1985 was a very significant year in my life. Not the least because in March that year, I got married. And then in April, I went off to the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad to do an Executive MBA while my wife went off to her parent’s place in Leeds, UK. We returned to the Anamallais well after the monsoon had started and it rained almost continuously. We were staying on Murugalli in the Tennis Court bungalow. It was a Sunday, when I got a message that Mr. S. M. Taher, who was the Group Manager and lived in Sheikalmudi Estate, wanted to meet me. I togged up in my canvas raincoat and helmet and got onto my Jawa motorcycle and left for Sheikalmudi. Normally I would have worn my canvas jungle hat as I was on the estate. I almost never wore the helmet on the estate; only when I was going to Valparai to the Anamallai Club or to Iyerpadi to our Plantations Head Office. In this case I wore the helmet because it was raining heavily. Being a Sunday, there was no work, so nobody was on the street and since it was raining everyone was in their home. My wife would perhaps have come along for the ride had it not been raining but since it was, she stayed back, and I promised to return for lunch.
I reached Sheikalmudi bungalow, had a cup of tea with Taher bhai and Bibs, did whatever it was that I had been summoned for and togged up again to return. There was no let-up in the rain, but I needed to get back home. In the monsoon in Anamallais, because it rains so much and almost continuously, moss starts to grow on the surface of the road on the asphalt, so roads are slippery. To add to that when it is raining, a thin film of water flows on the road and you have a really interesting situation. How interesting, is what I was about to discover. I was riding my Jawa motorcycle, my head down to keep the raindrops hitting my face. The road was totally familiar to me and I was in a hurry to return home. As I took the bend just below Sheikalmudi bungalow, the bike skidded. I braked, the front wheel hit the curb and I left over the handlebars for mother earth. I met her on my head, my helmet hit the aforementioned curb, which was the granite stone edge of the road and cracked. I landed in a funny (but highly unamusing) way with an excruciating pain in my right knee. I was slightly concussed and dizzy and couldn’t move. There was total silence and the rain continued to fall. Then I heard voices.
There was a labor line just behind Sheikalmudi bungalow. That day, some of the occupants had been sitting in the doorway and watching the rain. They had seen me go to the bungalow a while ago. Then they heard my bike start and saw me ride out of the bungalow gate. They were expecting me to take the turn at the end of the road going down to Sheikalmudi factory, but I didn’t. Such were our relationships that these people became concerned. So, despite the rain, they came out looking for me. And they found me. If they had not done that, I have no idea how long I would have been lying on the road, because I couldn’t move, there was nobody to call out to, and in 1985 the inventors of mobile phones were probably still in their mothers’ wombs. But these guys found me and carried me back to Taher bhai’s house. Taher bhai rushed me to the hospital in Murugalli. The doctor examined the knee and applied some salve on it and tied a pressure bandage and sent me home. I asked him if I should rest. He told me to rest for two days.
At that time, I was working as Assistant Manager in Lower Sheikalmudi Estate. I rested and went to work two days later. The swelling in the knee was less but it was still painful. But I kept the pressure bandage on and worked normally. Most of the work of an Assistant Manager in a tea estate is to walk up and down hillsides and on uneven roads. I did that more than most because I also loved it. In this case, I started to carry a cane for support while going downhill. But in the evening the pain got worse and the swelling increased. The doctor gave me a painkiller. I didn’t ask for leave for a variety of reasons that I don’t want to mention here. Some incidents and people, in life must be learnt from and then forgotten or at least locked up in a box and put away in the attic of your mind. Otherwise they poison your whole life. To make a long story short my knee continued to deteriorate, and the swelling increased to the point where it looked like a small football. All night long it would ache terribly. Then in the morning, I would wrap the bandage and off to work.
