Promises, promises…

So, contrary to what I originally thought, I had promised to explain my Major Research Project (which is like a thesis, but shorter, and doesn’t require a defence – but is accompanied by more coursework) in my first post. My sincerest apologies to those of you who were banking on my expounding the many fascinating qualities of hill stations.

I can already hear you asking, what on earth does she mean by a hill station? Well, allow me to explain (story time!)

Back in the eighteenth century, Europeans were beginning to establish themselves as colonial powers in parts of Asia, they realized that it was very hot. Now accompanying this realization were a lot of other things, of which two are particularly important. The first was that some of these European men (and the occasional accompanying woman, though they didn’t really start showing up for another century) also came to the conclusion that disease carrying insects (ahem, mosquitoes) ceased to exist beyond a certain elevation above sea level. So climbing up a mountain may have seemed like a good idea.

Point the second: Europeans had this idea (which today may strike you as being insane) that the colder the climate you lived in, the more, well, “civilized” and “hardy” you were. Peoples who lived in tropical, and even Mediterranean climates, were thought of as lazier, less intelligent, cowardly, “primitive,” emotional, “effeminate” – the list goes on. But let’s be honest here. It wasn’t all Europeans who thought this. This was more or less the consensus in places like Great Britain, France, the Netherlands – Northern Europe, basically. Anyhow, back to Asia! Europeans trading, fighting, and setting up colonies there began to worry that all that awful heat would start to get to them and make them sickly – corrupt their innate “civilized” nature, if you will. And so again, going up the mountain seemed like a good idea.

But wait, you say. I thought we were talking about hill stations! Why is she going on about mountains? Well spotted! Why, indeed?

Image credit: Author’s collection

Hills or mountains?

Well, because the hills those Europeans went up were usually, according to European’s own standards, mountains. They were far too tall to be hills. But what’s in a name? A lot, actually. By calling mountains hills, these guys were in a sense taming the Asian landscape to fulfil their own needs. (Yah, I know, language is powerful stuff).

So, long story short, the Dutch (in what is now Indonesia), and the Brits (in what is now India) started travelling up these mountains, which they called hills. At first, they set up sanatoriums, then later military encampments. By the time the mid-nineteenth century rolled around, the French (French Indochina – Vietnam today) and Americans (who kicked the Spaniards out of the Philippines) were at it too.

But the towns that they built on the sides of mountains and in the valleys between them were nothing like the structures they built on the plains. They pretty much went about re-creating cottage country in Asia. Largely because they could, but also for a number of other reasons, which I will get into in a future post. These quaint little towns (it’s difficult to resist their charm even today) featured cute cottages, picturesque lakes (quite often man-made…guess who did the digging), boat clubs, tennis clubs (guess who weren’t allowed to be members), botanical gardens, etc.

Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu, India. You can see the boat club in the centre of the picure (Image credit: author’s collection)

In many ways, these hill stations placed Western urban settlements, and the civilization they stood for, high above the plains of Asia. In a quaint (they’re so quaint! but grrrrr, says the anti-imperialist in me) but obnoxious way, these towns screamed that Europeans were a colonial presence, and that they thought they were the coolest thing in Asia since, I don’t know, the Ming Dynasty.

Cottage, Kodaikanl. See? Isn’t it cute? (Image credit: Author’s collection)

Ok, so that’s all really interesting, but it’s not what I’m interested in. Isn’t that interesting? Yes, yes it is. Why? Because, unlike what many academic works on hill stations might lead you to believe, these towns did not cease to exist after the end of colonialism. (Well, what I mean by that, to be fair to those historians and geographers who write about hill stations, is that they tend to focus on the colonial period, which, as we have just seen, is interesting).

As a kid, my family’s visit to India was never complete unless we went up to Kodaikanal, a hill station in Tamil Nadu.

From the wonderful Maps of India website

It never struck me as being anything but Indian. Definitely not British. And then BAM! It hit me, a couple of years ago, while taking a course on Indian History, just how British it was. And so I began to wonder why I hadn’t realized that in the first place – pre-adolescent lack of observational skills aside. Also, why no one in my family, immediate or extended, had really realized it either.

And so I turned those questions into a paper last year, and now into my MRE. I want to write the history of middle class Indians in hill stations, especially after 1947 (when the Raj ended), and there were no restrictions on South Asian mobility within these spaces. I also want to understand how something so seemingly foreign came to be seen as, well, Indian. Although my paper is focused on Kodaikanal, I have a hunch my findings will to some degree be applicable to other postcolonial hill station cultures in Asia. More than that, I think, what a study like this can do is help us understand how the “colonial” in “postcolonial” is remembered.

So, in a nutshell (maybe a coconut…it was kind of long) that’s an introduction to my MRE! Definitely expect more on this later. One thing I have learned, is that the stereotype about grad students is that they never stop talking about their projects. And it’s true sometimes – though I try my best not to. Mainly I talk about colonialism, which I didn’t do today at all. Nope, not even a little.

7 thoughts on “Promises, promises…

  1. I will seriously know SO much about hill stations by the end of my time at Carleton. 🙂 A seriously interesting topic that I’m glad I know more about!

    Also, hmm… hills or mountains indeed? I suppose it’s all about comparison, isn’t it? I always think of mountains as snow-capped, with the tops above the tree line, but these all seem to be below it, so…hill? They were right after all?

  2. You have got to be one of the most interesting people I know! I look forward to keeping up with your blog over the coming years! (insert pressure for more posting here haha)

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