Thursday, 13 December 2012

Those were the Best Days of My Life

Some years ago, when these alumni networks on the Net were gaining popularity, one guy from San Francisco contacted me. Apparently, he was my class mate in kindergarten in St Joseph’s Convent, Coonoor and quite overjoyed to connect. He remembered Shirley, Jhansi and Mypal Reddy too.
The Convent, those days, ran a smaller primary section called the Private School, just below the main school.  This section was tucked away from the rest of the school.  So it was only after the third standard, I joined the regular school.

St Joseph’s Convent was and still is run by the Sisters of St Joseph of Tarbes; a French order of hospitallers and teachers with their mother house in Cantaous in the Tarbes diocese, in France. The school was established in 1900 in a building called Dublin Castle, rented to the good sisters by a rich Irish planter called Sir Lawrence O’Reilly. The story goes that the need for a Catholic school for girls in Coonoor had become a critical issue, especially since, “the Protestants were already well established in the Nilgiris, and Mr. Stanes had opened the 'Stanes School'. The Catholic Church was refusing the sacraments to Catholic parents who were sending their children to that school.”*
The six Sisters who founded the Convent came to Coonoor via Bangalore all the way from France. The journey up the hills from the northern side (Mysore ) of the mountain range in those early days must have been very strenuous and must have taken days. These young French girls would have had to face not just the danger of the journey through dense forests and wild animals but also bandits.    
Of course, I did not know all this on that first day in the big school. All I could take in was the imposing buildings, the paved drive and all those fashionable looking girls with their bouffant hair-dos and blue serge uniforms. 
My parents and grandfather had accompanied me on this momentous day. Before I was sent away to class, my grandfather had a small chat with Mother Marie Therese, the Mother Superior. I was suitably impressed by the tall, elegant French nun in her black habit, starched wimple and bonnet. She patted me kindly on my head while she reassured my parents and grandfather that I would come to no harm!
The junior school was in the same building as the St Gabriel dorms. Though it was with trepidation that I entered the new classroom, my fears were soon set to rest. The classroom smelled familiar; of flowers, ferns and chalk. All my friends from the Private School were already ensconced in the class.
Lunch time found us exploring the new surroundings: and there was quite a lot to explore.  The Convent, like most hill schools was built into the hill side and on many levels. A steep, long paved drive led one to a square which had the low roofed Dublin Castle (where the nuns lived)on one side and the chapel on the other; these building were totally dwarfed by the white washed double storied building with arched doorways and St Joseph’s statue in the foreground.
There were steps leading down to the chapel which was built over the assembly hall with a steep staircase on the outside.  The next big find was the grotto - the artificial cave which had a marble altar in the centre and was picturesquely covered with ivy.  In a nave at the top right hand was a statue of Our Lady. We quickly plugged into the school lore, which had it that there was a secret passage behind the altar which would take one into the bowels of the mountain and eventually into the foothills of the Nilgiris.  
Countless lunch hours were spent in searching for the secret passage, not just in the grotto but in the ghost passage at the side of the Hall. We pressed so many granite blocks, hoping one of them would open. I am sure many before us and many after us have done the same.      
Another lunch time ritual, though a rare one, was the walk through dark passage between the large, cavernous kitchen and the scullery to the tuck shop to buy stick-jaws, that amazing jaggery and peanut toffee. Sometimes as we darted across, we would get a glimpse of Appu the baker putting large trays of buns or was it bread, into a wood-fired oven.  At other times, we would smell the mouth-watering aroma of freshly-baked bread.
We quickly picked up all the new slang. You didn't go to the bathroom anymore. You went to the bogs. You didn't copy homework, you fudged.You asked people to "shut their gob" and "stop guffing"! 
You addressed your friends by their surnames.You called everyone ‘man’ or sometimes even ‘chile’. The latter was not tolerated at home. My father ragged me merciless till I stopped this usage.
We learnt new games like “Batch”, Seven Tiles and Four Corners and skipping rope songs such as “Ice cream soda, sugar on the top; tell me the name of your sweetheart”.  
St Joseph’s Convent in those days was a school straight out of June and Schoolfriend; with secret passages, hidden stairways, friendly ghosts and an orchard. Then there were all the eccentrics who are part and parcel of a hill school, like Halwa kaka, Rosie the fruit seller and Mrs. P’s lechie driver. Fatty man was a bogey, we day scholars, had to deal with. The rumour was that he would kiss you as you passed by. (And, of course, you would immediately get pregnant!!!) 
Ah! The innocence of those days!


Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Kerala - Not Safe for Women to Travel

The winter months saw us visiting my mother’s ancestral home in Aymanam, a small village in Kerala’s Kottayam district. This was the time the hill schools closed for a long winter vacation.
Aymanam  Photo courtesy Oommen John 

