What is it that enables some leaders to continue to be inspirational and not lose followers even when their decisions may not be to their follower’s liking? This is a very critical dilemma of leadership, of walking the tightrope between populist actions and doing what needs to be done and risk losing popularity. In today’s political environment of playing to the gallery, leaders are often held to ‘ransom’ by their followers who give or withdraw support because they don’t like what the leader’s decision. Or don’t understand his wisdom. In modern times, the example of Al Gore comes to mind, where Americans chose George Bush over him for President of America. One can fantasize about how the world would have been different if the author of ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, had become President. But that is water under the bridge.
So, what is it that sets a leader apart where even when he proposes to do what his followers either don’t understand or don’t like, they still support him and commit to his way and he doesn’t lose trust in their eyes?
The two finest examples of this in Islamic history are the Treaty of Hudaybiyya and the Wars of Riddah. Let us see the challenges that the leaders faced in each of them.
I won’t narrate the history of this very famous treaty as it is well known. I will list the challenges that Rasoolullahﷺ faced. They were perhaps the most severe challenges that any leader could have faced, especially one who was the Messenger of Allahﷻ and so the recipient of Wahi (Revelation). He took the people with him on Umrah, naturally with the intention of performing Umrah but thanks to a series of events which obviously he could not have anticipated, he was now in the process of signing a treaty that was so one-sided as to be humiliating for the Muslims. Two of the most difficult to accept clauses were:
1. They must return to Madina without making Umrah
2. If a Muslim left Islam and went over to the Quraysh of Makkah he/she would be given refuge and need not be returned to Madina. But if a non-Muslim accepted Islam and went from Makkah to Madina, he/she must be returned to Makkah and must not be given refuge.
To add to the difficulty, Abu Jandal bin Suhayl the brother of Abdullah ibn Suhayl and son of Suhayl Ibn Amr, the orator of Quraysh had accepted Islam and consequently had been imprisoned by his father, escaped and came to Hudaybiyya having heard that Rasoolullahﷺ was camped there. His father Suahyl ibn Amr was the representative of Quraysh, negotiating the treaty. The clauses of the treaty had been agreed upon but had not been written down yet. He demanded that his son should be handed over to him to be returned to Makkah in chains and Rasoolullahﷺ agreed. He advised Abu Jandal (R) to be patient when he complained that the Quraysh would punish him for accepting Islam. The Sahaba were horrified because what was happening was directly against the custom of giving refuge to a victim and in this case to a fellow Muslim. Yet Rasoolullahﷺ was honoring the clause of a treaty even though it had not yet been signed. He was honoring his word which had been given, the writing of which was merely detail. The Sahaba were very sad and angry.
Sad about not being able to enter Makkah and make Umrah and angry at what the Quraysh were demanding. Omar ibn Al Khattab (R) even went the extent of questioning Rasoolullahﷺ. Once again, I will not go into the details here as these are well known. However, I would like to say that his questioning was really the unconscious expression of the doubt in the minds of many others, if not most. It was a cry of anguish in the face of the apparently placid and submissive acceptance of injustice. Yet when all was said and done, the Sahaba stood behind Rasoolullahﷺ solidly and followed him and did as he instructed them to do. And that is the bottom-line and the question that I raise here, ‘What was it about Rasoolullahﷺ that inspired them to follow him, even when his decision was not to their liking?’
To better understand the challenge from the perspective of the followers (Sahaba) let me list some of the obvious doubts that this entire incident raises. I am not saying that the Sahaba had these doubts. Allahﷻ knows what was in their minds and hearts and that is not the subject of our discussion here. This is an objective analysis of one of the most severe tests of leadership in history which is important for us to understand. I call this the ‘final exam’, which qualified the Sahaba in the sight of Allahﷻ to lead the world and Heﷻ opened for them not only the doors of Makkah but the whole of their world. Hudaybiyya was the toughest exam because it was not a test of bravery or physical prowess, but a test of faith and trust. The Sahaba passed it with flying colors.
The doubts that the incident raises are:
1. They believed in Muhammadﷺ as the Messenger of Allahﷻ who received Revelation (Wahi). They believed that one of the forms in which Wahi was received was in a dream. Rasoolullahﷺ had seen in his dream that he was making Umrah with his companions and so, had invited them to join him to travel to Makkah to make Umrah. However, now he was agreeing not to make Umrah that year and was going to return to Madina with them without fulfilling the intention of performing Umrah.
2. They had been taught and believed that Islam was the truth. They had been taught and believed that standing up for the truth and fighting against falsehood was a sacred trust and duty. Yet here they were apparently giving in to blatant injustice.
3. They now faced the prospect of returning to Madina to the taunts of the Munafiqeen who would no doubt cast aspersions on the prophethood and veracity of Rasoolullahﷺ.
4. For Rasoolullahﷺ himself were the questions, ‘If Allahﷻ wanted him to make Umrah, why did this barrier come about? Why did Allahﷻ not open the door for him to make Umrah after directing him to do so in his dream? Why was Allahﷻ wanting him to sign such a humiliating treaty with his enemies? What ‘face’ would he have with his followers who believed in his Messengership? What about his personal credibility as the Messenger of Allahﷻ?’
Truly Hudaybiyya was a test, difficult beyond belief. That is why I call it the ‘final’ exam of the Sahaba.
Wars of Riddah
Before we discuss the reasons for the Sahaba remaining steadfast in their support for Rasoolullahﷺ let me mention another similar incident in early Muslim history which was a landmark for the future of Islam. This was the refusal of many tribes to pay Zakat, after the death of Rasoolullahﷺ. They refused on the grounds that they used to pay it to Rasoolullahﷺ who was no longer present and so Zakat was not due any longer. Abu Bakr Siddique (R) the Khalifa reminded them that Zakat was not a personal payment to Rasoolullahﷺ but was a Rukn (Pillar) of Islam about which Rasoolullahﷺ had declared that anyone who separated Salah from Zakat had left Islam. It was on this basis that Rasoolullahﷺ had refused to accept the Islam of the Banu Thaqeef of At-Ta’aif when they came to him and offered to accept Islam on condition that they be made exempt from paying Zakat. Rasoolullahﷺ refused and declared that both Salah and Zakat were Pillars of Islam and equal in importance and that leaving of either would be tantamount to leaving Islam. On this basis, Abu Bakr Siddique (R) declared war on those tribes who refused to pay Zakat.
The Sahaba were very perturbed about this as it appeared that the Khalifa Abu Bakr Siddique (R) was planning to make war on Muslims. Omar ibn Al Khattab (R) asked Abu Bakr (R) how he could consider going to war against Muslims. Abu Bakr (R) said to him, ‘What has happened to you Omar, that you were very tough when you were not a Muslim but have become soft after entering Islam?’ He then reminded him about the ruling of Rasoolullahﷺ about separating Zakat from the rest of Islam and said, ‘Even if they refuse to give a single rope of a camel which is due, I will fight them.’ And that is what he did. In retrospect, it was this single unshakable stance of Abu Bakr Siddique (R) which preserved the integrity of Islam after Rasoolullahﷺ passed away. If he had not taken this firm stand, Islam would perhaps have disintegrated with people deciding to follow whatever suited them. But ask, ‘What is it that made the Sahaba support him even when they disagreed with his decision?’
In the case of Rasoolullahﷺ at Hudaybiyya, one could say that his position as being the Messenger of Allahﷻ was sacrosanct and when you believed that he was receiving Revelation, it was perhaps easier to follow without question. However, Abu Bakr (R) was not receiving Revelation. He was one among them, albeit first among equals, but an equal. Yet they obeyed him even though some or many didn’t agree with his decision, initially. Not only did they obey him, but they put their own lives on the line and enrolled in the conscript army which was the army of the time. Nobody stayed back. Nobody said, ‘I don’t agree and so I am not going to risk my life by joining the army.’ What made them do that?
I believe there were two major factors that operated in both these incidents; i.e. Hudaybiyya and the Wars of Riddah.
1. Trust: An unshakable faith beyond question in the personal credibility of the leader. This faith was based on the character of the leader which his followers had seen throughout his life and which inspired total trust and respect in their hearts. So, while they may have disagreed with the leader in a matter, his personal credibility, his intention that he wished the best for them, his objectivity, truthfulness, commitment to the goal (Islam), impartiality, lack of selfishness, sincerity, desire only to please Allahﷻ were never in question.
