Sometimes I wonder how the definition of hectic can change so quickly. Till a few months back, traveling from Kanjur Marg to Parel in a Local Train in Mumbai seemed hectic and tiring – and now, driving down 800 km seemed so facile.
Last Monday, I had fondly remembered the fragrance of tall Eucalyptus trees and wondered what it would be like to go to Kodaikanal with Deepika. This Saturday, at 9 in the morning, we – Mummy, Deepika and I – were driving down to Mysore – about 120 kms from Bangalore. From Mysore we would go to Ooty – another 160 odd km.
Now, before I move any further, let me tell you a few things about my little dynamo. I know an Opel Corsa Sail looks a lot like a Zen, and with a 1400 cc engine, it isn’t exactly the most powerful thing on road. But then, if a car drives at 140 kmph on Indian roads (even with the improved highways and golden quadrilateral et al) it does deserve a mention. Of course, the exploits of the driver concerned come into the picture too, but that’s another story. And, while we are talking about the picture here – the colour of my car looks a lot like Silver and is called Artic Breeze. I did get a feeling that the trees standing by the road would have likened it a lot to a silver streak rather than a mild breeze.
Brazenly as we drove out of Bangalore, vast fields covered the landscape. On some of these fields grew wheat plants, swaying in a mild breeze. On yet others were sunflower beds. Sun shone in all its glory. On either side of a grey road were drooping trees that created patterns of light and shadow on the road. Parts of the road were red with freshly laid brick dust – construction of roads seems to be a perennial activity everywhere in India. On the horizon was a sky blue sky. White clouds just stayed afloat – separated by a fixed distance – none of them spoiling the geometry.
Somewhere on the way, the road was blocked as some dignitaries were visiting a place nearby. While waiting on the road, we spotted an Anjaneya (Hanuman) temple. We were just in time to catch the Aarti on a late Saturday morning. Saturday is the day for Lord Hanuman, Mummy told me, to explain the crowd that had gathered in a relatively obscure place. Besides the multitude of monkeys around the temple, automated bells and drums caught my eye. A technology company from Bangalore had designed this system that made humans redundant in this method of invoking the Gods.
Well, as the dignitaries cleared the road, our journey resumed. Sometime around noon, we camped outside Tipu Sultan’s fort in Srirangapatnam. Ate lunch there, and for paucity of time, we decided to move on without venturing inside.
The drive was similar till we reached Mysore. Drove around Mysore Palace before realizing that we were an hour too early to be allowed inside. And, if we were to see the Palace, we would be a few hours too late to head for Ooty. So, we decided to ditch this one too, and went on to see a temple on Chamundi Hills, about 18 km from Mysore.
Before I move on to tell you about our journey to Ooty and about Ooty itself, its only proper that I let you know that I have been inside Mysore Palace a couple of years back. I am told it hasn’t changed much over time – for many years now. Long back, till about 1897, a wooden palace stood in its place. But it got burnt in a fire that must have been huge, and the new palace was constructed. You will be told that the Palace is “built in Indo-Saracenic style with domes, turrets, arches and colonnades” and “is a treasure house of exquisite carvings and works of art from all over the world”. But it’s the colours really that make Mysore Palace stand out. Maroon and dark green, almost bottle green, and golden – colours of the domes. And, what captivated me was the huge ground and seating for the King’s assembly – almost like a stadium. And standing by them, the leopards carved in stones. The guide had told me, leopards signified the ferociousness of the Wodiyars, the rulers of Mysore. Inside the Palace museum I had seen paintings of many a Wodiyar king, and they all looked so puny on the elephants they rode. Tell you what, I felt awed by the Palace. By the fact that it was a few individuals whose dreams had built the Palace and the empire. By the fact that a single individual can do so much.
I have been toying with a thought of late. Is there a reality that exists? Is there a truth, an absolute truth, or is every truth a relative truth? I am not sure if I would be able to articulate my thoughts here, but let me try.
This thought came to me from reading some bit on personality theories on the net (note: this is not an original thought, but only something that has been expressed by many people before, including several scholars of personality types) – The contention was that reality is really relative, and that we create our own truths and modify them based on our learning – social, cultural, experiential. In fact, there is this story about blind men touching different parts of an elephant and describing it differently – that’s how perhaps we perceive life.
