It was 1983. I had just returned from Guyana and was looking for a job. A dear friend in Hyderabad, Mr. Nazir Latif, introduced me to his friend Mr. Mumtaz Ahmed from Calcutta (in the days when it was still called that) who in turn asked me to go to Chennai to meet Mr. M. A. Alagappan, the MD of CWS (India) Limited, a tea company with plantations in the Anamallais, Mango Range and Assam. Mr. Alagappan sent me to meet Mr. Ahmedullah, GM Plantations, who was based in Iyerpadi. I took the Nilgiri Express to Coimbatore from Madras (it was still called that) and then a bus to Valparai. I had been asked to get off at Rotti Kadai, just after Carver Marsh’s statue at the top of the forty-hairpin bends that the road takes when climbing the mountain range called Anamallai Hills (Hills of the Elephants). I did as directed and found myself trudging up a narrow estate road with my bag on my shoulder. It was a Sunday morning, absolutely beautiful and sunny but not hot. As I walked up the slope, drinking in the scenery with tea and Silver Oak (Grevilia Robusta) trees on both sides, with the road falling away into the bottom of the hill on my left where I could see the top of a house and a tea factory. That house was where my friendship with AVGM (AVG Menon) and his wife Parvathy Menon, began.
As I walked up the slope in search of Mr. Ahmedullah who I was supposed to report to, I saw an Ambassador car coming down the slope. I stepped aside to let it pass but it stopped and a very distinguished gentleman rolled down his window in the back seat and looked a question. I greeted him and said, ‘I am looking for Mr. Ahmedullah. I am Yawar Baig and Mr. Alagappan sent me from Madras and asked me to meet him.’ He said to me, ‘Please get into the car.’ I was very pleased at the kindness as the reality of a city dweller at 1000 feet elevation, walking up a slope at 4000 feet with a bag was hitting me. The driver turned the car around and we drove up and turned into a beautiful dream of a wooden bungalow with blooming rose bushes all along the drive and a lawn in the front with a center piece of a Bird of Paradise flower in full bloom. At the end of the lawn was an old stone wall at the edge of which were very tall Blue Gums (Eucalyptus globulus) trees with their characteristic bark sloughing off like a snake shedding its skin.
I got out of the car and turned to thank the kind gentleman and his wife who was with him only to see them getting off also. I hastened to tell them that it was not necessary for them to ring the doorbell for me and that I would see to all that myself. ‘Thank you very much for the lift. Please don’t bother to get off. I will go on from here’, I said. The gentleman gave me a sardonic smile and said, ‘I am Mr. Ahmedullah.’ That led to a sumptuous breakfast and then we got back into the car and he and his wife, who had been on their way to Cochin, before I interrupted their journey, drove me down the hill to the house, whose roof I had already seen and introduced me to Mr. AVG Menon and his wife Parvathy. I was to stay with them for the night and present myself the next morning at the office for my formal interview. A great lesson in graciousness and hospitality which I received from Ahmed and Anees which drove home to me what I later stated in my lectures as, ‘People listen with their eyes. They don’t care what you say, until they see what you do.’ I learnt many other things from Ahmed and Anees who are both very dear friends and before that, my elders and teachers. But this was the first of them. They could simply have driven me to AVG’s house without interrupting their journey to Cochin. Instead, they took me home, fed me and made me comfortable and only then took me to where I was to stay the night.
To make a long story short, I went to the office the next morning for an interview where I met another wonderful person who is also a very dear friend, Mr. N. K (Nikoo) Rawlley. Ahmed and Nikoo interviewed me and I got the job of Assistant Manager, at a princely salary of ₹850 per month. I was posted to Sheikalmudi Estate on the other end of the Anamallai tea district from Iyerpadi. It is interesting to speculate that perhaps Sheikalmudi was the result of the Indianization of the Arab name, Sheikh Al Amoudi. Not too much of a stretch if one remembers that it is not too far away to Kodangallur from Sheikalmudi, down the Chalakudy Ghat, where Arab traders first landed in the reign of King Kulasekhara Perumal. Whatever be the origin of the name, to my great delight, by the time I joined a month after my interview, AVG Menon had been transferred from Iyerpadi to Sheikalmudi and was to be my first boss in planting.