2. Respect: The belief that the leader was more knowledgeable, committed and sincere than any one of them. That he understands a situation better than the follower. That his track record shows that even in the past he had been right, when he differed with his followers.
As you can see, these two factors are dynamically linked. One supports the other. And both arise out of one’s conduct. When you live by your principles, you don’t have to keep talking about them. People see them in your life and emulate them in their own. The converse is equally true which we tragically see in our modern-day leadership. Leaders who don’t walk their talk may be obeyed out of fear but are never respected and loved. There is no way that a leader can divorce his personal conduct from his stated principles and expect followers to respect and follow his lead.
Personal credibility which translates to high respect. People trust those they respect. And they don’t trust those who lose respect in their estimation. A leader’s life is public. Every statement, whether made in seriousness or jest, is public. Every action, private or public, personal or involving others, is public. And they all contribute to the overall picture of the leader that people hold in their minds. Image and personal credibility of the leader is built on his walking the talk. People listen with their eyes and don’t care what you say until they see what you do. This is the Brand of the leader. They care less about what is being said, than about who is saying it. ‘How’ also matters, but only after ‘Who’. If people don’t respect the individual, what he/she says doesn’t matter. First the who, then the how and then the what. Seems strange but that is human psychology for you. People must first trust a leader. Then they listen to how he puts across his proposal. Then they think about what he is asking them to do. If the first two, especially the first one (high personal credibility), is strong, people will even go to extraordinary lengths to follow their leaders.
In times of stress, success of the leader depends on the ability of followers to recall and remember the brand. And still obey and follow the leader and commit themselves even when they don’t fully understand why they should commit. And even when they may not agree with some of what the leader is doing. Please note that what I am referring to is not what happens after the leader has explained what he is doing and why he wants their support. I am talking about a time when the leader may not have the time, opportunity or may for reasons of confidentiality, decide on a course of action without consulting his team. Will the team still follow him and commit fully to him and his course or will they hold back, rebel and not support? That is the meaning of faith in the leadership. Like all good things, maybe easier said than done, but like flying, if you want to fly, you must be aerodynamic. There is no alternative.
There are some people who come into your life as a grace from AllahY. You can’t imagine what you could have done to deserve someone like that. Yet it happens. Such a person comes into your life, touches you, and leaves. But the memory remains with you forever. For me, Berty was such a one. My only regret is that he is not present to read this. It is now many years since he passed away, but I still can’t think of him without a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. Many times have I heard or read that one must say to those you love, that you love them. Because a time may come when you want to say it but they are not there hear it. All I can hope for is that my friend knew how much I loved him. He was more to me than I can possibly describe. This is a tribute to him.
I first met Berty in 1984 in the Anamallais, the Hills of the Elephants. He had transferred from Munnar where he worked for Tata Tea. He was posted to Malakiparai Estate while I was on Murugalli, which has a common border across the backwaters of the Parambikulam Reservoir. We met at the Anamallai Club one evening and it was like meeting someone I had known all my life. There have been a few people in my life whom I have shared this feeling with, where there was never a ‘beginning’ to the friendship. We were old friends from the first day. He proved to me my theory that love is a product of respect. I developed the highest respect for his principles. He was truly an honorable man and he reciprocated this love in full measure. We were like brothers, with complete trust in each other and without anything that we held back from one another. He had a manager called Gopal Vyas who used to call him, ‘De Barty’. I used to do the same. He would call me Baig Dorai – ‘Dey Baig Dorai,’ and I would respond, ‘Yessah De Barty,’ and we would have a good laugh. We lived on neighboring estates and would meet almost every alternate day either at his place or mine or at the Club. We both had excellent cooks and enjoyed good food. We would talk about the wild, animals, forests, our own experience on hunts or game tracking, and end with a lovely meal before we departed for our homes.
It is difficult to describe the beauty of the place where we lived; a place that changes the scene from season to season. In the summer, when it is hot and dry, the waters of the reservoir recede towards the dam and the submerged land becomes visible. It is a surrealistic scene of a Daly like landscape. Gaunt, dry, tree trunks dead for years, look like they have been blasted with dynamite. Crumbling walls of what were once villages. Homes where people lived and from where they moved, leaving the homes to be covered by the rising waters of the dam. Earth that is black with silt and initially looks dead. Then as the ground dries out a little and the sun touches it, old seeds germinate, grass starts to grow and covers the land. Where did the seeds come from? What happens to them when the water inevitably rises and covers them??
Early in the morning, Barking Deer come to graze on the grass. They seem to find the sunny spots and warm themselves as they eat. In the evenings, the Gaur come down to drink at the water’s edge and then graze on the grass as well. Sambar also come and the big males roll in the mud which protects them from biting insects. Wild Boar come in family herds and root for worms, tubers, and whatever else they can find. All this activity is restricted to the time the sun comes out fully and the entire area is too exposed for them to feel safe.
Then comes the monsoon and the water of the reservoir reclaims its own. Slowly, the water rises and once again, all that you can see are the very tops of the tall trees, which sometimes stick out of the surface. Then you need a boat to get to the islands in the middle of the reservoir, the tops of hills that were once covered with tea bushes. Now they stick out as islands, rather bare but with some shrub growth, mostly lantana.
One of the British planters had left behind a boat which I’d had repaired and used to get to these islands. There is nothing more peaceful and enjoyable than to sit on one of these islands in the late afternoon, enjoying the silence, listening to the lapping of the small wavelets on the edge, and watching the sun extinguish itself in the waters of the dam.
The reservoir also had a lot of fish, which was an interest that Berty and I shared. On my side of the lake was a small creek that eventually ran into the reservoir. The stream meandered through the cardamom fields, which we had planted on the hillside leading to the reservoir.
In one place it made a little waterfall as it descended the slope and eventually it flattened and spread out as it entered the lake. At this point there were two very tall trees. It was on one of these tress that I’d had the machan (a tree platform for watching wildlife) built. In the summer, especially on moonlit nights, this was a wonderful place to sit up. Moonlight with its special soft quality blurs the lines and so the shapes become ghostly and ephemeral. And since the water recedes towards the dam, sometimes the animals are a long way off. However, because the intervening space of the lake bed is almost bare, they are still visible, especially if you use good quality binoculars. On moonlit nights you don’t even need special night sight binoculars. Ordinary lenses catch enough light to show the dark shapes, especially of Gaur clearly.
Berty and I shared interests, values, a commitment to quality and results. We competed against each other in the friendliest manner, sharing information about planting techniques. I had modified the plucking shears to prevent them from taking the smaller buds as the plucker sheared the fields. I got my workshop to make a few samples for him and we both had the highest plucking productivity in the Anamallais district.
Berty’s estate, being in Kerala, was an exciting place as far as labor was concerned. They had a CITU (Communist Party of India, Trade Union) union which was very militant. So we would share strategies and techniques of handling them. Both of us spoke Malayalam and Tamil fluently and most of our conversation used to be in three languages; English, Tamil, and Malayalam. Anyone listening to us would have wondered at the way we switched languages but then they did the same. This is a wonderful thing with most Indians, all of whom are multilingual. We have this ability of thinking in several different languages simultaneously and then we are not constrained by any one language to convey the meaning of what we want to say.
Those days passed all too soon. Berty and I were bachelors. Then in 1985 I got married. Samina also took to Berty and they became great friends.
Berty was the perfect gentleman with impeccable manners and great social skills, warm and caring and a person worthy of the highest respect. He was one of those to whom words like honor, friendship, loyalty, faithfulness and courage were the stuff of life – not merely words. His word was worth more than the oaths of most people. He was someone we trusted with all our hearts and a he upheld that trust till the end.
Then there was talk of Berty getting married. He went to Chennai to meet his bride to be. He came back looking like an inebriated sheep. He had fallen in love like a ton of bricks which afforded me much amusement at his expense. After he returned he asked Samina and I to meet Jenny and we went to meet her in Chennai. Jenny used to work at Malaysian Airlines and we formed an opinion that has never changed – that she was the ideal wife for Berty. A wonderful woman for a wonderful man.
