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Mudhumalai

The bus trip from Bangalore to Kotagiri every weekend means lucky me gets to travel through Masinagudi, Bandipur Tiger Reserve and Mudhumalai Wildlife Sanctuary.

Since commercial vehicles aren’t permitted inside the forests between 9 PM-6 AM, my KSRTC overnight bus from Bangalore would normally reach Bandipur check post at 3 AM. Then would follow the long wait along with other buses, trucks and private cars, till 6 AM when the gates would finally open.

And waking up with the sunrise, I’d be greeted with the sight of foraging spotted deer, bisons, elephants, lion-tailed macaws, common rhesus monkeys, peacocks and wild boar, roaming the hitherto undisturbed forest glades (apologises for having forgotten till date to take my DSLR along). The very first visit — when Indra accompanied me — we were lucky enough to spot a mommy and baby elephant. And there began her enchantment with the Nilgris, and an often-voiced intention never to come back to Bangalore or Madras.

And what we couldn’t see we made up for in imagination. For this was the Jungle Book of Rudyard Kipling lore — the home of the never-to-be-spotted tigers, the even more elusive leopards and black panthers, the Nilgris Gaur, mongooses, Malabar giant squirrels, Gray langurs and Nilgiri tahrs.

And as the bus rolls into Gudalur, Ooty and Coonoor it’s the sight of acres of tea estates, pine forests and eucalyptus trees that greet you. Ooty is about 7,500 feet above sea level, so on clear days — when the hills aren’t shrouded by mist one can see for miles around, including the plains of Salem, Mettupalayam and Coimbatore.

Breakfast has to be accompanied by one of Ooty’s famed tea varieties- masala tea, cardamom tea, chocolate tea or orange pekoe. While the place is dotted with tea stalls, one can also choose to have fresh-as-mint tea at the shops attached to the tea factory. Black tea unlaced by sugar or milk, white tea with pine needles or green tea with generous bits of chamomile, kashmiri kahwa — the variety is extensive and there’s a difference in the depth, texture of black tea from the different estates.

I’m yet to visit the tea estates of my MCC college seniors – who have promised me a tour of their premises, a lecture in fannings vs broken pekoe and visits to tea factories. I’m also yet to meet fellow journalists, working in the best of ambiences. Every road, every turn, every acquaintance seems to bring with it the promise of an unforgettable experience!

And there’s also the constant reminders of man-animal conflict in the district to keep your teeth on edge — the electric fences at honey-production units to keep out sun bears; the chained-mesh kennels for dogs to prevent them being eaten up by adventurous leopards (apparently they prove tasty fare); and my intense astonishment when a bison ambled past us at the Ketti bus stop and everyone else’s complacence. So yes, in Nilgris its never about the destination, but the journey!

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Coonoor1

So this weekend, when I visited Sim’s Park, Coonoor, I couldn’t help but recall all the stories I’d heard in the halls of my almamater – Madras Christian College — of the extreme artificialness of the beautiful green landscape of the Nilgris. Everything from its belt of water-guzzling eucalyptus trees to its tea estates to its prized roses and charming touch-me-not plants — more than 350 species of ornamentals, conifers, woodland species introduced by the British; that is now wrecking havoc on the local ecosystem. In the last five years, Coonoor has been facing severe water shortage, thanks to the ingenuity of the whiteman in introducing many a hardy species that survived the blistering deserts of Western Australia to the fertile, rich, rain-fed soils of the Western Ghats.

Tree Wealth

Now my college MCC, nestled among 275 acres of Deccan thorn scrub forests, was a testament to what can happen if nature is left to itself. The college till the 1900s was in the George Town campus in Parrys/Broadway/Beach. As the young port city rapidly expanded, the college management decided to shift their premises to a 390-acre campus on the outskirts of Tambaram. This extensive campus was first encroached by the Air Force base in the 1950s and then the Aringnar Anna Zoological Park (aka Vandalur Zoo) in the 1980s. But still the remaining 270 acre campus proved more than enough for the scrub jungle to flourish — clusters of black speargrass, crowfoot grass, naruvilli, karanda, euphorbias, towering burdocks, neem — with no human aid beyond leaving it well all alone. For me, as it has been for other students it was a surprise to learn that the current scrub forests on campus — owe their existence to the college. The campus also nursed its species of Indian’ cycas (beddomei), its avenues lined by showers of the golden rain trees, gulmohars, pink tabebuias; making one feel like a princess walking down a flower-carpetted road.

