A good book read in the right frame of mind can yield a more intimate knowledge of the self and the worlds contained in its pages. Kodaikanal presents endless opportunities for this kind of immersion. Long, lazy afternoons, tranquil mornings in the company of bird call, misty evenings spent by a crackling fire—reading against a backdrop of mountains is a unique experience, and a wonderful opportunity to connect with your surroundings.
Our list of book recommendations, contributed by staff and friends of The Kodai Chronicle, is a mix of fiction and non-fiction reads. Some are set in landscapes like the Palani Hills, others are written by Tamil authors and some are from worlds far away from Kodaikanal but fitting nonetheless.
Up the Ghat by Zai Whitaker (1993)
Up the Ghat takes readers back in time to the Kodai of 30 or 40 years ago, allowing a glimpse into small-town mountain living. Set in Denkal, a fictional plantation district in the hills, the novel has elements familiar to those who know 1980s Kodaikanal: a school in the hills, a government officer trying to free bonded labour and an unhurried pace of life.
The protagonist is Azra, the officer’s young wife, who is unhappy and has an affair with an American teacher. Azra is a strong young woman, clear about the choices she makes, and Whitaker’s fluid style of writing has imbued the story with an air of nostalgia and a self-deprecatory humour. An altogether delightful novel, through which you’ll smile a lot.
Recommended by Jayashree Kumar, freelance editor and long-term resident
Upstream: Selected Essays by Mary Oliver (2016)
Upstream is a classic meditation on nature that inspires us to slow down and be present for ourselves and our world. Written by beloved American poet Mary Oliver, this moving collection of essays explores the solitude offered by a life lived away from the crowd. ‘Be what you are,’ she writes, ‘of the earth, but a dreamer too.’
It is this rich vein of thought, one so many of us crave to mine, that Oliver makes accessible in these essays. Bring your copy to the hills to take on a picnic, dip into after a walk and savour at the end of a long day.
Seasons of the Palm (Koolamadari) by Perumal Murugan (2000)
Seasons of the Palm is a classic modern novel about Shorty, a young untouchable boy who spends his day herding sheep and tilling the land as a bonded labourer working for an omnipotent landowner. A moving window into the sociocultural context of Tamil Nadu, it is also a glimpse into Kodaikanal’s complicated past; a neighbourhood called B L Shed, as in Bonded Labour Shed, lies about 25 kilometres from town.
Written by one of India’s finest contemporary writers, Perumal Murugan, Seasons of the Palm portrays both the injustice and the innocence of Shorty’s life, making this regional story both universal (Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn comes to mind) and affecting.
Voice of a Sentient Highland by Godwin Vasanth Bosco (2019)
This inspiring work of narrative non-fiction tells the story of the Nilgiri mountains through the lens of plant ecology. Since parts of the Palani Hills, where Kodaikanal is located, share a similar habitat, it’s also a wonderful way to learn about the natural history of our hill station.
Godwin Vasanth Bosco, a restoration ecologist, writes with knowledge, compassion, and a genuine love for these hills. Through his work, he raises awareness of the importance of these ecosystems, the roles they play in the well-being of the planet and the ways in which we might learn from them. There are few specialists like him working in this region today, making this a valuable resource.
Love Without a Story by Arundhathi Subramaniam (2019)
‘I grew up in an age of poets/who told me joy/was for cabbages.’
What better place than the mountains to contemplate immortality and the absurdity of modern life? If you’re looking for a book to both ground and uplift you, try poet Arundhathi Subramaniam’s latest collection of verse, Love Without a Story.
Subramaniam spans many worlds with an easy grace, from the wise old woman of Tamil literature, Avvaiyar (demystified!), to happy hours with friends. The wry, stylish verse of this award-winning poet acknowledges contradictions, even suggesting that we need not reconcile them. Her clever insights and refreshing wit have earned her accolades, and her last collection of poetry, When God Is a Traveller, was shortlisted for the T S Eliot Prize.
Kodaikanal: Vanishing Heritage of an Island in the Sky edited by Pradeep Chakravarthy, Anil Choudhry, Jayashree Kumar and Girija Viraraghavan (2015)
Kodaikanal: Vanishing Heritage of an Island in the Sky is an archive, love letter and insightful call to arms. As the book jacket underlines, the authors ‘hope that this book will contribute to enlightened management of this ecologically vulnerable and beautiful part of India’. Documenting Kodai’s heritage buildings, flora, fauna and landscapes through painstaking research, it contains fascinating stories, ecological and historical information, architectural drawings, detailed guides for heritage walks and colourful anecdotes.
This hardcover coffee-table book is the work of long-term residents of this town (also members of the local chapter of INTACH, the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage) and experts like ecologist VV Robin and herpetologist Romulus Whitaker. If you are a lover of old buildings, feel curious about the trees around you or want to learn more about the Palani Hills, this Kodai bible is for you. Take it with you and dip in and out, at leisure.
Things We Found During the Autopsy by Kuzhali Manickavel (2020)
Kodai is full of eccentric characters and cultural confluences. The similarly quirky stories of Kuzhali Manickavel explore the fun of these subcultures, some set in rural landscapes similar to Kodaikanal. In this second collection, short stories, poetry and snapshots of writing (some only a paragraph long), deal with dragons, floods, girls’ hostels, voluntarily homeless youths, Indian dads in cold foreign countries, homosexuals, references to Rajnikanth and Western dance in Indian women’s colleges. Things We Found During the Autopsy offers a glimpse into the wonderfully weird world of the contemporary Tamil writer.
Manickavel’s writing is whimsical, poetic, often absurd and sometimes dark, but in ways that are both wicked and addictive all at once. Best read in public spaces, like parks or coffee shops, with the time and space to imagine that the strangers around you have lives as bizarre as the characters in this book.
Selected Stories of Anton Chekhov by Anton Chekhov (1932)
The mountains are a great place to give the classics a go. Gentle, foggy afternoons when the mist swirls up and fills the room—on days like this, you want nothing more than to cosy up in an armchair and read a good story. This collection contains 30 of the great Russian master Anton Chekhov’s best stories: ones of both great depth and lightness about everyday Russian life in the mid to late 19th century. A lonely schoolteacher thinking about her life as she returns from a shopping trip, a woman who marries many times and loves each of her husbands with blind devotion, an anxious boy being taken to a school far away from home. The best short stories can contain whole worlds, and his do.
Recommended by Chiki Sarkar, publisher of Juggernaut Books