Shortly thereafter, I crashed my bike. In May, less than three months after I got married, I had gone to visit Taher who was the Manager in Sheikalmudi and on my way back, riding down the road on a cold and wet day, my bike skidded and I flew over the handlebars and landed on the road with my right leg buckled under me. There was a very sharp excruciating pain and I had almost blacked out. It was raining and it was a Sunday, so there was nobody nearby. I had also hit my head on the road and my helmet had cracked, indicating the severity of the impact. So I was a little concussed as well. As I lay there wondering what to do, I saw two Sheikalmudi workers came running down the hillside. I was amazed at how they happened to be there. When I asked them they said that they had seen me going around one bend and when I did not come past the next bend they suspected that something was wrong, so despite the rain, they came to investigate. Tea estate workers and managers form a bond that is hard to describe. We have our differences, but living together in the same place and taking part in each other’s lives creates a sharing and friendship that transcends the strong boundaries of social hierarchy. We would take care of one another even during disagreements.
I was taken to the hospital where I was examined by a doctor who must have studied medicine at some point in his life, but he had forgotten it all by the time I met him. So what was the rupture of the anterior cruciate ligament was diagnosed as a sprain and I was advised rest for three days. At that time, I was an assistant manager and my boss was a man who was both corrupt and heartless. He resented everything about me. He resented the fact that socially I was his superior many times over, that I was better educated and connected, and that I refused to aid and abet him in his womanizing with the poor hapless plucker women who he preyed on. Womanizing and corruption are ancient traditions of the plantations, established by the British and supported by the Indian contractors and fathers of pretty girls who have no honor or shame. To this day, these things continue. Why he was hired despite his reputation and why he continued in his job to the day he retired is a study in organizational double talk and its results that I shall write about later. But first, let me complete this story.
So on the third day, my manager wanted me back in the field, walking ten to twelve kilometers in the field and riding my bike. I was too proud and adamant to ask any quarter and so I went to work. Naturally, walking up and down hillsides was just about the worst thing that could have been done and two days later, as I got off my bike in the new Mayura factory, I collapsed. Once again, I was carted off to the estate hospital to the same doctor who had a vested interest in sticking to his original diagnosis. This time though, I was having none of it and I called Mr. Rawlley, the General Manager to seek his guidance in the matter. He immediately sent his car for me to go down to Coimbatore to see a proper orthopedic surgeon, a very eminent man called Dr. David Rajan.
By the time I reached him, my knee was swollen to the size of a small football. He immediately aspirated it and drew out a huge amount of black blood which had created the swelling. He then did an arthroscopy and told me that the anterior cruciate ligament had completely ruptured. He said that if I had come to him the day of the injury he would have been able to repair the ligament as it was still attached to the bone. But the three days of walking, enforced by my manager and supported by the wrong diagnosis of the doctor who refused to acknowledge his own incompetence, did the trick and the ligament had completely ruptured. I was advised complete rest and then an operation to put a Dacron fiber ligament in the place of the original one. This took time and finally in October 1985, I was operated in Chennai by Dr. Mohan Das in Vijaya Hospital.
Coincidentally, Berty had had the same injury as I did, while playing football a couple of years before this incident. He also ruptured the same ligament in his right knee as I did. He was also operated in the same hospital by the same doctor. And in the case of my operation and subsequent recuperation, he played a great role in giving me the emotional support that I needed.
The only thing that I remember about my operation was the pain. The operation is very complex with drilling a figure of eight shaped canal through which a Dacron fiber cord is threaded and anchored to either side by steel pins driven into the bone. When I came to it a few hours later, I was moaning with agony. They gave me several injections of Fortwin (a very powerful pain killer), but when even the fourth one for the day did not suppress the pain fully the doctor told me, “This is the trouble with you planters. You drink too much and are resistant to sedation.” I told him that I don’t drink at all as I am a Muslim. He was very surprised and said, “Then why are you so resistant to sedation?” I can still remember the five days that passed before the pain got under control. Samina, my wife of six months, had a rocky introduction to our marriage. Samina and our butler at that time, Mahmoud, stayed with me day and night and did all they could to keep me as comfortable as possible. But there was only so much they could do. The pain was beyond them and that is the most vivid of my memories.
Some good memories of that time were that Mrs. Alagappan, the wife of my Managing Director, came to visit me and then insisted on sending me fresh Idlis daily from her home as she insisted that hospital food was not any good. My aunt Jahanara who lived in Chennai was a great source of support and strength for Samina and I and so were so many of my colleagues from Chennai Head Office who came to visit. Jahanara Aunty was my mother’s cousin and the most wonderful human being that I could ever have known. She was one of those who believed in me when others didn’t and supported me every inch of the way. She opened doors for me in Chennai society and introduced me to her circle. She treated me with more respect than was my due as her nephew and her presence in my life was always a great source of pleasure and strength for me. Tragically, Janahara Aunty passed away from Pancreatic Cancer, smiling and cheerful to the end. Her loss is something that my wife and I feel very keenly, especially when we go to Chennai – but no longer to our home in Chennai, her house.
Once I was discharged from hospital, I had a thigh to ankle plaster on my right leg and had to walk using crutches. This was to remain for two months, so I went home to Hyderabad. Mercifully, it was winter and so the plaster was not too bad, though when the skin scratches inside the plaster it is the most sublime torture. After spending a week in Hyderabad, we decided to go to Jagtial, a small town where my father in law had spent twenty-five years as a doctor and where they still had their house, though they had moved to Hyderabad after retirement. Their good friend, a Hindu landlord from the same place, a wonderful man, unique in that he had three wives all of whom lived very peacefully and happily with him in the same apartment, offered to drive us there. A journey of one-hundred-and-fifty kilometers which took all of five hours. He was a very careful driver indeed.
The enforced inactivity was a very big burden on me initially. I have always been a very high energy person and to be put into plaster and to be on crutches was something that I was certainly not prepared for mentally. An old friend, Ronnie Lynton, sent me a book about a man who had been hit by a bull and had badly fractured his leg. I have forgotten the name of the book, but the story was a powerful motivator. As it happened, I almost mirrored what happened with the man in the book.
The most difficult thing to get used to was the thought that what I was used to doing all the time, walk, run, jump, ride horses, and bikes, I may not be able to do any more. I was not only a very outdoors person, but I also took a lot of pride in doing outdoor things well. Horse riding was a childhood passion and I was an expert in dressage. I enjoyed hiking and climbing and especially trekking in the Western Ghats where you could walk in the wildlife sanctuaries and see wild animals as you walked along. Suddenly to think that all this was perhaps gone forever, took a lot of getting used to.
After having been in plaster for two months the time came to remove it. I went to Chennai (called Madras in those days) to Vijaya Hospital to get it removed. When they cut away the plaster, imagine my shock at seeing what was left of my leg. My leg was completely black in color, scaled as if the skin was that of a fish and wasted away to the bone. I was almost beside myself with despair. I thought I had lost my leg forever and would have to live the rest of my life on crutches. The leg had no strength at all and would not bear the weight of my body. Psychologically, I rejected my leg and could not bear the thought of what had happened to it. But the resilience of youth and the power of faith came to my assistance and I broke out of my despair.
During this whole period, Berty was an anchor for my spirits. He was a living example that I could also come out of this accident without losing the use of my leg. He was a constant source of hope, someone who kept pushing me to do physiotherapy regularly and never let me brood about some dark future. In a place where there was no physiotherapist, Berty was my coach and guide. He would come every evening and spend the evening with me making me exercise, cheering me up with plantation gossip and planning all kinds of hunting expeditions once I was up and about again. He rigged up a frame with a pulley on the top. Over this went a rope to which he hung a weight. On the other end was a loop through which I had to hook my foot and pull the weight up and down till I felt I couldn’t do it anymore. Then he made me do it some more. This was to strengthen the hamstrings. To strengthen the quadriceps he made a bag filled with sand with a loop on the top which I used to slide my foot through and lift up repeatedly. We used to measure the girth of the thigh and calf muscles every day and gradually we could see a change. Very slow and painful, but the improvement came. Gradually, my leg became stronger though I still needed crutches I was not so totally dependent on them.
This went on for four months more but I was still on crutches. The leg became stronger and gained flesh and started to build muscle. The exercise continued. When I was not exercising, I would read a lot. I was not permitted to go to work in the field and so spent a lot of time reading. That is when the idea of a book on tea plantation management came into my mind. I started writing the notes for it and eventually published it three years later. Given that writing literally meant writing in those days, that is not too long a span. I also pursued my reading and study of Applied Behavioral Science as well. I had started my internship with the Indian Institute of Applied Behavioral Science in 1983 and I still had two years to go to complete it.
