This is about the time when I met a rather mysterious cafe guy up in the hills of Kodaikanal.
We drove from Bangalore to the Princess of hill stations and covered a rough 430 kilometres to reach the town of Kodaikanal in an overnight journey of around 9 hours. At 10 in the morning, buses, rental cars and bikes rode in every direction, major food outlets gaped at hungry faces and a very incandescent sky, lit up brightly on a sunny May morning. But we weren’t halting. We drove 4 kilometres uphill to reach Vattakanal, a greener cousin of Kodai. As we drove closer to the destination, it grew dense, in fog and foliage.
If and when you are at Kodaikanal and are the kind who looks for authenticity rather than comfort, then you must ditch the town’s accommodations and go for the cruder ones uphill. Mohan Uncle’s place or his homestay is what you are looking for at Vattakanal. He and his family have a couple of cabins spread out on a hill. From mud houses to concrete ones to a tiny bungalow, they have it all. Some have an in-built fireplace. You can always build one outdoors.
We met his wife and were allotted a concrete cabin with a wooden enclosure, complete with one-way mirrors and an attached bath. It could comfortably house 8 people (two wooden beds and space for two extra mattresses). The host will charge you Rs 1500 for it (depends on the time of the year). Apart from the necessities, the cabin housed a massive amount of relics and memories which the erstwhile travellers have chosen to sketch on the walls out of burnt charcoal. The drawings ranged from dates and names to quotes and borderline creepy cartoons.
While the wife took her time tidying up the cabin, we went down a hill to Altaf’s Cafe for breakfast. He was tall, middle-aged, wheatish in complexion, dressed in a light blue shirt and tan trousers, he had a white handkerchief tied around his neck just as they do in Spain. He seemed very out of place, didn’t talk much and his persona was a single shade short of brooding. He approached us with menus indicating that he worked there. His work involved writing down orders and bringing in the food, waiting tables with a kind of grim authority which seemed to say that he owned the place. He was certainly not a local and seemed like he had migrated from somewhere else, which had me thinking about what his story was.
I decided to go with the more dramatic version in which he is an outlaw, on the run from the claws of law and has taken refuge in this remote area, or he could even be a covert-op assassin, currently underground and waiting to resume service when called upon. You might be wondering why I was being so theatrical. It is so because the man remained silent for most of the time and had very few expressions on his face. The most interesting part was the handkerchief around his neck, knotted like the Spanish except for the colour. It was white instead of red, as if denoting peace.
My mind got clouded over the mystery guy and so did the weather. Our breakfast of hummus, bread and salad saw us through sunny, cloudy and misty within an hour. We went up to the cabin with cans of water which the hostess gave us and I realise that now is when you need a Global Warming alert. Kodaikanal hadn’t yet received any rainfall which meant no rainwater harvesting and scanty waterfalls. One could get packaged drinking water at Altaf’s and the cans did good for sanitation purposes but having a bath was a distant dream, my friends. Not that you would need one…
So we planned to get some rest and then head to the town to withdraw some cash, but we were not prepared for what happened next. No one warned us about it! We slept like a log in the cabin and woke hours later when it was absolutely pitch dark outside. We gathered that it was about 8 in the evening. We had slept through the entire day time. With unaccomplished plans, we went down to Altaf’s for dinner, suddenly realising that we were low on cash.
The mystery guy, on hearing our situation, helped us out. He loaned us the meal. We sat outdoors and dug hungrily into the food, when my vision started to blur. I assumed it was the exhaustion but concluded it to be a cloud. I looked up and the clouds gave way.
Lightning came crackling down and there it was – the season’s first rainfall. We rushed inside with the plates. The sky poured and we knew we were going to be stuck indoors for a while. Thunder screamed through the hills like madness as if it had finally found it’s freedom. It grew colder by the minute and a tad bit uncomfortable. Mystery guy placed a candle on our table and with a swift drag and point, it was lit. The candle fluttered violently and amongst all the rain, the thunder, leaky roofs, cold limbs, warm food and warmer hearts, we had our first impromptu candlelit dinner – totally unexpected and very much welcome.