Irresponsible Impressions of India: Part II
We stop in Ooty: a hill station that functioned as the summer seat of the Raj’s Madras government (the Brits couldn’t handle the heat, and preferred to escape up into the colder climate of the mountains). It is a fairly busy, bustling town, despite the fact that it is now winter, the off-season. The main street runs above another beautiful market, and the old bones of the British colonial town are fairly well-hidden under new sprawl.
Chocolate is sold everywhere: made locally (I assume, perhaps wrongly) in a set number of varieties such as dark cashew and milk crunch, which all taste fairly similar. I proceed to purchase and eat as much as humanly possible. We catch a Republic Day festival—celebrating the founding of the Republic—where we (a group of seven or so white people with big cameras) become a major attraction, before wandering through the manicured lawns of the Botanical Gardens with well-heeled domestic holiday-makers.
One evening, we take an auto-rickshaw up into the hills to catch the sunset, and walk by chance through a satellite-village. Built on steep terrain, the houses are kept in place by terraces constructed out of sandbags.
As we descend, smoke from the village’s wood fires mingles with the encroaching mist.
The next day, we wind our way out of Ooty on the “toy train,” a steam engine that looks like something out of the 19th century and which takes hours to painstakingly descend the mountains in all its smoke-belching, coal-stoking glory.
Another helter-skelter journey across the plains of Tamil Nadu—through Mettupalayam and Coimbatore by train, before bussing to Palani—ends in a second ascent, this time into the Western Ghats, and towards a second, smaller hill station.
Kodaikanal is the “Princess” of hill stations to Ooty’s “Queen,” and the two towns are similar in all but scale. The same chocolate reappears here, and the same damp, wintry chill in the mornings and evenings. Kodaikanal is quainter, more charming—set right on a lake, its town centre a maze of steeply sloping streets lined with dhabas selling delicious dosas and steaming chai. The town seems majority Christian and Muslim: the call to prayer blares out now and again, and trucks heave past emblazoned with “Masha Allah” and “Jesus” (and occasionally, inexplicably, “Jessica”).
After two days here, we set out for Vattakanal; the Hanumanahalli to Kodai’s Hampi. Vattakanal is a small hillside village, a scenic 4km walk from the bigger town, and a verifiable high-altitude hippy retreat. It is also, as a friendly shopman told me later on the plains, “created by Israelis.” Although it seems unlikely that the entire village was magically conjured into being by Israeli tourism, the current population of the town is arguably more Israeli than Indian. Most of the locals rent out several rooms, or entire houses, and most of the renters are indeed from Israel. The houses are owned by the men of the village, and managed by their sisters or wives—an arrangement that results in many ballsy, entrepreneurial women calling themselves names like Amelie, Shanti, Rhani. We stay in “Shanti” house, a four room wooden construction run by a formidable woman who refuses to give us her real name, and who tells us she has been renting her place out to Israelis for twenty years. The Israeli season, she says, is nearly over. Soon, as the warmer weather hits, the travellers will start moving up into the northern states. As it is, we manage to catch the tail-end of both Israeli season and avocado season: “butter fruit” (as it is known in India) are grown nearby, and avocado-omelette sandwiches are a specialty of the local dhabas.
We generally cook for ourselves, though, going in for market day to “the city” (Kodai), and whipping up strange versions of Indian food—aloo ghobi with lentils (“You call this dhal?” asks a friend from Delhi, incredulously)—or things we miss from our various homes: spiced shakshuka in the mornings, with lemony tahini, or buttery crepes sprinkled with sugar and lime.
We wake up each morning to a spectacular red-orange sunrise beaming through the mist, and make a campfire each night. Rhani becomes my favourite dhabawalla due to her masala chai—sweet, milky tea spiked with ginger, cardamom, cloves and cinnamon. Every day at around 11, breadman wends his weary way up through the village, bringing wholemeal rolls and puffy white plaits, cinnamon scrolls and—the most prized—coconut bread, all made masterfully by his mother in goodness-knows what kind of oven. Each morning, too, troops of new arrivals wander through the village, picking their way past full houses, asking plaintively for rooms. We spend our days walking across the hills, pottering through the forest looking for armfuls of firewood, then feeling sheepish when we see straight-backed women carrying what seems to be entire trees in bundles on their heads. We see snakes, lizards, slow-moving bison, and—once—a huge owl. One morning (a Sunday) I go for a run to the church, and the villagers congregating for 7:30am mass in their best saris look at me (practically pant-less) in bemused consternation.
On my final morning in the mountains, just after sunrise, I walk down to “Dolphin Nose”—a flat rock jutting out from the hillside below the village. Sunlight slants through white-barked trees, and the view stretches across the Western Ghats: green swathes of forest broken only by tiny villages clinging to distant ridgelines. Men in white dhotis walk slowly up the trail—presumably from a river, or another village. Otherwise, the only noise is birdsong. It is unlike any India I had previously imagined—a strange parallel universe hovering quietly above the relentless energy of the plains.