Meanwhile, the days grew shorter as winter set in and the time came for Berty’s wedding on January 4, 1986. The wedding was in Chennai. Samina and I went down for it. This was the first time that I had actually attended a church wedding and there were many new things to see. After the ceremony everyone lined up for the Grand March. Samina and I stood to one side as I still had my crutches. As we stood watching the crowd milling around and people congratulating the bride and groom and their families, suddenly Berty left everyone and came to me and said in his usual way, “Dey Baig dorai, throw away the bloody crutches man!! I want to see you walking.” And as it happened, he did. I threw away the crutches and I walked.
Berty was a wonderful friend, the like of which I don’t think I will get ever again in my life. We shared each other’s happiness and sadness. He was one person who was genuinely happy for me if something good happened. He was one person who I believe did not have a single bad quality that I can think of. I wonder if anyone can say that about me. Certainly I can’t. And if anyone does then all I can say is that they don’t know me well enough. But I knew Berty better than any of his other friends and I can vouch that the man was pure and good. He was an honorable man whose word could be trusted implicitly. He was caring and full of concern. He was a friend whose absence I miss painfully to this day. He left behind a void in my heart that will never be filled.
There are so many memories of Berty that I wonder which to share with you.
Berty was very fond of hunting. So was I. But for both of us it was the whole environment of the jungle, the excitement of tracking game, of getting up to a quarry in conditions where it had more than a fair chance to get clear, which were all more important than killing some animal or the other. I stopped hunting many years ago and now spend all my time with a camera and enjoy myself far more than I did when I carried a gun. But the memories of those days are also very pleasant and exciting to remember.
One day Berty and I went hunting geese in the area behind Krishnarajsagar Reservoir. These were Bar-Headed Geese which are migratory birds and come south from the Arctic Circle for the winter. We reached there late at night and spread our sleeping bags on the ground in the dry fields and slept. I should clarify – we tried to sleep while trying to hang on to the ground to prevent the mosquitoes from flying away with us. Never have I seen such strong and powerful mosquitoes. Must have been something in the air or water. It is a good thing that the passing of time has nothing to do with whether you sleep or not and so the night passed. The sky started lightening and then the sun peeked over the horizon to see if all was well and if it was okay to come out. Having assured itself it started its upward journey.
How can I describe how the light of the dawn first peeks over the horizon and how it then becomes a little darker before the real dawn breaks? How the sky becomes first a deep shade of blue in which the wispy white clouds look almost transparent. Then it takes on an orange hue that gradually strengthens as the fire of the sun lights all it touches. Then it changes to gold and then the brightness of the full morning blazes forth.
How can I describe how it felt to sit on the ground with my friend, both of us huddled against the cold in our sleeping bags, watching the first flights of geese? The V-formations, with the leaders breaking the force of the wind and the followers coasting in the easier flying they create; their conversations with each other as they fly, constantly in touch with one another by voice. Geese are highly social birds and talk to each other all the time. When they are feeding in a field, which they do in large numbers, you can hear them chattering a long way off. But in the middle of all that, there is always the sentinel who does not eat nor does he take part in the conversation, but keeps a very alert eye open for any predators. After a while, one of the others takes over and he feeds.
How can I describe the sight of a flight of geese flying into the sun from one end, disappearing in the glory of the light for a few instants and then emerging from the other side flying strongly in formation? We sat in silence and I praised the One who created the geese and the sun and who created me and my friend.
I remember the time Berty had a Labrador Retriever called Rocky which he had trained as a gun dog. It was a fantastic animal, true to its type with a nose that made you wonder if it was real or some kind of magic. He could smell at distances which we could not even dare to imagine. A mouth so soft that it would sometimes catch and bring the watchman’s rooster home and present it to Jenny, held firmly in its mouth, but not a tooth would touch it. Rocky had another neat trick when he felt he was not getting enough attention. He would go into the store room and pick one egg out of the egg tray and go to Jenny and sit before her, and stare at her with the egg in his mouth. When she put her hand out, he would drop the egg neatly in her hand. One day the egg trick misfired as the egg fell and broke so the egg tray found a new home higher up where Rocky could not get to it.
One day we went hunting Imperial Pigeons. These are rather large birds which are migratory and pass through the Western Ghats on their way north. They have a deep booming call and usually sit on the topmost branch of the tallest tree they can find. They have good eyesight and are very wary of people creeping up on them. Consequently they are very difficult to shoot.
On this day we walked up a jungle path along a hillside with Rocky in tow. The excitement of the dog was palpable. He knew that he was going to do the thing for which he had been bred and trained and which he could do better than anyone else. The joy of living to the edge of your potential is something that energizes all those about you, even if you are only a dog.
We walked along listening for the tell-tale cooing of the Imperial Pigeons. And then we heard it. The deep booming sound amplified by the hills. I looked up and there he was. A big bird sitting on the topmost branch of a Eucalyptus tree about seventy meters away. The tree was on the edge of the ravine we were walking along and below it the ground dropped away, covered by a thick blanket of Lantana and thorn bush. Through it were the usual pathways made by wild boar and expanded by gaur, but not something that you looked forward to using yourself. Lantana is ideal habitat for wild boar, jungle fowl, and small predators like jackals, jungle cats, and the occasional panther. The thick growth hides the birds from the air and the fruit of the Lantana is relished by jungle fowl. Wild boar use the Lantana as a place to lie up in the heat of the day. The shade under the Lantana is so thick as to be almost dark. Water is retained in the soil and so it is also several degrees cooler under the growth. Gaur use the wild boar paths on occasion to get to water and such paths are consequently wider.
Berty, always the gentleman, asked me to shoot first. I stalked the bird, and very slowly crept up under a clump of Lantana that grew near the Eucalyptus in which the bird was perched. Using a .22 rifle, I aimed and shot and the bird dropped. As it fell, it flapped a little and so did not drop directly under the tree but into a large thicket of Lantana and thorn bush that grew all the way to the bottom of the ravine. “Good shot Dorai,” Berty called to me with that wonderful smile that put deep dimples in both cheeks. “Now let’s see how good this dog is”. Saying that he sent Rocky into the Lantana. We followed.
It is a joy to see a well-trained dog and its master working. There is a bond between the man and the animal that is almost supernatural. The dog senses every mood and reacts to movements that are impossible for an observer to notice. Being a dog trainer and handler myself, I especially appreciated the nuances of great training. Rocky took off and was soon lost to sight. But every now and again he would run back to tell us to hurry up. The ground was treacherous as it was wet and very steep. I was always wary of my game leg and Berty, ever considerate, would never tell me to move faster than I felt comfortable doing. As we walked along suddenly Rocky started barking. Now a Labrador works silently. It will bark only very rarely when it is in a situation where it needs help. As we rounded a bend we saw him looking up into the thick Lantana overgrowth and he continued to bark. His tone was the high pitched excited bark of the dog which is on its prey. Yet when we reached him we could see nothing; no sign of the pigeon.
Berty sent him to search again but the dog refused and continued to bark and kept looking up at the roof of Lantana bush. When this had happened a few times, we decided to follow Rocky’s lead and started to search in the thick roof of Lantana branches and leaves overhead. Lantana is thorny with small thorns and so the search was not painless. But eventually we saw what Rocky’s nose had already told him.
The bird had fallen from the tree but could not break through the Lantana foliage and so was stuck overhead in the thicket. Some inspired climbing and we had the bird. For Rocky of course this was heaven itself.
Many years later Berty and I were in Ooty on a game drive for Wild Boar. These boar are considered a pest as they destroy the potato fields and you are permitted to shoot them. The work of a herd of boar overnight on a potato field is awesome, to put it politely and so it is easy to understand why the farmers hate them so much. Boar can and do destroy all his hard work and threaten his living in a couple of hours. The farmers liked the idea of me shooting boar also because I don’t eat pork and so they didn’t have to share anything with me. So on this cold, bright morning over the Christmas weekend, Berty and I were standing, wearing Army camouflage jackets, our body outlines broken up by some scrub bushes listening to the farmer’s dogs barking in the distance as they started the drive. Suddenly the tone of the dogs’ barking changed to a high pitched excited yelping as they sighted the boar herd and they were off. We expected the boar to break out into a short open glade before us before they would be gone into the forest on the other side. We would have less than 2 seconds of shooting time because a galloping boar with dogs on his tail is anything but slow on his feet.
