He came with a lizard in his beak. A choice tidbit, most appreciated. But only if you’re a Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill (Ocyceros gingalensis). The female lays up to four white eggs in a tree hole blocked off during incubation with a cement made of mud, droppings and fruit pulp. There is only one narrow aperture, barely wide enough for the male to transfer food to the mother and chicks. These birds usually live in pairs or small flocks consisting of up to five birds (2 adults and 2-3 juveniles). They are omnivores observed consuming berries, fruits, insects and small lizards. It feeds mostly on figs, although occasionally it eats small rodents, reptiles and insects.
We, my friend Ifham Raji and I were parked in our open Toyota Hilux safari vehicle, our cameras mounted on sand bags placed on the roof of the cab and focused on the hole in the tree which was the Hornbill nest. We could see the beak of the female from time to time as she threw out the waste from her nest, ensuring that it remained clean.
It was early morning and the forest was filled with birdsong. A Shama (White-rumped shama – Copsychus malabaricus) alighted on a twig facing me, scarcely five feet away and gave me a personal recital of his song. I wanted to photograph him but decided only to let my memory do the job for fear of scaring him away with my movement. The Shama has a black head, a brown waistcoat and a black tailcoat with two long tail feathers. On the back is emblazoned his white shield on which he hasn’t inscribed his coat of arms yet. The white shield on the back is very striking. But above all this, what impressed me was his attitude. Confidence, curiosity, friendliness. He came, he saw, he sang and he conquered my heart.
Meanwhile the male Hornbill came with his delicacy but looked extremely suspicious and skittish. I wondered whether we were the cause of his alarm or anything else, until I saw two other Hornbills, fully grown juveniles, that flew in as if they’d been lying in wait for him. One, which I think was the male, dive-bombed him to try to make him drop his catch. That was fairly easily taken care of by the simple action of swallowing it. When this tactic didn’t work after trying it several times, the male gave up and went off into the forest. The female decided that the best way was to appeal to whatever nobility existed in the heart of her father and simply begged. She did that so pathetically and effectively that he eventually coughed up something for her. I say “father” because that’s who he was. These two were his fully grown millennial chicks from a previous brood, who know what human millennials worked out only in this generation. That it’s easier to live off your parents than to work for your own living. Hornbill youngsters do that for a year or more after they are fully fledged until the parents finally kick them out altogether. The interaction was fabulous to watch.
This is my greatest pleasure in bird photography; watching interaction as birds afford you an opportunity that mammals and reptiles don’t. Birds go about their lives as if you don’t exist and allow you a glimpse into their lives that’s a privilege which pays the patient who value their time. You may be surprised to see the use of the phrase, “value their time”, in a context different from the usual. We imagine that our frenetic lifestyle is worthwhile and that the best use of time is to cram as much into it as possible with no thought about what we get as a result. I believe that the best use of time is to consider the result in whatever we propose to do with it and then spend the time only if the result warrants it. Time is not money. Time is far more valuable than money. Money can be earned, lost but replaced. Time is free, can be lost but never replaced. That’s why I’m very careful with my time and consider sitting for six hours watching a Hornbill father take care of his mate, while avoiding the raids of his children, one of the most beneficial uses of my time. That’s how long it took us to get some decent photographs.
So now there was the father, finally having got rid of his pesky brood, ready to feed his mate. But with what, I wondered. Because he had swallowed the lizard to save it from being eaten. Sounds oxymoronic but there it was. So I watched. He looked all around. Called a few times to assure his mate that he still loved her. His raucous call that can be music only to a female Hornbill’s ears. He flew from perch to perch all around the nest-hole to assure himself from every angle that the coast was clear. Then he landed on the vertical trunk of the tree, on the lip of the nest-hole. Then I loed and beheld, to my amazement, the lizard emerged. And after it, a large green beetle, a large black beetle, a large grey caterpillar, and one after another a series of black berries (not the phone, real ones). Not having been a Hornbill ever, in my career, nor privy to his loading sequence, I can’t say if everything came out as it was ingested. But the lizard was last in, first out. Then he was off.
The second trip was a repeat of the first. We wait and wait. The Shama takes pity on us and returns to sing us another song. Then the juveniles return to check out if dad is back with food. The male chick is chased out of another part of the forest by a highly aggressive and territorial Golden Oriole. The GO is one sixth or less in size but has ten times his courage. So throwing all dignity to the wind, the Hornbill chick makes haste with the GO in hot pursuit. All he had to do was to stand and say, “Okay, do your worst.” And the Oriole would have come face to face with his limitations. But this is a world of deception, even for birds and noise counts more than action.
I sensed something behind us. I had been listening to some movement in the forest with an occasional branch breaking and dry leaves gently rustling. Could be jungle fowl or monkeys. But as I turned around, I saw the biggest cow elephant that I’ve ever seen in this part of the world. Sri Lankan elephants are the biggest of Asian elephants and this one was proof. She came out of the forest like a shadow, in total silence. She turned and looked at us in the safari jeep, barely 20 meters from her. Then she turned and walked away with elephantine dignity that only elephants can muster. No aggression, no posturing. Someone who knows herself and her own power and has no need to demonstrate it to anyone. Someone who is content even to let those intruding into her space, to do so without protest, as long as they are respectful. Big question in my mind was what she was doing alone. Where was her family? We saw her twice more, both times alone. I wonder what that story is.
Meanwhile the Hornbill returned, this time, regurgitating a series of red berries, one after another and passing them to his mate through the hole in the wall. It was amazing to see the precise nature of the sequence where he would bring out one at a time, run it up his long beak, and very delicately drop it into the nest. I didn’t see him actually feeding his mate nor did I see her take the fruit from his beak. But it all went into the nest-hole.
A Barking Deer cautiously made his way out of the forest on my right and hurriedly crossed the open patch of the road and entered the undergrowth on my left. My dilemma was whether to photograph him and risk disturbing the Hornbill. But he solved my dilemma by taking off again on his never ending quest to keep his spouse happy. Never saw anyone work so hard at this. Reminded me of the picture I see every morning in my mirror.
The jungle is full of surprises and wonders for the one who takes the time to look. As we were driving in search of the leopard, the king of Wilpattu and indeed Sri Lanka, we saw a small bird on its nest, incubating its eggs. It was so confident of its camouflage that it didn’t budge as I photographed it.
A Sri Lankan Jungle Fowl came out of the forest, followed by his hens. His blood-red comb with the yellow blaze in the center distinguishes him from the Indian Red Jungle Fowl who he resembles. He crowed to announce to the world that he was walking the earth and then busied himself scratching in the dirt.
As we were watching a leopard sitting drowsily through a gap in the bushes, a very busy Red-vented Bulbul landed on a twig near me with a piece of grass folded like a bow tie in his beak. It is nesting season and Bulbuls are busy building their nests. They are among the most vocal of birds and having this grass in its beak, didn’t stop it from saying,’Excuse me, what on earth are you doing, simply sitting and watching that silly leopard, being drowsy? Don’t you have other things to do?’ Having got no response, he decided that he didn’t have time to waste with me and flew off.
Yeah! I know. Where’s the scene of all this action? Wilpattu National Park, Sri Lanka. A world heritage site and the oldest national park in the country. Flat land, very sandy, with very large trees and lots of lakes. Villu is Tamil for lake and Pattu means ten. There are more than forty in the park but ten large ones, thus the name. The huge trees are great perches for leopards and create a lovely shady micro-climate. The forest when we were there was simply flooded with purple flowers on the tertiary branches of a plant that I don’t know the name of. If someone who reads this article can tell me the name I will be most grateful.
This plant is everywhere. It is a large bushy plant with these wonderful flowers growing directly on the tertiary branches instead of on their own individual stalks. They have a very subtle, sweet aroma and the forest looks absolutely fantastic because of them.
The Sri Lankan Department of Wildlife Conservation (much better name than Forest Department, because it speaks of their focus), has built bungalows (rather grand name for cottages) on the banks of some lakes. The location makes up for the lack of maintenance and resultant challenges is staying in them. The one we stayed in had no door handles or latches. So at night I had to push an extremely heavy bed against the door to keep out any potentially unwelcome visitors. The same was the case with the bathroom with the added joy that the floor tiles squelched and squirted water, every time you stepped on them. But the joy of a cold shower at the end of a hot, humid day compensated for the squelchy floor tiles. The bungalows have solar power but no fans or plug points. So no charging of phones. There is no signal anyway so the death of the phone goes unmourned. But the impending demise of camera batteries is another matter. At any rate this adds to the excitement of trying to conserve battery power and shooting wisely.
Also no fans means that hot humid days are exquisite torture. But all you need to do, to forget the discomfort is to look out from the veranda at the lake before you. Brown grass in the foreground, getting greener as it nears the water. Lush green grass closer to the water, then reeds and then the inviting blue of the lake itself. Do not yield to the invitation to jump in. Jump into the squelchy shower instead because in Wilpattu and Yala, every puddle has its resident croc. Not the shoes but the real ones. Ranging in size from cute and cuddly to enormous maneaters, which probably never ate a man and so would be doubly anxious to try one out. You’ll also see lots of birds on the Villus (lakes, remember?).
On our Villu, in one afternoon, I saw a pair of Wooly-necked storks walking purposefully looking at the ground. An Adjutant Stork (a very ugly bird) walking with whatever dignity it could muster while being harassed and chased away by a pair of Red-wattled Lapwings, screeching their alarm call, Did-you-do-it, Did-you-do-it? The Adjutant hadn’t but his reputation of eating eggs and chicks is enough to pronounce him guilty in the eyes of the Lapwings and they didn’t want him in the vicinity. Then there was a pair of Malabar Giant Hornbills crossing the lake, their characteristic flight, their signature.
There were perhaps thirty or forty butterflies congregating on a patch of moisture. They attracted the attention of a Green Bee Eater, which decided that he was not bound by his name and had no objection to eating butterflies also. After the fourth swooping flight and the fourth butterfly which became history, they got the message and dispersed. But not before a fifth one was picked through the air.
