While there may be bigger and fancier versions of the name around the world, The Ritz Hotel of Coonoor was made special through the grace of one truly lovely lady

I have always been a complete sucker for creepers. There’s something about the greenery creeping up a building, absorbing a manmade structure back into nature that makes me feel like all will be right with the world. I have creepers ad-nauseum at my home in the Nilgiris. Every pillar and wall has a profusion of them. Jasmine winding its way up the columns of the verandah, orchids cascading dramatically around the patio, ivy covering one side of a fence, passion flower drowning out another, and what I call potato flowers spreading out across the roof. I must not forget to mention the poor bougainvillea planted by the front porch eight years ago that is resisting all fertilisers and tender attempts to burst into the perfection that is desired from it. But such is my love for creepers that I refuse to take down the poor brown thing with its straggling blossoms and consign it back to the earth from whence it came.

You see creepers, and lots and lots of them, in the Nilgiris. Crawling up fence-posts, growing up embankments by the side of the road, artistically sprouting from pots in well-manicured gardens, growing wild in the sholas… and somehow the sight of them, at every turn, always brings back memories of a long-gone time and a place that was covered with ivy and bougainvillea and the only place in town that offered the intrepid traveller a place to lay one’s head.

From the album, The Ritz Hotel in the 80s.
From the album, The Ritz Hotel in the 80s.

The Ritz Hotel that was, with its greenery-fronted façade, and home-away-from-home feel had me running into its welcoming reception hall at every opportunity. And the opportunities were many. From wedding receptions, to Republic Day dances, to birthday parties, to the occasional family dinner… The Ritz was an integral part of life in Coonoor. Talk to locals who grew up there and despite the several changes in name and alterations to the building… they still call it The Ritz in proud defiance to the name by which it now goes – Velan Hotel Ritz. The Colonial upstart in me just can’t come to terms with this new, more ethnic prefix.

The Ritz Hotel was run, in all the time I knew it, by one of Coonoor’s favourite families. Vittal and Vasantha Iyanna took it over, running it as a family business, because Vasantha could not bear to be away from her children who were at boarding school, the separation causing much anxiety, so to speak. So they packed in the safety of a job on a tea plantation, and became entrepreneurs and decided to buy and run this lovely hotel in order to be closer to schools. Their two girls became day scholars and Vasantha once again became a happy mommy.

And certainly, Vasantha, or Aunty Iyanna as I knew her, was the most happy person to my young view. She had the most kindly eyes and the most kindly face and the most kindly smile, and she was never seen without it. I should know… I ran in and out of that hotel often enough and anyone less patient would have thrown me out. But 15-year old me only ever experienced the kindliness she radiated, and she allowed me to roam free around the beautiful gardens of this pretty little place. I would wander down from the Club when solitude was needed and knock on her front door… and she would receive me with that beautiful smile of hers that was lit from within, and every now and then she would accompany me around the gardens chatting to me about my school life

These trips inevitably ended with a cup of tea in the dining hall, at the table in the far left corner, that commanded the most spectacular view of the rose-filled gardens. It was large room with a bank of windows that overlooked the gardens, and to be honest, it did not matter where one sat, there was always something pretty to gaze at. Sometimes I would sashay down the flight of stairs into this hall, pretending to be a princess in a palace, oblivious to my scruffy, pudding-bowl hair and ill-fitting clothes which were anything but princess-like.  Sometimes, Aunty would sit with me, but more often her presence was needed in some part of the hotel for she worked hard at making it a home not just for her children. I would sip on that golden-coloured brew brought to me by a smiling waiter, into which I had poured half a bowl of sugar, and stare around me, filled with tea and peace. The country cottage feel of the hotel, the sweetness of Aunty Iyanna’s smile, and her gentle conversations, the creeper-covered walls… all of these went a long way towards soothing the inevitable teenage angst which most of us experience. I was lucky to have my Ritzy refuge.

Some people leave a mark on your life effortlessly. Aunty Iyanna was one of those people. She passed away some years ago, and with that Coonoor lost one of its gentlest souls. But life has a way of carrying on and filling the void. Her elder daughter, Samantha, carries on her legacy… seemingly effortlessly too. Reflecting the grace and kindliness and good sense of her mother in ways she does not even realise. Today, she contributes to the upkeep of the town, managing online and physical groups to preserve the environment, promote the district and keep that Coonoor way of life going, all the while turning into a photographer of some distinction… Like her mother before, she does a lot, quietly and gently, expecting little in the way of praise or reward. I had the chance to catch up with her over a cup of tea recently… and there was something in the expression in her eyes that powerfully reminded me of her lovely mother… and it took my breath away a little.

Sitting here in the dank, cold winter that Northern Europe inevitably brings always makes me think of sunshine, and Coonoor and those visits to The Ritz. I remember a time when it was taken over by Mithun Chakraborty – an actor who I quite adored in one of my many ill-considered adolescent phases. I had my picture taken with him at the launch party and I remember the lights in the garden and the music that flowed through the dining hall and the throngs of people who came to toast this new chapter in the life of the hotel we all knew and loved. I remember the Austrian guests who I took to tea there and how much they loved it. I remember I wore my first saree to a dance at the Ritz with that fashion no-no – a woollen blouse – to ward off the winter cold. But mostly I remember the warmth of Aunty Iyanna’s smile. I remember a lady that always made time for me, never minded my teenage rambles around her hotel, who patiently answered my endless questions about her garden, and who never once ever charged me for the many, many cups of tea I drank there at the Ritz Hotel, where began my love affair with creepers all those many years ago.

Featured photograph by Greaves Henriksen