The Nilgiris abounds in stories that are designed to send shivers down even the most rigid and rational of spines…Put on the kettle, pour yourself a cup and read about one of those legends.
Something about growing up in a hill station always makes you a little bit more vulnerable to the mysterious and eerie. Whether it is pepper plants creeping their way up a tree, or a carpet of green waiting to burst into your cup of tea, or the poinsettia and jacarandas that throw up bursts of colour against the billowing clouds that descend majestically from the skies… Maybe it’s the outline of firs crowning a hill in stark relief against a fiery sunset? Or perhaps even the pitch black sky littered with a billion starry diamonds, or the stillness of the night where the only sound is the whoosh of an owl as it glides from one mountain to the next… The hills anywhere, be it Scotland, or Assam or Jordan… The hills are always mysterious. They evoke stories of darkness, and magic and suspense and thrills in a way a city never can.
To me, the Nilgiris, that most glorious of hill stations, the place I still call home, that last bastion of the British Raj – now those are my favourite hills of all. Its myths and legends are many, its stories made of spirits and ghouls and animal souls, all related to wide-eyed children, each generation embellishing and adding to the tales, and thus imbuing every winding street, every twisting stream and every old bungalow with an other-worldly atmosphere that seems to take on a life of its own after the sun sinks to sleep behind the darkening, brooding mountains.
Most people from the Nilgiris know this story. The road from Coonoor to Wellington meanders its way steeply down from one hair pin bend to the next. It used to be called Orange Grove Road when I was growing up, but today the sign proudly announces it as Orange Grow Road… I look forward to the next misspelt avatar. As you drive down, you go past beautiful bungalows and the view of the expansive Coonoor valley littered with a thousand little houses and capped by the sprawling complex of the St Joseph’s Boys High School. But, at one point you take a turn and just half a kilometre short of reaching Wellington the road changes. Tall forests rise up on the right and a steep cliff drops down on the left and even today, with the tourist hordes, sometimes you will find yourself the only one on the road. From here you see the fat, square houses of the Staff College officers looking across at Coonoor in a rather smug, geometric military fashion almost as if they are rebuking the chaos of civilian life they see opposite. At the very top most corner of this road as you steer your way into military perfection sits an old, very old, very dilapidated house with rusted iron gates, blackened roof tiles and peeling yellow paint.
Legend has it that anyone who buys the house dies… No one lives there because the entire place, they say, is riddled with strange paranormal activity; in fact, it is said a TV crew from the UK fled from it in terror at some distant point in past when they were investigating the strange occurrences. Stories abound about doors that open and shut by themselves, rocking chairs that rock on their own, and strange lights that come and go in the still of the night… And indeed, driving past it at night one can’t help but shudder. The entire building sits there, huddled in the dark, a malignant body that seems to hold terrifying secrets it will never share with anyone but those unfortunate enough to accidentally wander in.
The story that sits behind this house is, however, a universal one. Well, at least it’s the version that I like the best.
More than a century ago when Independence was still a twinkle in the eye of our Mahatma’s father, when the local tribes of the Badagas and Todas and Kotas were more prolific than they are now… there came to the military outpost of Wellington a young British officer who was quite enamoured by this particular jewel in the Crown. He loved India and the Nilgiris so much that he fell in love with a young tribal girl, and together they made plans to spend their life together – no mean feat back in the day, I’m sure. They met secretly, the tea bushes and towering mountains serving as majestic setting for their forbidden love.
As the story goes, the young officer was called away back to England to attend to family matters, and they parted sorrowfully, with her promising to wait and him promising to return. But as the Bard said, “the course of true love never did run smooth” and the young officer, they say, died on his way to the UK or on the way back. Or maybe he just did a runner, who knows…? But the young tribal girl discovered after he left that she was pregnant, and so to avoid shame and dishonour threw herself off the cliff that this abandoned house stands on. They say her spirit roams the house and that entire stretch of lonely road waiting for her lover to return to her. She appears to single men, driving alone after midnight, seeks a lift, gets into the passenger seat, and then disappears silently and suddenly as you cross the little bridge that takes you into Wellington.
I was told this story by an elegant Anglo-Indian lady whose husband had chivalrously offered a lift to this wandering spirit after a particularly raucous game of bridge at the Club one late winter night, when he was still a bachelor. She said he almost drove off the bridge and into the stream when she vanished right before his eyes.
I’m not a single man, but these are the few times I wish I was, for I know I would so like to meet her… This lost soul, this heartbroken ghost, this seeking spirit… And listen to this tragic tale from long-ago from her own non-corporeal lips… and maybe even offer her a cup of tea made from those same bushes that were witness to both her youth and mine.