Motivation = WiiFM

Motivation = WiiFM

In my tea planting days, one of the things that I was very proud of was my knowledge of and relationship with my workers. I knew them all by sight, most by name and of many, I knew their family connections as well. They, in turn, treated me more like a tribal chief cum family elder rather than the Manager of the estate. This meant a pressure on my time because people would come to me with marriage issues, domestic violence complaints, children not doing well in school and needing some talking to and so on. But it was worth it because of the relationships that I was able to build. To do this successfully you need to be genuinely interested in people and want to help them. Acting can’t be sustained and people see through the sham. But if you are really interested and want to to help, they respond far more than you may have expected. That is so heartwarming and beautiful, that I can’t even begin to describe it. Domestic violence was a serious matter and quite common because in the plantations with no extracurricular activity, the men would get drunk and beat up their wives. To make matters worse, the women were the main wage earners and did a full day’s work, carried firewood back to the lines to cook, cooked the evening meal, and then had to put up with abuse. So, they would come to me to sort their husbands out. This I did with great gusto including sometimes with the application of the boot to the posterior. Strangely enough, that built my own rating within the community.

I introduced the practice of monthly Muster Meetings where I would talk to my workers. Managers usually spoke to workers only indirectly either through their supervisors or union leaders. I realized very early that this distance reduced my own ability to influence them and made me dependent on others. This practice paid rich dividends indeed. I would talk about estate production and the need to enhance it because we wanted to create new records. It was at that time that I hit upon the idea of putting up boards in the fields on which daily production figures would be written. These became hugely popular. Then I had another brainwave and started posting production figures of our neighboring estates – Murugalli and Sheikalmudi, our competitors – so that my tea pluckers, ninety-nine percent women, could see how they were faring compared to the tea pluckers on the neighboring estate. In a place that is starved for conversation, these production boards became an instant hit. The pluckers would go to the field, read the figures and have animated discussions about them.

Candura Division, plucking

One day, two days before the end of the month, a delegation of pluckers came to me and said, ‘Dorai, we are short of x-kilos of leaf to beat Murugalli. So, if you permit, we want to go to the field early without coming to the muster, which will save us time and walking, and pluck until sunset so that we can make up this shortfall.’ Now tell me which production manager has a problem if his workers want to work more? Neither did I. This was a good thing for them also as they were on a production incentive scheme and so if they plucked more, they got more money. It was a lovely win-win situation. And lo and behold, we beat our competition once again. I had those production boards as long as I was the Manager of Lower Sheikalmudi and don’t know what happened thereafter. But when I returned to the estate twenty years later, the pluckers met me and recalled those boards and how we used to be so excited about our targets. The women had grown old, many children of my time were now mothers, but all remembered me and left their work to come down the hillside to the road to greet me by touching my feet in the traditional Tamil greeting. They recalled incidents of what I had said or done which I had long forgotten, but which they still remembered. One young man came up to me and asked, ‘Dorai do you remember me?’ I didn’t and apologized. ‘No need to apologize Dorai. I was a little boy and you used to give me a ride to the school on your bike every day,’ he said. In a society that was as socially stratified as the tea plantations were, this was a big thing and something that not only the one who got the ride appreciated, but also his entire community. By inviting him to sit behind me, holding on to my waist, I had elevated the whole society to a level of equality which they appreciated and remembered. I am always amazed at how little it takes to win hearts and yet how little we care about doing it.

Another thing that we were very proud of was plucking standards. How that happened is another story in motivation. When I inherited the estate, plucking standards were very poor. The standard methods of supervisors yelling at workers and managers taking disciplinary action did nothing to change the situation. I decided to do things differently. I spoke to the Director of the Tea Research Institute (TRI) and suggested that they run a plucking experiment in some of our fields. He readily agreed. Then I selected my best pluckers – we made a big event of it so that everyone was aware of what was going on – and made them into one team, called gang, and gave them those fields. Naturally they plucked them beautifully. Then as production went up, thanks to the good plucking, they also made more money with higher incentives. That became another talking point and very quickly plucking standards everywhere in the estate started to improve and we became the talk of the town. I then decided to have a competition between gangs and gave small prizes and took photos of the pluckers with the General Manager (Mr. K. Ahmedullah) and TRI Director (Mr. Chandramowli), ensuring that the workers got the maximum limelight. The TRI Director was so happy with the results that he asked permission to bring executives from other companies to see our plucking. Our workers were delighted and were very proud of their work and this made a huge difference to their morale. There is nothing like genuine appreciation especially when it comes from independent quarters to make people feel good about themselves and be highly motivated.

