Friday, May 28, 2010

Yercaud: A special entry

There is, of course, always space for something special. Well, I clicked this outside the children's park in Yercaud, close to Lake Forest Hotel. Have a close look at who are on the swings! Ah, well!

Yercaud: Final memories of the grand reunion (2)

1. The daredevil fire act on May 6 evening.

2. An early morning invigorating walk in the hills.

3. Getting loaded on to a mini lorry on the way back to the hotel. It was too warm even in Yercaud to trudge all the way back.

4. The young driver who was happy to please. He didn’t accept any money – what a lesson he’d teach auto drivers in Chennai! May you grow up to be a responsible, young man...

5. A way with marbles – the wooden board with round slots is heritage stuff

Yercaud: Final memories of the grand reunion (1)

1. Saurabh Verma with his penchant for irrepressible humour gets off the starting blocks on the train to Salem.

2. A beaming TAS Kumar, his quiet and affable self, one of the best sounding boards on insurance matters in the group

3. The gate close to the rooms where Mohanty and I, and Thomas and Baba stayed – possibly the quietest part of Lake Forest Hotel

4. The mist-covered hills – a view from Lady’s Seat

5. The Servarayan Temple, the highest point in Yercaud

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The magic of Steve Borgia - sans pep talk, advertisement

Coming back to the British Left-Behind Show booklet, it is not only a wonderful publication but also one that shows the care and passion that has gone into its production. Some lovely pictures of art, artifacts and, yes, attitude. Indeed, the trite saying on its cover is apt: “Whether in India or Vancouver, these gentlemen officers were bent on preserving their identity as British subjects living abroad. Their empire was portable, and they took Britain with them wherever they went.”

The booklet is a tribute to the British gentlemen officers and their families – some who joined the army, some who joined the civil services and yet others who invested money in plantations or farms. Charlotte Henrietta was one such. The first settlers married, raised children, drank tea at four in the evening and worshipped in churches with steeples and Gothic windows. Overall, by the end of the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, it was almost as if they never left home. They had created a Britain in India. And it is this part of Indian history that Steve Borgia wishes to record and highlight. In the Steve Borgia Indian Heritage Museum and at the INDeco properties in Swamimalai, Mammallapuram and Yercaud you will find long-lost treasures of old, all restored to almost perfect condition.

I remember listening to Borgia, chairman and managing director, INDeco Leisure Hotels, at a meeting of the Public Relations Society of India. He said then that it would take more than a lifetime to know a vast country such as India, while explaining how INDeco, without an ad agency or a sales team, was able to have 90 percent occupancy during the season at its Swamimalai property and how he never really believed in following set patterns.

The Swamimalai property was a 100-year home he had converted to an eight-room hotel; today there are 50 rooms, with more houses in the village being purchased over a period. Borgia repeatedly said he knew nothing about branding or corporate communications nor did he operate computers. But he knew one thing for sure – that when you don’t follow formulas and don’t walk on the treaded path, there are more opportunities to be had. The reason Swamimalai, a unique heritage hotel set in a village, was a success story. There are peacocks and deer, visitors are taken on a duck walk, and they love the aapam and fish curry offered. “Business is a lot of hard. You can’t sell just by advertising. Security and hard work should be the brand,” he had then advised a group of youngsters. Well, I have become a fan of Borgia after my visit to Lake Forest, Yercaud.

Have a look at the pictures:

- Memorabilia at the Lake Forest reception area
- Did this bicycle belong to Henrietta?
- An old cot, fully restored.
- Every pillar has interesting information relating to heritage found and restored.
- And the wondrous calm of the night in the hills.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Henrietta legend at Yercaud's Lake Forest Hotel overwhelms you

According to a wonderful booklet produced by the Steve Borgia Indian Heritage Museum, titled ‘India-British – The British Left-Behind Show’, while researching the life of Henrietta Charlotte Rosario (1857-1940), whose home today forms the basis for design of the Lake Forest Hotel in Yercaud, it appears Henrietta has left reminisces from Queen Victoria downwards. Tate, one of the last British planters to have died there, has claimed he has heard Henrietta and her stories. Henrietta, according to him, is the daughter of an unwed mother who was the first to climb the hills in Yercaud. While it was partying at night, it was games in the morning, including hide-and-seek and ringa-ringa roses!