One day, about a week later, I got off my bike in Mayura factory and my knee collapsed, and I crashed to the earth. People rushed to me and carried me off once again to the hospital. The doctor tried to pass it off again as, ‘Tie a bandage and take pain killers’, but I’d had enough. I insisted that he refer me to an orthopedic specialist in Coimbatore. Mr. N. K. Rawlley (Nikoo) our General Manager, heard about this whole thing and was furious with me and said, ‘Yawar, why on earth didn’t you call me about this? I am sending Hector (Hector Siqueira was his driver) and he will take you to Coimbatore.’ The orthopedic specialist was Dr. David Rajan. He examined my knee, listened to the case history and said, ‘This is just total mismanagement. If you had come to me one week earlier when it happened, all it would have taken is a small procedure and you would have been fine. Now it is not something that I can do here. I am going to aspirate your knee so you will have relief from the pain, temporarily. You need to go to Chennai urgently and get it operated. Your anterior cruciate ligament got damaged in the crash, but it was still attached to the bone. During the week since, because you did not rest, the ACL tore off its anchor which is why you collapsed. Now they will have to construct an artificial ACL and replace your natural one. It will be long and painful. Let me warn you.’ What could I say? Dr. David Rajan aspirated my knee. It immediately relieved the pressure and pain as all the blood that had swollen the knee was drawn out. It was about half a liter and it was thick and black like lube oil.
Then started a part of my life that I am extremely glad is over and that I hope I will not have to live again. I got an appointment with the best orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Mohan Das in Vijaya Hospital in Chennai (it was called Madras in those days). We packed our bags and took the train from Coimbatore to Chennai – Nilgiri Express. My wife had a very rough beginning into our marriage. First, I disappeared for six months, almost immediately after our wedding as I was at the IIMA and she was with her parents. Then this accident and all that it brought with it. During this ordeal a huge support was my dearest friend Bertie (Cuthbert Suares, Jr.) who was the Assistant on Malakiparai Estate. Malki (as we called it) is across the Kerala/Tamilnadu border marked by a check post and gate that is always open. Bertie was my nearest neighbor. He was my greatest support because a year or so earlier, he’d had the exact same accident (in his case playing football) to his right knee (like mine) and Dr. Mohan Das had operated on him. So, Bertie knew the ropes and he was my advisor.
In Chennai my wife and I checked into the Taj Connemara hotel, one of the nicest hotels that I have stayed in. It is smaller than Taj Coromandel and much cozier and more personal. The next morning, we went to meet Dr. Mohan Das whose arthroscopic examination confirmed the diagnosis of Dr. David Rajan. The arthroscopy was done under general anesthesia, so it was night by the time we got to the hotel. I had still shaky on my feet and so I was in a wheelchair. The drive from the hospital to the hotel didn’t do any wonders for me. And so, as they wheeled me into the lobby of the Taj Connemara, I threw up all over the floor. I was mortified because the casual observer would obviously have come to the quickest conclusion; that this was the result of me having been binging all day. But Taj Connemara staff gave me a demonstration of what Taj Service training is all about.
The Front Office Manager rushed out from behind his desk and acted as if I had bestowed a great gift on them. Waiters materialized with hot towels for me to wipe my face. Then cold water with a slice of lemon, as I was wheeled off into the elevator. I tried to apologize for my accident. But they would have none of it. “Don’t you worry Sir; you just take some rest and get well. Everything is fine.” As they say, “They won’t remember what you said, but they will remember how you made them feel.” I remember to this day, how Taj Connemara people made me feel and I am most grateful. Beautiful people, beautiful training in practice. As they say, the test of the training is in how people feel when they encounter those you trained. I for one, can vouch for it, because my memory of the Taj Connemara people is still fresh, strong, and very pleasant, after more than thirty years. All those who were there in 1985 must have retired by now. But I hope they passed on their goodness to their successors.
