Coonoor shows off its secrets when we least expects it
A full-blown migraine and hairpin bends do not go well together. I lie spent in the car seat, praying for quick death as the husband slows down. He has been doing that for most of the drive, but this time I tell him feebly that I have nothing left to throw up. He stops, nevertheless, and I cautiously open my eyes. I am sick of winding roads, hills, tea gardens and trees and I see they are all still there, but I also see a blurry green park bench. I lurch out of the car and on to it. Next thing I know a mug of steaming tea is thrust into my hands. A sip and I rejoin the living! The topaz-coloured liquid, with a squeeze of fresh lemon and just a hint of sugar, along with that shiver of cold in the air makes my headache recede and my heart soar.
We are at a darling of a tea kiosk, just outside the Chamraj Tea factory. It is just big enough to hold assorted tea mugs, packets of tea, and a smiling lady in a head scarf and cardigan. A poster outside gives information about the Nilgiris in general and Chamraj Tea in particular. The company has made it to the Limca Book of Records for growing tea in some of the highest altitudes. We are charmed and surprised that we did not know of its existence through our many visits to Coonoor. This tea kiosk lies about 15 km down the Coonoor-Manjur road.
As it turns out, this trip has many surprises in store. Such as the Chiaroscuro Gallery in Coonoor, very close to the Head Post Office. Curious, we step in and are delighted to find an art gallery. Gokul Gowder smiles a welcome. He is an artist, and the gallery holds some of his paintings as well as those of other Nilgiri artists. He has another gallery in Kotagiri. Gokul is from Kil Kundah (a picturesque village that we visited earlier). He moved to Coonoor to start life as an artist and has, over the years, painted portraits and landscapes of his beloved hills. Gokul has been successful and his paintings hang in homes, both in the Nilgiris and outside. He has held exhibitions in Bangalore and Chennai. He taught art in a school, and now he has these two galleries. What he really wants to do now is to return to his village and set up a studio and a cattle farm. "I want to teach my people,” he says. “The area I come from is still backward and the children don’t have access to many things that children in Ooty and Coonoor do. I would like to share with my village what I have learnt over the years." Gokul is a wildlife enthusiast and we spend a pleasant hour exclaiming at his encounters with snakes, tigers and birds. Just before we leave, we ask him what chiaroscuro means. It is Latin for the effect of light and shade on a picture.
As we continue our walk (we have decided to walk everywhere this time), we stop to catch our breath right outside a yellow building, with Vrriksh written outside. We push the doors open and fall headlong in love — with grandfather chairs, footstools, carved cots, rocking chairs and chests of drawers. The building is obviously more than 100 years old and the stuff in it clearly older. Kirat Rajpal, the owner, tells us that it used to be an auction hall once. Now she uses it to display and sell antique furniture and knick-knacks she sources from her travels around the country, especially in the South. Glass paintings, Tanjore paintings, mirrors… a stairway leads to a basement, and we step gingerly down the creaky steps. More treasures — revolving book shelves, camphor chests, hat-and-umbrella stands, old-fashioned writing desks — each one gorgeous. Behind glass-fronted cupboards are enamel saucepans in bright red and blue, old pieces with the ‘made-in-England’ stickers still intact, tea pots, bowls... Kirat explains that she also copies antique furniture for clients. You have to be made of really stern stuff to resist buying something. So a rocking chair comes home with us.
This trip to Coonoor has been extra special. In an old and familiar place, we stumbled upon some lovely, unexpected secrets. Back home now, as I sit on my rocking chair with a cup of Chamraj tea, I am already dreaming of my next visit.