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’.
Out of sight, out of mind is an old proverb that applies very much in corporate life. This refers both to being physically away from the corridors of power and those who walk those corridors as well as being in physical proximity but so silent as to become invisible. I recall a colleague who spent his entire career as an accountant in the same post, position and chair. When he was about to retire, I happened to visit his office, I noticed that the arms of his wooden chair and the edge of his desk had gentle grooves corresponding to where his arms had rested for thirty-five years. The grooves and their edges were also darker colored in mute testimony to the fact that the man had literally sweated at his desk. I hope his employers were appreciative of his loyalty. Most likely they didn’t even notice. If they had, they would at least have got the man a new desk and chair.
I mention this because about five years into my career as a tea planter, I was promoted and transferred from the Anamallais to Assam. I was in two minds about accepting this position as on the one hand I would have had independent charge, but I would have been as far away from Chennai, our headquarters as is possible to be without going over the border into Nepal. I had advice from an unexpected source; the wife of my boss who had transferred me. My boss and his wife were both dear friends, but my boss was a typical career manager whose first concern was always what was good for the company, not necessarily for the person. His wife told me exactly that. She said, “Don’t take this job. You will disappear from the radar and be forgotten. You will get labeled as an Assam planter which in a South Indian company with most of its operations in the south, is not an asset. Others will get the jobs down here and you will never return. You will do a good job there as you have always done which in this case will go against you as you will become indispensable there and will never be moved.” I told her, “But (her husband and my boss) is advising me to go.” She replied, “He is my husband and I know him better than anyone else. He is thinking of himself, not you. Your going to Assam will be good for him as he will have someone reliable there. But it will be oblivion for you.” This is advice and a demonstration of integrity and genuine concern that I will remember lifelong. I declined the promotion.
In the corporate world it is important to be physically visible, not only through reports. Paradoxically if you are doing well and all your reports have nothing to make anyone concerned, you are not rewarded but forgotten. It is indeed the squeaky wheel that gets the grease, and this is nowhere truer than the corporate world. This was a trying period because suddenly I had no specific job. I had to leave my job as the Manager on Lower Sheikalmudi Estate because that job had already been assigned to another colleague. That left me literally homeless as there were no bungalows in the Anamallais where I could live. I was sent off to the Mango Range until the management could decide what to do with me. I was assigned a bungalow in a forest thicket, which was in a dilapidated condition. The location of the bungalow was lovely, and it was a joy to wake up to bird calls every morning. However, the house itself looked like it would collapse on our heads at any time. Of particular concern were the walls, which were so waterlogged that they had fungus growing on them in huge patches. My wife is an amazing homemaker and all her talents were put to test in this place. Out of this dilapidated house she created a lovely home which we enjoyed living in.
Since I had no regular job, I decided on doing two things:
For a long time, I had been talking about the need for systematic training of new managers. The current system in the plantations was that a new assistant would be put under a manager and what he learnt or didn’t depended on the capability, interest, and energy of his manager and field or factory officers. If the assistant was lucky and got some people who were both knowledgeable and interested in teaching, then he learnt a great deal. If not, he remained guessing. This is a highly undesirable system, which is very time and energy intensive and does not give standard results. I had been saying for several years that there was a need for a standard text book on tea plantation management, which could be used to provide standardized training. Any additional inputs that the young man’s manager and staff could give him would only add to this, but he would not be deficient in the basics.
During my stay in Mango Range, I decided to write this book and in 6 months, I produced a 200-page Manual of Tea Plantation Management. At the time of its publication there was no such book on the market and it was a source of great satisfaction for me. My company published it as an internal training book and though it was never a commercial publication, it did get fairly wide publicity and was used by many new managers. It has since gone out of print and to the best of my knowledge, it has not been reprinted. A big lesson for me was the power of the written word and its high credibility in making your customer base aware of what you have to offer. After that book there was no way that I could be ignored, not that I feared that. I had a lot of people who I had dealt with over the years rooting for me in the company.
