In this special Nostalgia feature, three sisters who spent their summers in Kodai remember, together.
Clare Arni is a photographer whose work focusses on social documentary and cultural heritage. She lives in Bengaluru.
Oriole Henry, named after the golden oriole, is an editor and writer. She still feels green hills are her soul place. She lives in Bengaluru.
Vicky Henry is a yoga teacher who lives in the UK. She misses the plains and the warmth of India every day.
Artichokes, Hikes and Wooden Boats
Every summer holiday in the early 1970s, our family would leave our home in Pasumalai, Madurai, and take the unending winding road up the ghats to Kodaikanal. My father, Martin Henry, was the managing director of a textile company, Madura Coats, and he rented the beautiful Orchard Cottage on the lake opposite the boathouse.
My sister Vicky and I would spend all day on the lake rowing heavy wooden boats, each with its own individual and long-forgotten name. A life floating on water, meandering down the long fingers of the lake, where the purple water lilies bloomed in the shallows. Picnicking in punts in the shade of the overhanging trees and watching Mr Gompertz take his daily swim across the lake to the ferry point, where the ponies and peanut brittle and candy floss men waited to relieve us of our pocket money.
We would look forward to our weekly trip to the bazaar. My mother would create marvellous silver rings with the Kashmiri shop Khatai’s and Sons, while we would buy flawed rose quartz, topaz and amethyst and wrap them in cotton wool as if they were absolute treasures. Then we would browse through Archie and Phantom comics at Higginbotham’s, waiting till the weekly shop was done. My father would fall in love with yet another carpet at Banday Brothers. The evenings were spent by the fire, which was lit using kerosene and bunched-up newspaper, and by blowing into a long iron pipe. This was followed by artichokes, with as much melted butter as possible collected in the scooped leaves.
Then my father would come for the weekends and we would have elaborate picnics. Long walks to hidden waterfalls and pools to cool our feet. Warm sun on our faces, rough blankets, catching tadpoles, Marmite sandwiches, finding porcupine quills in the damp spongy moss tree hollows and sudden rain that would send us rushing back to the car. Once, when I was nine, we even did the 12-mile hike from Kodai to Tope with our beloved dog, Othello. All the way down the ghat on the old coolie ghat track used by early visitors to Kodai who would travel in hammock chairs carried by four men, through the low clouds and thick forest, to the plains.
In the late ’70s our family moved to Bangalore, and that was the end of our Kodaikanal summers.
The Marlon Brando of Tamil Cinema
My memories of Kodaikanal are seen through a childhood mist. Fleeting moments appear and disappear; green hills, the glassy waters of the lake, ferns with curls at the ends of their leaves—because that is where fairies are born. My perspective is always low to the ground. Small, blonde, aged four—or was I five?—in these memories. Then, through the mist comes crashing my greatest achievement of those years, my brush with a celebrity, and I am as alive as I was in that moment, every sense tingling.
We used to stay in a cottage by the lake. Roses everywhere. But by the time I was six we moved to Bangalore, and these trips stopped, so when I try to recall our family holidays it is my senses that remember first. Cold on my skin. This strange and new feeling of being cold. Born in Madurai, cocooned in the warmth of the plains, Kodaikanal is where I first felt cold. I’m unsure what to do to change this feeling. Do I run around, like I do after getting out of a swimming pool to warm up? Clothes are bulky, shoes a must. They feel heavy and cumbersome. This is probably why many of my memories are of being by the fireplace in our cottage… I must have gravitated there a lot for warmth. The crackle and splutter from the damp logs as the flames lick them. Usually, next to me is a round jigsaw puzzle. Double-sided. On one side are colourful zodiac signs. On the other, impossible shades of grey. I would do the colourful side over and over, then try and flip the puzzle to see the grey picture I hadn’t made.
I don’t remember going out in boats on the lake at all. Maybe I wasn’t allowed—I couldn’t swim, after all. But I remember walks around it with my ayah Lizzie. The impossible green of the grass and trees, a brilliance I had only ever seen in my colouring books and on chocolate tins brought from abroad. Out on the lake I remember the beautiful lotus flowers, always too far away to pluck, tempting in their luxurious opulence. Then in the distance, on the path along the lake, there he is, one of the strongest memories of all my childhood.
Lizzie spots him first. She whispers to me, as if she’s afraid, ‘I think that may be the Tamil movie star Sivaji Ganesan.’ Bang, phut, phut, phut, phut, my heart begins racing. How can it be? How can my ultimate hero be walking along the lake like me? Only last week he was up on the screen, a double role in the same movie. Super! And now he’s here, the Marlon Brando of Tamil cinema.
Lizzie and I stare, giggle and shift nervously. He is getting closer. ‘Go and talk to him,’ Lizzie says. My heart drops into my stomach. ‘No, no, no. I can’t.’
