It is the summer of 1896.
While the Indian plains are reeling under an expected heatwave, Mrs Wells’ guest house in Upper Coonoor is cool, shadowed by the branches of the Silver Oak trees that an English officer had planted all over Coonoor, fifty years ago. The newly added Teak doors and French windows look out at almost-mossy grass and a mass of flowers that will continue to bloom for the next three months, until winter frost snatches their life mid-color.
Dunmore House, as are most guest houses here, is always full in the summer.
It is a colonial bungalow, built in the style of the times- high ceiling-ed interiors, thick walls, deep shady veranda’s circling the exterior, fireplaces and chimneys… and servant quarters a little away from the main house, neatly tucked away from the long drive-in.
There’s excitement in the air. Mrs Wells has received news that the guests they’re awaiting are only a few miles away.
A part of this year’s ‘English Fleet’* is about to arrive.
With Ooty and Wellington both Army stations and garrisons, the Fleet’s boarders spending the summer here would bring in the military men in their uniforms.
Together, that will mean a hurricane of courtship calls, horse rides into the dawn, stolen moments, moonlight picnics, dances, cocktail parties, rings, proposals, engagements and rejections.
Dunmore House would turn into a whirl of long evenings spilling into a series of dawns glinting on earrings, medals and regimental epaulets, and hopefully,marriage.
A century later, Dunmore House stands almost exactly as it was.
It now has neighbors in smaller and newer cottages piling down the stepped hillside.
Inside, the verandas are now a part of bedroom suites, but all else stays the same.
The garden wins prizes each year.
This is a holiday without an itinerary or agenda.
It’s already been a couple of days of trying to find tea from the Nansuch Tea Gardens, a broken variety of Orange Peakoe, not the finest tea there is, but it is special because it is what I grew up seeing sitting around the kitchen.
I’ve walked down to plenty of shops that sell tea, but they all promote the two local varieties.
It takes a chance meeting with the old khansama of Ooty Golf Course to find that one shop which sells Nansuch produce halfway down to Lower Coonoor.
The elderly gentleman looks at me curiously as he brings out a few boxes. The packing is just the same as I remember it from my childhood.
“Why do you want it? There’s so much good tea all around,” he asks me.
I tell him it brings back memories of an uncomplicated time when everyone you loved was around you and love was completely unconditional. Of a time when tea was a sacred ceremony the adults indulged in, of tea-cosies, well- used tea pots, cups warmed before tea was served, of one teaspoon of tea leaves just for the teapot, one above the number of teacups waiting for the golden liquid. . . and us kids wanting to grow up so we would get to drink tea.
“How wonderful that a box of tea leaves can take you back to so much, even for a few beautiful moments. Enjoy the nostalgia, but move forward quickly.”
Wise words indeed.
Winding roads lead to breathtaking views of valleys that are otherwise hidden from the eye.
Upper Coonoor is a five AM walker’s paradise.
The Nilgiri’s hold on tight to the names of yore, thank God. It keeps the lost-in-transit charm alive.
The air has a wintry touch before dawnbreak.
It reveals beautiful homes with names like Windmore, Wildflower, Fair Rose, Ritz Cottage, Serenity Manor, Windswept, Gables; It is as if the Empire never really left these parts.
Tea bush roots are piled up casually at the side of shady paths, like mass skeletons of once alive creatures
They take me to a time in Assam when we would design table bases out of these.
As we breathe in the woody therapeutic air of the higher reaches of winding narrow roads, open vistas greet us with a suddenness that takes our breath away- a sudden sweep of a golf course fairway with signs that say we could have a dangerous brush with a bison, sudden drops into valleys with small randomly painted houses, the lush luminescence of tea gardens .
I ask to sample tea at a tapri in the middle of a tea garden and am given a ginger brew which means it tastes no different from roadside chai anywhere in India.
The experience is unique however- I am looking at gentle rolling hills carpeted with tea bushes, horses belonging to the owner being trained for dressage, the sound of native birds in the background and the first rays of a warm sunrise touching rocks, and turning them a warm yellow against the green.
The tapri owner lets us sit there and when I pay him for the tea he says, “Thank you. I will give you a Rs 2 discount.”
I love these Eucalyptus drenched Coonoor mornings.
While the men cannot get enough of the golf courses around and the women shop for Kanjiwarams and oils, I walk through the less charming parts of the town.
Crown Bakery – Since 1880.
Crowded out by traffic, smoke, noise, random construction and pre-election loudspeakers, I wouldn’t have found it unless I had read about it.
It’s a small place, just like all the others.
Sampling the Salt and Ginger Biscuits, Japanese Cakes, Coconut macroons is a tad disappointing. They all have a typically hilltown bakery flavour: Over-essenced.
However, the history around me makes up for it.
Ahmed Sherrif’s great grandfather had started this bakery 136 years back.
I look around curiously. The bell jars behind him are a century old. They had come all the way from Germany and UK.