I was billeted in the No. 18 bungalow. The number referred to the tea field in which it was situated in the LD (Lower Division) of Sheikalmudi Estate. I was in charge of LD. I didn’t know the first thing about running a household, so Mrs. Menon took over. She stocked my food store, sent cooking utensils and crockery and cutlery from her house, until I got my own and kept track of what my cook, good old Bastian, was making for me and what he was spending on it. If it had not been for her brilliant management, I would have starved to death on my princely salary. But with her in-charge, I even had some money left over every month. Which led one day to me discovering, when I went to the bank to update my passbook, that I was the owner of enormous wealth amounting to nothing less than ₹500. That was my net worth and I feel the warm glow of that to this day. AVG and Mrs. Menon (she told me to call her Paro but I can’t do that to this day) took me to the Anamallai Club and introduced me to other people in the planting community. They invited me home frequently so that I was well fed and taken care of. Sometimes, when their daughter Jayshree was home from school, she would also accompany us to the Club and strangely a rabbit (Black-naped Hare) would run with us before the car, all the way back from Valparai. We would point him out to Jayshree and I can bear witness that it was a very athletic rabbit who ran all that way home to their bungalow. This happened only when Jayshree was in the car and we would point it out to her and say, ‘See Jayshree, there it is again.’ I think this was some magic associated with her alone.
For the next two years, before I was transferred to Murugalli, my day would begin in the Muster at 0600 reading AVG’s instructions in the Muster Book, written in his very neat handwriting. Brief, to the point and sometimes quite terse. We carried them out and in the evening, I would go up to the Estate Office and would meet him to talk to him about anything important that had happened that day. AVG didn’t just teach me all that I needed to know about planting, but about managing people which was something much more valuable. I remember once, complaining very passionately about some skullduggery that was going on, involving some supervisors and workers. AVG listened patiently and then asked only one question, ‘Yawar, if everyone did what they are supposed to do, why would I need you?’ I didn’t say anything more, then or ever. I didn’t want him to ask me that question ever again. He never needed to.
I was transferred to Murugalli as the Factory Assistant, the following year. It was then that the idea of a brand-new tea factory was floated. Murugalli was an orthodox factory and we had Mr. Madhavan Nair as the Tea Maker. He taught me all about orthodox manufacture. Meanwhile the decision was taken to build the largest, most modern tea factory in the country which came to be known as Mayura. AVG was now Group Manager of Sheikalmudi Group and so was in-charge of the project. He needed an Assistant to be at the site and he chose me. There was some pushback from my Manager, Mr. K. C. Uthaiya who didn’t want to let me go. AVG asked me if I could manage two jobs. I was delighted and immediately agreed. So, I was appointed as the Site Manager for Mayura at no additional pay. Why did I accept? Because AVG had asked me and I am the kind of person who loves challenges. Two jobs are not easy to do especially when it involves going between two sites about four or five kilometers apart and even more when my motorcycle died and I had to walk. I did, many times, late at night. There was a shortage of cement and AVG sent me to Coimbatore to the ACC Cement factory to negotiate the price and buy what we needed. I spent several days there, covered with cement dust and thanking God when I could return to the purity of the hills. As the factory was nearing completion I went to Hyderabad for a week and returned with my wife Samina, who became a lifelong friend of AVG and Paro.
The day of the inauguration, I had been awake and working continuously for over 24 hours, when AMM Arunachalam, Chairman Murugappa Group who owned our company and Mayura factory, called AVG and while discussing who should officiate as the representative of the Murugappa family at the Ganapathy Homam (Ganesh Pooja) for the inauguration, asked AVG to suggest a name. AVG could have done it himself or suggested the name of anyone of the several Hindu managers. He suggested my name. AMM agreed and said that as long as I was agreeable, he would be happy to have me represent the family. AVG called me and asked me what I thought of the idea. I told him that I was honored but had no clue about what I was supposed to do. He said, ‘Don’t worry, ask Subanna.’ Subanna was our friend and the senior assistant manager in the group, Mr. M. Subramaniam. I called him and he said to me, ‘It is nothing at all. Just sit there, and the priest will guide you. He will give you some grains of rice and you have to keep throwing them into the fire as he chants the slokas.’ That didn’t sound very complicated and wasn’t. The whole proceedings took a couple of hours but it went through smoothly. Thus a factory owned by Chettiars, represented by a Muslim, was consecrated by Iyer priests. Sometimes, I wonder where those times vanished and instead we have the kind of hatred and enmity we see around us today.
