviting his staff to tea! And they, and I, adored him for it.
Most of all, I remember the tranquility of our uncomplicated life here. The absence of TV’s and other modern distractions. A prehistoric phone that needed to be wound briskly to get through to an operator, if at all! The long winter evenings cuddled together in front of the fireplace. The unlimited time I had to go through the huge library I had inherited from my father in law. The overseeing of the garden. And the simple, companionable days spent with close friends. We had many.
Then one afternoon, at a planter’s meet at one of the exclusive clubs in town, R was informed of his promotion and transfer to a coffee processing plant in Hassan. This was the break that opened up many opportunities for us later, but at the time, I cried. A bungalow servant came with us to help us unpack. The day he left, our five year old daughter sat on the front step of our Hassan bungalow and cried. She, like our cat, hated changing homes, and that boy was our last link to the Nilgiris. I sat down beside her and cried again.
In many ways we have come a long way since…..small town ‘bumpkins’ seduced by big city lights. Reveling in the energy of our dirty metropolis. If R hadn’t been transferred at that point, we would no doubt have retired to our very own cottage on the edge of town, with many old friends for company. And not a thing would have been different from the day I stepped foot there, except for the absence of the army of servants.
Would we have been happy? Most probably. Only, our daughter would have remained in boarding school longer, and my design school would have been a distant dream. And we would have been too broke to travel. (We were always broke then, as were most of our friends, and we often laughed over our running accounts at the clubs and stores…everywhere actually.) Still, I gazed wistfully at the rows of pretty bungalows on what was once another tea garden, and dreamed of what might have been.
Equally, my heart bled for all that had changed. Water is now a major issue (In town. The gardens have their own springs), as is power. The roads were unbelievably crowded, where once you would be hard pressed to pass another vehicle for miles. Unbridled (unlicensed?) and ugly construction catering to increased domestic tourism has turned this once beautiful hill station into a shanty town. Making me wonder, how long before the entire country degenerates into one?
“What was our life like? I almost don’t remember now.
Though I remember ‘it’, the space of time it occupied.
And I remember it fondly.”
~ “The Sportswriter” by Richard Ford
PS: Our first home was washed away in a landslide!