GBE’s are such graceful flyers and such attractive birds. What strikes me yet again is how alive the forest is. As we were sitting in the jeep waiting for the Hornbill to turn up, I could hear an absolute orchestra of bird song. I could identify five or six but there were at least another dozen that I didn’t recognize. Yet all this is not noise or cacophony just like the infinite variety of color has nothing that’s mismatched.
After we got the last shot, we headed back for our bungalow. As we came to yet another lake, this one covered in white lotus flowers, I spotted a pair of Eurasian Thick-knees (Eurasian Stone Curlew) doing what they do best; just being. I recalled having spotted them many times in several countries but always simply being; doing nothing. What’s their purpose in life, I asked myself. They do nothing. Not even search for food; at least whenever I was watching. Ifham tells me, “I know a lot of people in the cities who run around all day but do nothing. These birds are doing it better because they’re doing it without expending any energy.” And he’s right, isn’t he?
There was an Egret which was flirting with a baby crocodile. Until the little croc lunged forward. The Egret did some inspired gymnastics and got away otherwise the little croc would have had a bird brain for dinner.
The sun had set. We finished our dinner. I’m sitting with my cup of tea after which I intend to go to bed. A Cheetal (Axis deer) sounds an alarm, the Langur sentinel takes up the call, then a Sambar bells his call. Now I can be sure that the leopard is on the prowl. Leopards are the apex predator in Sri Lanka and so the Sri Lankan leopard (Panthera Pardus Kotiya) is the largest of its species. He behaves the way a tiger behaves in the Indian forest and so if you want to see leopards, Sri Lanka is the place. Since they have no enemies, they walk around during the day and are very relaxed when you spot them either dozing on a tree branch or on the ground, in the shade of a tree. You’d never see that in India or Africa where leopards must always be on the lookout for tigers and lions, who will kill them as soon as look at them. But in Sri Lanka they have nothing to fear and so are much easier to spot.
I hope the leopard will come around the bungalow in the night and I get to hear his sawing grunts. The night is alive with its own sounds. Nightjars announcing that they’re on duty. The Brown Fish Owl calling his mate. Two Spotted Owlets discussing hunting strategy. Langurs murmuring after hearing the far sentinel announcing that the leopard’s on the move.
Life goes on. The struggle continues. Some win. Some lose. For some, it is only fun. He also serves who only bears witness.
When we think of trekking we think of walking long miles, climbing hills and watching nature in all its splendor. For me, trekking is all that. But even more important is the time alone which enables me to look within myself, gather my thoughts, re-visit my dreams and discover myself.
Most recently I went on a trek in the foothills of the Kumaon Himalayas in Uttarakhand. I want to share that with you. I had just recovered from a series of three operations for hernia. Three because the first two failed, thanks to some incredibly incompetent surgery. However Indian culture being what it is I am none the richer for it. However, I was very keen to start walking again and to prove to myself that I had indeed recovered fully. As it happened I had an assignment with the SSB Academy, Gwaldam. The SSB – Sashastra Seema Bal is one of our border guarding forces that guards the Indo-Nepal border. I took that opportunity to go for a small trek after completing my assignment.
To get there, you take the train – Ranikhet Express – from Old Delhi station and get off early next morning at Katgodam. I was met by the SSB driver and gunner who had been detailed to receive me. The driver is an old friend from Manipur, all of 4 ½ feet tall, who gives the most brilliant salute accompanied by, “Jai Hind Shaaar!!”. It makes you feel 10 feet tall to be greeted like that. I did the best salute that I could manage and returned the greeting, “Jai Hind”, standing to attention. Mercifully I have had a lot of practice in these things and managed to do a reasonable job.
From Gwaldam we drove to Ranikhet. This takes about 3 ½ hours and can be done by bus or car. The road is very good and goes along a river for the most part. All along the riverside there are tall Thorny Dadap (Macaranga Indica) trees in bloom. The flower is blood red and the tree completely devoid of leaves. The flower has nectar in its center and attracts a lot of birds. Truly a beautiful sight.
Almost midway we come to Bhimtaal which is a lovely lake bordered by lots of trees. The road runs along the edge of the lake and if you have the time you could stop at one of the tea shops for a break. If you leave Katgodam as soon as you arrive then by the time you reach Bhimtaal, the sun would be at an angle where the little wavelets turn to silver. What strikes me the most, every time I have done this drive, is the silence. Coming from the noise of big cities, this is a most welcome change. That and the clean pure air.
Having had your tea, you start again up the road and about 2 hours later you enter the town of Ranikhet. This is a district headquarters and the seat of local government. It is also the Regimental HQ of the Kumaon Regiment. The Regimental Museum is well worth a visit and is open to the public. The Kumaon Regiment has an interesting history. The Kumaon Regiment was raised in Hyderabad on March 1st 1922 by Nawab Salabat Jah Bahadur who was a brother of the Nizam of Hyderabad. It was called the 19th Hyderabad Rifles. Later it was named The Kumaon Regiment and is headquartered in Ranikhet in Uttarakhand.
Some comments about this regiment which will interest Hyderabadi readers:
Comments: The Kumaonis had been in British military service since the early 19th Century. As part of the North Indian class, who had joined the military of the East India Company’s forces, the Kumaonis had moved to other states in search of military service. Thus they formed part of the Hyderabad Contingent, which was raised, trained and led by British officers under Henry Russel, but paid by the Nizam of Hyderabad. In 1857, in keeping with the class based composition of the infantry, the Regiment comprised Rajputs, Jats and Muslims. After the Great War, some Kumaoni battalions were raised separately, but the Hyderabadis continued and fought with distinction in the World War. In 1945, the Hyderabadis became the Kumaon Regiment. When the Naga Regiment and the Kumaon Scouts were raised, they came under the aegis of the Kumaon Regiment.
Ranikhet is an Army town and large parts of it are Cantonment and belong to the Army. Consequently it has not gone the route of most Indian towns and cities and still has open areas, parks, a golf course and old bungalows. Some of these are now being taken over by the new Uttarakhand State Government and being converted into hotels presumably one step before being knocked down to build apartment blocks in our standard architectural style called Modern Indian Horrible. But if you go quickly you will still see this beautiful town before it goes the way of others.
Having had a good breakfast in Ranikhet you proceed further up the road and about an hour or so later you come to Kasauli. This is the first clear sight of the Himalayan snow peaks that you should be able to see. You can see the peaks from Ranikhet as well on a clear day but the Kasauli sighting is much better. Certainly, a good bit of luck is needed in this matter as the Himalayas are both shy and hospitable. Shy to show themselves and hospitable to any passing cloud that wants a shoulder to cry on. So, for a great deal of the time they are hidden by cloud masses. It is only when it gets cold that the clouds do what clouds do and you can see the snow peaks. Kasauli also has a tea shop that belongs to the Uttarakhand Tea Corporation which serves some excellent high grown teas. You can also buy some to take back, but let me warn you that the price is not cheap. Having had our fill of the Himalayan views and tea we then proceeded further up the road to our final destination, Gwaldam.
Gwaldam is at an elevation of about 7000 feet above MSL (mean sea level) and can be very cold. Especially when it rains. The Himalayan peaks that you can see from there are Trishul and Nanda Ghutti (not to be confused with Nanda Devi though it is the same range). And they seem to be in your front yard. If you were a crow and flew towards them, they are not more than 9 – 10 km from the Deodar tree in Gwaldam from which you would take flight. But since you are not a crow you will have to be content with taking photographs. Gwaldam has lots of Deodars and Pines. The sound of the wind in them is like the sound of the waves of the ocean. Interspersed among them are the signature plants of this elevation, Rhododendrons (Buraans as the Kumaonis call them). These are short trees, maybe 10-12 feet tall and when in bloom, entirely covered with flowers.
The flower looks like a large rose and has fleshy petals that are edible. They make a juice from them which they claim is beneficial for people with hypertension. I have seen Rhododendrons in four colors, rose pink, blood red, powder pink and white. It is an amazing sight in March – April to see entire forests of these trees, as if splashed with multi-colored paint. A total abundance of color. You can’t be blamed if you wake up one morning and look out of your tent and start to imagine that you had died the previous night and have now woken up in heaven. Misty valleys, grassy meadows mowed smooth by herds of sheep, forests of Rhododendrons, sunlit glades in which you can see Muntjac and Monal Pheasent.
Amazing bird, the Monal. The colors of the Monal can’t be described. The closest I can come is to say that it appears that there is an electric light inside the bird because it seems to glow from within. The colors are fluorescent and kaleidoscopic. It shimmers in the early morning light and watches you warily over the shoulder as it moves away. And then with its typical whistle it flies heavily off. I always thought the Peacock as the ultimate in beauty until I saw the Monal. A pity that thanks to indiscriminate hunting their numbers are sadly reduced.
In March you will also see some compacted, snow in the shadows where the light of the sun does not reach it. Little streams flow from unexpected places and meander through the meadows and make little waterfalls off the rocks here and there. The water is ice cold and good to drink. Not too many places left in this country where you can drink the water straight from a stream and live to tell the tale. But I am living proof that provided the stream was in the hills of Uttarakhand you will be none the worse for your drink.
From Gwaldam we took the road to Karanprayag. The road winds along the Pinder river which is on your right at the bottom of the ravine. The Pinder is ice cold and fast flowing, sometimes loaded with mud if there has been any rain in the upper reaches. It has very inviting sand banks on most bends but it is dangerous to camp on them on account of the danger of flash floods. The Pinder also has some excellent trout fishing. And if you are among those who either don’t or can’t fish, you can buy the trout from the several little road-side shops if you reach them early enough in the morning. The shops also sell rice and curry. The curry will take the top of your head off to let out the steam, if you, the unwary fall upon it with open mouth. The anti-dote is not water but plain rice or curds (yogurt) which the shop will also sell you.
Having got some 2 kilos of freshly caught trout, we proceeded on our way to Karanprayag. This is where the Pinder meets the Alaknanda. Together the two flow as one until they come to Rudraprayag where they are joined by the Mandakini. The three then flow along together until Devprayag where they meet the Gangotri which comes from Gangotri glacier and together they flow down to the Bay of Bengal. Only, now the river is called the Ganga. From Karanprayag we drove along the road climbing and winding along the Alaknanda until we came to the village called Sari.
