Several Things

Another Hindi movie fight line:
Tume aisi maut maarunga ke khud maut bhi apne daaman ke pichhe chupke bhaag jaaye

I will kill you in such a way that even death will hide its face and run away. (i.e., death would be put to shame, outdone)


Real estate broker: "The only good thing about this line [of work] is, you get to know the who and who of India."


We saw Gilda (1946), starring Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth. As we watched it, R realised that it was the main source material for the old (and pretty good) Guru Dutt film Baazi (1951), starring Dev Anand, with Geeta Bali playing Rita Hayworth's bad girl. Geeta Bali even plays the guitar and sings a couple of songs, as Hayworth does in Gilda. Of course, in Hindi movies of that era, the hero can't marry a 'bad' girl - she must die, sacrificing herself for him. Never mind that the 'hero' is a petty criminal, a card-sharp, himself.


Glenn Ford looks much more elegant than Dev Anand does in this picture. In fact, the look of Gilda reminds me more of old Raj Kapoor movies like Shri 420: the men in tuxedos and the women in evening gowns. (Today, Hollywood films get copied almost immediately -- it becomes a game, to recognise the sources of many Hindi movies - sometimes bits of several Hollywood movies crammed together.)


This is a picture of part of a public latrine - the kind which the Municipal Corporation puts up near slums which don't have water or sewage connections.


Those green patterned tiles cover the entire structure. The sign says penkal: women. Look at that woman! Blonde, and with a short hairdo. The women who live in slums don't cut their hair, unless they go to a temple and offer it as a sacrifice. Since the sign is in Tamil, it's clear that it wasn't imported from some white-foreign latrine-labelling company. Couldn't the manufacturer have provided an Indian face? Was it meant to encourage me to go inside?

Coonoor VI

I think I'm about done with Coonoor for now, but I wanted to throw in two pictures.

We drove to Tiger Hill, which is supposed to have a great view, but it was full of mist. I took this picture, which makes me very happy:


It's a tea garden. You can see tea bushes below, and silver oaks above. The oaks are spaced out and trimmed so that just the right amount of sunlight reaches the tea plants.

(In this context there was an interesting article in The Hindu recently: Rainforest Revival: "Every year, hectares of rainforest vanish in the Western Ghats, partly the result of expanding plantations. After decades of bad press, a group of estates in Tamil Nadu decide to prove the critics wrong.")


We were waiting in the car for someone, at the bottom of the ramp leading to the hotel, beside the churchyard wall. We always carry R's heavy camera bag, full of lenses, but lately he has rarely taken a photograph. As we sat in the car I handed him my new digital camera, which he had never used. He raised it idly and took this picture - the best of the lot, in my opinion. So irritating... but I love the picture:

Coonoor V

The Nilgiri Mountain Railway, familiarly known as the toy train, travels from Mettupalayam on the plains up to Ooty - a four-hour journey - and back every day. There are several websites with pictures and information about this train, which has just been declared a UNESCO world heritage site - here and here and here and here. One day we picked up the train at Coonoor and rode Ooty, a one-hour trip. My notes aren't very interesting, and my photographs are blurry. It was lovely, though - slow enough so that cows could saunter across the track in front of us without fear -- about 10 kph. A couple of tunnels, many wonderful views. A hoopoe flew across in a flash of black / brown / white.

We had lunch at the Savoy, in Ooty. I browsed through an old book - Ootacamund: A History - while we waited for lunch. I read about the second western 'discovery' of Ooty - the first, brief encounter, was in 1602, but this was the one that led to British settlements in the Nilgiris: in 1818, two English civilians reached Ooty - they might have been pursuing "a poligar who had been misconducting himself... they found the man they were in search of, in a hut. He was exceedingly polite in offering refreshments to the gentlemen, and pretending to go for some milk, took the opportunity of making good his retreat." In pursuing him they discovered the excellent climate, etc.

colonial kitsch: tripods of lances (for pig-sticking?)
hung with pith helmets


After lunch we went to look at a house that was for sale. We have a recurring fantasy about buying a second house here, or even resettling in the hills somewhere - but we haven't been sure enough to go through with it. The house was up a steep driveway - most of the property was steeply sloped and forested. It was charming on the outside; but we peered through the windows and found it very old-fashioned, rudimentary. There was an outbuilding for the caretaker and his family, a garage and, slightly up a hill, a small cottage.

