Adventures on an Indian Visa (week 10): Hill Stations

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Day 64

After completing the pen & paper version of the Thirukural, I printed out the first draft of my transcreation this morning, & was looking forward to a leisurely editing process, printing it out, drinking a few beers over a few plates of tasty food, scribbling away in a poetic half-dream. Of course I was wrong, this is India, too many variables, too many chances to progress on a plan. It begins with my new-found love for a possible new-found vocation of being a ‘literary archaeologist’, to whom the libraries of exotic countries are like the mausoleums of antique emperors, the treasures of which have lain undiscover’d under centuries of dust… & so to the central library at Madurai. I’d decided to spend a few hours there, unwinding & studying a few Tamil poetic measures, when I stumbled across the Nalatiyar. Well, less stumbl’d, more guided there by the statue of Thiruvallavar downstairs. It turns out that this collection of 400 quatrains is actually the revered sister-poem of the Kural, tho’ nowhere near as famous. There is an old Tamil proverb praising which says;

The Nalatiyar and the Thirukural are very good in expressing human thoughts just as the twigs of the banyan and the acacia trees are good in maintaining the teeth

I felt a bit like Howard Carter as he found a new door in the antechamber of what he thought had been the main royal tomb in 1922. Beyond that door lay Tutankhamun. “Great,” I thought, “a good reason to come back to Tamil Nadu…  wait a minute, fer fucks sake I’m here already!”

I decided there & then to ‘have a pop’ at it’s transcreation, shov’d the book up my shirt & left the library with my now stolen copy of the Nalatiyar. Life’s all about taking risks sometime, & this wee crime was something I just had to do. The Nalatiyar’s form is actually in quatrains, not the couplets of the Kural, but what I’m gonna do is find the main spirit of each quatrain & kuralize them. So tomorrow I leave the scene of the crime & head for the hills, where Kodaikanal sounds like a much more salubrious location to compose. It’s supposed to be a very gorgeous hill-station, with lakes & trees & shit, so happy days.

Day 65

This morning I printed out my version of the Kural at a nearby printers a shack – a rupee per sheet -, & as I flick’d through them walking back to my pad I felt like Thiruvallavar would have felt as he carried his palm leaf manuscript about the streets of Tamil Nadu 2000 years ago. It was now time to check out, but before I did I thought I’d get one of the hotel’s advertis’d continental breakfasts. It was basically a jam butty & a cup of coffee & after a lengthy parting argument with the owner he’s agreed to change the menu heading to ‘sub-continental breakfast.’ At the bus stand I topp’d up on poori instead & hopp’d on a bus to Kodaikanal, a journey which swept me plain-to-plain over the Palani Hills – a mountain spur that juts out easterly from the main chain of the western Ghats.

The final stages of my journey to Kodiakanal here were ones for the soul, my bus sluggishly climbing the winding mountain roads for a good 50 kilometres. At every turn the scenery was wonderful, from mile-high waterfalls to the glittering lakes in the plains far below. The lush greenery was pepper’d with purple,  pink & orange flowers, & the landscape seem’d very much like that of the Pyrenees. As India once more alter’d breathlessly its natural prospect, I recognised how much of a global microcosm this single nation is.

So, at the top of the Palani Hills, which at 2000 meters above sea level are twice as big as Ben Nevis, lies Kodaikanal, & I was rather surpris’d to discover how sprawl’d-out the busy, ‘taxi-taxi-taxi’ town was. With houses hugging the slopes all around the central lake, I felt like I was in Rome or Sheffield, only up high in the heavens as the plains below us were obscur’d by a pure white sea of cloud, shining brilliantly under an unadulterated sun.

I spent the day pottering about & working on the Naltiyar & the printed Kural, & found that whereas by day, Kodaikanal is a pleasant 20 or so degrees, by night & the temperature drops to about 10 & I found myself practically freezing to death, & so rush’d to my bed & the epic blankets the hotel provided. It made me realise I will definitely need some warmer clothing if ever I get to the Himalayas.

Day 66

This morning I woke up with what turned out to be a wee spot of flu. After spending a couple of hours in bed with a fever & convinced I was dying of some kind of fatal mosquito-borne disease, I explain’d my symptoms to a pharmacist & a few pills later & I was feeling better. But not wanting another chilly night to aggravate things, I decided to seek instead the invisible duvet that is lowland India & descend once more to the heat of the plains.

