In preparation for my bus ride to Virajpet I dug out my sports bra. Not only was the juddering the same as I remember, but the constant hairpin turns at speed are giving my buns an amazing workout in my efforts to remain seated. The activity could be brilliantly adapted for one of those Wii games for people who like to exercise in private.
The scenery is as I remember except the season is a month earlier. The road alternately winds us through stubbled fields where the cuttings are laid out like squares in a chessboard, and dark forest high on each side where the trees are suffocated in pepper vines. There are two small villages where people hop on and off, but generally the drivers waste no time overtaking whatever vehicles get in the way with a liberal use of the old horn. We arrive exactly on schedule one hour later.
Four years have passed and there is no change. Virajpet’s streets are still full of broken pavements, dust and rural people doing business in every shop. Near the bus station are still the same photo-worthy vegetable stalls of produce stacked up in neat groups and patterns where it would almost be a shame to buy anything and ruin the picture. I pass a string of tailors where the Singer sewing machines are being treadled away and cloth fed through - I really appreciate this sight given the two main characters in A Fine Balance are tailors. I make some inquiries about a dress I want copied and make a note of their location.
And then there are the cake shops. How could I forget? With Christmas around the corner the cake displays are magnificent. I stop off in one bakery to have tea. I point to three different glass containers packed with biscuit of varying colours and textures having no clue what they will taste like. Even when I'm actually eating them, I still have no idea what flavours they are. One tastes vaguely lemony and the others are different but unidentifiable.
Even though I've arrived later than planned, I decide to check out my old walking route to Devangari. For those of you new to my blog, coming to Madikeri four years ago was somewhat of an exploratory mission. Having read Dervla Murphy's To Coorg on a Shoestring, I had become fascinated with her descriptions of the people and the landscape. Devangari was where she spent the majority of her stay. (If you need a reminder see For the Love of Three Oranges). I stroll down Jain Street and take the old familiar turn off at Church Street.
I walk past the houses, hovel-like dwellings juxtaposed with quite luxurious abodes with immaculate gardens, and endure the usual stare-fest. Once I am down the hill a bit I notice a ringing in my ears. Amazing. It’s quiet. The traffic noise has died away to only a distant beeping and I can hear birds singing. It makes me realise that I have not had a break from traffic noise since I've been here.
My ready-to-be-thrown-out Volleys are feeling like cushioned slippers, so I am happy to walk. Once clear of the streets of houses, I pass schools where the children are playing volleyball. Several come to the gate to say hello or just stare. Another kilometre down the road I pass a coffee-curing facility and I lean over someone's back fence at one point to inspect the robusta beans all smoothly laid out for drying. I am regularly passed by tuk tuks and motorbikes, but apart from that, the walk is luxuriously quiet. I soon realise I can make Devagari in good time (5km from town) and perhaps enquire after Jeevan, a man whose family I met when here last time and whom I'd posted the resulting family photos.
Just when I think I only have a couple of kilometres to go, I come upon a charming little house just up the slope where a couple are standing at their gate seemingly waiting for something. They beckon me to come over and say hello. I am soon sitting in the front room of Don and Venu Boppanna being plied with coffee and biscuits. Don informs me ('Don is like pet name.') that he had been in the Indian army for twenty years and he is now retired, the house being part of the package. He has been everywhere. Sri Lanka, Kashmir, all the hot spots. Later when I was able to calculate his age at 47-48 I wondered why he was retired so young. Reached his danger quotient? He didn't seem to be carrying any obvious injuries. On my asking he counts off the seven languages he knows: Hindi, Tamil, Punjabi, plus four others...without mentioning English. Venu 'only' knew three.
At one point I show them something in my guidebook and I have to put my prescription sunglasses on to read whatever it is. This immediately sparks more questions and Don, going cross-eyed after, wants to try them on. They ask how much they cost and without thinking, beyond a mental calculation, I say about 10,000 rupees (and the rest). Don and Venu nearly fall off their chairs. I am embarrassed. How to explain to them it's all relative and about purchasing power? When I'm here it's the ten rupee note that I handle the most and cracking a hundred is like cracking a twenty at home (despite it being 10% of the value) and you have to choose where to present it as change can be a problem. Five hundreds are like fifties (likewise 10% value) and you crack them when you get an opportunity at hotels or banks as the average small trader doesn't want to know about them.
