Ten Thousand Shades Of Green…..

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, especially after particularly ‘happy’ parties, could be terrifying but our vehicle always seemed to find its own way home however inebriated its driver!

DSC_4764 copyLife 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.

Tea gardens in Coonoor
Green carpets of tea!

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.

Adderley Bungalow
The hidden rooftops next to the pointy pine at centre left are those of our bungalow on Adderley estate. And beyond is the view from our lawn to the plains all the way to Mettupalayam, and even Coimbatore on the horizon on a clear day!!

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.

Monkeys on highway
A simian encounter on the drive back!

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!

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Madhu is an Interior designer turned travel blogger on a long sabbatical to explore the world. When not crafting stories on The Urge To Wander, she's probably Tweeting @theurgetowander or sharing special moments on instagram.com/theurgetowander

130 thoughts on “Ten Thousand Shades Of Green…..

  1. Return to Eden.. your narative reminds me of a family saga, which combined with these views in expertly taken photos makes me dream of lands I never thought of visiting. The post is very touching as it reveals so much of you Madhu.

    1. Yeah, kind of! 🙂 My ‘memories’ posts always elicit the most attention strangely!! The one on my childhood home has received the most comments to date, apart from my about page! Glad you enjoyed this Paula.

  2. Idyllic is what comes to mind while reading of your time in the hill stations. Lynne and I thought of you often during our short time in Munnar recently. But nothing last for ever and I can certainly attest to the crush of tourism, we being a part of it.

    Thank you for sharing your memories.

    1. It really was an idyllic life. We avoided Ooty in summer even then, especially during the week of the flower show. Now they are both shadows of the towns we knew. Incidentally Munnar was not a tourist destination when my sister lived there, between the late sixties and late eighties! All those hotels were built much later. Wish you could have seen it then. Thank you for reading Ron.

  3. Madhu, what a fantastic storytelling and the images as always. How terrible to lose your home in landslide, were you living in your home at the time it happened?? Your story is so full of warmth – it’s like I’m sitting beside you and sharing it in person with you. Hope you understand what I mean.

    Do you know which country is the greenest in the world??? Norway – they claim they have 52 shades of green – one more than Ireland, but I think it is a Norwegian that has been counting.
    Not a tea drinker, but I understand that it goes a lot of work, care and passion in to the tea plants.

    1. Glad you enjoyed reading my reminiscences Viveka! No we weren’t living in that house when the landslide happened although we were still in the district. An assistant manager lived there, but no one was hurt!
      I am inclined to agree with you about the Norwegian stats! My title used poetic and nostalgic license of course 😀

  4. Your writing is always so real and your images truly take me to places I will never get to see but for you. Thank you Madhu!

  5. I could have read on and on. You’ve taken me on your journey down memory lane. I enjoyed every word as I read it.
    The images created by your description and photo were the exclamation. Thank you for a taking me on a visit to your past.
    Great post …. !!! ~~~ : – )

      1. Happy you enjoyed my trip down memory lane Isadora. And thank you for the kind words. Hassan is a common Muslim name, not restricted to India. I doubt there is any connection with the small town I referred to.

  6. What wonderful wonderful memories you shared. I can taste the tea! You’ve made me ever more desperate to return to India as soon as I can. I love the hill areas 🙂

    1. You should Ken. Does Bangladesh grow any tea? I am truly clueless about that country except for the fabulous food we tasted in Kolkata last December.

  7. Madhu, your life in the plantations sounds like something straight out of a wonderful period film – I can just imagine the sounds and smells of the hills, and all those simple pleasures that us city folk rarely get to enjoy. Your photos capture the Nilgiris so beautifully as well. If you hadn’t made the move to Hassan this blog may well have ended up becoming ‘The Urge to Drink Tea’. 😉 When will you be publishing a memoir?

    1. Ha, I would have had a lot more time to devote to that tea blog certainly! 🙂 A memoir??? I am not sure my life is interesting enough to fill a few hundred pages James 🙂

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