9 AUGUST 1975, Page 14

Stranger in India

Fabulous unsettlement in the Blue Mountains

Duncan FaHowell

'Queen of the Hill Stations' Ooty is, has been, long before the BBC came and shot it, nest of curios carried in and beached by the imperial crash, a legendary township with a centre called Charing Cross high up in the core of south India afloat in a blue fastness by Northumberland out of Japan, juiced on geranium and mildew and pine, and looking a right drab on arrival like an old fairy caught with his curlers in. A grand entrance is not possible. One arrives by the back door on a narrow-gauge blue train 'Which hoists itself over the hill and faraway and into toytown so slowly that one is motionless for miles at a stretch. Is this the Ooty?

Ugh, derelict cattle-station with the usual mangy rumpus going on down by the tracks,. puts one at a kiss. Something akin to Camberley was vaunted. This country never gives what you expect. Ever. It can be very tiring on the imagination. A porter in oily top-knot grabs the bags and deposits them off his head at a rail-side hostel which externally looks plausible for a night. One follows, that incontrovertible mashing in the the bowels again. Although bladder problems are everywhere catered for and peeing out of a carriage window if needs be is not a faux pas, a sphincter like a navvy's fist is nonetheless useful for travelling these parts with aplomb.

You know what they say about hysteria being a contakion? Well, the American divorcee didn't like rats remotely. Neither do I any longer, staring sleepless at three fussily masticating the innards of a mattress tossed away with berserk screams, uncoordinated threshings and convulsions of brute terror. They potter in and around the heaping, to this or that small plateau, then pull at the stuffs, neurotic prayer-like activities with scrapy baby paws on the far side of the room, flaunting their territorial rights. It is nauseating the way they ignore my whizzing unstubbed butts. It is , mesmerising. Mrs. Wallace is now peaceably secure however, adrift in a verminous nightmare with just the intimation of a snore and a knee thankfully sunk into the small of my back; Marvellously revived by local coffee, Morning sees the determination to change lodgings alive and well. Miss Moffett, Mrs. Wallace's cofnpanion, has slept log-like throughout. All the same, lighting up, she agrees the accommodation could be improved.

After much clambering from missionary home to tourist bungalette, peanut-butter welcomes to glazed mechanical stares, the Ratan Tata Officers' Holiday Home is unearthed from its screening of driveways, flower-flecked hedges, pine trees, and assorted shinglings. On the other side of town. Much more it. Once a house called 'Harrow-on-theHill,' the property of a Miss Cunliffe, the pantechnicons of alien sway have long since lumbered from its very portals, leaving to the guardianship of an ex-Indian Army officer, locally known as inkie,' some extraordinary artefacts and the indestructible whiff of gentility.

Inkie is much concerned for our welfare, particularly for Mrs Wallace's whose last-night mind pictures have been a recurring problem all day. When he has given every human assurance that the chambers are indeed utterly ratless madam (had the lady's concern eventually caused offence?) and consented to donkey down the price a bit to thirty bob a head a day full board, we join a handful of inmates for a fortnight's constitutional in the Nilgiris. see one of the gardeners has changed into a jazzy green and red costume with brass buttons dropping off everywhere and , is serving us dinner from the left like something at the Palladium. Brown Windsor, lamb and three veg, gorgeous junket scalded on top with cinnamon and nutmeg.

There are two continuing private institutions to tempt the visitor, the Ootacamund club and the Nilgiri library, and we were a mere tipple from both; while to reach the Assembly Rooms where they show American and English films one had simply to let gravity have its way. In the pretty cottage below us lived a defunct maharajah with his Welsh wife. Along somewhat, via altered lanes, to St. Stephen's Church protecting under gothick limbs the bones of Ooty's founder, John Sullivan, and family. Along a bit more to a traffic island straight out of Wodehouse, Spencer's Grocery Store, the Post Office, and the District Collector's Office where you can hang around all week if you want to, waiting for slips of paper that defy explication. Then a junk shop where Miss Moffett bought a lovely flowered hat forty years old with a label inside which read: 'Modern Modes, The Pantiles, Tunbridge Wells.' And not far from here is the State Bank of India in elaborate grounds, the only place in town that cashes travellers' cheques and centre of black market liquor deals (for this is Madras State, or Tamil Nadu rather, and there is prohibition, off for two years, now back again and even more unearthly, attended by a restriction on horse-racing — to trap the female vote).

