Friday, 20 July 2012

Train tales and more


The girls who went to Nazareth Convent, in Ooty, were rich, snooty and well turned out.  So naturally we, at St Joseph’s, the other convent school in the hills, hated them.  There was no such exclusivity about us at St Joseph’s Convent in Coonoor.  Of course, we thrashed them at the Interschool Sports, as we did the other girls’ schools too.  But all the same there was an air about the Nazareth girls which was irritating.

The NMR - 1920

After the sports day, came the interschool matches.  Some of the matches were at home and some away. Visits to Nazareth for netball and throw ball matches were both looked forward to and dreaded.  The Nazis, as we called them were barely polite and we felt that they looked down on us.  When I started playing for the school, the Nazi team had an exceptional good player called Beena.  So we did not win the matches even though we had played quite well.

Besides all the fun of the matches, the school trips to Ooty were always on the hill train or the Nilgiri Mountain Railway (NMR) and a great adventure, every time.  The school year started and ended with the NMR for many a boarder, especially the ones who travelled in batches from places as far away as Calcutta and Bombay.  This doggerel would be recited ad nauseum as the school year drew to a close.

Two more days and where shall I be
Out of the gates of SJC
Travelling in the NMR
Engine number 93
No more Hindi, no more French
No more sitting on the hard fat bench
No more brinjals, no more buns
No more benders from the nuns

 Traveling in the NMR was a highlight of every school year.  Little did we know that this little train had so much history and in 2005 would attain the UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

 The train and the station had a special place in my grandfather’s heart.  I would accompany him to pick up and drop off numerous relatives after their summer vacation. He knew everyone – the station master, the ticket collector, the porter and the taxi drivers.  Clearly it took him back to that bright lovely morning in February of 1914 when he stepped off the hill train at the Coonoor station.

 The journey from his small village, Eraviperoor in Central Travancore, was long and arduous taking more than three days.  He had just got a job as the Indian Assistant Manager at Glenburn estate near Kotagiri.  At twenty four, he was quite a seasoned hand having already worked in Ceylon for a tea and rubber produce company.

After waiting overnight at Podanur, (the junction before Coimbatore became the hub) he boarded the Blue Mountain Express for his journey to Mettupalayam, the rail head where one got off to catch the NMR.  The NMR was quite the miracle in engineering those days and for that matter, is so even today.  

Here’s what makes the NMR such a marvel. The NMR runs on a single track up a steep gradient using the alternate biting system what is better known as the rack and pinion system to climb.  It is a 16 km track winding its way through the mountains, skirting streams and waterfalls and whistling cheerfully through the 13 tunnels and 19 viaducts.

By the mid 1800s the number of European settling down in the hills had increased.  The need for easy connectivity was also felt.   A number of proposals were put forward but two schemes were considered feasible.  The first one was by the engineer who built the Darjeeling Railway and was to be laid through the Kotagiri valley to Wellington and on to Ooty.  The second proposal was by one Riggenbach, whose feather in the cap was the Pilatus and Rigi railway in Switzerland; this one was from Mettupalayam to Coonoor but with a steeper gradient than the one through Kotagiri.

The Government though unwilling to fund this project gave the company permission to construct and also make the necessary surveys.  The planters and residents of the hills got together to make the railway line a reality and formed the Nilgiri Rigi Railway Company Limited.  After representations were made in England, by Richard Wooley, who is remembered by the brass plaque in All Saints Church, Coonoor, a new company was formed, presumably with Government funding.    However, the funding could not be tied up until 1890 and work started on the line in 1891.  The construction was completed in 1898 but was forced to close down after a few days because a cyclonic storm disrupted the line.

The cost of construction was Rs. 38 lakh and because of the high cost of working the railway the net receipts did not cover the interest on the debentures.  The company found it difficult to run and the railway was acquired by the Government.   The Madras Railway Company was formed to run the railway.  The Government realized that unless the line is extended up to Ooty it would not be commercially viable.   This extension was completed by 1908 at a cost of Rs 32.25 lakh. The increase in cost in the Ooty extension could be because of tunnel under Fernhill – about 480 feet between the portals.   I wonder whether questions were raised on the increase in cost.