The second thing I did was to spend a lot of time in Mango Range factory and hone my expertise in CTC manufacture of tea. I was very fortunate in that Mr. T.V. Verghese, who had retired as a General Manager in Tata Tea and was consulting with our company on manufacture, was a regular visitor and we became good friends. He shared his knowledge freely and I learnt a great deal. He was a practical teacher, which meant that I got to spend a lot of time on my back on the floor meshing CTC rollers with grease anywhere on my face and body that grease would stick. I learnt all aspects of manufacture hands-on, further reinforcing my belief that learning comes from doing – not from talking about doing. In Murugalli Estate, I’d had a lot of experience in Orthodox manufacture, and even though as Project Manager, I had built Mayura Factory, the premier CTC factory in South India, I was moved as soon as the construction was over – thanks to a motorcycle accident. Consequently, my knowledge of CTC manufacture was weak. In Mango Range, as a student of Mr. T. V. Verghese and thanks to his willingness to teach, I rectified that deficiency. It was ironic that thereafter I went to Ambadi, which was a rubber plantation and never really used this knowledge, but it did come in use for writing a paper comparing Orthodox and CTC methods, which I presented at the UPASI Annual Conference in 1989.
Mango Range was an interlude in my career. I was marking time and waiting for some positive change to happen, and in the meanwhile I enjoyed myself. It has long been my philosophy to live one day at a time and to try to create as much happiness for myself and around me as possible. I have learnt that the two are the same. You can only be happy if those around you are happy. This is true whether you are an individual, an organization, or a country. Imagine what a wonderful world we would have if instead of competing, we collaborated and shared resources. We would all be wealthier, happier, and healthier. I have always held that the secret of happiness is to be thankful for and enjoy the small things in life. There are far many more of them than the big events. If we can enjoy the small things, then we can be happy all the time. The key to enjoyment is to appreciate them and be thankful for them. The key to contentment is not amassing material but being thankful for what one has. The happiest people are those who are content. Content people are those who are thankful. Material wealth has nothing to do with it.
One of the things that I was very appreciative of and thankful for, was the leisure that I had in Mango Range. I had no specific work except what I decided to do for myself. And I was still getting my salary. I decided to learn golf. I got a caddy from Ooty Club to come and stay with me in the estate for three weeks. His name was Frank Augustine (I used to call him Frankenstein) and he looked like a dried prawn. When he swung the club though, he always hit the ball with that sweet ‘phut’ that all golfers love to hear. And the ball would travel straight like a bullet down the freeway. Shows that technique and not strength of the arm is what works in golf. Also, in many other things in life. Whereas my club would come up with a good measure of earth and top the ball to boot. Frankenstein believed in hard work – meaning, making me work hard. He set up a practice net, produced a set of a hundred used golf balls and we were good to go. I would hit the ball into the net until I felt my arms would drop off. All the while, Frankenstein would sit on his haunches under the Champa tree that was to one side and watch me and make clucking noises. The effect of all this clucking and my swinging at the ball became clear when one day about midway in our training Frankenstein suggested that we should go and play a round at the club. So off we went on the three-hour drive to Ooty. After a cup of tea and a sandwich, I teed off and that is where all the practice paid off. Ooty Club has very narrow freeways bordered by spiky gorse. If you didn’t hit your ball straight, you would send it into the gorse and then you may as well forget about it – or pay to get the ball back by leaving your blood on the gorse and acquiring gorse thorn furrows in your hide. As Frankenstein continued his mother hen act, I could see the distinct improvement in my style and capability.
Another one of my joys while living in Mango Range was the time I got to spend with Mr. Siasp Kothawala at his lovely guesthouse in Masinagudi called Bamboo Banks. Masinagudi is in the foothills of the Nilgiris at the edge of the Mudumalai-Bandipur National Park, so there is a lot of wildlife around. You see a lot of Chital, some Gaur, and some elephant, the latter being dangerous as they are too close to human habitation and often in conflict with people. Mudumalai is also supposed to be a tiger reserve though I have never seen a tiger in it. Perhaps it is another case of tiger reserves having been freed of tigers as has happened in many places in India. Anyway, my wife and I used to go to Bamboo Banks on some weekends. The gate of Bamboo Banks was an ingenious contraption. It was a pole, suspended horizontally across the road and had a plastic water container on one end. There was a sign asking you to tug on a rope if you wanted to open the gate. The rope was connected to an overhead tank so when you tugged it, water would flow into the plastic can on one end of the pole, which then went down and lifted the other end. All this happened while you were comfortably sitting in your car. The water would then drain out of a hole in the can and flow into an irrigation ditch and on into some fruit trees, closing the gate. Siasp was a tea planter and worked for the Bombay Burma Tea Company (BBTC). He then went into the tourism business and has done very well. We would spend lovely afternoons talking about the tea industry and the general state of the world and drinking tea. Siasp always had an angle to everything, which he would put across in a hilarious and entertaining way.