The hunt is still set up but the enclosure of the hills makes it difficult. The kennels, first and last of the Empire it's said, are scheduled to shut this year and so the smartass yelpers, tails going all over, line up like brushed schoolboys at the end of term for a final snap. The jackals have long since been left in peace. Thank heavens the horsy photographs, tedium upon tedium of them filling up the insides of the Ooty Club, will come to an end a moment before they leave people no room at all to breathe.

Actually, the old scamper across the Wenlock Downs is not only blocked by a dam but also by the Hindustan Film Factory built by France. The government decision to plant the factory where it could spread without interruption over the most beautiful elevations anywhere south of the Himalayas (check the map) can only be explained as two fingers up the regime that discovered and named them; but of course in the covert way at which politicians in general and the Third World in particular are expert. While the rich filmmakers continue to support the status of imported film it is no surprise that the factory malingers, waiting for a photography craze to hit the starving millions. With such massive restriction on imports, surely ,India will have to start manufacturing its own cameras first? The club goes on. The key photos in it are those of the town taken from Elk Hill every twenty-five years, beginning 1875. The process of decline is irreversible after 1900; surprisingly, stretches of the lake filled in, pieces of the racecourse sliced off, the haphazard proliferation of components which is the hallmark of Hindu culture whoever rules. A fifth picture is due this year but someone up there seems frightened to take it.

The Ooty Club is full around the season, which ' occupies May with pageants, races, fashion parades, dog and flower shows,

dramas, tribal dances; folk dances — here the Police Department comes into its own — ant popular dances. Almost every association puts on a 'Bharathanatiyam' but I was not there in May, forgot to ask, so don't know what the,), are. Anyway they sound riotous. This pays for the rest of the year when the club is nearer to empty and is itself. The regulars hate the season because the place must play host to the monied spivs up from Madras in their electroluxe shirts who honky up the turf with winkle-picker mincers. Sword-edge drainpipes, hair running with coconut oil into a yellow curly collar, several teeth amiss, the remainder gilded, tinselled out in silver slice tie, gold string plastic belt, inkline moustache, and hair growing out of his ears in wispy untended clouds — this was a successful laWyer, by the way, who wat also up 'pre,' the weirdo jackanapes. Once under the skin of it, the place does indeed ring with uncanny English echoes, so redolent it is deranging. Because it is nol England at all. The timing is all wrong. You / cannot be white, with an agricultural twang, wear Marks and Spencer's post-war thick knit, and be so well servanted. It doesn't twig. The r, servants are suspiciously handsome in their gallooned ducks and move casually through their duties with every subtle consideration, as if . they knew their charges backwards. And they do. They are also there all year round. Yot!, cannot train a staff to this high degree, lay halt i of it off during the low season, and expect it to be there waiting when you next want it. The Club is always running smoothly in top gear so if there happen to be only half a dozen people there they certainly never want for a napkin. Lift a fresh featherweight sandwich and ponder I the all-or-nothingness of it.

