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An epic BMW ride through southern India

Our general plan was to stick to the hills if we could, and head up to Mysore for some interesting temples and then east across to Bangalore where we had a contact in the Rotary Club through my father. It would be a roller coaster ride obliging us to hit the plain again before climbing to an evening stop at Ootacamund. We had slept late. It was easy to do in a dark cool room, cocooned with a weight of bedding just like home. I calculated that to make Ooty it would be a very long day with a fair distance in the dark over tortuous roads which would only slow our pace further. It would also be very cold. Ooty, the granddaddy of all southern hill stations, was five hundred feet higher.

It would have been possible to free wheel the fifteen clicks down to Perumulumalai. The road was so steep and momentum would have seen us around the corners and along the short flats before another sharp descent. It was prudent and safer though, to save the brakes from undue wear, and take all in gear on the over run. The downside of a long descent like this is that the plugs are inclined to foul up and you may not have any response if you need to get out of trouble. By the time we got down to the junction too much Indian oil, which seems to know no viscosity, had got past the rings and I whipped out the offenders for a clean. The prospect of chai and a cigarette was again a winning temptress. I could survive admirably on that combination.

Our first landmark would be the temple town of Palani, on the plain, where else? and tucked up in the lea of the ghats. On my way up the mountain I had been preoccupied with my own problems of healing wounds and a festering marriage. Going down I thought of those who had missed more glorious mornings like this through sickness or suicide, and of the large lizard in the road which was suddenly scooped up by an opportunist eagle. As the raptor flew off, I shall never forget its paddling feet, and I imagine surprise, at this accelerated evolution to avian status. A date to be lunch had never figured in its diary.

The ride again followed the contours of more rounded hills, fertile with coffee and bananas where the basalt rock had been weathered into a tilth. The more arid uplands were a tangle of scrub and elephant grass, useless for fodder, but good for fuel and thatch. A rather pretty shrub with multi coloured florets lined the verges and sometimes a procession of women with hefty bundles of firewood or water pots on their heads would come into view, all smiling and chattering, all alive. They lived in a suitable place and I think they knew it. Their homestead compounds were swept clean and lined out with flower pots of dizzy lizzys, fuchsias and foliage plants with variegated leaves in purple, red and yellow. God does love a gardener! Occasionally there were inaccessible and forested valleys through which we could just glimpse a cauldron of heat and dust. It was a wonderful run but got exponentially hotter by the minute. We had slept at ten degrees and we’d find thirty six down at the bottom. A big leap in a couple of hours. It was also very hard on my wrists with constant braking and I had to hang on tight to fight any twitch from potholes or small rocks in the road. With the front end so loaded, tank slappers were not impossible and an uncontrollable exit off the road would have had us joining the peregrines.

A good enough reason to take a breather came with what was the halfway stop going the other way. Ambassadors coming up were having their spluttering radiators replenished while their drivers looked on incredulously at blistering engines, and the few buses coming down had such cooked brakes that the front hubs would have glowed in the dark. As we puttered in to park up, we were met by a garage fragrance of burnt oil, frazzled asbestos and rusty steam, only to have its odour challenged by the sweet smell of express from immediately across the road. The opposite verge doubled for a busy urinal. It was a unique olfactory cocktail. Perhaps we should call it a ‘Hari piston banger’!

The hotel was a clean and extensive place, designed to provide protection from the elements, and meals for a bus load or more. It was simply built out of rough poles and iron sheeting, with the considerate addition of a little garden at the rear with a few tables and chairs. Unfortunately no attention had been paid to ventilation, and it was choking with acrid wood smoke from the chai brazier and grid iron which was turning out omelettes and wafer thin dosas the diameter of a child’s bicycle wheel. It would have been an ample candidate for three Michelin stars, in acceptable hygiene, particulate matter, and intense heat. We sauntered through to the back and sat out on a spur with the panorama of Palani below us. It’s a rare view. Tucked into a crucible formed by the mountains is a large tank providing irrigation for acres of banana and mango, a matrix in shades of green. A few kilometres away from the arable land lies the dust blown town with barren mountain sides to its west, and dominated by its ancient temple sitting high up on a near inaccessible volcanic outcrop. You can make out the fortified walls painted in red and white vertical stripes, a shaivite combination. To the east is an endless void of dust loaded haze.