This is what a blog entry from The Hindu reads:
“His son, G.M. Abdul Sattar inherited the business and continued to supply soup sticks, cakes and bread to the substantial British barracks at Wellington. And when Mahatma Gandhi came to Coonoor, he actually visited the bakery. It was on February 2, 1934. It was Sattar’s son, Mohammed Sheriff Basha, who ushered the shop into Independent India.”
I buy the ginger and a few other biscuits. There are stories of the English sending these back home, and the wood-fired ovens and the recipes stay exactly the same today.
Mr Ahmed tells me the stories are true.
The heavens open up while I walk up back to the charming part of the town.
Taking refuge in the gently fading facade of the old Coonoor Club is a good idea.
The Nilgiris still hold on to a Members Only Club culture, reminiscent of the Raj.
There’s not a single club-member here who is younger than seventy. It seems fitting. The mustiness of the aged rooms and the air of everything gently, very slowly falling to pieces has priceless charm
I peep into the Card’s Room.
Mrs Daniels is sitting there alone. She looks up from a tattered Barbara Cartland and asks me for a cigarette.
“I don’t smoke.”
“Drink?” she asks me.
” Not really…”
“How unnatural. You look perfectly good to me. Now tell me why you’ve decided to be so boring.”
I can’t stop laughing.
She tells me in a stern voice that she’s very serious.
Mrs Daniels is almost 80 and has lived here all her life. The kids moved away a long time back. Grandchildren visit for a few days and then go back to their lives.
Like for most retired people who hold on to their life in the hills, the only constant are her dogs.
We talk for hours.
Her stories of the Nilgiris, of Coonoor of the past are replete with stories she heard from her parents and a grand aunt. They are stories of the Raj, stories of love and loss, of armies and British cantonments, of loneliness and vast spaces, of buggies and gowns, of forests and wild animals.
It is hard to say goodbye.
That evening the mist envelops Dunmore House. It creeps up from the valleys across and the visibility is barely a couple of feet.
We are invited to a five course formal dinner in the Wellington Club and Golf Course, established in 1873. At 6000 ft, it is a small piece of heaven.
The mist has eaten up the road, sharp bends and all.
It is a scary drive up, and is even more scary coming down.
The mist is now like a thick sheet. Our car headlights can discern nothing. As we wind down at an excruciatingly slow speed, I look out for the signs that say: Wild Elephants Crossing.
They too are gobbled down by the mist.
There’s something sensuous about mist. Perhaps it is it’s weightless stealth, the way it’s coolness touches you in swirls you cannot see.
As I sit bundled up in a shawl and a warm cap in the gazebo facing the valley, I hear a noise. There’s no one there.
It is unnerving.
Mrs Daniels story from the afternoon just wont leave me alone.
It is the summer of 1897.
Miss Norma has been a guest in Dunmore House for more than a month. She has been off the Fishing Fleet for almost a year and she knows her time is running out.
She is 22, an orphan, and she thinks she’s finally met her savior.
Lt. Kirk O’Riley has been stationed in Wellington for the past 2 years. It is lonely. Especially post sundown. Outside the small band of native soldiers, the closest company he has is at Ooty.
Kirk has met Norma a month back. After a whirlwind courtship, he has a ring in his pocket as he rides into Dunmore House to meet Norma.
Mrs Wells offers him a glass of port. He shows her the opal and silver ring and tells her it is a surprise. Norma doesn’t know there is the much awaited proposal planned for the evening.
The much-in-love couple move to the love-seat overlooking the valley.
Mrs Wells has warned them not to stay out too late because it seems the mist may be moving in soon. But there is a proposal in the offing, and romance claims the night air.
All that Mrs Wells can say the next day is: “The dogs were whimpering all night.”
Two days later a local tracker finds a woman’s body with a half-chewed hand in the thick forests down in the valley. The torso is too mauled by a leopard to find out who it belonged to, but there’s an opal and silver ring on the finger.
Sitting in the mist covered gazebo, it comes to me that Norma and Kirk must have been sitting somewhere close to where I was, when the leopard attacked them and carried Norma away.
I pull the shawl around me and quickly hurry back to my room, the mist now looking like an evil sorcerers spell.
That is the last night I would bring myself to sit there.
The old gardener tells me the next morning that the old love-seats were removed just a few decades back and replaced by the gazebo I was sitting in late last night.
(“The history of the Fishing Fleet dates from the days of the East India Company, that vast trading organisation with its own army that wound up virtually ruling India. In its early days, when journeys by sail could take up to six months, many Company officers only came home once, if at all, during their service.
Some formed liaisons or marriages with Indian girls. For others, the Company developed the practice of sending out batches of prospective brides, whom they maintained in India for a year, during which time they were supposed to find a mate. They were known as the Fishing Fleet; if after the year they had proved too plain or too unpleasant for even the most desperate Company man, they were shipped home as “Returned Empties”.
But most were snapped up on arrival, after courtships that lasted from a month or so to – sometimes – a mere few days.”- Ann de Courcy )