That evening my wife and I were invited to dinner at Prema and Ricky Muthanna’s place. Ricky was the head of the BBTC Group and this dinner was in honor of my wife, welcoming her to the planting district. Such charming traditions of the planting world of those days. My car meanwhile, always running on a string, a bar of soap and a prayer, gave up the ghost and so at the end of over twenty-four sleepless hours, we had this dinner to go to and no car. AVG had just received his new car and needless to say, he offered it to me to take my wife to the dinner. I was most grateful and delighted to have the opportunity to drive a new car. We started out and went safely to Mudis and were made very welcome by Prema and Ricky. As in all planter’s parties, it starts with the drinks. I don’t drink and so very soon I found myself, as always at a different spiritual plane from those who were heavily fueled on Old Monk and Johnny Walker. It is not easy to sit in a corner and talk to a wall, since walls are good listeners but hardly ever respond to anything you say. Meanwhile, the exhaustion of the two days was hitting me. Prema saw me wilting in the corner and said to me, ‘I will give you both dinner. You eat and leave before you drop.’ I thought that was a very good idea and soon we were on our way back.
The thought of meeting elephants on the road, which was a distinct possibility in Mudis in those days, kept me awake. But as we took the final bend in the road leading up to my bungalow, there was a tremendous thud and the car stopped suddenly. I realized that I had fallen asleep and had gone off the road. That on a hill road with one side falling off into a deep ravine is not good news at all. What saved us was a tea bush which held the car and prevented it from going completely off the road and down the slope. But we still had one wheel off the road, and the car sitting on its chassis on the edge of the road. Not just any car. My manager’s new car.
By now it was past midnight. There was a small moon and so some little light. But no other light or sound. I sent Samina up to the bungalow. Then I walked down into the labour lines (housing) to the house of our estate mechanic Thangavelu and woke him up. He and I then went down to Mayura factory and borrowed a tractor. There were no drivers there, so I drove the tractor after Thangavelu jump started it, as it had no battery and so no lights. We drove to a place in the tea field adjacent to Candura Division where we recalled seeing some telephone cable. Sure enough there was a small roll of steel cable there. We picked it up and drove back up the hill to the car, tied the cable to the chassis at the back and hauled it back onto the road. I inspected the damage and found that apart from the indicator light on the left fender, the car was undamaged. That is when I started breathing again.
Next morning, I drove the car back to AVG’s bungalow and said to him, ‘Mr. Menon, I am sorry we had a small accident last night while returning from Mudis.’ His instant reaction, ‘Are you and Samina okay?’ I looked at him with my jaw hanging open. Not one word about his new car. I told him that we were fine but that his car had a broken indicator light. ‘That’s alright’, he said. ‘That can be replaced.’ That was it. Of such memories are friendships made. Today (Feb 1, 2018) AVG passed away. I lost a dear friend and mentor. A loss that can’t be replaced. AVGM – A Very Good Man.
My last meeting with AVG
I started working in India in the Anamallai Hills, part of the Western Ghats as they tapered down all the way into the tip of the subcontinent. Before that I had worked for five years in bauxite mining in Guyana, South America and lived on the bank of Rio Berbice, in the middle of the Amazonian rain forest. But that is another story.
The area that contained the tea plantations was part of the Indira Gandhi National Park. The park is home to an amazing variety of wildlife which thanks to the difficult terrain, plethora of leeches, and shortage of motorable roads is still safe from the depredations of ‘brave’ hunters buzzing around in their Jeeps and shooting animals blinded and frozen in their searchlight beams. In the Anamallais if you want to hunt (it is illegal to shoot anything in the National Park, but there are those who are not bothered about what is legal and what is not) you must be prepared to walk in the forest, up and down some very steep hills, be bitten by leeches and have a very good chance at becoming history at the feet of an elephant.
