The late afternoon drive into the Nilgiri Hills offered high crags and hairpin turns, steep ravines and sunbeam spotlights through the foliage. On either side of the winding road was heavy forest, wild and unfettered for the most part, but here and there plundered for the serried and terraced tea plantations. Our driver was the most cautious in India and a welcome slowness prevailed during our sure but steady ascent. We passed through Coonoor, two thirds of the way up the mountain, a colourful, boxy town, spread across the top of the ridge like a heap of lego. From here it was another forty minutes to Ooty, which we hoped to reach before sunset. It was, after all, New Year’s Eve, and it can be hard to find champagne in India.
Sadly the hotel we had booked from the Lonely Planet was not up to scratch. On the outskirts of town, bare and cold, monastic, dark and viewless, it wasn’t so much dirty as incapable of looking convincingly clean. The lack of sheets or blankets in the rustic room, the dim lighting, the desultory and grim aesthetic, the absence of a kitchen or hot water, had us apologising to the old manager, out the door, down the hill and in an auto-rickshaw within about five minutes. “Take us to the Savoy!” said V, in the last of the golden afternoon sunshine, and from there on in we took the evening more seriously.
The Savoy, part of the Raj chain of hotels, offered a stupendously better alternative. With six acres of landscaped gardens, the hotel itself consisted of colonial style cottages built between the 1830s and 1860s, centred around a large porticoed administration building, housing the reception area, bars and dining hall. Our cottage was long and cosy, with a wide-windowed sunroom at the front, colonial furnishings, a huge bed and a functional fireplace. Being at an elevation of 2200 metres, the temperature had dropped rapidly as the sun descended and after checking in, we called reception to have a fire prepared for later.
We set off back into town to search for a bottle-shop. It can be tough finding alcohol in India, and different states and towns have different policies as to its sale. We expected to have a long and potentially fruitless quest as we walked a few hundred metres down the road to the nearest group of shops. Imagine our astonishment when, descending into possibly the darkest, grottiest and least inviting underground bar I’ve ever visited, we saw, through an open door behind the counter, a room with shelves full of beer and spirits. We left well-stocked, and this good fortune was soon followed by another, when we ventured into the inauspiciously named “Kabab Corner” to order takeaway. On this recommendation, the Lonely Planet was absolutely correct, and I will never forget the unsurpassed excellence that was Kabab Corner. The tandoori chicken shish was extraordinary – not only in the flavour and texture of the char-grilled chunks, but in the quality of the meat – usually a risky variable. Yet the real highlight of the meal was the spicy paneer. It remains the best paneer I’ve ever had – great spice, wonderful sauce, and huge, sloppy chunks of the cheese to satisfy both the huge appetite and the delicate palate.
It is worth digressing, in this story which is, in itself, a digression, to mention an exchange that took place when we returned the following evening. Raving to the owner of Kabab Corner about how good his food was, he asked where I was from. When I told him Australia, he replied “You don’t have fresh food in Australia? Only canned food?” It was an extraordinary and evocative expression of the distance between the two places and, more so, his relative isolation. That he could be so ignorant of Australia was refreshing – allowing me, through his eyes, to re-imagine the world I thought I knew.
The rest of the evening was not exactly uneventful, though it could hardly be said to have been a big night. We returned home to our cosy room, lit the fire, turned on the television, ate heartily, began drinking, and then, around 2130, V fell asleep and I dozed off in front of a crappy action movie. We regained some spirit around eleven and I made a concerted effort to get drunk, but never made it past half-way. At midnight, we stood in the chilly grounds watching the distant fireworks, then were forced to evacuate our room when the chimney backed up and flooded the cottage with smoke. As the air cleared we chatted politely with a lovely, older Indian couple, wishing them all the best, then retired for the evening. A success of sorts, made great by virtue of the comforts that our location afforded.
As to this photograph, it was taken the following day at the Ooty station for the Nilgiri Mountain Railway. The so-called Toy Train, a seemingly common feature of British Raj era hill-stations, was so popular that we couldn’t board on this occasion, but the station afforded great photo opportunities. We spent about half an hour hanging around here, watching people and enjoying the excited vibe amongst them. I was lucky with this shot to get such a well-lit subject, with an engaging expression of either sullen curiosity or mild concern – I can’t determine which. The shapes created by the train’s windows and door neutralise the background into pattern and thus accentuate the central figure.