We would set off, long before the first rays of the morning sun peeked over the mountains in front of Nenagh. The previous day, I would have walked through the orchard with its barren, lichen covered branches bidding farewell to beloved haunts and hideouts. There was always a feeling of sadness as we drove down; with not a squeak out of us, children. 
The ghat road was not as broad as it is now and traffic was mostly trucks carrying supplies to the hills. My father liked these early starts and very rarely did we meet anyone we knew on the ghat section. We would be at the areca nut plantation at dawn and my father would halt under a particular tree so that we could divest ourselves of the woollies.
Soon we would be full of excitement of meeting cousins, of playing in the paddy fields and of course, the most fabulous food ever, cooked with so much love by my grandmother. Even today, my mouth waters when I think of fish fries made from freshly caught fish, of karimeen pollichathu et al. The highlight of the three months would be a river trip in a vallom following the course of the beautiful Meenachil river from Aymanam to Kumarkom, where we would visit cousins.  
Meenachil river: My heart weeps for you.  Photo OJ
As we grew up, we started using public transport and it is then we encountered the perverted behavior of the mallu male. There were men who exposed themselves, who fingered and accosted not just girls, but boys too, at all times of the day and night; the behavior which is very much a part and parcel of everyday life in Kerala today.
Visits to Kerala became rare and after a point, one’s memories were just of the serene backwaters, the karimeen fry and the beautiful scenery; and I had forgotten all vile behavior which one is exposed to.  It all came back to me on a recent visit. At Thrissur bus stand, I messaged a former colleague to tell him that I was in his home town. His response was ominous. “I hope you are not there alone!”
I was so provoked about the experience at the Thrissur bus stand that I wrote to the Chief Minister of Kerala and the Secretary Tourism about this. What is given below is the letter.
On a recent visit to Kerala, my husband and I were very shocked by the behavior of the men. A large number of them were drunk and some of them were also misbehaving and sexually harassing the women.
The bus to Bangalore, on which we had reserved seats, was scheduled to leave the Thrissur bus stand at 11.30 pm. It was delayed by one hour. The long wait for the bus quickly became unbearable because of the behavior of these men who were hanging about at the bus stand. There were a few benches provided for passengers, but they were already taken. This meant that we had to stand. And to our horror we found that we were the target for many miscreants at the bus stand. We found that the safest way to wait for the bus was to stand with our backs to the wall holding our bags against our chests. To add to our misery, my husband and I were subjected to verbal abuse as well; as we dealt with drunken, lunging men, mosquitoes and breathed in the overpowering stench of urine.
On the same day, two women, one of them a foreigner, were travelling in a crowded train from Kollam to Ernakulam. As they could not find a seat, the two girls climbed onto the top berth. They were shocked and disgusted when an old man on the berth opposite started jerking off. They were more shocked when friends told them that this is not a new problem, and this is something that women in Kerala have been dealing with on a daily basis.  Even celebrities like Sunanda Pushkar are not spared.
In my younger days, it was a known fact that it was unsafe for a woman to travel alone in Kerala, especially at night. But today, with the focus on tourism and the high literacy level, it is shocking to think that the level of safety in Kerala is much lower than any other South Indian city.
As a journalist, I have travelled alone to many parts of India and also to a few international cities. Nowhere have I felt as demeaned as I did that night in Thrissur! The irony of it is that this is a state which is said to be tourist friendly!
Take a look at the statistics. According to the Kerala Government’s Draft Tourism Policy 2011, over 6.5 lakh tourists visited Kerala in 2010 and tourism receipts amounted to Rs37.97 billion; over the same period 86 lakh domestic tourists visited the state. Many of the visitors, both international and domestic are women. Studies done by tourism bodies and by independent travel solutions providers have indicated that the number of women traveling alone or in women only groups has increased. According to the women of all categories and ages are expected to fuel "an explosive growth in the travel industry. It is estimated that women will spend about $125 billion on travel in 2013." As a state which calls itself ‘God’s Own Country’ and has an economy geared to tourism, this segment of the travelers cannot be ignored.
I have had a firsthand experience of the ordeals faced by women when I traveled by bus from Mysore to Ernakulam. On the brighter side, the pinching and pawing on the buses has reduced mainly because the crew is proactive. The fellow with itchy fingers is often thrown out of the bus. The next problem faced by women travelers, is a pan Indian one, that is, is the absence of safe and clean toilets. Kerala should take a lead in this area, as it has done in tourism promotion.
It is time, pay and use toilets are installed and also ensured that they are kept clean. The travelling public will pay for this facility. If and when it is done, please advise your planners to plan for 20 or more toilets.
As the Chief Minister of the most literate state in India, I request you to address these issues at the earliest and let all visitors enjoy the beauty of Kerala, unsullied by filthy toilets and lecherous men. I must add that as a Malayalee, I was saddened, by my experience.
A few humble suggestions that may help to alleviate this problem:
A study has to be undertaken to find out the reasons behind the public sexual perversions displayed by the men in Kerala. 
You could start an awareness initiative along with religious groups and NGOs. The awareness should begin in school. The punishment for such sexual offences should be stern and instant.
A police booth or the presence of the Tourism police at bus stations may help.
Pay and use clean toilets.

Monday, 24 September 2012

The Tale of the Phantom Rider

I was in Standard 8 when I got my own room and it was around this time I heard the bells of All Saints chime at night. It was also the time that I was permitted to stay up late, to read. I would turn off the lights at midnight and lie awake in the dark listening to the night sounds. In the still of the night, sounds carry over distances and I would often hear a motorbike roar past. Mentally, I started following the progress of the bike down the road from St. Antony’s to Bedford and beyond.