Henrietta, a notable personality in these parts, is said to have adored Her Majesty, the Queen of England. Her album contained pictures of Queen Victoria, Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth. The album, the booklet mentions, was later updated by Henrietta’s daughter, Kathleen D’Silva, in the 1940s. The album survives today, the booklet adds, thanks to Flossy Tate (was she a descendent of Mr Tate?).


- What was once Henrietta’s home in the hills
- A coffee crusher used by Henrietta, so says a hotel attendant
- Henrietta’s jewel box (same source)
- Was she Henrietta? Most likely, yes
- The sale deed signed by Henrietta (when she sold her land) appears before what must be her picture

Friday, May 21, 2010

Lake Forest Hotel, Yercaud: A throwback to what was once an English settlement

Frankly, I never knew that the Lake Forest Hotel in Yercaud was part of the INDeco Hotel chain (the other hotels are in Swamimalai and Mahabalipuram). The three facilities are the creation of Steve Borgia (more about him later); the Steve Borgia Indian Heritage Museum in Swamimalai (Tamil Nadu), I understand, is a fascinating showcase of Tamil lifestyle, art and culture.

The Lake Forest Hotel in Yercaud also offers traditional herbal care, yoga and meditation. Like most modern hotels, you will find a telephone, a refrigerator, a television set, an attached Western bath with shower etc, but what makes it strikingly different, apart from the rich collection of period furniture, artifacts and bric-a-brac, is that no two rooms are identical. There are standard rooms and suites, too.

The hotel, itself, is located on a coffee estate on the bunds of the Yercaud Lake. The original bungalow was once occupied in the early part of the 19th century (1820s) by Henrietta Charlotte Rosario, a resident of the Shevaroy Hills, one of the first British settlers here (pictures will appear in next blog). Her fortunes were said to have come from coffee nurseries. Indeed, today’s Eastlynne Farm Estate was once called ‘Rosar’ after the owner. Currently, it forms a part of the private estate of Rathnam Prakash, who is a descendant of a Mudaliar family in Salem. The estate has been leased to INDeco Hotels.

I have always loved Yercaud. Unlike the more popular Ooty and Kodaikanal, Yercaud is quiet and there’s really nothing you can do except trudge up and down some lane or street or the other. This time, however, I found Yercaud crowded a bit, but what was more disconcerting was the pile-up of rubbish in several places. It’s sad that even our hills are slowly beginning to resemble our cities.

The other thing that struck all of us was the fact that it was quite warm in Yercaud – remember the hill station in the Shevaroy (Servarayan) range is at an altitude of 1,500 metres. The town incidentally gets its name from ‘Yeri’, which in Tamil means lake, and ‘Kaadu’, forest. The place decades earlier was known for coffee plantations and orange groves. I don’t believe there is much of wildlife left here, what with the way we destroy our environment. Perhaps in the virgin areas, if there are any left, you might find bison, deer, rabbits, hares, foxes, mongoose, squirrels, partridges, snakes etc. But we didn’t chance upon any this visit. Someone told me elephants were common in the Kolli and Shevaroy Hills but had disappeared by the turn of the 19th century. So early! That’s indeed surprising.

I understand that coffee was first cultivated on the Grange Estate in 1820, the year in when coffee plants were brought from Africa to Yercaud by M.D. Cockburn. Jackfruit, orange, guava and spices such as black pepper and cardamom were also raised on the coffee estate. Even today, you can see sandalwood, teak and silver oak.

Was there a John Sullivan for Yercaud. Yes, there was, if what I read somewhere is right. The name is David Cockburn, the Scottish Collector of Salem between 1820 and 1829, who is fondly referred to even today as the Father of Yercaud. Expansion of coffee to the Nilgiris and other coffee growing areas of Tamil Nadu is said to be from the Shevaroys. The first survey of the hills was conducted in 1827.