The dogs had serious respect for the boars because they knew from personal experience what an angry boar or sow can do in seconds to a dog. The result is not pretty and in many cases there is nothing more to be done than to use a bullet to put the dog out of his pain. Not a pleasant thing to do at all. For us the complication was to make sure that we hit the boar and not an over enthusiastic dog which could also break out right behind. This takes much longer to say than it took to do that day. As I stood there with my .12 bore shotgun loaded with rifle shot, I suddenly saw bushes violently shaking as the boar galloped through and suddenly a boar and a sow broke through at full gallop. I lifted the stock to my shoulder and took the boar in the head and without moving the gun from my shoulder, panned it a little to the left before firing the second shot and both animals summersaulted to a halt. I can still see the huge smile on Berty’s face and his shout of, ‘Brilliant shooting Baig Dorai.’ And he came across and hugged me hard. He is the only person I know who would be more happy when I succeeded than he would be for his own success. What a friend I had! And how much I miss him today!
February 1, 1989, I was still in the Anamallais when one night I got a phone call from Val, Berty’s sister from Coonoor informing us that their father, Lt. Col. Cuthbert Suares Sr. had passed away. He was a wonderful man. A thorough gentleman, an artist and painter of no mean standard and a dear friend to all of us. He called me “The Nawab,” thanks to my Hyderabad connection. He once told me with a big smile on his face, “I am living on borrowed time. Our Lord Jesus said that the lifetime of a man is three score and ten and mine is over. So all this is borrowed time.” And that day it ended.
Val called to inform us as we were all very close friends and she said to me, “Junior is here but he is in a very peculiar state. He is not crying at all and we are all very worried about him.” Samina and I left at first light and drove down from the Anamallais to Coimbatore and then up the Ooty Ghat to Coonoor. By the time we reached Wellington all was ready for the funeral. Berty was somewhere inside the house and I could see him through the window talking to someone. Then someone told him that I had come. He came straight out, shook my hand, hugged me and started crying. All the tears that he was holding back came out. I silently held him till he was at peace and then he gave me another hug and we parted. He did not say anything to me. I did not say anything to him. No words were necessary. In the words of another dear friend of both Berty and myself, Sandeep Singh (Sandy), “True friendship is when silence is comfortable between individuals.” I will add to that the fact that with real friends words are often not necessary. Each knows without being told what the other feels. It is uncanny but it is real and feels very natural.
Several years passed. I went to Ambadi Estate. That was a period when I was away from Berty for the longest period. Berty and Jenny never did manage to visit us in Ambadi though we would speak on the phone. Berty had left Tata Tea in Munnar and had joined the Spencer’s Group in Burnside in August 1995. We had spoken at great length about developments at Tata Tea and agreed that it was time for him to change. At Burnside he turned around the property and greatly improved its manufacture. He put Burnside tea on the quality map. He was instrumental in helping start an export business of these teas which was very profitable for the company. During this time, I turned around Ambadi Estates. I confronted the unions on long pending issues, resolved them to the company’s satisfaction, and established productivity, price, and labor agreement records that remain as standards to this day. We were both very passionate about our work, enjoyed it immensely, and took a lot of pride in doing it well.
In 1992 I left planting. Berty was in Munnar.
I spent a year in Delhi as the head of a national travel company and learnt the travel trade and got some hands-on experience in marketing. I traveled internationally in this job and saw the world. I went to South Africa in 1994, the year of its independence from apartheid. I saw for the first time African wildlife, which had been a lifelong dream. I made a very good friend, Logan Govender of Durban whom I had lost touch with for several years and then one day, thanks to the internet, we met again. A wonderfully polished man who gave me deep insights into South African society during the apartheid regime as well as into the transition. This was very useful as the government at whose invitation I had gone to South Africa, which was still very ‘white,’ made every effort to make me see their good side. While there was some truth to that, Logan’s instruction was very welcome and informative. South African independence is a classic case of the triumph of the spirit over the material. A triumph of courage, fortitude, and belief in a goal that transcended all difficulties that life could throw at them. About Logan, I remember most vividly his smile.
During all this time, I was in relatively less contact with Berty. We did not meet at all for about three years as I was away from the Nilgiris where he was and then I went to Delhi. Eventually in 1994, I decided to take the risk of living my dream, to be on my own. So we packed our bags and came to Bangalore and I launched my company, Yawar Baig & Associates.
The sum total of all my savings after working for 10 years was Rs. 25,000.00 (US$ 400), which was the gratuity that I got from the company. I had some additional savings in the form of shares and some money in the bank, all of which came to the princely sum of Rs. 500,000.00 (US$ 10,000). This was the sum total of by then sixteen years of working. I was very glad that I had joined the ranks of the educated unemployed. We took an apartment in Bangalore in a very nice, quiet area called Jayamahal Extension for a rent of Rs. 7500.00 per month. To hedge against the risk of starting a new business I invested all our savings with another friend who had just started a business manufacturing leather garments. Then I hit the road, trying to establish myself as a leadership development trainer and a management consultant. I have written in detail about the trials and travails of entrepreneurship elsewhere so will skip the detail here and go directly to the part of this story where Berty touched my life once again.
We had been in Bangalore for about a year. It had been the most difficult year of my life till then. I was completely new to the consulting environment. I had no established network as I had never been in the HR area myself and had spent all my working life in the plantations away from the real world. Plantation experience was not very respected because most people did not understand what we did in the plantations, what challenges we faced, what constraints we worked under and for what little monetary gain. They had a romantic idea of plantation life that revolved around golf courses, tennis courts, billiards tables, and the plantation club bar with people doing a little work now and again between these more serious pursuits. Nothing was further from the truth, but nobody wanted to believe it. So I had to translate my work experience into language that people in the IT and business world could understand. Meanwhile, there was no money coming in. Things were so difficult in some months that I was not sure where the money for that month’s rent would come from. But we had a small income from the investment in the leather business and we managed with that.
Then came a day when my partner in the leather business said to me that he was going to increase his investment and if I wanted to maintain my share of the business I needed to bring in another Rs. 500,000.00. I was in a fix. I did not have the money. I had no way of getting it. And if I did not get it in time, I would become a minor shareholder with its attendant problems. And all this at a time when I was already in financial difficulties trying to establish my consulting business. That weekend Berty came to Bangalore for the weekend. As was our custom, we met for lunch.
He took one look at me and said, “Dey, Baig Dorai, what’s bothering you?”
“Nothing Da. I’m fine,” I replied.
“Don’t tell lies you bugger. I know you better than you know yourself. Tell me, what is it?”
When he kept asking me, eventually I told him what the issue was. He became silent for a while and then he said to me, “I am going back on Monday, you come with me.” I asked him why he wanted me to go with him. He would not tell me. I finally agreed to go also because I thought a break would be a good thing for me at that stage.
We reached his home in Wellington late that evening and had dinner and slept. Early the next morning after breakfast, Berty drove us to Ooty and went to the office of a lawyer friend of his. Only then did I realize what he was up to. He pulled out a file of documents and said to his friend, “Here are the papers for my house. Please pledge them to the bank and get a loan of Rs. 500,000.00 for Yawar.” I grabbed the file from his hand and refused to be a part of this. I said to him, “Bert, your house is worth more than 3 times that value. You worked very hard to pay for that house. What if my business goes bad and I can’t return the loan? The bank will take away your house.”
What he said to me will remain with me to the day I die. He said to me, “Yawar, what is the use of me having a house if I can’t help you when you need the help?” I wept. I could not believe I was hearing this. What had I done to deserve a friend who would sacrifice his own home to help me?
I said to him, “Bert, you are not alone in this. What about Jenny? What will she say?” He said, “I already spoke to Jen. She agreed with me and she also wants you to take this.” I had no words. I simply took the file and went back to the car and sat in it and said to Berty, “Let me think about this. I will come back to you. But just now, let us go home.” The thing about him was that he respected me enough to accede to my wishes and so we went home. I never did take the money from him. Eventually another dear friend, Thambi (Kurien Abraham) lent me the money which I returned to him a few months later because I decided to get out of the leather garments business altogether. That turned out to be a good decision as a few months later, thanks to some new rules implemented by the EU, the leather garments industry in India went through some very rough times and my partner had to shut down his business instead of expanding as he was hoping to do. As I had drawn out my own investment, I did not lose anything in the deal.
Berty and Jenny’s children, Shonali and Jason are like our own. Shonali was always the little lady, very affectionate but kept her distance. She has grown into a lovely young woman who her father would have been proud of. Jason was still very young and not yet in school, when we lived in Bangalore and used to visit Berty and Jenny on Burnside Estate in Kotagiri. Visiting Berty and Jenny was like coming home. There is something about old friends with whom you have nothing to prove, nothing to hide, nothing to pretend. So you are free to be yourself and know that you are accepted as you are. So we would go to Burnside whenever the ‘city got to me’…which it did regularly every few months. Of all the things that I miss about my life in the plantations, it is the greenery, the peace and quiet, and the bird calls. All of them missing in our Indian cities.