The spires of All Saints at twilight - Jude Thaddaeus

I asked a lot of people who the rider was and why the bells chimed at night, but there was no answer. Then one day, a cousin said, “It’s a ghost, idjet”!
In school we talked about the afterlife and were punished by the nuns for trying the Ouija board. It was around this time that Audrey Marlowe made this announcement that she was born with a cowl. A cowl or veil is a thin membrane which fully covers a new born babe, she was to tell us. Those born with a cowl could see ghosts and could experience the supernatural. The skeptics among us found this hard to believe, so Audrey brought the cowl to school one day.
It was grey and was stuck onto a piece of cardboard, which she told us was done by the midwife, at the time of her birth. It was quite a gruesome thing and even the toughest among us, were revolted.  The cowl, Audrey said, was much sought after by sailors as it was said to be a talisman against drowning. But the psychic properties of the cowl and the effects on the person born with it were of more interest to us.
Until then, we had not paid much attention to Audrey.  She was a bit weird; on second thoughts, not bit, very. Actually what was weird was her stillness, that made her different in a class which was full of noisy thirteen-year olds; the nosiest being the 'Dirty Dozen'. I was a founder member of the ‘Dozen', the anathema of teachers and fellow students alike.
The ‘Dozen' had never noticed her before this; in fact, even the teachers never knew she was there. She was a good student, did her homework and never made a noise in class. The funny thing was she had no friends.
After this revelation, I tried to befriend her. But she was not very forthcoming. I took this as a challenge and made it my mission to become her friend.
The other members of the ‘Dozen' were not very enthused about this new odd ball friend I was cultivating. “You listen to her tall tales if you want to, but don’t inflict her on us at lunchtime” they told me. Lunchtime was special; this is when the gang held conclave in the Lab garden, under the jacaranda tree. We spent most of the time, talking about crushes and which of us were being favored by the boys from College (the boys’ school on the opposite hill). This was strictly gang matter. So I restricted my hobnobbing with Audrey to between classes.
She told me that her parents were abroad and she lived with her aunt and that she was not an Anglo, as her name led us to believe. It seems she was a Rajput and her actual name was Veena Jodha Singh. I screwed up my face, to prevent myself from laughing out loud. Rajput, indeed!  Like I was Mary, Queen of Scots!  My knowledge of Rajputs was minimal and genealogy less.
Audrey was very fair, with thick, dark brown hair and light grey eyes. But I was convinced that she didn’t look like a Rajput. My knowledge on how a Rajput should look, of course, was gleaned from the grotesque figures of the Indian history textbook. I had one question in mind; “Ask your aunt about the motorbike rider and the All Saints bells” was my constant refrain. Audrey, despite the cowl, could throw no light on these things.
Audrey continued to be reticent so I played along.  But this was getting a bit boring. I set myself a deadline and told myself that if I didn’t crack this story soon, I would dump her.  
I started the cooling-off process and would just say a perfunctory hello but sometimes I felt so bad, I would stop and chat. The school year was drawing to a close and the cold was beginning to set in. The invitation finally came, for tea, on the following Saturday. Now, I couldn’t go alone there, so I had to coax Coots, one of the 'Dozen' to come along; and that took some doing.
On Saturday, I set off to meet Coots, who was togged out like me in bell bottoms and a loose shapeless shirt. To get to Barlows Road we had to walk past Bedford (the shopping centre in Upper Coonoor), turn into Church Road and then past All Saints and its graveyard with the weeping willows.
 “You and your stupid story; why did we have to come here" asked Coots as I jangled the cow bell near the gate. After a few minutes, an old decrepit ayah came to the gate. She didn’t say anything, just opened the gate and grandly waved us in as if we were in a car.
This set off a fit of giggles in us. You can’t see the house from road so it came as a surprise. It was a large house, which was once painted green, with a sagging red tiled roof and paint peeling on the bay windows and doors. The house had an open verandah with a number of deep, cushioned cane chairs placed in a circle; most of them occupied by cats. There was also a lot of greenery from the potted planted plants of which I could identify the maiden hair fern.
We had to wait awhile in front of the house, before Audrey put in an appearance. Coots was getting really impatient by now. Just then Audrey rushed out of the front door. “O come on in, girls”, she gushed.
“My aunt will be joining us soon; in the meanwhile, come and see the pictures inside” she said. So we trotted off behind her into a large cavernous room just off the verandah. The room was dark and filled with overstuffed sofas covered in red damask. A thick carpet covered the parquet floor while deep red velvet curtains framed the bay window. There was a strange smell in the room, both sweet and pungent.