In 1842, after the death of Pattakarar, the tribal chief of the Shevaroys, trouble erupted among the malaivasis or mountain people and it finally resulted in the British bringing the area under their rule in 1842. In 1857, the Grange was fortified and ramparts built to accommodate gun placements and canons. Also built was an underground cellar to store food for six months and more in the event of a siege.

In 1866, David Arbuthnot, Salem Collector, granted land for coffee cultivation to a number of Englishmen. He was responsible for demarcating village boundaries and village land and establishing village greens exclusively for Malayalis so that the plantations did not encroach on their land.

As is typical of Steve Borgia, the construction of the Lake Forest Hotel around Henrietta’s original home, each building adhering to the same architecture, has been done with great sensitivity to ecology. The wood used in hotel, for example, has been recycled from old buildings and not an ounce of fresh wood was purchased from the market. Wow! Not a single tree was cut to accommodate the hotel and you can still find trees growing and healthy – in corridors, bedrooms and bathrooms. What’s more, roots, waterways, birds and even insects have right of way here.

The first picture is of a typical cottage; look at the lush vegetation in the background. The second gives an idea of the period furniture present in all the rooms; furniture varies from room to room. The third shows how modern equipment can gel wonderfully with the old. See the kind of heritage pieces on display in the fourth and fifth.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The grand reunion: Those who made it extra special

There were a few who made the grand reunion extra special. Saurabh Varma, with his boundless energy, recounted old tales and quipped about this, that and the other and generally had many of us in splits. The typical bindaas Mumbaikar was so involved, he postponed his return by more than half a day despite planned engagements at home. When Saurabh eventually left on 7th evening, we could feel a vacuum. And no wonder he received a grand ‘farewell’! Hope to see you soon, mate…

Then, of course, the other Saurabh – Saurabh Singh, who too has made Mumbai his home the past few years, but whose heart beats for Delhi (for that’s where he’s from). As sprightly as he was in 1985, not an ounce of extra weight, it was sometimes hard to think that he, too, was our age. Except for a greying moustache, which gives him more of a military look, he could well pass off for a boy of 25. Well, keeping Saurabh company this time was his Nikon camera. I wonder how many pictures he must have taken – more than 500, I would think. Photography has become his passion; it was quite evident. During our training, Saurabh’s pet subject was aircraft and aeronautics, and he would show us all some stunning pictures. If he was not an insurance specialist, he might have been a pilot or an aeronautical engineer. All the best with your Nikon, friend…

The real surprise was Ramalakshmi, who made it all the way from the US of A. She, too, had changed little, having lost none of her verve and ability for repartee. But this Ramalakshmi was different – a good example for today’s young journalists. Canon video recorder in hand, she was all over the place, asking questions, eliciting responses and recording for posterity. Not only that, she had brought tapes to show all of us – of her life in the US, her family, her office and how employees exercised there… So committed was she that she had her camera ready at various alighting and boarding points – for example, she was at hand to record Vijay as we bid him goodbye at Salem Junction. They talk about citizen journalists, but I think Ramalakshmi can give many professional journalists a run for their money. Keep it going, young mother…

Finally, a word about my roommate at Lake Forest – Mohanty. For a couple of years now, Mohanty has been taking in his stride a challenge on the health front. And he has shown remarkable resilience in getting through a very difficult period in his life. Not only did he make it to Chennai and Yercaud, he took part in the celebrations just like anybody else, laughed and cracked jokes, although it was not quite the Mohanty of old. But here was somebody who showed how adversities can be met and overcome. I still remember vividly the days I had accompanied him to hospital in the Madras of old, walked down the streets near Elgin Road in Calcutta, the times he had come to Howrah Station to see me or my mother off, and the times he would drop by at my sister’s in Calcutta. Those were the good old days… And here in Yercaud, during the three days, the clock rewound… and images from the salad days flipped by…

Pictures show Saurabh Varma waving goodbye after his extended stay; Saurabh Singh showing his latest ‘take’ to his wife, Parvathy; Ramalakshmi who is on the other side of the camera for a change; and Mohanty in his “preferred” attire – kurta-pyjamas – making a point.

