Tryst with Kudremukh24 Jun 2007
When I received the news that Kudremukh, the place where I grew up, spent all of my childhood and school years was going to be closed down, I was hit by something that had never experienced before. Nostalgia. I was never really a big fan of that place. Its a small mining town with a population of around 10,000. The earliest memory I have of Kudremukh is rain, pouring rain. It spends a good part of the year drenching itself from the spout in the sky right above it. The only thing worth mentioning about the place is the scenic beauty it mars. All around Kudremukh you see beautiful hills, lush green grass lands, wild expanse of thick rain forests, the glisten of the rocks as the even sun shines its amber on the barren hillocks is permanently etched in my memory. After high school and before going to college, we had a vacation that spanned over three months. With nothing to do, our class would meet almost everyday at some argreed upon place and we’d start exploring the woods. It was mostly in these wild escapades that I got to see the magnificence that the national park around Kudremukh hid within it, and made me realize that the only thing that is ruining it is the town itself, and iron ore mine that it supports.
After that, I spent the rest of my years waiting for the place to close down and the jungle to reclaim it as its own. When I moved out to college, I was a frequent visitor to Kudremukh. The town was thriving, people going about their lives like nothing existed outside the few sqaure miles that the town spanned. I graduate in 2001 and moved to Bangalore to work. Between 2001 and 2004 I visited Kudremukh just once. It never really faded from my memory, with a history of 17 years associated with your life it is impossible to forget about it, yet I never really cared about much. I moved to College Station, Texas in August 2004.
It was a new life. I started afresh, with all my worldy belongings packed in three suitcases. I was so busy trying to carve a life out and make things work for me that I had no time for anything else, including dwelling on memories. Some time in May 2005, I was more or less settled comfortably, in one of my weekly calls back home my folks mentioned about Kudremukh. They told me that the iron ore mine was closing, the coming new year’s eve would be the last day of mining there. The town would die with the mine. There is little that can be done about it. Nothing within me stirred. I was not numb, I was simply apathetic about the town.
As the days passed, I began thinking more about Kudremukh. It is the only place that comes even close to being my home town, and yet I refused to let it be a part of my identity. At least, that was what I wanted to believe. With the prospect of its demise looming I realized that somewhere along the way Kudremukh had become a part of me and that is here to stay. I began thinking about the school, the playground, classmates, long walks, the jungle, the rain, smell of dry soil quenched by the first drops of the summer rain, the sweet water of the brooks in the woods. All of this came rushing back to me like from a dam when the floodgates are opened. I was awashed in nostalgia. It is the only place that I still remember for what the place was, and not the people in it, or the relationships that I made there. I remembered Kudremukh for Kudremukh, not the childhood friends, not the first time I learned to ride a bike, not my first trophy, not my first day in school, nor my last day there. It sure has a special place in my heart. I wanted to go back to Kudremukh, I wanted to see it again. I wanted to see it while I still could. But I was 12,000 miles away with no prospect of visiting India within the near future. My next tryst with Indian soil would be in december. And so the wait began.
With so much happenening around me, I didnt realize how time flew by and before I knew it, it was december and I was in India.
The itinerary was finalized. It was a small one, just 4 days. The date set was 20th December 2005. Along with my parents and my brother Shankar, I set off to Kudremukh. The journey wasnt eventful, as a matter of fact there was nothing eventful about the whole trip. Nothing special, great, noteworthy happened throughout. This was nothing more than my pilgrimage.
As we approached Kudremukh, the scent of the town wafted through the air. I could smell it from miles away. Its not a smell that can be explained or described. Its a feeling that transcends senses. When you have spent the first 17 years of your life in one place, you forge a connection with it that cannot be broken, an umbilical cord that cannot be severed. The feeling only got stronger as we neared the town.
My first flicker of recognition was the tea plantations. Kudremukh is nurtured in the cradle of the western ghats. Western ghats have the ideal climate and soil to grow tea and coffee. As I passed through the tea plantations near Kudremukh I realized that my lips had curled themselves into a smile. Just a few hills more separating us. I knew I didn’t have to wait too long, not anymore.
I continued driving. The onset of ghats is unmistakably perceptive, especially if you are driving. The straight roads and smooth curves with adequate banking give way to twists, turns, hairpin bend curves, steep incline and descends, rumble strips to slow vehicles speeding through a descend that ends with a hairpin bend so on. These were the roads I roads I learnt driving on. It has been seven years since my tires rolled on these roads and yet I drove like it was old times, like I always drove. A new wave of memories crashed into me. I was about 15 when I started nagging my dad to teach me driving. The law abiding citizen that he was, he refused. He said I had to wait for another three years, get my learners permit, and only after that would be let me get behind the wheel. I was furious pissed and stubborn. After weeks of nagging and negotiation he agreed. I had the most bizarre first lesson I have ever had. Dad wouldnt let me sit in the driver’s seat. He had me sit on the passenger’s side and control the steering wheel while he took care of the transmission, brakes and throttle. With no straight roads around, we drove in these ghat roads. All my driving skills were developed and polished on these meandering merciless roads which have made the most seasoned city drivers car sick driving through. I surprised myself as I switched my driving style without missing a beat. Just a mile before i was driving straight and fast, and suddenly I cut my speed without realizing it and was negotiating the curves with the elegance and comfort that left my passenger oblivious of the change in the roads.