The journey to Palani was among the greatest I have ever taken. The mountains were simply gorgeous, a kind of snowless New Zealand, lush with the greenery of an English country forest. Half-way down the serpentine roads we even stopped for tea at a lovely spot, perch’d high over the plains. Below me, by a glittering lake, was the temple town of Palani. We reach’d there after a pleasant descent, the green sea of coconut groves growing ever nearer, until with a metaphorical splash those treetops were now above my head.

I had a bit of time before my next bus, so I took a wee trip to a temple, perch’d atop a little hill, with the mountains I had recently left behind towering magnificently over the scene. It was totally rammers inside, with the rattle of toy plastic guns going off every few feet. The vibes weren’t for me, so I took a walk around a bit of the lake instead – where I got my feet mucky as fuck. There then followed an amusing moment when I thrust myself among some women filling up their water carriers, asked to use the tap, & got my feet & sandals cleaned by a not unattractive bird.

My next bus took me to the city of Coimbatore, the supposed Manchester of India. I have to disagree, tho’, for everyone here has a charming, accent, pleasing & amiable manner, plus the sun shines all the time – & I haven’t even heard Fools Gold once. At first I thought that I had another Ramashwaram on my hands – its still holiday time & every lodge was filled up. Luckily, I manag’d to get a room in a pretty decent hotel just towards the end of a long semi-fluey day – but I’m still alive & I’m still working on my poetry! This evening was the one in my life where I was transcreating the Nalatiyar in Coimbatore. It just sounds fuckin’ cool, dunnit!

Day 67

Felt much better this morning & hit the Indian morning rushathon with a smile. My hotel’s quite central & I felt like someone who lives in Soho stepping out into Tottenham Court Road. I’m totally in my element here, an anonymous being roaming among this seething mass of humanity. Back in Britain I kinda dawdle about on the outside of society as a poet – I don’t even do performance poetry, & I’m too epic for the publishers, so I’m pretty much on my own. Out here things, tho’, things feel very different, I feel a part of the eternal, international poetic consciousness – with the added bonus of watching live premiership footy in my hotel room!

Coimbatore is also hosting this trade fair at the moment, & I went down to check it out. I was a little disappointed at first, until I was told I’d gone into the children’s’ playground next door by mistake. But I did see some kids playing kabbadi on rollerskates – very cool. Next door was the trade fair; one big, happy Tamil family full of stalls which in the main were as tacky as Burnley’s indoor market. There was a wicked fair, though, whose rides; from ferris wheel to crazy spinny things, would put many in Britain to shame… but after the waltzers on Brighton pier back in 2001 I’d sworn I’d never get on another fairground ride & stick firmly to my vow. However, I’ve never said anything about camel rides, & after watching groups of up to 4 parents & kids float about these ships of the desert, I thought ‘fuck it,’ paid 40 rupees so I could have the thing to myself, & went bobbing about the fair, the only adult on a camel, much to everyone’s amusement.

Got an email from Kate, my pal from Goa. Apparently, she & Steve, along with Jimmy Van de Mere & a few others, are all heading to the Andaman Islands & will be in Chennai soon. I’ve googl’d them & they look fantastic. To get there you have to cross the Bay of Bengal on a big ship, so that’s also cool. The problem is Charlie. He really does get on peoples’ tits, I can handle him, but so many times I’ve heard – ‘is Charlie your mate, Damo?’ & I’m like ‘yeah,’ then they say quite curtly, ‘why?’ So I’ve hatch’d a plan – Charlie definitely needs rehab, so a stint in an ashram will definitely help, so I’m gonna google some near Chennai, drop him off at one, then fuck off to the Andamans for a week or two, before heading back to Chennai & hitting the road with him. Tho’ its also possible to sail to Visakapatnam, which is further up the coast. We’ll see what happens, but first things first I’m off to a place call’d Ooty tomorrow, a heat-avoiding hill station used by the British during the days of the Raj.

Day 68

There is an expression – about fuckin’ time – & after traipsing around the dusty libraries of the busy Tamil plains I have finally found a poet’s paradise. Writing in India is a weird experience – most of the time it’s just like London, where you can’t hear yourself think, but on occasion she’ll throw up situations & scenery to send the soul searing. My journey here began by taking the Niligris Mountain Railway up to Ooty – at a max speed of 33 KPH. It is very famous – & deservedly so –, & has UNESCO world heritage status. For all its fame it only cost me 4 rupees (5p). At Ooty, maybe fifty people got off – so that’s 200 rupees, or three quid generated for the company – it must be subsidised somewhere. The journey itself was very pleasant, climbing way up high up in the mountains, & as we broke out over the sheer drops it gave the sensation of flying through the air.

