If I thought I was going to miss the Cochin social life I was in for a pleasant surprise. Sure, I would miss my friends but most of them were from the tea business in Cochin and I was sure to meet them from time to time. However, Coonoor, Ooty and the plantations in the Nilgiris offered a wider diaspora of interesting people.
Before leaving Cochin Satyanath called me to his office and shared his experiences in opening the J.Thomas’ Cochin branch – simple and practical advice. He used a notebook for his ToDos and advised me to adopt a similar practice. I took copious notes.
One of Sat’s advices stuck with me as I started my Coonoor innings. He said, “Philip, you are young and you will want to hang out with friends of your age but remember you are No.1 of JT at Coonoor. While the heads of companies are usually older people, if you entertain them you get to be accepted in their circles.” This advice may sound elitist today, but that was how business was done those days and I practiced it assiduously. Sure enough JT soon had a place at the table of the important and influential socialites of the Nilgiris.
The Coonoor climate lent itself to wearing suits. I remembered my London experience when I got better service each time I wore a suit than when I was casually dressed. I therefore wore well-tailored suits and jackets to office each day. In today’s IT generation when being comfortable is ‘cool’ this may seem archaic. After all Steve Jobs wore round necked T-shirt and blue jeans to work and became a billionaire.
Getting back to the social life in Coonoor, a couple who stood out were David and Rosemond Hacking. David was the head of Matheson Bosanquet & Co, which was the largest Agency House in the Nilgiris. MB managed several plantation properties. The second man in command and looking after Finance was Manhar Parikh, who along with his wife Sudha were Guajarati vegetarians. They however compensated by having a well-stocked Bar and Manhar enjoyed a Scotch or two.
The third couple at MB was Kuttiah and Rani. They were from Coorg and were a very sociable couple and regulars at most parties. Kuttiah had a quiet sense of humour and could hold his own at the Bar, while Rani was vivacious and enjoyed attention. In her senior years she gave a Bharatanatyam performance to a large audience in Singapore! I mention this to celebrate Rani’s gutsiness.
She took a special liking to us as her older sister Poovie, and husband were good friends of my parents.
Then there was the Tea Estate India group (Brooke Bond) who had moved their administrative office to Coonoor, as well as, a couple of prominent Indian companies – the Kothari Group and the Stanes Group. The Madhvanis, a wealthy Gujarati family from Uganda also had a footprint in the Nilgiris. Their family members included the Suchdes, Tannas, Bhagwandas, as well as, Ramnik and Raj Madhvani.
A paradise on Earth
Because of the salubrious climate and an enlightened society many prominent people decided to retire in Coonoor. Among these were F.B. Kanga, Mohi and Buza Das, Suraj and Sushila Das. Suraj Das was the father of Juhi, Brinda and Radhika. Brinda Karat, who was my contemporary at Delhi University, is now a prominent communist leader, while Radhika Roy is the co-founder of NDTV.
The town of Wellington was just three miles from Coonoor. This is where the Madras Regimental Centre, the oldest army unit was home to. This, and the climate must have led India’s Defence Services to set up their Staff College (DSSC) for training senior officers from the Army, Navy, and Air Force at Wellington.
Each year officers from many countries were sent here to train. Some of the International students who passed through the portals of the DSSC were:
- Muhammadu Buhari, President and former military Head of State, Nigeria
- Olusegun Obasanjo, former Nigerian President
- Sitiveni RabukaOBE, 3rd Prime Minister of Fiji
- Lieutenant ColonelGotabhaya Rajapaksa, current President of Sri Lanka
The Services, consisting of Army, Navy, and Air Force, generally kept aloof from the ‘civilians’. This was an outcome of Nehruvian socialism, which painted the Private Sector as tainted. India started out as socialist ‘licence Raj’ which meant that business activities were controlled by Permits and Licences. Having introduced this system the government looked at the whole business community with a jaundiced eye, and yet looked the other way when some jumped the queue to get ahead. Some Commandants at the Staff College, like Lt. General A.M. Sethna had a more amiable disposition and helped to bring a thaw in relationship between the civilian and armed forces.
During the British Raj the entire government moved from Madras to Ootacamund (Ooty) during the summer months! The westernised way of life was therefore, not alien to the Nilgiris. Ooty was the District Headquarters which meant anyone who had anything to do with Land or Law and Order, had to drive up for recompense.
Ooty had two colonial style Clubs – the Ootacamund Club, and the Ooty Gymkhana Club which had the best Golf Course in South India. The Hunt Club used to be administered by the Ootacamund Club but the Foxhounds were taken over by the Defence Services Staff College (DSSC) since they had the horses and more people interested in riding.
We were members of this, the ‘only Hunt Club south of the Suez’! While I did not have the skill to ‘ride to the foxes’ Premela did ride with the hounds a couple of times! I enjoyed the ceremony before and after the hunt though, which was largely downing a few Brandy Ginger-ales.
In the Coonoor area we had the Coonoor Club, and the Wellington Gymkhana Club (WGC), which also has a Golf Course. WGC is one of the few Clubs in the country which is managed by the armed forces and civilians. It has excellent residential accommodation set amidst a Golf Course, Forest, and Tea gardens.
There are several Boarding Schools in the Nilgiris. The most prominent ones are:
The Lawrence School, Lovedale, The Hebron School, Good Shepherd’s School , Saint Hilda’s School, all in Ooty, Laidlaw Memorial School, in Ketti and Stanes School, as well as, St. Joseph’s College, in Coonoor.
The little known Pasteur Institute was established in Coonoor on April 6, 1907 to work on vaccines for Rabies!
Coonoor also had the office of the United Planters Association of South India (UPASI). This was the apex body of tea, coffee, rubber, and spice plantation interests.
I drew this picture to indicate what a ‘paradise on earth’ Coonoor was. So much so that a cousin visiting me asked, “Do they pay you to live here!?” And indeed, we began one of our happiest spells in our lives. We were to live in Coonoor till July 1976.