The caretaker's wife, Mageshwari, showed us around. She was tiny, barefooted, slim, with a beautiful face, a sweet smile, very polite - we felt that we could almost buy the house in order to have her work for us. In the end we felt that the house would have to be gutted and modernised, and it seemed too big a project for us to take on. But the next day I felt a little guilty - austerity is good? the house looked cold because it was empty? Mageshwari's delicate bare feet, while I shivered in my sweater.


Morning: Crows squabble on and nibble the grass, a monkey steals a sugar packet from someone's room.


At the gate, the watchman chats with a sweeper in sari and brown sweater. She laughs.

A woman walks by with two bounding dogs.

A goods carrier grinds down the road.

Cloudy, with a very light drizzle.


I've made this guy look cheerful, when actually he's pensive and moth-eaten and sad.

Lunch: a child bangs his spoon on a table. The parents are unconcerned. Finally a waiter goes over and tells the child, "Don't! If you do that, monkeys will come."


This is a cubist goat, because I kept sketching it, even as it moved

The goats like to stroll across the road just as a truck comes barrelling down it, causing the truck to come to a halt. The woman who appears to be the goatherd says to them "Where are you going?" but idly, as if it is a casual conversation.

Honey

Along with some Ayurvedic medicine that we bought yesterday, a bottle of honey was thrown in for free. The Tamil word for honey is then. I imagine that it's a very ancient word: my reasoning may be fallacious, but most Tamil words are not so short; and the one-syllable words that I know name simple things: aal = man; pen = woman; man = earth; kal = stone; thee = fire; neer = water.

But I don't think of the words' age when I use these others. There's something about honey, its thick goldenness, the resonance of the word then in my head, like a soft bell.

Coonoor IV



Every bit of land that can be farmed, is -- mostly with tea. Only rocky outcroppings and the steepest slopes are forested.


An elderly lady, staying with her children in America: "In America, nothing has any taste - fruits, vegetables, even chicken. They grow everything with chemicals. I come here, and I can taste everything."


Sunday morning, 8:30: I walked behind All Saints Church and down Figure of Eight Road. All the shops were closed -- most of them connected to the tea industry. A group of ten young men trooped into a shopfront marked BAR, then immediately backed out again and sat on the curb laughing, to wait (I assume) for 9:00 a.m. opening time.

Birds: bulbuls, sparrows, flowerpeckers, pigeons, mynahs, seven rishis

What soft names: Coonoor. Ooty. A signboard for Oopoottil Trading Co.


We visited Beulah Farm, which grows herbs and fruits, and sells its own fruit jam. The road went up and up, over a steep hump, and then down, down down, until R asked if we were going to end up in Mettupalayam, on the plain. When we reached the place I went in alone; R stayed in the car, not interested. It was Sunday, and a small village church nearby - gaudy, decked with pennants - was broadcasting loud recorded hymns.

I walked down a flight of steps to a small house, or rather a series of huts, I think - it was hard to make it out - facing a very small open area of dirt. In that area were several birdhouses crowded with gorgeous white fantail pigeons, who perched there or hopped down to walk around on the ground; a couple of muscovy ducks; a sleepy dog.

The owner was Eapen Jacob, 81 years old, a Syrian Christian from Kerala -- tall, thin, with a long pale face, thin white hair, smiling. Or rather, "God is the owner - I'm only in charge." E welcomed me, and showed me around the rows of herbs, plucked sprigs for me - thyme, chives, lemon balm, lad's-love. There was rhubarb, and strawberries, and some fruit trees, on about 2 acres of land. He doesn't use pesticides, or chemical fertilisers; he keeps a few bees to pollinate the flowers. He told me twice that 'Beulah' means god's gift, and that he treats it as such. He behaved as though I were a welcome guest, not an idle tourist seeking diversion.

