Philip John

I had taken a long break from writing but now feel compelled to continue my narrative.
My first two years in Coonoor (1971-73) was taken up in establishing the J.Thomas branch office and putting down some roots. It is one thing to rent a place and hang the company’s name board but getting a business to gain traction and self-sustaining growth is another matter altogether. The South Indian Tea Industry was not impressed with JT’s size and muscle in Calcutta but the gains made in Cochin did help our cause in Coonoor.

As I said earlier our first office was at ‘California’ Coonoor. This was a small bungalow owned by Raghava Menon of Tea Estates India. Ironically, I now live in California in the US!

My wife and I enjoyed living in a stately home called Palloor House, however, after a couple of years we were given notice by J.J. Williams, the landlord, to vacate. Incoserve, which was the apex body of the Tamil Nadu Industrial Cooperative Tea Factories wanted to establish an office in Coonoor and Palloor House, with its size and location seemed to be the perfect fit.

No tenant wants to be disturbed, especially when things are going well, so this came as a shock and disappointment. K. N. Menon (Kuts), my colleague offered to help me house hunt. During lunch break he and I would walk about and look for houses near Sims Park – which was a beautiful botanical garden in Upper Coonoor.

On the second or third day of our search we walked up a narrow road on Gray’s Hill, there were a few bungalows along that road but nothing that caught our eye. We had gone up to the end of the road and was about to turn back when we saw a sign which said Mountain View. We walked in and came upon an old uninhabited house. It didn’t appeal to me because it needed a lot of work to make it liveable. Before leaving we thought we would walk to the edge of the property to look at the ‘mountain view’. Through the hedge and trees we saw a large garden below us and a house at the end of a driveway. It really took my breath away!

Something leapt in my heart and I wanted a closer look. We saw a gate beyond the Mountain View entrance, a little recessed and not readily seen from the road. The iron gate was large, with peeling red paint. The name of the house “Icklesham” was written on a worn out letterbox by the side of the gate. The early bungalows in Ooty and Coonoor had English or Scottish names.

After what seemed a long walk we reached the house at the end of the driveway. We peered through the first set of windows to find an elderly English couple enjoying a siesta in their chairs with the sun streaming in through the glass windows.

Kuts cleared his throat a couple of times but the old couple made no signs of waking up. We wondered whether we should walk away and come another day but I felt an urge to persist. So we walked up to the front door and rang the bell. After a minute or two we heard the sound of a chair moving and shortly after, a diminutive bald man came to the door. He seemed the kind of person who would shoo away random visitors, but Kuts and I were suited and booted as on any working day. He wanted to know why we were there.

“Is this house available on rent by any chance?” I blurted in my anxiety.
The man squinted and asked me in a conspiratorial tone, “How did you know? Our advertisement is only coming out this weekend!”
Kuts and I exchanged glances. The old gentleman ushered us into the ante room where he and his wife were snoozing a while earlier.

We introduced ourselves and explained the purpose of our visit. He said he was Brigadier Apcar. His family was of Armenian descent but had been in Britain for generations. He had studied in Eaton and then went on to Sandhurst, a route the affluent British often took. Serving in the army as an officer seemed preferable to joining the tea gardens. A forebear had distinguished himself and was granted his own coat of arms and crest by the British crown. A branch of the family came to Calcutta to work with the East India company and had later established the Apcar Shipping Lines. S.T. Apcar however chose to join the Army and serve the British Raj.

He was the head of India’s security in Delhi. His official bungalow abutted Birla House where Mahatma Gandhi was shot dead on 30th January 1948. Brigadier Apcar and his French born wife were at home when this momentous national tragedy happened. Was this viewed as a breach of security? Anyway, he retired soon after this incident – and bought a property in Coonoor.

‘Icklesham’ was a large well laid out property. It had a 3 bedroom house with ante rooms, dressing rooms and attached bathrooms. There was a double garage, a wood shed, a large kitchen with an antique Bonnie Bridge Stove, accommodation for servants at a lower level, as well as, a watchman’s shed at the entrance. The house was set against the tank that supplied water to Coonoor. Water would be piped in from the Ralliar Dam, stored here and let out each day to take care of the water needs of the town.

The view from Icklesham was simply stupendous. The valley below housed Coonoor town and thereafter we looked out to verdant rolling hills with Tea gardens in the distance. The sun would set behind these hills. I have enjoyed some fabulous sunsets from our home. But, I think I am getting ahead of my story.

Brigadier and Mrs. Apcar said that they were moving on in years. It was becoming increasingly difficult to manage the large retinue of servants that was required to ensure that this pristine property was well maintained. They had decided to rent out the property, and move into a suite of rooms at the Ooty Club. The Club staff would take care of their needs.

I asked him not to put out the advertisement, but instead to draw up the Lease Agreement for me to sign. In my anxiety to clinch the deal I did not ask him what the rent was, nor had I cleared it with my boss, Satyanath. I was much too excited!

I rushed home to tell my wife about the good fortune that had landed in my lap earlier that afternoon. Icklesham was a much nicer place than the one we were in!

We moved to this fabulous property in April 1973. Our son Yohaan was born in August that year! We were later to buy Icklesham but there were many twists and turns in the story.
We were to own Icklesham, which my friend Jani Uthup described as ‘arguably the finest property in Coonoor’, till March 2002.

I am posting a few pictures of Icklesham, but these were taken a few years after we had bought the house by which time the lawns and gardens had received my wife’s tender love and care!

6 Responses

  1. Another lovely story. I can just imagine Iklesham looking at the photos. Truly a beautiful abode with its immaculate surroundings. An era which has gone past.

    Looking eagerly to your next.

  2. Yet another wonderful story . Must have been great living in Coonoor those days. Look forward to the next one

  3. This lovely property was totally hidden from view till you actually got there. I remember being startled to find how it sprang on you suddenly when you ascended the hill and turned a bend on the small pathway up. Interesting to hear of its background and how it played a role in your and JT’s Coonoor saga. Pity you had to part with it later. Who lives there now? I recall you sold it to Dinshaw Daruvala and it changed hands again after his passing.
    Difficult to believe 40-45 years have passed since those early days ! Your children, I am sure, will cherish their childhood there.

    1. We were happy that some important years of our lives were spent at Icklesham also that Sandhya and Yohaan remember it as Home. I will write some more stories about our life there and touch on some of your references.

  4. Enjoy every bit of your writing Philip Sir, amazing indeed and keep up your narratives! I recall going to Coonoor & Ooty often during summers. It was kind of an annual ritual for us to drive down from Cochin and stay over the weekends in Coonoor. Thanks to my father Mr K G Bhat being in early tea trade in Cochin and a tea buyer who participated in auctions, these times are memorable indeed. Your narratives are taking my mind to those happy days.

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