Saturday, 26 October 2013

The Lost Treasure

One of the great joys of growing up in Coonoor, a small hill town in the Nilgiris, was the public libraries.

Coonoor had two, one was the more elite Coonoor Library and the other was the municipal library. My grandfather was a member of the Coonoor Library and I would visit it along with him and my mother, another voracious reader. The library was located on the road which leads from Coonoor Club to Sims Park. It was a lovely, gracious building with a verandah which ran all the way around it. To add to the beauty of the building was a large weeping willow on one side.

In 1916, J.S.C Eagan writes in The Nilgiri Guide and Directory,” The first library in Coonoor was started as early as the year 1864, and was placed in the premises, now occupied by the Post Office. It was later shifted, for a short time, to the Assembly Rooms. The present fine building was constructed in 1903 from designs by Major E. R. B. Stokes- Roberts, R.E.

The upper storey, which is on the road level, consists of a large, well- lighted reading-room, beautifully furnished, and having on its tables the majority of the standard magazines and illustrated periodicals, and also a number of daily papers. The reading-room is surrounded by a wide verandah, which commands a sweeping view and which forms a very pleasant lounge. Below are found the large circulating department and silent rooms”.
Conditions of Membership
All persons residing in Coonoor, Wellington or the neighbourhood are eligible, subject to approval of the Committee.
Entrance fee of Rs. 10, and monthly subscription of (Single), Rs. 3; Family, Rs. 4. Book members pay a monthly subscription of Rs. 2, (no entrance fee) but they are not permitted the use of the Reading Room.

I was allowed into the reading room and the instructions were very clear. No talking, no thumping on the stairs and no running inside the library. Only after I had agreed to these rules, was I permitted to enter. One had to tread very carefully making sure that one’s shoes didn’t squeak. Once inside the library, one was to acknowledge other members with just a nod and smile, which would be reciprocated. The chair at the octagonal reading table had to be pulled out ever so gently.  Except for the Illustrated Weekly of India, the other magazines were from ole blighty and were three months old, at least. But we did get a taste of the Punch, the Illustrated London News, Woman and Home and Women’s Weekly.    

Before I tell you about the sad fate of this wonderful institution, I must mention the inimitable municipal library. This library was located in basement of the Jograj Building and my mother was a member here. The reading room which had some Tamil newspapers and magazines was always crowded and fuggy. Some of the books were under lock and key. If you wanted to open the locked ones, you had to ask the librarian for the keys, which had to be duly returned after use. The library also stocked the latest Malayalam books and large collection of children’s books which included the Chalet School series. 

Sadly there is no Coonoor Library, now. The fate of the municipal library is also unknown. After my grandfather’s death, I continued to use the library. Till one day, I was told by the librarian that I could not come there. My father tried to become a member, but it was too late. They were not admitting new members. At that time, nobody paid much heed to it. Library memberships were not very important. Finally, we heard that the Library building with all its effects was sold.

Mr. K.V.Krishnan, a well known Ooty lawyer writes about the Coonoor Library in the magazine commemorating 150 years of the Nilgiri Library in Ooty. ”As all this was going well for our (Nilgiri) Library, our counterpart in Coonoor called the Coonoor Library to whom we were lending 30 books a month fell a victim to a dubious decision. It was closed and sold to St Antony’s School. The mode of operation adopted was to reduce the membership and when it came to less than ten a resolution was passed to sell and the entire members signed the deed. Till date no one knows what happened to the sale proceeds. It is a prime property next to the Coonoor Club. Today it is worth several crores.”
Krishnan writes “Though the news shocked the reading and well meaning public of the Nilgiris it gave ideas to a section of Ooty public. Suddenly many unknown people became members. There was a pattern to this; all of them came in the same car of a local company. We smelled a rat. Then came the election. The same car brought the nomination papers for 11 committee members. Coup was imminent. All the existing Committee members also put up their nomination. No holds barred contest was held. The existing committee won hands down. The Coonoor Library-like fate was averted. The new mushroom members left one by one by default.”    

