Abandoning the project for a few days, on Thursday I took a nine hour bus ride from Vellore to Dindegal to visit my aunt. She has rented a house for two months in an attempt to avoid the English winter and to lessen the trauma of an 80th birthday (not hers).
Funnily enough, as I waited amongst sacks of rice and leaking boxes of bottled water for the bus to arrive, I hoped my seat would not be broken as it once was on an, admittedly much longer bus trip, between Goa and Mumbai. It was. Not disastrously, but just enough to be slightly annoying. It had one position - horizontal. As the bus left at 7 o’clock, I spent the first couple of hours perched upright on the seat, eating my supper (mushroom biryani) and trying to brace myself against a non-existent back, whilst silently battling with my neighbour to prevent her shutting the window completely.
On a pair of seats designed for Indian proportions, my neighbour was one of the few Indian women with a bottom more in line with my dimensions than those of her fellow country women, consequently hostilities extended way beyond the Battle for A Tiny Breath of Fresh Air/Howling Draught, and included the War of the Occupancy of the Armrest, the Campaign for Buttock Spread under the Armrest and the Feud of the Straying Elbow. To make matters more bitter, the lights were turned off at about 8.30pm. I was buggered if I was going to go to sleep at a time more suited to a 10 year old, so, I read, awkwardly lying flat with a torch nestling on my chest, throwing strange shadows around the bus. The woman, wrapped melodramatically in a shawl as if she were braving a Siberian winter, slept with pursed lips, all the while never giving up her bid for supremacy.
At 4.30 in the morning, amongst much huffing and puffing on behalf of my adjacent adversary, I exited the bus at Dindegal. Should be called Dingygal. The bus stopped somewhere on the bypass road, a non-descript track with enough tarmac for two slim cars to pass each other, dropping off to a dusty road-side scattered with parked lorries. Standing on the road with no discernable means of identifying where I was, I wondered vaguely if the repeated “Yes, madam”s to my question of whether this was Dindegal, were answering the question I asked or merely over-enthusiastic acknowledgement that I had indeed spoken. I prepared to walk to the only place with a hint of habitation, but there was a line of men, all of whom had got off the bus to pee, standing like soldiers at an officer’s wedding creating a glittering triumphal arch onto the verge, necessitating my having to dodge a series of enormous lorries pounding past on the other side of the road to avoid being unpleasantly anointed.
After an interesting exchange with a group of men wrapped up as snugly as the woman on the bus, having a reluctant cup of tea in a lonely tea shack, the pre-arranged taxi eventually found me and I wove my way up the mountainside to Palam Palace - the Palace of Fruit – to my aunt.
She is staying in a twice-reconstructed 18th century Bungla, which was erected in it’s current location to satisfy the whim of an 80 year old descendant of Elizabeth Fry (of Quaker chocolate fame) who felt that he should correct a lifelong oversight, namely, that he had never created a garden in India. Sadly, he lived only a couple of years after it was built and did not get to see the garden completed, but his son now lives here, amongst other places, and has experimentally rented it out to my aunt.
It is a long, low-lying wooden structure constructed in a square around a central open courtyard shaded by two trees. Rooms have no windows, but sliding wooden panels which give you the option of dressing in the dark or flashing to the birds in the trees. My bedroom has a charming single four poster bed with three carved wooden sides inset with little glass fronted cupboards, containing painted Indian horses and small carved elephants. I was delighted to discover a whole new place to keep knick-knacks.
The house is situated a cool kilometre above the stifling Madurai plains on a hillside thick with stocky banana palms and elegant silk cotton trees, up which sinuously climb pepper plants; leg warmers with peppercorn tassels. Lemon trees and coffee bushes loaded with red berries harbouring the pre-roasted white bean, scent the air with their aromatic flowers, while drongos, bee-eaters, woodpeckers, orioles, hoopoes, babblers colour the air with their bright feathers and melodious songs.
That first morning, with the mist rising and moon setting, followed by a lithe dog descended from Krishna’s favourite hunting hound, I wandered around drinking in the extraordinary other-worldliness.
It has been wonderful to be here, because it is rare to have the opportunity in India of walking though secluded forests and glades so rich with bird and plant life. We have gone for long walks every day, sometimes with a charming man called Murugan, who, were there to be a “Best Named Baby” competition, would win, hands down, with his daughter, Boomiha. Apart from seeing acres of naturally occurring coffee, bananas, pepper, oranges and limes, we have also discovered clove trees, cardamom, which grow as succulent pods on a nondescript plant in which form they have absolutely no fragrance, kapok, used for stuffing, which is the satiny fluff surrounding the seed of the silk cotton tree and seen many familiar houseplants growing to incredible heights in their natural environment.