After eight hours of driving I passed a signed that said “Welcome to Kudremukh”. Less than a minute later I saw the logo at a distance, a furlong or so away. The logo of Kudremukh Iron Ore Company Limited (KIOCL). It was on the side of the road at a roundabout, as the passed the sign and turned into the township reality dawned on me. 7 years, 3 cities, 3 continents and 25 thousand miles later, I was visiting home again. It was like I remembered it and yet nothing like I thought it would be. Time changes the places, but not nearly as much as it changes the people. The nostalgia one feels is not about how much the place has changed, but how much he has changed over the years. I could see myself 6 years old and braving the elements as I walked to school. Armed with an umbrella to defend myself against the celestial downpour, I marched on towards a school I hated to attend. Amazing how I always walked to the school, but ran my way back to home. When you are small everything appears to be so big. To me Kudremukh was a big town with lots to do. I always invented things to do. All the things that I took great pleasure in indulging when I was a kid seems so immature and boring that it makes me wonder if regression with age starts much earlier than senility. Maybe I am already regressing.
It was late in the evening when we reached Kudremukh. It was too late to do anything and we were tired after a long day on the road. We checked into the only hotel in town, Sahyadri Bhavan. We called it an early day and got an early start next morning. The first places to be visited were Hanumangundi, Ganga Moola and Varaha Thirta. They were the places that visited every time I visited Kudremukh when I was in college. It seemed only natural that I do that first this time around too. But first we needed permission from the Forest Department. With the forest around Kudremukh being declared a National Park, it would be trespassing to go anywhere into the woods without permission. The staff was really courteous. They seemed to really pleased that an old timer has come back to visit his home town (that’s right, I was now an old timer there). After getting the permit and helping them with some computer trouble that they had, we set off to Hanumangundi.
Varaha Thirtha, Ganga Moola, and Hanumangundi are all on the same road a few miles apart. Hanumangundi is the farthest, so we decided to get there first and drive our way back as we visit the rest of the places. Before we hit any of the places we passed by a small falls called Kadambi Falls. I remembered stopping by this falls each time I drove past this point. True to tradition, I stopped this time too. It has been a while since it had rained, the falls was a trickle compared it to its normal intensity. It was still the same old Kadambi I had always known. We got out to get what might me my last look at the falls. I been here countless number of times before, but somehow I felt I hadn’t been here enough and that I had squandered my chances to seeing more of it. As I let my eyes sink in as much of the view as I could we had visitors. They were so much a part of life in Kudremukh and our forays into the woods that I had completely forgotten about them. The monkeys chanced upon us, they were half a dozen of them. They looked at us with their inimitable curiosity.
It was like they knew we were from here, but something about us didn’t fit. Their hospitality was guarded, with due caution. I said to myself, “What kind of guests are we if we don’t give anything to our hosts?” With a bag of goodies at our disposal I made them feel more thanked. At first the cookies had to be placed on the ground before they would venture to inspect it, but soon they were adventours to actually take it from our hands as we offered it to them.
After the little party with old friends. We parted ways and started towards Hanumangundi. Its a couple of hundred feet high waterfall that is less easily accessible any many other places close by. On my previous visit to this place, access to this place was nothing more than a two hundred feet steep decline one climbed down with only the low lying branches and the protruding roots of the trees for support. But this time we had steps to climb down. It made things a lot easier, but killed the challenge. I was hoping that I would get to get my hands soiled and dirty trying to get down there, but that was not. we simply climbed down the steps to get to the waterfall. But once I got there, the view put the sparkle back in my eyes. My only thought was “all these years, and we finally meet again”. The falls had lost none of its magnificence. It was still the majestic king of its dominion. The fall is at the end end of the valley. In the afternoon, when the sun shines directly on it, the fine spray of the falls that can leave the most unromantic soul spell bound with its beauty and grace. For somebody who love the outdoors, camping, hiking and nature this was paradise. I spent over a hour there and wasnt done by any stretch of imagination. It was blissfully tranquil here. The steps that led back to the top was the only thing that betrayed the close proximity to civilization. The waltz of trees to the orchestra of the wind, the birds, the crickets and cicadas left me mesmerized. I saw the bubbling stream, the glorious waterfall and the thicket that guarded the secret paradise with moist eyes. I had to sit down, overcome by the beauty of the place. I would always miss this place. I always had, I just didnt know it till then. It was getting late, there were places I had to see. I wished I had more time to spend here. Any amount of time would be insufficient. I tore myself away from there as I climbed up, back to the kingdom of man.
Next stop was Ganga Moola. It is the birth place of two rivers Tunga and Bhadra. It is a remarkably unremarkable place. It is hard to believe that two rivers could possibly originate from the two trickles in side a small cave whose entrance is a feet and a half tall. It is said that one shouldn’t try to trace the origins of a saint ‘coz like that of a river that is going to be something completely unremarkable, and maybe even an antithesis of what the saint has come to epitomize. I dont know about the saints, but it sure is true of Ganga Moola. We need to hike a shade less than a mile to get to the base of the thicket beyond which lies the cave that houses Ganga Moola. We pulled over from the road and walked the mile. At we walked towards the thicket we reached a vantage point. The view from here was breath taking! Here is a panoramic view of what I saw.
