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Once upon a time, in Munnar

Renu Bahal Wadhwa | Updated on April 21, 2021

Green marvel: The view of the orderly bushes was love at the millionth sight, but a passion that has endured   -  IMAGES: RENU BAHAL WADHWA

A former resident relives sepia-tinted memories of growing up in a hilly, colonial tea range of the Western Ghats

* I was six years old when my family moved to Munnar, also known as the ‘Scotland of India’

* As the plantations grew in size, the estates began to form with their own factories to manufacture black tea

* The High Range Club is still there and its bar walls hold a unique tradition — scores of hats with names of general managers who had served for an uninterrupted 30 years of service

***

After many years, I went back to Munnar, where I had lived as a child. I was six years old when my family moved to Munnar, also known as the ‘Scotland of India’, from Gujarat. My father, who had always worked for the Tatas, was asked to set up India’s first instant tea factory in the Kerala hill town in the early sixties.

The Kanan Devan Hills, located in the western ghats of Kerala, produce tea. But we children had other concerns. the children’s Christmas parties were a high point in our lives. Santa always chose to arrive at the High Range Club using different modes of transportation. If one year it was on a tractor, the next year it was on an elephant or a horse-drawn carriage or even on a boat along the river that flows along the club’s periphery.

And then there were the elephants — oh, the elephants, fearsome and endearing at the same time. If you were out late driving to Cochin, or from it, an elephant sighting was almost guaranteed on the drive through densely forested areas. At times elephants would saunter into our gardens, trampling over everything in their way. Their trunks could tell where the juiciest vegetables grew.

 

Curiouser and curiouser

As I grew up I became curious about the name: what does Munnar mean? It means the confluence of three rivers — moonu aaru — that flow from different directions to join up in Munnar. They are the Nullatanni, Kundale and Kanniar.

And who was Kannan? Who was Devan? No one quite knows but one version was that these hills were named after one ‘Kanan Thevar’, a landlord on the eastern edge of the range, who helped the pioneer planters set up their plantations. Hence Kanan Devan Hills.

There were no schools there so my father decided to send me away to a boarding school at Kodaikanal. It was one of those la-di-da schools which, apart from education, also placed a lot of emphasis on extracurricular activities.

Since Kodaikanal was about three hours away I was one of the few lucky ones who got to come home on short breaks for Easter and Michaelmas. The road wound from Top Station, the highest point in Munnar, and passed through forests and hills till it reached Kodaikanal. This road no longer exists now and one has to take the Munnar-Chinnakanal-Pooppara-Bodimettu-Theni-Periyakulam route to drive up to Kodaikanal which is now six hours away. We would go up and down from Munnar to Kodaikanal three times a year.

Tea time

At first I didn’t notice the tea around us. Till you reach your teens you take everything around you for granted. But then slowly I started wondering what these orderly bushes all over the hillsides were. And that was when I became aware of the marvel surrounding me. Tea! Chai! Cha! It was love at the millionth sight but it has been a lasting love.

Tea was first planted in 1880 by a European planter named A H Sharp in Munnar’s Parvathi Estate, my father told me. Soon there were 26 registered small holdings in the hills.

Munnar never looked back after that. In 1892, the first Post Office was opened on Devikulam Estate because the pioneer planters sent a lot of postcards to their friends in the High Range or the hilly tract of the Kerala region. Eventually, they continued to send these to simply keep the post office functioning. I wished I could see what they wrote! It was only after a telephone line was installed in 1908 between essential estates that news could be exchanged verbally.

In 1900, a ropeway was built to transport goods up from the plains to the hills and tea to the plains in return. In 1909 the rugged roads of Munnar saw a motorcycle for the first time. By 1915, there were 16 fully equipped tea factories that had started functioning on the estates.

As the plantations grew in size, the estates began to form with their own factories to manufacture black tea. Green tea wasn’t such a big thing then and instant tea? What in god’s name was that? Nobody imagined that one day the fine powdered concoction of tea leaves, sugar, citric acid and lemon flavour would be sold in the name of ice tea.

