Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Provy Days- Emergency and Leaving the Ivory Tower

It was towards the end of June, the high winds and rains had started and I was in my second year in college. My mother came back from Kerala full of righteous indignation. She carried a copy of the Indian Express which had a blank space on Page 1, where the editorial was to appear. Emergency had been declared. My father was shocked as he had no inkling of it. The paper we read every day did not mention it at all. This news made no sense to me, at all.

The next day in college we were asked to assemble around the flag post. We sang the national anthem, the flag was hoisted and the Principal, Sister Margaret Mary, spoke to us. She said that we must pray for our country and that difficult days were ahead.  What she said didn't make much sense, either.

After a few months, the nuns announced a retreat for which some girls were selected. I was one of them and so were my cronies, Charlotte, Hema and Raj. We were very happy because we were going miss some classes. The retreat was held at Lansdowne, once the summer residence of the Raja of Bobbili.

The retreat was nothing extraordinary, the usual life coaching stuff. After the first day’s sessions, we watched the sunset over the mountains, at peace with the world. Once night fell, a taxi drew up and two women got out. Soon we were all summoned to the living room. I don’t know if the lights went off or if they were switched off. Anyway, we waited in the dark; suddenly the door opened and the two women entered the room.

The curtains were drawn, a candle lit and they told us about what was happening in the world outside. They spoke of the arrests of the opposition, the press censorship and the total curbing of civil liberties. One of them pulled out a much folded newspaper from her bag and showed us a small personal advertisement. We read it by torch light.  It said “D.E.M.O’Cracy beloved husband of T.Ruth, father of L.I.Bertie, brother of Faith, Hope and Justice expired on 26 June.” This was a small ad which appeared in the Bombay edition of the Times of India. It was all very exciting. I was a little perturbed and wondered how long we could continue to live the way we did. The women left immediately after that. I don’t know who those women were and who brought them to Coonoor.

Anyway, whatever they said seemed very far away, as if it was happening in another country. Nothing disturbed the tranquility of the hills. There was dew on the lawns, the Nilgiri thrush called and we read our books curled on comfortable sofas. The wind whistled through the trees and the boys played cricket near the club. The seasons changed and life went on.

A few months later, we had two visitors from Madras Christian College, members of the Students Federation of India. They had permission from the Principal to talk to us. And speak they did. They were very rude and nasty. Little short of calling us idiots, they said everything else. They said that we have to leave the ivory tower and see what is happening around us. They spoke of how the world has changed and so on and so forth. Maybe what they said was true but we were all furious. They had given us a real shaking up.

We got angrier when we found out they were Ooty boys. We also discovered it was not all altruism on their part. Their ulterior motive was that they wanted to hang out in Provy but that wish of theirs was soon crushed.

After elections were announced and the news reports of the excesses of the Emergency started flowing in, I was horrified. The climb down from the ivory tower was complete.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Provy days – Down the Way

My cousins and siblings went to big city colleges. I took the path less trodden and went to Provy, a small college about 3 km from Sim’s Park and my home. It was with regret that I first entered the college; my mind was full of what ifs but being a realist I told myself that it was my own delinquency which brought me there.

photo courtesy:Samantha Iyanna

Providence College for Women is located on the Coonoor- Kotagiri road in a quaint campus of what was once the summer residence of the Maharaja of Travancore. The main house was a rabbit warren with rooms leading to rooms and more rooms; some with hidden recesses and creaking wooden floors.  There were some new buildings, of course, but these were utilitarian and quite characterless.
There were a number of springs in the property – hence the name Springfield, I presume.  Most of the rooms must have been bedrooms, with large windows and many doors. The biggest room was Room No 1 which had a verandah running around it. It must have been the room where the Maharaja received guests. Then there used to be a small room closer to the main gate which was called the Queen’s bathroom. The claim was that this room was the queen’s bathing room from where she would get fresh spring water from the small spring at the back; many claimed that they could get the smell of Ayurvedic oils at times.  The auditorium went by the grand name of the Silver Globe, but in reality it was just a long shed made of corrugated steel. The gardens in Provy were beautiful and the best of them was a rose garden with a naked little boy statue in the centre.
The trip to college was fun and I soon learned the joys of footboard travel. Once I even had the honour of being ordered inside, by none other than the Superintendent of Police.  The route was scenic and enchanting and even after those years in Provy I still love the drive.  The bus passed the houses with names like Atherston, Strathearn, Blair Athol and Blair Gowrie on Porter’s Avenue and you could see the mallis busy mowing the lawns or pruning the hedges. Once past the homes, the bus trundled under the shadow of Grant Hill and you would get a panoramic view of the hills across the wide sweep of the valley with the mulberry farm and maybe even a flash of silver as the stream deep down in the valley, meandered down the hills.
The students from outside the Nilgiris were from other districts of Tamil Nadu, parts of Kerala such as Cannanore, Kochi, Kottayam; there was also a rather large contingent from Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore and South Africa.  The foreign students were almost all planning to do medicine and had taken science. But the General English classes were common and we got to meet them there.
More than half the class wore half sari and were from Tamil medium schools.  The ones from Malaysia and Singapore were noticeable. They wore the ubiquitous black synthetic long skirt or black trousers which had one side of a zip attached to the bottom end. They doused themselves with perfume and wore synthetic blouses and shirts in bright colours. We from Coonoor and surrounding areas were particularly shabby in our faded denims and cottons.
(Now looking back I realize why. Tea was doing particularly badly and it was the beginning of the rupee-ruble crises. Cash must have been very tight.)
A few weeks after college started, two sisters from South Africa joined our class. They were of Tamil origin and planned to go to medical school in India. Both of them were older than the rest of us as they had worked to earn money to pay their way through college. They were brought to college by some of the local guys who we all knew by sight because they spent a lot of time outside the college gates.
When I got to know these girls they told me that they (the men) were like brothers and were very kind to them; even arranged a nice place to stay and so on. I told them to be careful, as I was local and I knew these guys were no good. The sisters  didn’t like that and I guess they told the men that because they used to slow down when they passed me by car or bike and stare rather insolently at me.
Unfortunately, I was proved right as these `brothers' tried to molest the girls. We heard of it through the usual unreliable Coonoor grapevine. The girls did not come to college for a week or so and when they turned up; they found that many of the girls who had been friendly with them were cold or downright hostile. So when I walked up to them to say hello, they were reproachful and asked me how come I didn’t also turn my back on them. That was my first experience of how a victim becomes the object of derision and prejudice.
The second blow for the South African girls came when the Government decided to withdraw the allotted seats in medical colleges for South African students. I used to see them off and on in college after that and I don’t think they completed the course, too.  