At the end of our little hike was the entrance to the thicket. The most impressive part of this was the strict defined boundary between the open spaces and the forest. It looked like someone had drawn a line forbidding the jungle to grow any further. There they were, all the trees in a single file like frontier soldiers ready for battle, waiting for the signal from their commander, waiting to scream the battle cry as they charged towards the enemy. If only we had the kind of discipline and restrain they seemed to exude. The trail continued into the thicket, as we walked into the thicket the sudden coolness and breeze had me stall for a moment. It was like walking into an air conditioned building on a hot day, except that this time it felt refreshing instead of relieving. The trail ended at the steps at the top of which lay the entrance to the Ganga Moola cave. It is when we got to there that we realized we didn’t have a flash light. It was pitch dark inside. We couldn’t make any details out. Using the camera’s flash as a light source we gauged the contour of the cave, and the path we have to follow. However, with an entrance that was a feet and a half tall and give feet wide, you don’t have too many options. Taking care not to soil or damage the camera or the camera case, we started crawling inside. I had to use the flash on more than one occasion to find my way. It was an extremely shallow cave, just 15 feet or so deep. At the end of the cave was an idol that was placed to mark the source of the rivers. It was dark and damp inside. Inside, the cave roof was over 6 feet high, you could comfortably stand there (if you were shorter than 6 feet). One could hear the distinct sound of trickling water. The floor was wet. I knew that my shirt, trousers, hands and feet were soiled and dirty, but I couldnt care less. It felt great being in there. Surprisingly I felt no claustrophobia. Using the camera focus light as the illumination we had a good view of the place, but the hunt for the source of the trickling sound was fruitless. Having seen what we came for, we headed back to our car. The next stop was Varaha Thirta.
I was in for another surprise when I got to Varaha Tirtha’s entrance, it was not to be. The entrance had disappeared! Actually the entrance had been… ‘abandoned’. nature had reclaimed the entrance to the trail that led to the Varaha Tirtha. But I was not to be outdone that easily. After some scouring and searching I managed to recognize a faint underused trail. We followed the trail that continued from the main trail that was cut off when the entrance was closed. One has to be swift on the feet and careful about taking steps. That’s ironical coz if you do one, then u cant do the other. Being swift on the feet leaves you little time to think about where your next step is landing. However, if you move too slow you are inviting all the leeches to latch on to you, but if you are too fast, the ground is slippery, and you are sure to have a bad fall. Its easier said than done, by the time I got back to the car, I had more than three of them on me and a fair sized blood stain on my socks. The place is definitely not for the squeamish, or the delicate kind.
My aunt, uncle, cousin and his wife visiting Kudremukh over 4 years ago. We went to meet with one of my mom’s friends who lived in the hills. There was no motor-able road to their house, so we parked our cars just off the road and started walking through the plains to get to the house. The weather was wet, and the grass damp. Sure enough, its was fiesta for the leeches. We were constant plucking the them off our legs. At some point my cousin’s wife saw a leech on her ankle and her hysteria broke loose. For some inexplicable reason, she was convinced that yelping, vigorously shaking hands (like one were drying it) and hopping on one foot would convince the leech to get off. And so, she proceeded with her theatrics in a attempt to mesmerize the leech into letting go of her leg. In our infinite wisdom, my cousin and I kinda figured that it wouldn’t work. We tried to tell her that she should pluck the leech out, but she wouldn’t do that. Finally my cousin had to hold her to keep her from kicking all about the place while I got the leech off her. When we finally got to the end of trail, there were more surprises awaiting us. I was expecting the picnic spot that I had known Varaha Tirtha to be, but what I saw bore no semblance to my memories. This place had be truly ‘abandoned’. Varaha Tirtha is called so thanks to a local legend that says that when Lord Varaha (Boar incarnation of Vishnu) descended on earth, there were certain place where he spent time. These places are considered holy places, and this one was supposed to be one of them, and hence the name. Over 20 years ago, there was an ancient idol of Lord Varaha at the site. It was stolen to be smuggled, but the culprit was apprehended in a village 20 miles away. The idol found its way to some museum somewhere. There were some smaller stone idols that replaced the big one.
At Varaha Tirtha, all we saw was wilderness. We tried making our way to the place where the idols were. It was not easy, all the land marks we knew were gone. With nothing more than a faint heuristic we made our way. When we actually reached the spot, it was virtually unrecognizable. The only thing that betrayed the previous incarnation of the spot was the small three feet waterfall that collected into a water-hole which overflowed into a brook. The idols were gone, so were the all the signs of civilization ever having known this place. It was weird, almost like my memories were fading even as I was standing there. Was I too late in getting here? Had I already lost somethings I cherished? I could see Varaha Tirtha slipping to obscurity in front of my eyes. I saw it with mixed feelings. One on side, I was glad that nature was returning, there still was hope that the forests could be preserved like virgin reserves. On the other side was my nostalgia, a tinge of regret that I couldnt see Varaha Tirtha like I knew it for one last time. Images of class picnics, clandestine afternoon getaways, family hangouts were fleeting past me and they were all I had to hold on to. What I saw before me was nothing like it. With a heavy heart, I made my way back to the car. It was getting late and we still had places to see. We drove back to Kudremukh town.