These roads with the mountain on one side and a sheer drop on the other are maintained by the Border Roads Organization, a wing of the Indian Army and known for their expertise in maintaining mountain roads. They do such an excellent job that they are justly famous all over this region. Were it not for them, the 6-hour journey from Gwaldam to Sari would have been many hours longer.
Sari is the end of the road. At Sari you leave your transport and first sit in one of the tea shops to drink some tea. You would have noticed that tea and sitting in the tea shop are important rituals of this trail. Indeed, they are. For they have less to do with the business of drinking tea than with meeting local people, getting news and negotiating for porters and mules. All done in mountain time. So, don’t allow your city urgency to get the better of you. Drink the tea, watch the view and let the villagers make the beginning.
“Would you like to go up to Devariya Taal?” one will ask.
Resist the urge to reply, “No. I have come to live with you in Sari for the rest of my life.” And say, “Yes. Is it possible?”
“Yes of course it is.” And then the negotiation for rates of porters and mules begins. You can carry your own packs of course, but since we hadn’t had time to acclimatize we decided to play it safe and carry only ourselves and leave the rest to the mules. Now, don’t get me wrong. The idea of negotiation is to keep up the tradition and so that everyone has fun all around. The hill people don’t cheat you. What they ask is nothing more than what they deserve. And seeing that for you this is entertainment while for them it is a living, I would never dream of giving them a pie less than what they ask for and then give them a big tip. Yet we have to negotiate. For negotiation is a tradition that must not be treated lightly.
So little Prakash says, when asked for the rate for his mule, “Aat saw rupya sahib (800 rupees Sir).” And I say, “Yaar tere khachchar ka kiraya poocha. Usko khareedna nahin hai. (My friend, I asked to hire your mule, not to buy it.).” And we all have a good laugh and the negotiation is on its way. Eventually we agree to a rate that is a few rupees less so that his face is saved by showing how magnanimous he was to reduce his price but not too much. And my face is saved to show how magnanimous I am that I gave him almost what he asked for. And of course, you would never just give the asked for price. That way you would show what a fool you were and nobody would have any fun negotiating. When we returned the next day, Prakash got a thousand rupees from me, being his original price and my tip. But that is also understood and expected.
Once you have finished negotiating, then you simply leave all your bags with the mule keeper and start the climb. The hill people ate scrupulously honest and you need have no fear of losing anything from your pack. So, you start off.
Much to your disgust, as you are about midway up the hill, panting for breath and asking yourself why on earth you had been so foolish as to imagine that you could do this trek, along would come Prakash and his mules, almost running up the steep climb and pass by you with a smile on their collective faces. No, you can’t kill Prakash. It is illegal. But then, as you take the next turn in the path, there he is, standing by with a brass lota (urn) filled with ice cold stream water, offering it to you, “Paani piyenge sahib?” What lovely people!!
From Sari village to the top of the hill is 2000 feet straight up. If it was any steeper it would be a wall and not a hill. The path winds along like a demented snake and so you end up walking a little over 2 kilometers. The Forest Department in its kindness has paved the path with stones. This makes it uneven and a very hard surface underfoot. And so it is now harder to climb than it would have been on the soft soil forest pathway that it has replaced. But that is entirely in keeping with all government projects. Tell me one, which actually makes life easier. On you climb.
Every time you believe you are dying, just stop and look back. Stone shingle roofs of the village houses, terraced fields growing wheat. You always thought that green was one color. Look at the terraces below you and you will realize that green is a thousand colors. You always thought that the wind was invisible. Look at the crop growing in the terraces and you will see the wind as it brushes the ears of wheat and bends them symmetrically in its passing. Think you are fit until you see an elderly grandmother with her goats, going up an almost vertical mountainside without a care in the world. Gives you a whole new perspective on life.
Reflect that every terrace has been built by hand, each stone bordering it, collected individually and placed skillfully so that it remains in place through the heavy monsoon and snowfall. Reflect that the soil in the terrace field has been carried there and added to every year. Each field represents the work of many generations, handed down from one to the other. Think about the hydraulic engineers who have managed to direct the flow of a small stream so cleverly that it irrigates many terraces and not a single drop of water is allowed to go waste. And then remind yourself that none of these engineers ever went to school. They learnt engineering in the school of life where the prize is survival and failure is starvation.
As you look and think and breathe the clean, cold air, your tiredness falls away and you get invigorated with new energy and once again you turn around and begin climbing. Now as you climb, look about yourself. Try to count the thousands of Rhododendron blooms. My friend Mr. G. C. Sah, Head of Outdoor Education at the SSB Academy, Gwaldam who was with us, calls them, ‘Ro Dho climb on’ – Cry, wash your tears, but climb on. Truly beauty can wash away exhaustion. As you climb, do pick a few petals of the Rhododendron flower and chew on them. They have a slightly sour tangy taste and are very pleasant to eat. Since you are not in any hurry and walk at a normal pace that is not too taxing you can do the whole climb in about 2 hours.
When you reach the final lip be prepared to have your breath taken away. For as you climb over the top, you suddenly see Devariya Taal spread before you. Set like a jewel in the middle of what you may take to be a golf course. So closely has the grass been cropped by the sheep which graze there. The lake is green with algae as the water is still and has no flow. It is really a collection of rainwater and snow-melt and perhaps has a spring or two at the bottom. So in the summer when the sun is bright, algae has a field day and the whole lake becomes a dark green in color. Devariya Taal has a lot of fish, mainly carp, as far as I could make out. Some fairly large.
Fishing is permitted from the bank and there is no boat, so you can only catch some very small fry which are really not worth catching. So after catching two, to prove that we could catch them, we threw them back in the water. You can pitch your camp on the high bank at the back of Devariya Taal from where you get a good view of the Himalayan peak called ChowKhamba. On a clear day when the sun is just right, Chowkhamba gets reflected in the waters of Devariya Taal, truly a magnificent sight.
When we reached the top, our support staff has already pitched camp and had a hot cup of tea ready for us. Most welcome indeed and heavily laced with sugar, gave us a much-needed energy boost. The sun was already starting its journey to the bottom of the mountain. In the mountain the light goes very rapidly, so it is a good idea to ensure that all you need to do is done before it gets dark. Wandering around on steep mountainsides in the dark is a good way to meet a quick end. Since we did not need to actually do anything ourselves, we just sat and watched the sun go down.
Watching the mountain as the sun sets is an experience in itself. The snow changes color with the light. First it is white as it reflects rays that are stronger and more direct. It shines and shimmers and you have to shut your eyes in tribute to its brilliance. Then as the angle of the sun changes and it starts going down the snow changes color to pink, to orange to the beginning of a grey that eventually turns dark. All in a matter of minutes. But interestingly it never completely turns dark. There is always some ambient light from the stars or moon that keeps the snow lighted just a little. Such are the delights of the mountains.
I can write a great deal more about the whole businesses of trekking but this will do for now. All that remains is to light the camp fire, tell stories while you cook your food. And then eat and sleep. Night comes early in the mountains, as does day. So, eat well and sleep well. For tomorrow is another day.
Kabini River Resort on the bank of the Kabini Reservior, bordering Nagarhole Tiger Reserve. I am in the Gol Ghar (which is actually rectangular) at tea and snack time after the afternoon safari.
“What did you see?” asked an American who had come to Kabini for the first time.
“Nothing. Totally dry. Five safaris and we saw nothing,” said an extremely bossy Indian woman whose rude behavior was on display wherever she went with the saving grace that nobody was exempt from it. One must be grateful when people with bad manners display them equally for everyone.
Ajeeb! I say to myself. Then I check to see if the people talking were blind or blindfolded. But no. They weren’t. Bright eyes and each had a camera and lens worth at least 3 – 4 laks each. One a Nikon and the other a Sony. But we shall not hold that against them. What was more, this conversation or different versions of it, were happening all around me. So, it wasn’t only this one woman who saw nothing.
How could this be? How can people go for a three-hour drive in one of the most beautiful forests in India and say that they saw nothing? Unless of course one were to ask, “What does seeing mean?”
Well, what did I see?
I saw a silent life and death struggle between a strangler fig and its saprophytic host, a nameless giant of the forest, whose fate was sealed when the first tender filament of the fig started its climb upwards towards the sun. After that it would only be a matter of time, measured in decades perhaps, but the ending, inevitable. The fig strangles the host. As I saw this struggle without motion, I thought how closely it resembles what is happening in our national politics. Politicians of all hues have taken hold of the nation like strangler figs and are busy throttling its life out. There is one exception to this however in our case. Unlike the forest giant, we the people of India, are not helpless. Unless we choose to be. We are not helpless unless we choose to vote for the one who gives us Rs. 200 instead of voting for the one who is most likely to serve our best interests. Rs. 200 doesn’t even buy a chicken. Is this what we have priced our futures and the futures of our generations yet unborn, at? Less than the price of a chicken?
I saw Chital (Axis deer) or Spotted deer in their hundreds. Chital is one of the most beautiful of the deer species. In Nagerhole, they abound. Grass and shrubs are aplenty. The terrain suits them very well. There are predators; Wild dogs (Dhole), leopards (black and regular) and tigers but the Chital simply outbreed them all, so they thrive. Predators also ensure that all the weak die early and only the strong are left to breed so predation helps and promotes survival of prey species. I saw their fawns ranging from some which must have been literally days old to older ones. Chital fawns simply must be the most beautiful creatures on earth. All Chital have liquid black eyes with eyelashes that will give every Bollywood actress a complex. Their coats, golden brown with white spots showing shadowy in the morning mist are a sight to behold.
