Friday, 18 January 2013

Kerala

Arnakal - a Journey into the past




The bungalow at Arnakal - built by my Grandfather




Scotch Air




[As used by James Joyce in "A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man."]


Oft, in the stilly night,


Ere Slumber's chain has bound me,


Fond Memory brings the light

Of other days around me;




My maternal grandmother, Marjorie McMullin, typed two small booklets of her "Fond Memories" and illustrated them with photographs of her children and the few short years they lived on the Arnakal (Elephant Rock) Tea Plantation just outside Vandiperiyar, high in the Cardomom Hills of the Idukki District of Kerala, Southern India. She prefaced the first with these words (above) from "National Airs" by Thomas Moore.



The First Page of my grandmother's "Fond Memories"



My mother, Anna, was the second of four children born on the plantation in the 1920s, while my grandfather, after service in the army in the First World War, was manager. Robert, the eldest, was about two years older than my mother.  Eve and Geoffrey Peter came a little later.



My grandfather, grandmother, mother (in arms) and Robert, her elder brother


It is a very touching account of a strange, isolated, existence.  She describes walking up a grassy hill from where, "on clear days one could see a great distance right far out over the jungle valleys and hills to a faint line of sea some thirty or forty miles away by the Malabar Coast."

It is from there, by the sea, that I set out to visit the past. 



The Coast at Malabar


The second of the two booklets by my grandmother is prefaced with the following quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson's Spiritual Laws:

When the act of reflection takes place in the mind, when we look at ourselves in the light of thought, we discover that our life is embosomed in beauty.  Behind us, as we go, all things assume pleasing forms, as clouds do far off.  Not only things familiar and stale, but even the tragic and terrible, are comely, as they take their place in the pictures of memory. . .  

My experience on the Malabar Coast was not quite "embosomed in beauty", though the islands and harbour of Kochi (Cochin) are fascinating and attractive.  I stayed in the Deva Lodge in Ernakulam, a kind of truck drivers' boarding house not far from the Bus Station, and had a miserable night.  Supper consisted of a beer in one sleazy bar and then an omelet in a different joint on the waterfront - it seemed impossible to get beer and food together.  The night then was sweltering and mosquito plagued, and I breakfasted on anti-malarial pills.



Lakshmi - Goddess of Wealth and Beauty


The bus to Vandiperiyar was due to leave at 6.00am but didn't.  Although dubbed an express it took five hours to climb the Ghats, winding through scruffy habitations at low altitude then stopping for half an hour at Khottayam (to replace a tyre) before the 100 kilometre haul up the Cardomom hills through villages and rubber plantations, tropical jungle and endless roadworks, negotiating the road with descending herds of cattle (cows and buffaloes), being driven by vegetarian Hindus in Tamil Nadu to sell to omnivorous Christians in Kerala.



Goats in the market



At about two and a half thousand feet however the country becomes delicious -  a dark green jig saw of tea bushes on rolling hills, peppered with tall shade trees and interspersed with patches of coffee and spices. These hills, a lush part of the Idukki District, include Thekkady and one of the best wildlife sanctuaries in India.  This used to be the Thekkady Tiger Park, but is now the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary.  Beyond this, the terrain rises towards the Nilgiri Hills, or slips down towards the southern tip of India, where the oceans meet.

Eventually we roll across a bridge over the wide, almost empty Periyar river, into a crowded shanty town along a dusty main street and we shudder to a halt.  This is Vandiperiyar, where my uncle used to ride to the store; where my aunt was christened.



One of Vanderperiyar's Bars



Unfortunately the Periyar View Hotel says it is full, though how or why is something of a puzzle, but I get a room at the Central Lodge, which is really a hardware shop with a few cribs behind it.  My "room" has no daylight, a rough board ceiling, a concrete floor with a groove through the middle, a wooden bed with no sheets, all of which is infused with the smell of urine.  I guess it'll do?  I need to pay my respects to my mother's birthplace.

After a quick lunch of hot cross bun I set off to walk to the factory.  I have grown up with images of this place in my mind, as pictures in the family albums and reminiscences are all part of growing up.  I barely knew my grandmother as she died when I was little (and grandfather Robert died in 1937) but ours is a warm family and I have been close to my aunt and uncles all my life.  It is, however, with a confused anticipation that I climb the hill out of the village.  The red soil contrasts with the deep green of the tea.  The hills rise and fall into the distance, some forested and others clipped like a box hedge.  On one side there is the muddy river where women slap their washing on rocks, on the other the teams of pickers work through the bushes with the measuring sticks.



The washing of clothes



My companion and I cause considerable interest with everyone we meet.  English is barely spoken (or understood) and it seems that Europeans are a rarity here.  The pickers wave excitedly; the workers on the way down to the village want to pose for pictures. 





Tea plantation workers - bemused by the first European visitor in generations


Eventually we are mobbed by a group of children who want to act as guides.  We are led up to the Arnakal Estate, where the communist flag flies above the great corrugated iron factory.  Cottages crown a rounded hilltop and we see people everywhere.  Strangely I had never thought of it in this way - the community of workers, though several generations on, must have always been here and yet my mother's first few years were spent in relative isolation.  As my grandmother wrote:  It was on Xmas day when Robert was nearly four and Ann nearly two that they went to their first party..... They had had little company but each others, and were not at all used to other children....