Fading embers of the celestial disc streaked across the horizon as we returned to our hotel room. Supper was still a couple of hours away, so we got a head start on seeing the actual town.
We started with a self guided tour of the town park. The park is probably the most prominent landmark in the town (or maybe a close second to jayalakshmi wine stores :P ), and arguably the largest. During its heyday it was as well maintained as any park of its size could possibly be. Everything from its exqusite rosaries and psychedelic crotons to the ever nascent mini zoo and the deer park, they were all looked upon with pride and admiration. The crown jewel was the horticulure display that reached its crescendo on vanamahotsav, sometime in April every year. Park day, as we called it, was a surprisingly popular event that attracted people from towns and villages nearby. There was song and dance, snack stalls, competitions, movie screening and everything else in between. This was the one day of the year when everyone in town would gather in one place for one evening with the only intention of having fun. I remember close to 8 such evenings, and every one of them were memorable for some reason or another. Strolling through the park, it was all coming back to me. From the Deer park all the way to the Rabbits’ cage it was journey through time.
As a kid, swings and slides were my favourite. There is a small canal running through the park, emptying into the river. The canal was always full and flowing during the monsoons. Through out my primary school, I inevitably succumbed to temptation and found myself wading in it. The cold, sore throat throat, fever and the livid reaction of my mom always followed, but for some reason (probably stupidity) that never stopped me from doing it again the next time around.
A visit to Kudremukh cannot be complete without going to the temples. Our first stop was the Shiva temple. Legend has it that sage Agastya used to worship the shivling there, and the temple was constructed around it. There is little to prove or disprove the conjecture, and we leave it at that. As I pulled into the parking area next to the temple I had my first view of the temple. It looked like time had refused to move an inch here. The place was exactly like I had seen it 6 years ago. Absolutely nothing had changed, the most noticable being the abject poverty in which the priest lived.
If my memory serves me right, it was over 8 years ago that there was a proposal to adorn the sacrosanctum of the temple with a large silver facade that cost over Rs. 1 lakh. The donations came pouring from all corners of the community, from employees of KIOCL to the businessmen and contractors there. The money raised was more than what was needed. The surplus went to the temple coffers. Despite the windfall the priest’s monthly pay was still a three figure sum bordering the four figures. I still remember thinking about the hypocrisy of it all; if the money asked were for the priest’s welfare, I doubt if even a fraction of the funds would have been received. This is not an unsupported statement. The fact that people poured more money into the temple hundi, than the tip-plate of the priest when he brought it out with the aarati or the thirtam is sufficient indication of the outcome of the thought experiment.
I took my sneakers off, washed my feet and walked towards the entrance of the temple. The concrete ground benethe my feet brought back memories of the vibrant social hive that this temple had been the heart of. People used to congregate here almost every monday, and every hindu festival. Women exchanged gossip, men talked office politics, the kids were just happy to run around the place coz their parents were too busy to restrain them. The boys talked about cricket, school and homework while the girls talked about god knows what (I was never privy to their conversations). I remember my high school years when the guys used this as an opportunity to steal galnces of their nascent infatuations. Somewhere amidst all this there was the worship and prayer to god, at least thats what everyone walked away believing.
The silhoutte of Shiva’s statue against the bright light that illuminated the gopuram was view worth my admiration as I stood there for a few seconds soaking it in. I stepped into the temple and felt like I was 18 again. I could walk around completely blindfolded and know exactly where I was, and where I was going. Its amazing how arrested in time the place was. After a few steps I stopped to look around. The cobwebs on the railings and gate grills recited a sad story of neglect and decay. It is said that the vigor of a community is best reflected in its synagogue. A silent sigh escaped my lips as I reflected on all that this place used to be, and the promise of the bleak future it now held.
I gave up on religion a long time ago, yet I found myself going through the motions of a poius hindu in the temple. The shiva temple had always been one of my favorites. I used to come here to relax my mind. It had an amazing ability to tranquil my most troubled thoughts. It was perfect antidote for all the crap that I had to put up with. This was before I received my licence. After I could drive, I used to take dad’s scooter to a place dubbed ‘Morning Glory’. It was at the new spillway for the Lakya Dam that let out all the excess water. The view from there was breathtaking. It was the perfect balm to all my wounds. They closed the access to that place soon after I moved to Bangalore, and I havent been there since.
After my folks made small talk with some of the people at the temple we drove to the Krishna temple built on top of a hillock. My first memories of the place are when I was 4 years old. Mom signed me up for some recitation competition that was supposed to be in the Krishna temple. I had no idea what I meant, all I was told was that I had to recite the sanskrits shlokas that I knew by-heart. I was submitted to the protective custody of my neighbor who was supposed to take me to the temple, make sure I took part and bring me back home. I guess she was bored or maybe her friends were going someplace and she was invited too, I dont know what the exact reason was, but she told me that the competition was over and that we should go back home. I just followed back home only to find my mom screaming at me for being so stupid that I didnt event bother to enquire if the competition was really over, and how I could have missed my chance. As it turns out.. there was still time when I came back, but it was too late to go all the way back there and try my luck.
I hadn’t been to this temple that often. It always received a step sisterly treatment due to its location. It wasnt the most easily accessable temple in town. While the shiva temple received all the crowd and adoration, Krishna temple was often the less remembered one. Its only time in the spotlight was on Krishna Janmashtami.