Off-season the intervals between conversations can grow long beneath the merciless

smiles of many a martyred beast in a huge and

languid sitting room. The rooms and the grounds are kept in spanking shape by Mrs Hill, a Chain-smoking drum majorette whose son lives near Aylesbury. A tinier, older gal towards the windows, in plum jacket and bockers. sea-green toque with diadem bristling so I vehemently above the brow it should have grasped a crimson plume (the get-up draws on several civilisations for its inspiration with the eclat of Diaghileff), turns the pages of the Financial Times for something she can recog. ruse. Such as shares in ICI. The motions are precisely bird-like, almost clockwork, bizarre without a trace of coarseness. Could it have been Queenie Wapshare whom one never knowingly met but who affects a German accent like Victoria's, as does Brigadier Abkar'S wife, as the delightful brigadier himself (Armenian, of the Calcutta shipping line, and never without a dicky bow) is rumoured to • affect his monocle and be the proud possessor of perfect vision? On the closed-in terrace affairs are made more jocular by flame-coloured cushions inside and the profuse red of geraniums outside. A younger group, including I ourselves and a soldier and his wife on leave I from the Persian Gulf, are here bewickered amid the full panoply of tea, superbly serviced, covered with a humour of verdigris so delicate it can sustain a conceit for half an hour or more, Miss Moffett, lighting up, gulps on a giggle and fixes her eyes on a tureen of flowers. The soldier is remarkable for looking as if he has just walked out of an Alexander Korda film without adjusting his make-up at all. His wife, an intelligent woman responsible for bringing Mervyn Peake to Muscat and Oman, folloWs him by barely a decade. The older people strike one as much more modern. Visual twists are flashing particularly fast and furious novv, peaking with time warps.

When, for example, had one last seen a tea-table like Dolores Maclean-Clarke's? Three varieties of bread, five of jam, two of fruit cake, two of Madeira cake, plus biscuits, English china, French silver, all heaving on — 1 think — Kashmir walnut. As if this were not enough for

so fanciful a thing as tea-time, one turned

with I

a little start to find reinforcements being wheeled slowly and lasciviously towards one's elbow. Dinner was historic, at the club, bilious generosity with the rare liquor chits — they do a raunchy dry martini at the bar, politics Permitting — the mad mood captured in the Wild and sooty laughter of our divine French hostess, counterpointed by the soothing chuckles of her Scots husband, a reeling bacchana/e. Dinner finishes. It occupies a gap in the memory perforated by images of acute gaiety. In the classic tradition I excuse myself before the final, lethal assault of pudding to dispose of foUr courses in the gents — the sudden, stomach-pumping glare of Shanks, vitreously ablaze — and am discovered prone on the lawn by an imperturbable flunkey who sees everything. "Madam, the master is lying on the grass." "Oh don't worry," says Mrs Wallace, "he often does that when he's tired." Their driver takes me home in the black Zephyr and Puts me to bed.

Since I am neither a laird, nor the son of a laird, it is a curious, couldn't say repugnant sensation to be called 'Master' by the local Population at large. It is purely because one is male and white. Centuries of considerate Slave-driving rise proudly within. Let us stand a little on ceremony when it would normally pass unarrested. One begins to wonder how to be worthy of the honour involuntarily bestowed by these splendid natives, how one may subvert their raucous cacchination for coins with a blasé swing of the arm, whether it be possible to pull rank and jump the queue all unawares, maybe even get some action around here as one towers yards above and transfixes several of the more unmanageable blighters with a limp look of effortless superiority.

Where is the line between taking advantage and accepting with good grace the courtesy customarily extended to a man who finds himself in a country other than his own? It is irrelevant, and that's the truth of it. India may be overseas, may be like nowhere else on earth — and believe me its impact and rewards for the individual as opposed to the coach party are unique (so much so that we could say you either go abroad or you go to India) — but that most astonishing thing is that it is not in the slightest degree alien. One is never asked to explain one's presence. It is as if one were always expected.

The same 'master' syndrome also brings one to earth, for Indian habits are acquired and discarded only over a long period. It is pleasantly shocking to be publicly hailed with "Hullo, my dear!" as a covey of louts crashes by, twenty of them to a banger. Then they vanish in the dust of their own making. Whereas 'my dear' has virtually died out in England in all but marital or theatrical circles, it is still used regularly in India as a general familiarity. And one day I was with Inkie when he picked up his son from school. "Hello, sir; good afternoon, Uncle," said the boy with rapid, starched politesse. A Pavlovian response, clearly, but I was for the nonce nonplussed. Obviously I was 'sir,' so where was 'uncle'? Several turns of the Wheel and it dawned like the coming of age that 'uncle' was I.