Then bazaars opened in each estate. And by 1923, three cars and a lorry made their presence felt. The sleepy hills of the western ghats had come of age.

The Club

Well, not quite. Not yet. There was no club and what is a colonial tea range without a club?

So a Gymkhana was started in 1905 with a loan of ₹2,500 for the gentlemen planters of the High Range. The High Range Club was formally completed in 1910.

Razzle dazzle: Munnar’s High Range Club was the focus of social life and weekends were for drink and dance

It’s still a good place to spend a weekend. It was one of the first planter clubs to have electricity and one of the few clubs to have a residential facility. Cottages for families were constructed in 1935. The club became the focus of social life and weekends were for drink and dance which was fine except for one thing. The assistant managers were only allowed to ride on Bullets — come monsoons with leeches, warm summers or frosty winters.

They had to return home on the pitch-dark narrow strips of road flanked by rocks on one side and a steep abyss on the other with occasional wild elephants for company. And if the mist came swirling down like a thick, white, impregnable blanket, then that was probably the time even an atheist remembered to say some sort of a prayer.

To ward off bad luck, these young men on their magnificent machines would gather for a ‘last fag’ at the crossroads leading to their respective estates. The meeting point was christened ‘Cigarette Point’ by them. But it has been renamed now.

The Club wouldn’t have been much without the ladies of the Raj. They got a library built in 1916 but had to wait till 1941 for the billiards room to be thrown open to them. A squash room came into play in 1958. The golf course and tennis courts were also built around then. The Trivandrum Club holds the distinction of being the first club to be affiliated with the High Range Club in 1915. In 1916, the first of many meets, the Madurai Meet, was held.

These meets normally lasted for three days where the reciprocal members were hosted by the host club members. Tennis, cricket, golf and squash matches were awaited with great excitement. The highlight of these Meets were the Saturday night dinners and dance.

For us younger folks home from boarding schools, these events were manna from heaven. A few of us even found our life partners here.

But the bar was a room too far. The ‘Men Only’ bar was out of bounds for women.

As a child I’d peer in on the pretext of looking for my dad who had to sign the vouchers for the finger chips and chicken sandwiches that my friends and I consumed.

The bar is still there and its walls hold a unique tradition — scores of hats with names of general managers who had served for an uninterrupted 30 years of service. The tradition is still followed. The heads of bison, deer, tiger and leopards too are still there too. It was, if ever there was, the Forbidden Land.

There was one more eccentricity. The club was completely obsessed with punctuality. At the formal cocktail parties one had to be present on the dot for the host and hostess to welcome you. If you weren’t, well, you didn’t have the guts to enter. So everyone made sure they arrived early even if it meant sitting in their cars in a queue for the clock to strike the party hour.

It’s instant

It was this world that I was introduced to in 1964 when James Finlay and Company entered into collaboration with the Tatas for setting up the instant tea factory. My father was entrusted with the mammoth task of building it from scratch in the Nullatanni Estate. It is now the largest such factory outside of the United States and the world’s largest exporter of instant tea.

I remember when my father brought home a packet of the ready-made tea mix for the first time for ‘tasting’. With great ceremony he made four chilled glasses of instant ice tea and with a clinking it was a ‘cheers’ sort of moment.

The Munnar tea estate is no longer owned by the Tatas. The Kanan Devan Hills Plantations Company Private Limited (KDHP) succeeded Tata Tea Limited on April 1, 2005. Owing to the general crisis prevalent in the tea industry during that time, the Tatas exited most of its plantations in Munnar to focus on the growth of its branded tea business. KDHP is the largest employee-owned tea company in the world with more than 12,500 employees who are all shareholders.

The young girl with the miniskirts and the knee-high boots has got old now and misses Munnar intensely. Once this wretched Covid-19 pandemic is over I intend to go there for three months during the winter, away from Delhi’s pollution and cold. And I intend to teach the kids there English, which is how I started my professional career back in 1976.

And guess what? I have even learnt Tamil now, enough to communicate with the local people and the children. And so, in memories and dreams, I carry the soul of Munnar within me.

Renu Bahal Wadhwa is a writer based in New Delhi

Published on April 21, 2021

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