Two days later started my ordeal which was to last a whole year. It is a wonderful thing that we don’t know the future. Or in many cases, we would perhaps not even try to make an effort. I had a meeting with Dr. Mohan Das who explained the procedure to me. Brukner Plasty of the knee to reconstruct the Anterior Cruciate Ligament. They would take a slice of the Patella tendon, reinforce it with Dacron Fiber and anchor it in a figure of 8 with two steel pins above and below the knee. Part of this would be threaded through a tunnel that they would drill in the bone. All this sounded horrific and extremely painful. I asked Dr. Mohan Das about the pain because that was the only relevant part of the whole discussion for me. I needed the operation. My knee was totally unstable. I couldn’t walk and would never walk again unless I had the surgery. What I wanted to know was how painful it would be and how they planned to manage the pain.
“Don’t worry’, said Dr. Mohan Das. “We will knock you out and keep you knocked out for a week. By then the pain will be manageable and you will be fine.” I was very reassured. I should have known better. Not that knowing would have changed anything. Just that knowing………..Ah! you know what I mean!!
The operation was done the following day. I was in the Post-Operative Care room after the operation. As my anesthesia started to wear off I began to feel the pain. The most excruciating pain that I had ever felt. My wife was in the room and was trying to talk to me. But I was not conscious of anything but the pain. She called the nurse who said, “Don’t worry Madam. I will give him a Fortwin (Pentazocine) injection and he won’t feel anything.” She was right and she was wrong. I went under but just about. I could still feel a deep ache, but the acute pain was under control. But just about four hours later, I was back to the screaming agony stage. The nurse came, tut-tutted and stuck in the needle and went away. I descended into the ‘bearable’ stage. This happened thrice. Four hours later I was back to the screaming agony stage. The nurse came but refused to give me the Fortwin shot. She called the Duty doctor. He called Dr. Mohan Das and asked him. When Dr. Mohan Das heard about how many shots had already been given, he ruled out giving any more. He said that I had already been given the maximum dose that could be given in 24 hours. Any more could potentially be lethal. I told him, “But you told me that you would knock me out and that I wouldn’t feel any pain.”
He said, “Your bloody planters drink too much liquor. That is why you are so resistant to sedation. I can’t help that. How was I to know that you are so resistant to sedation?”
I told him, “Doctor, I don’t drink. I am a Muslim and I am a teetotaler.”
He said, “Then how the hell are you so resistant to sedation?”
Well, that was not the best place to find out about this great ‘strength’ or ‘weakness’ of mine. But there it was, and I was in the worst agony that I have ever endured. For one week they gave me the injections, four per day. But the interim periods between one injection and the next, which were several hours, were pure agony. My wife was a huge source of strength. She spent the entire day with me. In the night she would go to the hotel while my butler, Mahmood, would spend the night with me in the ward. I can vouch for the fact that the man didn’t sleep a wink. Every time I opened my eyes, he would be instantly at my side. I would tell him again and again to sleep and that I would wake him if I needed him. He said to me, “I didn’t come here to sleep.” There have been some lovely people in my life.
I was in hospital for two weeks while the wound healed. They had attached tubes in five places to drain the fluids inside the knee. These tubes had been attached to my skin with stitches so that every time I moved, they pulled and added to the pain of the main wound. The intensity of the pain reduced after four or five days but there was a massive ache with sharp spikes of pain every time I moved.
My first visitor in hospital was my aunt Jahanara and her husband Mohammed uncle. They were my parents away from home and their solicitous presence and dua were instrumental in my healing. It was also good for my wife to have someone from the family to be there. The second visitor, also on the first day after I had been moved to my room, was Mrs. Alagappan, the wife of the MD of CWS (India) Limited (later it became Parry Agro), Mr. M. A. Alagappan. Mrs. Alagappan was very concerned with my situation. She asked me what I could eat and where the food was coming from. I told her that I was allowed to eat anything, and that the hospital had a good canteen and I was getting the food from there. She would have none of that. She said to me, ‘Hospital food is always bad. I will send you food from my place.’ I tried my best to dissuade her and eventually she insisted that she would send at least one meal and so every day, as long as I was in hospital, her driver would come every morning with breakfast. Idlis, dosas, upma and all kinds of delicious South Indian dishes which I thoroughly enjoyed. And most of all filter coffee; the mainstay of Tamil culture. I am most grateful to her for her kindness. But that is how she was.