The Nilgiri Library continues flourish. It is indeed a treasure trove of books and a wonderful Nilgiri heritage. This library was started in 1858 and is housed in an elegant building on Commissioner’s Road. I was a member briefly and believe me; you really need strong recommendation to become one. I guess after the narrow shave they had with land mafia, the committee has to be careful who they admit as members.

In the Guide to the Nilgiris, published by Higginbotham & Co, it says, “It (the Nilgiri Library) is located in a pretty little building near St Stephen’s Church, and it is often used as a convenient rendezvous; for everyone visits the library at least once a day to pick up the news of the world from the papers, local news and gossip at first hand.

This is one library, all books lovers must visit. I empathize with Roger Zeazny who said, “I like libraries. It makes me feel comfortable and secure to have walls of words, beautiful and wise, all around. I always feel better when I can see that there is something to hold back the shadows.


Friday, 26 July 2013

Troubled Water

A few years ago, I happened to visit a resort in Emerald near Ooty. One of the owners told me this rather apocryphal tale: how his sister had woken up one fine morning and found the valley in front had become a lake.

Maybe it was not so dramatic, but the fact remains that most of the lakes and water bodies in the Nilgiris are man made: The largest of them being the Ooty Lake. W. Francis of the Indian Civil Service (ICS) and one time collector of Nilgiris in the first decade of the twentieth century has this to say about the Ooty Lake.
The Ooty Lake is the largest of these, as it is also the most beautiful; indeed, it is hard to believe that its sinuous smooth water has not been formed naturally.In length it is about two miles, and about 300 to 400 yards in breadth.”
The lake continues to look beautiful from a distance but will not survive closer scrutiny as raw sewerage still flows into it. Last year, the Tamil Nadu Government sanctioned Rs 4.25 crores, to clean the lake of silt and water hyacinth as well as set up sewerage treatment plants which would stymie the flow of raw sewerage to the lake. We will have to wait and watch the outcome of this. 
How green is my mountain: Photo courtesy Jude Thaddaeus

The devastation caused by the torrential rains and cloud burst in the North Indian state of Uttarakand is a wake up call not just to the Government but to industry and the community at large.
Over the last 50 years we have witnessed the haphazard development of our hills.  Forests have been cut down, streams polluted and multi-storied buildings have sprung up everywhere like mushrooms after a thundershower.
Now about water
Coonoor like other hill towns stands on the very brink of a great disaster. The town currently is reeling under a severe water shortage, which seems incongruous at a time when another hill region is experiencing floods.  Though the Nilgiris district gets rain during the South West Monsoon and the North East Monsoon, Coonoor gets its rainfall mainly during the North East or Winter Monsoon.
According to the Coonoor Municipality’s website, the town’s requirement of water come from Ralliah, Bandumi and water sources such as Bellattimattam, Brooklands, Gymkhana, Karadipallam, Adar, Highfield, Upputhotti, Old Forest, Engledane  and Attadi. 
These ‘water sources’ are what the venerable Francis noted in those early days:
“Through almost every pair of undulations runs some rivulet or other, and the larger
of these, with their alternate quiet pools or chattering rapids, resemble the burns on a Scotch moor in everything but their lack of fish.' But rivers are comparatively few especially on the main plateau”.

This chattering brooks and streams cannot provide water to the population in Coonoor. That is for sure. What then is the course of action to be taken? The Government of India has had not one but two high level committees to study the problems of the Western Ghats.
The Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel under the chairmanship of Prof Madhav Gadgil made some recommendations back in August 2011 which can be implemented at the Panchayat and municipal levels. (There is another and more recent report, which I confess I am still reading.)  All it needs is a dynamic community which calls for change and which ensures that it happens. It can be doubt there. 

Let’s take a look at the water use recommendations made by the panel. It talks about reviving traditional water harvesting methods, recharging wells and surangams. Well, there are not many wells around. So the method advocated by the State Government of channeling the rain water off the roofs into wells won’t work here. What then? What are the traditional water harvesting methods in the hills?