There were also two sisters from Malaysia. Both of them were very well dressed. They were friendly but no one –including me- wanted to be their friend. During the General English class one side of the large lecture hall would be empty while the entire class except the two sisters would be sitting on the other side. They had a major problem – incontinence.     
Life must have been tough for the two stinkos, as they were called. But they didn't bother. They would come and talk quite casually. And the recipients of the talk would be pulling out hankies or covering their noses with their jerseys. Slowly we learnt that their father was a postman (nearing retirement) in Malaysia and had borrowed money to send these two to college in India. Unlike the South African sisters, these two were not pretty or bright.
Then one day as we were lolling on the front lawn we noticed the stinkos all dolled up and waiting. Soon a bike came roaring in. We sat up. Two guys in leather jackets and dark glasses got off the bike. These guys were really good looking. We all sighed. Then came the shock. The stinkos ran up to them and then there was much hugging and kissing. Later, unable to bear the suspense any longer, we asked the stinkos who those guys were. The answer shocked us more, “Boyfriends lanot from Malaysia la, from Madras!”

My thanks to Samantha Iyanna for information


Friday, 13 June 2014

Guess Who Came to Dinner

One December, sometime in the late 70s, a doctor in Coonoor received an invitation to dinner from one of his old patients. The invitation was formal so was the dress decreed. This fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons pulled out his dinner jacket from the old sea trunk and shook out the moth balls hoping that the jacket would fit. So on the auspicious evening he set off to fulfill his duties as the friendly neigbhourhood doctor. His wife who had previous experience of such frivolity, declined graciously to accompany him.
On his drive up the hill, the doctor wondered if he could get out early. He devised various plans but abandoned them all, as the patient in question was an astute old lady who could see through all subterfuge. As he rounded the final hairpin bend on the road leading to the patient’s house, his car was stopped by a couple of white (as in Caucasian) young men in dark suits.
“We need to check the car, sir,” one of them said. Before he could respond, one of them flashed a torch into the back seat; the other opened the boot (which was unlocked). They smiled and waved him on. The doctor was very puzzled.
This bemusement heightened when he saw more dark suited men on his patient’s lawn. So it was with a sense of foreboding that the good doctor entered the house.  Imagine his shock when he saw the American ambassador to India, Robert F Goheen sitting there coolly sipping something from a tall glass,   as if he was in his grandmother’s house.
A small correction there, it was not his grandmother, it was his godmother. And the lady in question was none other than Marie Buck. Many old timers in Coonoor would remember her, all of 90 driving her old Willis jeep all over town, dressed in her trademark blue denim dungarees, coloured shirt and red headscarf tied in the land girl style.

The 1954 Willys Jeep which Marie Buck used to drive

I once remarked to my father on how well she drives at that advanced age and he replied, “She used to ride a horse when she was in her 80s".
Coonoor has always had its share of rich and famous. Some of them visit just once in a while; some others stay and make a difference. Some people leave and no one knows, while some others are missed. One of those of made a difference is Marie Buck, the person who started the Family Planning of India clinic in Coonoor and spent the last 14 years of her fruitful life in this hill station.
My father then told me that she was a director of Simpsons and the wife of the famous Harry Crowe Buck who started the YMCA College of Physical Education in Nandanam, Madras as Chennai was then known. In 1919, Harry Buck arrived in Madras from Springfield, Massachusetts with a mission to set up a college for physical training similar to one in Springfield.  That he accomplished and followed it up with more. He did much to make physical education a part of the school and college curriculum in the Madras Presidency. He also played a big part in forming the Indian Olympic Association, as well as selecting the first Indian Olympic team. He died at the age of 59 in 1943.
Marie Buck stayed back in India and continued working with the less fortunate. She joined Simpsons, a company in the Amalgamations Group, as Welfare Director in 1946. It was here she set up the first family planning advisory centre. She was one of the first to see the importance of the Pallikarnani marsh, a freshwater swamp, as a wetland ecosystem.
She also set up a farm not far from Pallikarnani, reclaimed the soil and grew diverse crops. Today this farm is known as J Farm belonging to the Amalgamations Group. In the early days, she would arrive in Simpsons with a car load vegetables for the office canteen.
In Coonoor, Marie Buck was a neigbhour of Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw , another famous man who spent his retirement here. Later she she moved to Kotagiri where she lived till she died in 1980.  

Sadly I don’t know more about this lady. I tried very hard to find out more but to no avail. I wish better records were maintained.

I would like to thank Mr Prem S Wallia, Managing Director, Stanes Amalgamated Estates Ltd and his secretary Mr JS Vijaykumar for their help in sourcing the material on Marie Buck and also for the photograph of the Jeep.