Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91
Vol. XXIX No. 12, October 1-15, 2019
This article by Ann Leslie dating to the 1990s and its introductory note, handwritten by Mr. S. Muthiah (alongside) were recently discovered among our papers. We are reproducing them here as a tribute to our founder.
“At the Ooty club we still like to maintain our traditional standards,” the Secretary, Mrs. Nergish Patel, told me firmly through a cloud of cigarette smoke, while handing me a warming brandy-and-hot-water.
Ooty may be only 11 degrees north of the Equator, but at 7,400 ft high above the baking plains of Southern India, it can be so cold that my Raj-era hotel, the Savoy, has log fires in its cottage bedrooms.
Mrs. Patel was quite shocked that I should imagine that standards might have slipped since Independence. I mean, just because the Raj disappeared 50 years ago, that’s no reason why the Ootacamund Club – once the most prestigious institution in ‘Snooty Ooty’, the ‘Queen of the British Hill Stations’ – should let any old riffraff through its grand white portals.
“Oh, we’re still very strict here!” said Mrs. Patel who had even thrown out the novelist and British media-world power-broker Farrukh Dhondy. The distinguished Mr. Dhondy, on a trip to India, fancied a chota-peg, a little drink, among the moth-eaten tiger-skins and jackal heads of the club.
“But he was not wearing a jacket and tie!” said Mrs. Patel. “He was wearing a salwar kameez! So of course I threw him out even though he is one of my cousins!” And even though virtually all the -members of the Ooty Club, including its charming president, Mr. Siasp Kothavala, are now Indians – for whom, therefore, a salwar kameez should be acceptable dress.
But the Ooty Club’s rules are the rules of the Raj – and that’s the way its Indian members like it. As one surviving British member, 77-year-old tea-planter Bill Craig-Jones, told me: “Many members like to be more British than the British!” In fact, had I not had a formal ‘Letter of Introduction’ from a club member, the feisty Mrs. Patel, on behalf of her ‘more-British-than-the-British’ Indian members, would have thrown me out, too. She’d have been quite undeterred by the fact that the Ooty Club, founded in 1841 and once the social hub of the Raj’s oldest hill station, is completely empty for most of the year – as it was that night.
In the sepulchral dining room, a club servant, with great formality, served Mrs. Patel and me an English five-course dinner, carefully typed onto a menu card bearing the Ooty Club antlers.
The ghostliness of the dark-panelled room was enhanced by the unsettling presence of endless photographs of past Masters of the Hounds of the Ootacamund Hunt, once the most famous in all the Raj.
There they sit, these large, blue-eyed burra-sahibs with walrus moustaches, gazing confidently out through the ears of their horses at Ooty’s undulating Wenlock Downs: they must have thought that this way of life would never end. India was theirs, Ooty was theirs, the everlasting Empire was theirs.
These burra-sahibs and their memsahibs had set about creating an eternal England-in-India dream.
Many, especially women and children died – thanks to the plague, typhoid, ‘jungle fever’ – as they struggled to create Cheltenham in an alien land.
Their graves and memorials still exist in St. Stephen’s Church – whose teak columns were looted from the palace of the defeated warrior Tippu Sultan. For example, poor Georgina Wroughton, who died in 1847 “aged 30, leaving her husband and seven children to deplore their irreparable loss.”
They, and so many young men, were all sacrificed for the cause of Empire – and, whatever one now feels about our subjugation of millions of people around the world, these Imperial tragedies remain intensely moving.
British soldiers, whose fever-destroyed corpses so often filled these graveyards of Empire, called cemeteries like this ‘padre’s godowns’ (warehouses). St. Stephen’s padre is now an affable young Indian, and his ‘godown’ of forgotten sahibs and memsahibs and their baba-log, baby people, is crumbling into oblivion. But the Ooty Club staunchly prefers to preserve its ghosts, even though, confesses Mrs. Patel, “when I first came here I did wonder whether I could live in a place full of these old dead men and so many dead animals on the walls.”
She cheerfully downed another brandy as yet another portion of over-boiled Brussels sprouts (introduced to India by the Brits) was served. “But it’s full of wonderful old books, first editions of Charles Dickens, the Brontes and so on.” And perhaps the mustachioed masters of hounds felt they’d earned the right to live here for ever.
After all, it was the British who ‘discovered’ it (although it belonged to a now almost extinct aboriginal tribe, the peaceable, toga-wearing and polyandrous Todas – of whom, as a child, I was mistakenly terrified). Two young surveyors had hacked their way up through miles of mosquito-infested jungle and discovered a paradise of rolling grassy hills, waterfalls, butterflies and wild flowers.
Soon paradise acquired a railway – a little rack-railway ‘toy train’ which still, as in my childhood, is pushed up painfully into the cool, blue mountains by one of the last two steam trains left in India.
The 54-mile journey up from the plains takes almost four hours and the little Victorian engine, gasping and snorting, needs lots of stops to recover, or to avoid sacred cows, or herds of black monkeys or absentminded villagers picking flowers on the line.
Once Ooty became the summer headquarters of Britain’s Madras Presidency, its hillsides were covered with little gabled and fretworked Victorian villas, with names like Iris Cottage, Westbury Villa and Sunnyside, which – shabby and stained with monsoon moss – still survive in this now-cacophonous Indian town. Here, apart from the plethora of servants, the masters of the Raj could forget they were in India at all. They imported plants from Britain – roses, peach trees, apples, gorse bushes, pines, or strawberries.
