A few decades ago when the internet was still a Star Trek fantasy, and Ambassador cars still sailed around in all their splendour, there once was a little tiny shack in small little village called Bandishola. It was a small village that stood at a junction in the twisting, winding road that snaked its way between the two bigger hill towns of Coonoor and Kotagiri. At first one would think this was an insignificant village dominated only by a splendid tree that grew out of the middle, the bus stop that it sheltered, and the few little gaily coloured houses that stood by the way, reaching out to the road as if to touch it.
But this village was special. This was the place where hundreds of young girls congregated every day to attend the college that lay off to one side of it. And here they studied, or at least pretended to, here they conspired to meet boys under the ever-watchful eyes of the nuns who ran the college, here they caught the buses that carried them to and fro their homes everyday as they prepared for life. And it was here they gathered in front of the teashop every day to order cups of tea and samosas and bondas in a ritual of college-going, that continues unchanged many, many decades later.
Appu Kadai holds a place of some distinction in the annals of teashops around the country. Simply because Appu was, and still is, I imagine, the one man who was a constant in the lives of those college girls. In his little woollen hat, his stripey sweater, his rolled-up dhoti and his kindly demeanour, his little shack of a shop was a place of refuge for those vagaries that beset all young women in a small town. To him they turned when marks were poor, nuns were mean or when boyfriends deserted. He was always there with a cup of hot tea, a beaming smile and if you were really lucky he would produce a stack of Kisme chocolates (does anyone remember these) to go with the steaming beverage.
He knew every girl by name, and this in itself was a mystery as the conversations rarely went beyond an exchange of how many cups were being ordered or how many vadas were needed. But somehow he knew, and even more miraculously, with the thousands of girls who turned into tea-aholics around his establishment, he always remembered, and he addressed those who returned, years later, by name, and with the same cheery nod, his attire seemingly unchanged. Perhaps his eyes were a bit more creased, and the hair peeking out from under the hat was a bit grayer, but the memory was as sharp as his credit lines were generous. And so, for those old students who passed this way in later years a glimpse of the smiling Appu standing outside Appu Kadai brought back one of the best memories of being a student at that college.
Over the years as the two towns on either side grew, Bandishola responded in kind. More houses sprouted by the wayside, a few more shops appeared, and the road widened, but Appu Kadai and its bright blue frontage offered a haven of familiarity in a fast-changing landscape. The college itself grew as did the students numbers. The old rambling buildings that were once a palace saw new buildings come up – with new dorms, and a new auditorium and new classes and new teachers and new principals. With all the inevitable changes some things stayed delightfully unchanged, just like Appu Kadai.
Certainly, one cannot mention the college without mentioning the lady who still teaches there well over two decades later. Shobana Rajkumari that vivacious and pretty lecturer continued to teach her girls lessons inside and outside the classroom. She went from teaching poetry and prose to become the Head of a Department, her smiling face and gentle ways inspiring generation after generation of young minds. And like Appu, she too never forgot a name, and her clear, brown eyes and her kindly nature remaining unchanged over the years, as she greeted students decades later, by name, as she remembered their escapades whilst in college
Today, the front garden in the college still grows the huge asters and dahlias and roses and the fountain continues to stay dry and painted blue… the same blue as Appu Kadai. But as that brilliant Sufi saint from another century wisely said, “life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday,” and Appu’s little shack recently gave way to a more modern structure, with glass windows, and stone steps. We all learn quickly that the only constant is change and so we know Appu Kadai will eventually pass into different management and soon Shobana Rajkumari too may move on to other chapters in her life.
But for now, in this moment in time, they still stand, bastions of the little village and college that one was. They are the legacy of life and learning and living. Of constancy amidst change, of friendship and mentorship, and tea and smiles, and memories, and all the things that make up the rich tapestry of life when one attends a small college in a little town in a beautiful district. Where tea and learning are irrevocably entwined and always will be. Because that will never change.