We need to look at water conservation; reuse of bath water for flushing and gardening. Small, low cost treatment plants can be installed locality-wise. However, all this cost money. Will the community pay? Now people in Coonoor are buying water from dubious sources. In the long run, this measure would pay off. The Government can declare tax holidays and incentive to kick start the process.  There are also innovative ways of funding community projects- it has been done before.  

Another recommendation by the Gadgil panel was that the high altitude valley swamps have to be protected. When I was growing up in Coonoor, there used to be number of swamps around- I know, I have fallen into some. How many are there now? Let’s audit and find out the condition of these. Hope they haven’t become land fill sites.

The Gadgil report points out that the forest tracts between the tea plantations have to be maintained. It also recommends financial incentives be given for the maintenance of sacred groves. This can be done only with the cooperation of the local self government, planters and the forest officials.

Reviving hill streams is an important step to augmenting water resources. Have any of you seen the condition of the stream which flows past the Coonoor market? We should send a petition to the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu asking for aid, to revive this stream.  It needs solid waste disposal units and sewage treatment plants at strategic places are the answer. Again incentives and tax breaks will help.
Coonoor market stream:Photo courtesy Jude Thaddaeus

There has to be a review of the hydroelectric plants and those small dams which have silted over and have outlived their utility, have to be decommissioned.
I cannot stop without mentioning one of the major reasons for the water shortage and drying up of the underground streams in the Nilgiris. It is the eucalyptus which is planted all over the Nilgiris. The cultivation of this exotic tree has been detrimental to the water table. The research has shown that the eucalyptus can exploit soil water to the depth of 8 to 10 m within seven years of planting. 
The Gadgil report has said that this practice of cultivation of eucalyptus has to stop. The Tamil Nadu Forest Department is aware of it, and many a high ranking forest official have told me that the Forest Department does not cultivate the eucalyptus, but this species has gone native and has to be rooted out.  

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Gold Rush in the Nilgiris

In the late sixties, Coonoor was hit by a series of burglaries. There was no particular pattern in the break-ins, except that nothing significant was stolen.  Of course, in those days people did not obviously display their wealth and a thief would have to be really discerning to know that the dull painting hanging over the fireplace was actually a Ravi Varma original: this was long before people stored black money in their fridges and sofas. However, most people kept their gold in the cupboards which the thieves left untouched.

Photo courtesy Jude Thaddaeus

Nenagh was the last in the series of break-ins. It happened one rainy night; with the heavy rain beating down on the gutters between the sloping tiled roof.  So we never heard the burglars. They entered the house, quite easily by removing the window pane.  They had stolen my entire collection of Classic Illustrated Junior, Classics Illustrated and Harvey comics:  my brother’s knapsack (to carry the books), my mother’s medal for best player which she won at the district badminton tournament, and our Telefunken radio.  As I said, nothing significant was lost, but what was stolen was a big loss to me all the same.

My father refused to call the cops; but my mother was rather peeved about the break-in.  In her routine call to her sister-in-law, she mentioned that break-in and that the cops had not been called. Dad’s brother, the architect, was livid; he immediately called Madras and spoke to the Commissioner of Police, who was a personal friend and told him about the burglaries and, of course, the final straw, the break-in at his brother’s place.

The trunk call to Madras was made at 8 am, in half an hour’s time the whole place was swarming with policemen – uniformed and plainclothes. The Superintendent of Police (SP), Ooty arrived at 9 am and the Sub-Inspector a few minutes later and got bawled out for the late show. Then the police dog arrived, sniffed around and then lay down under the apple tree.  The handler said that because of the rain, the dog was not able to pick up any scent.
This was followed by the fingerprint expert; who dusted the window panes, the sill and frames.  While this was going on, the SP asked a senior constable, who was hovering around if he had any ideas who could have committed these burglaries.