There are two critical incidents that I recall from my days in Lower Sheikalmudi. One was when I discovered how much knowledge is available, free of cost to the one who is willing to listen. It is amazing how many organizations spend a fortune on consultants without realizing what their own people already know. In today’s world even in organizations in the so-called knowledge industry, very few, if any, organizations record their on-the-job learning in a searchable database. People learn things on a daily basis and this knowledge could eliminate double work if it was shared with others. People have personal networks that can be very useful to the organization, but the organization has no clue about who knows whom and what their employees can influence or help them to achieve.  In all the years since that fateful day about which I am about to tell you, I have consulted with organizations across the world, and the message that I always give is, ‘Talk to your people. You have no idea what they know and what they will tell you if you only speak to them.’

When I took over Lower Sheikalmudi as the Manager, one of the things that I concentrated on was to make the land more productive. I took a three-pronged approach. We dug trenches in the swamps to drain the water and planted cardamom on the ridges between the trenches and planted pepper on the shade trees – Grevillea Robusta (Silver Oak). We filled in (planted tea) all vacant patches and tea field boundaries. And we reclaimed all big vegetable gardens which had become more commercial than personal and had encroached into our tea fields. The vegetable gardens alone accounted for more than a hundred acres of land. More about that later. The incident I want to mention here had to do with an infilling area in the LSM Upper Division. This was a large bare hilltop which was about ten acres in extent, which we planted up with clonal cuttings. Since the area was completely bare and open, I was very concerned about the survival of the cuttings as we were going into the dry weather.

There was no water on site to irrigate the plants. If we dug a well in the swamp at the bottom of the hill, we would have to install a diesel pump because there was no electricity there, then put in a pipeline and build a tank on top of the hill. Only then would we be able to irrigate this plot. An expensive proposition to say the least. We were taking all other moisture conservation measures; mulching the plants, digging lock and spill trenches and filling them with coconut husk to retain whatever moisture that occasional rain and daily dew fall would yield. But I knew that these would not be enough when the summer set in and we would probably have heavy casualties if we couldn’t irrigate the plants. One day I was standing on the hilltop with Mr. Govindraj, my Field Officer, and we were talking about the problems of irrigation and how important it was for the successful survival of these plants. There were a few workers around us, digging trenches. As we were speaking, one of them, Shashi, said to me, ‘Dorai, if you permit me, I can bring water here to this hilltop.’ Mr. Govindraj’s instant reflex reaction was, ‘Hey! Keep quiet and do your work. Don’t interrupt the Manager when he is speaking.’ Such were those days.

Shashi, 2003 as an Asst. Field Officer, Candura Tea Nursery

I immediately stopped Govindraj and said to Shashi, ‘Tell me how you will do it and what do you want from me?’

Shashi said, ‘Dorai, I want two helpers for two days, permission to cut bamboo in our reserve forest, and two or three empty diesel barrels (they have a capacity of two-hundred liters). Give me this and I will get water here from that stream over there,’ and he pointed to the stream in the ravine near the forest boundary. The stream was at least three kilometers away as the crow flies in a small ravine abutting the forest. If the crow walked it was much further. I was very intrigued. He wouldn’t explain any more when I asked him. I instructed Govindraj to give him what he asked as I wanted to see what he would do.

About a week later he came to meet me in the Muster and asked me to go to see what he had made. I was astounded to see what he had done. He had cut mature bamboo and punched through the nodal septa to create a pipe. Then he had rigged up a siphon system using the diesel barrels to lift the water from one level to another and had water from the stream flowing out of the end of the bamboo pipe into a small tank in the middle of the tea infilling area. It was a system that cost next to nothing to build, needed neither power nor manual attention to run, and was made by a man whose job was manual labor. So in effect we had a hydraulic engineer in our midst who had never gone to college, could barely read and write, usually dug holes in the ground or did other such unedifying jobs, and his knowledge was hidden because nobody bothered to ask him. If I had also followed suit and allowed my Field Officer to shut him up, we would have unnecessarily spent a fortune to do something that one of our own workers did for us, free of cost. I invited our General Manager, Mr. K. Ahmedullah, to visit the estate and see what he had done, and we took photographs and gave him a gift. Everyone all around was delighted but none so much as myself for the life lesson I learnt.

