The Nilgiris: a disaster in Coimbatore
New Year’s Eve and a birthday–there’s no denying that there is always a pressure of performance. These two events force me to escape from the city and be my own king in a new destination. It has become a ritual of sorts to take a vacation on these two occasions of the year. Offensive as it may sound, there are no friends to please and no parties to host or attend. Owing to this forced tradition, I set off to the Nilgiris in late December of 2018, a region I’d only heard about from some friends who visited when they were very young, and only remembered the district as a ‘really green area’.
The Nilgiris is a hilly district centred around Ooty in Tamil Nadu, with Coimbatore serving as a gateway to these hills. It’s definitely not a city I’d recommend you spend too much time in. The excitement with which I flew in, Coimbatore seemed to kill within hours of arrival. My lack of patience is surely questionable, but by the end of the night, I was sure this city wasn’t my cup of tea. Big cities scare me, for one. The fear of not being able to cover every corner of the town is troubling. My bike usually helps me cope with this discomfort; cycling across town for a couple of hours is enough to convince me I’ve seen enough. But walking twenty kilometres through traffic-infested streets was unnerving. I hopped on to a bus and travelled the length of the city, but the landscape never changed, instead made me question my skills of making itineraries and executing them.
Coimbatore is known for its silk industry, and the city does a good job with its recurring billboards to ensure tourists are well aware of this speciality. Three-storey establishments packed with female attendants closely guarding a swimming pool of silk was a common sight in town. Another irrelevant observation I made was the number of two-wheelers out on the streets. The roads were dominated by scooters driven by men clad in dhotis the length of which would make most models blush. It all added up when someone told me the city is one of India’s largest manufacturers of automotive components. In general, I felt a distaste which I’d previously experienced in other Tier-2 cities like Surat and Ahmedabad. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the local authorities or the people were doing something wrong, but just that the city didn’t have much to offer. And what it did offer, wasn’t for me.
The streets were peppered with hole-in-the-wall joints which served lavish meals at throwaway rates. Mind you, lavish is operative only for those invested enough to scout past Google Reviews and Zomato listings. I wiped away a plate of mushroom biryani and a filter coffee at one such diner for just seventy rupees. The food was a constant reminder that I was in South India every time my bill was cheaper than the auto fare to the restaurant. The highlight of this town’s dining prowess was a mutton dosa I ordered at a restaurant called Ammayi Veedu (Mother’s Home in Tamil). The restaurant was a tiny space with barely any rush. But the waiters here created an illusion that they were overworked, given the fervour with which they moved around. One of them lay a large banana leaf before me and made a hand movement which I failed to comprehend. They collectively judged me, and a second waiter sprinkled water on my leaf and gestured to me to wipe it with my hands. Two minutes later a third came around and served two curries and three chutneys. A fourth then served the dosa. Filled with minced meat, the dosa wasn’t quite the speciality, but the mutton and chicken curries and the trio of chutneys. For the North Indian, it was the lack of sambhar to-go which did the trick. The tipping system here was flawed as I saw it, given the number of waiters serving one table. I took the benefit of the doubt and slipped out discreetly, pretty sure their judgement hadn’t ended after the water-sprinkle debacle. I wanted Ammayi Veedu to be the last thing I remembered about this city and tucked into bed hoping that better things were to come as dusk turned to dawn. You might call me out for not visiting any of the town’s tourist attractions, but the filter coffee served here was enough of a treat to keep away the guilt of not making an effort to try and like Coimbatore.
Just when I felt all hope was lost, it seemed like the city was trying its best to make me stay on. Next morning’s breakfast was a delightful roadside twenty-minute gastronomic journey right across my hotel. Locals swamped in and out like busy bees, each trying to get their share of soggy dosas before getting on with their day. A banana leaf was placed before me, and I hastily sprinkled water across its midrib, not giving the waiter any time to make assumptions about my knowledge of local rituals. I too asked for dosas, adding to my onslaught of the Indian pancake. Just that here they treated it like rice, and poured a cup of sambhar over the dosa. I never saw this coming, and couldn’t do anything but click a picture of the crime scene, reminding myself that worse things happen to people.
The final nail in the coffin was a shared auto ride to the bus station with an imposing old woman. The woman tried to make conversation, but my frustration had added up at such a rapid rate that I didn’t have the patience to comprehend her Tamilian efforts. The hundred-buck ride for just 2 km seemed more like a pay-off to get me out of here. The only thing that kept me grounded on a rather troublesome first touchpoint of a two-week holiday was the knowledge that soon the Nilgiris would welcome me and take me far away from a sweaty city I was sure could never grow on me.
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