09/20/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Clips from India: Kodaikanal (iii)


I treated myself to a five star hotel in Kodaikanal---mostly because I wanted a hot shower over two months of heat and dust, and also in keeping with this hill town which is to the Indian upper class what the Poconos are to New Yorkers. My driver (with whom I had been sharing samosas picked up from a highway neon "fast-food" joint, manned by dozens of men bustling at different stations, frying and flipping and scooping) drove me up to the entrance of the Carlton, a hotel made of stone, redesigned by an Australian, where a guard wearing a feather in his helmet opened the door to a polished entrance of sofas and tables.

It was timely that I had just been reading Eckhart Tolle's essay on "role-playing", as I easily slipped into the role of posh tourist, responding decorously to the bowing bellman.

I had forgotten how much acting being a leisure tourist necessitates.

My room--as I had asked--had a great balcony overlooking the lake and a huge comfortable bed, so for the first time in India I slept soundly. I even combed the sea-salt knots from my hair. Yet the problem with comfortable high-end hotels in that since the aim is comfort, after a while, one is simply bent on finding more and more comfort. I scanned the hotel guide for services--massage, beauty salon, horse-riding--and bored, I turned to investigating the special controls of the lights.

There were, of course, the accoutrements of civilization: a television and a newspaper. The newspaper was a regional one, devoted to Tamil Nadul, and what was curious was that more than half of dozen news items were about suicide: a woman who poisoned herself because she was unmarried, a boy who hung himself because his headmaster gave him bad marks, and a third (and this was now in court) who shot himself because he was defending his sister whose husband had left her. Despite the spiritual practices in India, it turns out suicide is a high factor: l00,000 per year (the highest statistic in the world) for those who do not fit in.

The lake itself is as prim and perfect as my room, dead silent except for the sounds of workers building more and more stone houses along the lake front, and an occasional dog barking. The walk around was pleasant, however, mostly because of the passing Indian tourists who would all smile at me, as if we were sharing some secretive joy. One man in a white flowing gown stopped with a big beaming laugh and told me it was good to be in nature, because it is only in silence, that one could hear God. He was a priest from Madurai, and invited me that evening to hear his sermon at the La Salath Church. He said he would make a special mention of a moment shared on the lake with an American tourist.

It is true it is good to be in nature, but again, the upscale cleanliness of the place--a cleanliness I had indeed longed for--had the reverse effect of making me await a librarian behind me who would say "shhhhhh."

Yet it is interesting that Tamil Nadir is dotted with such hill towns--where the British would, in former empire times, go to retreat from the heat, and the Americans would start their missions--so that now here in Kodaikanal, a former mission town, the Indians are predominantly Christian. Indeed, I stopped by the La Salath church that night and was taken aback to see Indians---whom I normally saw worshipping in free style, chatting and praying where they wished in the temples, cheerfully milling about, a prayer to Ganesh here, a prayer to Shiva there----here all bowed in strict lines, with kerchiefs covering their heads, while the priest spoke.

What is also interesting is that the clientele in Kodaikanal is no longer Anglo-American, but the Indian upperclass from Mumbai, especially in December when couples come for their honeymoon.. At dinner, the families about me were businessmen in suits and their wives, some dressed in Western clothes, but most in elegant saris. I and a French couple--a tv announcer and a music producer who I joined for dinner (and who found Kodaikanal the first place they liked in India)--were the only Westerners in the hotel.

But still Kodaikanal today is not completely Indian. Before I left, I ate a traditional meal of "momos" in one of the several Tibetan restaurants lining the main "strip". There the sensitive cashier explained to me that l00 Tibetan families lived in Kodaikanal, refugees from thirty years back after the Tibetans had fled China. India had kindly given them refuge. As for what was going on in Tibet now, he did not know, he said, as no news was allowed out.