Kodaikanal: living in a 'sky island'
A week before the lockdown slammed the lid on life as we knew it in March last year, I fled the city. Instinctively, I made my way to the mountains—knowing I might be safest and least restricted in Kodaikanal, the hill station I grew up in. I made marmalade and grew kale; I dodged bison and porcupines, and rat-proofed a house; I bought a car and planned a home for my end of days. Of course, end times were here, already. A year later, my partner and I are still here, as is the pandemic—and a whole new way of life, even as we try to understand what an unanticipated idyll might mean for the town.
Beleaguered by tourist footfall and over-development, Kodai, a small town of about 70,000 which swells to accommodate hundreds of thousands every month during the tourist season, has not been able to contend with its popularity. Its limited medical facilities and infrastructure led to the authorities barring non-residents for five months, till those with pre-approved e-passes were allowed in September. Covid-19 caseloads remained low, from a couple of hundred cases at the height of the pandemic to around 15 today, and vaccination is underway slowly (in April, even those below 45 were inoculated since doses weren’t being used). This is all according to occasional reportage, informal communication from officials and word of mouth; there is no local news source, and those who test positive usually go to the plains. And so, the town was sealed off, literally a “sky island”, as my mother (the writer Lathika George) remarked. Kodai is a shola sky island, a geographically-isolated, high-elevation region full of valuable montane evergreen forests in the Western Ghats, so this is not just a dreamy term.
It was surreal—we lived, in many ways, as if not much had changed. In fact, we had paradise all to ourselves.
“There were more animals in the forest because no tourists went there,” says Sahaya Mary, a 60-year-old forager and produce seller. Descended from the tribals who first resided in Kodai, she is permitted into restricted parts of its forests. “I have been going there since I was a small girl,” says Mary, who home-delivers raspberries and pinecones, stopping for a chat on our front stoop. Business was hit, and she is trying to adapt by producing new products: home-made peanut butter and preserves.
Returning to your hometown is usually daunting if you are from a small town: You tread lightly when you visit and make it clear you will soon be elsewhere, having grown up knowing you will need to leave to do better. Some remain in Kodai out of duty, nostalgia, comfort, and some choose to return, after time in the West or the city—joining working professionals tired of urban living—to embrace this lifestyle anew. For, this life I grew up with, close to nature, organic goods and fresh produce, has become fashionable, even aspirational.
I saw it as the world of my childhood, living in New York and Delhi and visiting my family frequently. But I have worked remotely for years (in publishing, journalism and development), and the pandemic did away with any excuse I had to resist the better life. Like a handful of “Kodai kids” stranded outside their current country of residence or escaping their urban apartments, this is the first time I have been here for longer than a couple of months as an adult. I have an office in Bangkok but it can be managed remotely for now—and so, our time out of time continues.
First the home of the Palaiyar and Pulaiyar tribals, Kodaikanal was established by British officials and American missionaries in 1845; later, upper- and middle-class Indians discovered it. It offers sanctuary to all sorts today. My friends and familiars include teachers, farmers, artists, pastors, writers, honey producers, shopkeepers, finance and IT professionals, policy analysts, lawyers, retired folk and full-time hippies. Class and cultural differences may persist but relative tolerance and open-mindedness prevail, for the most part, in this community-minded settlement. Kodaiites are often strong individuals: quirky to the point of being eccentric and wary of outsiders (pandemic notwithstanding), to the point of being insular.
“It’s this strange place, a place of forgetting, of comfort, of leaving the mainstream—and it traps exotics, whether flora and fauna or people,” says Corey Stixrud, principal of the Kodaikanal International School, India’s first International Baccalaureate school and my alma mater. Originally from Portland, US, Stixrud returned to the town he had grown up in, nine years ago. “You see the deterioration of Kodai as a beautiful hill station,” he says. “But during the lockdown it was a bucolic town again; there was a wonderful return to the 1970s.”
“Kodai usually does not change this much,” says Naveena Selvaraj, 30, a stylist who returned seven years ago, describing its strange stillness and “ghost town” feel last summer. She opened a restaurant this year with her husband, who owns the hotel which houses it, and works on the occasional film shoot. “To see wildlife passing through what was a busy town was extraordinary.”
“My first trip down the Ghats, with leaves strewn and covering the road as there had been no movement, took me back,” says 40-year-old Hari Shanker Mani, a friend who runs Kodai Cheese, the well-known dairy business. He describes how those dependent on tourists for income started farming the lands they had left. “The agri-business thrived during this time,” he says. “I spotted farmers selling not through the designated wholesale outlets but on the periphery of their farms.” In Kodai, around 10,000kg of butter and 3,000kg of ghee went unsold last summer, leading to losses of ₹5 lakh locally, but overall profits soon went up by 20% after the company “pivoted into the retail segment” nationwide, he says.
“The lockdown created a wonderful opportunity to slow down and get to know others in the community,” recalls Patti Tower, administrator of the Aeon Trust, a not-for-profit educational trust, who describes how her team helped neighbours pick up groceries when transport was halted and hired the temporarily unemployed. Originally from upstate New York, Tower lives 18km from Kodaikanal at the trust’s Skamba farms and has been here for a decade. She and the Skamba team help supply the town’s organic eager beavers with a variety of leafy greens via an active WhatsApp group (one of several).