On the subject of money, Don tells me his three acres of coffee produce about fifty kilograms at 60 RS a kilo (I was told 55 RS four years ago). Three thousand RS must be a very handy supplement to his pension, but it certainly puts my sunglasses into cringe-worthy perspective.
Lunch is mentioned a few times and I assure them I've eaten already (it is getting on to 3pm). Don has very good English and an endless supply of intelligent questions, which makes me think he has retired into this quiet little place far too soon. He asks to see my Australian money, which he inspects closely and asks about relative values. He asks after my family and what my parents do. He is very keen to talk about Australian landscape with a particular fascination for mountains and snow. In answering my own questions about their marriage and daughter, Don calls his daughter on the phone to speak with me. I spoke to Megha in Bangalore where she is studying for her B. Comm. She asks if her parents are well and if she can add me on Facebook. Soon she asks me if I'd had lunch. Indians are just not happy until you have fully partaken of their hospitality!
Soon I am in Venu's spotless kitchen with a huge plate of rice on my knee with splodges of samba and mutton and pickle all over it. 'You need spoon?' asks Don.
'No, I'm good,' I say, trying to recall how to correctly eat rice with fingers. I soon remember about using the thumb as a shovel to push the food off your curled fingers into your mouth. Trouble is, the meal is still really hot! Even though I think I’m going okay, half way through Venu issues me with a spoon. She also wants to pile my plate up again but I manage to get out of it politely. I am truly stuffed to the gills.
Venu shows me around their home with great pride. Neat as a pin, each room is painted a different colour. The living room, where we'd had coffee, is purple with orange trimming at the ceiling. One bedroom was light blue and another pink (both with said orange trimming). The effect is bright, cheerful and modern. There are also some cabinets cleverly built into the walls with sliding glass doors displaying photos and various elegant ornaments.
Venu has little English but her beaming expressive face and frequent laughter communicate much. I can see they are a very happy couple. They assure me theirs was an arranged marriage and they had been together nineteen years. Venu doesn’t look much older than early thirties to me, but then, she does have an eighteen-year-old daughter. She shows curiosity about the rings I am wearing, so in response I ask her about her dowry gold, which she promptly brings out. I marvel at the heaviness of the chains and one of the rings has a lovely square pink stone.
Back out on the front verandah with 4pm approaching, I realise I will not be getting to Devangari today, so I ask Don about it. When he finally understands what I am talking about, it turns out that he knows Jeevanji. 'He is a bachelor!' (I'd already got the third degree on why I wasn't married and they thought it was very funny when I shrugged and whined and said 'I don't know why!').
I assure them Jeevanji is married with children - I think Don is just teasing me. But I don’t avoid a lecture on Devangari: 'Not very nice people. The farmers drink. Don't go to Devangari.' Don wags his finger at me. I make a mental note to go by tuk tuk - hell, I wouldn't be allowed to walk by here again without them seeing me and dragging me in, anyway.
It takes another half hour to extricate myself with much watch and sun pointing. It will be dark before I get back to Madikeri as it is. Don says many, many times that I must come back, and I just might do that. Don goes off to speak to two lads on motorbikes who have pulled up by the road. On taking leave of Venu I thank her profusely for the food and company. Suddenly inspired, and having little else, I fish out my few Australian coins saying she must give them to Don. I am only sorry the 5c and $1 are missing from the full set.
For some reason the return journey is incredibly dusty. More traffic churning it up, perhaps. It makes me look at the young girl next to me in her burqa with a great deal of jealousy. No dust caking her hair and skin, plus she has a filter to breathe through. She must be feeling sorry for me coughing and choking, as she passes me a wrapped sweet and asks me where I’m from. Her eyes make her look about eighteen, and maybe she is, but it’s hard to tell as there’s something to be said for burqas fighting off the ageing sun. She is travelling with her husband and little son to Madikeri to take him to the doctors. I am unsurprised to hear it is a throat problem. I suck on my lolly and watch the passing scenery recede into shadow and the sky smear with rose cloud. The driver soon turns on the lights inside the bus. Thank goodness we are in Madikeri by the time I realise it was only the inside lights he'd turned on.