By 1876, the Viceroy Lord Lytton could write ecstatically to his wife: ‘Imagine Hertfordshire lanes, Devonshire downs, Westmorland lakes, Scotch trout streams!’ He even loved the Ooty monsoon: ‘Such beautiful English rain, such delicious English mud!’ Lord Macaulay, author of The Lays Of Ancient Rome, began writing the mammoth Indian Penal Code here.
By the time I came to school here in Ooty, the confident Raj of Macaulay, Lytton, and Lord Curzon had died, but the Raj habits lingered on. The British Army had gone home, the British civil servants, too – at the height of Empire, a mere 1,000 of them administered one-fifth of humankind, a ratio of two British bureaucrats to every four million Indians.
But some of us stayed on in the ‘new’ India. Every Hot Weather, when temperatures rose to 1100F, and the plains shimmered and rang like a vast brass gong under the hammer blows of the sun, we’d head joyously for the hills.
Memsahibs, like my mother, of the now-gone Raj – like their sisters before them – would pack up their tweeds, their white cardies and their gardening gloves and, in a cloud of mothballs and small children like me, pile into long-distance trains, and head up into some corner of that foreign field which was forever Esher.
The annals of the Ooty Hunt, I noticed, still adorn the Ooty Club.
But surely, I thought, the Ooty Hunt must now be defunct. I was wrong. “We still have seven or eight meets a year!” according to the only surviving European member, Craig-Jones. And who keeps it going? The Indian Army, based at nearby Wellington Barracks.
“Tremendous riders, these chaps.” But, “oh, yes, of course they wear the traditional hunting pink! And we have the stirrup cup – which is provided by the Indian Army as well!” The courtly Mr. Mahendra Ahluwalia, manager of the Savoy, lays on the traditional Hunt Breakfast.
But why bother? After all, there’s nothing to hunt these days. Overpopulation, and the growth of industry, have largely driven the wildlife out of these once idyllic hills. Even the jackals, which the British hunted instead of foxes, have retreated; there’s not been a ‘kill’ of anything, apart from the odd rabbit, for years.
“But the Ooty Hunt is part of our tradition!” exclaimed Mr Ahluwalia, shocked, like Mrs Patel, at my assumption that modern India would reject her Raj heritage.
The present Huntsman, a tiny, little Indian called Mr Pakyanathan, speaks no English, but is still intensely proud of his tattered hunting-pink coat, his tinny hunting horn, and his pack of foxhounds, descended from those imported here in the last century. Even the names remain relentlessly English: Albert, Gallant, Unicorn, Amanda.
And, astonishingly for me, my old Ooty school, St Hilda’s School for Girls – once all-English, now all-Indian – carries on as if the past 50 years of Indianisation had never happened. Same grey uniform, same 16-bed dormitories, even the same Sunday breakfast of puffed rice and boiled eggs.
The same compulsory services in chapel — even though 90 per cent of the children are non-Christians.
And the same school magazine, the Clarion, still issues a hearty “Congrats to Carmichael House for their horse-like stamina that won them the Cross Country Cup!”
Whew, what a run! “Why?” asked one of the saree-clad teachers, “Should St Hilda’s change just because India is independent?” Why indeed? St. Hilda’s is 100 years old – and independent India a mere 50. Where once bossy little prefects called Sarah and Penny dished out ‘lines’ to the juniors, now bossy little Sangeetas and Sonalis do the same.
Mrs. Bessie Collison, the Indian headmistress – who delighted in showing me, “an old Hildite”, around – may wear a saree, but Miss Hall, my old headmistress, would feel she was a worthy successor to ‘Hildite’ tradition.
To my further amazement, Higginbotham’s the bookseller still exists – where, I’m told, one can still order a copy of First Steps Tamil, published in 1922 by missionaries, and still reprinted. It contains such immortal ‘conversations’ as: ‘Yonder I see an elephant standing. How did it come here?’ Second Person: ‘It is not a true -elephant. It is a monolithic sculpture.’ First Person: ‘My eyes deceived me. The deftness of the hands of the sculptors is something marvellous.’
My own Indian idyll came to an end four years after Independence because of a panther and a rabid dog. The panther had streaked out of the mossy woods where I was taking a friend’s small Maltese terrier for a walk.
The terrier’s lead was dragged from my hand, his little body was never found, and I suddenly felt a terrible sense of foreboding.
I’d recently been bitten by a stray dog in Charing Cross, the centre of Ooty (and had to endure three weeks of agonising anti-rabies injections).
And I knew that the hungry panther and the rabid dog meant that I would probably now be sent ‘Home’ – as the British in India always called England – never to live in India again.
And thus it happened. I was nine-and-a-half years old, had been at boarding schools all over India since I was four. But those schools were in India: now I was going ‘Home’ into exile. And my heart broke. As it broke for so many who earlier had to leave India, and who never felt truly at home anywhere else again.
Some even returned, like tea-planter Craig-Jones, who bought a farm near Andover in Hampshire in the 1960s. “And then one day I told my wife Dorothy: ‘I’m going to pack now.’ And she said: ‘Where are you going?’ – and I said ‘Home.’ And she said: ‘I’m coming, too!’ Because ‘Home’ was no longer England for us, it was India.” For a moment, my eyes filled with tears, because here, in what’s left of the old eucalyptus-and-mimosa-scented Snooty Ooty, I knew exactly what he meant.