Raman, Shashi, Krishnan, Candura Tea Nursery

I later promoted Shashi to Supervisor and put him in charge of our tea nursery as he was very smart and had a lot of good ideas. I used to listen to him carefully and we did many an interesting thing as a result of his ideas. People close to the job know the most about it, if only managers will listen. And it’s all free. He did a brilliant job with the nursery and several years later after I had left, I understand that he was promoted to the Staff grade. As they say, ‘you can’t keep a good man down.’

The second incident is less pleasant, but I mention it because it illustrates the importance of remaining cool and calm in a crisis situation.

Our Upper Division (UD) Muster was at one end of the football ground at the other end of which was the Kaliamma (Kali) temple. This temple was inactive all year round except on the occasion of its annual festival. For the festival however there would be a lot of preparation. A pandal (tent) would be erected before the temple, special pooja would be performed, sweets distributed, and in the night, there would be a dance and music program. The dancers came up from Coimbatore and did one of the most suggestive dances that I have ever seen, much to the delight of the local population. The Manager was expected to start off the proceedings, which remained reasonably decorous as long as he was there, and then they really let their hair down. We normally stayed for a few minutes and left, much to the satisfaction of our hosts who didn’t want us to remain too long to spoil their fun. The dancing and music went on all night because those who paid for it wanted to maximize benefit.

That day when I went to the Muster with the cash for the payment, it was still a couple of weeks to the festival (Kali Pooja). I set out the cash and started the payment. Most tea estate workers were women. They would come into the room, greet the Manager with folded hands, take the money, greet again and leave. No matter how much you told them to count the money, they wouldn’t as they considered it a mark of disrespect to count in your presence. Sometimes when they counted outside the Muster and came up short, they would come back and tell you, ‘Dorai, please count this.’ They still wouldn’t tell you that it was short. Then when you counted and found the shortage, you were expected to make it up. Nobody ever questioned the possibility of one of them pocketing a currency note and then claiming not to have received it. It was a mark of honor on both sides that we trusted one another implicitly. On a side note, one day I was short of Rs. 200 in a payment. For someone whose salary at the time was Rs. 1100, that was a heavy sum to make up. Next morning one of the men came into the Muster and said, ‘Dorai, I can’t tell you a lie. I received Rs. 200 extra. But I had a good drink and a good meal last night and finished the money. I am sorry for this Dorai, but I blessed you.’ Though I’m sure being ‘blessed’ by a drunk man doesn’t count for much, what could I do other than laugh and curse him roundly, but fondly. Everyone laughed and considered it a great joke and that was that.

To come back to our story, as I was making the payments, one of the women returned and complained, ‘Dorai, they are forcing us to donate money for the temple festival. I don’t have spare cash this month, but they are forcing us.’ I called the Temple Committee members who we normally permitted to solicit donations on payday and told them, ‘Don’t force anyone. If they want to donate, they will. If not, let them go. Don’t force them to pay as that is against the law.’ They promised not to force anyone and went away. I completed the payment and tallied my cash and was wrapping up to leave when there was a commotion outside the Muster and raised voices. I looked up from my desk wondering what the noise was. Normally when the Manager was in the Muster people didn’t raise voices or make any noise out of respect. But this was payday and some people tended to get drunk and I thought that was what it was. But suddenly someone pushed past the Assistant Field Officer who was at the door and barged into the room and started yelling at me, ‘You made us lose money. You told them not to donate to the temple. I heard you with my own ears,’ the man carried on in this vein. So here I was, a Muslim, falsely being accused of having prevented Hindus donating to their temple fund thereby creating a loss for the committee. There was suddenly tension in the room. I realized that the situation could become ugly. The room was now crowded with others of the committee, some of whom looked decidedly drunk. My staff moved away from me and left me alone. That is the nature of leadership and that is why one must learn to like being alone.