However, if you are not interested in hunting and killing animals, you have all the same pleasures and thrills with the animal healthy and alive at the end of it. I want to see and photograph animals, not kill them. I have hunted enough in my youth and lost interest in killing things as my connection with nature strengthened. I was looking for an opportunity to just spend time in the environment that I loved. My job as an Assistant Manager in Sheikalmudi Estate, my first posting with a princely salary of ₹850 per month, gave me all that I could have wished for.
Sheikalmudi borders the Parambikulam forest. This extends from the shore of the Parambikulam Reservoir (created by damming the Parambikulam River) up the steep mountainside all the way to the top. Sheikalmudi is the crown on that mountain’s head, manicured tea planted after cutting the rain forest, more than a century ago by British colonial planters. Where the tea ends, starts the rain forest of the Western Ghats. Anamallais is the second rainiest place on the planet. In the early part of the century it used to get more than three-hundred centimeters of rain annually and consequently it rained almost six months of the year. Even when I joined in 1983, we frequently saw spells of more than a week at a stretch, when it rained continuously day and night without any easing of the volume of water. I was horrified the first time I saw this. I was used to rain in Hyderabad, where we get about thirty centimeters annually. And to the rain in Guyana, where because of the Trade Winds which brought the rain, it rained on most days in the evenings for a little while and then cleared up.
Now here was rain and more rain and more rain. Yet in all this rain, we went to work at 6.00 am every morning. Heavy canvas raincoat, waterproof jungle hat, shorts, stockings and wellingtons. We rode our motorcycles down treacherous hill pathways, slippery in the rain and covered with fog as sometimes a cloud decided to rest on its journey across the sky. It was very cold because we were between 3500 to 4000 feet high and so in the first ten minutes, you lost all feeling in your legs, below your knees.
Walls of the bungalow would have mildew growing on them in damp patches. Small leaks would develop in the roof and their yield would be received in sundry pots and pans placed under them. This would create its own music. Little frogs would emerge from every crevice and would hop all around the house. In the night, they would find some resting place and add their voices to the night chorus of frogs and insects in the garden, that would rise and fall like an animal breathing. But sometimes the rain would be so heavy that all you could hear was the rain on the galvanized iron sheet roof. This sound would drown out every other sound. Within the first week of the beginning of the monsoon, all telephone lines would be down. Power supply would become extremely erratic. And more often than not, landslides would block roads. So being cut off from everyone for several days was a common phenomenon. When there came the occasional storm – every year we used to have at least two or three – all these problems would get magnified.
Candle light dinners with a roaring fire in the fireplace were the fringe benefit of this weather. That and in my case, a lot of chess by the fire. The year I got married, 1985, there was a storm in which twelve-hundred trees fell on my estate alone, taking down with them all power and telephone lines. There were two major landslides and we were cut off from the world for a total of fifteen days. It rained almost continuously for this period and my poor wife had a wet introduction to the new life ahead of her. But typical for us both, we enjoyed this time, playing chess by the fireside. She started by not knowing chess at all and I taught her the game. By the end of our enforced seclusion she was beating me. Now take it as her learning ability or the quality of my game, but being rained-in has its benefits.
I have always looked for challenges. Anything that comes easily does not excite me. My learning, that it is the extraordinary goal that inspires extraordinary effort is very personal to me. In the plantation industry I was constantly focused on setting new records. And over the years I was able to do this in all aspects of tea and rubber planting. I set the record in yield per hectare, in work tasks in various cultivation activities, and in the price of the manufactured product. I reclaimed swamp land and planted cardamom and set up bee hives and produced cardamom flavored honey. I reclaimed illegally cultivated land bordering our tea and planted tea in it adding over 50 hectares of land to the estate. I planted vanilla under rubber and successfully pollinated and harvested the vanilla bean; to my knowledge the first time this had been done in South India. When I say, ‘I’, I mean my team. I had one of the best in the world, each of them close friends who worked with me with total devotion and dedication and who I was very proud to call my own. I trained several of them, when they came to me as probationers and while not all were equally happy during the training, as I am a hard task master, every one of them was thankful for what they received and have remained lifelong friends.