Siasp also had horses on his farm and having had tea I would take one of the horses and go riding in the sanctuary. This had its exciting moments and I recall two of the best. One day, late in the afternoon, I was riding out of the farm and into the dry fields that surrounded it before the track entered the bamboo thickets that bordered Mudumalai, when I saw a falcon hovering in the sky ahead of me. I pulled up to watch it and saw a dove break out of cover from a hedge and head for the safety of the forest flying very fast. The falcon folded his wings and stooped, coming down like an arrow out of the heavens. The dove had almost made it to the forest cover when the falcon hit it in middle of its back with a slap that I could hear where I was sitting on my horse. The dove must have died with the impact, but the falcon bore it to the ground and then holding it in its claws, looked up right and left, its pale-yellow eyes scanning the world to challenge any takers. What a magnificent sight that was. The image is engraved in my memory.
As I rode on, I took a path that went along the middle of a forest glade which had scattered clumps of bamboo. After a kilometer or two, the path passed between two very thick and large clumps of bamboo and dipped into a dry stream bed and went up the other bank. I used to like to gallop this stretch and my horse knew the routine. Strangely, on that day as we came near the bamboo clumps my horse shied and stopped and refused to go forward. This was odd behavior, but I have enough experience to know that in the forest your animal is your eyes and ears and you only ignore its signals at your own peril. I listened to the horse and turned around and then took a long and circuitous route to go around whatever it was that was bothering my horse. As we came around, I saw what was bothering him. It was a lone male elephant which was hiding behind the clump of bamboo. Now I have no idea what the elephant’s intention was, but I was not taking any chances. My horse obviously didn’t like the idea of passing close to the elephant and if we had continued on that track, we would have encountered that elephant where the path was the narrowest and where it was bordered and hedged in by the bamboo. In case of an attack, we would not have had any escape. Lone elephants are famous for such attacks. A rather terminal situation which we were happy to have avoided.
On one of those trips to Bamboo Banks, I saw an elephant by the roadside, a little way inside the forest. As this was quite close to the Forest Department’s housing and elephant camp, I thought that it was a tame elephant and decided to take a picture. I had a small box camera at the time in which you were the telephoto – if you wanted greater magnification, you had to go closer to the object. I got out of the car and walked almost to the side of the elephant and took a photo. Suddenly I heard someone yelling at me, his voice high pitched in panic. I looked up and there was a forest guard, some good two-hundred meters away, waving frantically and yelling at me to get back into the car. Since it is not an offence to get out of your car on the main road in Mudumalai, I was irritated at this man’s insistence but since I already had my picture, I returned to the car. As we drove on and came up to him, the man waved us to a stop and still in an angry voice asked me in Tamil, ‘What do you think you are doing? If you want to die, go do it somewhere else.’
I said to him, ‘Hey! Relax. What is all this about dying? I was only taking a picture of one of your elephants. Who said I want to die?’
The man said, ‘Our elephants? That was a lone wild tusker that you were standing next to. I have no idea why he let you get that close or why he did nothing. Your lucky day. That is a wild elephant and a lone one at that. Don’t do these stupid things.’ And he went on for a while in the same vein. I was so shocked that I listened in silence. And of course, how can you get angry with someone who is only interested in preserving your life? But I still have the picture, which is very impressive.
For more, please see my book, ‘It’s my Life’.
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……………………
On October 20, 2010, I was 55. I released a book on that day called: 20-10-2010-55 which was 55 life lessons that I learnt in my life. I have decided to share those with you (those who read the book please forgive me) and so you will get one every day until we finish them all.
Those who feel motivated to read the book itself can get it from Amazon. Those who would like to know more about me and my life should read, “It’s my Life”, which is also on Amazon (India, US & Canada). My life is worth $7 (INR 200). I am most grateful that Allahﷻgave me the life that He gave me for $7. Ajeeb!
I turned fifty-five on October, 20, 2010. That’s the title of this book and blog; 20.10.2010-55. On that day, I reflected on the lessons that I had learnt in an unusually rich, active, exciting life lived in India, Guyana, America, Saudi Arabia, and in travels in other parts of the world. I wrote this book as a tribute of thanks to all those who added value to me, taught me formally and informally, and invested in my learning. During my childhood and teens in India through the 60’s and 70’s, I spent all my vacations walking in the jungles of the Aravallies, living with my dear friend Uncle Rama. Imagine the excitement of a fifteen-year-old with a .22 rifle or a twelve-bore shotgun, walking with one Gond companion, Shivayya, all over the jungle bordering the Kadam River.