“Looks like the work of Painter Selvan,” said the older man.  In half an hour’s time, the so called Painter Selvan was picked up and brought to the house. He was soundly thrashed and let off. Then the police packed their gear and left.
A few days later, we heard that the thieves were caught. Painter Selvan was one of them. They were caught not by the police, but by the manager of a neighboring estate who on hearing reports that there was some activity near the abandoned gold mines on the estates; rushed there with some laborers, caught the thieves, tied them up and handed them over to the police. The manager of the estate later told my father that the thieves were reading comics – my comics.
This is when we first heard of gold mining in the Nilgiris. A gold reef was said to have been found at this particular estate and the family bankrupted themselves trying to find gold. The gold boom was really big in the Nilgiris, especially in the Wynad region.

Gold has been extricated from this region for a long time but it is only with the advent of the British that gold mining on a larger scale was planned.  J W Bond and Arnold Wright in their book, “Southern India: Its History, People, Commerce and Industrial Resources”, write: “In Nilambur in south east Wynad, the mines were worked by Kurumba slaves who were subjected to unspeakable cruelties if the gold they found was deficient in quantity. In 1830, it is reported that there were 100,000 of these slaves, bought and sold like cattle the value of a man slave varying from Rs 5 to Rs 20.4 annas.

Around this time, a Swiss watchmaker in Kannur, H L Huguenin sent a petition to the S R Lushington, the Governor of Madras, asking him for help in exploring the Wynad area, primarily to look for gold.  Accordingly, a small contingent from the 49th Madras Native Infantry, under the command of Lieutenant Woodley Nicolson, started searching the area near Devala, about 16 kms from Gudalur.

The entire company was soon affected by fever. On their descent into the Nilambur valley they found regular mines which were 10 to 50 feet in depth and were worked by Moppila slaves who belonged to the Nilambur Tirumulpad – the local landlord.

Lt. Nicolson met with a lot of opposition from the locals, as is to be expected. They filled up the shafts and give him false leads. Despite all this, Nicolson’s report was very enthusiastic and the Government ordered machinery and pumps to work the mines. But a committee which was appointed later came to the conclusion that the gold would be difficult and too expensive to mine.

It was 30 years later that the area once again started buzzing with the gold boom, around the same time when large deposits of gold were being discovered in California and Australia.  At this time, vast acres of this hilly terrain came under coffee cultivation. The planters who opened the estates found the old mines, the shafts and the rubble lying around. It doesn't take much to imagine what these men would have been talking about, on those long winter evenings as they sat on the verandas sipping their rum. It would have been about gold.
Photo courtesy Jude Thaddaeus 

So in 1874, a company called the Alpha Gold Mining Company with a capital of Rs 6 lakh was set up and the mining activity started near Devala. The next year, the Government’s report on the gold deposits was encouraging. More companies entered the fray.

The gold fever which started in December 1870 with one company, gathered momentum and 41 companies were floated in England with a total capital of over five million sterling pounds: the mission of these companies was to prospect and mine for gold in the Nilgiri Wynad area. In India six companies were started.

By May 1880, the shares of the companies were being traded at 100 per cent premium, despite the fact that the mining machinery had just been shipped and the miners had not yet arrived. The sensational reports of gold prospects that the agents cabled home, kept the share prices artificially inflated.

A large number of `experts’ landed up, one of them a baker and another, a retired circus clown. They reported on properties they had sometimes not even seen. Devala and Pandalur changed overnight from small tribal villages to boom towns which boasted of a saloon, a hotel and a large number of “mining captain’s bungalows perched on commanding sites.” Pandalur even had a race track! 

The bubble was soon to burst. But before that the speculators had another good run. In May 1880 a report from one of the mines said that 4 ozs of gold was extracted from a ton of quartz. The market went wild. Shares were trading at enormous premiums; many companies were acquired at 400 to 500 times their market capitalization.  
Then came another report, which said that the 4 ozs of gold were extracted from just one particular ton of quartz, the following 19 tons yielded barely 2 dwts of gold. The market went into a nosedive. In the following months, many of the companies went into liquidation and mining activity ground to a standstill in this area.

