The tea gardens stretched endlessly in front of us and not a soul was in sight. This is a rarity in India, and only one other time have we ever found ourselves alone as can be, in the Ooty Nilgiris. The hillside belonged to us today, but we there was also a sense of detachment: from the well-appointed hotels in the distant hills, the buses wheezing up to Chithirapuram, and the straggling tourists who had just walked away, all photo opportunities exhausted.
G. and I chose to visit Munnar in August, when it was wet as could be, for two reasons: we live in the rain-shadow city of Chennai, and rains tend to drive tourists away, leaving our high-and-mighty selves plenty of room to explore. We were booked into a very cosy home-stay with friendly hosts who piled delicious home-made food on us. We also had company in civets, who climbed up to the tin roofs every night, competing with the (often) thundering rain.
The road leading up to the buildings was in disrepair, and because G. and I were on foot most of the time, we slithered up and down the path not too gracefully every time we wanted to get to town. A steep, narrow road wreathed in rich green opened on the other side on to a line of houses, where, doubtless, the inhabitants drank coffee and read their newspapers and watched a couple struggling up the slope, an expression of wonder etched on their faces at the enormous beauty the locals were privileged to live amidst.
That afternoon, we had walked to Chithirapuram, where kindly shopkeepers patiently answered our questions in English or Tamil, as we tried to choose chips from the bewildering variety laid out in front of us. With our meagre shopping finished, we boarded a bus back to our home-stay. The conductor hung daringly from the step, even as the packed bus swayed on the hill roads, making schoolgirls, teachers, and stray tourists struggle for breath. A girl politely stood up and offered G. her seat. Idukki is one of the most well-mannered districts I’ve ever been to, even if some of its school teachers don’t think twice about shoving people out of their way in a hurry to get off the bus.
G. and I wandered into the plantations, watching the dramatic overtures of the clouds to the velvety hills. The sun made fleeting appearances, usually without much success.
On a good day, the hills embrace you. They take you in and speak to you. They tell you their secrets, make you feel wanted and loved. All they ask is not to be devalued. G. and I both grew up on the coast, by the Bay of Bengal, but in different cities. Chennai has no hills, while Vizag is dotted with the gentle Eastern Ghats and is easily one of the prettiest places on the planet. Both of us appreciate the hills better than the sea: some cold weather, a crackling fire, good music, and books are all we need for a pleasant holiday. (We are just about approaching middle age, but this is what metropolises do to you.)
Given our upbringing, we don’t really understand the hills. We just woo them foolishly or are awe-struck by them. We pine for them most of the year and surround ourselves with the fragrance of lemongrass and eucalyptus. We romanticise them. Then we read Ruskin Bond or talk to friends who have recently trekked in the Himalayas, so that we can spiral into a state of envy before we realise that the Nilgiris are worth their own weight in gold.
Walking along the winding slopes, we finally found a comfortable seat; a rock that seemed to have been planted in the red soil just for us, overlooking the plantations and row upon row of hills. To this day, it remains my most favourite perch, pushing the Tolkienesque wooden chair in a sun-dappled Sussex forest to second-best. Nothing mattered except the present: the rain-scented breeze, the immensity of the hills, and the sight of more green than I could fathom. I felt a kind of peace that I’d never known before. There was nowhere else to go, nobody to rush to. We could just be.
Wispy clouds meandered across the sky, first snaking through the valleys, then hugging the slopes, blotting out the sun, and eventually rolling thick and heavy right overhead. We had very little time to react. The clouds opened up in a downpour before we knew it, swirling and dancing into our plantation. We scrambled off the rock to find our way back to our home-stay.
Barely aware of where we were going, we walked for a few minutes in the opposite direction, getting deeper into the tea gardens, before we realised that there were no familiar signs in the little we could see of the boundary. Holding our single umbrella aloft and gripping each other hard because we didn’t want any mishaps — this was an area without cellphone connectivity — we inched back the way we had come. Some more minutes passed before we spotted the turns we had taken earlier, and soon, our very own bus stop.
Our hosts saw our bedraggled forms appear and offered us some tea, which I accepted thankfully, sinking down on one of the plastic chairs under the tin roof, on which the rain was now banging down. This was by no means an extraordinary adventure — we were also no strangers to sudden mists. However, we were mesmerised by what we had experienced in about an hour: accepted, embraced, threatened, rejected, all in a trice.
Idukki was ravaged by floods exactly a year later. I am sorry that we never got back in touch with our home-stay owners. We had planned to go back and stay with them later in the year to see the kurinji malar bloom. That didn’t happen, but maybe the hills will call us again. In the meantime, whenever I miss Idukki, I turn to this lovely song.