Rajakumari welcomed us with a light rain. The town was dark but beautiful and it was a sight from the hilltop and never before have I seen such a thing in my life. I could clearly see holes in the dark cloud where streams of evening sunlight poured in to the valley. On my first look, it seemed a little unreal to me as if I was looking at a scene from ‘The Lord of the Rings’ or ‘Braveheart’. By the time we pulled over on the porch of the college the rain had lessened. NSS College Rajakumari, just like the majority of NSS colleges all over Kerala, was on the top of a hill looking over a vast piece of land. A strange mist soon covered the beautiful Blue Mountains visible from the portico of the college.
‘It’s the rains. Otherwise you’ll be getting a lot of things to photograph” said an office staff eyeing the lens whirring out from the camera.
I sat in the verandah watching the sky getting orange. When it became dark, the security staff warned me not to enter dark spots around the building because it is almost a routine thing to see poisonous reptiles wandering around. My father and his henchmen (that’s what me and mom call these security guys) had killed some two or three snakes in the past one month.
Next morning was much better. We were scared of rains as it would make us sit inside the huge, dark Hogwartzic office room for hours. I could always rely on internet but my mother and sister, who was already bored a little, shuddered at the thought of spending any more time in there. It became sunny by 9 am and we started off to Munnar. The roads were mostly deserted in the beginning and in 2 or 3 kms we could see teashops and small gatherings. Soon the roads started getting bordered with pineapple plantations and beyond that there were tea plantation on both sides.
I stopped to get photographs for the annoyance of my father who constantly looked at the watch from time to time, which was why he was forced to sit in the backseat. Even though he kept pointing out that there will be much beautiful things to be photographed later when we reach Munnar, I had to stop occasionally. Soon, we entered a narrow road, to my astonishment, which was introduced to me as a National Highway, with huge trees grown on both sides and gave us a natural cover from the sunlight piercing them occasionally through beautifully crafted holes. The ‘National Highway’ was no wider than 2 meters and caused extreme congestion when heavy vehicles came opposite us. But, people were more considerate and humane than in the plains and some of them occasionally gave suggestions with helpful smiles. The region was more and more becoming Tamil in nature and people were turning bi-lingual. It was amazing to see registration boards of vehicles achieving a national status with KL, TN, KA, MH, UP, PY, AP and occasionally DL.
A marvelous steppe on both sides of the road welcomed us to Mattuppetty, the breeding town of the famous and controversial, Indo-Swiss Project. There were men and women wearing uniforms rearing healthy looking brown and black cattle. We stopped for them to cross the road and Aparna clicked spontaneously. I was beginning to think that she has the potential to be a good photographer as I didn’t have to instruct her to take pictures anymore. The highway soon got wider and achieved an international standard revealing the fact that we are approaching a tourist spot. In a few kms we reached the Mattuppetty dam and crossed it with extreme difficulty, because the road on the top of the dam was crowded with people, mostly students from either Tamil Nadu or Kerala. The road again got narrow and we often saw magnificently huge clouds forming seemingly a stone’s throw away from the car. Sometimes the sun’s rays passed through it giving a heavenly look to the sky and the valley below us looked golden in colour.
I have driven cars for 13 years in different terrains and four states but this was the most difficult and dangerous road of all. One turn opens up to another and in some areas tea plants extend to the roads obstructing your visibility as well. The beauty of the nature around can easily make you take your eyes off the road and hands off the wheel to click a few snaps. There is no extra space on the sides of the road for a minute’s parking or relaxing. This narrow road is the only road to Munnar and SRTC buses of both Kerala and Tamil Nadu run on this in a very destructive manner, without giving much time or space for the ‘other’ vehicles to co-ordinate their reflexes. The dust and the fog mixed make it difficult to see the road for another minute or two after one of these death warrants pass you.
We reached Munnar by around 12.00. After filling petrol we had nice coffee from a roadside stall because my father thought I was sleepy. (Not that I am complaining). We lost our way shortly after starting from the small but attractive and lively town. Soon after finding our way we were en route to Top Station, our destination for the day. As the name suggests it is the topmost part of the tallest hill around. Soon, there was a mild traffic on the road with cars following us and cars and trucks coming opposite to us. Road was wider and eucalyptus trees bordered it with occasional glimpses of a freshwater lake. It was a sunny day but we could hardly any sunlight reached the road because of the trees. Old type cottages and farmhouses started showing up with cattle grazing on the green plains. It was a whole new world opening up before us. Slowly we started climbing up and as we approached our destination, which was not there in the GPS of the car, tarmac paved the way for dirt road and then with great difficulty I had to squeeze the car in between a huge rock and a truck. We had to walk from there. As soon as I put on my shoes my phone screen flashed, “Welcome to BSNL Tamil Nadu. Enjoy your stay here. While roaming, all your incoming calls will be charged as per rules. Thank you.”