 Looking back, I can’t help wondering whether the whole exercise was engineered; maybe on verandas of the plantation bungalows on those long, winter evenings after the sun went down.

Today, if you really look for it you might find a grave or two of some long lost prospector or miner. There are some ruins on the tops of some hills. Deep in the jungle are the old tunnels and heaps of unused machinery.

If you stand very still, you might hear the twang of the banjo in the wind and if you let the sound in, you will also dream the dreams those men dreamt.

Source: The details about the mining is from The Madras District Gazette - W Francis (Indian Civil Service

Thursday, 31 January 2013

Bally shoes and pigs

In the mid 60s, tax raids were quite unheard of; not just in Coonoor but in other parts of the country. Tax authorities raided the houses of known criminals, smugglers and bootleggers, not the vanilla variety businessman.  In the two decades post Independence, most people, my parents included, were still awash in the mellow glow. They truly believed that it was a tryst with destiny and that we had redeemed our pledge. It was certainly an age of innocence when the movies did not celebrate the smuggler and criminal and when leaders were truly that.
Over hill and dale: photo credit Jude Thaddaeus

So the news of a tax raid on a man in Coonoor was quite a shocker. The shock waves rippled across the district. They spoke of it on VP Street, in Bedford, on the golf course, in the clubs and all the other places that men congregated to shoot the breeze.
The bigger surprise was the person who was being raided, a man called Andappan, who lived quietly in a barn of a house somewhere in Quail Hill.
Though we heard the grown-ups talking about all this, it never really concerned us.  It was October and the false summer of the earlier month was past. The days were getting shorter and colder.
 One evening when we had parked up in front of Jograj, waiting for my mother who was returning her library books. My mother had hardly stepped out of the car when old man Ramsay slipped into the passenger seat, filling the car with the smell of stale tobacco and whisky. 
I immediately rolled down the glass to let in some crisp fresh air
“Heard the latest, boss?” he asked my father.
Ramsay was a car broker, a breed which was quite in plentiful. They, like other categories of salesmen, were smooth talking and worldly-wise. They spoke good English and were often dressed in coats and ties. It is only in retrospect I realized that the hats and coats were all cast offs bought, most probably, at the annual church sales and these men who seemed to hobnob with the rich and famous were actually poor and eked out a rather precarious living.
By the mid 60s car imports had largely stopped. The fancy British and American cars were not seen on the roads anymore. Only Ambassadors (the Indian version of the 50's Morris Oxford), the Premier Padminis and the Standard Heralds were available.  There was a small demand for imported cars and car brokers played their part as they spotted cars in far flung places.
 Ramsay was one of the many car brokers, whom my mother could not stand. My father tolerated him, mainly because the old man had quite a sense of humor. He was always around Bedford in the evenings and would often slip into the car once my mother stepped out.
It so happened, that evening my mother was making her pilgrimage to the Coonoor Municipal Library, which was located in the basement of the Jograj Building.  The library was quite unlike others libraries. The entrance formed a right angle triangle with the hypotenuse running parallel to the road. The doorway was set in broadest part between the catheti. Despite its unimpressive entrance, the library had a wonderful collection of children’s books, as well as fiction in English, Tamil and Malayalam.
“There he comes,” Ramsay said again.  I suddenly realized that Ramsay was talking about a tall, big built man dressed in a lungi, a thick brown sweater and a balaclava cap. The lungi was at half mast showing a pair of well polished shoes worn without socks.
 “That man is wearing Bally shoes!” my father exclaimed. We peered at his shoes with interest. The man looked a bit annoyed at the way three children were staring at him. We looked with wonder at the shoes- they had a shine, which comes from diligent polishing. The general attire of the man was at total variance with his shoes.
 My father said, “Those shoes are very, very, expensive. In India you get it only in one shop in Bombay and one in Delhi. You have to place your orders well in advance.”