So when my grandfather made his journey up the hills, the mountain railway was still a matter of wonder.  The scenery was also breathtaking.  The changes are there today: the sholas are sparse, the streams not so pristine and waterfalls not so abundant but there are still hundreds of flowering trees and shrubs to delight the eye.

He must have watched the train leave the small, white washed houses on the plains around Mettupalayam with same excitement we feel, today.  The train then whistles it way through the areca nut plantation at the base of the hills near Kallar.  It is here that the rack starts.  The sheer rock face of Droog greets those who look up in wonder at the mountains.  Once the train starts its climb the vegetation undergoes a dramatic change.  Flowers are seen in great profusion and the air starts getting lighter and more fragrant.      

Starting with my grandfather’s first journey up the mountain railway, everyone’s first trip on the NMR is memorable.   We all made friends and enemies too, some time.   My grandfather also made some good friends on this journey up.  

It was in Mettupalayam that my grandfather met this family of Tamil Iyers, the Padmanabans, also traveling to the hills.  He struck up a conversation with them and was impressed by the patriarch’s foresight in this move to the hills- which was still largely unexplored territory.   The friendship which started on that windswept railway platform was to last three generations.  This family set up E.V.Paddu the pharmacy, Shanmugam stores the general merchants and Primrose the lovely store which sold books, comics and chocolates.

The journey from Mettupalayam to Coonoor took five hours and when my grandfather stepped off the train, he was greeted by a very strange sight.  A tall, handsome man, clad in breeches and a silk shirt, a turban on his head and diamond ear studs, was standing up in an open horse carriage and throwing coins to the tongawallahs and the porters.  Apparently this was an early avatar of the present day supari.  He was setting up these fellows to thrash someone. But that’s another story.  

Of course, the NMR is not for those in a hurry.  It is a slowly leisurely trip up the mountains, a reminder  that there is a better way to live.    

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Of Pears, Chinese Guavas and Orchard Raids…