To make a long and very painful story short, I was discharged from hospital after two weeks and told to return after two months. They put a thigh to ankle plaster on me and gave me a pair of crutches. I went off to Hyderabad on extended leave as I could not have worked anyway. I do not know if you have ever had a thigh to ankle plaster. It is sublime torture. As your skin dries inside, it becomes very itchy. But you can’t scratch. They tell you that you will get used to it. They lie. You don’t. You never do. It remains with you until the plaster comes off and then you want to take a wire brush and scratch until there is nothing left to scratch. But of course, you do nothing of the sort. You bear it all with or without a smile. I tried to bear it with one. The crutches were sort of fun and I became expert with them to the extent that I used to race up and down stairs. Not a very bright thing to do, but then I never claimed to be very bright.
Two months passed and my wife and I returned to Chennai to get my plaster off. I couldn’t wait for that to happen. Dr. Mohan Das came at me with a circular saw blade. I almost attacked him in self-defense. He assured me that the blade didn’t cut skin. To reinforce his point, it turned it on and ran it on his own arm. Then he cut the plaster. As he sliced the plaster and took it off, I almost passed out with shock. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Inside the plaster was something that was black and scaly wrapped around a central bone. No flesh or muscle to be seen. Dr. Mohan Das said to me, ‘Stand up and put your weight on this leg.’ Was that my leg? I couldn’t believe my eyes. I put my weight and it collapsed. Dr. Mohan Das caught me before I could reach the floor. I thought I was finished; handicapped for life; one-legged at 30. Dr. Mohan Das was however very upbeat. “You must exercise and build the muscle”, he said. “Hamstrings and quadriceps. That is the key. The muscle will grow around the knee and support the artificial ligament that we have created. You can use the crutches for now, but once the leg strengthens, you must start to use it. I am happy with the way the wound has healed.” I asked him about the black scaly skin on the leg. He said, “That is because it has been inside the plaster for two months and has dried. Put moisturizer and show it some sunlight and it will go back to normal.”
We returned to the estate and I reported for duty on my crutches. I was still assigned to Murugalli Factory and so didn’t need to walk up and down hills nor to ride a motorcycle. My biggest support during this time was Bertie. As I mentioned earlier, Bertie had had the same operation, coincidentally in the same hospital, but the same surgeon and after his operation he was in the same room as I was. He came over the day we returned to the estate and showed me the exercises that I needed to do. He would come home almost every evening after work and ensure that I was doing the exercises. He got Thangavelu (our estate mechanic and blacksmith) to build a frame like a hockey goal post with a pulley over the top cross bar. A rope went over that pulley with a sandbag on one end of it and a stirrup on the other through which I would slide my ankle and pull the sandbag up. This was for the hamstring. For the quads, the exercise was simpler. Just the sandbag on top of my foot to be lifted and lowered endlessly until my leg felt like it would fall off. The result of these exercises was that my leg started to get stronger and the almost totally wasted muscles started to build up. It took several months but gradually the leg gained strength.
Every week I used to measure the girth of the muscles and it was very encouraging to see the improvement. I started walking around in the bungalow garden and in the factory but still with my crutches. Eventually I discarded the left crutch but still kept the right as I was not sure of the stability of my knee. Then came the good news that Bertie was getting married. The wedding was to be in Madras and of course I had to be there. This was our first time attending a Catholic wedding in a church. Everything was new and interesting for me. We were quietly standing in the back as the ceremony was underway. Then as soon as the ceremony was over and Bertie and Jenny were married, Bertie came straight up to where I was and said, ‘Dey Baig Dorai! Throw away this bloody crutch man. You don’t need the thing anymore.’ He grabbed the crutch and pretended to fling it right out of the church. The message was clear. I threw away the crutch and have never needed it since. In the ensuing years, I climbed Grass Hills twice, ten years apart; walked and climbed forest trails in different countries, rode horses, everything that I used to do before. My knee was totally healed, and the leg was back to normal.