Yes the club manages. And now that it admits Indians it could survive, albeit in 'wrecked' form, because when it comes to snobbery and exclusion Hove is left standing at the stacks. With caste driven underground Indian snobbery is malignant. The library Manages too. Just about. Still private and ill-funded, it covets its regulations more hotly than the club, which you could expect from a library. Occasionally there are little mutinies of resentment among the members at dinner tables dotted across the hills when they find their names publicly listed for not paying subscriptions. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Darling, but it says here that if subs are not paid withih . . ." Nothing serious. That is mostly downstairs: the novels, the popular biographies, the children's books, the reading room. Upstairs is the heavy fun. See one temple and you've seen a great many, but libraries such as this are kaleidoscopic, bending conspiratorially to one's mood with a thousand glowing facets.

Under the wrathful wardenship of Mr. Lincoln Townsend the library meat aloft is guarded • from the depredations of transient pilferers . who have notched many successes in the past.

'One can understand the temptation. The world is founded on temptation. But not actual theft because each book has an enormous, irremovable Nilgiri library label pasted inside with fish glue. Destroy the label and you destruct the book. Leave the label and it is eternal embarrassment.

The building, designed by R. Chisholm, Esq., Government Architect, Madras, was begun in 1867 and celebrated with a dinner at Dawson's Hotel. This later became Sylk's Hotel and is currently the Savoy Hotel, without otherwise being drastically altered. Miss Guthrie's quite famous Willingdon Hotel, incidentally, is now a secondary school, although she keeps on a cottage in the grounds. An invitation to the dinner was issued to HSH Prince Frederick William of Schleswig-Holstein, then holidaying on the spot, but it is not known if he turned up. In 1905 the library had 17,194 volumes, 261

subscribers; in 1975 it has about — an accurate account was not available — 16,000 'volumes, 100 subscribers. R. Chisholm, Esq., was not

madly original here. The building resembles the red-brick sanatorium of a conventicle off the road to Bristol. Restful on the eyes, rather than testing, with a fine reading room that juts into the rear gardens of a fashion that will be very familiar to amyone who has ever knelt in prayer at a school of nineteenth century structure.

If the traveller is pressed he should make his way upstairs directly and ply Mr. Townsend' with credentials more or less legitimate, according to the guest's demeanour (it is well to remember that in those places 'pucka' is yet admissible in polite conversation) who will then transform into a tireless host, for the library is by no means his only occupation. Mrs. Wallace and Miss Moffett, companions, were particu larly flattered by his gallantry. Really, the overwhelming hospitality of the European residents of Ooty can be explained in terms of the starvation of the society of their fellows, and is no less precious for that. More precious if anything, since one feels so much less the intruder and thus engages in the swing of things comparatively unabashed.

When did the shelves of obsolete and royally bound periodicals last have an arriviste reader?

The Nineteenth Century; Colburn's United Services Magazine; the Quarterly, Fortnightly, Westminster, Edinburgh, Contemporary reviews? But I was not itching to get at W. E.

Henley's early work either. Nor were the up-front valuables so intriguing as the oddities One might stumble across, literally, because they were in the middle of re-wiring all the books when I arrived. The overall character of the library is its essential asset, that of the Empire week-ending, where you might find uncracked copies of The Yellow Book wedged against Marie Correlli's vapidly amusing

37-page rodomontade on Victoria, The Greatest Queen in the World (Skeffington's of

Piccadilly, 1900, and only just in time). Or Quaint Korea by Louise Jordan Milne (Osgood & McIlvaine, 1895), authoress of that danger ously captivating volume When We Were

Strolling Players in the East which, were it 'reprinted, could turn into the scourge of an entire generation of youth. And the illuminat

ing collection of guide books, designed not for the ethnographer, the engineer or the missionary ("Nilgiri opinion is superior"), but for you and me in days gone by.