MCC1

MCCians are also quite used to the sight of spotted deer, wild pigs, mynahs, seven sisters, sparrows, egrets, rose-ringed parakeets, peacocks and common rhesus monkeys — viewing them as Indians generally view cows — part of the landscape and not deserving of special notice. But the campus rewarded students, who woke up with the break of dawn with glimpses of mongoose darting among the thorny bushes, the rustling of the aggressive, common rat snake – looking similar to most eyes except the well-initiated like its shier but more deadly lookalike the common cobra. The patient and silent student was also rewarded at times with spottings of the Indian pitta, pond herons, painted storks, kites, kestrels, buzzards, hawk eagles, shikras, black Ibis, the rainbow-irridiscense of the junglefowl, quails, lapwings, wild spotted doves, koels, swifts, bee-eaters and hooppoe birds. I was often sharply pulled up my long-suffering professors in the Chemistry dept for daydreaming. How could one not? When each classroom offered expansive views of the forests outside — the sight of the cuckoo bird making one wonder which crow’s nest they’d next raid to dupe that more responsible bird parent into raising little cuckoos or if the industrious little woodpecker was hollowing out a cosy nest in Beatrix Potter-style. Apologies for meandering – but the point was that MCC, IIT-Madras, Guindy National Park, Vandalur Zoo and the Air Force Base campuses are the last natural bastions in Chennai of the Deccan thorn scrub forests.

MCC_deer

But, Coonoor isn’t. And the board at Sim’s Park particularly angered me. Look for instance, at the list of species they list as wealth. From the hot dry desert sands of Australia – Gum myrtle, monkey puzzle tree, lemon-scented gum, stringy bark trees, red flowering gum, paper wood tree. Then more species such as cedars from Mexico. At least the camphor trees, windmill palms, red cedars, bamboos from China and Nepal are more acceptable — as being our neighbours it is inevitable that either trade on the silk route or via Bengal ports would have at some point seen such species finding their roots South of the Vindhyas. But the sight of the giant eucalyptus trees towering 30-40 feet in height left me dismayed. Trees are like icebergs – what you’d see is just one-third of what they truly are. Their real beings are within the water/soil deep and indestructible. That other nations — which also had seen the poisonous taste of British colonialism — such as South Africa have actively been trying to eradicate the menace of their allelopathic (killing off native vegetation), water-guzzling alien eucalytpus forests; while we celebrate invasive weeds and trees in our commerce, parks and museums.#Coonoor #MCC #MadrasChristianCollege

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“There are no strangers here. Just friends you haven’t yet met” — is the motto of the Coonoor club that greets you at vantage points on its luxurious premises. Something that proved true, as I met a few truly delightful people. Set up in 1885, the club’s a reminder that life is meant to be savoured; every moment.

Every inch of the place has echoes of a bygone era – from the brick fireplaces to the Sheraton furniture, wooden rafters, spacious, timber-decked halls. Personally, I was delighted to spot the signboard, listing the past presidents of the Coonoor club; As for the year 1962-63, the post was held by none other than Gen.K.S.Thimayya. Army buffs have long held him a paragon of all virtue, because apart from his achievements on the field as a combat officer in World War II and his role in repatriating POWs in the Korean war — he was also a “jolly good fellow” and “never too high in the in-step”. The year of his president-ish is interesting as it’s the same year he distinguished himself in service during the 1962 Indo-China war. Given my grandfather’s account (I.N.S Surgeon Commander Dr E.J.C.Job) of his leadership as Chief of Army Staff between 1957-1961, I doubt he ever focused his energies on the club that year – but as a coffee planter, hailing from Coorg, I could easily imagine him relaxing at the club’s library, book in hand, beside a toasty, warm fireplace in his later years.

The club also brought to life the world of regency romances — with its coat hangers, attics, skylights, pencil sketches, polished-like-glass Burmese teak furniture and vibrant gardens. Skylights for me have always been a thing of magic — bringing sunshine and warmth in the daytime and a view of the star-lit skies in the night.

The club’s hunting trophies — skinned and mounted tiger heads, skeletal remains of bisons, preserved skins of Nilgris gaur — reminded me of the famous joke about its sister concern, The Ooty Club. The Ooty Club — even more chalk-full of big-game hunting relics and animal carcasses — had by the 1930s come to be affectionately nicknamed by regulars as the “morgue.”