Once we got to Berty’s place, Jason would take me over. He would grab my hand and say, “Yawar, come I’ll show you the wild boar I shot.” His mom would say, “Jason, say Uncle Yawar. Not Yawar.” Jason would go, “Yes. Yawar, come!!!” And then he would take me into the morning room where his father’s hunting trophies were displayed and say, “See, I shot the bugger!” Jason and I would sometimes climb the hill behind the bungalow and sit on top looking at the view. We would just sit together in companionable silence – the age gap of over forty years, no bar to friendship. I would lend him my binoculars which at age four he knew how to handle perfectly thanks to his Dad’s training. He would look through them and then I would hear this excited, “Yawar, look!!!” And I would sit up and look. Why?? Well, try ignoring a four year old and you will know why.
Jason was an early bird like me. So on weekends both of us would get this warning from Berty just as we were about to go to bed, “Dey Baig Dorai, if you and Jason walk around all over the house at some unearthly hour I’ll shoot both of you.” So of course promptly at 6am, Jason would be in our room talking to me in a loud whisper which he thought was being quiet. Then we would both sneak out of the house into the cold morning and go looking for bird’s nests, grazing bison or whatever it was that the morning wanted us to see. We made sure we did not walk in the house as it had a wooden floor that amplified the sound of footsteps and would have attracted Berty’s wrath.
Once we had been out for a while, he would run back into the house, go straight to our room and say, “Thamina, thamina, move, move. I want to thleep on your thtomach.” And that is what he would do. He used to speak with a lisp which sounded very cute indeed, especially combined with bright sparkling eyes and one huge dimple.
Berty would take me around the estate and ask for advice. Predictably, there was nothing to say except to praise his wonderful work. I had much to learn especially in manufacturing in which he was a master. And I enjoyed the sessions very much.
My last meeting with Berty was the time I went to visit him with my friend Taqi from Hyderabad. Berty arranged for Taqi and I to stay one night at a hideaway cottage of another friend of his inside the wildlife sanctuary near the Pykara Dam. This was a fantastic little place in the middle of the wilderness very much like the Grass Hills cottage used to be when I first went to the Anamallais. We walked all over the surrounding hills and then sat by the fire in the night which was very cold. The next morning we drove back to Kotagiri and saw several Sambar enroute. Back at Burnside we lazed around all day. Then in the night, Berty took us out with a spotlight to see the resident herd of bison on the estate. This was a small herd with animals much smaller than the huge monsters that we had on the Anamallais. These animals had become so used to people that I filmed a full grown calf nursing from his mother for more than ten minutes. We eventually moved away leaving them to their own devices. Little did we know that a few months later, Berty was to be knocked down by one of the animals from this very herd.
The story as I heard it is as follows: Berty and Jenny were supposed to go for a dinner party that night. The date was 13th March, 2002. He called Jenny from the office to ask her to finish her shower and get ready and to put on the water heater for him so that he could shower and get ready quickly. They were due to pick up the Bosen’s (some other friends) as well. Jenny had just finished her shower when he called back to say that he was just leaving the office. Five minutes later, he called to say that as he was walking out the Forest Department guys came over to request his help with a problem. A bison had fallen into an irrigation pit and could not get out (the pit was quite small and deep – the bison fit in exactly and could not turn around nor get out. This had happened that morning and the bison was still stuck in the pit. So Berty being Berty, he immediately took some workers from the estate and went down to the spot.
To complicate the issue, a TV crew which happened to be in the area got to hear about the bison that was stuck and they arrived on the scene, complete with lights and cameras. Berty’s plan was to fill the pit with wood so that its floor level could be raised and the bison would be able to get a foothold and get out. They had barely started doing this when the bison managed to find some foothold to get out. Maybe it was the lights from the TV camera that must have triggered this off and scared the animal. The pit was adjoining the forest and there was a small path leading down from it. Berty was standing in the path along with a few other men. Berty was facing away from the pit where the bison was, trying to get two children who were on the path to get out of the way so he missed seeing the animal jump out and charge down the track. It was basically running to save itself and Berty was in the way. As it ran past, it threw Berty up and he fell way below (it was a sloping area with some tea bushes and irrigation pipes). Berty fell on one of the irrigation pipes which was his undoing. He passed out immediately and the Forest Department men took him to a nearby hut, revived him, carried him to their jeep, and took him immediately to the hospital. He had an external wound on his head but the much more serious injuries were all internal. They had to operate immediately as he was bleeding internally and they had no idea what the extent of the damage was. His boss and friend Prem Wallia and his family made heroic efforts to get him the best possible medical attention. He was moved to a bigger and more sophisticated hospital in Coimbatore the same night accompanied by one of the best surgeons of Coimbatore who Prem personally brought with him. Berty’s constitution was very strong and he started to recover.
I immediately flew to Coimbatore. Jaikant, another dear friend, picked me up from the airport and we went to his hospital where I spent a day praying for his recovery outside the ICU where he was recuperating. Much to my grief, I was not able to meet or talk to him. But I did manage to peek into the room and see him. That evening, after being assured by the doctors that he was recovering well, I returned to Hyderabad.
A few days later, a friend of mine who lives in Chennai and did not know Berty or that he’d had this accident, mentioned to another common friend that she’d seen me in a dream. She saw that I was standing in a hospital corridor and a stretcher came past with a body on it, completely covered in a white cloth. The stretcher was moving very fast and I started running behind it trying to catch it. I did not have a good feeling after listening to this dream. That evening, 29thMarch which was also good Friday, at about 9 PM the phone rang and a common friend, Don Henderson said to me, “Yawar, he’s gone.”
I will never forget those words. My dearest friend was gone. I would never see him again. The finality of death hit me once again with a severity that took all my faith in my own religion to deal with. And despite that, to date, I can hardly believe that Berty is no more. The hole he left in my heart will go to my grave with me.
Friendship is a strange thing. It is an investment where the pain of parting is directly proportional to the investment. The better and closer the relationship, the more painful the parting. And parting is inevitable. There is no escaping that particular reality. Our choice is between superficial relationships that have no meaning while they exist and leave no pain when they end, and deep friendships which add meaning to life in the sharing of joy and hardship and are forged at the anvil of adversity. And when they end, a part of you dies with them and the parting leaves a vacuum that can never be filled. My relationship with Berty was such. His space is in my heart his space. Nobody can ever fill it. I am very glad that I had a friend like him. Even as I am desolated that he had to go as early as he did. I am reminded of the Urdu couplet where the poet says:
Tu bacha bach ke na rakh ise; Tera aaina hai wo aaina
Jo shikasta ho tho azeez tar hai; Niga-he aaina saaz mein
In translation the beauty and music of the poetry is lost but here it is…
(Don’t try to protect your mirror from breaking; your mirror is such a mirror (the heart); that only when it is broken, is it considered the most valuable in the eyes of its Creator.)
Return to the Past – Trip to Anamallais after 20 years
I went back to the Anamallais in early December (8-13, 2007), twenty years after I had left the place. We had some friends visiting from South Africa and we decided to take them to see the tea gardens. What better place to visit than to go to where we had lived and worked? So we landed in Lower Sheikalmudi in our old bungalow which had then been converted into a guest house of sorts. Very run down, poorly maintained, and barely livable. We were both happy and horrified to see that the curtains and upholstery that we had put in and used twenty years ago was still there – in understandable conditions. The caretaker assured us that people came to stay there which was surprising to say the least. If it hadn’t been for the power of nostalgia and memories we would have turned around and left. But as it was, we stayed for three days, ate the cooking of a man who was clearly experimenting on us, but we enjoyed the experience of being in our old home and lived to tell the tale.
It was a visit that was amazing to say the least. It taught me the meaning of loyalty; of honoring friendship which has no relation to the time that may have passed. The day we reached it was late afternoon and I decided to go for a walk. I walked down from the bungalow and took the footpath going down into the big swamp at the bottom of that hill. A very familiar path that I used to walk down almost every day when I was in LSM from 1985-1990 in two separate stints. Having descended into the swamp (lots of trace of wild boar digging) I climbed the other side up to the main road going into what used to be the LSM Coffee Area; one of my favorite haunts to watch wildlife. As I walked up that road, I saw a man come running down the hillside. I waited for him. It turned out to be Bhaskaran the supervisor (the man who built the pipeline to bring water to the hilltop).