Friday, May 14, 2010

May 6, 2010: A night to remember... and cherish

Back at Lake Forest Hotel, there were conversations galore and really no time for a siesta. Every evening, the hotel arranges shows for families and children and the evening of May 6 was no different. There was a dare-devil fire juggling act and there were flashes all around as cameras clicked furiously and those gathered craned their necks to get a better view. Needless to say, it was quite impressive… and a dangerous act too I thought.

However, most of us, instead of being caught up with the act, were keen to head towards a sort of cul-de-sac on the way to our rooms. Here a couple of tables were laid out and Dinesh, the hotel boy, and his friend whose name I didn’t ask, were busy setting bottles and glasses and ice cubes. All this thanks to Thomas and Atish, Thomas especially who brought along with him a mini crate of select scotch from Dubai duty free, I’m sure. Pity there was no wine though… at least I didn’t spot any. In any case, most of us had our fill, complete with chips and kababs and vegetable fries.

We were reliving the heady days of 1985, and it almost seemed that 25 years had not passed by. Plenty of pictures were taken. The area was not well lit, it suited us fine. There was not a soul who passed by – because we occupied all the rooms towards one end. The setting could not have been more perfect. And as if to indicate they were in unison with our thoughts and mood, the weather gods signalled approval. There was a whistling in the trees and the branches of the firs and oaks stirred and swung from side to side. There was a distant sound of thunder and flashes of lightning. But, surprises of surprises, no rain. Obviously, the weather gods too knew this was a once-in-a-25-year party and they decided to let us be.

There was, of course, the cake cutting ceremony. I still have no clue who arranged it all. But, here’s cheers to Atish and the others who did, and to the hotel guys, too. All of you made it one hell of a party. There were recounts and ramblings… Sanjay with his takes on V.K Sarma and Krishnan had everybody in splits; Saurabh Varma described a “chilling” experience in an ordinary hotel in Madras. In 1985, one of our colleagues had visited the place hoping to meet up with a member of the fair sex, and Saurabh and Atish were with him to give him moral support more than anything else. The adventurer was convinced the hotel offered such endearing services. But lo and behold, when he pressed the hotel manager into admitting such services were indeed available, he got a shock of his life – because there were none and, thankfully, the episode ended without the police being called. Ha!

The first is a group picture of the United India 1985 batch of direct recruits (Rajni and Vivek are absent; and may God bless Ashok and Manivasagam who are no longer with us). In the second, Atish and Saurabh break into song (Vijay and Mohanty relish the moment)… and one can see their vices; Atish leans on the strong shoulders of Dinesh (left) and the other boy in the third. They enjoyed the night too, and if only they knew what 1985 was all about! Sanjay in his elements in the fourth (Soundarya certainly does not wish to miss out). And, yes, the cake that looked up at a heavenly starry night.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

In Yercaud, there's always TTDC

In the midst of all the catching up, several of us found time to visit the boat house in the morning and engage pedal boats. I took time off to meet S. Venkatesan, chief manager at the Tamil Nadu Tourism Development Corporation resort.

During my previous visit, we were guests at the TTDC facility and he had taken good care of us. Venkatesan is also in charge of the boat house and accompanied me as I took a stroll around the place. It was nice catching up with him, and he, too, was happy to be there.

In the first picture, MV and Thomas are all ears as Venkatesan launches into a spiel in the boat house office room. Look at the ‘important’ notice boards placed strategically at the entrance to the boat house in the second; and do you notice the salamander in the third? Earlier, I had been to the TTDC resort and standing, covered in polythene, but ready to be used was a battery-operated van to ferry tourists around the boat house. If successful; more such vehicles will be introduced in the hill resort, says Venkatesan.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

At Lake Forest Hotel... and memories distill

That night on the train most of us hardly slept. I didn’t. Apart from the ceaseless conversations, we had to get ready by 4.30am, the scheduled time of arrival at Salem Junction. The mobile phone alarms were set but it hardly mattered as we woke up from part-slumber to Saurabh Varma’s voice. Only he, with his boundless energy, could have looked as fresh at 4am as he did on the platform at Chennai Central.