Coots and I walked towards a table which held a number of photographs. The first one was taken on the steps of some palace or the other;  a group of six people were squinting at the camera. There were three women in the frame, all of them in georgette saris, with their heads covered. “This is my mother” said Audrey pointing to the most beautiful woman in the picture. “This is my aunt and this, their friend Mabel” she said. And so it went on, there were even pictures with the prime minister. Both of us were well and truly impressed.
“Indeera was always jealous of me” said a low, gravelly voice. Coots and I jumped out of our skins. We turned and got another fright; a very pale middle aged woman was standing behind us. It was one of the women from the photograph and she could have been given the lead in Bram Stoker’s epic.
She was dressed in black satin pants and a black calf-length silk kurta; her hands were weighed down with bangles and rings. Around her neck were a number of necklaces, plain gold and beaded ones. Her hair was jet black and in stark contrast with her face. Her eyes were glazed over.  “She looks like a snake” whispered Coots.
“Come and sit, girls. Let me take a look at you”. She showed us to large sofa and sat down on a winged sofa. “So finally, Audrey has some friends”! She asked us our names as we sat down. “You girls like some tea”, she asked and without waiting for our answer she said, "You must try my chamomile tea". She then turned to us and said, "You are very interested in the supernatural, Audrey says. Is that true"?
Both of us nodded. Audrey stood near the door, looking at us impassively. “What day is it today, do you know”? We shook our heads.
 "Oh these girls don’t talk! Well today is November 10. Tomorrow, there will be a bowl of red poppies in the centre of the coffee table".
We must have looked blank, because she said, “Ok, you girls don’t know anything. Tomorrow is Remembrance Day. The day the First World War ended. I remember the dead; those who fell in battles long ago.”
Audrey now came forward and touched her aunt’s shoulder, “Aunt Tia… about the Phantom Rider” The older woman laughed, “Oh you want to frighten your friends? Ok, I will tell you.” We listened, sipping the strange, bitter tea.
“The year was 1918, the Great War in Europe was drawing to a close. The talk of peace which was in the air since August seemed to be fructifying into actual peace and by November 10 everyone knew that the treaty would be signed the next day. There was a lot of rejoicing in the barracks in Wellington and around town with impromptu parties springing up in hotels, clubs and private homes.
 It was almost midnight, when the radio operator at the Barracks got an important message which had to be delivered to a high ranking civilian, who was visiting Coonoor. A dispatcher was promptly sent off to deliver the message.    
It was a dark moonless night and there was a thick fog riding the road. Visibility was almost zero. The dispatch rider had to leave the warmth of the barracks and his friends, who were celebrating, to deliver the message.
But he was young and without a care, so he had another peg and jumped onto the saddle and roared off through the mist to Coonoor. He rode past the golf links, Orange Grove and Sims Park, gaining speed as he rode. He was almost near Glen View Hotel, where the message had to be delivered, when the bells at All Saints pealed announcing the new day when peace would reign. The sound carried through the night. The dispatcher was within sight of Glen View Hotel when the bike skidded under him and he was tossed across the road; his unfastened helmet leaving his head completely exposed. The man died that night with his message undelivered".
"Even today", Audrey’s aunt said, "people in Coonoor hear the motorbike at night especially when a thick pea soup fog shrouds the town; they hear  the bells of All Saints ring out and they know the Phantom Rider rides to deliver the message”.
She sighed, then got up and wandered off. We waited for her to come back, but she didn’t. We replaced the cups on the table and excused ourselves as it was getting very late. A thin mist was rising from the valley and the street lights had come on.
I told Coots," Hurry, before it gets very dark"
“You know” said Coots, “the tea she gave us was very weird; it’s making me feel strange”. I was also feeling quite strange.
We hurried with our heads bent forward. It was cold and the mist kept getting thicker. We were now near All Saints, "You think the church bells will ring" asked Coots. The thought of it scared me so much that I started running; Coots was laughing but she ran too.
The shops at Bedford were closing early and the taxi stand was empty. Once past the shopping centre we started running again up the Walker& Greig slope. My legs felt like lead and my chest was about to explode. Half way up the slope, we stopped; a brief goodbye and Coots ran up the short cut to her house. I still had some distance to go.
The mist was very thick now and the road was deserted. Not a man or mouse on the road. The street lights cast intermittent spheres of light, leaving the rest of the area in darkness. I continued to run, the condensing mist making my face damp. I was almost near the peti kadai when I saw a vehicle moving towards me. It had only one light. Fear gripped my heart and I couldn’t breathe at all; "was it a bike, was it a bike", I asked myself. I couldn’t stop, I kept running forward.
The shape was clearer now; it was an old Vauxhall taxi with just one light burning. The taxi came in line with me and stopped. I looked through the corner of my eye without turning my head and saw the car doors opening. Now, I was really scared and fear gave fresh impetus to speed.  Someone called out, but I just ran.