I stood up, put both my hands on the table and leaning forward shouted at them in my parade ground voice, ‘Shut up! Stop shouting and speak properly. You heard me telling people not to donate? You are lying. I told you not to force people and to take whatever they gave happily. But you want to tell lies. Let us ask God. God is hearing and seeing us, right? Let God decide who is lying. If I am lying, then let Him kill me as I stand here. And if you are lying, let Him kill you.’

I grabbed the wrist of my accuser and said, ‘Let us go. Let us ask and see who comes out of this alive.’

The man looked into my eyes; a look of horror came on his face; he jerked his wrist from my grip and rushed out of the room. The critical instance was past and there was confusion among my opponents. I took off my wristwatch and said, ‘You said I caused you a loss. Take this watch to make up your loss.’ Saying that I literally flung the watch into the crowd. Then I picked up my bag and said, ‘Alright, if anyone has the guts to touch me, let him come forward. The first person who touches me will die. You want to try it, go on.’ And saying that I stepped out and walked straight at the wall of humanity which was blocking my way to the door. As I neared them, they moved and parted and made a way for me. Nobody touched me and I walked out to where my motorcycle was parked, mounted it, and rode off. Only then did I realize why I was short of breath. I had stopped breathing. Next morning when I went to the Muster there was a delegation of the Works Committee and Temple Committee waiting to see me. I ignored them all and completed my work. Then Govindraj told me, ‘Sir they are very sorry and want to apologize to you. Please see them. They are genuinely sorry.’ I agreed and they came and touched my feet and apologized and said, ‘Dorai got angry with us. We are very sorry. We didn’t mean anything bad.’ Then they presented me my watch intact and said, ‘Dorai gave this to us in anger. Please take it back. We only want your good wishes.’

This incident was a big lesson for me in having presence of mind, saying the right thing, and not showing any fear at all, no matter whether you feel it or not. The reality of the situation was that no matter what they said and did the following morning, if I had shown any fear or if I had not taken them on head-on, it is entirely likely that I could have been killed. They would have regretted it the next morning but that wouldn’t have brought me back to life. It is when I reflect on these incidents in my life that I realize that I was being protected and guided at these times so that instinctively I knew what to say and how to act. There is no training and preparation for such events but when they happen and you are extracted unharmed, you realize that you are not alone. I was and am most grateful.

For more stories read my book, It’s my Life
The joy of tea

The joy of tea

Anamallais tea – photo by Arun Kumar Menon

Each new day was a joy in the tea gardens. The British planters who built the bungalows had a keen eye for detail and perspective. They built the bungalows on hilltops or ridges where they had the most spectacular views. Anamallais is one of the most beautiful places on earth and finding suitable places to build the bungalows was not difficult.

Barking deer – Male

Except in rainy weather, it was my custom to have my first cup of tea on the veranda of the bungalow, in most cases watching the sun coming up. How can I describe the joy of that? Most mornings in Lower Sheikalmudi, I would have my tea watching a Barking Deer grazing on the lawn. This was a particularly brave buck who had realized that I would never harm him and so did not run away when the door opened, and I came out. He would look up and go back to his feeding once he saw who it was. It was in this bungalow that there was a Champa tree just outside the veranda on which my naturalist friend Hashim Tyabji counted sixty different bird species. The variety of bird life in the Anamallais is amazing. People like me kept bird books and shared sightings. One day I got a message from the Estate Office to say Mr. Rawlley, my General Manager, wanted to speak to me. Even though he was a wonderful man and a dear friend, it is never very comfortable to receive a call that says the Big Boss wants to talk to you. You naturally ask yourself, ‘Now what did I do?’ Well, there was no escape and so I went to the office and called him. He said to me, ‘Yawar, have you ever seen a Rufus Bellied Hawk Eagle?’

I said, ‘I know what it looks like Mr. Rawlley, but I don’t recall seeing it here.’

‘Will you keep an eye open for it and call me if you do spot one? I was reading that their range includes the Anamallais and I would be very interested to see one.’

Wildlife and jungles were our major interest in planting and one of the major reasons why we stuck in a job which was hard, under paid, and underappreciated in the outside world.