Another thing that happened during this convalescence period was that I got a message from Mrs. Alagappan saying that her Doberman had puppies, and would I like one? I was delighted. A month later I got another message asking if I could collect the puppy. I sent one of our workers, Veeramuthu, who was also an astrologer and was called Veeramuthu Josiar (Jyotishi) to collect the puppy. Since it was the middle of summer with temperatures in Chennai around 40 Celsius with almost 90% humidity, I reserved for him a seat in the AC Chair car of the train on the return journey. He was carrying a plastic mesh basket with a mat on the bottom to bring the puppy in. Both arrived in good shape. Then Veeramuthu said something to me which had remained with me all these years and pricks me from time to time. He said to me, ‘Dorai, thanks to your dog, I was able to travel in an air-conditioned train for the first time in my life.’ Little do we realize the unexpected implications of our actions. I have regretted that all my life. If only I had bought him a return ticket in the air-conditioned compartment, I wouldn’t have had to listen to this comment. My action was totally unconscious. Maybe I would have done the same if I had gone myself, thinking about cost saving. But that is not the point. The point is what happens when we say or do something without thinking. Just because we didn’t intend something, it doesn’t mean that it has no consequences. Whether you drop a crystal vase on the stone floor by accident or you throw it down deliberately, the effect will be the same – it will smash to pieces. The only solution is to speak and act deliberately and thoughtfully.
Little Bonnie was chocolate brown and came to us in 1985 and remained with us throughout our plantation sojourn. She traveled in our car, in the cabin of the truck taking our possessions to Ambadi from the Anamallais. She traveled in another truck to Bangalore when I left Ambadi in 1993. Then she traveled in a container on Indian Airlines from Bangalore to Delhi when we moved there and then to Bangalore in our First Class Coupe on the Rajdhani Express back to Bangalore when we returned there for me to set up my consulting company Yawar Baig & Associates (www.yawarbaig.com). She stayed with us in Bangalore in our little apartment, totally at home. She would sit and listen to conversations as if she could understand everything; and who knows how much she did understand! She knew that my wife and I didn’t like to be licked and so when we returned home she wouldn’t leap on us or lick us as any dog would do but would walk up and bow her head to present her forehead to be petted. The only place on a dog’s body that the tongue can’t reach. Bonnie was more human in the best ways that many humans. In 1997 we moved to America. Bonnie went to stay with Bertie and Jenny on Burnside Estate in Kotagiri. There one winter morning, she was lying on the lawn, basking in the sun, and peacefully passed away. She was a beautiful friend, who left behind beautiful memories.
Then one day I got the news that Mr. Taher, who was the Group Manager and the Manager of Sheikalmudi Estate was going on his annual vacation. I was the most senior Assistant in the Group and expected to be given the opportunity to manage the estate in his absence as Acting Manager. This was an extremely important step because to be promoted to Manager from Assistant you needed to have one or two ‘acts’ under your belt. But to my surprise, I heard on the grapevine that someone else was going to be given this act. I was furious. I asked for an appointment with the General Manager, Plantations, Mr. Ahmedullah and asked him why I was being bypassed. What had I done to deserve that? He was very surprised. He said to me, “Cool down. I thought we were doing you a favor. You are recovering from surgery. How will you manage the estate? How will you go around?”
“I want you to give me this opportunity”, I said. “It is my right as I am the most senior Assistant. Managing the estate is my problem. I am not asking for any preferential treatment.”
“But how will you go around the estate?” he asked.