At times Shivayya and I would walk in the night to witness a Sambar mud bath and sit behind a tree, quietly watching majestic Sambar stags roll in mud and then stand up to shake off the excess; coated in an armor of mud which, when dry, protects them from biting insects. Sometimes we would hear the call of the tiger as it set out for work. I learnt to read tracks which tell the story of all those who passed that way. I learnt the meaning of smells which tell their own stories and can mean the difference between life and death. But the biggest lesson I learnt was to take life seriously while having fun and to extract every drop of learning.
In the late 70’s and early 80’s, I spent five years in the Amazonian rain forests of Guyana bordering the Rio Berbice. I went there when I was nineteen and lived alone in Kwakwani. During weekends, my friend Peter Ramsingh and I would take our boat on a trip fifty to sixty miles upriver and camp on the bank or on a sandbank. It was our code of honor to not take any food on these trips and live off the land from our hunting and fishing. As an emergency fall back, we would take some raw chicken guts in a plastic bag. If we didn’t manage to catch any Lukanani or to shoot any Agouti or Canje Pheasant, we would trawl the chicken guts in the Berbice and sure enough, we would get a bite – Piranha. Great eating as long as you know how to keep clear of the teeth and retrieve your hook. I would see alligator eyes shining like diamonds sprinkled on the dark waters during our night patrols to check our fishing nets. During one trip, Peter and I accidentally caught a twenty-two-foot Anaconda in our fishing net. It was so heavy that both of us couldn’t lift him clear off the ground. I met people who live thirty to forty miles up the Berbice River in houses on stilts, in small forest clearings where they grow a few vegetables, hunt and fish for their meat, and don’t come to ‘town’ for months at a time; no water except the river, no light except the sun. Sometimes it is a single family of Amerindians. Sometimes it is a couple of families who live by one another. Their children play in the forest and swim naked in the river, yet I never heard of a case of Piranha bite; never figured out that one as the river is infested with Piranha and they love to bite. These families always grow the best honey which they would sell to people like me who turned up on their doorstep, or take to town and exchange for a couple of bottles of country liquor – deadly stuff in more ways than one.
I received news in May, 2011 that my dearest friend, mentor, and boss from Kwakwani, Nick Adams, entered into Islam along with his wife and sister-in-law.
I spent ten years in the 80’s and 90’s in the rain forests of the Western Ghats in Anamallais, India and further south, planting tea, coffee, cardamom, and rubber. I spent many hours tramping up and down hills and valleys, sometimes at a height of eight to nine thousand feet on the famous Grass Hills; at other times, wending my way in sweltering heat through the thick forest on the Ghats where the sun almost never reaches the earth. One day, I escaped an angry, charging bull elephant by what could only be a miraculous divine intervention. All my tea garden workers believed that I was divinely blessed from this day on; a belief that I did nothing to dispel – who would object to being divinely blessed? On another instance, I walked up to a Red Dhole kill – they moved away and sat in a circle watching me, while I ensured that the Sambar hind that they had brought down was dead. On a forest road in the Anamallais, I once had a face-off with a huge Gaur bull who eventually decided he didn’t hate me enough to eliminate me and moved away, allowing me to move on, on my Royal Enfield motorcycle. My greatest joy was to camp on a huge rock outcrop called Manja Parai in Lower Sheikalmudi Estate where I was the big boss, sitting on a platform in a tree to watch elephants come to drink in a nearby stream. When the elephants left, the Gaur would come. Finally, when everyone had gone their way, my companion Raman and I would descend and light a fire against the bitter cold, smoke a couple of beedis, and drink hot, sweet tea and wait for the sun to rise. Gradually, the sky would lighten; the orange glow would show and then the majestic ball of fire would come up over the edge of the horizon, greeting us across an expanse of forest and tea gardens. What is the value of such a sight?
I never was good at math.