I was impressed with his sincerity and openness. I felt that he should meet R, so I said that I would call him in. E immediately went with me to invite him. We sat down in one of the small rooms and chatted. Then E said something about God - that everything is in His hands, perhaps. R said that there is no god, or if there is, he's absconding. E became very interested, and the two of them got into an intense conversation. I sat on the doorstep, sketching and listening.


Several children stopped to look at what I was drawing. I asked the dog's name - Jimmy. They laughed to see that I had drawn him, and that I wrote his name over the drawing.

E and R talked for about an hour, E insisting that there must be an intelligence behind the universe - but mildly. He paid close attention to R's arguments, in spite of their opposition to his own beliefs. He was looking for answers. And he was a little confused, because he was old.

Eventually we had to go. I bought some jam: Rhubarb, rhubarb-strawberry, orange marmalade; and E gave me plants as a gift to take back: chives, thyme, lads-love, spearmint. He was reluctant to take money for the jam - later, at the hotel, someone told me, "Eapen doesn't care for money - when you pay him for his jams he doesn't even take the money with his right hand. He takes it in his left hand and just throws it aside."

As he walked us back to the car, E was emotional, hugged R, said that he was an exceptional person. We all had tears in our eyes. I'm not explaining properly why he impressed me so much. I think he seemed to be a kind of holy innocent, with his beliefs, and his herbs, and his birds…

I said to him, inanely, "You seem to be a happy man." He opened his eyes wide in surprise, and said, "No! I have a question mark rising behind my head, not an exclamation mark - I am searching in the wilderness."

But R was making him laugh, too - he had a sense of humour. As R was getting in the car he said, "You have touched my heart. It is rare to meet such a good and decent person. I feel sorry for you - you need someone to protect you. Good luck." Then when we sat in the car, E tapped on R's window. When R opened it he said, grinning, "You mean you do believe in something? There is such a thing as luck?" R said, "No! You caught me! As soon as I said it I realised it was a mistake. I was hoping you hadn't heard me, but you did - it was the only lie of the day." Then they clasped hands, and we drove away.

Coonoor III

All Saints Church, Coonoor


I walked to the church, next door to the hotel. Buff-coloured stucco and a red-tiled roof. A monkey sat on the churchyard wall:

Its mouth turns up, but it is not smiling


I had just begun to draw a whole line of monkeys sitting on another wall, when the church sexton rode up on a motorcycle and introduced himself. He told me that he and his father had recently cleaned all the graves, which I had already noticed: all the pretty moss and lichen were gone.


SACRED TO THE BELOVED MEMORY OF
GEORGE HODSON
WHO FELL ASLEEP ON THE 26 OF OCTOBER 1866
AGED 32 YEARS. . .


The cemetery is so quiet, green and brown, built on uneven, sloped ground, the stones not in neat rows. The trees are not willows -- they are some kind of fir - but they 'weep,' drooping over the graves.

At dinner, from the next table: "He knows which side of the bread to butter properly."

Coonoor II

(When I began writing about Coonoor, someone said, But I thought you were going to Ooty. So, to clarify, Ooty is the District Headquarters of Nilgiri District - like an American county seat - and Coonoor is a smaller, nearby town.)

I got up at 8:00 and went for a walk. The weather was variable, like spring: cool, breezy, then washed with warm sunlight, then with dark shadows. Tried to look hard at everything, picked up leaves and cones to draw. Later, after lots of breakfast, we sat at a white wrought-iron table on the lawn, and I painted what I had collected.


At dinner I warmed my hands around a hot toddy. I was busy pretending that it was colder than it actually was, with the fire every night and the hot water bottles and all. A piano player stumbled through old Hindi film songs in an almost-empty dining room (because the 'season' was over). At another table the waiter asked someone, "You are full vegetarian?" and she answered, "Not even mushrooms!"