The mist rising- photo credit Henriksen Greaves

The ultimate test in bravery was to negotiate the drive to Nenagh in zero visibility. Even on moonlit nights it was pitch dark, and the only way you could stay on the road was to look up at the night sky between the thick growths of trees on both sides.   
Sticking to the centre of the road I ran, as I never ran before, the rush of blood pounding in my head and my chest so tight that the breath came in short gasps. A low lying branch whipped into my face and I realized that I had strayed too much to the left. I finally reached the third hairpin bend and home.
I have never been so glad to be home. The warmth, the fragrance of roses and the promise of safety!
 My mother was cross," Where were you? It’s so late". I mumbled something in answer.
I fell asleep early that night and dreamt of the snake-like woman, the phantom rider and woke at midnight as the bells chimed, sweating in the cold night.
photo credit HG
Disclaimer: The characters in this story are a figment of my imagination and bear no relation to any character. Any resemblance is coincidental.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Reluctant Visitors

Not all visitors to the Nilgiris were happy about being there. Since the blue mountains were opened up, many foes, first of the East India Company and then of the Raj, found themselves held either in prison camps or under house arrest here.

Ketti Valley- Photo credit Joel Carol Bringle

The most notable were the Chinese prisoners from the Straits Settlements and the Boxer Rebellion, Afghans and finally the nationalists such as Sarat Chandra Bose the brother of Subhas Chandra Bose.   
One set of prisoners of war who don’t find much mention in Nilgiri lore are the burghers who were brought here after the second Anglo-Boer War (1889-1902).  This war was fought between the British Empire and two Boer colonies, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State.
The British had finally defeated the Boers after the long, drawn out guerilla operations which followed the actual battles. The British also rounded up the civilian population in these states to prevent civilian support for the guerillas. Boers, who were captured, were sent to camps in other Crown colonies such as India.
A letter postmarked Boer Camp, Kaity stamped on July 6. From John Ahmad's collection

John Ahmad, a retired University Math lecturer based in the UK, became interested in Boer War and the Prisoners of War (POW) as an extension of his stamp collecting hobby. He has taken a great interest in the POW camps in India and other places. 
He writes, “The Anglo-Boer War lasted from October 1899 to 31st May 1902, during which time the British captured some 32,500 prisoners. Due to concerns over keeping them in secure custody, 24,000 were sent abroad to camps in St Helena, Ceylon, Bermuda and India; over 9,000 of them being sent to India.
The first batch arrived in Bombay on 23rd April 1901, with the final batch arriving on 28th May 1902, just days before the Peace was signed”.
In January of 1901, St John Brodrick, the Secretary of State at the War Office wrote to the India office asking whether it was possible to set up a POW camp on the Nilgiri Plateau, west of Ootacamund. John Ahmad writes that Brodrick followed this letter with another note  a fortnight later, marked 'Most Pressing', asking for an early reply to the suggestion of a camp in the Nilgiris, as the situation was becoming acute with the camps in St Helena and Ceylon now full to capacity.
 The Viceroy, Lord Curzon, however, was not favorably inclined to this proposal.  He notified the India office that there would be problems with the site earmarked for the camp on the Nilgiri Plateau because of the poor water supply and the high incidence of diseases such as typhoid in that area.  He suggested that the War office should look at other sites in the Bombay and Madras Presidencies.
 Finally, three camps were established in the Madras Presidency; in Bellary, Kaity and Trichnopoly. The camp at Kaity or Ketti valley, as we now know it, opened on May 15 1902 and closed on August 5 1902. The former inmates of this camp were then moved to a camp in Wellington – most probably to the barracks- before being sent back home, to South Africa.
 The camp in Kaity had 821 burghers and was known as the parolers’ camp. The climate was described by them, most probably in letters home, as “cold and damp”.
The POWs were accommodated in huts made of corrugated iron. They were also given the same provisions and rations that were given to British troops.
 The camp authorities were not too strict. Some of the burghers worked for a short while at the Cordite Factory in nearby Aruvankadu. The behavior of the POWs was said to be “very good” with just a few incidents of drunkenness.
Confirming the fears expressed by the Viceroy, a number of the deaths in the camp were a result of typhoid; the dead were buried at the Ketti-Basel Missionary cemetery, the Wellington cemetery and in Ootacamund.
This information was sourced by John Ahmad from a report of the Quarter Master General in India which was published in 1904, in Simla.  