On the first walk we undertook, intrepidly unaccompanied to a ridge overlooking the plains, we were followed by a giggle of schoolchildren, made bold in their native tongue, running after us chattering and repeating our names which we had, in a moment of rash indulgence, revealed.
“Ah-rub’el-ah, Ah-rub’el-ah, Ah-rub’el-ah” loaded the air, mingling with ecstatic laughter. One particularly precocious bare-footed boy, probably 10 or 11, but the size of an English 6 year old, from somewhere under my left elbow asked my name hundreds of times, followed by guffaws and gestures looking suspiciously like the universal sign for huge gazongas. I’m sure it was nothing but a simple Tamil greeting.
Today’s walk was outstanding. Boomiha’s father, in flip flops, carrying secateurs and our lunch in an old army rucksack, patiently helped the clumsy English walkers kitted out with hats, walking sticks and sturdy shoes cross angular rocks and cleared thorny brush from our paths. After an hour or so of climbing uphill beside a swirling river, we emerged onto a ledge. Above us a thinly sheeting waterfall descended the rocky face into a greenish pool; below us the stony river churned to gentle rapids.
We stopped for lunch and a swim. Two young boys who eagerly accompanied us, chanting different mantras to the previous boys, of “Take care madam”, took their shirts of and, with nervous faces entered the water. I had brought my swimming costume, but feeling that this might not be an appropriate mode of dress, slid my way in wearing all my clothes. The water was not deep, the pool was not wide and the rocks were slippery, but it was heaven none-the-less. The boys splashed about but were too scared to come with me to the edge of the waterfall where the water was slightly deeper. My bravado was cut short when I was sure I felt some slithery thing nibbling my toe and winding around my leg. I hightailed it out of the water, rapidissimo. The enjoyment of swimming was further dampened by the discovery of many tiny, and fortunately inexperienced leeches, who wriggled hopelessly on my skin but didn’t stick.
Safely leech-free on the side and eating lunch, we were delighted to see a frog jumping out of the water towards us. He paused in the sun, his throat pouch gently undulating with each breath. There was an unnecessary mad scramble for our cameras as we feared his being scared off before we had a chance to capture his bronze eyes and gleaming green skin. He hopped a bit nearer. Delighted, I snapped away. After a few more hops, it became apparent that not only was he not scared by us, but he was actually making a beeline for me. It would appear he thought me to be a shady rock. To my astonishment he hopped right under my skirt. Not one for womanly vapours, I nevertheless found myself squawking in alarm as I tried to move away from his amphibious advances. All that happened was that perched as I was on a steeply sloping rock, I could only lift my bum about two or three inches off the ground. The grateful creature moved directly into the copious shade and I could feel him bouncing up and down head butting my left buttock. I was luckily rescued from squashing him, as I was rapidly becoming incapacitated with laughter, by Murugan who hauled me up and away from him, simultaneously flicking him back towards the water with a quick swish.
In a extraordinary display of Durrell-like derring-do Richard, my Aunt’s other half – the one with the impending traumatic birthday - leapt in unison with the frog to capture him and show his lady love. Scrambling across the rocks in identical manners, legs akimbo, arms bent, eyes slightly popping, the stalked was caught by the stalker. Several gasps, from both the transfixed spectators and the increasingly tightly clutched animal rent the air as the big game hunter began sliding, splatchcocked, towards the pool. How lucky we were to have Murugan to hand again.
After a thorough perusal by all, the frog was released and this time making for a real shady crevice he hopped in and began singing, no doubt thrilling the local incredulous amphibian population with his astonishing tales.
The walk home was stunning but relatively uneventful. We wound along more coffee plantations waving to the young men and women plucking the ripening berries. Several passed us, heavy footed, with bulging sacks precariously balanced on their heads. Round a corner in the open yard of a ramshackle building, twenty or so people crouched on the floor separating the coffee beans into two piles – red bean and green beans. The atmosphere was relaxed and full of chit chat but it is a sobering thought that this is how coffee in its sanitised supermarket packaging starts its life. Actually, its amazing to see how all this produce originates – pepper, cardamom, oranges, cloves, coffee, tea - carried in dirty sacks on the backs of small bare-footed underpaid local people, whose houses may not have electricity to boil a kettle and make a cup of coffee in the first place.