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