Chasing fireflies and Karnataka elections in Chikmagalur

Ananya Bhattacharya
Ananya BhattacharyaMay 10, 2023 | 10:06

Chasing fireflies and Karnataka elections in Chikmagalur

To a North Indian ear, the word ‘Chikmagalur’ would seem like just another Kannada name. Of course, it is ‘just another Kannada name’, but like all towns in small-town India, the name has an interesting backstory. The town of Chikmagalur came as dowry along with the younger daughter of Rukmangada, the Chief of Sakkarepatna. The etymology says ‘chik’ — little, or younger — and ‘magalur’ or daughter. Right down the bridge from Chikmagalur is a village called Heeramagalur, that was part of the dowry of Rukmangada’s older daughter. ‘Heera’ is older in the local tongue.


For boomers and Gen-X North India, Chikmagalur is the constituency that Indira Gandhi contested from when she was thrown out of office after Emergency. It was 1978. Indira won the General Elections, leaving a four-decade legacy behind in this sleepy little town in Karnataka’s Mullayanagiri range.

Photo: Ananya Bhattacharya

45 years later, BJP has taken over in this district. The local MLA is CT Ravi, a man who came to power riding the Modi wave. Mercury isn’t going retrograde for Ravi anytime soon, given his hold on locals in the town. But that’s the thing with BJP anywhere. No one quite votes for anyone except for the Prime Minister. The local faces are forgettable. The man at the centre of it all is not.

But it is not going to be a clear win for the BJP, says our host. They will have to form an alliance. Congress will most likely be a thorn in the Central party’s side by joining hands with JD(S).

We drove out of Bengaluru on Day 1 of the PM’s roadshow (which ensured pretty lean traffic for Bengaluru’s car-creaky streets), and arrived in Chikmagalur some five hours later. Our stay is at a five-room homestay run by the 34-year-old Viren, a Rajput guy whose father left Jodhpur for Chikmagalur in search of better business prospects. Over a few decades, they have built homestays, businesses, and have a 10-acre coffee plantation too.


On our second day in Chikmagalur, Viren takes us out to see the Chandra Drona lake. Your Instagram captions will most likely refer to it as the ‘Heart-Shaped Lake’. When Viren’s Thar pulls in in front of the lake, he laughs out loud. “Sorry, I didn’t know there was no water!” We crack a joke: ‘This is the shape of a Broken Heart.’

It is sunset but the clouds have been quite reckless today, like a wayward child spoilt with too much of affection. The Western Ghats fall below us in waves, the oldest standing hills, older than time itself. It gets misty often here, with a suddenness reminiscent of your eyes clouding after a betrayal. It is beautiful. Fragrant with the scent of longing. There’s a strange anticipatory stillness in the air.

Photo: Ananya Bhattacharya

A bendy turn in the road snaps the reverie, and soon we realise we have left the asphalt road for a red-soiled track.

We are in coffee country, and any conversation here is incomplete without raising VG Siddhartha. The Cafe Coffee Day founder was a much-loved man in Chikmagalur and his death has not been easy for this town. The day they fished his body out of that river near Mangalore, Viren tells us, all of Chikmagalur was shut to mourn Siddhartha. CCD is slowly picking up pace, trying to turn things around, after Siddhartha’s son married the daughter of DK Shivakumar, the Karnataka Congress Chief. Shivakumar has invested quite a bit in CCD; money and relations both.


The coffee plantation that we are driving through now belongs to Rana George, son of erstwhile Karnataka Home Minister KJ George. I also spot a signboard somewhere off the road saying that it was Tata’s land. Your Starbucks arabica in India, of course, comes from Chikmagalur and Coorg.

We have stopped in front of a stream at this point. It is the hour after twilight and in the pitch-black darkness of the Western Ghats, we can hear only the water. There are silver oaks and coffee plants all around. There are leeches too. Above the culvert, as we climb up the concrete bank, there is a dark, delicious silence punctuated by the water.

Viren asks us to wait. It gets a little darker, if ebony-dark could get any darker.

There’s a sudden burst of twinkling lights. Fireflies!

In that nook under that cloudy sky, the stars are on the ground. It is pure magic. Unadulterated, like life in Chikmagalur.

That is all Chikmagalur wants from life. And its political leaders. Through this election and the next.

Last updated: May 10, 2023 | 20:12
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