Then their behavior; the way the dominant alpha males strut. The stags with a full rack of horns, which they shed every year to grow a new pair; clothed first in skin called ‘velvet’ which they then rub off on trees until it is at first hanging in rags and then is totally cast away to show the shiny bone beneath. It is rutting season and you can hear the territorial braying call of the alpha males, challenging all takers. The stags eat very little during this time, being focused almost entirely on protecting their harem of hinds from other roving males, ready to give battle at the slightest provocation. When there is none they sometimes take out their testosterone on innocent bushes, bashing then to smithereens with their impressive horns.
But if you are a Chital, no matter how impressive, you are at the bottom of the food chain. Everyone eats you and you eat grass. So, if you want to survive and live to tell tales of your life to your grandchildren you need to be extremely alert. Chital learn this lesson early in life. Those that don’t, never grow old. The result is that Chital will sound their typical alarm that sounds like a very high-pitched bark, at practically every suspicious movement. I have seen Chital calling when they see a Sloth bear, Dhole, Wild boar, eddies of wind rustling the bushes and simply because they imagined that they saw a tiger or leopard. But you can hardly blame them for this because they are No.1 on the menu of any predator on a keto diet. One of them calls while striking the earth with one forefoot with every call. The rest, run. Chital learn two CTS (Critical to Survival) lessons in life which are good lessons for us to learn also.
Lesson No. 1: Complacency is death.
Lesson No. 2: It is better to run twice than to be caught once.
A much more reliable alarm giver is the Grey Langur. These have a symbiotic relationship with Chital. Langur feed in tree tops and drop more than they eat, of leaves and fruit which the Chital eat off the ground. And all bands of Langur have a sentinel, who doesn’t feed but sits on the highest branch of the tallest tree in the area and scans the forest for threats. When he sees anything suspicious, he calls the alarm and the Chital take off. Since this sentinel is watching from a vantage point, he is much more accurate in his risk assessment. When his shift is over, another of the tribe takes over and he goes to feed. It is amazing to see how this entire system works to the advantage of two different species who are united in threat. How much can we learn, I muse, about being united despite our differences because we face the same threats in our societies. Threats of moral degradation, drug abuse, unemployment, domestic violence, rape, murder, crime of different kinds; all of which don’t differentiate between us because criminals view all victims equally. Makes the forest with its lurking leopards and tigers seem positively safe.
Langur are playful in the extreme. Most amusing are the young. They fight, chase each other up and down trees, making some leaps which almost amount to flight. I saw one young chap simply hanging from a vine and swinging back and forth. Just like a child on a swing. He was simply having fun. Another one climbed up behind his older sibling and used his tail for a swing. That didn’t last too long because the owner of the tail had a different opinion about this liberty. Some older individuals simply sit on a branch with their hind legs stretched out before them. Occasionally those lower in the pecking order come up behind them and start grooming them. I saw one Langur sitting on one branch and leaning out holding another with his hands while resting his chin on his hands, fast asleep. His instinct ensures that he doesn’t let go of the other branch even in his sleep. Our driver stopped the jeep under a tree, but noticed some Langur sitting directly above and very wisely and hurriedly moved us out from beneath them. I could almost hear one of them look down at us and say to the other, ‘Are you thinking what I am thinking?’ I didn’t fancy being the recipient of their donations.
Nagarhole seems to have the highest population of Hoopoes and Flame-backed Woodpeckers that I have ever seen anywhere. Both are beautiful birds with the FBW males shining like jewels in the forest. They fly in their characteristic wavy flight and land on a tree trunk (unlike all other birds that land on branches) and immediately switch to the back of the trunk. Very infuriating because my camera can’t see through the tree. The females are not as colorful as the males, as is the case in most species of birds but have the same flight pattern and irritating habit of hiding from you.
Trying to match the FBW is the Indian Roller. A brilliant blue bird whose brilliant lilac breast and fluorescent blue wing colors are spectacular in flight. What is best about the Indian Roller is his desire to be photographed. He is totally unfazed by the jeep or the chattering monkeys in it. He perches on a solitary branch of whichever short tree or bush that happens to be present and watches intently for his prey; worms, insects and whatever is small enough to appeal to his palate.
Then he flies down, picks it up and flies back up to the same perch to eat it. This is an absolute boon for the photographer who can literally set his camera and wait to get the in-flight photos which are the best for this bird.
Another extremely photogenic bird is the Green Bee Eater and its various cousins. They are best seen in the early morning and sometimes in the late evening. They perch on any raised object, a dry branch, a rock or even a blade of tough high grass and watch for flying insects. As soon as they spot one, they swoop up, pluck it out of the air and return to their perch to eat it. Once again, this predictability of returning to the same perch and the fact that they are not spooked and liable to fly away at the slightest movement, makes them such favorites of photographers. Their brilliant green plumage, with some blue in some of the sub-species, their feathers which closeup look very fine hair, black beaks and shiny black eyes are a study in art. Birds in general afford one a look into their lives and behavior much more closely and readily than mammals and so are wonderful to photograph. Naturally, given their size (small birds) and that they fly about means that you need a camera and lens that can get you close to them. But if you have that, then there is endless joy in photographing birds.
As I was trying to find a better perch for myself in the jeep that had (believe it or not, eleven adults in it) the driver whispered to me and I looked up to where he was pointing and loed and beheld a pair of Imperial Pigeons. They were in a fig tree, engrossed in gorging themselves on the fruit. While I took pictures of them, there was a shadow and the pigeons exploded out of the tree and headed for the Lantana bushes. I looked up to see a Brown Serpent Eagle.
Pigeons are not his normal diet, but I am sure it wouldn’t object to a change of menu; something the pigeons understood very well. The eagle settled on the fig tree and so there was no chance of the pigeons returning, but I noticed a Monarch butterfly alight on a blade of tall grass. One single butterfly on a single blade of grass in just the right light. As I was clicking away, I saw a flash of yellow and there were a dozen Clouded Yellow (I think!!) butterflies on a damp patch in the road. Butterflies of all kinds settle on patches of moisture in the road and make wonderful objects of photographs with their brilliant colors, set off against the brown or black background of the road.
The driver moved along as our companions were getting bored with not seeing anything. We drove around a corner and came to a pack of Dhole (Indian Wild dogs), resting in the grass under some trees. The Dhole is a rich brown in color all over with a pointed face and a black tail. It is barkless and whistles. The dominant female and alpha male were sleeping. A couple of uncles were also resting, but one of them was sitting up, alert and watchful. In the jungle you have two choices; be alert or be eaten. There were four puppies who were being the pesky nuisance that all young are when adults are resting. Whistling and nuzzling and trying to crawl under their elders, failing which climbing all over them. What was amazing was the patience of the elders, who couldn’t have been enjoying this ‘affection’ but showed no irritation. The sentinel suddenly tensed but didn’t sound an alarm. I looked in the direction that he was pointing to and saw the most enormous Gaur bull that I have ever seen. Huge and black with his signature white socks, walking slowly and majestically, fearing nobody and nothing. He was followed by three cows, one of which was a subadult and so much more skittish. But the bull was a sight to behold.
Just then a peacock screamed. What else can you call that sound? It is a communication call, ‘See what I am doing!’ What was he doing? Dancing to try to please a bevy of totally disinterested peahens. But he was spectacular to say the least.
Still not having seen anything, the driver decided to go and investigate why two other jeeps that had passed us, hadn’t returned. We drove to a place where the road takes a steep dip between two low hillocks and there in the depression, we finally saw that after which we couldn’t say, ‘I saw nothing.’ A tigress sleeping.
Or more accurately, trying in to sleep. No sentinels here. Just a cat trying to get some sleep in a patch of sunlight while batting flies and mosquitoes which had other ideas. No sentinels because when you are the apex predator, you fear nobody and everyone else fears you. Our camera shutters sounded like machinegun fire as we took amazing action photos of a sleeping cat. Every time she flicked her tail, the cameras would go trrrrrrrrrrrr. Every time she rolled over they would go trrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. We watched her in action for over an hour, hunched up with our eyes glued to the viewfinders, our backs screaming in agony but who cares? A tiger is a tiger.
We returned with the light started failing and we had to get out before the designated time. “Did you see anything?” they asked.
“Yes,” we replied. “We saw a tiger.”
Nothing else, only a tiger. So, did we see anything or didn’t we?
What do you say?
I was in the Anamallais, just married a few months and a lowly Assistant Manager in Lower Sheikalmudi Estate. My wife and I lived in the ‘haunted’ bungalow near the tennis court and I was busy trying to make a career and stand out in a fiercely competitive environment. I loved my life as a planter, which had all the requirements for heaven on earth as I conceptualized it. It was almost entirely outdoors. Walking up and down hills along forest boundaries with the certainty of seeing at least three or four species of mammals and countless birds, was not just possible but it was what I was being paid for. I can still hear the joyful cacophony of the birds, which I would hear every morning as I rode my bike or walked along the fire line that was the boundary between the tea and the forest. I know how to make sense of the sounds, to identify the sounds and distinguish the alarm call from the political argument. The political argument was of little interest to me, but the alarm call could mean the difference between being a spectator and a meal.
The Anamallais rain forest are home to tiger, leopard, bear, elephant, gaur, sambhar, barking deer, mouse deer, king cobra and many other snakes and langur and lion-tailed macaque. This is by no means an exhaustive list but one of some of the species that one could expect to encounter on a walk on any given day and all Sundays. The rain forest is too thick to walk through. Also, it is home to poisonous nettles called Anaimarti which if you rub against it in your foolish attempt to walk through the forest, creates an extremely painful reaction with swollen lymph nodes, high fever, violent rash and if you are very allergic to it and don’t get treatment, even death. Add to this the incidence of leeches in uncounted numbers whose presence on your body you only discover when you have emerged from the forest and step into the shower and wonder why the water is so red. That is the color of your blood as it flows freely from the number of leech bites you returned with. Leeches are hematologists and inject heparin into the small wound they make as they bite you. That ensures that your blood doesn’t clog and stop flowing. Then the leech attaches itself to the wound and simply fills up like a balloon with your blood. Once it is filled, it simply drops off. It you try to pull it out, it rips out and leaves its mouth parts in the wound to fester and give you grief for weeks after. When you live in these parts, you learn to share yourself with your neighbors. That is why it is said that tea is grown with sweat and blood.
