Saturday, January 24, 2009

A Tale of Two Towns

Explorer Johann Ludwig Krapf first documented the presence of Mt. Kenya (in East Africa) straddling the Equator: “…two large horns or pillars rising over an enormous mountain to the north west of Kilimanjaro, covered with a white substance.”  There was disbelief then to the point of heaping ridicule on the explorers that snow and equator could co-exist geographically. This was in 1849. For the Wakamba people at its foot, though, this “discovery” was a foregone reality.  Something similar happened in 1859 when explorer Richard Burton who set his eyes on the Blue Mountain range in South India commented: “Such a climate within the tropics was considered so great an anomaly that few could believe its existence.” He was spying the range of Neilgherry that had already been “introduced” and “authenticated” in 1819 by John Sullivan, then Collector of Coimbatore, as a “discovery” to the world at large, no matter it was home to Toda tribe for centuries. But that is digressing.

Kodanad Nilgiris
Mt. Kenya 

Can two places, continents apart - one to the north of equator and the other just south of it, have any common ground? Probably not, one is forgiven for presuming. But if I said that not only can two places have commonalities but bear uncanny similarities, wouldn’t it sound incredulous? Central Highlands in Kenya and Blue Mountains in India, both places where I spent three unforgettable years of my life, count up to the idea.  Nairobi town, just one degree south of equator in the continent of Africa, answers perfectly to the clich├ęd phrase, “salubrious climes”, that describes Wellington (or Coonoor and Ooty, for that matter) in Nilgiris best. And that is where the analogies just about begin.

Cut to the 21st century. Dandy dahlias, crisp white chrysanthemums, cannas and purple-burst agapanthus or African lily border the well-trimmed lawns, the lines of which are broken intermittently by frangipani and bougainvillea bushes. The peach tree is laden with fruits and so is the guava. Kites trill and encircle the garden as the sparrows pick at the bird feeder. Across the boundary wall, in a glen, masses of pine and eucalyptus jostle with the cypresses and the cool breeze intoxicates the senses. Sitting on the patio of my duplex I am taking in the scenes of the day. For a minute, I lose my bearings and think I am in Gulistan of Wellington Cantonment, but that is not the case. This is the DAK (Defence Adviser, Kenya) Bungla (as I like to call it) in Nairobi where we are currently situated. If photographs of the two houses, with the gardens, were to be juxtaposed as in a child’s puzzle of Spot the Difference, it would be hard to tell them apart.

The bird wealth of Nairobi too rivals that of Wellington-Coonoor. If Nilgiris has its endemic and eponymous thrush, Nairobi has the African Olive Thrush whose fluting call can bridge time and space. I could be walking along the pine forests of Wellington Gymkhana Club while actually I am at the Windsor Club in Nairobi’s kosher locality on a birdwatching trail. Like Nilgiris, Central Highlands is a land of tea, thrushes and tribes.

Tea garden Nilgiris
Maramba Tea Estate Tigoni Nairobi
It feels like yesterday it was with a heavy heart that I left Wellington (but actually ten months back). In the two plus years that I was in Wellington, I felt as though I belonged there like nowhere else. Funny how, after years of living in an urban climate, you come to a strange unknown place and feel that you have come home. The open landscape of the blue mountain range with the ubiquitous eucalyptus and the song of the Malabar whistling thrush have made home in my mind permanently. So you can imagine how heart wrenching it must have been to leave the place when it was time. But who could have imagined that a place, oceans apart, could resonate with a similar rhythm – where places and people, at every instance, bring back memories from the Wellington–past as in a motion picture flashback?

Take the Mboga experience, for instance (Mboga means vegetables in KiSwahili, the national language of Kenya). In the heart of the city, by the arterial road with its zipping cars, lies the Mboga market which stocks all manners of vegetables – from cucumber and carrots to greens and gourds. Luscious apples and midget paw paws beckon from any number of ramshackle stalls. Here, you can shop for the apple mangoes (which are mangoes and not apples) all the year round and golden apples (which are apples though not golden) that look like green apples from outside but are mushy like custard apples inside. The sheer variety and quality of the vegetables and fruits leaves one gasping. Few misinformed travelers and friends had given us to understand that we may have to give up vegetarianism to partake of bush meat, the staple of the locals. They couldn’t have been farther from truth.