But what intrigues me is something beyond just this process of perception. Is there a reality that we create as well? In many ways we do – we decide to not attend economics classes and end up not understanding economics, or we decide to work hard and go to Yale or Princeton or wherever. But, if you look at some ancient cultures and civilisation, there is more to it than just this.
My mother believes in God, Hindu Gods primarily. So, in her reality they exist. I have heard stories, of and from people that I would trust, describing their experiences with various things supernatural. For instance, one Baba (my parents’ guru), who used to come to our place, was once told by someone that offering Prasad (the food offered to God) to Lord Jagannath is just a ritual, and it just so happened that when Baba offered Prasad, there was a certain quantity of the Prasad that was missing after the offering. Similarly, I have read some stories about near-death experiences – people who had medically died but were alive again. And, what happened to them during their period of “death”? Almost all of them describe that period the way their religion would describe it – Christians mention about their meeting Jesus, and Hindus about being taken by Yamraj (the mythological figure who takes the soul to heaven or hell after death). Yet again, we perform various kinds of rituals to invoke what we call Gods, and howsoever different they may be across cultures and religions, they seem to work for the practitioners.
I know there are various scientific explanations to explain away all these things – for one, its all in the mind. We create our illusions and live by them. But then, where is the line drawn between illusions and reality?
There is an experiment being conducted at Princeton, where in they are trying to measure the effect of collective consciousness (http://noosphere.princeton.edu/). They have put instruments across the world to generate random numbers, and based on events that trigger human beings to unite in their thoughts (like it happened on 9/11), they have observed that these instruments set to generate “random” numbers actually generate patterns. So, there does seem to be a collective consciousness that affects the pattern of events (the way the “random” number generator behaves). It seems to me that individual consciousness can also be harnessed to create reality.
Anyways, I have digressed a lot, and we should move back to the road to Ooty.
At around four in the evening, we were racing towards Ooty – The Queen of Hills. The road from Mysore to Ooty is very picturesque. It holds in it the Bandipur National Park (in Karnataka) and the Mudumalai National Park (in Tamil Nadu). By the time we entered the Bandipur National Park, sun was beginning to dip itself in the horizon. Through the canopy of trees, only filtered light passed through, and the weather was beginning to get chilly. Strangely enough, we met almost no vehicles in our entire passage through the Bandipur National Park. We did meet a few elephants, some deer and one hare though. The ascent on Nilgiris had begun as we started to encounter sharp curves. I drove on excitedly as memories of my earlier visits to hill stations began to flood my mind.
Mudumalai National Park was similar too, except that the state was different, the roads a little worse, and instead of the elephant boards, we began to see some lion boards (only the boards).
The trees were very similar too. But then, are trees ever similar? Maybe similar — yes. But alike – never. During my stay in Ivory Coast a few years back, I had traveled extensively through the country side – on contoured roads that lay above valleys in which villages lived. By the side of these roads grew the largest and the most beautiful trees I had ever seen. Some absolutely green, flourishing with leaves growing copiously out of every conceivable spot. Some bare and black, almost as if they had been burnt down and were somehow standing on their own ashes. Perhaps these trees looked even more beautiful because of the grey skies that followed me everywhere that I went. But in these trees, I did notice a sense of pride in being what they were. In being green or in being bald, in growing out of every place and in being so perfectly imperfect. And yet, as humans, we strive to be so much like each other, trying to ape what we conveniently call culture. Always trying to be what we are not, and never being what we are.
Ah… I digress again.
Anyways, while I mention of the trees, how can I forget the ferns that grow on foothills too. And rocks that are grey and black, and are covered with slippery green moss.
This was the ghat (stepped hills) section we were driving through now. At places, there were these small streams of water flowing down the rocks, on to the road, and then again sliding down the ghats. The sky was almost blue. I say almost because there were traces of a purplish grey glow, almost illuminating the horizon, but only just. The only sound to be heard was that of my roaring engine – that too was only a purr. The speed was now limited to 40 kmph, as every now and then there was a board indicating a hair-pin curve. A look down such curves in usually quite scary, but this area was densely wooded and trees blunted the steepness of the mountains.