The last two  pictures are from John Ahmad's collection and are from theTrichnopoly camp. I have added it because I found it interesting. Take a look at the letter dated January 28 which was posted on March 4. The letter is so innocuous that, I am sure, it got the interest of the censors. 

Saturday, 1 September 2012

The House on the Bend

A year ago on a visit to Coonoor, I noticed a moving truck in front of the house on the bend. ‘Ah’, I thought to myself, ‘another effort to live here”. Over the years I have been watching the house; nobody stays for long. 

The bend

I have never visited this house but have often passed by. The first time I saw the house was on one of those lovely Nilgiri mornings that are still so fresh in my mind. I remember the clear blue sky sprinkled with small cloud puffs; the air redolent with the smell of freshly cut grass, of roses in bloom and of the eucalyptus.
Cousins from all over India were home for the summer and there was never a minute to spare. Songs were sung, stories told often with a punch line in Hindi. I listened with awe to what they said. I would read the Jug Suraiya column in the old copies of JS that the cousins discarded and dreamed of the faraway cities.   
The cousins would set off in the morning, exploring the countryside and I would tag along. We had walked past the house on the bend, when one of the cousins said; you know this house is haunted.
We stopped and looked over the gate, when we heard that distinctive laughing call of the Nilgiri Laughing Thrush. What we saw was not very scary: just a big house with a wooden verandah running around it and a large untended garden. The house had been built at the top of a promontory. At the side of the house was a small roofless outhouse. Maybe it was the bird calls and the sheer beauty of the day which set us at ease. But the story the cousin recounted was far from that.
The house was built by one Major John (Farty) Farrington, who had amassed a lot of wealth in the service of a north Indian Raja. He was well into middle age when he decided that he wanted to be English after spending a better part of his life living like an Indian. The Indian way of life suited him to a tee, until now. He wore pyjamas and kurtas at home, smoked a hookah, indulged in charas and bhang when the fancy took him. He had a retinue of servants, a stable full of horses, string of mistresses and some children by them, too.
The Coonoor society made up mainly of English Quakers really disapproved of him. Actually the women disapproved of him, while the men were all secretly envious. It was Mrs. Thompson, who lived in Nenagh on Gray’s Hill, who came up with a plan to bring the Major back into the fold; a really devious one at that.
Farrington found that he could not attend a Masonic meeting, even though he was a master mason.  He had been blackballed at the Coonoor Club, mainly because the Thompsons did not approve of him. He was not invited to any of the hunts, soirees or parties which made up the life in this hill station. It was hard, to have money and not the acceptance. So that is what they dangled in front of him. Acceptance!  To achieve this, Farrington would have to marry an English lady.
Mrs. Thompson had already selected Miss Angela Carr, all of thirty, as the bride, too. She was a relative of merchant prince Thomas Parry, who had come out with the fishing fleet and not landed a catch. “A bit long in the tooth, but Farty is no spring chicken,” was the general consensus.  
The offer was made to Farrington, who dillied and dallied mainly because the latest mistress to engage his passions was a girl of great beauty called Amera. He had paid a king’s ransom for her. She was a skilled dancer, poet and was well versed in Tamil and Urdu literature. He also had two children by her.
Farrington, finally, agreed to the match but only after he was allocated Arbuthnot &Co shares at below the market value. Not only was he marrying a Parry, albeit on the distaff side, he had become a major shareholder of one of the largest trading houses this side of the Suez. Farty Farrington has indeed done well for himself.
So Farrington waltzed off to Madras and married Angela Carr. After a whirl of parties and socializing, the Farringtons came back to Coonoor. The new Mrs. Farrington had quite a task ahead of her. She had to get this house back on tracks, that is, British tracks. The house, she said was run “quite in the native fashion” with lazy lay about servants, unpolished silver and no thunder boxes (only the major had one).
In the meanwhile, Amera and her children had been banished to the outhouse. So Angela did not know of her existence until a few months had passed. Farrington had taken to adding a sedative to the wine that Angela drank at night to ensure that she did not awake at night, while he slipped out to be with his Amera.
Angela was soon part of the social scene. One evening, she was in the ground floor of the Coonoor library searching for a particular book in the last row, when she overheard two people talking.  As she listened, she realized with horror that they were talking about her husband. “He has not got rid of the Indian girl, lucky dog” said one man. “Once Beth comes to know about it, there will be hell to pay”, said the other.  The said Beth was a coffee planter’s stodgy wife who was challenging Mrs. Thompson’s position as queen bee. 
Angela was no fool. She had spotted Amera and the children many times at the back of the house. But every time, she attempted to go out, something or the other came up. Only now she realized that the whole thing was a game and she was being played with.
Angela Farrington was not to be trifled with. She wrote a letter to her uncle in Madras. In the meanwhile she unearthed the truth. Within a week’s time, the uncle along with the Governor’s secretary was in Coonoor. The entire hill station was agog with the scandal. Now the writing on the wall was clear. The girl and her brats were to go. In the meanwhile Angela would stay in Ooty with friends.
Farrington was caught in the cross wires, he found that he could not let Amera go. So he dithered for a month or two. The rains and the high winds came. He said, “You can’t turn anyone out, in this weather”. Finally, one evening when the drum beats from the Mariamman festival in the bazaar could be heard, he called his head ‘boy’ and gave him and the entire lot of servants the evening off to go and enjoy themselves in the bazaar.
Only Amera and the children were left. As the sun set and the night shadows lengthened he called Amera and told her that he had a nice place for her and the children near Mysore. Amera listened to him with her head lowered. When she looked up, she said, “I will go, don’t worry”.
She poured him a drink followed by many more. In one of the inside rooms, the children started to cry. She did not go to the children until Farrington had passed out. She then went to the children and fed them some rice and curry. After they had slept, she walked around the house, touching all those lovely things she loved.
The next morning, when the servants came back they found Amera’s body hanging from the Jacaranda tree in front of the house. The children were dead in their beds.
Farrington died soon after, of heart break they say. Angela Farrington never came back to the house on the bend, though she inherited all the money. It was said that she went away to England and then to America where she married a rich widower.   
Nobody lives in the house on the bend. Once in thirty or forty years, a family would come and stay. But not happily! Husbands would become wayward, wives would leave and children would cry themselves to sleep. The lucky ones managed to get out before something bad happened.
The last known tenant was a cynical timber merchant. He was a bachelor and a rationalist who did not believe in ghosts. But he said that the sound of children crying at night kept him from sleeping and try as he did he could not prevent that  woman coming in at night and rearranging the furniture.
During the day the thrush laughs outside. Amera’s still walks around the house and her children still cry at night

