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When I was a little girl, my father would take the family to the hills in the summer as an escape from our perpetually sweltering nook of the world. Kodaikanal. That’s the name of the hill town in which we’d vacation. Nestled in the Palani Hills mountain range in southern India, its weather was like water on a burning bridge for our sun-drenched souls. Every summer we’d pack our bags and vacation homework, and my parents, with my brother and me in tow, would make the long drive to the mountains. And even as we’d ascend the perilously sinuous road to reach our destination – a quaint house that’d, curiously, been bequeathed to my father by a Norwegian friend of the family who’d lived and worked in India for many years before retiring in Norway – my brain would undergo an almost circadian shift of sorts, which involved leaving behind the baking heat and humidity of Madras (Chennai now) and embracing a different rhythm to life. The cool air enveloped every thought, feeling, and action with a sumptuous lethargy that was unfamiliar to our lives in the boiling metropolis on the seafront that’s Madras.
The change in our lives was always so sudden, it seemed easier to adopt whole new personas rather than acclimatise ourselves to this cool, enticing wonderland, lush with temperate forests and gurgling streams and a mist that seemed to permanently envelope our house, which faced a steep drop to the plains below and, thus, the full force of the weather. The clouds themselves would greet us in a cold and wet embrace every morning as we rose sleepily, hunger whetting our appetites like a tangy sauce, flavouring our anticipation of the day. We were a lot nicer to each other and not the permanently prickly, if loving, family we were in our normal workaday lives in the plains. We spent an inordinate amount of time together, playing cards indoors and shuttlecock in the garden. I spent an entire summer reading the works of fantasy writer David Eddings, which ultimately spawned my interest in becoming a speculative fiction writer myself. We were a different family in the hills. They brought out the best in us.
Kodaikanal, or simply Kodi, as we know it, evolved in the mid-19th Century as a summer retreat for British bureaucrats and American Christian missionaries who were eager to escape the burning heat and tropical diseases of the plains. Later, post-Independence, it was discovered by a few well-off Indians for the natural haven it was, and the cool climate and wonderful topography turned it into a tourist destination. Giant eucalyptus trees, cypresses, and acacias line the gravely paths, and there are verdant meadows and babbling brooks and waterfalls, too many to count. And, of course, the shola and pine forests.
We’d make the mandatory, highly anticipated picnic to Neptune’s Pool, an idyllic, little watery glade set deep within the pine forest that skirted the town. My father would chill his beer in the flowing stream, we’d spot animal droppings in the fallen pine, and my brother would frighten me into thinking they were from the wolves. If someone could’ve told me these would rank among some of the happiest days of my life, I would’ve treasured them more. I don’t know how though, for I’d solemnised their significance with intense, unfettered joy. What more could I have done? Kept a diary? But they’re singed into my battered brain like cinders on a cold stone, and I would often turn to these memories as I aged, when life seemed claustrophobic and the unhappiness of my disappointments, at times, unbearable.
Later, as my brother and I grew and my dad got busier with the increasing demands of his business, our summer trips to Kodi decreased in frequency until an infrequent trip, interspersed by years even, became the norm. There was a period of seven years in my twenties, when I didn’t go there. When I finally, made a trip again, with my mother in my 29th year, a steady flow of alcohol coursing through my veins, the tribulations of my recent past meant I was more interested in obtaining my next fix than enjoying the natural beauty of the hills. I was lost somewhere deep within myself, numb to the world, yet even in that state there were a few, faint tugs at my deeply slumbered yet primordial emotions, threading back to my childhood, when happiness in the hills seemed so accessible and omniscient. I took long walks that year down still-familiar wooded paths and made my way, inevitably, to the central raison d’être of the town, Kodaikanal Lake. I was shocked when I first saw it after all that time. It had whittled down to a shrunken avatar of itself, brown with pollution, and it seemed a shadow of the once dazzling, deep blue water body that it’d been. Kodaikanal Lake is shaped like five fingers stretching from the central palm of an open hand, but the version I saw looked sallow with pollution, and mankind’s march forward crisscrossed across its depleted waters like wrinkles across translucent skin. It was overcrowded with tourist boats, Kashmiri shikaras, a strange boat on these southern lakes, and the edges were frothing with debris and garbage. What had happened to my beloved town?
Over the years, tourism in the region had undergone a manifold increase, and the town was clearly straining under the rapidly growing demand to meet the holiday and weekend influx of tourists, with their noisy, polluting vans and blaring music, speeding down the narrow lanes and threatening pedestrians. Sugarcane juice vendors, cotton candy vendors, and every other kind of micro-enterprise had blossomed and burgeoned along the banks and by lanes leading from the lake into the town, to cater to the increased demand, and I felt I’d stumbled into a painting that once resembled the town I knew as a child but which had now been caricatured into an exaggerated version of itself, bursting at the seams with humanity and pregnant with pollution.
I tried my best to ignore the mess and the dirt and focus on identifying and fondly remembering the places that invoked nostalgia. The Kodaikanal Club was one such distraction. I went straight to the bar and ordered myself a stiff drink. Lubricated with alcohol, I got talking with the bartender who commiserated with me about the town’s breakneck growth. It’s not what it used to be, madam, he’d said. Indeed, there were several attempts to temper the unhinged growth the town was witnessing. A conservation council was set up to protect the forests, indigenous people, and natural environment, and they’d made sincere progress. But the wave of urbanisation was unstoppable. It had, inevitably, led to disasters. Mercury poisoning from a thermometer manufacturing plant of a large industrial conglomerate had tragically polluted the air and water in considerable tracts of the once pristine Kodi hills, and many people died and suffered ill health, the repercussions of which are still being felt. Even Kodaikanal Lake has been poisoned.