Gradually night descended. It was a no-moon night. Completely dark in a mountainous jungle. The sky above was clean and black. In the absence of the moon, stars sparkled with great vigour. The headlight of the car created a straight line of illumination. At every curve, there was a new vision to be discovered. Every time light fell on the road, the rocks, the shrubs, the trees, it was like seeing a new image, a new painting. Much like the tiny insects that seemed to burn like fire flies when car light lit them. From darkness they emerged and into darkness they vanished. Just as quickly as these paintings got created, they got destroyed, only to get etched somewhere deep inside me. It was like every moment of life that we live, every moment so different, so transient – and yet like every other moment that seems to fill an inexhaustible well of memories.
A stop at a tea stall on the way and several hours later, we were in Ooticamund. Among other things that I noticed was a BP petrol pump that stocked the high-octane fuel that my car drinks. There were auto rickshaws standing at what looked like a major crossing in the town. Hotel Lake View had put up advertising boards everywhere. Going by my experience of such hotels in Darjeeling, I could say almost with certainty that Hotel Lake View would be as far away from the Ooty Lake as it could be.
Taking directions and passing by other fancily named hotels – Hotel Royal Park, Regency Villa, Fern hill Palace – we finally reached our destination – Sterling Fernhill. It was half past nine now. In the car, with the windows closed, we did not feel cold. On stepping out, chill air of the Nilgiris gave the final stamp of our arrival at the hill top.
Tired as we were, we had dinner in the restaurant at Sterling and retired into the small single room cottage that we had booked. The food and the service, both left a lot to be desired. But the room was cosy and comfortable.
At five in the morning, Mummy woke up and went for a walk. Lazy as I am, I woke up only at 7:30. Even then, the sun hadn’t risen high enough and it was cold. From the long glass windows of our cottage, I could see the green mountains right across. In such exquisite weather, nothing refreshes me more than a hot shower. So, a hot shower later, now wide awake, I was wandering about in the hill resort.
Sterling Fernhill resort has been built quite tastefully. It is cut in steps, much like the mountains that surround it. And, in those steps are these cottages, each cottage has about three – four rooms, and the rooms that I saw had a view of the mountains. Between the cottages are gardens, in which flowers grow in wilderness. And connecting them are rocks, again, pretty much like the mountain rocks. As you walk up from the cottages, you reach the central building that houses the reception and the restaurant. Slide down the road in front of this main building, take a few left turns and a few right turns, and you hit the main bus stop of Ooty. I will tell you about the bus stop and the red and yellow, and green and black buses billowing dark black smoke later. For now, let us now return to the stepped hills.
So, here I was, standing outside the cottage, on one of those rocks, overlooking the valley. From down below came sounds of boys playing cricket. Across stood the mountains. Cut in steps. Cut to patches. Some green, full and luscious. Others brown, like they had just been shaved. The houses were small with slanting roofs. Almost all of them coloured white or pink and had chimneys from which smoke gently rose. Trees seemed to have clustered together. Almost every hundred yards, there was a congregation of trees standing tall. Some of them were actually very tall, almost like single pieces of very long sticks stuck into ground; just a small cover of leaves provided. These especially long trees just shot up into the sky, bringing a tinge of the green mountains into an otherwise blue sky. The sky looked special too. Overall it was lighter than sky blue, but at some places it had a dash of darkness that made it look different. Again I must digress. While I was in Ivory Coast, I used to miss India – its people, its culture, its places – and whenever that happened, I used to look at the sky – for sky was constant. But I had begun to discover then that sky changed a lot too – and this was an Ooty sky I was seeing now. I also remember a marbled sky on way from Chennai to Trivandrum that I have often seen in the evening – I call it the Kerala sky.
I will tell you about Kerala, its skies and its waters some other time, for now let me take you down that road in front Sterling, to the main bus stop in Ooty. On the way you would encounter a few cows, blocking a rather steep road, and small shanties built along the roadside, albeit elevated. You would encounter faces that look Tamil – dark and round.
The bus stop in Ooty is just like any bus stop in south India – it could have been Salem or Kothagudem (ah that bus journey when I went to drop Deepika from Khammam to Kothagudem!) or anywhere else. The same dirty buses, the same diesel smoke, the same tea stalls. Only the surrounding mountains give it away. Thankfully, we did not have to stop at the bus stop for long.