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A point of view…

The viewpoint from Coonoor tea factory —where you can see surrounding tea estates for miles, the golf course of the army bastion at Wellington and the silver crescent of river water that reaches Bhavani Sagar dam — supplying drinking water to places as far flung as Tiruppur, Erode, Salem, Kovai #viewpoint #Coonoor

Coonoor

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For parents it can be a heart-stopping and gut-wrenching experience — watching your child get hurt, trying to assess the damage, rushing to the hospital, hoping that it isn’t as bad as it looks. So in the midst of that, the one thing strangers need not do is berate them for not watching the child more carefully or give them unsolicited advice.

And yet my self-imposed stricture never to judge another parent was severely tested this weekend. So this large family of aunts, uncles, parents, grandparents and two cherubic angels board the overnight bus to Ooty. Now, being a large family they also had a lot of luggage and settling to do — even as the two kids ran around. The bus meanwhile was taking sharp turns and twice their 3-year-old boy would have hit the metal railings sharp had it not been for me and another neighbour’s watchfulness.

We settled in. Morning arrived. And the bus started taking the sharp hairpin bends indicating the steep upward climb, up the Western Ghats, to reach Ooty 7,350 feet above sea level. I had to double check my laptop/clothes bag tightly strapped to the rack — as luggage and shoes have a random way of hurling themselves across the aisle or even out of the window as the bus journey starts resembling some hellish rollercoaster ride. And suddenly we hear a loud thud, followed by a scream.

Opening curtains, I and my fellow passengers peeped out of our cubicles to see the horrifying sight of the 3-year-old spread-eagled on the floor. He’d fallen from a height of more than 5 feet from the upper-birth- where his younger sister was still perched precariously. We watched aghast as a man – possibly the uncle from my little understanding of Urdu– picked up the child and tried to console him. Within 5 minutes, the child vommitted. Now for us — a few other parents — the child vomitting soon after a head injury was the worst sign possible as it spelt concussions and we started urging them to take the child to a hospital. The bus now started taking even more hair-turning bends and we worried for the little girl still sitting on the upper birth and urged them to bring her down. To no avail. They were more concerned in cleaning up the vomit with paper – though to our credit none of us had complained or even turned up our noses being too worried about the boy.

Kotagiri

“I thought it was a bag falling – wasn’t the sound loud? How could they have left the kids unsupervised?” asked my neighbour. And I remembered all the journeys I’d undertaken with Indra. I remember bundling a 5-month-old on her first bus journey to Chennai. This would be the first of many trips– nearly every weekend doing the Bangalore-Chennai route to visit my grandmother — watchful that her head shouldn’t bump the bus’ sharp corners, changing her diapers, breastfeeding her with precious little elbow room. ﹰThe frequency of trips increasing as my grandmother’s health declined. Indra’s latest bus trip was to Kotagiri via Bandipur Tiger reserve — a 6-year-old who could help with the luggage and walk on her own; a far cry from the 6-month-old I’d carry Kangaroo-style in a pouch infront– even as I carried a heavy packback on my back– with regular milk, milk powder water, change of clothes, diapers and a hot water flask (with a prayer it stays piping hot as without it – the powder wouldn’t turn into milk but undrinkable water with clumps). …Even for the journey with the 6-year-old I remember padding one side, and sleeping with my arm and body encircling her — so she wouldn’t feel the roughness of the ride as my body tried to absorb the shocks of the sudden brakes, jolts as the bus snaked it’s way up the hills. Recalling all my journeys, my mind was silently thinking “How could they have left the kids alone on the upper birth? How could they’ve not foreseen possible injury?”

And then other memories came. Was I anyone to judge them? I’ve done enough and more dangerous things with Indra that would have seen me lose custody and my child placed in foster care if I was in a less tolerant country like America. Thank God I was in India. For memory brought up what I’d done between age 1.5-3 years, after I’d weaned her. I remember many a time leaving her sleeping alone in my third-floor flat as I raced down to the shop two buildings away to get milk at 5 AM. While I’d usually have a supply of milk in the fridge- sometimes I wouldn’t- because of the milk going bad or high festival demand. Sometimes it would rain and the flight of stairs and roads would be slippery and dangerous — and yet I’d take the stairs three at a time – my heart in my throat, always fearing she’d wake up. For tiny babies comfort is their mother’s arms and on the rare occasions when Indra woke up in the night to find me not near her because I was heating her milk in the kitchen or in loo– she’d cry. And her anguish and fear of the unknown without mom would be so deep – she’d cry heartbreakingly and inconsolably even as I rocked her. It would take her half hour to settle, her little body shuddering with sobs till her breathing became regular; her body loose, heavy and elastic with sleep. So, I’d do this mad dash — more fearing her waking-up than a chance mauraduer at our door.

