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.’
The Anamallai Hills are a ridge that is between three thousand five hundred to six thousand feet high and goes like the backbone of an elephant right down the Western side of India to the tip of the subcontinent. Even though it is not called by this name all along this journey and the name changes to High Range in Munnar and then other names, but it is the same range of mountains…all a part of the Western Ghats.
From Valparai Taluk, where the tea plantations of the Anamallais are and where I lived for seven years, there is a clear section of the ridge that goes all the way to Munnar in Kerala. These are the famous Grass Hills.
They are called Grass Hills because the hilltops are covered with tough tussocky grass which looks like a beautiful lawn from a distance but is very tough to walk through. The closest that I have seen to these are the Moors of Northumberland in England and Scottish Highlands. The land is very acidic and unable to grow anything else. The local Forest Department in its usual ham-handed way decided in the early 80’s to plant Eucalyptus trees and convert the Grass Hills into money making machines. Nobody of course thought to ask the most logical question, “Why is it that if this land could grow trees, there is not a single tree to be seen?” But many millions of rupees and many thousands of man-hours later they learnt the lesson the hard way that these hills will grow nothing but the grass that’s on them. In the grass are also some other small shrubs that are resistant to the wind and cold of the hilltops, which once in a year put forth the most beautiful flowers. I am not enough of a botanist to know all the names, but one of these flowers is famous and gives its name to the hills, Nilgiri – Blue Mountains.
I quote from a website dedicated to the flower: http://kurinji.in/kurinji.html
Neelakurinji (Strobilanthes kunthiana) is a shrub that used to grow abundantly in the shola grasslands of Western Ghats in India. The Nilgiris, which literally means the blue mountains, got its name from the purplish-blue flowers of Neelakurinji that blossoms gregariously once in 12 years. Once they used to cover the entire Nilgiris like a carpet during its flowering season. However, now plantations and dwellings occupy much of their habitat. Neelakurinji is the best known of a genus whose members have flowering cycles ranging from one to 16 years. It belongs to the family of Acanthaceae. The genus has more than 500 species, of which at least 56 occur in India. Besides the Western Ghats, Neelakurinji is seen in the Shevroys in the Eastern Ghats. It occurs at an altitude of 1300 to 2400 metres. The plant is usually 30 to 60 centimeters high on the hills. They can, however, grow well beyond 180 cm under congenial conditions at lower elevations. Plants that bloom at long intervals like Kurinji are called Plietesials.
The valleys are thickly forested often with little streams and waterfalls in them. These are called ‘Shola’ forests in Tamil. The Shola vegetation is peculiar to this habitat and is not found lower down. The trees have thick gnarled trunks, leathery leaves and grow densely together. This means that below them there is no undergrowth and creates a microclimate that is very cool, even cold. The streams flowing in the Sholas add moisture and this encourages the growth of moss, lichens and orchids and in the higher reaches, Rhododendrons. Philodendrons of many kinds are found in plenty, using the tree trunks to pull themselves upwards in the never-ending struggle for light.
Walking under the trees in the Shola forests is an experience that is impossible to describe but which once lived is never forgotten. Your footing is very uneven and slippery and so you must walk carefully. The ground is soft and damp and usually inclined, so you have one foot higher than the other as you walk. Not very conducive to long walks. But as you walk, suddenly you hear a rustle and a loud cackle and you see the fast disappearing tail feathers of a Jungle Cock and his harem, who were busily feeding on seeds and insects until you disturbed their breakfast. At this altitude in South India, it is the Grey Jungle Fowl that you will see. The females, as in the case of many birds, are a plain brown, their beauty lying only in the eyes of the beholding roosters. However, the males are flamboyant (takes more to attract a woman, I guess) with literally fluorescent, scintillating colored feathers, especially on the neck, which we call the hackle. These feathers shine and change color depending on the angle of the sunlight. The head is topped by a blood-red comb and the tail is a flowing graceful postscript to the whole story of the Grey Jungle Fowl. Just to see them move is a joy. Having extolled their virtues, let me add that they are very good eating, though a lot more gamey than the farmed free range chickens. The hackle makes extremely good flies for fly fishing and a couple of hackle feathers in a hat look very attractive indeed. However, farm chickens are easier to get and the hackle looks far nicer on the neck of the rooster, so leave them alone and shoot only with your camera.
