A cozy cabin for comfort and a cheeky car driver for company, Munnar turns out to be a destination of memories.
He was very American, a huge bear of a man towering over us in the lobby of the resort at Munnar. Outdoorsy too, in a tan coloured shirt and shorts, with binoculars and camera slung over his shoulder. “Where you from?” he asked. “Mumbai. And you?” “Cal-a-furrnia, but I've been in the Heem-a-liars for three months looking for rare animals.”
He had then driven right across India to see the Nilgiri Tahr or ibex endemic here, only to find its protected habitat crowded with people. “Cars, families, noise and litter everywhere, and not an animal in sight. And this is an endangered species,” he ranted, as if I was somehow responsible. Unfortunately he had landed up there on a holiday, and couldn't spare the time for another try. Too bad! One could have sympathised if he hadn't been such a grouch.
Two days later we made our way up to Anamudi, the highest peak south of the Himalayas, with the densest concentration of the ibex. A scenic drive took us more than halfway up, and we stopped at a quiet spot to view the valley stretching for miles below.
Herd of ibex
Soon our driver, having gone to the teahouse up the road, signaled excitedly. In a shady hollow behind it we discovered an entire herd of ibex, the adults regarding us with mild curiosity in their kohl-rimmed amber eyes, while the babalok, snuggled up to their mothers, snoozed blissfully in the noonday heat. Except for gnats and dragonflies nothing stirred. We were thrilled and humbled at our intrusion into this idyll. If only we could have thumbed our noses at the grouchy Californian!
The Mahindra Resort covers 25 acres of rolling hillside. The main building with scenic vistas on all sides, houses the reception areas and kitchens, separate dining rooms for buffet and a la carte meals, recreation rooms and shops. Though this is more convenient for senior citizens, the Alpine log cabins proved irresistible. No faux imitations these, but the real thing built under Austrian supervision, connected by a network of paths on which golf buggies plied throughout the day. At night a van took us down for dinner, and we waited for it on the road bundled up in caps and heavy coats feeling like Arctic explorers.
But our cabin was a haven of comfort. The wood exuded warmth, and our woolies could be discarded the moment we entered. A single room large enough to accommodate a family, it provided a kitchen and dining area, sofas, lockers, and huge beds, warm and inviting. You could lie curled up the whole day reading, watching TV; or sit out on the sun-warmed porch beguiled by the shifting cloud patterns, the distant hills sharply etched against a brilliant blue sky as veils of mist settled into the valley.
Munnar is the fiefdom of the Tatas, the home of Tetley Tea. They are either owners or lessees of vast tracts of tea gardens, and maintain guesthouses and a palatial bungalow for VIPs. So here we were, in the only place in the South where Parsis as a community are known and assumed to be seriously rich.
Unaware of our pseudo-celebrity status we visited the shopping centre one day, to an instant buzz: “Tata Tata, Parsi Parsi.” Shopkeepers hailed us, hawkers pursued us, and schoolgirls gawped. Much ado about nothing, because all we wanted was a tube of toothpaste! “Come again, come again,” cried our disappointed fans; and “zaroor, zaroor,” we replied, and fled.
For sightseeing we hired a private taxi, and ever-smiling Raju was our man of the moment. He took us on the tourist beat; the Mattupetty Lake and dam with a beautiful Rose Garden next door, and smoothly contoured slopes all around aptly called Turtlebacks; and all the while he talked incessantly about his work, his family, his beliefs.
He wasn't a temple-goer, he said. “Why I give money to priests? I do little puja in my house. I think like this: I doing good, I getting good.” Being rationalists ourselves we were charmed by his homespun wisdom, and when he offered us a larger taxi for our return journey to Kochi and quoted a reasonable rate the deal was settled.
The next day there he was, cheerful and punctual, but when it came to loading the taxi there was a small hitch. His brother-in-law who was to drive us down had rushed to his village overnight. His uncle's wife had run away and the extended family had rallied round the inconsolable old man, while the men-folk were in hot pursuit to restore the errant woman to the bosom of her spouse.
These excuses had a familiar ring. In the good old days everyone had live-in servants with a host of village relatives on standby, ever ready to fall ill or drop dead when leave was required; and once in a forgetful moment our cook had resurrected his mother-in-law to bump her off a second time.
Raju's alibi was more sophisticated. Here was a car belonging to another driver, but it would cost more. We reasoned, we raged, we ranted. Not an extra rupee would he get. “No paying, no car,” he said implacably. Arguments flew back and forth, but in the end we had to agree. “Remember Raju,” I warned, “you no doing good, you no getting good. I'll tell everyone, never trust Raju.” With this parting shot we piled into the car, and as we rounded the last bend we looked up at our log cabin, and there was Raju, driver, guide, philosopher and small-time conman, waving a cheery goodbye.