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Childhood in Ootacamund

My father had joined the then Imperial Bank of India at Ootacamund in 1926 after an early education in his native Palghat. He was an early entrant into the Banking service from our community. He worked tirelessly for over 35 years before he retired at the age of sixty in 1962. I spent my early childhood in Ootacamund in the Nilgiris Mountains, which was the summer capital of the then Madras Presidency. Besides the Governor’s palatial residence, there were many beautiful palaces and bungalows of the rich aristocracy dotting the quaint little town.

I still recollect some of the sights and sound of that town where I spent my early years. In those days when the Europeans ruled the country there were quite a number of them residing there and you could see more of them in the markets and main roads. The town resembled a small English town in many ways. There were a number of cute little cottages spread around the hilly slopes with the local population manning various services catering to the needs of these foreign sahibs and the rich Indians who lived there. The approach to this town nestled in the hills was mainly by road. In later years a small train better known as the Blue Mountain Express trundled the slopes from Mettupalayam (near Coimbatore) to Ootacamund. As it has to travel in sharp gradients the train was so designed that a devise in the under belly of the compartments will clutch the tracks to hold them from slipping off as it moves along. This train is still in service as a heritage piece and people travel in it as a tourist attraction enjoying the sights of the hills around.

Although I spent only the earliest part of my life till the age of four in this town I can still visualize some of those vignettes that have been permanently etched in my mind imprisoned as they are in my sub conscience. I remember the day my father took my little brother and me to an old charming photographic salon to take a photograph of the two of us. My mother took a lot of pain to dress us up to look our best so that the photo may be preserved for posterity. I am happy to say that I still have the photo taken over seventy years ago in its original finish and which is a proud possession in our family. I also recollect the number of times my father used to take us to the magnificent building that housed the branch of the then Imperial Bank of India set on a high hill with awe inspiring landscape and blue skies as the backdrop. The building now probably over a hundred years old with a charming façade and its wooden flooring and open hearth to combat the cold and keep the staff and customers warm during the cold and chilly months of winter resembled an English setting. I had the privilege of visiting this building again thirty years later in the company of my colleagues in the Bangalore Branch when we visited Ootacamund on an excursion trip.

My early recollections of the people of the town are of those wrapped most of the time in layers of warm clothing with woolen headscarves. I distinctly remember an old neighbour of ours of over 80 years of age with a red woolen monkey cap who passed away one day and I don’t know now if I shed a tear or two for him for I was too young to have such emotions. My father also took us to the famous Botanical Gardens which are an extensive, colorful and wondrous sight for nature lovers. Beyond miles and miles of gardens dotted with huge fur and eucalyptus trees intersparsed with mighty oak and pine trees among many other exotic flora, lived the oldest inhabitants of the hills called the Todas in their thatched huts, which had entrances through which you have to crawl to get inside. Many of the visitors to this town make it a must to visit these settlements, which retain the old world charm. These people spoke a language not familiar to us but they have no qualms to freely mix with the visitors. I can still recall many of my visits to these quaint little people.

I remember very well some of the small incidents in those young years, which live in my memory even to this day. Like the day one evening when my mother was busy in the front yard of our house I crawled on all fours to the small oil lamp my mother had lit for the evening prayers and curiously looked into the flame and the flame burnt my eyelids badly but fortunately no damage was done to my eyes. There was another incident worth recalling. After watching my father shave one morning I took the razor after he left for office to have a shave myself. Unfortunately my father had carelessly left the blade in the razor and I cut myself in the cheek badly and it started bleeding. My mother heard my wailings and attended to the cut. Almost sixty years later when my father was in his nineties it was my duty to give him a shave once in two days as he was too weak to do it himself. I recalled this incident to father and we wondered how the roles have changed with the passage of time.

Father used to take me for evening walks and some times with his close friends which I used to enjoy. The main streets used to be crowded with evening shoppers who would be gathered in the market area and in front of the only cinema hall in town. The cinema hall called ASSEMBLY ROOMS an unusual name for a place of entertainment showed mostly English movies catering to the vast number of Englishmen living in the town. I do not remember having visited the cinema hall any time during my young days in Ooty. The weather was very cold and chilly and the people were clad always in warm clothing and head scarves. It would get very chilly by evening and everyone, almost every one, would return home by sundown. The nights were below 0” cold and water kept in a plate on the rooftop in the night would turn into ice by morning. It was one of our childish pastimes but we wouldn’t know what we would do with the ice.

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