We ordered omelettes, chappatti and chai, and were just enjoying the view and warm light breeze off the mountain when we were politely accosted by a young man dressed immaculately in white dhoti, worn long, and crisp white shirt. He was far too presentable to have come off the bus and too clean for a waiter. He also looked too young to be driving a car. Amazingly for these parts, he spoke good English and declared himself the owner. I gambled from his dress code and lack of statuary by the till, that he was Moslem, and before he could say more, I greeted him with a Salaam Alekum. It was returned with a surprised excited smile and a good handshake.

Back in Saudi I had witnessed this greeting for the first time, and was always impressed by this innocent bonding of men and introduction invoking a higher order; so much better than a ‘how do you do’! In recent years in Pakistan, coupled with an embrace, I have felt the physical condition of my friend since last meeting. It’s a very reciprocal acknowledgement and I have always liked a firm handshake. It can tell you a lot, like people who don’t like cats. Additionally I have this theory that if you get the greeting in first and it is duly returned, there is a lesser lightly hood of being cheated in business or having your throat slit.

Anoor Mohamed Sait, it was. He had not met any English before and we had a barrage of questions about our journey, what was its purpose, what did we do for a living, and sensible observations about the bike. He was clearly an intelligent lad and we learnt that he looked after the hotel and nearby coffee plantations for his father. I was itching to get on but this new conversation was quite a novelty. Manuharan had been quite reserved and Samba was partly westernised. This was an opportunity to learn a little of Moslem culture and especially from its young generation. The late morning ran into mid day and we were still drinking tea! He showed us where he was building a small house at the end of the spur for when he got married. The foundation was there and a temporary hut on top for his simple quarters. Its completion was a few years away and then so was his wedding. It was written. He knew of love marriages in the Christian and Hindu community, but could not, either through opportunity or example, understand the concept. He was baffled by our lack of desire for children after four years of marriage. For him, this life was this mountain and many heirs. While we strolled through the coffee plantations we told of pub jazz bands, college discos and skinny dipping. He told of the dowry, gold and land, that his betrothed would bring. I tried to explain the alchemic process of combining malted barley and hops. He did know a little of that but without the hops. Perhaps there was a glimmer of change. He showed us how the beans were rotted in water to remove the fleshy skins and extolled the virtues of Arabica over the bitter Robusta that grew on the Kerala side.

Our day had been jinxed in a pleasant way and it remained to sort out where we would stay for the night. We quizzed Anoor about suitable places in Palani of which there were quite a few for temple devotees. From what we’d seen in Madurai, they were not the most endearing of places except for the room service boys on each floor which always appeared at the ping of a bell. They would bring anything off the street for a small tip and always with a smile.

Anoor begged to be our evening host and we could use his hut. There were two charpoys in there, a long drop loo off the edge of a precipice, and plenty of blankets for the katabatic chill. Heartfelt and hospitable, it would have been poor manners to refuse. He disappeared off, we presumed, to attend to his coffee pluckers and other labour. It was only mid afternoon and the hottest time of day, so about right for a welcome siesta. The little thatched hut was remarkably cool and sleep came easily after our extended walkabout.

About five o’clock he turned up again. Unknown to us he had gone down to his home on the bus and asked if we could stay there. Cleared with his parents he had come back up again on a friend’s motorbike. It had been a two hour roundabout trip. For both of us this was an outstanding gesture and a first. There was no gain in this offer except possibly our novelty value and a bit of family one-upmanship. We were most amenable to the prospect of being hosted by our first Moslem family.

Following the boys down was an eye opener in Tamil motorcycle tactics. Like their cricket they took the hairpins with youthful abandonment oblivious to gravel or oncoming cars. Maybe it was an arabica high but I was happy to be far more cautious and catch up on the straight bits. I was in good shape now and wanted to stay that way.