Lest you think, all play and no work – I went to one of the best schools in Hyderabad, India, where I was born and spent my childhood – The Hyderabad Public School. I believe that school is the most important institution in building character and preparing the child for manhood. No university or institution of higher learning can do for character building what a good school can do. I went to one of the best, not only because of the infrastructure, which was world class, but also because of the wonderful people who taught me. Simultaneously, I acquired a formal Islamic education (twelve years) with both book learning as well as Tarbiyya, which I continued over the years. I learnt that it is always possible to do more than conventional wisdom would have you believe if you push yourself. I also learnt that pushing yourself is great fun. In school I was passionate about horse riding; I excelled in dressage and also played polo. After completing school, I went to college and graduated with degrees in History, Political Science, and Urdu literature. I also have a post-graduation in Management from the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (IIMA) and a further qualification in Applied Behavioral Science.
I specialize today in Leadership Development and Family Business consulting and have written several books on these and other subjects. I have retained my interest in the wild places and those who live there. This has developed into a passion for photography and so over the past several years, I have spent many very happy hours every year in Kruger and Hluhluwi National Parks in South Africa and in other forests of the world.
Over the course of fifty-five years, of which thirty-eight have been working years, I have met thousands of people across races, nationalities, colors, political landscapes, genders, sizes, and shapes – ranging from business and political leaders walking the corridors of power (in 2008 I met the King of Saudi Arabia, His Majesty King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz ibn Saud at a banquet in his palace in Mina; the Prime Minister of Guyana, His Excellency Mr. Samuel Hinds is a personal friend of thirty-five years standing), to religious scholars (Muslim, Christian, and Hindu), union leaders, anxious parents of children who have become strangers to them, heads of family business – billionaires who would give half their kingdom for peace of mind and real happiness, poor farmers and hunter gatherer tribesmen and women who have little, but are ever happy to share it with you. They have problems like the rest of us, maybe even more, but you don’t see that on their face or hear it in their voice.
I met tribal leaders in their villages, one of them comprised of four huts in the rain forest in the Western Ghats in India and broke bread with them and to their utter astonishment, played with their children. I drank milk straight from the udder of a buffalo and honey straight from the hive, with the blessings of the owners. I swam in forest rivers that have no names, rode horseback on the South American pampa and the English Moors and fished for Piranha and Arapaima in Rio Berbice. I have driven cars, SUVs before the term was invented (we called all of them ‘Jeep’), Caterpillar dump trucks, bull dozers, and boats. I rode a buffalo into a lake until it decided to dive and I floated away. Mercifully, I grabbed her tail and she towed me back to shore. I met teachers, parents, and students in South Africa, Malaysia, India, Guyana, U.K, and America and wondered at our similarities which far overshadow our differences. I have spoken to audiences ranging from a few people in a room to nine-thousand people in the great masjid of the International Islamic University in Malaysia and marveled at how easy it is to connect to people across every imaginable boundary. I was one of three million in Haj on more than one occasion and if I had a dollar for every smile I got from a stranger, I would be a rich man. I feel I am a rich man anyway because of all the experiences that life has afforded me. I have been in life threatening situations more than once, facing direct personal danger sometimes from both, two legged and four legged creatures, but I am still here. I studied many religions and philosophies and then came to Islam with my eyes wide open. Though I was born in a Muslim home, my Islam is by choice, not chance. Having seen the opposite spectrums of the economic scale – the rich living responsibly or irresponsibly, the poor living with self-respect and dignity or justifying all sorts of bad actions by reference to poverty – I have developed a strong sense of justice and compassion. I believe the two must go hand in hand. I also learned what I consider to be the two most important lessons in my life, after sharing which I will end this introduction.
The first relates to the fact that essentially we are all in control of our lives and selves and no matter how powerful or powerless we may believe we are, there is always something that we can do to make a difference.
‘I will not allow what is not in my control, to prevent me from doing what is in my control.’
The second relates to the fact that everything we do counts and defines us as human beings and becomes our legacy to the world. I ask for the courage to do what is in my control, fearing nobody but my Creator to Whom is my return.
‘All that we chose to do or chose not to do, defines brand value and character.’
In Lower Sheikalmudi Estate, on the other side of Sholayar Dam in the Anamallais, we had a coffee area which was adjacent to the reserve forest. The coffee presented open grazing area to the Sambar and Gaur that live in the reserve forest. They did not damage the coffee itself but would feed on the grass and shrubs that grew in the fields. I set up two or three salt licks in this area to attract these animals and to get them used to coming into our area so that we could watch and photograph them. For this I got some bricks of rock salt from the Forest Department and cleared small patches in the grass to arrange them. Once the animals discovered them we had a huge herd of Gaur, about thirty-five of them, who took up residence in the coffee area. They would come down from the hills every evening as the sun went down and would leave only the next morning once our workers started to arrive in the fields. They would be joined by several Sambar hinds and stags so that when I would drive into the coffee area at night, I would see this big herd lying down and chewing the cud. It was almost like seeing domestic cattle at rest; the Gaur had become so used to us. Grazing animals love salt, which they get from deposits in the soil. Carnivores get it from the blood of their prey. So if you put out some salt in the forest you were absolutely sure to get anything which was in the vicinity to come visit.
