Ooty, the hill station in the Nilgiris serves a get away from the steamy summers for most of the sight seers inside and outside India. Sreeja Raman illustrates the vignette of the changed face of Ooty after a family tour which she thinks a must for all to recharge the batteries to cope with the nerve-wrecking schedules of dates, dead lines and deliveries.
While our car whirls around the hair-pins again and again, when it becomes still difficult to climb up even in the second gear, my daughter was sitting at the back seat, her eyes wide, looking down to the leaving fathoms as if watching a Hollywood movie. She didn’t care for the strain of the vehicle or of the escalating petrol charges. She was just watching agape over the great wonders of the valleys, elephantine folds of the Nilgiri Hills, stunning at the greatness of Nature. Sometimes, she called out, “ Amma..What’s this flower’s name? What kind of the tree is this? Appa..give me the camera, stop for a while, let me take a snap of this..”
We were off to Ooty, ‘the queen of hills’, taking a leave from the scorching mid-Kerala ambience after my daughter’s school closing. Summer vacation is somewhat a capital punishment for my daughter (like most of the kids today) as she has to overcome the trauma of nothingness inside the home. In the middle of the city, inside the concrete walls, I used to note her childhood being forced to glue to the digital world of whims, helplessly.
Before starting in the early morning itself, Amy had a vague idea of Ooty from certain film shots.. We too have told her a lot about Nilgiri hills, the Nilgiri Express, the tea plantations, the lush green forests and like. From the 38 degree hot through the 40 degree Palghat blaze, we reached Coonoor in a single stretch. When it began to ramble around the mountains she began to shower doubts and questions.
“Amma, who would have made these roads, by chopping these mountains like this,?”
“So what about this Nilgiri Express that runs through the mountain tunnels..?” (She is quite irritated for not taking her by the train so that she can have all the sights which she had perceived through movies).
“For everything you say “the British’. You yourself had once said, they were harassing Indians and that is why we have chucked them out.”
I kept mum. When she pressed more I just told her that after reaching Ooty I would explain everything. So on getting at the hill station Ooty, we never tried to go for sight seeing as every one do. We went straight to the Government Arts College there. It got went into my veins the pangs of John Sullivan who made the Stone House for him to stay at Ooty not to enjoy the climate but to know the pulse of the Tribals the oldest inhabitants of the Nilgiri forests. Percolating my thoughts into my daughter’s, Sullivan has reborn in the empty campus, where his dream home Stone House was built up. Sullivan treated the local tribes the Todas, Badagas, Kotas and Kattu naikans with commendable respect. He introduced the illiterate tribals to European crops, flowers, cultivation methods and has conceived and conveyed the notion of elevated climate being good for health. The Ooty Lake, one of the significant tourist destinations in Ooty is his contribution to this land and people. Sullivan was the Collector of Coimbatore at the time of British Raj. But he stood beside the tribals and argued and fought for them with the imperialists by insisting that Indians ought to be educated, given equal status and respect etc. Sullivan later worked to ensure land rights and cultural recognition for these tribes and was financially and socially punished for this by the British Government. Looking around the vacuum of the campus a sigh came out of Amy as if contented.
Returning to the hotel, we began our scheduled sight-seeing journey by a cab arranged by the hotel. Film shooting locations was the first target. While moving along the narrow roads in the morning time, when my daughter asked me to pull the glass shutter down, I wondered. It is Ooty, a hill station, why does she scare the sun right here? But it was like that.. Ooty has changed a lot. The breath taking landscape sights down the valleys are seen gradually fading as the commercialization hits the area at high.
Year by year the number of visitors coming to escape from the heats of life and globe (rather than to enjoy the climate) is enhancing. According to the requirements of the tourists like, hill view or lake view stay, Ooty has to prostrate to give aside the natural asset to transform into concrete structures debasing its natural beauty. Thus the valley has been congested with villas, cottages and hotels besides the huts.(the original name of Ooty is Udhagamandalam meaning ‘the village of huts’)
Before 10 years there were no hotels in Bangalore with a ceiling or a table fan. But see; now there are hotels with even air conditioners. What would have changed the Garden City of India to a smoldering sand dune after being developed into the IT Capital of India? The same thing has changed the queen of hills also. Fortunately, there is no need of a fan unto date here.
While we were talking, the guide-cum-driver stopped the cab under a shade and began to recite in Hindi as if mugged up a lot. Pointing out to a vast yellow-ochre shaded ground where the pine and Cyprus trees boarder green, he said, “ you might have seen the film Raja Hindustani. Amir Khan is riding a bicycle with Manisha Koirala.. That song sequence has been canned here. ‘.raja ko raani se pyar ho gaya.’. Unka pyar yahi ho gaya” People sitting inside pushed out their heads and tried to enjoy the song once again. But nobody could co-ordinate the emerald back ground of the song scene to the present dry ground once more.
