By Robert Dessaix
Just as I was finishing my mulligatawny soup in the hotel dining room, the small, crumpled pianist who’d been thumping out Cole Porter on the upright in the corner – or was it America from West Side Story? Rachmaninoff? Impossible to tell. Suddenly he appeared by my side.
‘Good evening!,’ he said, smiling disarmingly. ‘Do you think that the piano’s out of tune?’
‘Ah, well,’ I said, as I often do when stumped, and coughed wetly.
‘The problem is, you see,’ he went on, moving in closer and lowering his voice confidentially, ‘you can’t get a piano-tuner up here in Ooty.’
‘No-one you’d trust. The nearest one’s in Chennai.’ He ran his fingers through his oddly orange hair. ‘And then there’s the climate to consider. Up here in Ooty, you see, we’re liable to extremes. It plays havoc with the strings.’
‘Ah,’ I said.
‘I would love to discuss my repertoire with you later, by the way,’ he said, heading off for a cup of tea to refresh himself for a new attack on the Broadwood, ‘if you have the time.’ It’s for moments like these that I come to India.
Udhagamandalam, or Ooty as it’s more affectionately known, is one of those hill stations perched up high in the Nilgiri Hills that the British and well-to-do Indians have been flocking to for relief from the heat for a couple of hundred years. It’s at about the same elevation as the top of Mt Kosciuszko. I love hill stations – Shimla, Darjeeling, Manali and others. The first Australian-born writer, John Lang, died in a hill station. Indeed, his grave can still be visited in the Camel’s Back Cemetery in Mussoorie, which offers the living extensive views of the Lower Western Himalaya.
‘A chhota peg of sinful delight…’ his book The Himalaya Club and Other Entertainments from the Raj has been called. It’s a rollicking good read, still in print, that I can’t recommend too highly.
You go to a hill station because it is not something rather than for something, as you might in the case of Paris. It’s not hot, not flat, not squalid and not Calcutta, let alone (God forbid) Meerut. There’s nothing much there as a rule, just the odd vista when the mist rises (if indeed it does), but at least it’s not wherever it is you usually live. In Ooty, apart from the roses in the Botanical Gardens, there’s nothing much to see, which is precisely what you want in a hill station. ‘It resembles Switzerland,’ the Collector of Coimbatore wrote in 1819, ‘with the hills beautifully wooded and a fine strong spring… in every valley.’ It doesn’t in the least resemble Switzerland, actually, it resembles a hill station in the Western ghats, but it’s picturesque and the air is blue in a certain light. In Ooty, as in any hill station of quality, you want to loll about somewhere dripping with faded charm, somewhere well above the rather ramshackle town down round the market, to enjoy the cool, eucalyptus-scented air (it never gets above the low 20s), and eat the local chocolate, which in Ooty’s case is famous all over India. Snooker was invented in Ooty by bored British army officers.
Nowadays the clientele at the Taj Savoy, where I put up, is hardly top-notch – riotous English tour groups from places such as Stoke-on-Trent, the odd New Zealander, and a few Indian families all chatting loudly in English – but very friendly.
You can get all that in Katoomba, though, you might object – trees, cool air, chocolate and really nothing to do. But Ooty is Indian – that’s the point. Nowhere else makes me feel so alive. Other places are as beautiful, as historically fascinating, but nowhere else makes me feel so hungry to live. Nowhere else – yet – has my heart.
Robert Dessaix is the past presenter of the ABC program Books and Writing. He is the author of several memoirs, essay collections and novels, including Night Letters, A Mother’s Disgrace, and What Days Are For. He lives in Hobart. His next book The Pleasures of Leisure is due out in May.