The train was about an hour late; it suited us fine. Once Saurabh Singh and Vijay joined us, we headed for the vans waiting outside the station to take us to Yercaud, to Lake Forest Hotel, an INDeco Leisure Hotel. The hotel was where Henrietta Charlotte tended to coffee plants once, on what was once her estate – in the early 19th century. More about Henrietta and Lake Forest history later…

The climb was uneventful. Most of us were tired and looked forward to a warm bath once we reached our rooms. The weather was splendid, too early in the day to show indication of summer heat, but it was not the Yercaud of old. Twenty-five years ago, six of us from the batch, me included, had trekked down its pathways, chanced upon bubbling brooks and undressed ahead of a waterfall, but all that was not to be. The only trek we had was one headed to Kiliyur Falls, but we were clearly told by people that there was no water at the falls. This was on Day 2 but it only goes to show how crass commercialisation has destroyed even our hill stations.

Day 1 was relaxed as we caught up with one another. Old memories came alive and very quickly we all realised that external appearances apart, little had changed. The objective was to spend as much time together even as we looked forward to the celebrations planed later in the night, celebrations that would signal the fruition of a dream get-together.

The first picture here shows the entrance to Room 506, where Mohanty and I stayed, while the second brings out the ambience as sun and shade provide a heady mix in the hills. Sanjay is in his elements in the third, seated on what defies explanation, but what most definitely is part of Steve Borgia’s (founder of INDeco Leisure Hotels) collection of artifacts. Parvathy has her hands on what is a vintage bicycle, as others wait for the photographer to click. And, in the fourth, it’s a shy Tommy quite overshadowed by three pretty young women. MV in the background automatically smiles in the magic of the moment.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Bonding on a train, as Yercaud beckoned

If we had known that Yercaud was a suspect hotbed for terrorists, we’d most likely have not gone there at all. Well, that was what I caught in a newspaper report on my return from an absolutely wonderful break in what was once called the ‘poor man’s hill station’ in South India.

Yercaud may not have exactly rocked – the weather was just a tad too warm for that – but the place where 21 of us, the ninth batch of United India Insurance Company’s direct recruit officers, stayed, kept reminding us all the while what wonders a perfectly created hill resort can do to ordinary city-bred lives. I’ll dwell more on Club Mahindra’s Lake Forest resort later, but the get-together first.

Without doubt, all of us were eager to meet, too eager, in fact. There was bit of trepidation as well – would some of the guys be the same, would the atmosphere be similar to that in the halcyon days of 1985?

At the end of it all, we found, to our utmost delight, that things hadn’t changed at all. The energy, the pumped-up adrenalin, the humour, the jabs and the vibes, the fun-poking innuendoes, it was all there in ample measure. Twenty-five years had not dulled our hearts or minds. We were as quick on the uptake as we were in 1985; we were as affectionate and caring for each other as we were then. The presence of every single member counted. We made sure, like we did then, that everybody was together and the lack of even one of us would make it seem a little empty.

As I trooped on to Chennai Central’s Platform No. 11 with Soundarya, I first spotted Rajiv. Apart from the extra kilos he had put on, and it’s been there for quite a while (I had met him a few years earlier), he was exactly the same as we all saw him last in the November of 1985. The big surprise was Thomas, who has now made Dubai his home. I mistook him for the burly Baba but soon, like many others, realised it was the soft-spoken Thomas, a gentleman who says he can never imagine himself being anything else than an employee and in whose veins insurance runs.

Vijay was arriving in Salem the following day; Saurabh Singh missed his evening flight from Delhi. But he had got on to a later flight and we hoped he’d be able to make it to Salem on the 11.30pm train. He did. And didn’t he receive a hero’s welcome at Salem Junction? Vijay, too, although he got some names wrong and plodded along in the act, pretending not to recognise some of us.