We squirm. ‘Go on,’ Lizzie urges. I’m much too shy. I wrap her sari folds around me for protection. I feel her hesitate, her knees bend, and then suddenly they purposefully lock. She grips my hand and we walk towards him.
He is charming, kind, gracious, all the things I thought he was. And then he picks me up, this god of the silver screen, this giant of a man, lifts me up to his height and kisses me on the cheek. I look down at the lake, at the green all around, still with the tickle of his moustache on my cheek, and think, Kodaikanal is heaven.
Merry Misadventures and Treasures in Plain Sight
Kodaikanal is filled with memories of water: in the lake, on the lake, around the lake and by waterfalls. We spent a lot of time in boats or in punts (with a paddle, not a pole), idling away the hours on the water. I remember lining up the punt and paddling at speed, like a war canoe, straight towards the Chinese boathouse, and at the last minute we would lie down flat and glide noiselessly under the gate into the dark gloom. We would then climb onto the deck, but the inside was not as exciting as the outside, so we would quickly lose interest and climb back aboard to go to a different part of the lake. I remember getting peanut brittle and candy floss from the vendors near the ferry point, and once or twice riding a skinny horse for a few terrifying minutes.
I grew up scared of quicksand—I think that it must have featured heavily in the films we saw back then. One fateful day when my sister Clare and I were out on the lake, I decided to get out of the boat to get a water lily. The lilies at the lake were beautiful, but my arms were always too short to reach them from the shoreline, and the water too cold to swim in. If you pulled them onto the boat, great coils of the stem would come up, threatening to tip the boat over, and we never had a knife or scissors to cut the stem.
Once, I got out of the boat onto what I thought was a solid mud bank to get the most beautiful lily, but the bank wasn’t solid, and I started to sink into this gelatinous, gloopy, gooey mud. I had possibly the first (but not the last) panic attack of my life as I envisioned being engulfed by the mud. I shrieked my head off as Clare, rescued me. Needless to say I never get out of boats now, unless someone else has stood on the solid ground in front of me and I will then stand on that exact spot!
On our first trips to Kodai we’d stay at the company guesthouse, the Iron House. I don’t remember it that well, other than the thunderous noise the rain made on the corrugated roof and the story that it was put together out of two prefabricated churches that had been sent to India and never made it to their destination at all. Orchard Cottage at Tapp’s Corner, which my father later rented, was close to the lake. I made friends with Mr Gompertz in the house next door. His wife was a Russian refugee and had once eaten strawberries on a train with Rasputin. Mr Gompertz had a small woodwork area and would let me make things out of the shavings and offcuts. Nothing I made was useful, but it was great fun and he was very patient with me.
Once at Orchard Cottage my sister and I filled a tin bathtub with water from the lake and Ponniah, our driver, helped us catch fish with a wire loop and a cloth. We poured what felt like hundreds of fish into this small bath, when I peered into the tub the next day, it was empty. I think they had all been released back into the lake, which was probably for the best as we had nothing to feed them with.
Away from the lake there were other things that we did like visiting the Belgian nuns, where we had to be on our best behaviour in the austere convent rooms. There was one smiling moon-faced nun, whose name I can’t remember, and my parents would talk to her in French. Once, on one of our walks, I found a lump of old glass, complete with bubbles. I was convinced it was a diamond, so I saved up and went with my mother to the Kashmiri jeweler, who treated the occasion with all seriousness. My ‘diamond’ was duly cut and set into a pendant. I love my diamond; I still have it and wear it!
There were also picnics, mostly cold picnics—cold is a strong memory of Kodai. I live in the UK now and still don’t like the cold. We would go off in convoys of cars to Fairy Falls and build little dams to keep the beers cold (we children would have Thums Up or Limca). There was one picnic during which we spent hours under blankets waiting for the rain to stop. My father was convinced it would. It didn’t, and we all went home very cold and wet. Once, as we drove back from a picnic, we all heard a loud clunk as the bottom of the car, an American Ford Fairlane, hit something quite hard. We all looked out of the back window and saw a fresh puddle of oil—we’d cracked the sump. That car was fixed so many times that I doubt there was an original part left on it. Another time, when driving in the hills, all four hubcaps popped off, and we had to chase them down the road to catch them.
The car had an AC, not built in but added later, which was kept on as we drove through the plains from Madurai. The person in the passenger seat would freeze and be dripped on. As we climbed higher, the AC would be switched off and the windows opened, then closed again when it got too cold. There was no heater, so we’d all shiver.
The evenings were cold, and we’d sit around the fire putting together a jigsaw that was circular, with picture on both sides. We’d do the easy colourful side first, and then the challenge was to flip it over without breaking it. We’d also read and play games, and I think my mother would play the guitar. Then we’d go to bed by the light of the embers in the fireplace.