Now, I am usually quite obsessed with lakes, especially the mountain lakes – Nainital, Dal Lake, that clear blue lake on the top of a mountain – yes, just that. But let me confess something here. On our entire trip to Ooticamund, we did not see the Ooty Lake. (By the way, Ooty Lake is not a natural lake, so I guess it’s ok).
This is how it went. After our rather unpleasant experience with dinner in Sterling, we decided to have our breakfast somewhere else. So, we ate at a restaurant in the main market of Ooty. This again was very Tamil – not at all mountainish; not like the quaint joints of Kodaikanal. People speak Tamil and they serve idlis and the like.
Post breakfast, we decided to hire a tourist guide – Jayakumar. Jayakumar was among the few people in Ooty who had a hint of features we normally see in people from hilly regions. He didn’t have a flattish nose, but his face had a reddish look, like a tinge of red in very dark brown. And, he wore a green shirt and a red hat. It wasn’t cold, so a monkey cap or a jacket was not needed.
Jayakumar took us first to the Suicide Point. It was about eight kilometres from the centre of the town, and the drive was pleasant. I do not know if people have committed suicide from this point or not, but with the almost vertical wall on which you stand, suicide can be tempting from here. On second thoughts though, why would one want to commit after coming here. Not only can one feel the mountain breeze (nah, I am not talking about the Artic Breeze of my car), but one can again sense the creator in action.
Right across on the peaks, mist floats nonchalantly. For once covering the entire valley in dark grey clouds, and then, all the while appearing to be in no hurry, clearing the sky and exposing the hues of green in yellow sunlight. The painter in action again, painting a new landscape every now and then.
We had not taken a camera along (partly the reason why I need to write all this down now), so we hired a cameraman (James if I remember it right) to take ten pictures for seventy rupees. One of them has Deepika and me on two horses.
From Suicide Point we went to the Botanical Garden. Deepika and Mummy discussed about various flowers and plants and their biological names and origins. Huh! We got several more photographs clicked. One in front of a huge tree, supposed to have been used for various films. However, the one that I particularly liked was a similarly huge Deodhar tree. Its branches spreading out like slanting roofs with a strong brown majestic trunk rising like the mountains behind.
Afternoon was spent in the cottage as Deepika wasn’t feeling well. Around three we went out again — preferring to go to Cunoor instead of the Ooty Lake. Now, if you have been to Ooty, and not been to Cunoor, you have surely missed something.
The drive to Cunoor, about 18 km from Ooty, was along a thinnish road by the side of mountain. It was a lot like rest of the hills, thickly wooded. But also on either side were the tea plantations. And, along our side were the clouds. As we drove through the clouds, passing by small streams of water and very small water falls, we reached the Dolphin’s Nose Peak. And then we went to Sim’s lake – it was a small man made lake, but boating in that, with mountains surrounding us was nice.
By the time we came back from Cunoor, the valley had lit up. Small lanterns in houses were glowing, making the valley look a lot like the sky above.
It was our last evening in Ooty, and we decided to dine at Taj Savoy. Taj Savoy is a heritage hotel. Finally it was cold, and we had to get the jackets and shawls out. Sitting by the fire place in the dining room of Taj, listening to melodies being played on a piano kept on the wooden floor, we savoured some Chinese dishes. Mummy was telling me about so many different things, but I can’t remember it all. What with the maroon shawl and Deepika’s face glowing by the fireplace; everything else seemed to melt away. I couldn’t help being a little distracted.
Next morning it was a long drive back home. We started early, so we could relish a view of the mountains yet again early in the morning. And then, I drove for some eight hours. I wasn’t sleepy but was dreamy nevertheless.
I was thinking of the Eucalyptus trees and their fragrance. They don’t change their fragrance from Kodaikanal to Ooty. They smell the same – like the mountain rains, cold, silken, and yet brash. Like the drums that beat to a rhythm far away, rhythm that ruptures a melody within. Like the mountain rocks that look so solid and yet always slip away when I try to hold them. Like a life that baffles me, and yet the deeper I sink in it, the deeper I want to sink in it.
July 20, 2004