We arrived in the Moslem quarter to a throng of curious and excited children who had been playing on waste ground covered in litter and plastic. Under the cover of dark for many it was the communal latrine. It was in such stark contrast to those few hours ago. The houses in this enclave were all reasonably modern if a bit tatty. They would have all had some form of bathroom. I had noticed this before and just could not understand their preference for defecating in the open. Outwardly they are a clean and well groomed people and you would only see my level of scruffiness in a beggar or a vagrant. I found these bathroom habits impossible to understand and annoyingly dangerous. Abject poverty does not exist in the south and even if it were applicable, it is no excuse for this habit, and I have reason to know that there are practical alternatives. During my time at university I lived in a derelict farm cottage and was the proud custodian of a two holer long drop. A bit of wood ash thrown in occasionally and it was sweet. No flies and no problem. I may hark on about this litter and shit business but these facets of India, apart from ineptitude and chaos, are, in a country blessed with such extraordinary beauty, the ones which would make any first time visitor distraught.

I have two theories on this. One is observational and the other just frightening. First the litter. They are born into it. They don’t notice it. Having it around is synonymous with a sense of home. It accumulates, deliquesces, blows away, and accumulates again. I reckon they see it as we would autumn leaves on the pavement, in the park, and blown across the road. Our detritus is autumnal and biodegradable, there’s is perennial and ever present. Like ourselves it does not mar their concept of beauty.

The second concerns the shit. In a country of a billion people there’s lots. If half through choice, or lack of amenity, use the fields, the railway tracks or the road, that’s one hundred thousand metric tonnes of faeces ‘out’ there on a daily basis. I might be conservative. Many have dysentery and other protozoan infections. If it is amoebic and those singular critters are present in moist faeces, and if my school biology is again correct, then these little bugs have the capacity to encyst, protect their cell wall, when the crap dries out. Maybe you see where I am going with this? By lunch time it has all dried out and a fair portion, the shear mass is academic, is on the wind. We are healthily rattling along on our big motorcycle, or you might have your head out of the train door, remember those bars? when wham one of those armoured little buggers hits your palette. Once it realizes it’s well positioned and in a warm moist place, it does what we all like best, attempt to breed. Unfortunately it is one stud of a bug and far more successful than us. Within days we’ll need to hole up very near a bathroom or join the others in the bushes.

Anoor’s father welcomed us at the door and shoeless we were ushered into a tidy enough sitting room and coffee was brought in by his veiled wife. He had that aura of a good man and had us proudly seated whilst he served the best of his crop. Through Anoor we learnt that he was a general haulage contractor and owned not only the coffee up on the mountainside but also the mango plantations we had seen way down below. For a wealthy family the home was minimalist, and for decoration just a picture of Mecca during the Haj and a few Quranic prayers in flowing script hung on the walls. There was not a book in sight, nothing to show the passions or interest of a man. Perhaps our relative wealth is in time where we can afford to pursue pastimes to bolster our ego or convince ourselves of happiness. It was clear from his hospitality that this, his family, and his land were enough. It was a very simple outlook but with a grand result, contentment.

I cleaned off our dusty panniers as best I could, and brought them in from the street before inquisitive fingers figured out the locks and their whole contents tumbled into the gutter. Through and at the back of the house we were given a small room with two charpoys for beds and an attached bathroom open to the sky. It was fine with the usual squat and a waist high brick cistern, a jug and a bucket. The occasion did demand a thorough scrub and change of clothes. As much as being good manners it was a treat for us. Moving on, invariably on a daily basis, does not give any opportunity for clothes washing. We made a striking couple, Paula was beautiful, slender and tall, I looked more like a Pathan with shoulder length hair and long red beard. Christ like had been a comment! That would be a difficult one to follow but no harm in trying!

As the sun dipped over the hills we went up on to the roof with Anoor and rolled a few cigarettes whilst smiling at the children who had now amassed on the waste ground opposite. They were a rag tag bunch but all smiling and laughing. Occasionally, goaded by impish peers, one would let out a ‘how are you’ or ‘what is your name’ to more applause and giggling. I liked the children. I liked their potential. It was sad to think that all this innocence was separated at age ten but there was a comfort in knowing that they had at least a childhood and were not glued to a box.

