Silver edged clouds sit gently on green mountain tops as Subash Jeyan winds his way through the tea plantations of Meghamalai
Meghamalai, like the road running through it, in the Western Ghats in Theni district of Tamil Nadu, has a very real identity problem. “Where did you take these photos? Munnar? Valparai?” was the most common comment from those that looked through the photos when I had posted them online. Its quiet existence is a bit of a surprise to most people. But that equation with Munnar should give you an idea of what Meghamalai has to offer. A world of green-carpeted tea gardens, with seemingly pastoral little villages dotted in between. And long winding roads through the plantations, ideal for quiet contemplative walks.
Would an idyllic setting such as this be complete without a lake? You can throw that in as well; Meghamalai has a reservoir formed by the Thoovanoor Dam on the banks of which you can lose yourself as the setting sun plays hide and seek with the drifting clouds (it gets chilly pretty often) and the light does its thing on the sloping greens of the tea gardens. Take your eyes off the light play and bring it closer to your footsteps and it is a slightly different story: the banks of the lake are littered with broken bottles, tell-tale reminders of someone's idea of fun nights.
The comparison with Munnar, doesn't really work beyond the common point of tea estates because Munnar is only too aware of the common perception of it as tourist retreat and plays that role well, in terms of infrastructure and providing creature comforts to spoil the visitor. But you feel as if Meghamalai pauses in surprise from its story of everyday survival, to see you in its midst. And you feel as if you are intruding into a world of hard realities very different from your own. It's a world created by the British in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when the labour to work on the tea estates could be transplanted in village-sized chunks. And nothing much seems to have changed since then, except perhaps the ownership of the tea plantations.
The people are warm and welcoming enough, though a little curious as to why you are there walking around and the tea plantation supervisors zipping along on their motorbikes give you a wary look. “You've come all the way from Chennai to see this place?” asks Muthuraj. “But you've come at the right time,” he continues, as he efficiently plucks the tea buds and fills a big polythene bag with it. “This place is too cold and you can't step out of the house during the rains,” he says.
“It is a hard enough life,” says Selvarani, who is the sole employee of the post office at Meghamalai. “People like Muthuraj earn Rs. 2,500 a month, if everything goes well. Yet people get on with it, and try to give a good education to their children, which they see as the only hope,” she says. The only request she, like Muthuraj and several others I talked to, has is that something be done about the road that runs through Meghamalai, the only link that connects it and six other villages to the nearest town, Chinnamanur.
That road is going through an identity crisis, is a little confused about itself, feels abandoned and hence is in a state of total mess. It's a 35-km stretch from Chinnamanur to Highwavys township and it took us four hours to cover the distance (it goes further to connect five more villages). It has a curious, Kafkaesque history. It used to belong to the tea estate but apparently was handed over to the Government some years ago. Equally apparently, as the official in the township informs me, the Government denies that the road has been handed over. And now, neither the Government nor the tea estate bothers to maintain it. Even if there is a medical emergency, says Selvarani, it takes the villagers, four to six hours to reach Chinnamanur.
Perhaps isolation keeps everyone happy, except the people living there.