December 29, 2007

In the Madding Crowd

After looking out to sea for long, my camera resting steady in my palm, its strap wound around my forearm, I turned once again to look behind me at the crow, to see what it was upto if it was still around.

But for the crowd thronging the steps that led to where excited passengers boarded arriving boats for the Elephanta caves, craning heads blotting all landscape save the horizon, I might've been busy framing the massive arches of the Gateway of India instead of seeking in a crow, a break from the relentless monotony of the Mumbai weekend crowd.

I thought I was the only one interested in the bird until I turned my head to scan the outcrop running the length of the parapet for the crow, only to find another interested soul doing likewise – a little boy had dropped his hand over the parapet in reaching out to the crow, smile lighting up his face. I was too far away to hear him talk to the crow; moreover the crowd was such that even if I were near I couldn’t have made out much of what he was saying to the bird.

Behind him his parents conversed while his mother lay a light hand on his waist restraining him from leaning any further while a newly married couple to their right looked out to sea, oblivious of the little boy. The crow unaware of the boy peered down the ledge.

The crowd swirled with renewed vigour as a boat approached, excited shouts rending the late afternoon air. Soon the jetty would empty of passengers only to make way for the next lot. Standing there I watched the boy trail his gaze along the outcrop, following the movement of the crow, and I of the boy. In him seeking his temporary world riding a passing moment in the oblivion of the milling throng, I’m reminded of lines from the Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.

Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learned to stray;
Along the cool sequestered vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

Only here he kept it in the midst of the madding crowd!

December 20, 2007

XMAS 2007

Outside Yazdani, a Mumbai bakery. A delicacy for every occasion.
'Apple Pie a day will keep you Happy all Day',
but it takes a 'Rum Plum Cake' to make Christmas a merry Day.

December 09, 2007

Coffee with Coorg

The Sun slants quickly in the Kodagu valley, more so in the winter when days shrink to invite the night to an early evening rendezvous. The temperature follows the Sun, often dropping to below 17 degree centigrade. People who live and work in Coorg, formerly known as Kodagu, say the mercury slides further as December marches ahead, continuing until the end of January. In between, the undulating topography comes alive to a melody of colours that invigorate the air as much with their fragrance as with their form.

For flowers alone Coorg must blip brightly on a traveler’s itinerary along those narrow roads that wind through the mountains, passing houses tucked away from the road behind flowering hedges. I kept my eyes peeled out for bursts of colour in the unwavering green of the vegetation yielding a narrow thread of a road that went up and down for kilometer after kilometer as the bus made its way about Coorg.

In the Kodagu valley early nightfall does not translate to early mornings as one might expect at the onset of winter for, the mountains of the Western Ghats ranges swallow the Sun that much quicker and delay his rising for that much later. So when we set out to Coorg from Bangalore at the all-expenses-paid invitation of Club Mahindra my bag bulged with winter clothing that had idled in a corner of my cupboard. Folks who had heard of Coorg said, ‘Oh, so Coffee huh?’ But I was unprepared for how big coffee really was in Coorg until the front seat in the mini bus yielded one coffee plantation after another along winding roads.

Off Madikeri, the capital of Coorg, punctuated by lush green paddy fields and houses only a few coffee plantations line the narrow, winding road to Club Mahindra in the Kodagu valley. But elsewhere there is little to indicate that Coorg grows anything other than coffee for such is the abundance of these plants that often reach chest high and above. Coffee plants are pruned to facilitate early harvesting long before they can reach their maximum height of 15-20 feet. It suited me fine for from the front seat by the driver, views sweeping in over the tops of plantations unfolded panoramic views as gears shifted up an incline or down a slope, the engine whining in my ears.

Joy’s fulsome itinerary for us fellow travel writers meant most of us struggled to present ourselves at the Club Mahindra’s Coffee Lounge in time to board the mini bus ‘Ganesh’ that would take us on an early morning spin around Coorg. Needless to say there was little time to savour coffee except at the hurried breakfast virtually suspended in the thick of canopies where bird calls often prompted the camera-inclined amongst us to reach for our Digital SLRs. There we were thoroughly spoilt for choices from their kitchen, warranting more than one trip to the buffet, returning with plates heaped with savouries each time we stepped away from the black cane chairs in the extended balcony that served as a dining area while looking out on thick vegetation outside. Breakfast was invariably had to the tune of myriad birdcalls.

The second day saw a particularly hectic sight seeing trip to Bhagamandala and Talacauvery, expertly shepherded by Joy whose patience at disengaging me from my camera subjects while the others waited by the bus had to be seen to be believed. At one point I was told of this exchange Joy had with a fellow traveler. Pointing to me Joy said to her, ‘He is my ambition.’ Intrigued she asked him, ‘Why’. To which Joy answered disarmingly, ‘If he comes, everybody comes. He is last.’

A more warmer and enthusiastic person I’m unlikely to meet.