And then another memory came. Me carrying Indra in a slingbag, as I drove my Honda Activa with Maximus sitting in the space between my legs. A 400 metre distance to her daycare– entirely avoidable on bike — but still done at least once a month — with the lingering fear that Maximus spotting a stray cat would mean all three of us in a ditch. So the normal schedule was wake up at 5 AM, do the chores, prepare breakfast, lunch, drop Indra at neighbour’s, take Maximus for a walk, drop Indra in daycare, leave for work. But on the days I overslept it would mean clubbing Maximus’s walk with the school drop-off; knowing fully well that the brown furball wasn’t entirely reliable.

So yes I’ve taken shortcuts. Not always been on the straight and narrow road of child safety. Did it give me or any other parent any right to judge? My last memory was me taking a 2-year-old, dressed-up Indra for Independence Day celebrations at her school on my bike. We were going at 20 km/hr on the crowded Tippasandra market road, when a car experienced brake failure and hit another motorist and then me. As I fell, i knew Indra had been in the space between the seat and the handlebar and couldn’t have been hurt- but my heart stopped. Even as my leg was still jammed between my bike and the car fender, I started undressing and checking her. She wasn’t hurt anywhere, no bruises, no bumps. Fear lent harshness to my voice, “Shut up Indra. Where is it hurting? Why are you crying?” A sobbing Indra, “I’m not hurt, it’s your leg.” And that’s when I realised the excruciating pain, numbness and unusability of my right ankle. I called for help, passers-by assisted us to Chinmaya mission Hospital, friends landed up. After a thorough- check and scans Indra was declared perfectly fit; I however had a fracture and 30 days bed-rest awaiting me. But I could still remember that moment of sheer relief when they confirmed she hadn’t been hurt.

I remembered all this as I looked anew at the little boy. I couldn’t even figure out who was his mother as the womenfolk bustled around. There was an uncle being irritable; another wanted to go to the hotel; another to the loo– while the women kept agreeing with what the men said even if they were saying diametrically opposite things. No one seemed to be alive to the danger of that nasty fall — though some of the women kept meekly suggesting seeing a doctor. And suddenly I was glad I was a single mom; that I’m not faced with the outer trappings of conventions, traditions or family, when I’ve to make decisions for Indra. That I can meet her needs – be it hunger or healthcare– without weighing the cost, effort or time. People always say “it needs a village to raise a child.” That day I realised a village could also end up denying the child something as vital as emergency medical care.

The bus moved on. As it started lumbering towards Coonoor- I remembered the boy’s fall. There had been a nasty, sickening crack accompanying the thud. I recognised the sound. It was the sound I’d heard when metal crushed past skin, tissue, muscle to finally impact my bone. I watched the boy; distinct in his red sweator and blue jeans — still sobbing as he stood with his family. I watched him as the bus twisted and turned and he became a small speck on the horizon. #parenting #kotagiritales

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Doesn’t the place look straight out of a novel? Built in classic British style– it looked a little incongruous on the outskirts of Ooty (a British-ism for “Uthagamandalam”; which got morphed to “Ootacaumand” and then “Ooty”) — and today its a government museum, which Musuemhouses the history of the Kothars, Todas, Badugas, Irulas and other ethnic tribes of the Nilgris mountains. I, in my native arrogance, always presumed everyone who lived in Tamil Nadu — barring settlers from Andhra, Saurashtrians, Gujaratis, etc –speaks Tamil and are Tamilians. It would take me years before I realised there are more than a dozen native tribes in my state, who speak their own languages (not dialects of Tamil) and had a rich, ancient and diverse ancestry to rival my own Dravidian one. #ooty #ootygovtmuseum #tribalhistory #colonialpast

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That moment of ephiphany when you realise why the ultra-rich hanker after their own private beaches, private clubs, private swimming pools…me having breakfast at my own “private backyard” and totally getting it!! #littletastesofluxury #coonoor

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