The lockdown appealed to everyone who dreams of a green town. “Pollution levels had dropped considerably. The night skies were so clear… and no one was allowed to use loudspeakers,’ says 75-year-old Minoo Avari, a well-known Parsi local activist who has campaigned against noise pollution and other menaces with mixed results. People know he’s out there fighting the good fight, and others are out there ignoring it. Sceptical about how the situation was controlled in the half-year after Kodai opened up, he points out that checks at the tollgate were bypassed throughout. But the kids are listening.
“Eco-sensitive and responsible tourism is something we are concerned about and hope will grow to become the norm in Kodai,” says Karuna Jenkins, 31, a community coordinator and facilitator of British and Indian parentage who grew up here. A trustee of the organic agriculture-oriented Sholai School, she runs its summer camps, and feels tourism has surged after the lockdown.
But how can this change be organised? “The long-term post-pandemic effects on the socioeconomic atmosphere of Kodaikanal are really up to the government,” says Banu Hameed, 43, co-convenor of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage’s (Intach’s) Kodai chapter. But in the absence of working systems, community leaders here, like elsewhere, often rely on personal networks.
This was why the lockdown was so welcome a pause. Though the quiet came with other costs, recalls shop-owner Aftab Ahmed, 55, who moved to Kodai from Kashmir when he was five. “Going out for milk in the morning brought me face to face with lathi-wielding police who were trying to force fear on the few people out to buy essentials,” he says. “A threatening environment; the unseen virus and a visible, aggressive police force, arresting people for walking in the morning, dumping them in a van to register a case in the police station.”
This spring, the town has been almost as busy as usual. “No lessons were learnt. Greed for life replaced fear,” says Ahmed, describing how some crime inevitably returned, as did building construction and real estate dealings.
Reduced cash flow was a pressing issue for many, already denied a year’s profits after some businesses were deemed illegal in 2019. When it was announced that the town would stop admitting non-locals again this week, businesspeople held a large protest, many of them not wearing masks. Kodai’s traders’ association secretary Sheikh Abdullah told The New Indian Express: “We entirely depend on tourists for our livelihood. We already struggled a lot to make ends meet during the total lockdown last year and have barely recovered from it.” He claimed the government was “leaving us in the lurch”.
This year has also led to some transformations, however. Avari speaks of a hotel receptionist who took online classes, earned a certificate in electrical engineering and plumbing, opened his own company in Madurai and employed many of Kodai’s youth there.
“The pandemic has helped bring people to their senses in terms of what Kodai has to offer,” says Stixrud, who, like many, suggests Kodai be made a walking town that people pay to enter. “The town has fooled itself into thinking it has to have tourism to survive—with enough will and governance, we could come up with a sustainable model that preserves what’s good about Kodai.”
It is hard to predict which way we will go. But on 20 April, the sky island pulled up its drawbridge once more as cases skyrocketed around the country—and Kodai turned inwards, yet again.
Rajni George is a writer and editor.
Ludhiana: an entrepreneurial spirit, a sense of caring
I grew up in Ludhiana, but left for boarding school in Rajasthan in 2004, going on to Delhi university for my graduation. I would visit during festivals and for short lazy vacations, but after I moved to Bengaluru in 2018 and my grandmother died, there were fewer reasons to return.
I have lived in Bagli, a village in Madhya Pradesh, smaller cities like Ajmer and Sonipat, as well as metros like Mumbai and Bengaluru, over the past decade. But I would never have believed it if you had told me I would live in Ludhiana and continue doing the work I love.
Exploring life like a professional gypsy, I often had conversations about where I would ultimately “settle down”. I believed it would be a city not as fast as Mumbai or as aggressive as Delhi, one with a small-town feel like Ludhiana, opportunities for young people like Bengaluru. But after all this, in July 2020, I was sitting in my 70-year-old family home, which was being renovated.
The logic of why anyone would want to settle in Ludhiana always eluded me—it’s an industrial town, it doesn’t have places to hang out, it has no parks, no heritage or cultural centres. It’s extremely polluted in parts and despite huge concentration of wealth, social responsibility seemed to be missing. I missed the psychological freedom I had won during the years of big-city living.
The lockdown changed my perspective. I saw the cultural shift that had taken place while I was away. Sarabha Nagar, for instance, previously known only for the city’s best day school and movie theatre, now had the feel of Shimla’s Mall Road. It was wide and green, lit with the signboards of 60-80 new cafés, microbreweries and gyms. There were nature walks, cycling clubs, weekend rides along the Sutlej, cafés by the canal. I started noticing old city landmarks and markets revamped to welcome a younger audience. There was proper car parking, aesthetically renovated buildings—even though houses in Ludhiana still looked like something out of movie sets.
Ludhiana now had the best of Indian and global brands, but what impressed me was the kind of experiences the home-grown businesses were serving. When the city opened up fully in October, going for a gedi (a Punjabi term for driving around with friends), I discovered a bunch of new local businesses. I talked to the owners and found an enthusiasm for the city that had been missing before. When I was growing up, most people wanted to emigrate; it’s what adults encouraged us to do. The entrepreneurial spirit Ludhiana is known for was now infused with a sense of caring for the city and doing good by it.
Until covid-19 brought me back, I had learnt to say home was “just a feeling”—it could be any place one felt at home. But returning to Ludhiana and falling into its old-new patterns has made me rethink the idea of home. It has not only made me entrepreneurial but also helped me own a part of my identity with pride. It has given me the courage to believe that no matter what I do next, where I go and study, I may return and settle here one day.
Akshay Kumaria is a consultant in the equitable social-impact sector.