Redlynch is a village in Somerset, England. And Redlynch is also the name of a bird. In Kodaikanal, Red Lynch is the name of a beautiful house—up Tapps Road, on what was called Pine Hill, above the lake. Red Lynch was bought by Eric Hayward, from Katherine Vera Vincent; who had earlier bought it from WE Scott, who I recall may have had an association with the American missionaries.
Hayward did all the landscaping, creating a beautiful mix of garden, woodland, lawns and orchard. In 1961, he sold his lovely home to my father, the actor Gemini Ganesan. Hayward had wished to spend his last days here; this was not to be, as his family insisted he return to England.
While shooting a film in Kodaikanal, my father heard that Red Lynch was up for sale; he wrote to Hayward, who had by now returned to England.
Dear Mr Hayward, I was in Kodai recently, shooting a film and I happened to visit your bungalow, Red Lynch. I am so impressed. Red Lynch has already found a place in my heart. I hear you plan to sell it. I would love to buy it from you. If you are indeed going to sell it, kindly consider my request favourably. Yours faithfully, Gemini Ganesan Post Script: How do you have the heart to sell such a beautiful bungalow? If I were you, I would never let it slip from my fingers.
The agent got in touch with my father, drove a hard bargain, and the house was sold. Later, the shrewd agent smiled and showed my father the telegram Hayward had sent: ‘Whatever the price quoted, the house should go only to Mr Gemini Ganesan’.
This was in the early ‘60s, and I was then studying in the fourth standard in Church Park, Presentation Convent, Chennai. There was much excitement. Off we went to spend our first summer vacation in our own place in Kodai, after several summers spent in rented accommodations. We were all bowled over by the gardens, orchard, woodlands, and the aesthetically designed home, with its large sunroom and four bedrooms with attached baths.
Hayward had five spaniels, we heard, and the dogs’ clothes, towels, and other personal effects had all been left behind, as had all the linen, furniture, cutlery, and kitchen equipment, including a cooking range, fridge, and old-style copper-iron boiler-stove. He had even left his car behind in the garage.
That first summer in Red Lynch went in sheer exploration of the property, straight out of an Enid Blyton book with its enchanted woods, cosy fireplaces, wooden floors, secret cupboards, and nooks and crannies. There were two resident gardeners, who lived here with their wives and children: Lazar and Violet, Jeeva and Rose. Parvati was the house help and they all lived in their respective rooms in the staff quarters in the compound. There was the kusinikarar, the person in charge of the kitchen, who was ready to retire; I remember the gorgeous, toothless smile that would greet you each time you saw him.
All of the above is now history: the staff is all dead and gone, and so too are Hayward and Gemini Ganesan. Red Lynch has long been divided between GG’s four daughters, who meet here on vacation each summer.
My earliest memory of Red Lynch is of following Mrs Gompertz around the garden as she peered at the rose bushes and went snip-snip with a cutter, removing dead leaves and flowers. Her spectacles would hang off a string of pearls which dangled down off her neck. Her neatly-combed white hair was covered with a fine net. She wore trousers, a loose, long-sleeved shirt, and warm red lipstick, and would make her scheduled visits to Red Lynch in her old car (was it an Austin?) as the supervisory caretaker of the beautifully laid out gardens.
She lived in a cute little home at the bottom of Tapps Road—the Kodai Municipality insists on spelling it as ‘Tops’ Road—by the lake, facing the Boat House located on the bank opposite. During our annual summer vacation visits, Mrs Gompertz would invite us for high tea, and serve freshly baked scones, cookies and cakes, as well as sandwiches and tea. She had a bell placed on the floor beneath the table and she would press it with her foot when she required the butler. I was, of course, most curious and interested in whatever Mrs Gompertz did, and would follow her around.
On some visits, she would let me watch her scrape the cake batter in the bowl with a sheet of old X-ray film. At other times she would ask me to hold the oven door open as she extricated a tray of fat cookies.
After tea she would entertain us in her cozy living area. ‘My dear, please help me open this tin,’ she would say. The moment I opened the tin, out jumped a clown attached to the bottom of the box with an expandable, criss-cross contraption, and I would yelp with fear and delight. Grinning, she would then proceed to regale us with stories of her time in Paris and other places. I would leaf through the foreign newspapers and magazines she subscribed to and when it was time to leave, I would hug her and inhale the fragrance of the pancake or powder she used on her wrinkled face. She might have been in her 80s, but she was agile and sharp and such fun. Whenever my father saw her at Red Lynch, he would bow to her in reverential greeting.
My favourite spot in the wooded area was what we called the Picnic Tree. Its canopy was so wide and thick that you could take shelter beneath it when it rained. The floor was carpeted with a thick layer of duff (decayed leaves and twigs). The Picnic Tree disappeared many years ago, as have many other trees, some felled by intruders, others by stormy weather.
The orchard was full of fruit trees: peach, pear, apricot, plum, green gauge, and tree tomato. The large lawn in front of the bungalow is still there, and this is where Hayward and his guests and relatives played croquet. Yes, they left the croquet sets behind and we would fool around with them, not really knowing how to play the game. A large, metal sundial mounted on a granite stand stood on the slope leading to the lawn, which was flanked on both sides by two large magnolia trees. Saplings filled the gazebo , as well as pots, shovels, and a stone roller that was used to flatten uneven surfaces.
Lazar, the senior gardener, taught me to use a bow and arrow fashioned out of wood. He also made a catapult for me, and let me catch butterflies with a net, but I had to release the creatures once I caught them. My mother was horrified when I told her I wanted to pin the pretty insects on a board for a collection.
I would spend the entire day at the lake on a boat, with storybooks and food packets, all by myself, as our house help Parvati sat on the bank, watching. I would use the boat hook to stay close to the shore while eating idlis or whatever my mother had packed for me, even as Parvati nagged me to return home soon.
We would walk briskly up Tapps Road, Parvati telling me stories of wild wolves which would leap out of the CSI (Church of South India) compound nearby and attack us if we lingered after dusk, all the while. And at home, the two tall weeping willows, we were told, housed ghosts that would howl and trouble children at night if we did not go to bed on time. Those trees, too, are no more.
One of the survivors is the rare copper beech tree, which changes colour every season and was the highlight of the garden tour as my father showed visitors around. ‘You know, this is the only one of its kind in South India,’ he would say proudly.
This was the texture of my early days in Kodaikanal: days with no crowds, no pollution, and the beautiful bison content in their habitat, away from pesky humans. Kodai residents got a taste of that utopian environment during the frequent lockdowns enforced to contain the Covid-19 pandemic for almost two years, when the air cleared and noisy tourists were kept at bay. Wild animals breathed free and the shola forests came to life.
We sisters have resumed our annual vacation at Red Lynch in recent years, and spend at least a month or two here. My one-room studio stands where Lazar, Jiva and Parvati lived, in their staff quarters—I call it the scullery—close to where Lazar stacked firewood and had his chicken coop. My two daughters like to stay in Hayward’s old one-bedroom cottage adjoining the scullery, where Vera Vincent is said to have lived for a period after selling Red Lynch to Hayward.
Each time we go to Kodai it is as though we had never left – the memories come flooding back and we become wide-eyed children once again, savouring the magic of Red Lynch and the hills.