It was all downhill from Talacauvery (sometimes spelled Thalacauvery). This time the bus groaned from the pressure the slopes exerted on its ‘knees’. Hemmed in between the window and the engine that separated the elderly driver from Bangalore I swung in the backless seat each time we rounded a sharp turn down the mountain, digging my toes into the floor to avoid kneeing Manjunath in the front where he sat on the steps that led out the bus through the front door. Manju was a ‘cleaner’ as assistants to bus and truck drivers are usually known. Typically they start young, eventually graduating to becoming drivers themselves. Until then it is an initiation not for the fainthearted.

So when the bus delivered us at the entrance to Club Mahindra around three in the afternoon weary legs sauntered out the front door, tired from climbing the 365 steps to the top of the Brahmagiri hill at Talacauvery. True to form Joy assembled us at the entrance with a grin and spelt out the post lunch itinerary to Abbey Falls (also spelled Abbi), Omkareshwara temple and Raja’s Seat. Not all hands went up. Those that didn’t planned to retire the afternoon away by the pool to a touch of spirit while the rest of us set out with Joy. On returning there was no sign of the others; we learned later of spirited songs floating freely to the strumming of the guitar. It was while we were waiting for them in the Lobby Lounge to turn up for dinner that we got our first real opportunity to linger by shiny French Pressers and Coffee machines to one side of the lounge.

It was nearing eight in the night as Vipin prepared to hand over duties to his colleague. Shiny Coffee Pressers lay on the counter by two large glass jars of Dakshin (South Indian Filter Coffee) and Sicilian Gold (Espresso blend coffee beans) respectively, and two small glass jars, one bearing Anytime Blend (Freshly Brewed Coffee), the other I have no idea of.

Arabica and Robusta carpet Coorg amidst Cardamom and Pepper, the latter two are spices and are typically grown on trees planted to provide shade to coffee crops besides serving timber requirements. Adequate rainfall and appropriate elevation are primary determinants for coffee success; with Arabica typically grown at altitudes starting at 3,000 feet upwards to 6,000 feet above sea level while Robusta does fine at comparatively lower altitudes. Coffee from higher altitudes is preferred. Unlike Arabica which blooms after five years, Robusta typically takes six years for flowers to bloom. The blooms last only a few days before berries appear 5-6 months later.

Vipin serves over 22 varieties of tea and 9 varieties of coffee in the Lobby Lounge. Turned out in a neat suit a light shade of green, he stands tall under a chandelier suspended from the wooden ceiling supported by wooden ribs running across its length on the shorter side. The chandelier is of similar design to chandeliers that light up old Goan temples. Behind him by the window that looks out on the entrance to the resort, spirits sit in bottles that take on a stained glass feel in the afternoon light, drawing and holding attention when there is time to while and sights to take in. But in the light of the chandelier the bottles blend in, almost invisible in the corner. A magazine rack stands against the wall to the side which reduces to knee level as it runs its length by a seating area that looks out on a patch of vegetation outside. In the late afternoon Magpie Robins frolic in the trees outside. The cane sofas with rust-coloured pillows are placed back to back and give one a faint feel of an Airport Lounge minus the announcer and the noise, pleasant enough for flights of imagination.

Vipin smiles as I turn the coffee jar to read the label. I like the feel of the glass jar in my hand. The green velvet cover under the glass tabletop sets off the glass jars, their corners glinting opaque in the light. The nine varieties of coffee on offer at the counter are a blend of Arabica and Robusta. ”Italians use more of Arabica for Italian coffees like Espresso and Cappuccino,” explains Vipin before continuing, “Espresso is the mother of all Italian coffees, and is typically made with a ratio of 60% Arabica and 40% Robusta.”

I take time to get used to his heavy Malayalam accent. Kerala borders Coorg, among the smallest of Karnataka’s districts and was a state until 1956 when it was incorporated into what was then Mysore State on India redrawing its state boundaries along linguistic lines. Eventually Mysore State came to be known as Karnataka and Coorg one of its districts. To this day Coorg is known by its ancient name, Kodagu, and its original inhabitants, Kodavas.

Club Mahindra draws over fifty of its employees from the local populace, Kodavas; the majority hail from Tamilnadu, Kerala and other parts of Karnataka.

Arabica is stronger of the two with Robusta blended in to make the coffee milder,” Vipin said. He turns to point to a coffee machine behind him before continuing, “It is Italian make and costs over four lakhs. We use it to prepare Espresso, coffee syrup. The machine is used only to prepare Espresso.”