For Anoor’s family, the dawn to dusk regime ran like clockwork. We were called down from our nicotine reverie to quite a spread of food. The sitting room table had been moved to one side and a clean white sheet and four cushions placed on the floor. An invisible matriarch had rustled up quite a feast. In a range of stainless pots we had goat biryani, aloo ghobi, chicken curry and a mound of chappatti. There are no fridges in domestic rural India. There is no need. Before us was goat and chicken which had seen the sunrise and Anoor’s mother had gone into town to acquire it. Abdul Jabbar now delighted in playing the patriarch. Perhaps with an eye to our custom he served Paula first with a little of each. I percieved that from within the large pot of chicken curry, which must have been the product of two scrawny chickens, he was being quite selective in the leg and thigh department. It was amusing to think that maybe a carnal whim could be transmuted to the presentation with such panache, of a chicken thigh and a delicate run of gravy!

Whether my impure thought was immediately countered by Abdul or some higher being, still makes me smile as I write this. Ever the observer, I had noticed that lurking in the chicken pot besides the meaty bits, was their entire constitution. All that was missing was the head and feathers. What followed was a ‘Meaning of Life’ story board. With the bonnehommie of a Parisian maître d’, Abdul proceeded to select what he considered to be the most choicest intestinal pieces. With a vacuous grin on my face, I sat mute and aghast, as a gizzard, a heart, possibly a lung, and the parson’s nose was ceremoniously spooned onto my plate with his smiling and only words in English ‘very good’! I had no option but to play the honoured guest. Meanwhile Paula was wetting herself. It was the most cheerful I had seen her in a long while. By swallowing the offending organs whole, and diluting the experience with a rapid intake of biryani, I was able to stall a peristaltic spasm and show a clean plate. Unfortunately this had an unwarranted effect. Our host took this as a great compliment and despite my ample gesticulations to being replete, duplicated the serving, with a confirmatory and now exclamatory ‘very good!!’. Paula excused herself and must have put her face in a pillow.

The following morning we woke early and well. Bucket washed we enjoyed a simple breakfast and Paula was able to meet and thank Abdul’s wife on both our behalves. We bade our sincere salaams to Anoor and his father and prepared the bike for the road. It was not long before the children from the previous evening appeared and in Abdul’s disciplinarian presence they were a lot calmer. As a little treat I took them in batches of three up the lane and back through the waste ground dodging the first stools of the day. We left behind us a happy crowd and an indelible memory of our first Moslem experience and that offal curry.

We had been lucky to date that every night stop was a new revelation and sensory feast. Mornings had brought the magnitude of architecture or grandeur of terrain. Had we stuck to the centre of Tamil Nadu we could have gone temple hopping for days and been saturated with Dravidian architecture. Our remit though on this journey was to take a meandering course north, and take in as much as had been recommended by seasoned travellers but remain flexible if a lateral adventure was worth the ride and a debit on our time or budget. Anything east of a mid line through India would be off limits and so Orissa or Varanasi did not figure. It was a shame because I could have done with some supreme pornography although not a divine reminder of the fragility of life.

From Palani it was like riding through a foundry. On the national highway to Coimbatore we were running a gauntlet of cement and fertilizer factories surrounded by monotonous arid scrub land. Looking skywards was a curious aerial landscape. A pollutant spectrum of smoke billowed upwards only to be met by a temperature inversion and be blown horizontal by a hot breeze off the plain and headed for Kerala. Even at our level the air was laden with grit, dust and smuts. My overgrown moustache was a poor substitute for a filter and always an unrelenting sun bore down on us like a returning space capsule. The only let up was to ride at a brisk lick and get some wind chill from all that sweat that we must have been producing. Past Pollachi it was all getting to much like hard work and the prospect of getting bogged up in a totally industrialized Coimbatore not a comfortable option. Our map showed a longish detour via Annur to Ooty on state highways which had always proved quieter, and so after refuelling to capacity, we turned off into the unknown. Domestic and industrial development seems to be prioritised only along the national highways and we were only off piste for a few kilometres when India became rural again, the air was cleaner and back came those wonderful avenues of banyan, bullock carts and a shady stop for chai. It was harvest time and not a tractor or combine in sight. Women and men wielded sickles in time to a rhythmic round and the fields were stacked out with sheaves of wheat and rice being loaded onto wagons. Some had their stubble on fire whilst others were being ploughed with pairs of oxen struggling to pull just a single share through the hard earth. It was a wholesome earthy industry, everybody involved,men, women and children. It seemed a village affair which bound them together and to the soil. Timeless but not of our time.