1983-86 were boom years for tea in South India. Anything that was produced would sell. The biggest buyers were the Russians who bought on the rupee trade agreements between the governments of both countries. Anything that could be manufactured in South India was bought by the Russians. Sadly, quality went out the window. Some people, including myself, were able to see the writing on the wall and tried to get manufacturers to focus on quality and to get out of the commodity market and instead create brand. That, however, meant investing in brand building and hard work in maintaining quality standards. Since people were making money, nobody was interested in listening to anything that meant more work or investment. Eventually, the inevitable happened. Russia collapsed and so did their buying trend and it almost took the South Indian tea industry down with it. Some companies shut down. Others were more fortunate. But the whole industry faced some very hard times.
Interestingly, success seems to breed fear of failure. This is a paradox, since success should really build confidence. It does that too, but what seems to happen over the years is that we become progressively more afraid of losing what we have created and our ability to take risks decreases. This to me explains why entrepreneurs who have built large organizations are so afraid to allow others to take the same kind of risks that they took when they were alone and creating the company. Somehow, as they succeed, people who build organizations seem to forget the real lessons of their experience:
- That it was speed of reaction and the ability to take risks that gave them the competitive advantage.
- That it was the willingness to put themselves on the line, which built their credibility.
- That it was staying in touch with customers that helped them anticipate trends.
This fear of taking risk seems to extend even more to their own children, a phenomenon that we see in many family owned companies where the old, often senile, patriarch rules supreme and holds the strings of power. That is also why such organizations finally break-up, usually with a lot of rancor, as the rebellion against authority comes to a head and the son has no alternative but to break away. This fear of failure has many respectable names: Consolidation of gains, Stability, Creating Permanence and so on.
What is forgotten is that life is about change and positive change is growth. That growth is not looking inwards with a satisfied glow at what exists, but always to seek what might be. And that all growth is essentially characterized by a lack of stability, living with impermanence and spending what you have, to fuel what you aspire to create. This is forgotten, not by chance or accident. It is forgotten deliberately, albeit sometimes unconsciously. And it is done to deal with the fear of failure if one continues to take risk.
So, what is the alternative?
In my view, the alternative is to practice change even when there is no need for it.
Some organizations create think-tanks whose job is to conceptualize hypothetical threat situations and suggest solutions. One can use this or any other method, but it is a very good idea to spend some time and energy in anticipating the future and preparing for it. I personally make it a point to do this kind of reflective observation every so often. The important thing is to make this an ongoing process, no matter how you do it. Anticipating change is the first step to creating game changers that will put you in the driving seat. That is the only guarantee of permanence in a world where permanence is against nature. Any other route in my view only guarantees stagnation of ideas, sanctification of monumental stupidity, and calcification of the mind.
The single biggest and most critical requirement of success in my view is the desire to be the best. No matter what you may do – if you want to succeed, you need to be passionate about what you do and want to be the best at it. This is something that I have been aware of in myself all my life. I always wanted to be the best at whatever I did. Read the most, get the best results at school, train my dog so that it would win in tracking and show championships, school my horse so that he would win in dressage competitions every time, climb the biggest mountain I could find, do what nobody had done before, go where nobody had gone before me. Always trying to excel in whatever I put my hand to. I never saw any thrill in simply doing more of the same. I always wanted to do something new. And that’s a very cool way to live.
It is not that I succeeded on every occasion. But I made a serious effort every time. And when I failed, I used the other technique that I had learnt early in life; to analyze failure, face the brutal reality, and acknowledge ownership. No justification of mistakes. No blaming others. Take the responsibility for my own actions. See what went wrong and why. See what I need to do to ensure that this particular mistake never happens again. The pin and hole principle in engineering; fool proofing the system so that it becomes impossible to make a mistake. Not leaving the issue to individual discretion but creating a system to ensure that the correct procedure is followed every time. These are two principles that I have always tried to follow in my life: try to be the best and own up to mistakes.
