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Heritage

A slice of history

PANKAJA SRINIVASAN

Carefully preserved colonial houses in the Nilgiris transport us back to an era when time moved to a different beat.

Photo: K. Ananthan

Two classics: A Fiat Spider Convertible in front of Havelock House in Ooty.

At every turn one expects a Manderley or a Wuthering Heights. We do see a Kings Cliff and a Blackwood Cottage. Driving through the Nilgiris reveals that despite a lot of them having fallen prey to time and weather, there are remnants of the Raj that cling stubbornly to the landscape. Gabled roofs, casement windows, chimneys, winding driveways and frustratingly tall gates deny you a glimpse of what lies yonder. Some of these houses date back to the 1800s. And, if walls could talk, what wonderful tales there would be. Havelock House is one of the first 10 European houses built in Ooty. While the exact date of construction is lost, a yellowing parchment says that in 1866 Lucy Caroline Watson left it to her granddaughter. General Havelock, who played a heroic role in 1857, is said to have visited here and hence the name. (Of course there are no available records to substantiate this, and, it is said that just about every town in Britain has a street or an inn named after him. A town in Swaziland and an island in the Indian Ocean also bear his name!). It was sold to one Mr. Minchin and then down the line, in 1975, the Pothen family acquired it.

A different ambience

A sweeping driveway, flower lined, and from a graceful porch, Meera Pothen ushers us into the warmth of Havelock House. The drawing room is vintage 19th Century, all carved furniture, beautiful wainscoting and wine-coloured drapes. Not difficult to imagine General Havelock warming his coat-tails at the fireplace nursing a glass of port!

Wherever the woodwork had to be refurbished, it was kept as faithful to the original as possible. The doors were pink when the Pothens procured it, and while trying to get the paint off the doors, it was discovered that underneath was glorious teak. More teak, as sideboards and bookshelves (held together by wooden pegs) have survived time. As has a solid Carrera marble-topped table. It was originally used by an English woman to roll out pastry, says Meera. But, today it holds an old, hand-tooled, leather bound, beautifully illustrated Bible that is flanked by antique lamps. The kitchen is at the rear of the house — a charmingly haphazard bunch of rooms (pantries, boiler room, box rooms, stores and so on) with varying levels of floors and ceilings.

Retaining the feel

The owners of most of these homes have tried to retain their original character and have often sacrificed comfort to retain the authenticity. Like Manamel. Records reveal that it was sold in 1870 by Amy Flora Stonehewer to Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Swainson. It was called Wistanstow then. In September 1957, it became Kasturi House when The Hindu bought it. And, finally, M.P. George made it his. Again, a sweeping drive (no doubt meant for horse-drawn carriages; there are still st ables standing) leads to the front door. A hat-stand at the entrance greets you, (for the headgear, scarves and the brollies) and then, a formal drawing room. But, the Georges live mostly on the upper floor. A gorgeous staircase leads up to a suite of rooms. Armours and shields (Tipu Sultan vintage) are mounted on the wall. A delightful “lovers’ nook” takes up one corner — cushioned seats that can be curtained off for privacy with niches to hold candles for those preferring the more prosaic activity of reading. Manamel has kept every writing desk, shelf, and chair in good repair. The panelling and the flooring are all original.

So is the resident ghost! Pothen, M.P. George’s son swears he saw “something” with dreadlocks in one of the downstairs rooms. The room has since remained unused. There’s more. Mrs. George has seen the brass door knobs turning by themselves; guests have heard the glug-glugging of water being drunk and books have unaccountably leapt out of book shelves. The ghost? Perhaps a former mistress of the house. Tired of her nasty ways, the servants contrived a riding accident to bump her off. Her saddle still rests near the staircase.

Southwick is Junaid Sait’s home. His forefathers were collectors with a passion. Their acquisitions lie in magnificent disarray in a sprawling area (15.5 acres) the Saits have been living in since 1870. It is like dropping in on Alladin. Lamps, crystal and cut glass wink at you from every nook and corner. Ancestors crowd the walls. With them is Shakespeare reading out “Macbeth” at Queen Elizabeth’s court. A collection of strongboxes hold untold treasures. “Somewhere in there is a bowl from the king of Afghanistan that changes colour when poisoned food is put into it,” mentions Junaid. A king’s ransom in exquisite ivory carvings lies in a cupboard. Elsewhere is an Edison Concert Phonogram. Inlaid tables, screens, collection of keychains, matchboxes, stamps, coins and stuffed animals. It is all a blur.

In the formal dining room, Dalton and Wedgwood China lean perilously on sideboards (elegantly referred to as chiffoniers). There is silver cutlery with jade and mother-of-pearl handles, wine-decanters, egg-cups and ancient water filters.

A snooker room hogs an entire floor and is a favourite hangout. Photographs record visits of dignitaries. Testimonials signed by Lord Curzon, and shelves groaning under the weight of dictionaries in every conceivable language, encyclopaedias, newspapers dating back to World War II and, in between all that, a collection of Leslie Charteris’ The Saint! There is also a banquet hall with exquisite mosaic-chip patterns on the floor and tinted glass skylights and chandeliers (Belgian, French, Venetian).

Outside is a bandstand from where musicians heralded and serenaded important guests; stone benches and fountains, and, best of all, a 20-foot tea tree (planted in the 1870s) is proudly pointed out to us. As are old carriages, one of which, Junaid reveals, was borrowed for the film “A Passage to India”. A fleet of old cars completes the picture.

Interesting incident

What Howardon lacks in antiquity and size it more than makes up in history. Built in the 1940s, Sheikh Abdullah was interned here for six months. Once nestling on wooded slopes (not anymore) the house satisfied the security requirements for the internment. However, when an enterprising journalist scrambled over two sets of gates (the gate posts still stand) and interviewed the VIP, the latter was hastily relocated to Kodaikanal. Jawaharlal Nehru’s sister Krishna Hathi Singh has also visited the home where Indu Mallah now lives. It has been a place where literature, social service and art have been cherished. Evenings are spent reading poetry with friends and writing (in long hand as Indu still doesn’t see the need for a computer!) on a beautiful roll-top desk. Prints of Constable, Turner and Degas’ ballerinas hang on the wall. There are books everywhere. However, those lucky enough to live in these gracious old homes worry constantly that the days of cucumber sandwiches and real lace may be numbered. Marauding land sharks and just the sheer expense and burden of keeping these places running is making it difficult for the likes of Pothen, George, Sait and Mallah. But, they are doing their bit to keep alive a little slice of history in the Nilgiris.

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