Ooty I

We went up to Ooty / Ootacamund / Udhagamandalam (what everyone calls it / what the British called it / the Tamil, currently official name) for two weeks. Ooty is in the Nilgiris (‘blue hills’), on the border between Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

We flew from Chennai to Coimbatore, and found that the car which the hotel was supposed to have sent wasn’t there. Somehow, we weren’t surprised. We hired a taxi to drive us up into the hills. The drive takes about two and a half hours, of which the first hour is spent on the plains. As soon as you pass Mettupalayam, the road begins to rise. There are miles of areca (betel) plantations: groves of impossibly skinny palms with light-gray trunks, topped with small tufts of leaves, crammed together so that when you look you see everything in light-gray. Monkeys sit at the roadside, watching the cars go by and going about their business. Then the ghat (hill) road begins: a steep incline, the road bordered by cliffs, or opening out to views of tea gardens, eucalyptus plantations, forest.

On the (lousy) road map of Tamil Nadu which I bought at Higginbothams in Ooty, the road appears to be a straight line. But in fact, it was more like this: , ascending steeply, full of hairpin turns and switchbacks. My neck began to ache and I felt queasy by the end. When we were 12 km. From Ooty it began to rain heavily, making things more… interesting. A few years ago, we drove up in heavy mist and rain, no visibility at all, even when the driver turned on fog lights; so that buses, cars and lorries coming downhill suddenly emerged out of white nothingness, right in front of us. These things don’t deter the drivers, however. They overtake everyone they encounter, horns blaring like screams. You arrive with your heart beating fast.

When Ramesh tipped the driver, he touched the money to his forehead before putting it away.

From the hotel windows we looked out at rounded hills with trees bristling on top,

photo by Ramesh Gandhi

and dark smudgy clouds behind them. The strong fragrance of eucalyptus.

This is the near view from our bedroom window – except I’ve left out trees and shrubbery:

One feathery tree rises from the big block of windows in the front, and partially obscures some of the rooflines. It looks like a small village, but it is the health club, billiards room, and service block. It is a kind of construction which used to be more common than it is now: keep adding rooms as needed, and give each new addition its own roof. Red tile everywhere, and buff-yellow stucco. And green.

Behind the hotel, a large green lawn and a derelict-looking building. A neat, narrow bed of larkspur around one side; wilder-looking white-flowered shrubs on the other; on one side, grass seems to grow right into the house.

On the road outside the hotel, a small shrine, with oil-lamp glowing, under a tree:

A family of Tamils settled in Bombay sat next to us at dinner. They spoke a mixture of Tamil, Hindi and English which fascinated me. One man was talking on a cell phone: “Namaste, bolo, eppadi irrukku? Nalaikku I am in Coimbatore, phir Madras jaunga. Appuram, we return to Bombay…” I’m accustomed to Hindi-English; and to Tamil-English – but this was something new to me. Perhaps all Bombay Tamils speak this way?

We took a short walk inside the hotel property after dinner. Rows of fancy cars, mostly silver, humped in the darkness like sleeping animals. I asked the watchman where the drivers slept. He was surprised at the question. “In the cars!” Some of the them – Mercedes, Skoda – cost more than a modest apartment in the city.

Deep sleep in silence: no air-conditioner, no fan, the window open.