Return of the native
|SHEILA KUMAR sings a paean to the enduring beauty of the Nilgiris, which was once her home|
The Botanical Gardens
This article should in all fairness, carry a disclaimer. I’m no wide-eyed tourist or first-time visitor to the Blue Mountains. I used to live there, some years ago, and in a life marked by itinerant travel, thought I’d actually found a pl ace to call home. So, all visits back up the hills are, in effect, home-comings. I look at the hills with different eyes, you see.
I’ve just returned to Chennai after a week in the Nilgiris. Being part of the vanguard of the second season, I got lucky. The weather was heavenly in Coonoor; clear blue skies, a brisk breeze tipped with tinges of ice which at times turned into a positive gale winnowing the tops of the acacia, cassia and eucalyptus trees. Across from the house atop Mt Pleasant which was temporary home for my stay, a Jersey cow seemed to balance precariously on a steep slope as she cropped the green, green grass. All week, I’d nervously look out for her; sure she’d slip down the slope and hurt herself. I under-estimated the cow, she was at home on that slope. The Nilgiris were seeing the first lot of visitors — families trailing kids, kids trailing mufflers and balaclavas; newly-weds, the mehendi vivid on the bride’s palms, young men on motorbikes, their excitement a tangible thing and busloads of students hooting and hollering. As a pink bus passed me by, a set of these youngsters shouted, “I like Ooty!”
What’s to like
And I got to thinking: what’s there to like? The answer was all around me. Poinsettia was setting moss-laden banks aflame. The alstromerias, deep orange with tigerish flecks, gladioli and gerberas were in full bloom and by the road grew clumps of lavender salvias and deeper violet sweet peas. It was a riot of colour everywhere; the hibiscus ran rampant, as did wild balsam, ground orchids, blood-red rhododendron, fuchsia and all kinds of roses. Out near the famous Sandy Nallah, site for many a film song, the holly shyly peeked out from amongst the shola forest.
The Nilgiris were, in fact, in full flower. Friends reported sighting of the fabled kurinji, the flower that gives the Blue Mountains its name and colour, in parts of the hills last year. Some parts of the Nilgiris get patches of it every few years; no one can predict the flowering, in what profusion or where. Usually, trekkers come upon it and inform tourist officials. The tribals, of course, see it first but don’t really bother to report back.
Those hills carpeted thickly with tea bushes sparkled green, others were downy meadows. Ooty’s sprawling Botanical Gardens were drying themselves after a sustained spell of rains but my personal favourite, the Sim’s Park in Coonoor, a treasure trove of trees from all over the world, had a fair sprinkling of tourists. The Ketty valley lay soaking up the sun, seen from the heights near Lovedale. By Wenlock Downs, and all over the sun-dappled ranges, the traditional blue mists wrapped themselves lovingly across hill tops and round branches of pines, sometimes taking on the consistency of pea soup fogs. Pykara Lake was like a still-life painting, a dazzle of somnolence. Oh, and the sounds of silence…
Trekking paths, lichen-laden, led one past streets with names such as Orange Grove, Heatherley, Oak Drive, past ivy-wreathed cottages named Glenview, The Vale, Cloud’s End, Woodcote and Hillbrook. Loud, mellifluous, strident birdsong is a typical feature in these hills and this Fall too, the birds weren’t bottling anything up. Larks, thrushes including the rudely laughing thrush, babblers, were all swooping in and out of trees, and my friend’s front lawns had been colonised by a brace of fat pigeons.
Ooty tended to be cold and drizzly with the sun occasionally deigning to come out. No sighting of any Toda around the town. The Kingstar people loaded me with freebie chocos; I stepped into the new Modern Stores near the Assembly Rooms cinema, where “Chak De India” was playing; spotted the new Café Coffee Day outlet and wanted to have a coffee but was dissuaded by local friends who obviously didn’t think too highly of citified coffees! One rite of passage is eating varkis from the West Coast Bakery and I am pleased to report there’s no diminishing in the standard of these baked savouries. The flavour du jour all over the hills, very literally, was bilberry and just about everyone was making pots of bilberry jam.
Ready to roll
The clubs, Ooty Gymkhana, Wellington Gymkhana, the Coonoor Club, were all readying to receive the golfers. The Nilgiri Planters had their Ball and it was a sedate affair. The toy train, too, looked spiffy and ready to roll, at Coonoor station.
So, you ask, what’s not to like? Well, the serpent seems to have entered Eden, or maybe it was the timing; the hills saw a spate of protests, religious as well as political, and a couple of bandhs, too. Old-timers rued the happenings, recalling wistfully the easy, laid-back character of the hill people, the reluctance to become bellicose or to get wound up by the plains folk.
The roads, now that’s another miserable story. All across the Nilgiris, the roads have collapsed, leaving potholes the size of craters in their stead.
Axle- breakers, every one of them. The administration’s indifference to them seems astounding. One finds vehicles weaving dangerously on the Kotagiri roads, in a futile attempt to avoid the ruts, endangering themselves and others.
PIC: YAJ MALIK
The area became a plastic-free zone a few years ago but plastic seems to be wending its way up the hills and is seen littering roadside and choking gutters. The Bazaar in Ooty is choked up, too, a dismal sight. Coonoor’s Bedford has been taken over by aggressive monkeys who attack passers-by with insouciance, and of course, nothing is being done about this menace.
And then it strikes you: all the cons in this list of pros and cons I seem to have inadvertently assembled, are man-made. I rest my case.