Friday, 17 August 2012

No Response from Flight VT-CFK

Air crashes and aircraft falling off the radar have been the subject of major motion pictures.  In 1950, Air India had two crashes; both CFIT (controlled flight into terrain), a term introduced into aviation lexicon by Boeing engineers to describe an accident in which an aircraft with no mechanical problem, under pilot control is accidently flown into an obstacle, water, ground or mountain.
The first accident took place on November 3; Air India flight 245 a Lockheed Constellation named Malabar Princess with 40 passengers and eight crew members bound for London from Bombay crashed into Mont Blanc the highest mountain in the Alps. This crash has inspired the 1956 motion picture The Mountain starring Spencer Tracy, the 2001 film Amelie and the 2004 movie Malabar Princess.
But the other crash, though on a smaller scale is no longer in public memory.  The victims forgotten, the human endeavor to locate the crash is not commemorated.

Rangaswami Peak: Photo credit: Jude Thaddeus

On December 13 a Douglas DC-3/C-47 Dakota aircraft belonging to Air India took off from Bangalore.  The flight originated in Bombay was bound for Trivandrum with stopovers in Madras, Bangalore and Coimbatore.  There were 16 passengers and four crew members on board.  One of my grandfather’s sons was to board this flight at Bangalore.  
 The flight took off from Bangalore at 9.20 am and was scheduled to land in Coimbatore at 10.24 am.  Till twelve minutes before the plane landed there was no indication of a problem. The pilot’s last contact with the control tower in Coimbatore was at 10.12 am. The aircraft had just dropped off the radar.  At 10.40am the Coimbatore airport issued a “danger caution” notice and informed Madras that there was an aircraft missing.
The driver who had been sent to meet the plane was a smart fellow.  When the flight did not arrive at the scheduled time, he made enquires and found out what had happened.  So my grandfather came to know about the missing aircraft by 10.30 am.  Everyone at home was grief-stricken.   By evening, the news had spread; friends and family gathered around to console the parents. The household was plunged into a vortex of panic and grief. 
Search planes, including one sent by the Rajpramukh of the Cochin-Travancore state, set out from Madras, Bangalore and Coimbatore.  All aircraft returned unsuccessfully to base as low clouds over the Coimbatore region obstructed the search.  Civil, military and railway authorities in the southern region were alerted about the missing aircraft.
That afternoon, a pilot of a small private aircraft which had just flown over the Nilgiri range reported very poor visibility and low cloud cover.  By this time, a drizzle had started and this further hampered the search. Captain Munshi a senior test pilot with the Hindustan Aircraft Limited who led the aerial search returned to base by 6pm and reported the cloud cover over the Nilgiris was just 300 feet above the ground.  Heavy rain was also reported in the surrounding areas.
On both sides of the Western Ghats, search parties were organized.  By afternoon, an army search party under one Major Jadav headed out to the Nilgiri range. The search parties made slow progress; by the time they reached the outskirts of the forests, the sun had set. The jungles, quite unlike what it is today, were dense with no beaten tracks. To add to their misery was the relentless rain.  The advance into the dense jungle was further hampered by the presence of reptiles and wild animals, tigers included.  
On the second day, the search continued. Without precise information the search parties relied on hearsay and rumors.  A forest guard on the Mysore side of the Biligiri Rangan hills reported hearing a very loud sound near Kathedevargudi, which is 18 km from Chamarajanagar. So the search parties combed that side of the mountains.  Another party scoured the hills near Kollegal where someone had reported a ‘loud noise’. Six jeeps and three lorry loads of police personnel left Coimbatore to search the Nilgiris, again based on reports by forest guards, whom The Hindu dated December 15 1950 called “the lone sentinels of these impenetrable forests”.
While the relatives of the other passengers waited with heavy hearts for news of the missing aircraft, in the Cherian household, however, there was to be cause for cheer. At lunch time on December 14, the missing son nonchalantly drove up to the front of the house. Very contrite and sorry for the trouble he had caused. His parents were so relieved to see him that they forgave him. He had missed the flight and had decided to drive up from Bangalore with a friend.  Even today, I wonder why he never called. 
On day three, there was still no sign of the missing aircraft. The Indian Air Force (IAF) continued its search.  It was joined in the search by an Auster aircraft owned by Harry Ferguson and Company. A training aircraft from Mysore was also pressed into service.  These smaller aircraft were used for its maneuverability and ability to fly at lower altitudes.
It was then decided that a reward would be offered to anyone with information.  An IAF Harvard took off from Madras carrying leaflets printed in Tamil offering Rs 500 for information.  These leaflets were thrown all over the Nilgiris. 
The search parties were now combing the Nilgiris .  The actual wreckage was first spotted near Kil Kotagiri, near the Rangaswami peak, by a forest guard who rushed to Kotagiri to inform the authorities.  At the same time, a driver at Curzon estate claimed to see the wreckage.  The tea estate manager informed the army authorities who also sent a team to Rangaswamibetta.
The approach to the wreckage was perilous through grass lands and a deep ravine. The first people to reach the wreckage were the police.  They found bits and pieces of the fuselage all over the place, personal belongings strewn around and worst of all, decomposing bodies or what was left of the bodies after the mauling by the animals.   
Curiously, The Hindu report talks about how all the bodies of the passengers were all under one wing. Questions were raised even at that time as to whether someone had reached the wreckage earlier.
On a lighter view, the Indian Postal Service’s devotion to mail was also displayed at this time. In the first party which reached the scene was the Inspector of the Coonoor Post Office who was able to salvage most of the mail.
Air India had arranged a special flight to Coimbatore for relatives of the victims.  Some of them genuinely grieving while some others seem more intent on getting to documents and valuables carried by the passengers.  
Reconstructing the accident, the authorities realized that because of the poor visibility the pilot had misjudged the distance from the mountain and the wing had scrapped the mountain.    
A few weeks later, my father spotted a driver at our estate, which is near Kil Kotagiri, wearing a gold Rolex watch.  He asked the driver where he got it from.  The driver was evasive and finally said that he got it from the pawn broker.  My father’s suspicions were aroused but before he could act on it the driver disappeared.
Many of the passengers on this ill-fated Air India flight were important people.  A few of them were travelling incognito, as was the custom those days.  What were they carrying, what mission were they on, are questions that will never be answered.
We would never know, would we?
Postscript: I decided to add the list of passengers on this flight, mainly because a reader has written in to say how this post helped him `join the dots'  for Professor Wald as it was presumed that he died in the princely state of Travancore. Maybe the list would help someone else's search.
Passengers to Trivandrum were Prof and Mrs Wald, Mrs Thein and Mr R.A.Krishnan. Passengers to Cochin were Mr and Mrs  R.D Robey, Mr C.G.Marshall and Mr W.F Saile and Mr Vincent to Coimbatore. The passengers who boarded the aircraft in Bangalore were Brigadier Agaya Singh, Mr P.L.Kapur, Mr K.R.Bhadran, Mr C.P Harry, Mr K.G.B Menon, Mr J.B Sud and Mr C.Luke.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

