A Visit to a Palakkad Hill Station, January 2016, or the Case of an Antarjyathi
I started out on field trip on a bright January morning, camera in hand and took a bus some sixteen kilometres from Palakkad, since I had to change buses. After walking up and down at that interim rural bus stop, for quite sometime, and watching the lottery ticket seller, I realised that he was a terrific informant. People not just asked him whether their bus had gone, they also wanted to tell him about the latest quarrel, the price of paddy, the wedding in their church and the pilgrims who visited the village on the way to Sabarimalla. As I was eavesdropping on these conversations, I saw the bus to Nelliampatti as it reached the stop. I ran and caught it, but then it went into a long wait, as buses going to obscure places do. The people who got in were rural, they had come to Nellampara to sell or buy something and now they were going back to the tea estate at Nelliampatti.
When the bus took off, it did so with practised ease, rolling along country roads with a man in a blue shirt driving, yelling greetings to all his passengers, and villagers enroute. The Kerala bus drivers have a hard task, since they have speed limits to observe, pouring rain, narrow roads, on occasion there are uphill climbs, and regular passengers who love to hear ear crashing loud music as they go from point to point. On this occasion, we had to travel 30 kms uphill, on an unusually pristine route. The forest guards are particular that there should be no garbage disposal, no cigarettes, no alcohol bottles junked out of windows. The signs say that it will cause the offender to pay a fine of Rs 2500. I wish this was the case for all of Kerala, where garbage piles up and is put to burn all over the State. The bus goes up to the orange farms run by the government, in Nelliampatti. Here the wage workers, the honey moon couples, and young children with their parents get off. The oranges are grown under huge tarpaulin green houses, and the fruit sold by local merchants in tourist friendly shops, which also advertise tea and natural honey.
A woman sitting directly behind me, a small, fair, Tamil Brahmin woman, smiles at me whenever I turn around. I have nothing to say to her, there is something so innocent, so vacuous and intelligent, about her simultaneously. She lives by her prayers, it’s clear. There is no reason for us to talk. While I sit comfortably near the window, she is someone well known to the tea workers, for all three of them sit together, squashing her a little bit, but she smiles, and says nothing. There is no bifurcation of caste and class and religion here. They are labourers, dressed neatly, their scarves covering their hair. They are jubilant that they have received an increase in wages, thanks to the struggle of the communist workers, some of whom were put away in jail as Marxists and Maoists for months, but recently released, thanks to digital activism. The newspapers had been full of the news of Marxists in Nelliampatti for weeks! The Nelliampatti workers do not convey their regret, except with the smallest of frowns, that the tea workers in other plantations after similar struggles received higher wages than them. For the moment it is enough that they got an increase, it allowed them to visit their children in local towns and receive and give gifts.
I was afraid to get off the bus at the Orangery, though I had a phone number for a local community of organic farmers, thinking if I missed the bus on it’s way back then I would not be in a position to go back to Palakkad before dark. So I stayed in the bus, as it went up and up and up. The air got cleaner and cooler. The tea gardens transformed themselves into coffee plantations. The tea workers got off the bus, they said they had good accommodation, children went to local schools, each community had a place of worship, and they did get medical attention. Lots of signs proclaimed that visitors should not throw garbage, and that there should be no photography. At the last stop, we got off, and the smiling bespectacled, slightly balding but robust man at the back had one of the emaciated workers still with us, help him with a large sack. The conductor and driver went off to visit a relative who lived nearby (there were only two houses on that lonely hill top). The lovely passive woman sitting behind me turned out to be the wife of the bespectacled man. She smiled sweetly at him, and went ahead. One could never have guessed their relationship previously, as they showed no sign of acknowledging one another. Clearly, that gentleman was on an official trip. I asked him what he did. “Ration shop owner.” Earlier there were two hundred families who came to him for cereals. Now there are hardly half a dozen. He said he loved living here, “Great sky, great hills, great mountains, great country!” he said grandiosely. Living alone with his wife on the top of a mountain, he felt immensely proud. Interestingly, he made this invocation to me in English, saying they got many visitors, mainly Japanese.
A closed temple to Mariamman, the small pox goddess, had a sign board in Tamil, since plantation workers were often from Tamilnadu, and close by was a more recent idol to Ganesh, the god of Beginnings. A huge white bird flew out into the sky. I returned to the bus, and in a few minutes, the conductor and driver were back. The driver said he had driven the same route for forty years. When we drove downhill the conductor picked a few coffee seeds for me from a bush, so that I could see the deep red hue of the berries. A little later, we saw an agent of the coffee plantations, with a dog, and a walking stick, dark glasses, and a cap, wearing bermudas, smiling, assured, clearly a man who enjoyed his solitude and his whisky, and was happy with his line of trade.