In all this bounty, the thought that stayed with me was, ‘What will I do when I retire? Or even before that, if I should need to leave planting for any reason?’ This was because like any highly specialized career option, planting was only good for planting. Meaning that the direct skills are not transferable to other industries. To make matters worse, recruiters in other industries have no experience of planting and have no idea about the daily challenges that a planter faces. Recruiters of non-planting industries have a Tolly+Bollywood impression of the life of a planter. According to them, planters spend most of their time being waited upon hand and foot by an army of servants presided over by a butler and their main focus is a round of golf at 4.00 pm every afternoon followed by propping up the bar in the local plantation club. That is why there are very few success stories of planters making it big in other industries.
A planter, if he utilizes his time properly, is training to be a polymath. I don’t know of any other career which provides this opportunity. Except that even most planters are not aware of what the career has the potential to provide. The challenges a planter faces, unremarked and unknown to outsiders, range from handling labor conflicts which can sometimes escalate to life threatening levels, negotiating settlements, building bridges, both real and metaphoric, surveying and laying roads, taking care of the welfare of workers and their families, running schools, creches, hospitals, temples and stores; and in my case building a tea factory. Dealing with government officials, contractors, labor union leaders, politicians, teachers, doctors, tractors, machinery, trucks and elephants who decide that walking on top of your aluminum water pipeline and making it crack, is such an entertaining activity. All this ends up making a highly competent and versatile personality but sadly the ‘outside world’ has no clue. So, planters plant until they can plant no more and then retire to two-bedroom apartments in a city and live out the rest of their days dreaming of days gone by. I was very sure that I was not going to be a part of that.
I loved every minute of my life as a planter. I became very good at what I did. I acquired a reputation for being effective especially in high tension situations with troublesome labor. This was thanks to my conditioning by fire in Guyana, which is another story. But that came in very handy in the Anamallais. But I knew that this couldn’t last and that if I didn’t prepare myself, I would have no alternatives to fall back on. The big question was, what could I do while remaining in planting, both because I loved the job and because I needed it. I had to train myself for another career while doing a full-time job in this one, with no money to pay for the training. Quite an interesting problem, if you ask me.
It was then that I attended a training session in the Clarks Amer hotel in Jaipur. It was a two-week experiential learning session conducted by ISABS (Indian Society for Applied Behavioural Science) where you sat on the floor and learned to get in touch with your feelings, observe your own and others’ behavior, give and receive feedback. Why sit on the floor? Well, we are Indian, you see; so, we sit on the floor, even when we never do that in ‘real life’. That was an expression I learnt there and so deduct two weeks from my age as that was not ‘real life’. However, what opened my eyes was the value of leadership development and how this could become a very satisfying career. The challenge for me was two-fold. There were (and are) no formal courses which one can take to qualify as a leadership trainer. And location wise, I was sitting in the hills while all the action in this line was happening in the cities. What I did and how I did it is another story. But for now, I want to talk about a very important lesson that I learnt; the real meaning of opportunity.
Commitment is the line you cross between wanting and doing. Unfortunately, most people never actually cross the line. They argue that they did not have the opportunity. This may be true in some cases, but in most it is commitment that they did not have; the opportunity was always there.
The reason why many people don’t seem to get enough commitment to accomplish large goals is rooted in two causes:
- Lack of clarity about the benefits at the end.
2. Impatience – giving up midway due to lack of immediate results
Clarity about the end
It is in the nature of extraordinary goals to inspire extraordinary effort. Nobody rises to low expectations; people rise to high expectations. It is essential that the final result is visualized clearly and is as real as possible to the person who sets out to accomplish it. The more desirable the final result, the more people will be willing to take the inevitable drudgery and the mundane, which is a major and essential part of all endeavors. It is the promise of great reward that drives the soul when the body has passed the boundaries of exhaustion. It is the expectation of that which is dearest to the heart that holds the hand when the night is dark and cold, and you are alone.
I became most aware of the power of the extraordinary goal when I was in Vietnam, fifteen feet underground crawling through the tunnels where the Vietnamese fought the Americans. I was doing the tourist routine in Cu-Chi where the tunnels are, wondering what it must have been to experience the real thing. The Vietnamese Tourism Authorities have widened one of the tunnels slightly and strung a couple of light bulbs so that it is not pitch dark. The tunnel is just about hundred meters long. You go down through a trap door at the bottom of which the tunnel begins. You have to lie flat on your belly and crawl. Does wonders for your clothes. Then at the end of the tunnel you come out into the pit at the bottom of the other trap door and climb out. And of course, you don’t meet a snake coming the other way, nor are there bombs falling overhead. I was drenched in sweat to the extent that my shirt was soaking wet. There were two-hundred-and-fifty miles of these tunnels at three levels. They had hospitals, ammunition dumps, sleeping quarters, eating quarters, meeting rooms, and even burial rooms. They were cold and dark and damp. And overhead flew the American B52 bombers whose instructions were to drop all they had after every bombing sortie in this area. The Americans tried everything from flooding, gassing, chemicals, and napalm.
Yet the Vietnamese fought back, often using discarded ammunition, booby traps made from empty Coke cans, nails, spring steel, fire ants, scorpions and snakes. Talk about invention and ingenuity. Talk about a very nasty way to die. Do that tour and then see the Vietnam War Museum in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and you will learn the meaning of determination and resilience. Read about these in the books that are for sale there. Read also about the Tunnel Rats – American, Canadian, and Australian soldiers who volunteered to go into the tunnels and fight the Vietnamese, working alone. Makes you wonder what motivates such people. Irrespective of what one may think about the justification of the Vietnam War, one can only admire the courage of the soldier who chose to go into a tunnel, often with nothing more than a knife or a hand gun. The tunnels were built for the small, wiry Vietnamese, not for big Americans. So, it was the small, short ones from the American Army who volunteered. Amazing stories of some very brave people on both sides.
What kept the Vietnamese going? The same thing that kept Nelson Mandela and Ahmed Kathrada alive and mentally healthy for eighteen years on Robben Island. The same thing that drives the freedom fighters of today wherever they may be; the drive for freedom.
Freedom is a very powerful goal. A very basic and intense need of the human being. It is something for which a person will sacrifice anything. That is what those who seek to enslave forget; the fact that paradoxically, enslavement strengthens the desire to be free. The more you try to enslave, the more people want to be free. And in the end, the slave masters always lose. It is the thought of freedom that kept the Vietnamese fighters alive and striving for their goal for twenty years. Thousands of them died and never saw the goal fulfilled, but in the end, it was their sacrifice that ensured that the most powerful nations in the world had to retreat.
Giving up midway
Have you ever seen a traditional weighing scale in a shop in India selling food grains? There is an extremely important life lesson to be learnt from this. The next time you go to buy rice or some other grain, notice what the seller does.
First, he puts the weight measure in one pan. Say twenty kilos. Then he uses a scoop and starts to put rice into the other pan. As the pan fills, even when he has put nineteen kilos in it, what change do you see? Nothing.
There is no change in the situation. The pan with the weight remains firmly on the counter top and the pan with the rice remains in the air. However, the man does not stop putting the rice into the pan. He continues to do that until he sees a small movement in the pans as the pan with the rice starts to descend. Once that happens and the pans are almost level, the man changes his method of putting in the grain. Now instead of the scoop, he uses his hand. He takes a handful of rice and very gently he drops a few grains at a time into the pan. And then lo and behold, the pan with the rice descends to the counter top and the pan with the weight rises in the air.
When I saw this, I learnt two essential lessons in life, both equally true:
Lesson # 1: Up to nineteen kilos, nothing will happen.
Lesson # 2: At 20 kilos, the pan will tip.
Believing in the ‘impossible’
Finally, if there is one thing that my life has taught me, it is the truth of the fact that nobody knows the best that they can do. This of course does not mean that you act with all passion and no planning. Passion is the key. Then comes the hard work of planning, scheduling, monitoring, measuring, taking feedback, course correction, and the final results. This is where the gap is created and enthusiasm fizzles out. However, if you plan well and make a good road map with milestones, then it helps to keep the passion alive. More importantly it helps to keep the passion kindled in the hearts of your followers.
Any great enterprise needs people. People who you can share your vision with, people who resonate to your tune, people who can hear the drumbeat to which you are marching. This is the biggest challenge that any leader faces. How do you make others dream your dream? Like most things in life, this also involves a paradox. On the one hand, as I have said earlier, the goal must be big enough to make it worth the effort. But a big goal is scary, and it can scare away a lot of people. On the other hand, if you water it down, then it will attract the wrong kind of people and fail to arouse the interest of those who can potentially share your dream. So, the goal must be big and exciting, even scary. Then it must be reduced into steps on a plan that will convince people that it can be accomplished. It is possible that you may end up with a plan that does not completely add up and leaves some room for a leap of faith but remember that if the gap looks like the Grand Canyon, it is unlikely that you will find any takers for your vision. There can be a gap, but the gap must be reasonably feasible. This is the beauty of a real stretch goal. It is big enough to excite and energize, yet not so big that it scares people away into not trying at all.
A good plan with graded steps plays the role of bringing the stars within reach. It also indicates that enough thought-share has happened in the genesis of the plan. Potential supporters look for this consciously or unconsciously. For example, when venture capitalists are listening to a business plan, more than looking at the numbers, they look to see if there is enough passion behind the idea, if enough due diligence has been done, and if enough alternatives have been generated and answered.
Generating alternatives is all about thinking outside the box in terms of what you do. Of using your creativity to approach problems from a different angle, which often opens doors that you did not imagine, existed. Taking advantage of opportunities is therefore more about commitment than about some unique, inspirational idea.
For more, please see my book, ‘It’s my Life’.