I am sure Jude Thaddaeus’s orchard is worth a visit.  It is definitely one of the must-see places on my list.  I guess it is the only place in Coonoor where you will still find plums, peaches, tree tomatoes, passion fruits and figs.   How he saves these fruits from the marauding monkeys is a big wonder.  The pictures he uploads at frequent intervals takes me right back to the halcyon days at Nenagh.
A view of the Nilgiris - photo courtesy Jude Thaddaeus
Nenagh, the beautiful house on the top of Gray’s Hill where I grew up, is gone.  I have not been there since my father sold it, but some cousins have and the pictures show just another big house which could be anywhere in India and is, now, owned by a media baron.  The old house, however, lives on in our memories.  In the old days, the orchard at Nenagh was resplendent with plums, peaches, Chinese guavas, tree tomatoes, grapes, quinces, sweet oranges, cherimoya, passion fruit, Seville oranges and grapefruit.  None of these trees are native to the Nilgiris!
Many of the grand houses in Coonoor and Ooty had lovely orchards with a variety of fruit trees.  It was always a treat to raid the neighbor’s orchards.  We had honed the raiding to a fine art.  You had to know which tree in Gray’s Hill was fruiting and how the mali would react.  Escaping the violent malis and the attacking guard dogs made the stolen fruit sweeter.
It goes without saying that you didn’t always escape.  Many a time, the mali has caught us, taken away the stolen fruit and sent us packing.  Once, one of Mrs. I’s hounds from hell even bit me on my backside.  Mrs. I was a very interesting woman; she was supposed to be the keep of a rich Parsi gentleman. She was a kind of mystery woman; of whom we caught glimpses of as she passed in her Studebaker driven by a uniformed chauffer.  To add to the mystery, she wore a veil attached to a wide brimmed hat. 
 I, of course, swore that I was nowhere near Mrs. I’s property and that her hounds came out, totally unprovoked and bit me. My father was livid; he hurled me off to Mrs. I’s house.  But cooled down when the woman’s servants said that I provoked the dogs and had entered their property.  It was my word against theirs.  I am ashamed to confess, that my father believed me or looking back, pretended to believe me.
 It was Dr P.V.Kurian, the Director of Pasteur Institute, who finally wormed the truth out of me.  He said if the dog was unprovoked then it would have to be put down and I would have to take rabies shots.  Since I didn’t want injections on my stomach and the dog’s death on my conscience, I confessed.
Most residents of the Nilgiris take all those plums and peaches for granted.  Not questioning how these fruits, which are not native to the region, are found here.  The effort of bringing fruit seedlings, nurturing and growing them has been great.  It was not just from England that the English brought these seedlings.  They were brought from China, Japan, South America and Australia.  
 John Sullivan had built his house in Ooty by 1822 and soon put down a large variety of English vegetables and fruits which he was sure would grow in the salubrious climate of the Nilgiris.  By the 1860s most of the settlers were planting fruit trees in the estates and around their homes.
Apples from Jude's orchard
 Apples from Australia and England were planted at the Downham Estate at Kalhatti.   The varieties which were put down were Margil, Devonshire Pearmain, Adam’s Pearmain and Ecklinvile seedlings which were all popular in England during Victorian days.  Most of these varieties are not available even in England these days. 
 Unfortunately, the trees were left untended, without grafting with superior varieties.  The apples you find today in the Nilgiris are small, green and slightly bitter.  Not market quality, at all.  If care had been taken at the right time, maybe, today the Nilgiri apple could have competed with the Granny Smith and the Washington Apples which flood our markets today. 
Apples for the pie 
These apple trees were also used as espaliers; espaliering is an old practice where trees, mainly fruit trees are pruned and tied to a wooden frame in a certain pattern and often against a wall.  As a child, I have seen the remnants of this art on tree tomatoes and apple trees in some of the big estate houses and also at the Government Pomological Research Station in Coonoor.   Espaliering as a horticultural art is not seen anywhere in the Nilgiris. 
Apples from Australia and England were planted at the Downham Estate at Kalhatti.   The varieties which were put down were Margil, Devonshire Pearmain, Adam’s Pearmain and Ecklinvile seedlings which were all popular in England during Victorian days.  Most of these varieties are not available even in England these days. 
 Unfortunately, the trees were left untended, without grafting with superior varieties.  The apples you find today in the Nilgiris are small, green and slightly bitter.  Not market quality, at all.  If care had been taken at the right time, maybe, today the Nilgiri apple could have competed with the Granny Smith and the Washington Apples which flood our markets today. 
These apple trees were also used as espaliers; espaliering is an old practice where trees, mainly fruit trees are pruned and tied to a wooden frame in a certain pattern and often against a wall.  As a child, I have seen the remnants of this art on tree tomatoes and apple trees in some of the big estate houses and also at the Government Pomological Research Station in Coonoor.   Espaliering as a horticultural art is not seen anywhere in the Nilgiris.
Does this make you think of vodka?
 Another Victorian fruit which was planted in the hills was the medlar.  It was a strange fruit, part apple, pear and quince.  The medlars did not take root.  But what did, was the Chinese guava or the Psidium Cattleianum which is not from China but from Peru.   It is almost an ornamental tree with purple fruit which is slightly tart.  My mother, of course, wove her culinary magic over these fruits and made mouth- watering guava jelly, which we ate with fresh cream for dessert.
  This is one tree for which I have fond memories.  I spent many an afternoon, perched on top of the Chinese guava tree at Nenagh.  There used to be one at school, too.  Ask any convent girl from Coonoor and they will regale you with stories on the midnight raids on the Chinese guava tree and the imaginative punishments that the nuns doled out.