The Tribune - Spectrum

, August 25, 2002

A volume overburdened with data
Arun Gaur

Ootacamund: A History
by Frederick Price Rupa & Co, Pages 589, Rs 295.

Ootacamund: A HistoryIN this era of post-colonial criticism, the temptation to consider this bulky book as an expression, nay, an allegory of a colonial hegemonic dream is very strong. And though a 100-year-old resuscitated work (this book was first published in 1908) is worthy of being evaluated in its own right as a piece of period literature, the temptation of looking at it through a colonial paradigm is not without foundation in the present case.

Off and on we come across either the author’s own words or those quoted by him that pungently underline this point of view. One can feel the conspiring elements working to transform the Indian land into "a European land of Goshen" or into "an England in the tropics," where "The whole of the grounds" are "to be laid down with English grass."

Frederick Price quotes Lytton’s letter from Betty Balfour’s history of Lord Lytton’s Indian Administration. The great Lord finds in Ootacamund "such beautiful English rain, such delicious English mud" and eventually cries in exultation: "Imagine Hertfordshire lanes, Devonshire downs, Westmoreland lakes, Scotch trout streams, and Lusitanian views!"

Wittingly or unwittingly, Price’s book spreads before us a phantasmagoria where the colonial figments gradually crystallise into a meaningful design, and where the native Indian voices are reduced to those of bonded convict-labourers.


Who discovered Ootacamund — J. Sullivan or some other Briton? That is a controversy dealt with in detail. But the entire notion of British discovery is a version of the first idea, the transgressing trope of origination which clearly delineates the extent of the colonial anxieties. A discoverer may after all exercise the divine right of possession! I fail to understand, how the Britons can claim to be the discoverers of the site of Ootacamund, notwithstanding the fact that some of the Toda huts were already in existence prior to the arrival of the British. Moreover, some of the so-called convicts that the Britons, like Whish and Kindersley, chased could easily give them the slip just because of their thorough knowledge of the surrounding terrain. Finally, the nomenclature of Ootacamund, the book indicates, is a derivative of Badaga or Toda or possibly even the Tamil dialects, and not a contribution of the British. The British notions of exploration and discovery are untenable, though it can be conceded that they tried to reshape the site of Ootacamund according to their colonial perspective.

In great detail (sometimes excruciatingly extensive), the author dwells on almost every aspect connected to British life of the town. We get an insight into the inner administrative bickerings, the jealousies, the charges, claims and counter-claims. We also get a laboriously graphic account of the growth of this British town on our native land. By intercepting a brook, a serpentine lake was formed, which gradually became silted and edged with swampy fringes — a dangerous bog, a "very foul receptacle of all the sewage." Along with it came many additions of houses, a club, a hospital, gardens, churches (made of the plundered material from Tipu Sultan’s Lal Bagh Palace of Seringapatam), office buildings, recreation facilities and the like.

Though there is not much that we know about the church-architecture or other arts, there are enough of episodic facts (without the attendant art of exposition) about the Governors, the clergy, the laity, and the others that sustains some interest of the reader in the book. We come to know that Thomas Munro was "almost afraid to go to bed on account of the cold," that Elphinstone caused the first scandalised exodus of the Madras Government to the Nilgiri hills, and that Lord Tweeddale one day went in a hunting manoeuvre "after a hog", which was in fact nothing but "a private pig."

Barring some salvaging shots like these, the book remains overburdened with statistical data at many places. What will one make of this? — "No 1 remained in the old billiard room block, the No 8 of 1842 became No 2, the original Nos 3, 4, and 5 continued as they were, the combined No 6 and bit of No 7 were given the former number, and the old Nos 9, 10 and 11, each went down two numbers..."

Immense pains have been taken by the author in producing this bulky volume with 22 chapters, 3 appendices, and a huge index that spans 34 pages. Frederick price’s capacity of going through the drudgery of official documentation is enviable, albeit the outcome of that drudgery seems to be out of proportion to the fruits obtained. Overall, it becomes an all-English-affair to such an extent that one grows doubtful about the possible readership of the book. Will it be only the English who would like to dig out their ancestral colonial connections with the land?