The tea plantations of the Sub-continent are a unique environment, be that in South India, Assam or Sri Lanka because they represent a completely artificial man-made community. The areas where tea is grown were, until a hundred years ago, pristine rain forest. Then came the British, having discovered wild tea in Assam as well as with stolen tea seedlings from China, which broke the tea monopoly of that country. Workers were transported from the plains of Tamilnadu for South Indian and Sri Lankan (Ceylon) plantations and from Orissa and Bengal for the Assam gardens. In South India most if not almost all of them were Dalits. They were housed in colonies according to their native areas. They built temples and either one of them officiated as the priest, having learned the rituals in Eklavya tradition (unofficially from some kind priest who would teach him) or they hired a poor Brahmin, who because he was paid by them, didn’t prevent them from entering the temple. This was not the case (and to this day it is not the case) in their own homelands, where Dalits, though officially classified as Hindu, are not permitted inside Hindu temples. This resulted in an egalitarian tradition which continues to this day, where everyone participates in all festivals and religious functions. The estate manager especially, irrespective of his religion, is expected to officiate at all religious functions of all religions and is specifically invited as the Chief Guest. Generally, this merely means putting in an appearance and flagging off a temple procession or lighting a lamp to signify the beginning of a ceremony or some other symbolic gesture. But it is nevertheless important and taken very seriously.
There is a book called Red Tea, by Paul Harris Daniel, which is a novel but is based on fact. The author took sworn affidavits from those whose stories he told. This book was published by Higginbotham’s in 1969 and was later made into the Tamil film ‘Paradesi’. The book gives a good account of what life in the early plantations was like and what the real price of tea is, not in money but in lives and blood of animals and men. Not to speak of the tremendous damage to the rain forests of Northeast and South India and Sri Lanka (Ceylon in those days). But those were the days before there was any awareness about these things and after all we were a colony to be exploited for the benefit of the British Empire and so we were; thoroughly.
When I joined planting in 1983, this was all history but there were still old workers who had seen a lot of what I have written above. One of them was Kullan, who was in his 70’s when I met him in 1983. We would sit on my veranda in the night and he would tell me stories about the ‘old days’ (Palaya Gaalam). That is the benefit of learning the language (Tamil, which I didn’t know a word of until I joined planting) and of having a good relationship with your workers. It was in the course of one of those sessions that he told me in a very matter of fact tone that the bungalow in which I lived (where we were sitting right then) was the estate hospital in those days and in the monsoon when there was an epidemic of cholera, many bodies were simply thrown into the ravine that was a little way behind the bungalow. “That is why their ghosts are still wandering here, Dorai”, he said to me. I must say that none of them ever bothered me, though Kullan was not the only one who mentioned ghosts in that bungalow.
The Muslim workers in Murugalli Estate where I was posted decided to dismantle the temporary shed that they used as a masjid and build a small, but permanent concrete structure in its place. They had collected some money and the company also gave them a small grant. But when they did the math in the end, they discovered that they had no money for the centering sheets to cast the concrete roof, nor did they have money for the labor to cast the slab. They came to me for advice to resolve this issue. I spoke to Mr. Dakshinamurthy, the Mayura Factory, Site Engineer, and he readily agreed to loan them the centering sheets free of cost. He also loaned them the concrete mixer. All that remained was the labor. I suggested to them that we do a working Sunday and get all the Muslim men to help with the labor and the Muslim women to make some food.
“Why do you need to pay for labor to build a masjid when we are all here?” I asked them. They all agreed enthusiastically. So, the following Sunday that is what we did. What fun we had!!
The Muslim workers in Murugalli were all from the Mallapuram district of Kerala. The women made some wonderful Malabari Biryani and we started early in the morning after a large mug of highly sweetened Malabari tea. We set up a human chain from the mixer to the top; I was on the top. The men started a chant in Malayalam as they passed up the concrete containers and we started pouring the concrete. This is a job that needs to be done without stopping, so as the day advanced and we became tired, the work became progressively more difficult. But the spirit of the work, the fact that we were building a masjid, and the promise of the Malabari Biryani, which was making its presence felt as its aroma floated on the air as it cooked, kept us going. By late afternoon the final load was cast, and we came down. Then after washing up, we sat down to a meal that was more delicious than I remembered eating ever before. Was it the food? Was it the hunger? Was it the fact that we were eating it after a day well spent? I don’t know. All I know is that it was wonderful to eat.
There is a sad ending to this part of my story. Dakshinamurty suddenly died in a very bizarre accident. He was at home one weekend and was having his head oiled. The barber who did the oil massage for him twisted his head to crack his spine. This is a very common practice in India and is done all the time without any adverse result. However, in Dakshinamurty’s case the man accidentally snapped his spinal cord. He was instantly paralyzed from the neck down and two days later he passed away. Sadly, he could not see the completion of Mayura Factory, the project that he had started. D.R.S. Chary stayed with me till the project was completed and then returned to Chennai where he lived. A couple of years later, I heard that he also passed away. I mourn the passing of these good people with whom I shared some wonderful times.
When Mayura was finally built and was to be inaugurated, Mr. AMM Arunachalam sent priests to do a puja – Ganapathy Homam (Havan), which was to start at 2:00 am the next morning and would go on for several hours. To my astonishment, Mr. AVG Menon called me and said, “AMM wants you to officiate as the representative of the Murgappa family at the puja. If you don’t want to do it, then he asked me to find someone else.” I was astonished to say the least because I am Muslim and I had never imagined that I would be asked to officiate at a Hindu puja, that too one which was so important to the Murugappa family. Obviously, it was a great honor and highly unusual. I told AVG that I would not actually be worshiping if I participated but he said that was alright. I asked him what I needed to do. He said to me, “You need to go there at 2:00 am when it starts and sit there with the priests. They will recite the slokas and every once in a while, the head priest will give you some grains of rice, which you must throw on to the fire.” That seemed simple enough and so I, a Muslim, officiated at a Ganapathy Homam on behalf of the Murugappa family at the opening of the Mayura Fatory in the Anamallais. I would like to believe that the extraordinary success of the factory was a result of my participation in its inauguration. In today’s India I wonder what happened to that India which I lived in. Where did it all go?
Once the puja was complete, we got ready for the formal inauguration to which the entire Board of Directors was invited including the Chairman Mr. AMM Arunachalam. This was followed by a lunch at the Group Manager, Mr. AVG Menon’s bungalow in Sheikalmudi. The building of Mayura Factory was a truly historic occurrence because tea factories are not built every day. Most in the Anamallais were over eighty years old at the time Mayura was built and commissioned (1985). On top of that it was the largest and most modern factory in India with computer-controlled systems and all kinds of bells and whistles. Since I was the man on the spot, so to speak, I had to be in many places at once and managed to do it. Everything went off well. Lunch finished late and we returned home close to 5:00pm. I had been awake and working for 48 hours straight with perhaps a short nap on my feet. But the day had not ended yet for me. We, my newly wedded wife and I, had a formal dinner to attend in Mudis.
Among the customs of plantation life was that of ‘calling on’ the seniors of the district. When you came in new or got married and your wife came to the estates, you called on the seniors of the district to introduce yourself and her. You telephoned or sent a letter saying that you would like to call on them and asked when would be convenient. These were formal social meetings and you were treated with great dignity and grace. This ‘calling on’ was usually for tea unless it was somebody you knew already, in which case you would be invited to dinner.
We had just got married (March 1985) and I returned with my wife, post haste to the estate because Mayura Factory opening was due. Two days after our marriage we boarded the train for Coimbatore from where we drove up the Aliyar Ghat of forty hairpin bends. My wife was violently sick all the way up the Ghat. Being prone to motion sickness, the Ghat road was not doing her any good at all. I was very concerned because this Ghat road was a given if we lived in the Anamallais and with my wife being so sick on it, it didn’t seem to portend well for us. The prospect of a repeat performance every time we traveled was definitely not something to look forward to. But as it happened after a couple of trips my wife got over her motion sickness altogether. Maybe the Ghat road shocked it out of her system.
As was the custom of the plantations when anyone got married and returned with his wife, there was a round of parties to meet the couple. So also, in our case and since I was the Secretary of the Anamallai Club, I had more than my fair share of friends and so we had a party to go to every night. The parties were formal suit and tie affairs and the hostess would go to great lengths to cook special dishes in honor of the guests and at the end the couple would be given a gift. In a place where social relationships were very important, these parties were not simply for entertainment. They were rites of passage and thresholds of entry from bachelorhood to marriage, which gave you a higher level of status and respect. They also had a ‘snob value’ associated with who invited you and who didn’t. I didn’t bother with that at all, but then again, I was invited by everyone, so it didn’t matter. The parties were also a good way to introduce the new bride to a way of life that was foreign to her and helped her to make contacts with senior ladies and others more experienced in this lifestyle, which could be challenging for someone born and brought up in the city. Most people who go to tea gardens for a holiday in good weather don’t realize the difficulty of that environment for those who must live there all year round.
The estate workers also welcomed the Assistant Manager when he returned with his wife. In my case, the Candoora workers were the first. As our car rounded the bend off the Sholayar Dam and came towards ‘Black Bridge,’ we were stopped and requested to alight. We both came out of the car, glad for the chance to stretch our legs. The road was lined with girls who sang a welcome song and showered us with flower petals as we walked through this guard of honor. We were taken to a small pavilion which I realized had been made by tying the best sarees of the women to the poles and decorated with lots of flowers. Tea garden workers can be the most loving people in the world and if you are good to them, they appreciate it and reciprocate. I saw many examples of that in my decade long career. We were garlanded and sat at a table on the two grandest chairs that they could find. Then we were served tea with biscuits and sweets. It was then that a depressed fly decided to end its meaningless life in my wife’s tea cup. But my wife being the perfect lady that she is, merely fished out the fly and drank the tea without batting an eyelid. An amazing performance which saved us from a lot of embarrassment. Those poor workers had taken so much trouble to welcome us that it would have been very ungraceful to complain, even about the suicide of a fly.