“Okay,” I thought, “Creepy! I thought we were still in Kerala.”
We had somehow crossed into Tamil Nadu, if not geographically at least by network. It was funny to be in Kerala still and pay for your incoming calls because you access network from TN. There was a dirt road going up with a considerable amount of people going up and down on it. There were people selling Mangoes, Oranges and Custard Apple. Somehow this facility was being operated by Tamil Nadu government. It was written all over that plastic was prohibited but the number of plastic bags and other objects lying around was noticeable even though there were dustbins placed in different spots. When we reached the top, a small door welcomed us, as if it was the doorway to heaven (or hell, for a change). We were informed of the amount we had to pay for entering. Also was the information given that once you cross that door, it was Tamil Nadu, geographically! I could not understand if the guy who told me that while passing the tickets through the counter wanted me to shudder or smile or something but I just looked at him perplexed. It was a narrow path down from the door with steps laid here and there. There were ropes passing on both sides if anyone wanted to hold on for their dear life because on both sides of the ropes there was nothing but a depth only god can measure. I kept on taking pictures and my father was holding the hands of my sister. My mother kept leaning on me for support when she had to use the steps and like that we reached an open clearance where people were standing and enjoying the breathtaking beauty around. There were countless number of hills around and because of the clouds stooping down the hills, sunlight was history. It was cold and a chilling breeze occasionally passed through the crowd making everybody shiver (a sudden ‘hooh’ or ‘woof’ followed all the time when it did). There was absolute silence (well, mostly) occasionally shattered by the shutter clicks and requests to pose. Everybody was in everybody else’s frame so I kept my camera inside the bag. We got a photographer boy to take a picture of the four of us because I never trusted anyone with my camera. 30Rs is forgettable price for not handing over my camera to unknown hands.
That wasn’t it. From that closure there was another very narrow road going down to the tip of the hill we were standing. My sister absolutely refused to go there as she was scared of heights. My mother wanted to go with me on the condition that I would walk slowly and give her help to cross through the steps. The tip of the hill was nothing more than a small circular space edging out from the hill to the space between the surrounding hills. If you wanted to address the hills and the nature around, that would be the perfect place to do that!
I stood there and watched the snow like a cloud spreading through the valley below. Small narrow paths were seen and I tried to zoom in. Camera always gave a different perspective on everything, for me. A zoomed in view told me that they weren’t paths but narrow streams coming down from the hills. I spend almost an hour there looking around and taking photos. My mother, being my mother, never complained and sat down on a rock. She was telling me about the places she wanted to go… the Himalayas, the North-East, etc.
We climbed down. That was much more difficult than climbing down from the main entrance. By the time we reached near the car we were surrounded by a ‘Chakra Vyuha’ of tourist vehicles. It was way past lunch time and we were hungry. It took me another half an hour to turn the car inch by inch and then squeeze through so many other vehicles to get to the main road. Soon, we were on the highway going back to Munnar. We saw shops selling home-made chocolate; there was a whole street of them. My sister wanted to check them out and we stopped to buy a few. When we got back inside the car, we had chocolates of all kinds of flavor. We stopped in a wayside restaurant to eat; naturally, it was one of these cottage restaurants open only to squeeze money from tourists during the season! Jail food would have been better and more nutritious. I was so angry that as soon as I got back to Dad’s office, I went online and wrote three bad reviews about that restaurant in a tourism website. Another thing which attracted me on the way back was the small shops selling vegetables (mainly carrots) on the road side. My mother wanted to buy them. So I stopped where there was space to stop. It was a shop by an old Tamil couple. They were very nice and selected good vegetables for us. My sister wanted to eat a carrot and the woman was so nice that with a smile on her face, she cut a medium carrot in to small pieces and put it on a leaf with some sugar and told her in Tamil, “This is how my granddaughter likes it.”
We got to the college by 5.30. I was tired after the long drive and I wanted a hot water bath. It was a clear day and not like the day we got to Rajakumari. Sun was going to set soon and the security guy came and told me, “You couldn’t take pictures of sun yesterday. Today it is clear and if you go up in the terrace of the college, you might be able to see the sun set behind the hills.”
I thanked him and went to the terrace. He was right. The sun was beginning to set and the whole place was achieving a divine look. I clicked photos despite my camera’s battery going low. Dinner was soon ready with hot chapathi and egg curry. I was hungry, tired and needed sleep like anything, and ate a lot of food much to the happiness of the family which manages the canteen of the college. They had figured out that I was the big belly among all in the group (when I ate seven dosas for breakfast) and had prepared amazing food for dinner.
We started the very next morning. The staff had given my sister chocolates and the woman in the canteen had helped my mother to cut some rose stems to be planted in our home garden. When we slowly left Rajakumari town behind us, I had a moment’s craziness in me telling my Dad that we should have bought some land there.