This wholesale market is a microcosm of Kenya’s mwananchi (public), but if you simply blot out the people, you could be standing in Coonoor’s sabzi mandi where we used to go for our weekly fix. Come to think of it, even the skin colour of the vegetable mama or bwana is not much different from the dark-skinned Tamilians down South India! Across the oceans and continents as worlds change it is funny how some things still remain the same. My visit to the Mboga market often ends with relishing the butta or corn-on-the-cob roasted on slow charcoal fire on a makeshift grill. In typically desi style, this is spiced with salt-chili combo daubed by means of lemon wedges. It is complete enigma how two countries globe apart come to share such culinary fare and practices. Roadside eateries - not of Indian origin but of local flavor, mind you - announcing staple of chai, chapatti and even samosas make you wonder if you ever left the Indian shores.

One of the obvious reasons for these similarities is the “legacy” of the British that bonds India and Kenya as both have been British colonies. Just as the British eliminated natural forests in Nilgiris or Assam, the landscape in Kenya too was transformed to pave way for tea plantations, and therefore, the chai. Nairobi, at an altitude of 5500 ft like Coonoor, has a climate congenial to tea and tea plantations veiled in mist greet you on the outskirts of Nairobi, in Tigoni and Limuru. The picture postcard images of camellia bushes on rolling hillsides can be interchanged without anything being amiss. Is it Coonoor or Nairobi - who can tell?

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Indian indentured labour was sought to build the Uganda Railway to connect the Kenyan coast of Mombasa to Lake Victoria in Uganda. This set into motion the second wave of Indian diaspora which became a torrent subsequently. But even before that, way back in the first century, traders from Kutch in Gujarat – intrepid and unsung explorers in their own way – left home shore to seek fortune in a strange land. The Indian merchants came in dhows ‘harnessing trade winds’, as it were, to encash on the vibrant trade in the Indian Ocean countries and settled in with their dukas (KiSwahili for shops. A lot of Hindi words find place in Kiswahili - yet another instance of consonance among the two countries). Like the ubiquitous China towns over the world, there is an India town in the heart of the city which gives us a sense of home away from home. The shopping complex of Diamond Plaza is the hub of Indian culture and cuisine. From idli-dosai joints to chaat corners and kirana stores to mithaai dukas, India is available on a platter here. Indians may have fanned out across the globe but the Indian connection in Kenya is unique. For instance, Nairobi city was built around an Indian township to begin with. Today, Nairobi boasts of nearly a lakh Indians, many of them third and fourth generation descendants who have altered the demographic and cultural landscape of Nairobi.

The Uganda Railway was aimed to cut across the hinterland of Africa but was actually a lifeline through the heartland of Kenya. The Blue Mountain Railway (now Nilgiri Mountain Railway), on the other hand, the history of whose construction is alien to me, was built to enable access from the plains of Coimbatore to the hills of Ootacamund. The journey I made on this meter gauge line in a toy train from Wellington to Ooty was unlike any experience I have ever had. The misty vistas of hills and dales, the unending tea gardens dotted with silver oak, sleepy hamlets amidst winding streams, and the biting inviting cold will haunt me forever.

Coming back to my Wellington home of Gulistan, I indulged in gardening and planted many seasonals such as dahlias and gazanias, but water scarcity and absence of a steady gardener stymied my ambitions of nurturing it to perfection. Great gardening ideas of breathing life into begonias and carnations were put on the backburner as the aforesaid constraints nixed its viability. And towards the end, I even had to contend with the misfortune of the gardener leaving and the garden falling into disarray and decay as we got busy with packing and moving.

In Nairobi, I have a dedicated gardener, and the soil is incredibly fertile such that one can see seedlings and saplings grow tall by inches overnight. I have planted sunflowers and hollyhocks with a vengeance and am tending a vegetable patch in the backyard. In less than a month, the modest harvest of kale, carrots, lettuce, eggplants, tomatoes and radish has been meeting a quarter of my weekly needs. I seem to have simply taken off from where I had left in the past.

The chasm that Wellington left in my heart will never be filled, but it has been bridged somewhat by the magic of its soul city, Nairobi. The Kenyan Highlands have replaced the Blue Mountains of my desire, for the time being.

Lily of Peru (Alstroemeria) in Gulistan, Wellington
Lily of Peru in DAK Bungla, Nairobi


Gulistan Wellington Nilgiris

DAK Bungla Nairobi Kenya