Then speeches were made, and the women danced and sang another song in our honor in which we were mentioned repeatedly in sometimes a humorous way and sometimes with great respect. The amazing thing was that this song was made up then and there and they sang about various habits of mine, including singing while I rode my motorcycle. People observed you and remembered and mentioned what you did. All the more reason to ensure that whatever it was, remained good and honorable. At the end of this song and dance there were some speeches by the local union leaders and one supervisor and then I was asked to speak. It was permitted for the manager to speak in English and the speech would be translated. But I had learnt Tamil for occasions such as these and spoke it well, much to everyone’s delight. When I had finished and thanked them for all their trouble and expressed our gratitude for the honor that we had been granted, they gave my wife a gold ring as their gift as a mark of their love and honor for me. I was floored. These were poor people who had collected money for this, something which was not expected of them at all. What could I say? As I mentioned earlier, Managers and workers in the plantations form bonds that are more like family than anything else.
To return to the daily dinner parties in our honor, these daily night outings were so frequent that my wife could recognize a road only in the dark. The parties, enjoyable though they were and were a good way to meet friends who lived too far to visit frequently, could be very taxing as they tended to go on very late. I was expected to put in an appearance at the morning muster on the estate at 6:00 am no matter when we returned. The night of Mayura Factory inauguration (the day that started at 2:00 am), we had been invited to dinner at the home of our dear friends, Prema and Ricky Muthanna in Mudis. Ricky was the General Manager of BBTC and we were honored to be invited to their home. As it happened, there was no time even for a short snooze in the afternoon thanks to the inauguration and to top it all, my car was once again in hospital. I didn’t fancy the idea of going all the way to Mudis (about thirty km on serpentine estate roads, decorated with potholes) on my motorcycle. I asked AVG Menon to borrow his new car, an Ambassador, for the evening and he graciously agreed.
We set off at about 7:00 pm as the dinner was for 8:00 pm. I was exhausted as I had been awake for 48 hours, but we set off, my wife and I, on this long drive. We arrived at Prema and Ricky’s house to a very warm welcome. My wife and Prema became friends instantly and have remained friends all these years. Ricky and Prema’s home was a delight, very tastefully decorated and one of the iconic bungalows in the Anamallais. It was the only bungalow to my knowledge which had a central courtyard with a veranda all around it and so it had a garden inside and outside. Prema had called a lot of people in our honor and the house was full of our friends and some others who I knew by name but was meeting for the first time.
All plantation parties (except in my house) started with drinks, which the men consumed in large quantities while the women sipped soft drinks and discussed matters of great import. As I was not one for the spiritual experience, I would take my orange juice or fresh lime soda and chat with whoever was still on mother earth. But as many left for higher altitudes in proportion to the spirit inside them, I would usually take myself off into a corner and contemplate the world. That day I was so sleepy and tired that my eyes were self-shutting unable to withstand the weight of my eyelids, while the party was in full swing. I was clearly out of it. Prema saw me in that state and said to us, ‘Yawar looks like he is going to drop. Let me give you dinner so that you can eat and leave. I have no idea when these men will eat, and you look like you won’t last too long.’ I agreed wholeheartedly, and we ate, said our farewells quietly and left.
Even up to that point I had my faculties still intact. You had to be alert when driving in the Anamallais, both because of the road conditions as well as the possibility of coming upon a herd of elephants or gaur around a bend. That night was mercifully elephant free and we reached Lower Sheikalmudi Estate without incident. As I took the final turn on the road leading up to our bungalow (the ‘Tennis Court Bungalow’), I relaxed and that was my undoing. The next thing I knew, there was a crash and the car came to an abrupt halt. I was shocked back into awareness and realized that I had driven off the road. The left front wheel of the car was hanging off the side of the road in midair with the front fender resting against a tea bush, which was the reason we didn’t go all the way down into the ravine. The chassis was resting on the road bed. My wife and I were shocked. It was 2:00 am and there we were.
I realized that this was not a good situation because the car didn’t belong to me. It was Mr. Menon’s car and a new one to boot. It was therefore my responsibility to get out of this situation. It didn’t even occur to me that I could leave the car where it was until morning and then get assistance to take it out of its predicament. I had crashed it and it was up to me to get it out. And I had to do it right away; it was not even a matter to think about. As it was, the car was directly below a stairway that led up to our house. I got my wife to walk up to the house so that she would be safely home. Then I went in search of a tractor to pull the car out. I knew that the leaf transport tractors – Massey Ferguson – used to be parked near Mayura Factory, about two kilometers from where I was. Our roads had no street lights and it was a dark night. The tea fields were home to wild boar and other friendly species, not to mention several species of snakes, but none of them was my boss while AVG Menon was. So, I hiked off in search of a tractor. On the way I called my good friend, mechanic Thangavelu, because there was no way that I could pull the car out alone. He and his ever-present smile came out of his house as if he had been waiting for me. Both of us got to where the tractors were parked and selected the one we wanted.
None of the tractors had self-starters and used to be parked on an incline so that you could roll down and start the engine. And they had no lights; I never understood why. Working in starlight, I got into the driver’s seat, rolled down, and started the tractor. Now we needed a tow rope. Thangavelu recalled that the telephone company people had been working on a line passing through one of our fields and had left a coil of telephone wire there. So off we went, with Thangavelu standing on a plank behind me, holding the seat as I drove the tractor. We picked up the coil of wire and drove back to where the car was; hooked up the wire to the chassis at the back and pulled the car back on the road. When I examined the damage, I saw that the tea bush had taken the shock and except for a small side indicator light, nothing was broken. That was a big relief to put it mildly. Thangavelu and I, then took the tractor back to its parking spot and I drove home at 3:30 am. I still recall the first thing that AVG asked me when I told him that we’d had an accident in his new car. He said, “I hope you both are alright?” I told him that we were fine but that his new car had been inaugurated with a broken indicator light. He was amused and laughed it off and said, “That can be fixed. I am happy that nothing happened to you both.”
That is why we used to call him A Very Good Menon (AVG Menon).
For more, please see my book, ‘It’s my Life’.
One of the first things that strikes you as you enter any ‘Tea District’ is the tea factory. These in many if not most cases are over a century old, build entirely of wood on a structure of steel girders. The machinery, especially in the Orthodox factories is fit for a museum. For the uninitiated, ‘Orthodox’ refers to the type of manufacture and not the religious inclinations of the manager. This was the case when I entered planting in 1983. Then in 1985 our company, Parry Agro, decided to build a spanking new CTC (another way of manufacturing tea) in the Anamallais. I was closely associated with the project from the word ‘Go.’ The factory was built on Lower Sheikalmudi Estate and AVG Menon, my first manager was made responsible for the project, since he was the Group Manager for the Sheikalmudi Group. He appointed me as his assistant for the day to day supervision of the construction and so I became the defacto Site Manager of the project. At this time, I was the Assistant Manager in Murugalli Estate with responsibility for Murugalli Factory (Factory Assistant). I now had two jobs, reported to two managers and no additional pay. I was delighted, and it didn’t even occur to me to ask for more money for doing almost double the work that anyone else was doing. Not because I am allergic to money but because I was going to get a chance to build something that others had only done a century ago; build a tea factory.
I lived in a bungalow that was midway between Murugalli Factory and the site of the proposed Mayura factory and was the proud possessor (company issue) of a Royal Enfield 350 cc motorcycle. This ran on a mixture of petrol and faith aided by gravity when coasting down hill after its engine periodically decided to give up the ghost. I would then roll down the road to its end and hand over the bike to its resurrector, Thangavelu, our mechanic who had no formal education in automobile engineering but could make anything with wheels run, when all others had given up on it. It was (and is) a fascinating fact about our tea gardens, factories that for literally over a century, they are run by people like Thangavelu who learnt their art as apprentices with some other mechanic and run machinery that would be a major challenge for highly qualified engineers. These people have no diagnostic tools, no meters, just a spanner and a pair of pliers; but with that they moved mountains. This is an unsung lot who work from generation to generation and disappear quietly into the environment, none the wiser or even grateful that thanks to them, they (the unwise and ungrateful) got their daily cuppa.
Thangavelu looked like he had lube oil in his veins. His clothes looked like leather, thanks to the amount of oil they had absorbed. He had three teeth in his top jaw and a few more in the bottom, all visible because he never stopped smiling from ear to ear, come rain or sunshine. He never walked. He trotted. His heart was made of gold and he was my brother. He still is, and now retired, I hope he has a long and happy life. Apart from his genius with motorcycles, he repaired tractors, cars, factory machinery and worked a lathe machine. I wanted a pruning knife, a wicked blade 18 inches long and curved at the end, sharp enough to shave the hair on your arm (that is how we used to test it). Thangavelu started with a broken piece of truck spring blade and created a knife nestled in a handle made of Sambar horn (they shed annually), bound with brass hoops. It was a work of art and I had it for many years, until the Deputy Forest Officer coveted it and expropriated it in exchange for releasing ten of my workers who got arrested for killing a barking deer. But that is another story.
I mentioned Thangavelu (that is him but without his smile because he thinks this photo taking is serious business) because I mentioned my Royal Enfield motorcycle, my sole means of transport. And that, because one day it died. Truly forever. That left me in the situation where I was in-charge of two projects, Murugalli Factory and the Mayura construction project and no transport. I asked my Manager who was my immediate superior and who had not been happy at all at my appointment with additional responsibility for Mayura, if he could let me have another bike. He said to me, ‘Who told you to accept the additional responsibility? Now ask whoever appointed you.’ That meant that I was to ask AVG Menon who had asked for me. I refused to do that as I had no intention of getting in the middle of company politics. In any case, I was very pleased with the appointment and didn’t want to go to AVG with this kind of stuff. So, I used to walk every day twice, to both factories, clocking in about 15-16 kilometers all told. That continued until one day I was hoofing it when a car drove up from behind me and I heard a cheery, ‘Hello! Yawar!’ It was Mr. Rawlley, the Visiting Agent (an old British period title that was still used in those days even after the Agency system no longer existed), on his inspection tour of our group of estates. ‘Why on earth are you walking?’ he asked. I told him the story and that evening, much to my manager’s acidity and flatulence, I got a new bike.
