(Almost) The Last Post

By the time you read this, I shall be winging it back to the Land of Hope and Glory, where the Surbiton branch of Guru Express will doubtless be less attractive, and my bedroom will doubtless be more dusty. However, my last few days here have yielded some entertaining exploits, so read on…

Railing against oppression

My first experience on the Indian railway system was a fairly bog-standard four-hour journey between Cochin and Coimbatore. I was confronted by a bewildering variety of classes (“Sitting on luggage A/C,” “Sitting on luggage non-A/C,” “Disabled sitting on luggage A/C…”), food shops, luggage and languages. When the train eventually drew up, 20 minutes late, we made our way to our “berths,” proper fold-down beds with sheets and pillows, in the 2nd class A/C carriage: apparently 1st class A/C is only for unfriendly people.

Various food and drink vendors constantly sauntered through, chanting out, “Biriyani meals,” “Samosas, vadai,” or, “Tea and cool driiiiiiinks!” Occasionally two men peddling identical wares passed each other in opposite directions and carried on! Rail staff dressed in smart, colonial navy blazers and starched white trousers occasionally perched on our seats to do a spot of paper-work, presumably believing us to be liberal-minded folk who wouldn’t report them for taking the slight liberty. And how right they were! The family behind us, meanwhile, all gathered round one bunk to watch a DVD. One of them had a Colonel Bogey ringtone. Just over four hours later, we arrived, after six stops at stations where fresh armies of vada-vendors leapt aboard, and workers cleaned the train’s windows. The wonderfully 1920s Pantry Car was also restocked!

Being shunted about

The next morning, we had to wake up at 6am to catch the UNESCO World Heritage Site Toy Train up into the hills to Coonor. It’s a steam engine pushing about five coaches in front of it. We’d reserved seats in the front one of these, though it turned out that I was in a separate compartment to m’parents. Soon enough, a man asked me to swap so he could sit with his family. In my new seat, it was hinted by another separated father that “it would be comfortable” if I swapped seats with him: I was now three compartments away from where I started. Next, some other miscellaneous person turned up and said that there was an empty seat in another compartment so I could sit “with my colleagues,” (or ‘parents’ as I call them!)

We ended up sharing our compartment with an extended Indian family. In first class, we were seated five to a bench; God knows what second class was like! There was a mother and father, two grannies dressed, bespectacled and generally looking identical, and two very sweet little girls hungrily eating idli with their fingers while I picked through the unpleasantness of my hotel packed breakfast. They slightly spoiled the poetry of the scene by throwing their rubbish out of the window and then washing their hands from a bottle of water.

We juddered and steamed our way along the rack-and-pinion rails for four hours in total, sometimes slower than walking pace and sometimes slipping a few feet downhill! Every now and then we made a stop at tiny mountain stations with names as colonial as Runneymede and Hill Grove; at Hill Grove, as soon as we ‘detrained’, hundreds of monkeys came bounding along the track to receive food from the passengers. Some actually drank decorously from paper teacups while others thought it would be fun to try and board the train.

Occasionally we travelled through short tunnels, always with lights on, though they were insufficient to prevent the absurd juvenile screaming which was perpetrated by many of the holidaygoing Indians!

The sun not quite set on the British Empire

So I confess that while here I’ve been making my fair share of ’empire’ jokes. But none of them quite prepared me for the colonial delights of Coonor and Ooty, hill stations built by British officers with names like Lushington and Sullivan as cool hunting retreats. Since these people are mainly no longer with us, they’re very popular holiday destinations with Indians, and my family became a very popular attraction…

One afternoon, we were sitting having a nice read and relax in a beautiful botanical garden. Then a young doctor from Hyderabad, plus his newlywed, stopped by to introduce themselves. He said, “My wife wondered what your mother is doing, and I said she is having a sunbath.”

Our next disturbance came from a group of teenage boys who wanted us to join in their group photo. One asked where we came from, was told England, then earnestly enquired, “Which district?” Doubt if he’s ever heard of Elmbridge…

Presently, another group of teenage boys arrived; these ones took it in turns to be photographed sitting between me and mum on the bench. They also took it in turns to wear the group’s only pair of sunglasses! All this happened in front of a world-map formed of flowers, though sadly omitting the British Isles entirely; there’s gratitude for you!

We decided to go for a pedalo on the lake; the staff faffed about for about 10 minutes before allocating us two 2-seater boats. One of them decided to join me, for no obvious reason, but really seemed to enjoy himself, despite his English being more or less limited to, “fish,” and, “very exercise.”

Later, we excited even more comment in the town. A crowd was gathered to watch three government ministers arrive for an election meeting, but the Webbers proved a diverting spectacle. One little girl bought mum an ice-cram; we started handing round English pennies, and were literally mobbed by grasping, outstretched hands of all ages desperate for a souvineer! One middle-aged man in the crowd confided to me that he’d met Jesus. Oh dear.

I want a Waldorf salad!

In our hotel, the Taj Gateway no less, breakfast was a complete shambles. It took them over half an hour to produce a bowl of muesli, and when we complained, the manager and the Head Waiter dragged out the poor chef, who “want to apologise,” though he gave no indication of this, no indication of speaking English and no indication of having a clue what was going on. He did look quite scared, though.

On the way back to our room, we walked along the, “Corridor of Excellence; owner: HR Manager,” which contained staff news and awards. The winner of the ‘Best Groomed Female’ prize had her portrait and profile photographs displayed on a noticeboard.

A couple of the nearby viewpoints (Dolphin’s Nose, so-called because it resembles a dolphin’s nose, and Lady Canning’s Seat, so-called because it resembles Lady Canning’s seat… I guess…) featured very small businesses offering photograph opportunities with faded, tacky toy tigers, only 1o Rupees.

Ooty/Ootacamund/Udhagamandalam/delete as applicable

The ‘Queen of Hill Stations’ that is Ooty is very, very Raj, from its St Stephen’s Church, the yard of which is full of graves with names sounding suspiciously English, plus one plot marked with a ‘RESERVED’ sign, which seems to me to be in rather bad taste.

The town’s botanical gardens were bigger than those in Coonoor, gloriously sunny, and full of Indians wrapped up in knitwear because hill towns are traditionally cold. A succession of people stopped by to have their picture taken with us; just after we’d finished with an elderly couple from Chennai, four teenage girles came along. Mum gave them each a penny, which prompted a chorus of shrill and hugely excited, “Oh, thank you so much! I love English auntie so much!” before they ran back to their group to spread the word. Soon, we were swamped by their entire extended family of maybe 20 people, all trying to arrange photos, take coins (adults and children!), introduce themselves and hand us babies (?!) completely muffled up in fur baby-suits.

People of integrity

This week has seen corruption coming very much to the forefront of Indian news, with a social activist called Anna Hazare having gone on a hunger-strike-unto-death until the government gave in to his demands for a bill to be drafted stamping out some of the country’s desperately dishonest officials.

However, I have my own stories of corruption to share. One of the most rampant is from when we were driving across the Tamilnadu state border for the last time (boohoo!) and entering Karnataka. We were required by law to pay a 500 Rupee charge for no other reason than to make money for the Karnatakan government. However, the friendly police officer who waved us over demanded that we pay 700 Rupees, though the receipt only showed 500. Strange, that…

Coming up: or, Spotting a Leopard

Once I’m back in the Surbiton saddle, or “no longer out of station” as the local people here would say, there’ll be some mega-uploading of large video files to be done, plus a post regarding our three jungle safaris, a leopard, a crocodile, a mongoose, a brain-fever bird and no doubt our overnight stint waiting around in Bangalore airport. Speak soon!

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