  


Eventually we reach the manager's bungalow. a large low house with a well kept and nicely shaded garden, splashed with Canna lilies. The manager is out, but we peek through the windows.  Cane furniture; servants; it could be the 1920s....  I take a photo. 



My Aunt's account of her childhood in Kerala



My photo turns out to be very like one taken almost ninety years ago now which illustrates the cover of my aunt's book about her childhood.  Only mine does not show a man with two children.  The wheels of time, the juggernaut, have rolled on and yet there is so much here which touches me.  This is the house my grandfather built.  My grandmother wrote of the morning after Eve was born: Looking out into the sunny garden, I saw the grey green leaves of the grevillias with the sun playing on them as they swayed gently in the faint breeze.  I could see the reddish leaves of a tall begonia that grew in a tub on the verandah.  A beautiful large cobweb between one of the pillars and the roof was made to sparkle in the sunlight....

It is still very beautiful here, at least to a visitor.  I can understand the love of place that comes from my grandmother's writing.  I can imagine the microcosm that hung here between world wars.



The wheels of a Juggernaut


But India is a foreign country.  They do things differently there, now.  It is hard to imagine, now, my grandfather having an appendectomy on the verandah with only a bottle of whisky for anesthesia.  It is hard to imagine, now, my mother falling ill with malaria when she was, not quite four.  As Marjorie wrote, At the time that my fourth little baby was born, Ann had a temperature of 103 and was very miserable....I can see her as she was then.  She started with horrible ague, so that her teeth chattered and she could not get warm.  As my mother now shivers in the depth of English winter, it is a different ague; another age.




Within a month both Robert and Ann were taken up to Kodaikanal to board at a convent school.  The kindergarten room where some thirty children are taught and kept amused is provided with all manner of the latest means of instruction.....  A very charming sister does the teaching, and all the children are kept so happy.  I am sure Robert and Ann will love it all before long..... 

Perhaps it is not surprising that it was not quite so easy, after all.  The following morning parents and children met to say their goodbyes.  Little Ann had a pale sad little face, and Robert with such a woe begone expression, and sad wistful eyes.....  They sobbed and clung to me, and it tore at my heart so that I could not help crying too.  Partings are not sweet sorrow - they are often greatly painful.  But all must part, some time, some where.  

We move on.  But before I leave the area I visit a church, perhaps out of curiosity, perhaps just by chance.  I am glad I visited Arnakal; I am glad I have seen the place.  I realise how isolated an upbringing it must have been and how desperately my grandmother must have loved her children and missed them when they left.  She did what she thought best - placing my mother at the convent was to avoid malaria - but the separation must have hurt deeply.

My aunt's account continues the story of mother and children, though my mother was brought to boarding school in England in 1930 by her parents who were on leave.  Eve and Peter stayed on in India with their parents until they all came to England in 1934.

Before I leave I visit a church; an Anglican Church.  The graveyard is full of stories of lives that ended far from home, sometimes ending early.  The gravestones here take their place in the pictures of my memory.  It is a different world now.  But the traces remain.  I come away with traces on my heart.  I come away with a different understanding of a certain kind of love and, perhaps, a stronger sense of the world I inhabit.  This could be sentimentality.  But then it could be true fondness.  Fond, though sad, memories.



The Anglican Churchyard at Ootacamund




When I remember all
The friends, so link'd together,
I've seen around me fall
Like leaves in wintry weather;
I feel like one,
Who treads alone
Some banquet-hall deserted,
Whose lights are fled,
Whose garlands dead,
And all but he departed!
Thus, in the stilly night,
Ere Slumber's chain hath bound me,
Sad Memory brings the light
Of other days around me.


Thomas Moore





Means of Transport





The Tea Planter's Children

by Eve Baker, is published by AuthorHouse,

ISBN 1-4208-9629-6





Now also available is:




Available in paperback and as an e-book from Amazon


Published by: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (4 April 2014)




ISBN-10: 1495971538

ISBN-13: 978-1495971532













Also recommended are:





On a Shoestring to Coorg, by Dervla Murphy 


and




The God of Small Things, by Arundathi Roy






3 comments:

  1. Kerala is a great favourite of mine, although when I first went there it was a totally dry state and a drink was impossible to find. My father was born in India (on the way to Simla to escape the heat) as was my grandfather. One of my uncles guarded the Lutyens buildings in Delhi. Sadly few photos remain.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, Denys. Re the dry state, I think there were bars - I still have my old passport with an All India Liquor Permit stamped in it! But they were seedy places where you would only meet the sons of local politicians!

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  2. Hi Richard,
    I recently read The tea planter's children and Arnakal estate is also my grandmother's birth place.She is one of the daughters of the Kangani whose picture with the tiger is in the book.I understand that you and your family have a strong affinity to Arnakal just as my mother's family.It would be great if we could communicate through email.
    Please email me at: megan.dsilva@gmail.com

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