Mayura was unique for many reasons. For one thing, it would have a capacity to process one-hundred-thousand kilograms of green leaf per day. At a time when the average production was two-thousand-five-hundred kilograms made-tea per hectare, this was a huge figure, one that nobody thought could ever be reached. It was the vision of Mr. K. Ahmedullah and Mr. N. K. Rawlley, who were the General Manager and Visiting Agent respectively. They proposed the theory that creating capacity would stimulate production as it would put pressure on the estates to supply the factory. Initially, nobody believed them except the Murugappa family; Mr. Alagappan and Mr. AMM Arunachalam in particular. But that was enough as they were the ones who were funding the project. Once the factory was completed, Ahmed’s and Nickoo’s vision was proved right. The production of the estates went up from two-thousand-five-hundred to four-thousand kilograms per hectare. Needless to say, this did not happen by magic. A lot of people put in a lot of effort, but there is no doubt that it was the presence of Mayura that pushed us all to excel. Once again this proved to me the value of vision.
Since the Anamallais is hilly, locating a huge factory was no easy task. It involved leveling the land first, to create the construction site. The main building was on columns, but we still needed a level site to locate all the rest of the buildings and bays. We had two bulldozers brought up from Coimbatore to do the cutting and filling of soil on the hillside to get enough level land to start building. I went down to the site on the first day that the work started. The bulldozer operators were already on their machines with the engines running. I called the leader of the team to give him instructions. He switched off the engine and came to me. I showed him from which part of the hillside I wanted the soil to be cut and where I wanted it to be moved and dumped so that eventually we would get a flat surface. He listened in silence, then handed me the key and said, “Why don’t you show me how to do it?”
I was taken aback by this obvious insubordination so early in the morning. But I took the key from him, climbed up on the track of the dozer and into the seat. I started the engine, engaged gear, and started cutting the soil. I worked for about half an hour. Then I parked the machine, switched off the engine, got off the machine, and handed the key back to the driver and walked away, all in silence. I had a hard time keeping a straight face at the look of shock on the driver’s face for having called his bluff. The long and short of this was that I never had a problem with that driver again for the duration of the land clearing stage. When the work was done, and the drivers were going back, he came to me and said, “I apologize for challenging you on the first day, but tell me where did you learn to drive a bulldozer?” I told him, “In future, before you challenge anyone, find out what they know.”
My knowledge of bulldozers and machinery was acquired in Guyana in the mines, when I was doing a Job Evaluation exercise in the company and had to evaluate the difficulty of each job. Knowing how to do the job yourself is obviously a big advantage and not one that most non-technical people have. I had very good relations with the bulldozer, truck (50 ton CAT dump trucks) and dragline crane operators and they gladly taught me how to drive them. For them I was a curiosity, a young Indian boy in his early 20’s willing to learn from grizzled West Indian African experts whose hands were like steel encased in sandpaper. That I was their superior in rank meant nothing. That I was willing to learn and not throw my weight around meant everything in my favor. I was welcomed. We joked, shared our meals and I spent many happy hours in the cabin of a truck or bulldozer deep in the Amazonian rain forest or in the great mine pit.
My learning in this incident of the bulldozer at Mayura fatory, many years later, was the fact that to build credibility it is important to be able to lead from the front. You don’t have to do people’s jobs for them. It is not even desirable to do this. But you do need to demonstrate that you know what they do and can do it if necessary. It is when subordinates get the impression that you know nothing about what they do, that it makes them nervous and lose motivation. The good ones feel a little lost. The crooks take you for a ride.
Mayura Factory’s construction was a time of learning for me. The site engineer was a wonderful elderly gentleman called Mr. D.R.S. Chary, who stayed with me in my bungalow throughout the project. He was a very well read and learned man, many years my senior but with a great sense of humor. We hit it off from the first day and became great friends. Chary taught me a great deal about constructing large buildings. I found this a fascinating time and used every opportunity I could, to add to my knowledge. On the factory site, the contractor’s site engineer was another wonderful man called Mr. Dakshinamurthy. He also became a good friend and was helpful in many ways.
Chary and I lived in the bungalow behind the tennis court. We could see the construction site from our veranda. Since Chary was a Brahmin, out of consideration for him, I had instructed my cook and butler Bastian, not to cook any meat while he was staying with us. No meat was cooked for over six months in our kitchen. I would go to some of my other friends like Berty Suares and Taher for my meat fix.
The bungalow had a somewhat shady history in that it was supposed to have been the estate hospital in the remote past during an epidemic and many people had died in it. It also had the dubious distinction of having a resident demon. There was a small shrine at one end of the garden, which I was told was a shrine to Karpuswamy (literally means: Black God), who the people described as a very powerful and evil entity that needed to be placated with an annual animal sacrifice. The sacrifice itself was not done in the Bungalow garden because it was done at a larger temple, but every morning one of the tea plucker women would put some flowers at the shrine. Chary, like most highly educated Hindus, did not believe in any of this, given more to keeping to the social norms than any real religious belief in the mythology.
Some weeks after Chary and I moved into the bungalow, some rumors started to circulate in the estate to say that my bungalow was haunted and that people had seen Karpuswamy near the bungalow at night. I saw nothing and was not perturbed by the rumors. I don’t believe in ghosts and don’t believe that anything can harm or benefit anyone except the Creator Himself. I slept well. Chary told me one day when he was leaving after the completion of Mayura Factory that he never seemed to sleep well in this bungalow. But I was not sure how much of that was because of some unconscious effect of the rumors and how much of it was plain indigestion or some such thing. He was over sixty years old at the time, after all.
I had recently bought a used Ambassador car. It had the dubious distinction of having belonged to the son of Marri Chenna Reddy a former Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh. Among its other attributes was the fact that it was graced with a carburetor that was cracked down the middle and was held together with a wire. Now hold on – before you go making sly remarks about Ambassadors, ask yourself, ‘which other car would still run in this condition?’ And run it did. However, it did need long hours in the workshop. In the plantations the workshop came to you, as did most other things. One night, Velayudhan, the mechanic, was working on the car in my garage behind the house. He worked late into the night and promised to return the next day to complete the job. The next morning there was no sign of him and when I sent someone to look for him, the man returned and said that Velayudhan was in hospital.
I was very surprised and concerned as the man had been working in my house the previous evening and had been well and healthy. What could have happened to him for him to be hospitalized? He was a cheerful and willing worker and I had a very good relationship with him, so I was genuinely concerned for him. I went to the hospital and first asked the doctor what the matter was with Velayudhan. The doctor told me that he had been brought to the hospital late the previous night in a hysterical state, his heartbeat racing and in a semi-conscious state. He was so bad that the doctor had been afraid the man would have a heart attack or a stroke. All this seemed to have been brought about by intense fear. He had to be given a heavy dose of sedative to put him to sleep. In short, the man had been extremely frightened by someone or something.
I went to see him and he told me the story, which I present to you without comment.
He said to me, “Dorai, I had finished my work for the day on your car and decided to take the short cut through the tea field down the hillside instead of the main road. It was a full moon night and the footpath was clearly visible in the moonlight. As I started down the path, I suddenly heard a heavy snort behind me, like a cow sometimes makes as it is grazing. I looked back over my shoulder and saw a huge man with flaming red eyes and huge teeth. I turned and ran and then I fell down and fainted.” Some people who were going past on the main road below heard the sound of his running and then saw him fall. They picked him up and took him to the hospital. There was some suspicion that perhaps he’d hit the bottle, but the doctor denied that and said that he did not show any sign of having been inebriated. He was just very badly terrified and completely hysterical with fear.
I lived in that bungalow for two years and went in and out at all hours, but never saw a thing. That is what led to the rumor that Karpuswamy was the guard on the bungalow and guarded me. In the plantations such rumors add to your mystique and reputation. In any case, I could do nothing to refute it.
A year later, another incident added some more grist to the mill.
There was a supervisor who was very corrupt, so I dismissed him. He was naturally very upset and angry with me and threatened me with many things. He did not say any of this to me directly of course, but various rumors started floating that he would do black magic against me. Black magic is quite prevalent in India and in the plantations and many people claimed either to do it or had been its victims. When these stories got to me, I said, “If anyone does anything against me, it will turn against him. I worship AllahY and nothing can happen to me without His will. I ask Him to protect me.” That put a stop to all the talk that came to me.
Then one day, I was walking in the field with my Field Officer Mr. O. T. Varghese, a wonderful elderly man who taught me a lot about tea planting. Suddenly a tea plucker woman came running to us, wailing all the while and fell at my feet. She was wailing, “Only you can save me. Have mercy on my husband……” and so on. I was taken aback to say the least. After a while, Mr. Varghese and I managed to get some sense out of her. Mr. Varghese told me that she was the wife of the dismissed supervisor. She told us that her husband had gone to a black magic expert in their village and asked him to put a spell on me to kill me. However, the spell backfired on him and now he was dying and was in hospital, where they had brought him the previous evening. She begged me to go with her and see her husband.
I agreed, though I thought to myself that this was a jolly good thing and served him right for his efforts. After all, his wife had not tried to stop him from his nefarious activity and if he had succeeded, his wife would have been sitting pretty with him and not running to my aid. Anyway, Mr. Varghese and I reached the hospital and I asked the doctor about the patient.
He said to me that there was nothing wrong with him except that he was in a state of very high excitement and terror and had not slept for more than 72 hours. His heart was racing and the doctor was fearful that if he continued in this way for a few more hours it was entirely likely that he would have a heart attack. I entered the room after getting this information. As soon as I entered, the man literally fell off the bed and put his head on my feet. Weeping, he cried, “Dorai, please forgive me. I tried to do something bad to you, but it has come to me. I have children Dorai and they will become orphans if I die. Please forgive me Dorai and take this thing away from me.” It was the strangest experience that I have ever had in my life. I told him to get up and pulled him up by his arm and put him back on the bed. Then I asked for some water and recited Sura Al Fatiha (the first chapter in the Qur’an) and the Al Muwaddathian, the last two chapters and blew on the water and told him to drink it. I told his wife to give him what was left of the water later in the evening. Then I left. The doctor told me later that shortly thereafter the man slept and the next morning he was discharged.
Never a dull moment in the estates.
For more, please see my book, ‘It’s my Life’.