Along the roadside, lush green forests of eucalyptus spread out the salubrious aroma all along. My daughter tried to catch the top of the tree by eyes but could not and thus amazed and wondered from time to time. Else where the driver again stopped the vehicle and started: “you might have seen the film Roja in which the hero has been released from the terrorist and he joins with his wife staggering over a long narrow bridge in between the India-Pak boarder. That very place is this..” Yes, there was a long bridge emerging out of the thickets but found no green surroundings like that we enjoyed while watching the Hindi or Tamil Roja. “yeah hai that Indian boarder..” he pointed to the left side and turning his head behind said “yeah hai that Pak boarder..” Again a silence of agape was created inside the cab. We could not co-relate it once more. We were embarrassed.
As popular hill stations at Himalayas are sniffed out by violence and political upheavals Ooty -Nilgiri hills became the de-facto film locations now. Ooty landscapes and Ooty pine forests are an unavoidable part of song sequences in Indian cinema irrespective of the language.
After a while the cab has halted under a shade. The driver turned left from his seat and permitted us to board there to ‘enjoy the ‘kuch kuch hota hai’ location’. Yawning and stretching arms we got down and looked around. On the right side there was a vast pine forest and two white horses and two brown horses were waiting there to take us for a trekking. Mounting upon a white horse, my daughter roamed around the forest. When asked the name of the horse, the horseman perplexed a bit and after a while replied, “Surya”. Surya was so tired for even carrying a 33kg girl upon it. It is less-fed, less-cared. One can identify its pathetic physical condition even at the first sight. Patting on its nape hairs my daughter whispered in its ear: “Surya, how’s Jo? In the same state..?”. She then asked the horse man to get her down. Meanwhile we saw the other 3 horses stumble carrying a whole family mounting on their back.
While showing us the distant vast view of landscape, the horseman said, “See, these are the favorite locations of the film industry both of South and North. But now nobody is coming here, as there is no greenery left to create a romantic ambit.” We could perceive the yellow-ochre shade all around. Inside the forest the dry leaves and dried up grass lay waiting for a spark to gulp the whole forest. There was a warning board at the entrance of the forest, “No Smoking Please”. “It’s hardly raining now a day. We need to go far below the valley to get some drinking water. Tourists also are less. We solely depend upon tourists.” The horseman sighed patting on Surya’s forehead.
After inhaling the salubrious air from the pine forest, we turned to the left side of the road. It was a huge hill. People, mainly tourists from North India were seen climbing up the hill and running down jovially under the mid day sun. I never experienced such a hot sun in Ooty before. But my daughter, she was comfortable with it as she was coming from the 38 degree hot sun of Kerala. On top of the hill on the sandy soil with my husband I sat down. Pointing out a completely burnt (but still standing straight) tree, my husband asked me,” Do you remember this place in the film “Notebook’?”. Yes, Of course. Our driver said “That Malayalam director when came here to shoot a particular scene, he liked these tree very much. But it was in a dying condition then. Spending a lot of money he replanted this tree here”. I thanked Roshan Andrews in my mind and told the driver-cum-guide to remember his name always while narrating this story from here after.
We traveled through the mid ways of lofty mountains, aromatic eucalyptus forests, and pine and Cyprus trees perceiving the rampant commercialization among various ecological and infrastructural throes. It was time for lunch. After lunch we walked through the dry pocket ways to Pykara waterfalls. It was a 20 minutes walk. We could hear the hoots and whoops of the falls from far beyond. It made us walk fast. Along the way side, on either side of the road there could see a lot of dust bins. We could never see any plastic bottle or plastic bag thrown out anywhere. There were roadside vendors of peanuts and chilly bajji. But there were dust bins also close to their seating. The Nilgiri people were also very supportive to Tamil Nadu Tourism Department. I just thought of Kerala tourist places. Even though the Government is ready to ‘go green’ the public is least bothered about keeping the do’s and don’ts.
Reaching the waterfalls, my daughter exclaimed ‘ is this a water fall?’ The sashaying of water from the placid lake is not so strong enough to make an impression in the minds of a Keralite who comes from the wild beauty of Athirappilly waterfalls. When Tamil people try to create electricity out of wind and human labor, Keralites are on a run to mount concrete structures to hinder the natural flows and in a hectic flight to reach the first position as the State with largest number of hydro-electric projects. That thought brought some positives in.
Long before the words like ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’ hit the common glossary, a ‘Save Western Ghat Campaign’ has begun here in 1987. It has become a mass movement with large scale participation by the common people. Recently, a one-week long International Climate change field Camp has been conducted here to discuss about the ecological threats in this hill station when the mercury level leaps up everywhere around. Beyond party politics they united to protest the climate change by increasing the forest cover from the present 20% to 33%. The meeting never dispersed over a cup of tea, but segregated strategically campaigning and combating with natural powers.
Landslides are a common phenomenon here whenever there is a rain. Massive tree falling is a by-product of this blight. While twining around the hills one can see the remnants of disastrous landslides and dried up waterfalls. But at the same time we can see the works of boundary walls in progress at each fragile point prone to a landslide. Plastic has been completely banned in this area. Warning boards and dust bins are set up side by side to egg the tourists to follow the norms. We could not see any beggars or child labourers anywhere. (When I amazed at this fact, Amy replied that all the Tamil beggars and Tamil child laborers were amassed there in Kerala). At this dry season forests are susceptible to bush fire but warning boards and security persons are not frozen here with buying-off and they are always in a vigil under the Forest Conservator of Coimbatore.