He looked totally delighted at seeing me. I extended my hand to shake his hand but he took it respectfully in both his hands and touched it to his forehead. “We heard you were coming, Dorai. We were waiting for you. Where are you going?”
“I thought I would go into the coffee area and sit on the rock that I used to sit on and see if the bison (Gaur) still come down in the evening,” I said.
“Dorai, please don’t go there now,” he said. “I saw you going in that direction and had a suspicion that you were going to the coffee area and came to warn you. There is a lone elephant in musth in that area and it is not safe for you to be walking like this. You have not changed. You are still afraid of nothing,” he said with a big grin on his face. “People are waiting for you in the muster. Why don’t you come there and meet them?”
I agreed and we walked up the road to the muster. Musth is the name for a condition of high sexual passion bordering on insanity that male elephants go into periodically. The sign is a discharge from the temporal glands near the eye which looks like the elephant is weeping.
Wikipedia has this to say: “Musth is a periodic condition in bull (male) elephants, characterized by highly aggressive behavior and accompanied by a large rise in reproductive hormones. Testosterone levels in an elephant in musth can be as much as 60 times greater than in the same elephant at other times. However, whether this hormonal surge is the sole cause of musth, or merely a contributing factor, is unknown; scientific investigation of musth is problematic because even the most placid elephants become highly violent toward humans and other elephants during musth, requiring segregation and isolation until they recover. Female elephants do not undergo musth.”
This muster is where I used to go every single day for more than five years. I noticed that it had been extended with an additional room and was as neat and clean as I remember it. In the muster were some of my other old friends, LSM-UD workers, supervisors, and some old and new staff. The new staff had been told all about me, in good plantation style and I can be assured that all my shortcomings would have been conveniently forgotten in the story telling, if the reverence that they showed me was any indicator. In the muster, my old trekking companions, the Raman brothers also came. One (the elder) is a supervisor and the other (the younger) is a worker.
We had some tea, made plans to climb up to Manjaparai the next day, and then Raman (the younger) insisted on accompanying me back to the bungalow. We talked about his family along the way. The children have all grown, married, and have their own children. He is a proud grandfather. Hesitantly, he asked me if I’d had any children. I told him, “Your children are my children, no?”
“Dorai, we are all your children. May God bless you and keep you well, Dorai. Tomorrow I will show you the tea that you planted. Hundreds of people have a livelihood because of that tea. It is the rule in the estate that the pluckers take your name first before they start plucking that tea. It is called Baig Dorai Thotam (garden). Your name will never be forgotten as long as that tea remains, Dorai.”
The next day we took a picnic lunch (flat masala omlettes, rolled in rotis with some pickle on the side) and walked up the hill to Manjaparai. My nephew Aly Basith, and our two friends from South Africa (Maulana Bilal Kathrada and his wife Fathima Salejee) were with us. Once we climbed down the hill from the bungalow, the climb is about four to five kilometers; never very steep but always rising. So as you continue upwards, it can get quite taxing on a body used to sitting in chairs more than anything else. As you climb up out of the tea, you enter first the scrub jungle, very thick with all kinds of shrubbery including some very potent stinging nettles called Anai-marti. All my old memories came flooding back. Raman & Raman were thrilled that I could still recognize the plants. Raman the younger cut a stout stick for me which is something that I used to like to keep as a climbing aid. Today I needed it more than simply wanting it. We walked through a path that Raman cut in the undergrowth with his pruning knife. As I walked, I remembered that this was the habitat of the Hamadryad (King Cobra) which is an endangered species. This snake preys on other snakes, is extremely fast and aggressively territorial. I remembered Bhaskaran’s sister who was bitten by one of them when I was an Assistant Manager on this estate. She died almost instantly.
It was late in the afternoon when this happened. The girl had been plucking tea and had moved away from the gang towards the jungle border. The snake must have attacked almost in silence. The sight of a King Cobra coming at you with the front of its body raised above the ground (in the case of a big snake this can be as much as four feet high) and hood fully extended is a fearsome sight indeed. She screamed in terror and tried to run. But the snake travels at more than fifty miles per hour and she did not stand a chance of escaping. The other pluckers who heard her ran to her aid. But it was too late. She collapsed as they reached her and died a few minutes later. The venom of the King Cobra is both neuro-toxic and haemo-toxic in nature and so is lethal. I remembered her as I walked up the hill. Tragic though this incident was, it was the only one in living memory and has never happened again since then.
We came out of the brush eventually, having been bitten liberally by elephant ticks (the price to pay for climbing to Manjaparai) on to the base of the rock called Manjaparai (rough translation – Yellow Rock) because of the color of a lichen that grows on this rock. There is a small stream that flows through a slight depression in it and at one point forms a shallow pool. This is the drinking pool that Sāmbhar and Gaur come to drink in. When we reached there that afternoon, we also found some old elephant dung strewn around the pool, but no fresh sign of any elephant. Walking up the hill, we surprised a basking cobra (normal variety – Naga Naga) and then startled a Sambar doe that was resting in a thicket. She exploded out of the bush and galloped down a slope that I would have hesitated to walk down too fast. It was in the tree (still there, much bigger now) that grew out of the rock near the pool, on which I’d had a platform constructed and used to sit up on to watch animals. As I have written earlier, nights on this platform were very cold but the sight of the sun rising next morning was worth far more than the discomfort of the cold.
I remembered the sounds of the forest I would hear as I sat on the platform and watched the sun go down. These sounds are somewhat different from those in the Aravallies that I have described earlier. The Western Ghats have evergreen rainforest and not the semi deciduous forests of the Aravallies. I would get up into the tree early so as not to disturb any game. One of the Ramans would sit up with me. The other one would see us to the place and leave and return early the following morning to collect us. It was not safe to stay on the ground during the night unless you had a fire. But the fire would drive all the game away and so we had this arrangement. The first calls as the sun went down was always the jungle fowl going up to roost. First the cocks would crow – kak kaak, kaa kak?? – with a question mark at the end. Then the hens would sometimes cackle as they flew up to their roosts. Once they settled in, the nightjars would start flitting on silent wings, catching the night insects in flight as they came out of their hiding places. It is a fascinating sight to watch the nightjars as they took their interceptor flights. The nightjars sit in an open place (on a small rock or in the middle of the path) and make their characteristic call chut-chut-chut-churrrrrrrrrrrr. They repeat this call endlessly, sitting absolutely still but watching the world very closely. As soon as it sees a poor unsuspecting insect going about its business, the nightjar simply erupts into the air and the world insect population is reduced by one. 100% kill rate. Amazing birds.
Then there would be silence for a while as the jungle settled for the night. As the first light of the moon started to strengthen, the owls would come out of their roosting places, where they had been hiding both from the sun as well as from the crows who harass them mercilessly if they see them in the open. They hunt in pairs. They fly out onto the flat branch, one followed by the other, that was their take off perch. They would sit there for a while and talk to each other, perhaps discussing strategy. Then he would glide away in one direction and she in another. You have to see an owl in flight to understand the meaning of grace. Suddenly you hear the dhank-dhank of the Sambar. This is the alarm call telling the other tenants of the jungle that one of the two big cats that live in this forest, the tiger and the leopard, is around. The Sambarr is the most reliable of the sentinels which call out when they see these predators. During the day it is the Nilgiri Langur with the black faces, beautiful shiny grey fur and impossibly long tails who have one of their number as a permanent lookout.
But at night, the Langur are among the first to go to the treetops where they spend the night, safely out of harm’s way. Langur are at the top of the leopard’s dietary preference and so no wonder they have a difference of opinion and prefer to be where the leopard is not subjected to any temptation. The Sāmbhar has fallen silent. This means that he can no longer see the tiger or leopard. As long as he can see them, he calls continuously. Then as you look at the deep shadows, one of them moves and comes out into the open which is illuminated by the moon, now strongly present. You can see the shine of the black coat and the white socks. You hear the snort as the bull clears his nose. The Gaur are here. As he gives the all-clear the cows and calves come out and all of them move to the shallow pool to drink. There is not enough water for all of them to drink together so they will remain there for as long as it takes for the pool to keep filling as they keep emptying it.