On the way to Ooty, about 17 k shy, we pass’d thro a place call’d Coonoor, which look’d really beautiful. Ooty itself was a bit of a dump, so I thought I’d stay in Coonoor instead, & set off on a glorious walk. I followed the train route, sometimes on the tracks, sometimes on little paths by the side, & didn’t get run over once. There was forest & vistas everywhere, punctured by the occasional cow or guy hacking at eucalyptus with a scimitar. The highlight of the walk was the epic expanse of the Ketty Valley, where little clusters of pastel houses trickle off toward the shadowy peaks far in the distance. It was very Scottish, like Avimore but sunnier. Every few kilometres I came across a wee station, which refreshed me with chi. At one of these, Lovedale, I had a great time, from playing on some kid’s fullsize drumkit, to meeting some genuine Todas.

There are only 1000 Todas alive today, & up until relatively recently were left to their little mountain kingdom. Then, 130 years ago, some British geezer saw the tea-growing potential of the climate & bought vast swathes of land for a rupee an acre. The Todas are buffalo herders & trinket makers, their main settlement being 10 miles away from Lovedale. Having donn’d my amateur anthropologist hat, I check’d out the three families that lived at Lovedale. One guy was a carrot farmer & as his wife fed us coffee (& tried to sell me knitted mobile phone holders). I discover’d he made 800 quid a year, but didn’t have to pay the government any taxes at all, what with him being a rare endangered tribe & all.

So, I arrived in Coonoor & took a room in a decent hotel. There are hardly any tourists & the scenery is just a tree or two short of Eden. The town is stacked against steep slopes, & is busy but not buzzin’. The view from my hotel looks over the stage-set centre of town &, best of all, there’s no fuckin mosquitos. After resting a bit, I took an evening stroll, feeling completely safe & unphazed. I don’t really wander about Indian streets at night, you’re always watching out for dodgy fuckers. However, this walk was inestimably peaceful, taking me to a wee suburb of Coonoor that clung to the sides of a deep river valley. Feeling my spirit relax for the first time in ages I sat down to soak in the atmosphere, just as the minaret of a wee mosque lit up & a local Imam began praising Allah. It was lovely to hear, especially as the holy song echoed around the vale. I wander’d about a bit more, the rivers rushing filling my ears, along narrow streets, past wee one floor houses with corrugated rooves &  satellite dishes – then saw a sight I probably won’t forget ‘til I die. It was basically Siamese twin-dogs – joined at a buttock & just standing there doing fuck all – one with 3 legs & the other with 4. I went to stroke them, but the 4-legged one freaked out & began to drag the 3 legged one away. I watched all 7 legs kinda scamper away & mused upon God’s acid-taking.

Day 69

Today I was completely immers’d in flower-peppered walks, from lofty dams to fertile carroty valleys, as I work’d on the hardcopy Kural. The day began by hopping on an early bus & bantering away with loads of friendly school kids. The bus dropped me off 2k over Coonor & I then set off on a hike to the fabl’d Lambs Rock & Dolphins Nose, for apparently they had spectacular views. Unfortunately a thick cloud had fallen & I could see fuck all apart from the waterfall-dotted forest all about me. Then, when the road broke out of the trees, I found myself crossing the slopes of a massive tea plantation. I’d never seen tea growing before, & there wasn’t a drawstring bag to be seen. The tea bush is 2 foot tall, with green leaves 3-4 inch long & 1-2 inch wide. Somehow 3,500 years ago some of them fell into Chinaman’s cup of boiling water & hey presto, the magic brew. I also had a similar epiphany involving this magic herb. I needed a dump, so did one among some tea bushes. Then wiping with aforementioned leaves, I found them the smoothest I had ever used, better even than andrex extra-soft!

The whole are is really just one big tea plantation, peppered with little villages & rows of Butlins’ chalets to house the pickers (1.50 a day for 8 hours). British mountains are often purpley with heather or brown with bracken, but in comparison the Niligris are very, almost purely, green. The best way to describe the scenery is to picture normal British hill country, then cut a huge wedge of rock out of it a mile deep, then cover this with lush forest. Every ten yards a new vista opens up; from the immense white snakelike streak of water that hangs from Catherine Falls; to the view from Droog, which took in twenty miles of Niligris – the town of Coonoor the pastel-spangled jewel in its crown.

