This morning I listened to the sunrise. I’m not usually an early riser but after a month in India my body seems to have realigned itself to the stars, waking at the break of day, sleeping at the fall of night. Maybe it’s the lack of drinking culture that steals the night time. Or the sporadic power cuts and local misconceptions about a woman wandering alone at night. In London I used to love wandering around the city after dark when the streets were quiet. Once upon a time, not so very long ago I could be counted on to close the bar and host the after party. In India I’m asleep by 9.30 like an eight year old.
I woke at 5.15, a dusky midnight blue still pulled like a veil across the dawn. Wide awake at 5.30, I abandoned the delusion of continued sleep, wrapped myself in my dhoti and tiptoed out onto the veranda. The padded wicker chairs face the guest house’s border gardens and the forest beyond. In the pre-dawn dim the cornucopia of greens are reduced to a sea of muted grey while the pink and yellow bell-like blossoms cultivated along the bamboo fence glow in the darkness.
We’re in Kellar, just below the famous hill station of Munnar. Munnar sits on the peak like the capital of a fairy tale kingdom, a bustling way-station arcing around the horseshoe curves of its only main road, one way in, one way out. The smaller streets and alleys and markets all eventually circle back toward the center in an elaborate curlicue of infinity symbol. At an altitude of 8000 feet the oppressive pre-monsoon heat gives way to an enchanted freshness. You can drink the air, bathe in it, like cool mountain water. One morning a few thousand meters below I watched the hillside stretch and sigh, exhaling the mists that gathered in the trees, sending them up to curl into the wispy clouds and dissipate. In Munnar the mists cling like a resolute child wrapping smooth arms and legs around its mother, her face buried against the sloping neck of the ridge. Sudden swells of direct sunlight separate them for only minutes, sometimes an hour or two, maybe half a day at a time. The land surrounding is a rolling endless sea of lush low green shrubs, cut into an irregular lattice, the famous tea estates of Munnar that bring the happy mob to the city, to buy, to sell, to house, to harvest. The hillside thrums with the regular swish and chomp of heavy apron-ed women pruning tea leaves with a clever tool, half shears, half tea box.
The moat around this mountain top emerald city is a wide band of forest, towering and deep and dotted with small villages, single track roads inspiring through the wilderness to join them. In Kellar, as throughout, the spice plantations inhabit unregulated forest, cardamom and coffee growing under 200 year old trees. By evening my hair smells like spices. The drive of our guest house is lined with banana palms. Stripped naked, they droop in shame, leaning over the pavement like streetlights, their giant purple flower heads closed, extinguished bulbs. We’ve woken up in Hans Christian Anderson, the Brothers Grimm, the tea growing spice smelling cool misty mountain kingdom of a magical king. We could be in the Shire. Or possibly Oz.
As the dawn approaches what had been a constant but unassuming symphony of bird calls and insect song increases. A cricket conductor somewhere raises his arms and the ringing of the chorus concealed in the trees swells to meet the sun. With a jab of his baton the alto cicadas layer in the harmony of their voices. An unknown variety of frogs begin thrumming a robotic bass, some pygmy contingent contributing a vaguely electro 808-like chirp. And the birds, some seeming hundreds of birds, thick in the trees, rocket in and out of the air. The dongos with their twittering racket, doves cooing woefully, woodpeckers tapping their impatient stacatto percussion, while the melodic bulbuls sing the arias. The hornbills point their double billed noses and quack importantly to make themselves heard while the outer space bird (whose call sounds like R2D2 and who’s flight sounds like a UFO landing) launches from tree to tree collecting data and samples for the mothership. The cacaphony reaches it’s climax and the sun rises unseen beyond some distant hill. The sky, unable to cover her ears against the delightfully maddening assault, decides it’s had enough and drums a brief but decisive deluge over the orchestra who silenced and dripping, peer up cautiously through one eye gauging her level of annoyance. In the hush as her fit of temper recedes a few timid birds chirrup at her brief blue smile before the delicate silk of the low hanging clouds slides back between them and against my skin. Somewhere in the distance a cow moos to be milked.