After our brief te-a-te with the temples we got back into the car and drove around the township in the evening. We still had a little time to kill before supper, and so I decided to so some nocturnal sightseeing. Driving around in the night is a completely different experience in Kuudremukh. The place looks completely different after sundown. During the day, the entire is one glorious park with scattered human intrusions. By night, all that is left of the hoards of trees, vast open spaces and majestic grasslands is an empty void. It is only the street lights that remain in sight. They looks like a broken string of pearls. Bright, shining, beautiful, but lonely. Each one of them seeking the other, and the ethereal string that holds them together.
By day, it is the inhabitation that looks out of place, and by night its the void between them that does. What a strange inversion of perception!
Driving around the town, I hit an unlit stretch of the road. It wasnt a long stretch at all; just a few street lights that were busted. The only illumination was the headlights of my car. As the headlights zipped past the trees that adorn the sides of the road, my mind went 10 years back in time. Some of the most beautiful memories of Kudremukh came back to me.
Kudremukh was always a favored town by the Karnataka Electricity Board. We seldom lost power supply, and when it did it wasn’t for more than 15 minutes. However, there would be times when something major would fault, and we’d lose power of hours in the night. This, although not frequent, happened often enough for me to remember them. I think I was in my high school when the entire township blacked out due to one such fault. That black out removed all the prisms that I was seeing Kudremukh through. It was for the first time that I saw the town in all its glory, all its modesty, and all its divinity. It was a full moon light. The black out had extinguished all the light that clouded our sight. It was a night as god intended it to be; a virgin display of tranquility in motion. I couldnt resist myself. I had to bask in the milky ether. I took a long walk that night, with nothing but the moon to show me the way. I can still vividly recall the pale roads that looked like satin from afar. The trees looked like a row of white chess pawns with the game just about to begin. The vast empty spaces between the pearls were gone, so were the pearls, replaced by a spaghetti of resplendent cotton yarn that stretched form one end of the valley to the other. It marked the begining of my love affair with Kudremukh’s dark side. After that night, every time there was a power outage in the night, I was out and about. It was with a heavy heart I returned home if the town were to illuminate itself before my stroll was over.
It was supper and a good night sleep. There was a town I had to visit next day.
I woke up at the crack of dawn. I was excited, yet nervous. It was a weird mixture of eagerness and hesitancy. After eight long years, I was going back to visit my high school again, and perhaps for the last time.
But first, we had to get there. It was a short drive from the hotel. Took less than five minutes. But when you have to walk the distance, it can seem a whole lot longer. However, if you are five years old, the walk is timeless. In fact, my first memory of school is one of me walking back home on the first day of school.
The school started every year during the last week of June. The year 1985 was no exception. I was five years old, and stepping into the school for the first time. I had no idea what school was supposed to be like. It was just a fun thing to do, and besides, everyone else was doing it. The school started at about 9 in the morning, at 12:15 there was a bell for lunch. Like I had mentioned earlier, Kudremukh is synonymous with rain; lots and lots of rain. The monsoon starts sometime towards the end of June. The monsoon was particularly generous on this day of June in 1985 when my school opened its door to me for the first time. At 12:15 that afternoon, it was pouring cats and dogs. The visibility had dropped to a 100 yards or so. Now, Iheard the bell ring at 12:15, and all the kids scampered away. The classroom was empty. So my thoughts were, “This is great! School’s over! I get to go back home!”. I pack up my bag, pick up my raincoat, and head out to the school bus shelter to hitch a ride home.
The bus shelter, for some weird reason (one of them being it wasn’t time yet), was empty. There was no bus to take me home. Undeterred, I decided to walk home. I must have been quite a sight to behold that glorious day. There I was, a five year old kid, walking back home in pouring rain, with school back on my back, and a raincoat tucked under my arm. That’s right, the raincoat was under my arm! I didnt think it necessary to put it on in case of rain. As far as I was concern, the raincoat was merely an ornamental device. The interesting thing about five year olds is that they have no concept of time and only a rudimentary concept of distance. My house was over 2 miles from the school. I have absolutely no idea how long it took to cover that distance (must have been over an hour), and at that time I didnt even know who far home was. I just kept walking, wet to the bone, until I reached home. When I reached home, I was bewildered at my mom’s bewilderment on seeing me all wet, with the raincoat in my arm, back home hours before I was supposed to. A hot shower and some hot chocolate drink later I was told that I shouldnt be doing this again.
The location of my school always left me wondering what the town planners were smoking when they drew up the master plan for the town. We have a fairly big school, and next it is the school playground. Now between the school, and the playground, smack bang in between, we have the town bus stand! Wonder what they were thinking: “We’ll have school children walking/running from the school to the playground and back all day. So here what we cab do about it. We’ll build the bus station right in the path between the school and the playground to maximize the collision rate. It a novel technique for population control.” Fortunately, no kid has found him/herself under the tires so far.
Across the street from the school we have the town hospital! I can only imagine what the planners were thinking on this one “We need to build immunity among the children. So here’s what we’ll do about it. We will build a hospital right next to the school so that any virus that might affect anyone will find its way to the hospital, and hence to the school. That way, the kids will be exposed all the pathogens we find, helping them along in boosting their immune system.” I am surprised Kudremukh doesnt have a high mortality rate among school kids. Defies logic!