Another delightful inhabitant of the Shola forests is the Malabar Whistling Thrush – also called the Whistling Schoolboy bird. It is a gorgeous blue-black bird, slightly larger than a Myna (the size of a Starling) and whistles just like we do. It is most vocal in the early mornings and late evenings and is an absolute delight to listen to. There was a pair that used to nest in a thick vine of Golden Showers which overhung the veranda roof of my bungalow on Lower Sheikalmudi Estate, and it was wonderful to open your eyes every morning to the whistling of the beautiful bird. Grass Hill Shola forests have more than their fair share of these birds and you can hear them as you walk along the side of the Sholas, picking your way through the tussocks of grass.
Snakes are around, especially at lower elevations, so keeping an eye open and wearing leather walking shoes is a good idea. In the stream of light that is let in because of the death of one of the trees in the Shola, you will find lush growth of grass, other vegetation, and sometimes an explosion of flowers. These sunny patches are also ideal places to look for the Muntjac antelope, also called Barking Deer. Its alarm call sounds like the bark of a dog, thus the name. When a Barking Deer is calling, almost always it means that he is looking at a leopard or tiger on the prowl and is warning all those who can understand the call to be on their guard. The Sambar is a more reliable sentinel for this warning, but the Muntjac is not too bad either. It’s only that the Muntjac is skittish and sometimes calls even when he is imagining one of the major predators.
The Shola forests of Grass Hills are ideal habitat for both predator and prey species. The forests impartially shelter leopards, tigers, wild boar, Muntjac, and Sambar. The thick shade hides the hunters and helps the hunted to escape. Depending of course on who sees whom first. Grass Hills and that entire ridge is also home to the Nilgiri Tahr (mistakenly called Ibex). These mountain goats live on the rocks walking up and jumping down from one invisible fold in the rock to another sometimes to get away from predators but often just for the fun of it. Their main predator is the leopard and they retreat to the inaccessible vertical ridges in the night to rest in relative safety.
The Grass Hills are also home to elephants and it is amazing to see how these huge animals negotiate steep ridges. First of all, they follow the easiest gradients as they go to the top. Many a savvy road engineer in these parts has simply widened an old elephant track to convert it into a motorable road, saving himself some arduous surveying. Then when they reach the top and have to actually negotiate the ridge, they walk in single file, each holding the tail of the one before it. And as they climb over the ridge, the one behind gives the one ahead a push as he needs it. On the way down they do it more simply – they sit down, keep their forelegs extended before them to act as speed breakers, and toboggan down the slope on their behinds.
As you climb up from Akkamalai Estate in the Anamallais after walking about 14 kilometers you eventually come upon a substantial stream. In the 70’s and 80’s it used to be stocked with Brown Trout. Check dams were built to make shallow pools and maintained by enthusiastic planters from nearby estates (Mr. Basith Khan of Tea Estates India was one) so that the level of water in the pools did not fall too low. These pools are important for the trout to feed and make good places to fish for them.
The check dams and the little pools they created became good drinking places for Gaur, Sambar, and elephant. While Sambar do not do any damage to the dam, Gaur and elephant sometimes inadvertently broke the dam and the water would drain away. This was disastrous for the fish, which would either be stranded or in the case of the young fry, would become easy prey for the many Kingfishers in the area. So, these dams had to be regularly maintained. Given that maintenance, the Grass Hills stream provided some excellent fly fishing in an ambience that simply can’t be equaled. Where else in the world could you imagine being able to watch a herd of elephants or a lone Sambar while you were standing on the bank of the stream casting your fly? I won’t talk about what the sight does to your casting because that is something that you have to experience.
The APA (Anamallai Planter’s Association) had built a cottage at one point, called the Grass Hills Hut. It was a substantial two-bedroom cottage with a small veranda and an elephant trench all around. There was a flimsy bridge made of planks that you had to walk across to get inside. This was essential because without it elephants would try to re-engineer the hut; something which they did manage to do on a couple of occasions. It then fell into disuse and later the Forest Department took it over and has now constructed a big concrete structure in its place at a huge cost, totally incongruous and sticking out like a sore thumb. But then how else can you spend public money if not in such obvious ways?
