Bijoy Venugopal takes a long, wet drive through the hills of Tamil Nadu to meet the monsoon on its way out. In the first part of the series, he recounts his travels through Madurai and Meghamalai.
If April (to mangle Eliot) is the cruelest month, then June is one of new school years and income tax returns. No less cruel, but the monsoon makes the Indian summer infinitely more sufferable.
Those familiar with the vagaries of this seasonal prevailing wind know it no longer arrives with clockwork precision on June 1. In Chasing the Monsoon: A Modern Pilgrimage Through India (Viking, 1990), Alexander Frater observes how the Indian subcontinent's wet season triggers national debate, topples governments and sets off frenzied shuffles among bureaucratic cardsharps.
Astutely, the Election Commission of India ensures that polls are held before the monsoon sets in. Ergo, the government voted in must first wrestle with a celestial crisis, weathering which will see it through many a storm to come.
Even as the subcontinent shudders to thunderclaps in June, one south Indian state gets no wind of it. Tamil Nadu is the scapegoat of a geographical conspiracy. Gales billow from the Indian Ocean to the southern tip of Kerala, where they run into the defiant windward slopes of the Western Ghats. The hills and beaches are awash in torrential rain but the leeward eastern slopes, in adjoining Tamil Nadu, must be content with the leftovers.
The monsoon sheds its burden over the subcontinent until it bumps into the intractable wall of the Himalayas. Thwarted, the weakening winds eddy back, fan out over the Bay of Bengal and irrigate the southeastern states in a final show of might. Tamil Nadu now gets its annual allowance -- a six-week orgy of sky and water that turns roads into runnels and fills sewers to the gills with flotsam.
I celebrate the rain with a drive through the hills.
From the plains of Madurai, I shall work my way north to meet the monsoon on its glorious return journey.
A yellow moon presides over my departure from Bangalore's Kempegowda Bus Station. The air-conditioned Volvo's silken suspension rocks this fidgety sleeper into an uncomplaining snooze. I wake to the percussion of rain on the panes.
Approaching Madurai, I note that the rains have drawn first blood. Fallen trees slow us down. Evidently, the workers four-laning these stretches of National Highway 7 have overslept -- it is littered with construction material and hurriedly erected diversion signs. But the liquor shops have been open all night and the bus picks its way gingerly past the wreckage of minivans and collapsed trucks.
At Mattuthavani bus stand I am greeted by Mahesh, my squat, mustachioed chauffeur. Morning in Madurai, despite the overnight downpour, mimics the atmosphere inside an idli cooker. Which reminds me of the idlis at Saravana Bhavan near the High Court: fluffy and delicious, they are served steaming with three chutneys. Without waiting for my order, the waiter brings me vadas that redefine 'crisp'.
We shall drive 115 miles to a destination Mahesh has not heard of. Meghamalai (Tamil for Cloud Mountain) nestles in the hills of Theni district. Past Theni town we proceed to Chinnamanur, turn off the highway and reach a private road with a weather-beaten signboard for 'Tea Estates India Limited'.
The gorgeous countryside echoes with birdsong but the road cutting through it has more holes than a sieve.
The clouds are quickly upon us as we weave through lush tropical forest at 5,000 feet. Rutted roads and dizzy switchbacks slow our Tata Indica to 15 mph, the perfect pace to savor occasional wildlife encounters.
A barking deer tiptoes across the road. Coal-black Nilgiri langurs whoop in the treetops. Mahesh, bursting with trivia, reminds me inopportunely that these monkeys are poached to prepare an Ayurvedic potion that supposedly enhances muscular strength.
The moist air carries the aroma of tea infused with cardamom and pepper. We drive past fern-fringed streams and shimmering reservoirs to the Cloud Mountain Bungalow. Eldhose, the manager, has biked down to greet us. I ask him if he is related to a namesake who runs a popular birding tour in Kerala. Laughing, he tells me every third person from his hometown, Kothamangalam, is named after Yeldho Mor Baselios, the 16th century saint of the Syrian Orthodox Church.
Overlooking the waters of the Venniar Dam, Cloud Mountain Bungalow is the upholstered lap of luxury. Fruiting orange trees, woodsmoke-scented fireplaces, hunting trophies, a reading room with the quaintest English magazines and paperbacks -- everything smacks of a bygone colonial era. It's mine for Rs 6,000 a night.
"We get nine months of rain," says Pradeep Jadeja, the estate's group manager, shaking his gray head at a curtain of mist outside his window. "You may find it romantic but it really gets to us."
The British, who planted tea here in the 1930s, named these hills the High Wavvs. Until recently administered by Tea Estates India Limited, the largest plantations -- the High Wavy and Venniar estates -- are controlled by the Wood Briar group.
The tea gardens hug plunging valleys bordered by peaks rising to 6,000 feet. They are fringed by rainforests and shola grasslands, home to elephants, bison, deer and the occasional tiger. The Nilgiri Tahr, an endangered mountain goat, may be seen grazing along the crags.
When the drizzle eases, Eldhose accompanies me to an observation point 4 miles away, where I take in panoramic, if cloud-marred, views of the Cumbum valley.
Night falls early. Dinner is sumptuous and the homemade dessert delectable -- the tang of orange pudding stays with me till the lights in my head go out.
Getting to Meghamalai
- Nearest airport: Madurai (185 km/ 115 miles)
- Nearest railhead: Dindigul (165 km/ 102 miles)
- Local Transport: Taxis may be hired in Madurai or Theni
District Officer, District Forest Office
Theni Forest Division, K R R Nagar, Theni
Phone: (04546) 252552
The Cloud Mountain Bungalow and Sand River Cottage have cable television, telephone and hot water. Cellular signals are available only on BSNL. Guests are allowed use of the study, library and dining room. The Cloud Mountain Bungalow has a children's play area. Accommodation and food are available for drivers.
Tariff: Rs 6,000 per room inclusive of all meals, plantation tours and sightseeing. Groups can rent the bungalow (all three bedrooms) for Rs 12,000. Carry liquor or place orders in advance.
Jyoti Sunder, Woodbriar Group, 10 Damu Nagar
Coimbatore 641 045, Tamil Nadu
Phone: (91-422) 4351500/ 4351199/ 4351536
Mobile: (91) 9994157624
Part III: The memory of the northeast monsoon