Further along the walk I came across a series of shops selling assorted teas – I tried a few, including a very delicious chocolatey one. Nearby by was a wee village call’d Karanci, very Italian, & clinging to a hilltop with the now clearing views of the Coimbatore plains far, far below. My gut instinct was to stay, & within half-an-hour had found a guy whose family are on holiday. He’s agreed to rent me a part of his bungalow tonight & tomorrow, & even cook for me – so my colonial dream has finally come true! I rang up the hotel to tell them I was staying here but to keep my room going.

Being up in such a peaceful spot help’d me gather my thoughts & after a bit of study I’ve found an ideal ashram for Charlie – who doesn’t know the plan yet, by the way.  It’s called Pudupatthi, & tomorrow I’ll go down to Coonoor station to book us a couple of tickets – you need to think ahead in India, leading to the following sonnet. I also penn’d the following sonnet;

I took a breath or two of night-time air,
My heart not knowing why, my legs not where,
The starry skies obscured by gremlin cloud,
I headed for the hilltop temple loud,
Where rattled such a throng of Saivite,
Songs echoing thro ‘Niligrisian night,
Seeming another Tuscany to me,
For India oft felt like Italy,
& all was silver as a Silver Oak,
For searing thro the deep & astral smoke,
I found there was a full moon pulling clear,
These are the moments poets hold so dear,
Thro’ selene scenes setting dream-trails in store,
When ´morrow morns may pass these ways once more.

Day 70

Seventy days – wow that’s a lot. So I spent the latest of these at the delightful village of Karanci, perch’d beneath the Guernsey Tea Factory like some industrial-age Lancashire milltown. About a hundred houses cling to a sheer slope, with a temple at the top that rewards the hike up to it with wonderful views of the surrounding hills & the plains of Coimbatore. By day it’s kinda busy, but after 9PM the whole thing shuts down into a dogbark silence. There is this cute as fuck ‘high street,’ with little chicks fluffing about, & young goats warming themselves by a log-burner. There was a tailor, a chi shop, a wee place to get some food & a little grocers. For the first time in two months I bought some fruit & veg & made a meal using ‘mutton masala’ for the spicy sauce. It wasn’t bad either, tho’ my landlord Deva wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole & got annoyed every time I tried to wash up.

Saying that, my host was magic. I think he appreciated the company while his family is on holiday, plus the celebrity the village gossips gave him in having the first ever tourist (possibly) to actually sleep in the village. He’s a very simple man who earns a couple of quid a day working at the tea plaza next door. Every lunchtime, for about two hours, he shows a steady stream of tourist buses in for the obligatory cup of chi. The rest of the time he just potter’d about, calling me ‘sir’ all the time. On one occasion this afternoon I was watching Friends on TV & he came in & disapproved of the kissing on it. I’ve now found out that Christian Tamils don’t kiss – not even during lovemaking. In fact, I don’t think they do that either. To keep warm he sleeps with his daughter all his life & his wife sleeps with their son – all in the same room (which I’ve now got). He asked me if I was married, & I said I’ve been seeing someone five years, & he goes “but you’re not married – I suppose you have spent five years just talking then, sir!”

After my wee Friendsathon, I borrow’d Deva’s scooter & rode down to Coonoor to buy the Pudupatthi tickets, a frustrating experience which led to the penning of the following sonnet;

Such heaps of despatch boxes, such mounds of record boxes,
Such vast fabrics of pigeon holes, such abandon of red tape

William Howard Russell

I found myself waiting at this train station,
Not for a train, it was just to buy a ticket,
Not even for that day, but eleven in the future,
The next one available from Cochin to Calicut;
& I´m waiting & I’m waiting & I´m waiting nit-pick longer,
& the guy behind the desk´s on his third guy in an hour
& I was fourth, but the seventh guy´s hand starts waving
His reservation form as the third guy was about to finish;
So, I warned fifth, sixth, & seventh they´d be foolish for linecuttin,’
After all, I’d bin in the sun all day like a mad English dog
& my legs felt like lead & I was definitely, definitely, goin’ next…
So, the third guy finishes, & just as I thrust my form thro’ the window
The fella behind the desk decides he needs the fuckin’ toilet…
Then, when he’d finish’d, the scoundrel closes the window fer lunch!

On the rising of the full moon, & with it being my last night in the Niligris, I went out for a midnight hike in the epic, creaking Eucalyptus forests that climb out of the thick knots of Acacias like ballet dancers rising from the waves. Twenty minutes into my walk a car stopped & this gruff voice asked me where I was going. It turns out the forests are full of wild animals – cheetahs, panthers, charging bison, etc. – & I was sure to become one of the daily ‘incidents’ that plague the area. Suffice it to say I got a lift back to Karanci with them & from that moment on stuck firmly to my room.


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