The hand that rocks the cradle certainly rules the beautiful Nilgiris district, and this is why…

For as long back as I remember groups of women in the Nilgiris have got together – sometimes once a week, sometimes once a month – but definitely at regular intervals, to take a break from the non-stop work of being a mother. They meet at each other’s homes, or in a local restaurant, or the closest club, and there, over copious quantities of tea and conversation, they celebrate their lives, the district, their  children and all the incredible troughs and peaks of being a parent in a small, colonial town hidden away in the mists of this heartbreakingly beautiful mountain range.

Being a mother is not easy. I am not one, but my admiration for those who take up that career is unbounded. As the saying goes, “To have a child is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” But to be a mother in a little tea district has, I believe, even more challenges than usual.

For starters, there are the bison that roam the streets. Certainly, all mothers have to warn their children of the dangers of playing outside, but not many have to caution them about being picked up and tossed around by a giant animal that might be lurking in the nearby tea bushes. Mostly, even with the wonderful world wide web at their disposal, these mothers have to somehow create for their children a bigger arena than the small town they live in. They have to actively seek out opportunities and stay abreast of all that is happening outside this little tea district to prepare their children for a life outside of it. And in a place where pizza places and restaurants were only the most recent development, they had to respond to the vagaries of childhood palates with the utmost creativity. And unsurprisingly, the best food in the Nilgiris is to be found in the homes of these intrepid mothers.

Somehow, just somehow, through all the power cuts, and the road blocks and monsoon landslides and dips in the tea industry, these women manage to bring the wider world into plantation life. They maintain their emancipation despite the very traditional roles that continue to play out in this sweeping range of tea and eucalyptus, helping their husbands run companies, throwing seemingly effortless, yet elaborate dinners, starting thriving home-based businesses, devoting time to charities, and in the midst of it all raising children of some exceptional sensibilities.

And these children… I believe one can recognise a Nilgiris child anywhere in the world. For their mothers have drummed into them qualities fast disappearing around the planet. They are thoughtful, well-mannered, with an ability to converse with the old and young alike. There’s a gentleness to them born of this district’s old world charm, and reading a book, or giving up their seat to an older person, or smiling at strangers comes naturally to the children of these exceptional mothers.  

No place like home! Photograph by Greaves Henriksen

There are of course the inevitable heartaches of a small town, where everyone knows everyone. And the Nilgiri mommies have developed a high degree of flexibility in coping with the character quirks of others around them. They have learned to live and let live, to guard their daughters against gossip, and their sons against boredom, and yet create enough space and enough opportunity to let their children become individuals – no mean feat.

And nowhere else in the world does the phrase, ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ ring more true than this quaint little district. The mothers of the Nilgiris band together in ways that armies of the world would do well to emulate. And in the face of a child’s illness or a tragedy they will surround each other with a collective love and support that is both awe-inspiring and humbling at the same time. Old differences are forgotten, transgressions forgiven, and all that matters is the well-being of a fellow mother facing a crisis. They will cook for each other, visit each other at 2 am to offer comfort, or look after each other’s children for as long as is needed to give each other space and comfort. They will tick off their friend’s child if need be, and the collective watchful eye they keep over the next generation is magnificent in its scope and detail. A fact most Nilgiris children despise, but are utterly grateful for later in life.

Of course, the story of mothers in the NiIgiris would be incomplete without the mention of a certain doctor who has helped bring baby after baby into the world. Dr. Sheela Nambiar, one of the finest obstetricians and gynaecologists, to ever walk this earth has handheld the vast majority of women in the Nilgiris through that moment when they first became mothers. She is an internationally recognised medical figure, she is the author of two books on fitness (with a third underway), she is a TedX speaker, and she is, above all, a woman who has committed to helping other women become mothers. You’ll find her at the end of a long day sipping a cup of tea at the Ooty Club, and in her quiet and elegant voice, she will encourage women to be the best they can be, years after she has helped them bring their children into this world. The district and its mothers owe her a debt of gratitude that can never be paid off.

So take a bow, you mothers of the Nilgiris.  

So… to a Sanaiya Sethna who works in the family business and manages a young family, to a Benifer Patel who professionally designs exquisite homes and gardens while keeping her children well-prepared educationally, to Shernaz Sethna who started a thriving food company from her kitchen, did an MBA after her marriage and raised two fine boys, to Sonal Chordia who is mother to not just her own daughter but also a number of children at a special needs school, to Susanna Prasad who trained in student counselling to help her own boys, to a Geetha Jayaprakash who runs a boutique and singlehandedly raised adolescent children with such grace and dignity, to a Shobana Rajkumari who is mother to a college of women, to Pooja Singh Yohan, that biker-mom, artist, singer, high-performance student, mother to a vast number of stray animals and a young boy; to all of those who live in faraway plantation houses and desperately miss their sons and daughters studying in boarding school… To all of you, way too many to mention in this short space,  I raise a toast and salute your incredible commitment.

For being mothers of unique and creative ability, for raising children the entire district can celebrate, for being parents and women the world can look up to. For being wives, friends, sisters, business women, human beings of some distinction. For allowing people like me who chose not to have children to participate in the magic of motherhood through you. To you my eternal gratitude and respect. Long may your gatherings last and may every cup of Nilgiris tea you drink refresh your souls and nurture your spirits to do the fine job you do.  

Happy Mother’s Day to every single one of you…

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  1. Pooja Singh yohan Reply

    Thank you for this beautiful article and for the acknowledgement of our mommy skills in the most soulful way.Happy Mothers’ day to all the mums.

  2. Karina Taminian Reply

    I really enjoyed reading the article dear Sangeetha Shinde ❤️ not only did your wonderfully written words transport me into it, but the subject you touched upon served as a reminder that good mothers still do exist. Much respect to all these loving mothers from the Nilgiris for their beautiful spirit and warm kind hearts. May their good deeds be rewarded over and over for many generations to come ❤️

  3. Sameepta Sager Reply

    While I am a mother living in other hills than Nilgiri (himalyas) I appreciate your appreciation of motherhood and the warrior-like personality that it creates. Happy Mother’s day to all the tea drinking Moms!

  4. Another super read Sangeeta! A wonderful tribute to all the superhuman mammas’ of the district!

  5. My monthly trip to the Nilgiris. Always carried by this wonderful words inside a marvelous text.
    Thank you Sangeetha, or should I say Sangeetea? 🙂
    A kiss from sunny Portugal.

  6. Jeanne Mizuno Kays Reply

    Beautiful article. Thank you, from a tea-drinking mother of two daughters. Tea soothes the soul, for sure. Raising young women to be the best that they can be requires patience, understanding, and many cups of tea!

  7. True That!!!
    The year I spent working in Coonoor, was a strange one. Most young women in the Niligiris, either left for the big city to attend college or take up employment when they turned 18 or 21. I, on the other hand made a brief return to the Niligiris, when I was 21, and worked as a teacher at Mountain Home High School.
    Every evening I trudged slowly up the Bridle Path to Bedford, where I would stop to catch my breath and recover from the steep incline at either one of the only two cafes in existence then. Being a small town, everyone said hello. That way I always got to enjoy a cup of tea and conversation with whoever happened to be there.
    Of course before I reached home, mother already knew where I had stopped for my cuppa that day and who I happened to meet there. Mind you, this was way before mobile phones…

  8. Matthew Ryan Reply

    I love this blog and always look out for more articles by this writer. She is the Ruskin Bond of South India. Please let’s have more of her stories and drink a cup of tea,or ten, to the life and place she brings to people sitting on faraway lands.

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