Old Memories Create New Ones in Kodaikanal

My expat parents had jobs that took them all over the world, and I spent junior high (middle school) in four different countries. By the time I was 13 the family decided I needed some stability so I spent the next five years boarding at Kodaikanal International School in southern India.  

I loved  boarding school. We were a bunch of teenagers, free to spend every minute of every day with our friends. Kodaikanal is a hill station with the bluest skies and the brightest stars. The air smells of eucalyptus, due to the dense blue gum forest that covers the hills. It’s a pretty idyllic place to be a kid. 

We decided to take a trip down memory lane and spend my birthday in Kodai, as it is affectionately called. I was hesitant to ever return and break the spell of so many fond memories. But given how hard of a place it is to reach, we knew we’d never make if we didn’t go during this trip. 

Kodai is the only hill station in India to be settled by American (as opposed to British) missionaries. They started a school here which, in 1901, became Kodaikanal International School. Much of the town revolves around the school. There isn’t too much to do here except enjoy nature, hike and get some fresh air. 

My first observation was that the town has become much more congested and built-up than I remembered. Sandeep reminded me that it’s been a while, and at this point there is less time for Ava to enter High School than has elapsed since I left. It was one of those comments that reminded me that I am an aging mother.

Despite the ‘advancement’, Kodaikanal is still gorgeous. Sandeep agreed that he had never seen a sky so blue. While the kids napped, we sat out and talked about nothing in particular, passing time in the sun. It was like we were in high school again.

There is a public playground by the lake. As we entered the kids who were playing surrounded us and started begging. It was a very awkward interaction to explain to our kids and we opted instead to visit the school’s playground. Our kids took us back to our elementary school years.

The best birthday experience was eating at the school dining hall. As students, we grumbled about the food and saved every penny of our allowance to eat out. My first week in college I realized how spoiled we were. Our school food was and remains amazing. It’s still served on the same trays as prison food (at least in the movies). 

Class pictures line the dining room walls, and we ate just under class of 1997. Do I look the same? Left, first row standing, pink shirt.

Some of the same restaurants still exist and there are only a handful that we’d go to even now. We had my birthday dinner at Tava’s, an Indian vegetarian spot, whose food I have been fantasizing about for 15 years. I put in my regular request and nervously waited, convinced that my memory inflated the taste with each passing year. The food took my straight back to being a student, starved for cash and saving up enough rupees to buy the meal that I could so easily afford today. Sandeep seconded the food was good, and in the highest of compliments from him, that he didn’t even feel like he had to have meat. Unfortunately the spot that made the best cake in town shut down, so we got a slice of cake and a chocolate ball from Fay’s, the original maker of the now ubiquitous Kodaikanal handmade chocolates.

With the kids tucked in bed we broke the cardinal school rule and opened up a bottle of wine. I beat Sandeep by 5 points in Scrabble, that’s if you count stirfrying as one word. I think he gave in on that one as a birthday gift. 

Sandeep finds it hilarious that I was a varsity athlete here. Over the years, I have confidently boasted about my standing broad jump skills. Since we haven’t seen a broad jump pit outside Kodai, it was a claim that couldn’t be refuted. The minute he saw our track pit, he had me prove myself. The entire family took turns jumping. I won’t tell you who won, but Kayan came in last.


When I was a student, Kodai created lifelong memories and gave me some of my closest friends. To this day, we consider each other family. Returning brought some of those memories to life. More importantly, this wonderful town gave me the gift of new memories with my new family.

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