A third principle that I have always tried to follow is to actively seek feedback. And then to listen to it without defensiveness. No justification or argument with the person giving the feedback, always remembering that my intention is inside my heart. What we intended to convey is less important than what we did convey. What the other person sees is the action, not the intention. And if the action did not convey the intention, then the action failed and must change, because for us all, perception is reality.
Being passionate about what you do is absolutely essential for anyone who wants to be the best in their work. For me, this has never been a matter of choice but something that I have always held as inevitable. If I do something, then it must be the best that I can possibly do. Nothing less. I discovered that if I am in a profession or job where I can’t really find it in myself to be passionate about it, then I need to change the job. And I did. Happiness is not doing less. It is to do the most that we can do. To maximize contribution. And that can only come through loving what you do. I am deliberately using a term which is not often used in a work context, love. People who don’t love their work are stressed. People who love their work automatically get a sense of meaning from it and believe it is worthwhile. The more they do, the happier they are. They get stressed not with work, but with not having enough of it.
Just to close the point, a working person spends roughly thirty to thirty-five years doing what we call work. If we take a lifespan of seventy years and subtract the years spent in childhood and education, work life is almost seventy percent of a person’s lifespan. To spend this doing something that does not give fulfillment, satisfaction and a sense of achievement, but is something that is routine, boring and even unpleasant, is a very stupid way to live your life. Unfortunately, that is how many people do lead their lives. In dead end jobs with no value addition to themselves or to the organizations they work for. That is why work produces stress.
Berty Suares, my dearest friend
Life in the Anamallais passed like a dream. Berty Suares was the Assistant Manager on the neighboring estate, Malakiparai. And Sandy (Sundeep Singh) was on Uralikal. Both dear friends. They would come over to my place and we would spend Sunday picnicking on the bank of the Aliyar River where on a bend in the river that passed through our cardamom plantation, I had built a natural swimming pool. I deepened the stream bed and deposited the sand from there on the near bank, thereby creating a very neat ‘beach.’ Sitting on this beach under the deep shade of the trees after a swim in the pool was a heavenly experience. Add to it, eating cardamom flavored honey straight from the comb, taken from the many hives that I had set up in the cardamom fields for pollination. The flavor comes from the pollen of the flowers which the bees take to make the honey. Depending on where you set up your hives or where the bees go to find pollen, honey can have as many flavors as there are flowers. While we lazed about at noon, our lunch would be brought down to us and we would all eat together. The joys of being a planter in the days when we had people who knew how to enjoy that life.
If you walked down the river for a couple of kilometers you would come to the Parambikulam Dam backwaters into which this river flowed. I had built another pool there at the bottom of a waterfall, thanks to a stream that flowed through Murugalli Estate. We used to keep a boat in the dam to go fishing on the lake. There was a thickly wooded island in the lake about half a kilometer from the shore on which one could go and spend the whole day, swimming and lazing in the shade; a very welcome occupation, free from all stress. The only sounds that you would hear would be the wailing call of the Rufus Backed Hawk Eagle and the Fishing Eagle. In the evenings, Jungle Fowl called the hour. If you stayed beyond sunset, the only danger was that you could encounter bison (Gaur) as you walked home. That encounter was not something to look forward to as I discovered one day. Mercifully, I was walking softly and the wind was in my face, so the Gaur was as startled as I was. He snorted, spun on his heel, and vanished, crashing through the undergrowth. I was very fortunate.
The more time I spent with myself, the clearer it became that it is important to be ‘friends’ with yourself. The more you are self-aware and comfortable internally, the more you can enjoy the world outside. When you are not aware of what is happening to you inside or are unhappy with decisions you have taken, or with your own internal processes, the unhappier you are likely to be with your surroundings. The normal tendency is to blame the outer world, but if one looks within, it is possible to find the solution. One rider however, that you will find only if you seek and only if you have the courage to recognize what you see. That is where sometimes the matter remains unresolved. Not because there is no solution. But because we are unwilling to accept the solution or to implement it.
Time for another dip, then climb into the hammock and gently swing in the breeze that comes blowing over the water. Those were the days……………………