Ramsay started laughing. “Boss you listen up. This is what happened. That is the chap the income tax wallahs raided. They had got information that he was very rich and has hoarded a lot of black money in his house. During the course of the raid, they found a number of locked steel trunks. The sleuths were sure that they had unearthed a major racket.
They asked for the keys to the trunks and while Andappan was getting the keys, some eager beavers broke it open. And guess what they found inside! Here, Ramsay paused dramatically.
“Shoes, boss, shoes!”
“Yes, boss, shoes. All the shoes the poor blighter had ever worn. All worn out; with no sole, only!”
Now it seems he is contemplating filing a case against the income tax jokers.” Ramsay recounted with glee.
We were all ears. That evening, after dinner, we buttonholed my father and asked him about the man in the lungi.
Andappan’s story, as told by Ramsay, no doubt, started just before the Second World War, when the numbers of resident English families had increased in the hill station.  An enterprising man from a small town in Kerala realized that there would be a great demand for pork among the European population.  So one day this man along with a helper, a young lad called Ando, set out from this small town in Kerala with a herd of pigs.  
They walked for days, herding their pigs braving bad weather, animals and what have you.  They sold the pigs at a profit and went back for more. The laws of economics came into play and the demand outstripped the supply. The pig business prospered.
Then some domestic problem beset the pig man and the supply chain was disrupted, temporarily. Till young Ando stepped in; he knew the route, the pigs and shops.
Ando herded his pigs diligently over the years. He bought an old lorry and increased the runs. When the War came to an end, and Independence dawned, the demand for pigs declined. So Ando branched out into country vegetables for which there was demand. Everything he touched turned to gold. By this time, he had become Andappan.
 Some of the profits he ploughed back into the business the other he put into the some bank in Kerala.  Unfortunately for Ando, there was a run on this bank and he lost most of his money. With that he lost all his trust in banks. But never mind, his business was flourishing; the demand for Kerala food stuff was waxing, not waning.
One day at the pork store when Ando was having a non verbal communication with the store man an elderly dorai walked in. He was impeccably dressed- maybe overdressed to visit a pork store. Ando was particularly struck by his shoes. They were really elegant and shining. He had never seen shoes like that. He stole a glance at his feet clad in the ugly leather slippers to which he had attached thick wads of old tyre-rubber. His feet were dirty, chapped and the heels were cracked. He felt very ashamed.
The dorai noticed him looking at his shoes; he laughed and said, “Bally! The best! Take care of your feet; you need them to stand up in!” 
Ando didn't get the joke but he got the point. He asked the pork store man about the shoes and where he could get them. The store man no doubt asked the dorai for the information. After that Ando started caring for his feet and began a life-long fascination with Bally.
Then one day the pork store man asked Ando what he did with his money. Ando grunted and shrugged. By this time, the earlier close association with the pigs had made him quite a porcupine.  The pork store man told him, “Invest. You must invest in bhoomi. Bhoomi will never betray you.”
All the way back Ando mulled this over and on his return he had decided that he would invest. The next day, he went back to pork store and asked the pork store man if there was some land or house he could buy. The man laughed and pointed to a flyer on his notice board. It was for a house in Quail Hill. Never in his wildest dreams did the pork store man think that this punny kutty would buy such a house.
Ando looked at the flyer, though he could not read English, he understood the numbers. The next day, he hedged his next consignments and raised the money from a Marwari, approached the contact mentioned in the flyer and bought himself a grand house. Just like that.

It was a lovely house with a grand garden and an orchard full of fruit trees. He built a tall wall around the compound and withdrew to live in seclusion for the rest of his life. Never had he enjoyed such a feeling of peace and quiet.  All he brought with him into the house were the 20 locked steel trunks.
Later he told the pork store man’s son, who now worked for him, that nothing gave him a better sense of achievement then looking at his old worn out shoes. It reminded of the old days, the days of his youth, when all you had to do to make money was work hard and take your chances. 
(All characters mentioned in story are fictional)