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Part 3

by Betty Dahl

Heading to Boarding School

Paul and I were off to Kodai boarding school when I reached the age of five. Mama and Papa had made a decision that it would be best to home school Paul until the two of us could go to boarding school together. Phyllis and Grace already attended Kodai, so we were less afraid than if we had gone by ourselves.

Phyl, Grace, Paul & Betty saying goodbye to Gwen, Joanne & Folks

School began in January and ran through November because summer in India begins in May and continues through July. To be down in the plains during that time would be miserable because of the extreme heat. Having school from January through October facilitated learning.


Transportation in India for us was mainly by rail. There was no systematic road system. Most roads were dirt roads with deep ruts made by wagon wheels, withfew bridges to cross over streams and few, if any, service stations for refueling or getting a car fixed. Usually transportation over long distances was by bus or train. Buses were always filled to capacity, and one had to hang on to packages while holding on to a pole to steady oneself as the bus swayed when hitting a rut. We rarely used this mode of transportation.

Tickets were bought to board the train, not to reserve a specific seat, unless it was a first class ticket. Third class was first come, first served or catch as catch can. Often there was little room for our parents and all the children to be seated on the benches, so we just had to find a place to sit on the bedrolls or suitcase. When a passenger got off, the race was on for that seat. The winner often avoided eye contact lest they begin to feel guilty for obtaining the seat. Each station brought chaotic shuffling to get a better spot in the train car.

Heading off for Kodai

Windows were open to provide some air and cooling to the compartment, and debris from the coal engine would be blown in. Our clothes were full of soot at the end of the ride. When the train approached a sharp curve, we would put our heads out the window and holler at friends in nearby train cars behind us. They would come to the window and poke their heads out just in time for a faceful of soot. A few such facefuls were enough to teach us to keep heads in until the train cars were in a straight line again.

The railroad cars were not linked to allow passage from one to another, so you couldn't walk to the dining car or down the aisle to visit friends. We learned to identify the stops where it was safe to get out of the train and visit with other friends in other compartments. We were careful to heed the warning signal indicating the train would leave in five minutes and scrambled to find our car. If we were lost, we hopped on with a friend and found our car at the next station

Cockroaches were large and plentiful on trains. I have never again seen roaches as large as those on Indian trains, not even in Galveston, New Orleans or Houston. Once we went with Dad to pick up two new missionary single ladies. They thought the cockroaches were little mice, and they were very uneasy with the dirt and the critters that inhabited the third class cars. One could count on being pretty dirty by the end of a train trip. My oldest sister scratched her leg slightly boarding the train; the scratch became infected and turned into a major health problem.

Since in rural areas there were no toilets other than the outdoors, one could look out of a train window and see people in the fields doing their daily cleansing rituals. The new single missionary ladies thought these people in the field were praying. We children giggled helplessly and caught a stern look from Papa. The train tracks were visible through the toilet seats, and we wondered if the whole track was full of waste from one end of the track to the other. We also wondered if small children ever fell through them. These fears, plus the unsanitary conditions, meant short stays in the toilets.

Before we reached the next station, an employee of the Spencer Company would take orders for hot tea to be served at the next stop. It was served British style with evaporated or condensed milk and sugar. Our parents required us to drink tea as it had been boiled, while plain water was suspect. We were taught to avoid any drinking water we had not seen boiled. It was sort of hopeless since station vendors poured any leftover tea into the main pot to be poured into some other customer's cup. The Spencer food, however, always came on an attractive tray with a white cloth, silver teapot, sugar cubes, china plates and cups and saucers. Other vendors walked up and down the platform, calling loudly so we would pay attention to what they were selling. Some familiar ones were "Oran--gezz!" or "Bidi cigarettes!"

Coolies worked around the clock to earn a few annas by helping load or unload luggage, flag a cab, or help get luggage to a car. The railroad stations were home to many beggars who sought to find people who would take pity on them and give them money to live. In the early morning many of them washed and combed hair and generally groomed themselves at the station.