So anyway, a five minute drive later, I was in front of my old school. One look at it and you knew, the school was dying. The whole town was dying for that matter. The school sign was missing!The school has a large sign that announced itself to everyone who passed by. I felt a small stab in my heart to see two empty poles in place of that sign. I turned around to see the town bus station. Yup, the same one that stands between the school and the playground. Somehow I couldnt get myself to step into the school compound. I wasnt ready yet. I didnt know why, but I knew it wasnt time yet.
I turned around, walked past the bus station and made my way to the school playground. Winters morning are typically cold and misty in Kudremukh. In December, you dont see the sun until about 11 in the morning. This December was no exception, and it was still 9 in the morning. I walked into the playground, and couldnt see through the mist to the other end of it. The playground was just like I remembered it. Nothing has changed. This was the site for the annual sports day at school. The day where all the students in the school compete against each other in track and field events. I remember it was a day there was no school and you get to run and play to your heart’s content. Life couldnt have been happier then. This was also the time to settle old scores with people. Now the score settling is not something we talked about in open. But if there were any accounts to be settled, we knew when to do it, and where.
On a typical school day, school kids didn’t get to the playground until noon. So until that time the playground was a cattle bastion. This day was nothing different. The cattle, egrets, and dogs were everywhere. The cows in Kudremukh, so for reason, were extremely docile. You could walk up to any cow in the street or pasture, and they would let you come close to them, and even let you touch them or herd them. They were alwaysextremely friendly and submissive, but they werent afraid of the humans. It was a relationship of trust and respect that had developed over time. Something I havent seen anywhere else in any other town or city that I have been to. The dogs, on the other hand, are a completely different matter. The personalities among dogs were as diverse as the people. And these were strays! Some would walk up to you, others would run like the wind when they saw anything remotely human. I managed to capture one such dog. It was running from something, I couldnt quite figure out what, but I did get him at an interesting pose.
I turned around to see some elementary kids playing in the playground shelter area. They were playing some self invented game that involved the poles that held the structure together. I know that because I did the same when I was in elementary school. A bunch of us would get together to play, and have no where to play coz all the older boys has commandeered all the playgrounds and areas. All of it happened in the pecking order, and we were the last in that order. So all we had were shelters not unlike the one I saw the kids playing in. We couldnt play any of the games that we knew, so we had to invent games to play in each esoteric venue that was dished out to us. Somehow we never complained about that. We always had a good time, even if the game was just made up, and scores didn’t matter. When I saw those kids at the shelter, I was taken to my old school days when all it took for me to be happy was a patch of ground to play on, and friends to play with. Funny how things change and complicate themselves with age.
I turned around to go back to the school. Somehow this time, I knew it was time. I had a feeling that this was the last time I will ever get to see the school again. I wanted to make sure that I dont miss anything this time, coz’ there may not be another time to come back.
I walked past the gates into the school grounds. As I walked on the asphalted ground towards the administrative building, my conscious was overwhelmed by all the memories that rushed out of my unconscious like bat out of hell. I had to stand still a second and compose myself before I could continue.
I walked past the flag pole which hoists the national flag every day when school is in session. Seeing that flagpole again reminded me of an incident that I thought I had forgotten for a long time. It was the talk of my class for days. I guess I was in fifth standard (I dont quite remember). It was pleasent, warm morning, and so the school decided to have the morning assembly and prayer outside at the (outdoor) basketball court. When the assembly was in progress, the school principal was escorted to the flag pole to hoist the national flag. The principal pulled the rope on the pole to unfurl the flag, but it would not loosen. It was bound a little too tight. So the principal pulled harder and the rope snapped (it was an old withered rope). The bundle that was the national flag of India came crashing down like a dead rat dropped by an eagle. There was a moment of stunned silence, followed by sparse giggles at the incident. The person responsible for conducting the assembly was confused as to what to do next. Typically, you order the assembly to salute the flag after its unfurled. But this obviously wasnt the typical case. Confused by the unexpected turn of events, and unimaginative by god’s grace, he ordered the assembly to salure the flag. That did it, the crowd burst out laughing at that order. It took a couple of minutes and intense shouting from all the teachers and staff to restore order again and continue with the prayer. The incident was the talk of the class for quite a few days. And for some reason, of all the things that had happened involving the flag pole, this incident was the one that seemed to pop into my head first, and stayed.
The asphalted ground I was walking on had been our playground for quite a few years. In elementary school, when we were at the very bottom in the pecking order, this was the only place we found that we could play in. I remember my share of falls on that abrasive ground with rather painful lacerations. Yet somehow that never really bothered us. It was all a part of having fun. And now, here I am, a grown man who is afraid to fall down and get hurt. Feels like the world makes a coward out of you as you grow older.
Eventually, after what felt like a long time, I found myself in front of the entrance to the main building. When I walked in, I saw everything as it was when I was a student, and yet so much had changed. I shape was still the same, but the form was completely different. I had no idea who was still working the the school. I want sure if I knew anyone there at all. Not sure who or what to expect, I walked into the principal’s office.