I remember one early Sunday morning, while it was still misty, Hashim and I were walking along a forest path down near the Parambikulam River dam. At one place where a forest giant had fallen the sun was shining through and there was a leafy tree with some type of berry on it. On this tree were a multitude of birds, all apparently flying around randomly and eating the berries. Hashim stopped me silently with a hand signal and we sat down on our haunches to watch the birds. Hashim showed me how different species of birds were eating from different levels in the tree. An amazing insight into the highly ordered life of birds. ‘Free as a bird’ is a figment of human imagination. Birds are so tied-in to their life structures that some bird species have been known to die out in a particular area because a particular tree on which they were dependent for food or nesting was cut down. The importance of habitat conservation in preserving avian and animal species can hardly be overemphasized. We sat there for a while and then went along our way to the place where we intended to catch some fish.

Elephant family

As we walked along the forest, we smelt them long before we saw them and Hashim and I stepped down from the road and walked a few feet into the forest and stood behind some big trees. And lo and behold came along the road a whole herd of elephants. Gliding soundlessly on huge feet that they put more delicately on the ground than would a ballet dancer. All going to the river for their morning drink and bath. How can I describe the sense of excitement? The elephants knew we were there of course. But they knew that we meant no harm and so they went their way. The so-called Law of the Jungle is that if you give respect, you get respect. It is our civilized society that lives by a different rule. The payment for this chance to see this elephant life was the leeches that we had to pull off ourselves once we came back onto the road after the herd had passed. But that was hardly something to complain about for the privilege of being a part of life that has gone on for millennia before us and now seems in grave danger of ending forever.

Wild boar male

The tea in the Anamallais is so surrounded by forest that even when I walked along a path in the tea field, I would often see various animals. The most common sight were Barking Deer and Wild Boar usually in the valleys between the hills on which tea was planted. The tea bush is about three and a half feet in height and as it is planted very densely with more than fifteen thousand to the hectare, it creates a complete micro-environment of its own. Below it is thick shade, almost no undergrowth, and clear pathways to anywhere that any animal the size of a large dog wants to go. So, this becomes the preferred habitat for Barking Deer, Wild Boar, Dhole (Wild Dog), Jungle Fowl, and all kinds of snakes. However, to eat they must come out from under the tea because the tea itself is not edible. In the early mornings, Barking Deer come out to graze in the hollows and valleys and in the small rocky clearings in the middle of the tea. In late evenings and night, it is the turn of the Wild Boar, which are more nocturnal in nature. They come out mainly in the swamps where the earth is soft and root around for grubs, tubers, and roots of the plants that grow in these valleys. Jungle Cocks (Grey Jungle Fowl) herald the sunrise and you can hear them crowing all over the hillsides as the sun comes up. Kuk-koo-koo-Kuk – one Jungle Cock would call and be answered by his rival from over another hill. They are belligerent birds, territorial, and ever ready to defend their harem. Their womenfolk quietly scratch around for the early worms. Is getting up early a good habit? Depends on whether you are a bird or a worm. 

Grey Jungle Fowl

Sometimes there are unexpected encounters with animals in the tea fields. Some are funny, but others are not. The most common is when a line of workers is scattering fertilizer and they unknowingly scare a sounder of Wild Boar which has been lying up in the day. The pigs tend to stampede away from the men and whatever comes in their way, they run over it. At a time like this the only thing to do if you can, is to find a rock and jump on top of it and watch the pigs run on either side. Getting in the way of stampeding wild boar is a good way to die quickly in a nasty way. The key of course is to find a convenient rock. If you don’t then you stand to encounter a wild boar rather more directly than you would want to. The results are unpredictable. One of my plucking workers got a pig stuck in her plucking skirt and rode on his back for a ways before she got thrown off. Luckily, apart from some bruises she lived to tell the tale. Another was not so lucky because the boar gored her with his tusks, and she was badly torn up. She also survived but had to have a long and painful convalescence.

