Being chased by a bison in the wild does not make for a happy dream. Being chased by a bison in the middle of a busy street is rather ridiculous. But it was scary when it happened in Kodaikanal. He was beautiful, dark with white stockings, and like a bull who had been blown up to giant size, peacefully feeding on grass (?) behind a car when our bus passed him. The question being: who’s taking whose land? Have the weekend tourists from all over Tamil Nadu and Kerala and their vehicles squeezed out where the wild things are or have the wild things been sprinkled all over this American missionary town and beloved hill station? Hard to tell, which is why we were peppered with stories of bisons jumping eight feet and smashing cars to bits. The destruction of peace happened right then. I was busy trying to record the creature with my iPad when a car honked rudely and the beast turned around. As it advanced towards me, my mind froze at the elaborate power of its horns, but the voice of my friend woke me up. “Run!” he said quietly, just like in one of those viral horror videos. I ran and boarded the bus. The beast kept chasing us, but so lazily, it seemed like a prank.
Kodaikanal International School (KIS) is a hilly stretch of Oregon in Tamil Nadu. Its current principal, Corey Stixrud, is from that part of the Pacific Northwest and went to college in Lewis and Clark in Portland, but he’s actually an old Kodai hand as his father taught at the school too. If you thought all hillside boarding schools in India traced themselves back to the British, KIS will come as a surprise. And with it, the whole town of Kodaikanal. As Corey told me, the British took a look at Kodai, but rejected it in favour of Ooty, and when American missionaries wanted a place to set up their church et al, the British told them, “Take Kodai. Should work fine for you even though we passed.” Oh, the whims of imperial handovers! And so there appeared a hilltown famous for cheese and chocolates, and the school for the children of American missionaries.
The hot chocolate is to die for! It is not even hot chocolate—just chocolate, molten, hot and viscous like bittersweet lava in tiny silvery cups. The effect is like a shot of Italian espresso, just sweet like there is no sweetness in heaven but this!
Why does death always lurk so close behind beauty? The beautiful bridges of Ithaca, New York, they say, have sucked many a Cornell student to suicide. If I’m going to die, I might as well go in style. Green Valley in Kodaikanal used to be called Suicide Point, we hear, because its breathtaking beauty and steep drop lured many souls to suicide, especially star-crossed lovers. Such stories are true even when apocryphal, just that the phalanx of monkeys around the place are a bit of an anti-climax to the idea of a romantic tragedy.
Romance gnaws at you everywhere in Kodaikanal. For those of us who lost our teenage hearts to Salman Khan’s debut movie, Maine Pyar Kiya, Kodai Lake was where it all happened. An impossibly young Salman and a heartachingly beautiful Bhagyashree in a yellow sari rowing on the lake to the song Dil deewana, bin sajna ke mane na. Other couples streamed past in various stages of intimacy. Cut to the present. The lake looks like a war zone on weekends and as I stare at the boats trying to remember Salman and Bhagyashree, I catch a man peeing in the water from the corner of my eye. The world seems to have changed a bit.
Did you know August 15 is also the Korean Independence Day? I didn’t—till I attended the celebrations at KIS, where I was writer-in-residence for the week. It had been a while since I had seen such an assemblage of regional clothes. I even spotted a Scottish kilt and in the throes of the last episodes of a Scottish time-travel saga on Netflix, that gave me a happy thrill. And literally every part of India. The idiom of patriotic performance was mostly Bollywood and it was an occasion to recognise how much patriotism was actually packed in even the contemporary repertoire of Bollywood numbers—if only you were ready to stretch your definitions just a little bit. The fact that KIS has one of the most international student populations coloured the show—kurtas and ghagras on every skin tone imaginable. Such a pleasure it was to see the school’s white American principal hoist the national flag—and to remember another Bollywood moment, one from the sports-thriller Chak De India, when Shahrukh Khan, playing the coach of the Indian women’s hockey team, shares his thrill at watching a gora unfurl his national flag as the team moves to the finals! Kodai is a bit like that glorious moment.
The author’s most recent book is the novel The Scent of God.