When I walked into the office, I saw a familar face. It was Mr. Rana, frequently called the grand old man of the school. He has been a teacher in the school ever since I can remember. There are so many stories about him, I could write a book recounting all the tales. He was known for his long impromptu speeches to kill time if the school assembly were to conclude ahead of time. He was determined not to let the kids go before the alloted time. We were often bored to death by his speeches, but that never deterred him. He had a lot of appreciation and respect for which often cut both ways. If there was anything to be done, I was the one he called upon. It didnt matter how busy I was with everything else, I had to get these things done. Be it writing an essay on some subject for the school magazine, or representing the school in a quiz, speech, or debate competitions, I was his man for the job, and I was to do it even if it killed me. On the other hand, I could get away with a lot. He always had my back on any mischef that I may commit (of which there were dime a dozen).
His classes were the best. He was a Hindi teacher, and would often go into tangents in Hindi classes that had nothing to do with the topic in discussion, but he enjoyed those monologues nonetheless. It would often go on for 10-15 min leaving precious little time to get any actual reading done in the class. When he did teach, or describe poems and essays, he would get so immersed in the description that he often forgot where he was, and who he was lecturing to. He tripped over the teacher’s chair on more than one occasion as he was vigorously describing lines in a poem with his inimitable animated style. He had the sort of passion that couldn’t be rivaled by anyone around him. All said and done, it was relieving to be taught by someone with that kind of passions. He was much respected by all student for that. That made him more of an icon in the school’s folklore.
Mr. Rana was now the acting principal of the school. When I walked into the principal’s office, he was overjoyed to see me. He welcomed me with open arms and had the peon bring in some special tea just for me. We talked for a while, each of us bringing the other up to speed on how things have been going on in each other’s lives, and the school itself. He was really proud of me and how far I had come with my education and stuff. After a half hour conversation, I took leave of him to explore more of the school I spent 12 years of my life in.
I spent the rest of the morning walking around in the school premises. I started with the assembly hall that was next to the basket ball court. The assembly hall doubled as the school auditorium as well. It was the venue for all morning assemblies (when it wasn’t bright and sunny outside). All the kids assembled every morning there for the daily prayer. Girls on the right half, boys on the left; the smallest class in the front and the oldest class in the back. The prayer was secular (i.e., no reference to any particular religion) except for the mention of God in it. This was followed by the thought for the day, and then came a one minute silence. To this day I haven’t been able to figure out why we had to observe that one minute silence. It was never explained to us, and we didn’t ask. Following the silence was the National Pledge that went something like this:
India is my country. All Indians are my brothers and sisters. I love my country, and I am proud of its rich and varied heritage. I shall always strive to be worthy of it. I shall give my parents, teachers and all elders respect and treat everyone with courtesy. To my country and my people, I pledge my devotion. In their well being and prosperity alone lies my happiness.
The pledged was followed by the news, and we ended the assembly with the national anthem. Between news and the anthem often we’d have some song recitation, or announcements. If we were in an indulgent mood, we’d even have an informative article read, or have an oral quiz. All of this was performed by students. My personal favourite was the quiz. I was often the quiz master, and when I wasnt, I was in the audience attempting all the questions that others couldnt answer correctly. Those were fun times.
When I got to the assembly hall, what I saw shocked and saddened me. That hall was in a terrible state of disrepair with broken windows, peeling paints, and water stains on all the walls. This was not the assembly hall I remembered. Unfortunately, this was an isolated case, as I was to discover soon, the entire school was in a state of disrepair, or arrested decay . I lingered on for a few minutes, taking the whole scene in. Reliving many memories that I had of that place, and moved on to see rest of the school campus.
The next place of visit was the makeshift cricket ground that we had. It was at the back of our high school classrooms. Every year, as sports day neared, many competitions were held in the small gounds at the back of the school. Our makeshift cricket ground was the location where Kho-Kho and Kabbadi was often played as a part of annual sports events. For as long was I was in school, these ground were maintained in really good conditions. The Kho-Kho poles were always there, and the kabbaddi lines were sort of etched into the ground. But what I saw when I got there was nothing like what I remembered. There was no semblence to the ground that I knew. It was just an abandoned plain ground with patches of grass all over the place. It didnt look like students even used that ground anymore. I had a sinking feeling that the school that I remembered and cherished so long no longer existed. The building that I saw before me, and its surroundings were a hollow shell of what I knew as Kendriya Vidyalaya Kudremukh. It is often said that places dont change, people do. When you go back to a place after a long time, the change you percieve is you, not the place. But this is not so here. The place has definitely changed; its dying a painful death.
I walked on to the ground where, as a elementary kid, I often played in. This place had gone to the dogs, quite literally! There were dogs there! I guess kids dont play there either anymore. Kinda made me wonder where the school kids played anyway. Maybe the lifestyle here has changed to a point where the building and surroundings are the same, but the way people go aoubt their lives has no semblence to how we did over 10 years ago. It si indeed amazing when you think about it. Its the arrow of time. You can’t change the direction in which it moves, and the changes it brings about are permanent insofar as any changes that it brings about are forever a part of the history.
Moving on, the volleyball field was no different. All that stood to remind you of its past were two poles between which once hung a loose volleyball net. All that was left of the high jump pit in the southeast end of the volleyball court was hard solid ground leaving no trace of what it once had been. It was like the place that I knew was melting away and was being replaced by something that was something that was not all too dissimilar, but quite unlike what was. All I needed was the right prism to look through and it was all there, the place exactly as I remembered it.