I used to go to Grass Hills as often as I could with my two companions, the Raman brothers. They were cousins and had the same name. We would leave my motorcycle in the garage of the Assistant Manager of Akkamalai Estate – it didn’t matter if you knew the person or not. It was our code of hospitality that at such places your house was open to anyone who needed help. If someone wanted to park a car or motorcycle or needed some petrol or a cup of tea, he only had to ask and it was all provided with a smile. As I mentioned the distance to the APA Hut is about fourteen kilometers. If you don’t take the road and instead walk up the hillside it is a couple of kilometers shorter, but you need a lot of stamina for the climb. The climb is steep, the elevation (six thousand feet) takes its toll especially if you are not used to it – as I discovered when I went to the Grass Hills in 2007 after a gap of twenty years. The footing is very rough and uncertain as the tough tussocky grass grows in clumps and you have to find your way between clumps. If it has been raining, then almost every single blade of grass will have a leech or two on it and you are more than likely to be viewed as manna from heaven by them. But if you can overcome the effort and the bloodshed then you are rewarded with some of the most spectacular views that you could ever imagine. The road is simpler and easier but like all simpler and easier tasks, less rewarding.
On one occasion the Raman brothers and I decided to walk up to a high ridge, which has some caves. When we eventually reached there, we discovered that there was a whole field of marijuana being cultivated in the valley behind the ridge and the cave was the living quarters of the farmers. In the middle was the cooking fire with their bedding stacked neatly in the corners. In one corner, there were wires to make snares for small game. Come to think of it, it was a very nice place to live with spectacular views, a stream of clear, cold water to drink from, a waterfall of ice cold water to shower under if you like that kind of thing, dry and warm accommodation, fresh meat, and safety from the long arm of the law. And if the arm did get extended this far, it was sent away with a handful of money. The occupants of the cave were not present when we reached there, which was probably a good thing for us.
We descended the ridge and made our way to the APA Hut. There the Raman brothers got busy with the cooking of our evening meal, the makings of which we had carried with us while I went downstream with my rod to catch a fish or two for the pot. To my disappointment, the check-dams had been broken by elephants and the pools had been drained and so there were no fish to catch except some very small fingerlings which were not worth the effort. But that didn’t detract from the wonderful view of the sun going down behind the high ridge leaving behind an orange glow long after it had disappeared. I sat there until Raman the Elder came to call me. We ate our meal together and I got into my sleeping bag while the Ramans had their last smoke for the day before turning in. There was no need for a watch as we were surrounded by a trench around the hut. There is no danger in sleeping in the wild except from men with evil intentions.
Grass Hills is very cold at night so a good sleeping bag is essential. It is a very rare pleasure to be able to lie in your sleeping bag and listen to the sound of silence, broken occasionally by the call of the hunter or the unlucky hunted as it ends its life. Then there is the hooting of the owl and the occasional moan of the tiger. But for the most part the night at that elevation is silent. As the sky lightens, the precursor of dawn, I hear stirring in the kitchen where the Ramans made their bed. Social barriers (I was the manager) remain despite my every attempt at destroying them. But the fact that I don’t practice them gets me loyalty that transcends time.
When I visited the Anamallais in 2007, one of the things I did was to revisit Grass Hills with my friends, the Ramans. They were as eager to go there again as I was. This time we didn’t spend a night in the hut, but we did the walk up the hill, a source of great satisfaction and achievement for us all as we were still able to do it, despite being twenty years older. Almost nothing has changed in Grass Hills, mainly because the road is unmotorable and people are too lazy to do the climb. So it remains relatively untouched. We did see a dozen forest guards with backpacks walking back from the Forest Department Cottage, which is what the APA Hut has been transformed into. What they are doing there in those numbers, I have no clue. But I hope it is something for the preservation of that wonderful habitat.
The Anamallais in general and the Grass Hills in particular are surely one of the most beautiful places on earth. I was privileged to live there and visit the Grass Hills on many occasions. I hope those who live there today feel equally privileged to do so and make the effort to leave these places alone and undisturbed. Going by what I saw when I was there last, I must say that I was not reassured.