One above all. Its -character is positively peculiar. Published in 1881 by Higginbotham's

of Madras (ever the W. H. Smith's of Tamil Nadir, and excellent bookshops as well), it is titled Ooty and Her Sisters, or Our Hill Stations in South India. A moment's perusal and it stands revealed as the most greenery-yallery guide book ever legally printed. That dating, impeccable, in at the outset. Its author is

`Geofry' — Yes, a solitary T no less — and Mr. Townsend essays to identify him as Geofry Ryan, Esq., a coffee planter of those times.

What a remarkable man, should it be he, driven by the pitiless uproar of Philistia to pen this slim volume of slender chapters, prefaced fondlingly

in heroic couplet doggerel of his own discharge, ponced out with hunks of Milton, Coleridge, Virgil, Horace, Pope, and other brillan ts marginally a propos.

"Some vague emotion of delight In gazing up an Alpine height." Vague, admittedly, yet . . . intense, like a trumpet of tea leaves mooing at sundown, involving the Empyrean, the rich thunders of Olympus, the prehistoric incande

scence of the Infernal Eternal, and yet . . . evoking childhood, an emotional retardation that is nigh exquisite in its naiveté. Is that Wordsworth? . . . Or is it Geofry? One presently has no method of ascertainment.

In the guide book kingdom this must be the Alice, macabre, poetic and idiotic in its particulars but possessed of an organum that is relishly revealing. Did you ever wonder How the mosquitoes came to Yercaud? "Mine host's logic is inconclusive. The pest came when the guest came. Therefore the guest brought the pest! The best of it is that the pest prefers the host to the guest and no wonder, for the guest is exhausted while the other has 'a face like the full moon' and ruddy." We have a clue. "The

best of it" strongly implies that Geofry is not a planter, is thankful that these gross blooddrinkers occupy his vital host, leaving be his own wr. itched tourist frame. Is it indeed fair conjecture that Lewis Carroll is on eccentric holiday? Or Mr. Wilde?

In which case this would be a self-portrait. Effect of mountain air on European visitors: "To

see him skipping like a deer over the heights you might fancy he had got invisible balloons under his armpits." A notion which interests him, cropping up later in different clothes. "It is difficult to believe therefore that the 'aerial machine' or 'flying engine' will ever grow into reality. But having witnessed the stampede of the beasts of the field when 'Puffing Billy' first began to gallop across country, we can easily .fancy planters and others passing from cliff to cliff on mechanised wings to the consternation of the birds of the air."

But what is this ahead? Morality? And abetted by perspicacity? Moral Typhoid: "Some of the very scum of aboriginalism floats hither continually and is exceedingly pestiferous to youthful minds. . . A few wealthy parents may take or send their children through the Suez Canal to be educated in the West, but only a few. Most must manage otherwise." However grand the trappings, one overlooks that most of the white population in imperial territory were simple folk, emigrating for much the same reason as people used to emigrate to Australia, to start afresh. A plantation bungalow in India, or Malaya, or wherever, was sometimes not like comfy Camberley at all but rather a lowly, workaday place. Nor could everyone afford to . move to Ooty_ for the dreadful Madras summer. Geofry wants to improve the town by contacting a mining expert to blow up the native village which followed in the wake of the Europeans. "Surely the knocking down of this small village and building a better where it could never contaminate the lake, is as nothing when we look at Peter the Great and his great city! Is not our righteous government greater than he?" Well, my dear, the native village is still there. It is gradually taking over, driving the European elements into ever greater esotericisms, ever more ingenious balancing acts. It is where we came in on the train. It is always where one comes in. No grand exit is possible.

After reporting from New Delhi on the Indian Film Festival for The Spectator, Duncan Fallowell remained in the subcontinent to record some traveller's impressions.