Finding myself in India one Christmas, pining for a smattering of the Nativity, I decided to head for Kodaikanal.
Kodaikanal is on the border between Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Throughout most of the region the heat, oppressive and fetid, compresses and explodes as thunderstorms roll in from the Bay of Bengal and Laccadive Sea. Aromatic wisps drift from crusty samosa filling pans and pakora stalls, while men wearing lungis pat aside nonchalant cows communing around rubbish heaps. Rickshaws splutter and hurtle between the lot. The hues and colours saturate the landscape and people, and the variety of sari colours is so multifarious that even missing person posters cite the wearer's preference. In winter the soft, melancholy sun picks out the contrast in every temple frieze, minaret, canal-side village and pair of emerald and gold-flecked eyes.
But as I was looking for something altogether more Dickensian for the day, I had to head to the hills.
From Chennai down the coast to lackadaisical Mamallapuram and on to Pondicherry, I trained west four hours to Dindigul. In Dindigul I found a shared taxi to go the last 30 miles to the hill station of Kodaikanal. When I asked if he could take me, the driver first moved his head, not forwards and backwards, but languidly from side to side, his head on one shoulder then on the other. I took this to mean 'no' and began ferreting in my bag for the map. But then I remembered: this ambiguous head waggling, peculiarly Indian, usually means 'yes', sometimes 'maybe'. I asked him again and there came back an assured waggle. Then we were off. The driver flung the old Ambassador from one side of the hairpin road to the other and back again, brokering frantic deals with rickshaws and wagons for gaps I never imagined were up for grabs.
We arrived in Kodaikanal at 4pm in time to reach the Dolphin's Nose lookout and watch the spearmint blue sunset start to set over the misty valleys. The hill station was set up by American missionaries in the mid-19th Century and at 7000 feet was reassuringly cold in late December. After wandering the Tyrolean streets for a while I found a church. I went in at 8pm hoping for a few carols and a timely exit before the minister's sermon. Unfortunately, I was so consumed by the incongruity of the austere, rough-hewn stonework and rainbow vibrancy of the congregation I was squashed amongst, that the moment for a discrete exit passed and I spent the next hour listening to the minister eulogise in Tamil.
Back outside I breathed in the bracing air and watched a goat with a jacket tied with tinsel and a wooden leg trot by. For all the poverty and wretchedness up there, as elsewhere in India, someone had done that for a goat - the Yuletide spirit much in evidence in Kodaikanal.