Dhole pack

Another encounter you could have is with wild dogs, the dreaded Dhole. This is a very attractive looking animal with an orange colored coat and a black bushy tail. The Dhole can’t bark and makes a whistling sound instead. In one case someone sent me a video on YouTube with a Dhole calling in a way that is almost like the howl of a wolf. It is the only time I saw that. And that was because there was a tiger near her. Why she didn’t just run away, I don’t know. Maybe her den was nearby, and she may have had puppies in it and was calling the pack for help. Dhole, like wolves, jackals, Painted dogs of Africa and coyote in the Americas, are family animals, like all dogs in their natural habitat with highly developed social order. They support one another, feed each other’s pups, regurgitate meat from their kills for their pups and take care of each other. I have seen young dogs take meat out from the mouth of older, unrelated dogs. The older dogs just let it go without attacking the young dog or protesting in any way. That is so different from our domestic dogs, who fight tooth and nail over a bone. Maybe it is human company that does this to dogs; makes them fight instead of sharing.

One day I got news of a Dhole kill in my Candura Division. The same place where I’d had the encounter with the elephants very early on in my career. Dholes kill by teamwork. Individually, the dog is too weak to kill anything but small game. Their usual prey however, is Sambar deer. A full-grown Sambar is the size of a large horse and on its own can easily kill a Dhole. However, the dogs select either a weak or sick animal or even more often a pregnant female, which is heavy with its baby and can’t run too well. Then they chase it in a relay. The dogs take turns and rest but make sure that the Sambar is running all the time. Combined with the terror that the Dhole strikes in the heart of the animal it does not take too long to run the animal to a standstill. Then they close in for the kill and hamstring the animal. They also simultaneously go for the soft under belly, the udders and the throat. The kill is not neat, not fast, and not clean. Eventually the animal dies of blood loss while the Dhole feeds on the living flesh.

Sambar stag

When I reached the place where they had taken down a Sambar doe, I saw that the doe had been killed in a valley just below the labor quarters. There was a large flat rock on which the animal was lying. Mercifully she seemed to have died by the time I got there. The dogs were all over the carcass, making excited little whistles and tearing at the flesh and swallowing it without chewing. Later the bitches would regurgitate the semi-digested meat for their puppies in the dens. Dholes don’t attack humans and so I walked down to where the carcass was lying. Not a pretty sight at all. I just went to make sure that the poor animal was dead with the intention that I would put it out of its misery in case it was alive. As I approached them the Dhole looked at me. The tone of their whistles changed, and they all moved reluctantly away and sat all around the rock in a circle. Having made sure that the Sambar doe had died, I did not want to test the theory that Dhole don’t attack humans, so I left them to their meal. As I walked away, I reflected how easy it was to apply our human values to incidents like this and to imagine that some animals are ‘cruel’ and some are not. The reality is that the animal kills only to eat. Never in revenge. Never to hurt. Never to wipe out another species. Never because it wants to dominate another. The reality in my view is that if humans applied these so-called animal values, we would live far more peaceful lives than we seem to do with all our sophisticated civilization.

Gaur bull

The Anamallais are also home to the Gaur (Indian Bison). Since they have plenty to eat in the rain forests of the Anamallais, they grow to huge sizes. As they live in thick forests, their horn span is not too wide, but the animals themselves grow to enormous sizes. There was one particular bull that lived in the coffee estate that Tata Tea owned, about halfway between Sheikalmudi and Valparai. He had been named Tyson by some rather unimaginative planter. We would almost always see him when we returned from the Anamallai Club late at night. He was totally harmless if you did not trouble him, as are all Gaur, but he was huge. Easily standing over six feet high at the shoulder and weighing probably in excess of two-thousand kilograms with the signature white socks on his massive legs, he was a magnificent animal. He was probably an old bull because he was always alone and had probably been driven away from the herd. If that was the case, I would have liked to see the one that drove this one away. For all their size Gaur are amazingly agile. This bull would clear the 6-foot-tall barbed wire fence with the electric wire over the top in a single standing leap without even a run up. You can imagine the power in those hind legs which could make two tons of body airborne.

In Lower Sheikalmudi we had a coffee area which was adjacent to the reserve forest. The coffee presented open grazing area to the Sambar and Gaur that lived in the reserve forest. They did not damage the coffee itself but would feed on the grass and shrubs that grew in the fields. I set up two or three salt licks in this area to attract these animals and to get them used to coming into our area so that we could watch and photograph them. For this I got some bricks of rock salt from the Forest Department and cleared small patches in the grass to arrange them. Once the animals discovered them, we would have a huge herd of Gaur, about thirty-five of them, who took up residence in the coffee area. They would come down from the hills every evening as the sun went down and would leave only the next morning once our workers started to arrive in the fields. They would be joined by several Sambar hinds and stags so that when I would drive into the coffee area at night, I would see this big herd lying down and chewing the cud. It was almost like seeing domestic cattle at rest; the Gaur had become so used to us. Grazing animals love salt, which they get from deposits in the soil. Carnivores get it from the blood of their prey. So, if you put out some salt in the forest you are sure to get anything which was in the vicinity to come visit.

