Every single person who is part of the Nilgiris serves to make it such a special place, to create a world so unlike any other…
It’s such a small place, my little district of the Nilgiris. And yet so vast. It’s a place where everyone knows everyone, or at least knows of everyone, and it is one the few places left in India, I believe, where you can take a turn off one of the many meandering roads and find yourself the only person amidst vast hillsides covered with tea and silver oaks. And every twelve years or so you’ll see the purple-gold tracts of the kurinji flower brushing the mountains in delicate strokes, a vivid contrast to the iridescent greens all around. If you’re especially lucky you may spot a bison or two out for a ramble, just like you. In honesty, no words will never do justice to this lush, green-blue spot on our blue-green planet. Its vastness and smallness sit together comfortably… as complementary as a cup and saucer… preferably one filled with Nilgiri tea, of course.
The vastness of this district truly hits one if you live outside India, and you realise, over the years, that the roots of this tea-growing community reach far and wide. Gangly youths who once stumbled through the tea bushes today live all over the world. One of them recently pioneered a ground-breaking technique in removing plaque from arteries and another jets around the world organising high-level conferences for Governments. Others sail their yachts down the Zambezi while attending to hapless tourists attacked by crocodiles and hippos. Others raise the next generation in far flung Japan, and yet others go on to inspire university students in the US… others just sit indoors in Europe and write longingly of a place none of us can get out of our system – no matter how far away we travel. And I’m fairly certain, not one of these globe-trotting ex-residents can do without a cup of tea at some point during their day – you see that incredible earthy yet sweet taste, that marvellous golden flavour, that delicious hot nectar that we all grew up on – it takes us all back in spirit, if only for a few minutes, to this incredible part of the world that no one ever really outgrows.
And it’s not just those who went away… There are those who came. And stayed. The ones who saw a place where the rest of the world could be shut out, where community mattered more than culture, where life in its everyday ordinariness was a joyful celebration. They came bringing with them gifts of mindfulness and kindness, film and cheese-making, mouth-watering pizzas, and camera lenses and paintbrushes that almost captured the majesty and magnificence of the sholas and tea gardens. Remnants of the Raj flowed back to live out their days once more in colonial splendour. Award-winning movie directors, the first Indian man in space, ambassadors, nuclear physicists, Field Marshals… few other places offer such diversity and riches of experiences in one great melting pot – where as I said, everyone knows everyone. They all came to this small district in South India and made it so unbelievably big with their collective presence.
It’s a way of life you won’t find anywhere else in the world – and I’ve lived in six countries till date. It’s where the local tailor will sit you down and offer you a cup of tea in his tiny workshed and converse with you in the most exquisite English. It’s a place where crime is almost unheard of because… well it’s so small, someone is bound to see and tell on you if you even attempted to rob so much as a teabag. It’s a place where small children walk to school without fear of being abducted, and take lifts from passing cars without fear of harm. It’s a place where you can walk into a cloth store and tell the little boy – now a man – that you’re taking home a blanket on trial to see if it matches your bedroom – and walk out without paying for it until you’re done with your aesthetic check. And he lets you because he still remembers this long-standing customer of his father. It’s quite the community. You can walk into a bank and get an overdraft without so much as having an account because the bank manager knew your father well. It’s a place where country western music and Indian Carnatic music coexist, where an international bharatnatyam dancer will happily do the Birdie dance on New Year’s Eve, and where tea and friendship are the guiding principles of everyday life. It is, beyond a shadow of doubt, a place that truly lives the ethos of India’s national anthem, and clings to the principle of unity in diversity in a way the rest of the world would do well to emulate.
For those who left… this district is a beacon that draws them back. To those who made it their home after having lived elsewhere it is a home unlike any other. But the ones who make the Nilgiris truly and continually special are those who have their roots here as deep and old as the tea bushes themselves. The one’s who wisely chose to remain and grow their lives and dreams in this magical place. They welcome home prodigal children with open arms and offer the familiarity and comfort of old friendships and warmth without reserve. They greet newcomers by taking them into their homes and hearts in the most agreeable way, showing these people that here is a better way of life. To these, the ones, that make it home for all the others, who lend their local quirkiness and charming and unique personalities to make this district all it is – to these I say, tea anywhere in the world tastes better because of you – for you are the breath that brings life to this district.
It’s loveable, it’s quaint, it’s beautiful, it’s enchanting and it’s larger than life. It’s also small, frustrating, annoying, gossipy and annoyingly archaic, but thankfully so – for all of these things go together quite beautifully – like tea and milk. These incredibly diverse elements come together perfectly to make that special Nilgiris blend – creating a little bubble in this often unkind planet. It’s a wondrous bubble, this one, and the world when seen from inside it takes on the multi-hued tones of a fairy tale. And the one thing that unites all who came, and all who stayed, and those who left, and those who just visited… is that every single one of us knows how wonderful it is to be part of this most delightful circle, where hearty friendships and heartier tea are certain to warm you and keep you safe even during the coldest of life’s winters.
Photographs by Greaves Henriksen