If you walked to the end of the coffee area and entered the forest, taking the small pathway leading up the hill, you would pass under the heavy shade of big leaved, tall trees. Lining the path were lovely light green big leaved shrubs, which if you didn’t know what they were and took one in your hand, it would prove to be a very painful and potentially dangerous experience. These were stinging nettles called locally Anaimarti (the chaser away of elephants). The leaves have poisonous hair on them, which produce anything from painful rashes, to blisters, to high fever, and delirium, depending on your level of tolerance. As you walk along this path it is a good idea to keep all your senses functioning. The thick undergrowth can and does hide anything. As you continue climbing steadily, getting sweatier by the minute due to a lack of breeze, you come to a small flat rock on your right a little way inside the forest. If you walk silently you will almost always see the resident cobra that likes to sun himself on that rock. Sometimes you will see his skin, which he has shed and then you must be very careful because he is almost blind for a while and extremely irritable.
As you continue onwards, you will come out of the forest into an open area which is a sheet of rock. This area stretches about three kilometers all the way up to the ridge beyond which the forest descends three-thousand feet down to the backwaters of Parambikulam Lake. This sheet of rock is covered with a patchy lichen growth almost all over which becomes yellow when it matures and so it is called Manjapettai (Yellow Ridge). This is also where you will get the first breath of cool breeze, most welcome on your hot and damp brow. There is a large clump of thorny bush right before you and almost surely you will hear the ‘Dhank’ of a Sambar doe as she bolts out of the bush and gallops down the thirty-degree rocky slope at a speed that would certainly topple a horse and break its neck.
If you continue to climb then you would eventually come to the top of Manjapettai, which was a small flat plateau through which flowed a small perennial stream. I’d had a machan (platform) built on a tree at the edge of the forest overlooking the stream, which emptied into a small pool and then went down the slope of Manjapettai. I had cleared a small pathway to get to it, but without disturbing the area or its animals. The machan was halfway up the tree at a height of about twenty feet. It was quite substantial and could comfortably seat four people. We would sit there late into the night watching animals come to drink at the pool. It was an amazing experience to suddenly see a shadow move and realise that what you had been looking at was not a shadow at all but a Gaur bull; the herd leader who was watching to see if the coast was clear to signal his herd to follow him to the water. This forest had tigers and so the Gaur and Sambar, which are its main prey were very cautious.
We once had a full-grown Gaur cow killed by a tiger in our coffee area. At first the Forest Guards came and tried to accuse us of having shot the animal in an attempt to extract some silence money. But I would have none of that and demanded that the DFO come to inspect. When he came, I took him to the carcass and showed him the telltale claw marks of the tiger. The tiger attacks from behind and rides the animal, and as it gallops in panic, the tiger reaches forward and hooks its claws into the animal’s nose and draws its head back, biting into the back of the neck to get at the spinal cord until the animal falls and breaks its neck. If you see the neck of a Gaur, how huge and muscular it is, you can imagine the strength of the tiger which can force that neck to bend back until it makes the animal fall. Tigers generally go for juveniles or cows, which are smaller. The big bulls are immune to everything except men and old age. The DFO (District Forest Officer) was more knowledgeable than the Forest Guard and so the matter was resolved.
You sat in the machan very still, secure in the knowledge that you were invisible unless you moved. Though the game viewing was amazing, the stillness made you very stiff, a relatively small price to pay for the privilege of watching wild animals in their habitat. In the early hours of the morning, after all animal movement had ceased and it started getting bitterly cold, which it does in the forest at that elevation, we would come down onto the rock, light a nice big fire and warm ourselves and spend the rest of the night sleeping on the rock around the fire. Then in the morning we would re-kindle the fire and put on the tea pot and watch the sun come up over the horizon. I know many people lived in Lower Sheikalmudi, but I don’t know of anyone other than myself and Suresh Menon, who was my assistant at the time, who enjoyed the beauty of the forest like we did. It was a rare privilege and we appreciated every minute of it.