I had always thought I was the one to have lost over the years the maximum amount of hair on my head in the batch, but a look at Vilok and Tommy, and I heaved many a sigh of relief. If Tommy had passed by most of us down a street, chances are we would not have recognised him. He had got rid of his once beloved beard, his thinning hairline and loss of kilos was enough disguise, and to top it all, the passionate communist had now turned practical capitalist. If there was one person who symbolised change in more ways than one in our batch, it was Tommy. But his shy smile and mannerism and his ability to draw attention when he spoke told us he was the very same person we knew in 1985. Tommy is now a director, as is Vijay.

That sort of individual growth is true of quite a few in our batch – there are now heads of underwriting and claims, vice-presidents, even a CEO (Vijay). During my time in the insurance industry, years before private companies were allowed to trade, the most go-getters could aspire for was perhaps to become a regional manager. How times change! And with it the salaries and perks too…

Thanks to Tommy, Viswanathan left a well-paying job with a leading broking outfit in Mumbai to try his fortunes in the midst of the Dubai high-rises. The deserts of West Asia have not eroded MV’s (as he is called) natural flair for wit and sarcasm. Indeed, when I wondered aloud whether there would be journalistic opportunities for somebody like me in Dubai, he straightaway said it was not really a place for creative minds and investigative reporting. Journalism there was mainly government handouts, he said, adding that I could write about food, lifestyle and probably the exploitation of Asian maids!

Before I go on, let me leave you with some images, the top three taken on board the train. We had nearly half the compartment to ourselves and we reached out to one another almost immediately as the first picture demonstrates. As the train rolled out of the platform, Atish drinks to quell his thirst; but I think, he, as chief organiser in Chennai, was relieved to have got off to a great start to the proceedings. “Don’t worry, when I’ve lost more hair than you have,” is what Vilok (left) seems to be saying in the third picture as I break into smile for the camera. And, well, a typical cottage at Lake Forest, Yercaud, was beckoning us and we were on our way…

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Flashback to 1985: What it meant being a United Indian

It’s been 25 years since we first met – the 20-odd of us. It was on May 6, 1985 that we officially joined United India Insurance Company, but it was a day earlier, on a Sunday, that we all trooped in one after the other from various parts of India, to the company’s Learning Centre down Nungambakkam’s Fourth Lane.

We were all direct recruit administrative officers – the next best thing to getting a job in the civil services, we were told by the Learning Centre manager, Mr Saikat Guha, one of the best managers we have ever seen and who we presume is in Santhiniketan now.

As I completed formalities at the reception that day 25 years ago, I hardly knew what to expect, but, yes, I was damn excited. Being an officer was a big thing.

The first group I bumped into comprised guys from Delhi – Sanjay, Vilok, Thomas… Then there was Rajeev and Ashok from Kanpur; Baba, Ramalakshmi and Kumar from Hyderabad joined us later as did Mohanty from Bhubaneswar; Parvati, Tommy, Viswanathan from Kerala followed; Atish from Hissar (Haryana); Rajni from Delhi; and the girls from Madras – Anita, Parvati, Soundarya and Sudha soon made up the numbers. Not to forget Manivasagam from Kovilpatti (Tamil Nadu) and Balaji from Madras. And the two Saurabhs – Saurabh Singh from Delhi and Saurabh Varma from Ranchi… and Vivek from Jaipur and Vijay from Vijayawada. There was Raja as well… but he left in a month or so to join State Bank of India. You couldn’t have found a more cosmopolitan batch, a more ‘United Indian’ batch if ever there was one.

Today was that day we first met 25 years ago – May 5. And there is excitement in all of us. Because we are going to be together again, for the first time after two decades and a half. Tonight we meet at Chennai Central station and board a train to Yercaud where we plan to spend two days catching up with each other’s lives and old times.

The closeness in our batch has been unique in way. It spawned two successful marriages – between batch mates. We’ve also had several trips together during those halcyon days – to Vizag, Hyderabad, Kochi, Pondicherry, Kodaikanal and Tirupati…

In Yercaud, we will unwind and rewind to the past. Old memories will come alive. And it is a holiday I am looking forward to.

Sadly, very sadly, two of batch mates are no more. Ashok and Manivasagam left us for good a few years ago. We will remember them especially today and the days we spend in Yercaud. Rajni and Vivek will not be there due to pressing engagements, and their absence will be sorely missed.