At this point, I was honestly scared to see my beloved Lily pond, at least what was a lily pond. I still remember the pond from my memories of elementary and middle school classes. The lilies bloomed sometime in September-October; just after the rains. The pond was teeming with life. There were fishes, crabs, frogs, and even an occasional water snake. We often walked around the pond, catching tadpoles, and some of the braver folks played with the crabs that didnt seem too happy with our intrusion. When I got to the lily pond, all I saw was a rough patch of grass where once water flowed. The outlines were still there, with my prisms of the mind, I could still see the pond, with its flowers, fishes, and crabs. My heart raced every so slightly faster when I thought about how excited we were when the rains stopped and all of us rushed to the pond for our day out. We used to spend hours there, looking for our tadpoles and crabs. The highlight of the day was when someone spotted a water snake and all of us rushed to get a glimpse from a safe distance. There was an inexplicible mix of curiosity, fear, and respect in the air. Through my prisms, I saw it all again, experienced it all again. And now it was time to bid my school goodbye and move on.
My next stop was what was traditionally called ‘Janta Market’, it was later rechristened to ‘Bhadra Market’, but people didn’t really refer to it by the new name all that much. Janta Market was shopping central for Kudremukh. My family made weekly trips to Janta Market for produce, groceries, stationaries etc. This was yet another place where we ran into people that we liked, didn’t like, didn’t care for, but nevertheless knew. Being the small mining community that it was, it was awfully difficult to move unnoticed.
Janta Market was also the place for the customary ‘community work’ that I had to do as a boy scout to earn my community service badge. For as long as I can remember, Janta Market was always an untidy place. Once a year the boy scout group would show up there and clean the place up, giving our token contribution to community service. It was one of the biggest farces that I have ever been a part of. I take that back, the education system is the biggest farce I have even been a part of (it neither provides education, nor is a system). But the ‘community service’ was definitely a farce I am not too proud of. What was hilarious was that right after we clean a section of the market, the vendor sitting there would throw some garbage right where we just cleaned. We’d look at him and he’d go, something to the effect, “Hey, you guys walk in here once in a blue moon for your pathetic scouting merit badge, and you expect us to change the way we do things for you? Get a life!” He did have a point. We weren’t there to clean the place, we were there for the merit badge. But back then, it was considered ok. because everyone was doing the same; everyone from the employees, to the spouses, to the kids. It was always all about doing the least to get away with it. In a small town like Kudremukh, its inevitable that people develop such an attitude; Kudremukh was no different from the American suburbia.
This time when I landed at Janta Market, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The place was actually clean! Almost spotless! Well, at least something has gotten better in the last ten years! The place was virtually deserted, I had gotten there too early to see any activity there. Besides, most of the people who lived there had left Kudremukh for better job prospects. So there weren’t enough to fill the place up to begin with.
I strolled around in the market for 10 minutes or so. There wasn’t much to do. Also, there was more of the town to see before leaving Kudremukh. So I got back into my car and started driving around in the town.
Driving around, I realized that Kudremukh spread over a relatively large area. It is much larger than it needs to be. There are pockets of dense housing, known as ‘Sectors’, and large areas of dense vegetation. Not all together unlike Texas. Some say that such a dispersion of housing was planned to inflate the road laying budget. Larger the area, higher is the road building cost, higher are the kickbacks that the planners and administrators get. Others say its because the planners wanted to use up all the land that was appropriated for the township. As the population grew, more building could be built between the Sectors. Whatever the reason may be, there is no denying that a lot more of the precious rain forests were cut down for the township than was necessary, and that, in my opinion is just wasteful and irresponsible.
After an hour or so of driveby sightseeing, I arrived at my penultimate destination before leaving Kudremukh. The town church. Kudremukh, despite its fairly large Christian population belonging to various denominations, had just one church. The different denominations congregated at different times during the day. Kinda like time sharing. The church is located well out of the way on top of a hill with no civilization to speak of nearby. The last time I was here was in my seventh grade when the entire class went on a picnic, and on our way back we decided to take a short break in the church. I don’t recall much from what I saw back then. But from what I could remember, the place hadn’t changed much at all. The church doors were locked, I had look through the window bars to catch a glimpse of the inside. It was December, Christmas was round the corner. The church was all decorated with the nativity scene in one corner. On the whole, an unremarkable building. Then again, that comment would apply to all the buildings in Kudremukh. Aesthetics was last in the list of desirables when the town was built.
After seeing the church, I wanted to see the only mosque in Kudremukh, but we were running late. So the closest I could get was the view from the top of a nearby hill. It was again, a whole unremarbale building. I figured that I wasn’t missing much. Besides, in my 18 years of stay in Kudremukh I hadn’t been to the mosque even once. So there was no real desire to see it anymore. A photograph from afar was all that I took of the mosque with me, and drove back to the hotel to check out.
Half an hour later, we were checked-out and on the road back to Bangalore. We drove past the KIOCL sign, past the hairpin-bend curves, past the tea estates, past everything I knew I might never be able to come back to. As much as I missed Kudremukh, and all the time I spent there, I had a stange tranquil feeling come over me. I had finally found closure. I had taken the time to bid the town goodbye, and somehow that seemed to make all the difference.