He turns to face us and points to coffee beans holders in the counter table visible through the glass tabletop. “They’re a mix of both, Arabica and Robusta,” he replies when I ask him which is which of the two. He bends to open the drawer and reaches into the coffee holders and brings up a handful of beans in his palm. “Robusta beans are the larger of the two,” he says before preparing to separate them so that I may photograph them separately. “No, that’s alright, you don’t have to separate them,” I interject on watching Vipin and his colleague methodically sift through the mix. I turn up the ISO number and open the aperture to a little under maximum while adjusting the speed to a sixtieth of a second before pressing the shutter. The Nikon D80 does not respond. “What luck,” I say out loud suppressing a disappointing grin, “the battery has run out.” Vipin returns the smile. “I’ll return tomorrow and take fresh pictures,” I tell Vipin. “Sure,” he says, “another of my colleagues might be at the counter tomorrow.” I returned the next day to find Shreejit manning the counter. Shreejit reached into the drawer and brought up a mix of Arabica and Robusta in his palm while I clicked away!

Pointing to the glass jar labeled Dakshin (South Indian Filter Coffee) Vipin explains that unlike Italian Coffee, Indian Coffee is a blend of 50% raw Arabica, 30% Robusta and 20% Chicory (also spelled Chickory). Chicory is a coffee-coloured root “sourced from Gujarat” and is blended in for aroma. “Some people might prefer lesser concentrations of Chicory blended in, typically 10%, others might go in for a higher concentration, upto 30% of Chicory.” Then he reaches out to a small glass jar labeled Chicory on the shelf to his left and passes it to us. I smell the powdered root and instinctively draw back for the aroma flares out ‘thick’ as if its particles are flaring out in a strong breeze, clogging nostrils. For the rest of the evening I nurse a slight twinge of a headache. The stillness of the night begins to throb. Relief was to come with dawn.

Then Vipin reaches for a gleaming French Presser (also known as a Percolator) and explains how he goes about making Indian Filter Coffee. “Half-ground Coffee powder goes in first, followed by three-fourths piping hot water. After 5-10 minutes I press the mixture like this. Coffee dust settles down while the decoction rises up. Then the coffee decoction is added to hot milk for a cup of Filter Coffee. For coffee packs to take home you could try ‘The Shop’ by the pool. They stock freshly ground coffee for our customers. They should have Chicory on sale too.” They did.

I point to dark coloured coffee beans. “Those are roasted coffee beans. Robusta coffee beans are the larger of the two,” Vipin said. “We use Monsoon Malabar, a coffee variety local to Coorg. It is also grown in Mangalore and Chickmangalore among other places in South India. It is just like Wild Coffee, and does not require a blend or anything. It even looks different, tastes different too.”

A distinct variety of the roasted Arabica coffee bean, the Monsoon Malabar is sourced from Kerala’s Malabar region on India's West Coast, and owes its origins to an eventful journey from India to Europe via the Cape of Good Hope. Buffeted by gusting sea winds and humid climate on its months’ long sea journey aboard British Merchant vessels, humidity reduced its acidity, mellowing it considerably while ripening it to a shade of pale gold, acquiring a particularly strong aroma to go with a rich flavour. Europe loved it and a new coffee flavour came into being. Sea journeys don’t last that long anymore so the seasoning process is artificially induced by exposing the beans to the monsoon to effect the desired result, hence the Monsoon Malabar.

The smaller jar of Anytime Blend is even milder, blended with a 50-50 ratio of Arabica and Robusta. “It is not at all strong,” Vipin says. Manjali, his colleague from Kerala, nods. Vipin credits his coffee learning to Hemant and Thimayya (or Thimmiah), the latter a Kodava. Hemant bought into a coffee estate in Coorg twelve years ago.

The late afternoon Sun lights up large leaves in the vicinity. Two Goan families, Angley and Gude, are gathered around small bicycles watching their kids grapple with their cycling helmets. The families drove in all the way from Goa to Coorg. Mr. Angley cannot get over the roads leading into Madikeri, “They made me wonder if it was a good idea to drive down all the way from Goa, we bumped all the way.” We pass the swimming pool and I imagine coffee in the light breeze. The air is beginning to sharpen and my hands seek the warmth of my denim pockets. Then we head for the small in-house coffee plantation.

The Club Mahindra facility in Coorg sources its coffee from neighbouring estates. Its own yard is insufficient to provide for all its needs. From the Lobby Lounge a short flight of steps leads down to the kitchen and a dining area. On the same floor to the right lies Fern Hall, a venue for traditional Kodava cultural programmes and dinners. Another flight of steps deposits the visitor into a small coffee plantation where green coffee berries at eye level line the path. A walking trail circles the plantation, passing an Ayurveda Massage Centre and an Adventure Games facility along the way. Butterflies dodge our steps in the late afternoon Sun.

Further down the trail a narrow path veers off and disappears between overgrown vegetation before ending in a large field where a tethered cow, barely larger than a dot, turns to look in my direction at the sound of crashing vegetation. I take in the stillness before heading back, changing routes on the way to avoid a dog looking fixedly in our direction undecided on whether to bark or bite!

Note: This is Part One of my Coorg Diaries. Read Part Two and Part Three of the series.