I thought of my father and William. As a boy my dad had knocked out his front tooth in an unrepeatable fashion. At harvest time it was an evening habit to leave empty wagons and harness out in the fields. He had been taking the tack off a shire horse, only thinking of that bareback gallop back to the stables, when the shafts dropped and the hooked chain which secures them over the top of the saddle came flying over. I wouldn’t be surprised if William new that trick, and it saddened me to think that he had been obliged to exchange shires and a hay wain for horses and a gun carriage. They both would have been at home here in this rural backwater on the cusp of an industrial revolution. Traction engines had come to the larger estates in their youth, and as we crossed the narrow gauge line at Mettupalayam, they would have recognised the little steam engine, with a tender of eucalyptus logs, taking eager passengers and provisions up to Ooty.

We for once were making good time and detoured via Kotagiri, the first hill station in these parts. The Nilgiris must get more rainfall than the Palani hills, and maybe it’s due to that extra height which just gives them an edge catching the clouds. Even now, in the dry season, they had better green cover than Kodi, and a mixed forest of teak and evergreen hardwood opened up into manicured tea gardens on rounded hills and steep valley sides. It’s an instant panorama just appearing around a bend in the road, like opening the door onto a box at the theatre, and in stark contrast to the wooded claustrophobia of the climb up.

I had not seen so much tea since Sarojina and the Sandringham estate way back in Sri Lanka. The effort and shear quantity of labour that must have gone into their creation always astounds me. Miles and miles of hills, formerly covered in dense cobra and krait infested jungle, would have been cleared of all vegetation and roots, an unending labyrinth of stone revetments created to form sloping terraces, and access roads built. Once prepared and planted out it would have been five years before plucking was viable. The risk and investment must have been huge, and presumably all would never have happened if it wasn’t driven by huge profit margins and some extraordinary Scotsmen. The Empire may have been British, but judging by the factory name boards, it looked like the Scots were the initiative behind this enterprise. They not only created a product but a singular beauty. As a vista they are a Rothco in green, and when you are driving through them an exercise in plant pointillism. The tone of each bush is dependant on when it was last plucked. Peculiarly I suppose time and our predilection for a good brew has sanitized their existence and defined their wonder. Business has conspired to create a culture. In truth their creation, although pioneering, must have been an ecological disaster of epic proportion, created on the back of a desire to build that baronial hall or call up Norman Shaw for an extension. I wonder today, how we would view a hundred and fifty years on, the vast tracts of oil palm plantation in Malaysia, or the cattle grasslands of the Amazon. Like the tea, they are not indigenous and only a monoculture, devoid of life except for rats and snakes.

The impact of Ooty apart from the cold, was its largesse and near total demise. It has two claims to fame. During the dry season in days of the Raj, the entire administrative machine shifted from its effective and seering capital, Madras, to these far cooler climes. You won’t find a curry named after a hill station. For a bastion of pig stickers and cullers of endangered species, the Ooty Club was their mainstay for more than a peg or two when the evenings drew in. It is claimed that here the first game of snooker came about. Now the table sees intermittent use, and the kiss of white on black has been replaced by the repeated soft thud of a more distorted spherical object. The humble potato. What was upland grass and forest has been decimated and terraced to produce a new and highly viable monoculture. The alpine setting of early days has been wiped out to reveal a caldera of hotels and timeshare apartment blocks interspersed with holiday homes of the wealthy. The town is overloaded with the usual lack of enterprise in the sewage department and litter abounds where once there were forest leaves. There are still remnants of the past in the quaint bungalows and some fine buildings. All one can do is close one’s eyes and imagine how surreal, and what a jolly fine place it was, when we ran the show!

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