The next day, after breakfast, the really, really good Chef Ramalingam showed me his herb garden: mint, lemongrass, basil, thyme, tarragon, rosemary, celery. I admired all of them and asked if he grew parsley. He said, "Parsley, monkeys take it. Monkeys my enemy."

Then we sat outside again, and two monkeys passed by, large and small, and paused, but not long enough for me to draw them properly. Growling and coughing. Then one male, three females with babies clinging under their bellies.

R watched the young Indian tennis player Sania Mirza lose in the second round of Wimbledon -- on the national TV channel, Doordarshan, with commentary in Chinese -- why?? I think that if Doordarshan ever modernised we'd miss its reliable weirdness. But not very much.

The day is punctuated by sirens from the tea gardens: the beginning and end of the work day, and the lunch break. Then there is the whistle and the chuff ... chuff ... of the so-called toy train, coming up from Mettupalayam on the plains to Ooty. And the grinding of trucks labouring up the hills, loaded with petrol; firewood; sacks of tea; everything that from outside comes by truck up the hairpin roads.


I stood looking up at a huge fir tree and tried to see it as light and shadow, but each mass of light had its own shadows. I would have to draw every needle. Then it stopped looking like a tree at all. Shadows within shadows.

Coonoor I

Overheard on the plane: "You have to look at the details, and only then you understand what life is. The basic principal, like, goes for a toss."


Coimbatore: We stepped out of the plane into light sprinkles of rain - I'd forgotten that expression: "It's sprinkling." Grey clouds, breeze. Hills rose in the distance, behind coconut groves.


A crucifix was wrapped around the car's rear-view mirror. On the bumpy stretches the wooden beads clacked slightly against the glass, as if raindrops were spattering on the windshield.


1:55 p.m., Mettupalayam; 2:10, "GHAT SECTION BEGINS" - a series of hairpin curves heading up into the hills; 3:00 arrival in Coonoor.

from the ghat road to Coonoor


We stayed at the Taj Garden Retreat in Coonoor. It was built in the mid-nineteenth century as a priory for the All Saints Church next door, and converted to a hotel in 1908. Bits and pieces have been added on ever since.


We had an enormous suite: a foyer big enough for a sofa and chairs; a living area with creaky wooden floors (the first wooden floors I have walked on for many years) and a fireplace; a bedroom; a smaller bedroom; a bathroom larger than the second bedroom. All of it was furnished with what looked like gleanings from someone's attic -- hill station style.

We ordered tea and sandwiches, and sat at a low table in the foyer to eat them. We kept the door open to let the cool damp air - it was drizzling lightly - inside. There was a basket of fruit on the table. I looked out the window and saw a furry brown monkey squatting on the roof of a nearby building. I said, "Look - a monkey!" Before R could even reply, if he had planned to, the monkey was inside. It was the size of a small dog. I was sitting on the floor; it was almost at my eye-level. I shouted, "No!", but it hardly glanced at me. In a flash it went to the fruit basket, grabbed a bunch of bananas, and was gone.

After dinner, a fire in the fireplace, made of "jungle wood."


In the night, the lights went out just as we were getting into bed. I thought I touched a stranger's warm leg there, and recoiled, but it was

Back

We stepped out of the plane into the blast of a hair dryer. At home, a concrete lined moat two feet wide ran the length of the street, just outside the gate. Our neighbours, forewarned, had moved their cars out and across the street -- only ours are trapped inside. The taxi had to stop on the road, and we entered with our suitcases over two wooden planks. To add insult to injury, a big heap of earth had been dumped exactly in front of the gate.

Inside, Lakshmi swept up small heaps of what I thought was red dust from the roadwork; but they were piles of dead ants. The switchplate into which the washing machine was plugged wasn't working; when the electrician came and opened it up, it was stuffed with ants too.

And so we settle again into Summer. I will develop my photographs and scan my sketches. Then I will write about our sojourn in Spring, and the people we met there.

Coonoor bouquet