During my just concluded visit to India, I went running in the land of a thousand hills, Kodagu.
Kodagu (Coorg is what the British called it) is a region within the state of Karnataka, set along the eastern flank of the Western ghats. It is a land famous for coffee, spices and warriors. India’s first field marshal, F.M. Kariappa was a Kodava. It is a land of rolling hills, coffee plantations, coconut trees and green fields. Hamlets and even just a cluster of a few huts dot the landscape, making you think that you’re never far from a human. The land sometimes looks anachronistic, like a fossil from ancient times. Wild elephants can snarl up traffic and being out alone at dusk in certain areas can be invitation to be tiger food or leopard food. In one tucked away corner of this land live the largest group of Tibetans outside Dharamashala, complete with their prayer flags, temples and a megalithic Buddhist temple.
It is also a popular destination for tourists now with resorts and home stays sprouting like coffee plantations. Many years back, we stayed in the house of a coffee plantation owner for a few days and climbed up th highest peak in the area, Thadiyandamol. This time around, with Shanthala’s parents and Maya in tow, we decided to go stay in a resort near Kushalnagar. The resort offered enough facilities and programs to satisfy both ends of the age spectrum.
June is the official start of the monsoon in India, though with global warming, deforestation and urban sprawl, that may be a quaint memory rather than reality. In the South, the southernmost state of Kerala is where the monsoon begins and then travels north and east. Bordering Kerala on one side and with its proximity to the Western Ghats, monsoon arrives in Kodagu sooner than most other parts of Karnataka.
The weather was sultry when we landed. The sky remained dark, pregnant with hope for this rural land, for good parts of the day. The dark skies obscured the rare transit of Venus for most of the time the transit was partially visible in India. Finally, the monsoon hit the third day we were there.
I had gone running the day before the monsoon arrived. The roads can be sparsely populated, substituting as a good running track. With the help of the hotel staff, I picked one that took me away from the traffic from the nearby town of Kudige and into the interior landscapes of Coorg. I didn’t take my trusty iPhone that day. The day after the monsoon, under grey, sodden skies with occasional flits by the sun, I went running again, this time with my iPhone. I wrapped it in a plastic cover in case I was caught in a downpour.
School children and office goers waited for buses at old fashioned bus stops. The office goers were usually women dressed up in city clothes, probably heading to Kushalnagar or maybe even Madikeri, the capital of this region.
Buses, two wheelers and cars weren’t the only modes of transportation. I saw rural workers jammed on the back of a small pickup truck, huddled under the tarp cover from the rain.
I realized after running a little distance, that the kids waiting for the school bus were rich, heading to more organized and functioning private schools in the cities. The not-so-rich kids walked to government-run schools nearby, sometimes walking as much as a couple of kilometres. Almost no one was unaccompanied by their parents as they walked on the road, in groups of two or more.
People stared at me as I ran on the narrow road. The traffic was thin enough that most vehicles let me run on the road even when they passed me. Long distance running is not popular in India, at least until very recently. So, the sight of my running, with sweat pouring down my face, must’ve seemed like some slice of a TV program had jumped the broadcast world into real life. One group of kids, waiting for their bus, asked me how far I was going. I named the little hamlet that I had run past the previous time, about 5 kms or so away and some looked shocked.
The scenery was pastoral, refreshing. As I ran past some hamlets, I saw groups of young people sitting around tiny shops, sipping hot, piping coffee (or maybe tea). Sometimes, they were just congregated around a couple of motorbikes.
The sign of a government run veterinary hospital, surprised me. The surprise may have been more on account of my ignorance of such matters, but nevertheless I was pleasantly surprised by its presence on this seemingly remote, rural road.
The gross inequality of India was visible here too, with barely standing, makeshift huts rubbing shoulders with clearly affluent, large, new houses.
Rain came down in a fine mist for a few minutes. Native rain, rain I grew up with, cool against the hot, sweaty skin, rain you can dance in. So unlike the cold, cold rain where I now live. I remembered the ending from W.S. Merwin’s haunting poem, “To The Rain”:
You reach me out of the age of the air
falling toward me
each one new
if any of you has a name
it is unknown
but waited for you here
for you to fall through it knowing nothing
hem of the garment
do not wait
until I can love all that I am to know
for maybe that will never be
touch me this time
let me love what I cannot know
as the man born blind may love color
until all that he loves
fills him with color – To The Rain, W.S. Merwin
Running here, with the coconut trees dotting the landscape, the almost continuous clusters of huts and the rain, evoked nostalgic memories of my growing up in Kerala. When I passed by this one house, the nostalgia turned so strong, I stopped and took a picture of the house. Set back against the road, hidden almost among the coconut trees, guarded. The reason for the feeling remains hidden, like this house, even if the feeling is unmistakably strong, even now, as I write this article, many days after the event.
After 4 miles or so, I turned back. As I neared the resort, a group of kids stopped me and asked me to take their picture.
We left Kodagu the same day, an hour of so after my run, heading back to Bangalore. But the memory of this run may stay with me, for the nostalgia it evoked and for the feeling of running under the skies that held the promise of monsoon for a thirsty land.