We were never exhausted even after climbing up and walking along such a long way thanks to the aromatic space around. That made us the vigor to move to the second highest peak of South India, the Dodda Betta. While standing atop the huge cliff protruding towards the infiniteness, we folded hands involuntarily as if in a prayer. Telescope and other observatory facilities are available at every highest point in Ooty hills. But I did ever opt for it but preferred to perceive it in its vastness and majesty. Looking around we can observe the lush green forests, the divine tryst of Western and Eastern Ghats, with scars of a once bubbly streams. It makes one remember of a woman after 50 – Always in a prayer as to whimper over the by-gone glorious culture along with appeals to protect her Prodigal sons. All the trees around Cyprus, Pine, Eucalyptus and a lot of other varieties are also seemed to be indulged in a constant prayer, looking upward. When it becomes dark, the mist has begun its whimsical tenors upon our body. Thus after 5 p.m. we started pulling out our sweaters from the bag. When returned at the hotel at 8’o clock, we were shivering. Then Amy asked “Appa, this is the chillness of Ooty you told me?”
Next morning the driver-cum-guide took us to the tea estates of Kodanadu. On-the-spot-photographers were in a queue pleading and begging. We told them a thousand times that we had a digital camera with us but they never turned away. They egged us on and at last one young man beseeched with tears, “Sir, we are in such penury that not even a single rupee is with us now. Because of this hot climate no one comes here. We are in an invariable prayer for a rain..”. Thus Amy posed for a photo shoot wearing the traditional dress of the tribal girl pruning the tea leaves. On seeing the Polaroid photograph with the professional perfection, all the other people rushed towards him and he thanked my husband with filled eyes.
Meanwhile, the tea estate manager took the seat of the cab driver and then it was his turn to spit Hindi explaining how first, second and third quality tea powder is being manufactured and marketed. He wound up his speech by sending us to their depot where he assured us ‘cent percent guarantee of first rate quality tea powder’. At the depot the sales men lured us by the feast of sample tea and sample eucalyptus oil with its intrinsic enchanting aroma.. Any way, we couldn’t help buying it.
Experiencing the caprices offered by the exotic flora and fauna pertained to Ooty hills, we drifted along the tea estates and wondered over the intermittently planted tall Silver Hawk trees and their marvelous role of clasping the earth from erosion through the fragile slopes. Passing through the litter-free road sides we tried to convince ourselves that with public participation we can have eco-friendly biosphere like this any where in the world beyond paper propaganda or verbal exercises. Still the natives told us that more than 80% of the original environment has been destroyed by encroachment and ignorance of its value. Those who had visited Ooty before can find it true that more than 60% of the grassland (which were the green tanks that take water from the mist and rain and release slowly through the Shola trees), has been disappeared.
Then we reached Lamb’s Rock walking through a dense forest. Mischievous macaques swinging from the twigs attacked some of us who carry any edibles with them. Everyone seemed to be enjoyed at this act which cannot be otherwise experienced in the urban life. It radiated the same waves which we enjoyed at the Dodda Betta. The hollow slopes wrapped with Shola trees, flowering sub-elphine shrubs and thick coarse grass and like greeneries gave away a meditative feeling. Youngsters were seen posing for the photo standing adventurously at the tip of the protruding rock. Our guide told us “This is another suicide point like that of Kodai Kanal.”, means those who want to try it out can have it right now.
As per the schedule, our last trip was to Ooty Lake and Botanical Garden. When compared to the less known Pykara Lake, boating in Ooty Lake was somewhat boring. Unlike Pykara Lake, the Ooty Lake became much commercialized and it has lost its serenity. A mini children’s’ park close to the Lake seemed to be a dissonance with its natural getup. Botanical Garden was a feast of desperation and depression.. It was under the hammer out for the flower show to be conducted in May. Amy amazed at the sight of the million year old fossil tree and the Italian garden there. She rolled on the green lawn slopes a thousand times to make me envious of my by-gone childhood days devoid of such buoyancies and I thanked God and of course to my husband for providing her a chance to enjoy life otherwise a hot piece of strife.
Next morning we started our return journey. Amy was very depressed all the way for leaving back the rejuvenating hill station and coming down to the scorching native. While whirling round once again down the greatness of Nature, she was turning back to the parting Lavender flowers, blooming waysides, immeasurable fathoms and incredible valleys. Amazement was the only expression on her face then. She rebuked at those who build concrete huts along the valleys. Her father corrected her saying those are all part of development and most of the buildings are schools with high educational standards and the children of elite segment of the society are the students there. She watched the buildings and year old Christian Churches and the misty valleys with wet eyes.
I heard her father consoling her “Amy, don’t think Ooty is a destination point. It is the lovely and long walk, these beautiful sights that it offers is the real joy. You enjoy it till we reach the downhill.”