Many monkeys inhabited train stations because they were rewarded so well for their efforts. The monkeys would swing in open windows and doors, and before you could say "Jack Rabbit," the food was stolen out of your hands. If it wasn't the monkeys, then the raucous and daring crows would raid the compartment.

Times for departures and arrivals were approximate, so one often ended up waiting many hours, which would have been fine if the trains were predictably late. It was not unusual to have to bed down at the station while waiting. The stationmaster would wake us in time to get on the train for a small reward.

Train stations were also associated with farewells when we would leave for the U.S. or for Kodai. When we left for the U.S., the song that was always sung was "God Be With You 'Til We Meet Again."


The trip to Kodai from Hyderabad took us by train through Madras, where there was a change in trains. This stop in Madras was enjoyable because it was one of the few times we children ate in a restaurant. The restaurant housed in the railway station was usually Chinese. Often there was also time to go to the big market, which was awesome with all the vegetables, cloth, bracelets and other jewelry, and countless items to scan. Rarely were we children rich enough to buy things, but these were fun to see.

The mercant's role was to keep the customer happy while getting the best price possible for his goods. I enjoyed the verbal sparring as the shopkeeper and Mama negotiated this price. Mama would tell him she needed four pairs of shoes and he was to give her a good price. She never dreamed of settling at the first price given; it was expected that there be a bargaining process. Little by little the two would come to a price acceptable to both, most often favorable to the shopkeeper. I often wished we had a similar system in the US. It would be fun to negotiate prices. In India everything is negotiable; it is a way of life. It pervaded our conversations and transactions so that we constantly bargained with each other: I'll play house if you will play on the swings later.

"What do you want to pay?" the merchants would ask.

"I am such a good customer, you should give it to me free," Mama would counter and they smiled, knowing she was not serious.

"I cannot feed my family on nothing. What will you pay?"

"What will you sell it for? This price is so much higher than the merchant down the street."

"Yes, memsab, but it is better quality. Here, feel it. Try it out. You will see that I sell only the best quality."

"I will give you 10 rupees for this and not any more."

"No, madam. You want me to sell under what it cost me? I will give you a price just for you; just today - 15 rupees and it is yours."

"I am not that rich. Give me a good price and I will buy two." Mama begins to walk away. The shopkeeper acts hurt.

"I give you such a good price and you will not find it anywhere in the market."

"I have a large family. I will pay 12 rupees for it or leave it."

Grumbling, the merchant says, "Sold, for 13 rupees." Grumbling, Mama gives him 13 rupees. The exchange rate was about 16 rupees to a dollar and 13 annas made up one rupee, so an anna was worth about half a cent, and a rupee was worth six cents. (In 2003, the exchange rate was 47 rupees to a dollar.)

Many stores employed young boys as scouts to see what the American family was interested in and what prices they were paying, and to be available to guide them to their store in case Madam had not found exactly what she wanted. If Mama was looking at a red silk sari, for example, a boy would show her one from another store by whom he was hired, openly competing for prices. Thus wherever Mama went, this bevy of young boys tagged along so they could report to their storeowner. It actually saved Mama many trips to other stores. The shopkeeper did not seem to mind since he would get a portion of the price.

The stores consisted of stalls with goods lined up on three sides, the fourth side open to the customers. Merchants typically sat cross-legged on the floor of the shop. Customers willing to bargain were offered a chair. Mother sought out fabric stores to sew clothes, saris, inexpensive jewelry, and bangles (silver, gold, or glass). I loved to try on the bangles. Mama favored the metal ones because they did not break, but we girls often wanted the brightly-colored glass ones. Besides, we could get a lot more of them because they were cheaper. I was amazed how the storekeeper was able to put these on the customer's hands. They would knead the hand until it was very relaxed, and then gradually work the bangles over the knuckles and wrist. In that way, they were able to put on bangles that seemed far too small for one's hand. When buying saris, Mama would rarely buy just one as she could bargain them down by promising to buy two or more. She always was pleased with her "savings."