The presence of one herbivore is a sign to the others that the situation is safe. It is essential of course for us to keep our silence, breathing softly and staying completely still. It is amazing how highly developed are the senses of animals whose life literally depends on this. Even the slightest movement or sound and they vanish as if they had never been there. Raman seems carved in stone. I recall all my early childhood training in jungle craft and thank Uncle Rama silently for teaching me to take care of myself and to reconstruct the story of the forest from the signs. So we both sit in complete silence and watch the animals which are less than twenty meters from us.
I had put out blocks of rock salt (salt licks) and so some of the animals move away towards the salt lick and eventually even sit down to chew the cud around the salt lick. I have seen Sambar pick their way between resting gaur to get to the salt, all in perfect harmony with each other. As the night passes, we can hear elephants feeding in the forest bordering Manjaparai but that night they decide not to come out into the open. The night is now almost completely silent. All the grazing and hunting has been done. Now the whole world is resting. The time is 3 AM according to the glow of my watch dial. The night is very, very cold. A breeze has started which blows unhindered up the slope of Manjaparai. The bison (gaur) herd has moved off back into the forest. There is nothing in sight. Raman and I are both feeling very cold. So we silently decide to descend onto the rock and light a fire. The firewood has already been collected the previous evening and is at the foot of the tree. We get down to the rock and Raman sets about creating a very nice and bright bonfire. To enjoy a fire truly one must first be at freezing point. Then you light the fire and sit in front of it and toast yourself. That is bliss. Of course it destroys your night vision and if you have to suddenly turn and look into the darkness you are completely blind, but then in our case there is nothing to see in the darkness and so we both sit before the fire, wrapped in our blankets and talk of various matters grave enough to be spoken of at 3 AM. It is amazing how people who we may dismiss as illiterate and uneducated (not that I ever did that), make observations, reflect upon them, and form educated opinions. A favorite topic like with most Indians was politics and the antics of politicians. We are a very politically savvy people. We understand our politicians like nobody else. So what beats me is how we always manage to elect such puerile ones.
Like the joke goes, ‘What happens when a politicians drowns in the river?’
‘It is called pollution.’
‘What happens when they all drown?’
‘It is called a solution.’
So we would discuss the reasons for corruption in our system. What came across to me was the good, simple, and sincere hearts of our poor. And at the same time the learned helplessness. Every conversation would end with the same refrain, ‘Ah! But what can we do?’ The reality that if anything can be done, it is only we who can do it, remains an elusive concept. Having put that to rest, we would watch the fire and simply sit in companionable silence, waiting for dawn.
Raman proves that he is made of gold by pulling out a flask with piping hot tea and he and I share the tea and wait for the night to pass.
Gradually our talk runs out and we doze in spells. The fire starts to go down and every once in a while either Raman or I put another log into it. Time passes. We see the owls that had left the previous evening, return to their perch and they have a long conversation recounting tales of the hunt. I have no idea whose story was more impressive but both seem to have a lot to talk about. The sky is now starting to lighten. There is a strange blue light and I feel as if I am looking at the world from the bottom of the ocean. Then an orange tinge starts at the very bottom of the horizon and gradually grows upwards as if a fire has been started and is strengthening. And indeed it has.
The final payoff of our trip is at hand. The sun is starting to rise. The sky catches fire. The flames rise higher. And then the top curve of the ball of fire appears on the horizon and rises rapidly upwards. The light is now strong. A new day has been born and I am fortunate enough to witness it. What price can I place on this privilege? All it took is a little discomfort, sitting half the night on the top of a tree. I thank Allah for showing me His creation.
That afternoon it was as if I was watching a flashback movie. As I sat on the rock, eating my egg roll I remembered all these things as vividly as if I were watching IT happen all over again. Twenty years had passed. The gaur I saw are all gone. So are the Langur. Their off-spring have taken their place. Raman is there with me but his hair is now jet black with hair dye. My beard is a salt-pepper shade with more salt. There is change, but the rock is timeless. So is the forest. Ever changing of course, but strangely, still the same. Not often is one privileged to go back in time. I finished my meal and lay down on the rock close to the stream to sleep for a while. Raman & Raman moved away to either ends of the open space to take up watch positions. We are old friends and companions. Nothing needs to be said. Each knows what he should do. I can hear the small stream gurgling as I drift off into the best sleep that I have had in a very long time.
I woke up as the sun started its final journey to America. Only if it set here could the Americans have another day. So we can’t delay it, can we? We gathered our things and started off back home, this time on a new track past the tea that I had planted 20 years ago. I have told the story of this tea, the taking over of the illegal vegetable gardens and then planting them with tea, when I was the manager of this estate. Today I was very eager to see what had become of it. Once again we descended into the dark thickness of the undergrowth at the bottom of Manjaparai, now a little apprehensive as we can see fresh sign of elephant. We walk in single file with Raman in the lead and myself at the rear with our friends who are new to this environment in the middle. We walk silently. Everyone has been given instructions about what to do if we come across elephants. But nothing as exciting as that happens and we emerge into what has become known as Baig Dorai Thotam (Baig Dorai’s Garden – the name that the pluckers gave it). I looked at it with tears in my eyes. It was the most beautiful sight that I had seen in a long time.
The tea has been extremely well looked after. They had done a height reduction prune to it and it is now back in plucking. Flat as a table, deep green maintenance foliage with light green plucking shoots standing proud and tall. Someone obviously has done an extremely fine job here. I was delighted that I had decided to come here and visit after so long.
We climbed up on another rock on the border of the tea overlooking the thick evergreen rain forest that the Anamallais are famous for. There is a single Spathodia in full bloom in the middle of the sea of green, the flame red color of the flowers standing out like a bonfire. I can see why it is called the Flame of the Forest. We sit in silence and watch the sun rise somewhere else. As the night descends, I thank AllahY once again for giving me this opportunity to come back and see the result of my work and meet my old friends. I feel privileged and honored.
The next day was simply a day of reunions. Selvaraj and Karpusamy Supervisor from Candura. This Karpusamy is the guy in my close encounter with the elephant story that I narrated earlier. Now they have one more year to retirement. Raman Supervisor (there is certainly no shortage of Ramans in this place) of Murugalli called his mother, the famous union leader Aghilandum that I was visiting. So the next day she came up from Trichy where she is now retired and living with her brother. That is a distance of more than five-hundred kilometers and she is eighty-four years old. What could I say? She hugged and kissed me and insisted on feeding me with her own hand. She also passed away last year. Thangavelu came to visit, cleaned up for the occasion and not looking as if he had just climbed out of an oil barrel, which was otherwise his usual appearance. Since he is an automobile mechanic (without a day’s education to boot) of legendary fame, it is only appropriate that he looks freshly dipped in lube oil. He is also an old friend with whom I share many memories.
One memory that constantly stayed with me during the entire trip was that of my dearest friend Berty. We first met when I was an Assistant Manager in Lower Sheikalmudi. Both of us were bachelors. We used to hunt the migratory Imperial Pegions and the resident jungle fowl and wild boar together. We would spend almost every weekend in the Sholayar River that flows at the bottom of what used to be the cardamom plantation on my estate. Some weekends we would go to Manamboly which I did not manage to do on this trip as I fell very sick on the day we intended to go. Berty and I would sit by the river in Murugalli fishing, on the other bank of which was his estate, Malakiparai and watch the feral buffalo sloshing in water. We would stand in rapidly flowing water in Manamboli below the sluice gates and cast for Mahseer while drinking in the atmosphere of the jungle. Not a sound except from the river or from a bird celebrating its life.
One day we were in Manamboli fishing and one of the fish we had caught disappeared. “Dai Baig Dorai, you can’t tie a bloody fish properly man!!” yelled my dear friend. What wouldn’t I give to hear him curse me out for doing nothing once again!!!! I had no answer. We had each caught a good sized mahseer. His was still there. Mine had disappeared. What gave the game away was that the line looked like it had been bitten through. Just then I heard the whistles….two otters talking to one another, no doubt with evil intentions on Berty’s fish. I called out to him in a low voice, “Yedo, noke awaday” and I pointed to the otters. Berty laughed so much that he almost fell down into the water. “What the bloody hell, so this is the bugger who stole our fish!!! Man, what do you expect? We go into their home and steal their fish, so they decide to freeload on our effort.” What memories!! But my friend is gone. So would have the otters. Nothing lives that long in the forest. Only I am alive to tell the tale and to remember my friend and to live once again that one magical day, this time on behalf of both of us.