As we progress through life and as civilisation progresses though its many moulting avatars, are damage and destruction inevitable consequences of both? I look at my own life. If someone could’ve told that indomitably positive young child frolicking in the waters of Neptune’s Pool, deep in the pine forests, and with boundless dreams and ambitions, that one day, if we’re not careful, and don’t temper our ambitions with judicious manoeuvring, we could find ourselves down wayward paths that seem impossible to retrace. And then we’re left standing knee-deep in the poisoned waters, wondering how to redeem this journey we’re on, knowing we have many more sunsets ahead to negotiate, with nothing but our thorny thoughts to keep us company. It didn’t comfort me to be in Kodaikanal that trip.
I’m 44 now and many years removed from the depths of that unhappiness. I survived. And yet I’ve hesitated to make a trip back to Kodi since that fateful trip in my 29th year. I’m not quite sure why. Am I afraid that seeing it still polluted and a shadow of its former glorious self will unearth ghosts that have been carefully buried in the decade or so that’s passed and which has permitted me a much-savoured respite to carefully reassemble my life into one I’m learning to finally cherish again? I’d like to believe all the pithy sayings and aphorisms and bromides we’re brought up on and now endure almost on a daily basis, with social media and the never-ending good cheer it brings in the form of inspirational quotes and “beating-the-odds” stories that bombard our senses when we open those apps. Anything is possible. Dreams do come true. Never give up.
When my cousins and I visited Kodi one summer, when I was 11, my father made us write down what we thought we’d become 20 years from then, when we were all grown up. I wrote doctor. I’d wanted to be a surgeon since I was nine, when I’d had a sketchy tumour removed from the base of my spine. The whole experience had left me in wonderment of the medical field. I’d spent my teen years fantasising about being a surgeon and my twenties trying to become one. I didn’t. Call it fate or a lack of talent, but I gave it my very best, and it didn’t work out. The endeavour exhausted me, drained me of any interest in other pursuits, and left me hollow. Alcohol filled that void. When I’d visited Kodi in my 29th year, fresh off the rocky boat of these existential experiences, the pursuit of which had taken me to the corners of the world, from New York to Sydney, ultimately all in vain, I was a mess. I wanted to hide in the shadows and nurse my wounded soul with wine.
We’re constantly muddying the red liquid that courses through our veins. And then we’re left floundering in existential angst, pining for better days, only to repeat the cycle all over again. This is my observation in sum total after spending the better part of my thirties trying to mend myself and resurrect my life from the ashes. I’m no phoenix, but where I am now has taught me some things about this life and this blue planet on which we’re thrown together, hurtling toward an unknown denouement. Perhaps we need to frame our purposes on this voyage differently, to extract meaning, and who knows, maybe some peace, on our wayward journeys, so that we may resonate with the thudding drumbeat inside our chests.
I no longer see Kodaikanal as a place that has passed its peak in beauty and exuberance. I see the dirty roads and the muddied waters of the lake as existential challenges the idyllic town faces, the mercury coursing through its groundwater as body blows it endures, and the noise and pollution of the tourist vans and traffic as glaring interlopers, all of them sent to test the fortitude of the mountains, the pine forests and the pear trees, which speak of an evolution over millions of years. What is this moment of tribulation but a speck of Time in the grand scheme of things? I don’t see myself as past my proverbial sell-by date anymore. I’m someone who has suffered body blows, but with the right attitude, and keeping it in perspective, I’ve come to believe these are but ephemeral interlopers on my steadfast journey forward. In retrospect, all that heartache seems so unnecessary now, for it has cost me a lot of Time. Everything else is greatly redeemable but the Time we have on this planet.
But people say the planet itself is running out of Time. The rivers and oceans are polluted, the air is choked with harmful chemicals, and Earth’s resources are strained to accommodate a bursting population. A manmade pandemic abounds. There is only Man’s hand in all of this. But Time will run out, anyway. We’re on an Arrow of Time, the universe heading to a state of total entropy, and Time will cease to exist in the very distant future. This is physics talking. So, what is our purpose if it’s all to be taken away in the end? The British astrophysicist Dr. Brian Cox posits beautifully, in his BBC television series The Wonders of the Universe that our purpose is reflection. We’re the only species known that possesses the ability to reflect on our experiences, our challenges, our victories, and our journeys. And in that power of reflection lies the ability to learn from our mistakes and grow.
I don’t believe in regrets anymore. I believe everything is a learning experience. You can either wallow in something until it festers and becomes a big, gaping wound and you end up losing a lot of Time, like I did, or you can learn something about yourself, move on, and be stronger for it. I’m going back to Kodi soon. I wish to join the Conservation Council and count myself among the ranks of those willing to fight for a future where we aren’t wallowing but living brightly, side by side, and free of existential distress, so that we may reflect in wonderment on the things that truly matter: on the ways of the universe and nature and Time and the pine trees and our evolving hearts that beat in consonance with some grand design yet to be revealed. And so that future generations of children may frolic in Neptune’s Pool and get the chance to immerse themselves in the kind of joy I was privileged to experience. Unfettered.