“Jaikant will take me around”, I told him. Jaikant Chaturvedi was the Assistant in Sheikalmudi and was a dear friend. I had already spoken to him and he agreed to ferry me to and from the office and to take me around the estate for our daily field inspection, on his bike.
“Okay”, said Mr. Ahmedullah. “I like your spirit. But let me make it very clear; if you fail, it will be your funeral. I will not take any excuses about your leg at that time. So, think well before you insist on this. If you don’t take this now, there will be some other opportunity later. But if you take this now and fail, that will be on your neck.”
I was too far gone to back off in any case. And I was serious about not allowing the opportunity to slip by. I said to him, “I am grateful to you Sir, for accepting my request. I accept your challenge. No excuses. If I fail, you can have my resignation.”
Jaikant was true to his word and having him as the Assistant was a huge help. I knew that I could rely on him totally and we got along very well as colleagues. The acting period went off very well. Mr. Taher was very happy with the results, upon his return and gave me a good report.
Meanwhile I was transferred to Paralai Estate under Mr. Norman Wood as the Assistant Manager, Upper Paralai Division. That division has Thirunelveli labor who had a reputation for being very tough and troublesome. But I established an excellent relationship with them. I have written some of the stories of my Paralai days and the incidents with those workers, earlier so won’t repeat them here. But there was one very peculiar incident that happened in Paralai.
I had been in Paralai for about a year when I got a letter appointing me as the Manager of Udaiwar Coffee Estate in Chikmagalur. This was a small coffee property that the company had acquired, and it needed a manager. But small or not, the appointment as ‘Manager’ was something that I had been waiting for very eagerly. I was delighted and we started packing. I was bid farewell by the estate staff and workers. I was sorry to leave Paralai because that was one of the best times of my planting life. The day of departure arrived. The lorry to transport our possessions came and was loaded. As it was all being strapped down, a messenger came from the Head Office in Iyerpadi. He brought a letter. When I opened and read it, I was shocked beyond belief. The letter cancelled my appointment as Manager. I literally leaped on my motorcycle and raced to the Head Office with blood in my eyes and murder in my heart. What were these people playing at? Was I some sort of football to kick around at will? I would dispel all doubts and to hell with the consequences. By this time, Mr. Ahmedullah had left Parry and had gone to Harrisons Malayalam as Head of their tea division. In his place was Mr. N. K. Rawlley (Nikoo) as General Manager, Plantations.
I rushed into his office without so much as a ‘May I?’
“Mr. Rawlley, what is my fault? What have I done? Why are you doing this to me? Do you realize that my lorry is loaded and packed and we were about to depart for Udaiwar? And you cancel my appointment? Is this a punishment?”
Mr. Rawlley was not only the GM, but he was also a good friend. And one of the nicest human beings I have ever known. He said to me, “Yawar, please sit down.” I did.
Then he said, “Trust me on this one. Don’t do anything silly like resigning. I know what I am doing. You will be very happy about this in a few weeks. I can’t say anything more at this time. Now go home, unpack, and stay put. I know it is difficult and potentially embarrassing, but Norman and your workers will be very happy that you are not going. Relax, and trust me.”
I returned home. Two weeks later came the letter appointing me as Manager of Lower Sheikalmudi Estate. I couldn’t have wished for anything better. Nikoo was a man of his word.
These years and incidents were tough on the one hand but were enormous opportunities for me to learn about myself, develop resilience, patience, and perseverance. They were proof that if you take the pain, then the result is worthy of it. I had taken the pain to insist that I would not let my injury come in the way of work and worked hard to establish productivity and quality standards that I look back on with great satisfaction. I stood for what I believed in and did my best. I was fully supported by people like Bertie, Jaikant, Norman, Taher and others and I am most grateful to them for their friendship more than anything else. Truly in the plantations, our relationships were far beyond good colleagueship. We were friends in a sense deeper and more meaningful than I can describe. I am most grateful.