A murder, a bummer and a cure for heartache

I would pass Clovely when I took a short cut to the Coonoor Library.  It was a lovely house overlooking the club and the library with a clear view of the mountains.
It had been lying vacant for years; the once lovely garden overgrown with weeds and its long winding drive covered with pot holes.  Most of the house was clearly visible from the small path which ran along the side of the house. The house had not been whitewashed in years, paint from the windows and doors was peeling. There was an air of desolation about the place.
I would hear sounds when I passed that way.  Sometimes, it sounded like a lot of stones falling on the tiled roof, at other times it was the sound tapping on the window facing the path.  Curiosity soon got the better of me.  I had to find out what these sounds were; so one evening, I plucked up all the courage I had and walked up to the front of the house.
The house had a long covered verandah in front with doors leading into the house.  The main entrance was in the centre flanked by two wings. I peered through the glass on the mullioned doors as I walked slowly down the verandah.  The rooms barring the last were empty, where some lawyer’s assistant had covered all the furniture with white dust sheets.
My initial fears had subsided and soon I was quite cocky. It was just another old house. The rose bushes near the verandah had bloomed and the air was fragrant with perfume.  A bee hummed nearby.  The evening sun bathed the whole place in a mellow light. All was well; I was lulled into a sense of false security.  So when I heard the tapping on the window, I jumped out of my skin.  I didn’t wait to find out what it was; I just took to my heels.
Sometime later I told my father about my visit to Clovely, he didn’t say much. Just that the sounds were not supernatural, just the wood contracting.  Then with a gleam in his eye he tossed a bit of information over his shoulder – that this was the house that Miss Fairbanks was murdered in!
I finally got the story out of my father.  Miss Fairbanks was an old English lady who lived alone in Clovely.  Her father and grandfather were military men having seen action in the Opium wars and Afghanistan.  She was a tough old bird who accosted intruders with a shotgun.  But one morning, her butler and sole servant found her lying dead in the living room with multiple stab wounds.  What was most gruesome was the bite on her throat.   
The police were called in; there was a lot of pressure from Delhi to solve the crime fast, because the British Embassy was leaning on the government.  You know, all that blah about British citizens not being safe and so on.  The police investigation revealed that there was no forced entry, which meant that the old lady had opened the door for the killer, it was someone she knew. 
The Fairbanks house was full of battle souvenirs, some valuable, some kitsch. During their investigation, the cops found ledgers cataloguing all the things in the house.  The killer had taken his pick of things; Ming vases, Rajput miniature paintings, an Urdu book of poetry and two rare saris.  The police were clueless.
Though the murder caused a stir, no one actually knew the old lady and no one missed her, so life went on. A few days later, the Commandant of Staff College threw a party celebrating his wife’s birthday.  The Superintendent of Police  (SP)though invited could not make it, so his wife went for the party along with other friends.  When she came back, she found her husband had just come back from the station and in a foul mood. 
To ease the situation, she started talking about the various guests at the party and the gifts they had brought.  The best gift, which was presented unwrapped was a beautiful Dhaki sari.  Somewhere in the policeman’s brains a coin dropped and he asked his wife to describe the sari.  She said it was a very rare red, black and gold sari from Dhaka.     
She hardly finished her descriptions and SP was on the phone to the Commandant.  He wanted to know the name of the guest who presented the sari.  The Commandant did not know.  But he said, his wife had mentioned that it was an extremely well dressed African.
He was not on the guest list and had just walked into the party.  His style and confidence was such that he was not questioned.  The Commandant had presumed that this was a high level diplomat or businessman who was staying at the Gymkhana, whom his wife had invited and forgotten to tell him.  His wife had had the similar thoughts.  So they let it pass.
After telling the Commandant to keep the sari away, the SP had the butler picked up. Third degree methods on the butler, yielded fruit; the man said that Missy used to get a visitor, a black man, now and then.
A quick search of the hotels and the cops nabbed an African with the other stolen goods.  The African had an Italian passport and claimed diplomatic immunity.  The police were in a jam; what to do.
They, as cops world over are wont to do, resorted to tactics which are highly debatable.  One of the policemen at the station had seen service with the Malabar Special Police, a dreaded police force known for ‘efficiency’ during social unrest.  It was said that the members of the MSP knew kalaripayattu.  The SP asked this policeman to persuade the African man to cooperate.
The senior policemen left the station and the former MSP man started his interrogation.  Using a kalari tactic he slapped the African’s face with his foot.  It took a couple a knocks for the suspect to react.  He bit the policeman on his foot.  The SP was overjoyed, the bite marks were the same, and this was later confirmed, as the imprints of the teeth on the old lady’s throat.  A dentist friend roused out his bed at this ungodly hour confirmed the bite marks on the policeman and the murder victim was the same.   
Who was this African and how did he befriend the old lady were some of the questions left unanswered though the Fairbanks murder was solved.  
But I took to running past the house every time I passed that way.
A bummer         
When the old Parsi died, no one in Coonoor knew.  Mrs. I, not a day below forty years, was seen as usual in her car, veiled and shadowy.  There was of course was no wailing or beating of chest.
 Life went on, until one day, the people of Coonoor noted that Mrs. I now sat in the front seat of the Studebaker with a white man.  Soon, we came to know that this man’s name was Havers, said to be from Bangalore and very rich. “Ah! How she catches the rich ones!” the women in the Club said, their voices dripping with envy.  “But he is quite old, no” said one woman.  “All the better, he will die faster.  So she will get the Parsi’s money and this bugger’s too,” said another.     
A couple of months passed, the happy couple was not seen around.  Their ayah told the mali that dorai and doraichani were in England.  A new scandal engaged the town and the old lovebirds were almost forgotten.  Well! Almost! Then came the shocking news.
Havers had died while on a picnic to Law’s Falls.  Apparently the two had come back, not from England but from Bangalore.  They didn’t make it to England.  It was in Bangalore that she discovered that Havers was not rich; in fact he had no money at all.  They had hoodwinked each other about being wealthy.
According to the servants’ grapevine the couple was fighting bitterly by now.  The picnic at Laws Falls was an attempt at a rapprochement.  While the driver waited in the car, the two of them made their way across the slippery rocks.  It was here that Havers lost his footing, he slipped, one foot got caught between two rocks and he was dangling upside down, under the waterfall with water running over him. 
By the time, help reached him, he was dead. 
Mrs Havers was not seen for some time in Coonoor.  After a couple of months of speculation whether the white bugger had been murdered, the story was no longer of prime interest.  Then one day, just like that, she was back.  A new man in tow! “This one better be rich,” said the town wit.  “Or she will dangle him over the waterfall.”
But she was not lucky this time, also.  The new man, let’s call him Hammers, was made of sterner stuff.  He was younger than her.  No picnics for him.  If there was no money, she had to find it.  She pretended to be the rich widow of not one, but two men.  So now, she would have to get the money.  She decided to sell the house; the word was passed around in Bangalore.   
Then all hell broke loose.  The Parsi’s sons landed up from Bombay.   They stayed in the club and made some noise. She was not married to the old Parsi so she had no claims, they said.  All their father’s will had permitted was a one- third life right but she forfeited that when she remarried.   They gave her and Hammers twelve hours to clear out.   
Nothing was heard of the old girl for some time.  Then someone from Coonoor saw her in Bangalore.  She was working as a housekeeper in one of the big hotels there.
“If she had sat quietly, she could have lived in that house, no.” said the wise people of Coonoor.
A cure for heartache

Varkey biscuits as comfort food are in a class of their own.  You can only buy these crisp, flaky and not very sweet biscuits in the Nilgiris.  Nowadays you get different varieties of Varkey biscuits.  But the classic version is the best.
The origins of this gastronomical delight are a bit obscure. But an apocryphal tale attributes the discovery of the Varkey biscuit to a baker who worked in Crown Bakery in Coonoor. 
The baker was kneading the dough for puff pastry, when he used too much flour.  Before his error was discovered he made round balls and baked them into a kind of biscuit which is a bit like its ugly cousin of the plains, the pora.  The biscuits were displayed in the glass case and when one customer asked what they are called, the owner of the bakery said, “Varkey biscuit” naming it after the mallu baker who baked it.
Besides heartache, it cures other aliments which plague the nonresident Coonoorite such as homesickness and nostalgia.  How it works.  Take a Varkey biscuit, apply Amul butter on the flat surface, dip the buttered side in sugar and eat.  It is most effective when it is washed down with fragrant, high elevation, single-estate tea.    Jude, though, recommends a glass of red wine with the Varkey.