The Bangle Seller
Watercolor by Betty

There were few paper sacks, glass jars, or plastic containers that were common in stores in the U.S. Usually one brought a shopping bag, and many of the purchased items were wrapped in newspaper and placed in this bag. For a few coins you could get a young boy to follow you around and carry the goods around until it was time to leave and walk to the car or take a rickshaw.

The marketplace was a mixture of smells, sounds, sights, touch and tastes. One smelled the rich array of sweets, or the smell of curries and samosas sold for immediate eating, the scent of new fabrics, of cow manure and sweating coolies. One heard the horns of the rickshaws as they made their way through the throng, drivers of autos shouting insults at animals and people blocking their roadway, the jingle-jangle of the silver jewelry, and the constant cries of the beggars. One could see the plight of the poor, ill people who lined the streets with their hands pleading for a handout--lepers, misshapen children or adults, thin undernourished children, and naked infants. Adorned idols, colorful saris and brightly-painted trucks added color to the view. The intensity of these sensory experiences was magnified by the sheer number of people, animals and structures competing for the same space.

When the children tired of shopping, a stop for British tea and a sweet was in order. Jelebis, gulab jamin and halva (see recipes) were favorites. They were paid for by weight. Often the scales were adjusted to show more weight than there actually was. It was difficult to keep meat from spoiling because of the heat; there was no refirgeration available. Also, meat was hard to get because cows were sacred to Hindus, and Mohammedans would not eat pork. Chicken was available but spoiled easily. Many times vegetarian products were the only available sources of food. Flies were everywhere, posing a problem to the food merchants.

The market was populated by hoards of people trying to sell one or two bananas or a few peanuts, as well as with beggars, many of whom were blind or ill. Lepers were a common sight in the city. Sometimes we saw people with elephantiasis. Many thin children with vacant stares and bloated stomachs or open sores, boils, or missing limbs followed us around. Begging was their only way to make a living. We would like to have given them something, but had no money in hand. Paul had an especially hard time not giving something to the little children; he was always so soft-hearted. Mama feared if we started, word would get around and we would get a crowd of beggars surrounding us. Best not to start, was her motto. On one occasion, however, a young boy followed the family to the station calling out "No mama, no papa. All hungry." Mama smiled and gave him a coin for his persistence and innovative call.

Up the Ghat

We got off at Kodai Road Station, located at the foot of the Palni Hills located in the south and western area of India in Tamil Nadu. The word "Kodaikanal" means "forest" in the Tamil language. At Kodai Road Railroad Station, we boarded a bus that would take us up the ghat for some 80 km along the winding narrow road up to an elevation of approximately 2133 meters (about 7000 feet) above sea level. The road was so narrow that buses or trucks could not easily pass. When we came to hairpin curve in the road (there are many of these hairpin or S-shaped curves on this road) or the driver could not see around the turn, he would honk the horn. If the driver heard no response, he would proceed up the road; if he heard a return horn, he snuggled in as close to the mountainside as possible to let the other one pass. (Whichever vehicle had the inside track had to stop to let the other vehicle pass.) Though I never personally knew anyone hurt on a bus trip up the mountain, the 1000-foot drops were rather breathtaking and frightening to the newcomer.

The back of the bus was an open wire bin we called the "cage"; it was for luggage but often was also needed for the travelers themselves. Though we liked to sit back there, the fumes from the exhaust would often make us nauseated.

As we reached higher elevations, rain forests and rocky cliffs came into view and the outside temperature was clearly cooler. Flowering bushes (rhododendron) and eucalyptus trees covered the hillsides with color. Then came the tea plantations, banana trees, and little villages where passengers were allowed on or off the bus. With luck our parents would buy us some tea sweetened with jaggery, an unprocessed brown sugar. At last - Kodaikanal.

Going up the Ghat to Kodaikanal

(To be continued)