If you walked to the end of the coffee area and entered the forest, taking the small pathway leading up the hill, you would pass under the heavy shade of big leaved, tall trees. Lining the path were lovely light green big leaved shrubs, which if you didn’t know what they were and took one in your hand, it would prove to be a very painful and potentially dangerous experience. These are stinging nettles called locally Anaymarti (the chaser away of elephants). The leaves have poisonous hair on them, which produce anything from painful rashes, to blisters, to high fever, and delirium, depending on your level of tolerance. As you walk along this path it is a good idea to keep all your senses functioning. The thick undergrowth can and does hide anything. As you continue climbing steadily, getting sweatier by the minute due to a lack of breeze, you come to a small flat rock on your right a little way inside the forest. If you walk silently you will almost always see the resident cobra that likes to sun himself on that rock. Sometimes you will see his skin, which he has shed and then you must be very careful because he is almost blind for a while and extremely irritable.

As you continue onwards, you will come out of the forest into an open area which is a sheet of rock. This area stretches about a kilometer or more, all the way up to the ridge beyond which the forest descends three-thousand feet down to the backwaters of Parambikulam Lake. This sheet of rock is covered with a patchy lichen growth almost all over which becomes yellow when it matures and so it is called Manjaparai (Yellow Rock). This is also where you get the first breath of cool breeze, most welcome on your hot and damp brow. There is a large clump of thorny bush right before you and almost surely you will hear the ‘Dhank’ of a Sambar doe as she bolts out of the bush and gallops down the thirty degree rocky slope at a speed that would certainly kill a horse in a second.

Manjaparai, the tree in which I had my machan

If you continue to climb then you would eventually come to the top of Manjaparai, which was a small flat plateau through which flows a small perennial stream. I’d had a machan (platform) built on a tree at the edge of the forest overlooking the stream, which empties into a small pool and then goes down the slope of Manjaparai. I had cleared a small pathway to get to the machan tree, but without disturbing the area or its animals. The machan was halfway up the tree at a height of about twenty feet. It was quite substantial and could comfortably seat four people. We would sit there late into the night watching animals come to drink at the pool. It was an amazing experience to suddenly see a shadow move and realize that what you had been looking at was not a shadow at all but a Gaur bull; the herd leader who was watching to see if the coast was clear to signal his herd to follow him to the water. This forest has tigers and so the Gaur and Sambar, which are its main prey are very cautious.

We once had a full-grown Gaur cow killed by a tiger in our coffee area. At first the Forest Guards came and tried to accuse me of having shot the animal in an attempt to extract some silence money. But I would have none of that and demanded that the DFO come to inspect. When he came, I took him to the carcass and showed him the telltale claw marks of the tiger. The tiger attacks from behind and rides the animal, and as it gallops in panic, the tiger reaches forward and hooks its claws into the animal’s nose and draws its head back, biting into the back of the neck to get at the spinal cord until the animal falls and breaks its neck. If you see the neck of a Gaur, how thick and muscular it is, you can imagine the strength of the tiger which can force that neck to bend back until it makes the animal fall. Tigers generally go for juveniles or cows, which are smaller. The big bulls are immune to everything except men and old age. The DFO (District Forest Officer) was more knowledgeable than the Forest Guard and so the matter was resolved. 

Suresh Menon and I

You sat in the machan very still, secure in the knowledge that you were invisible unless you moved. Though the game viewing was amazing, the stillness made you very stiff, a relatively small price to pay for the privilege of watching wild animals in their habitat. In the early hours of the morning, after all animal movement had ceased and it started getting bitterly cold, which it does in the forest at that elevation, we would come down onto the rock, light a nice big fire and warm ourselves and spend the rest of the night sleeping on the rock around the fire. Then in the morning we would re-kindle the fire and put on the tea pot and watch the sun come up over the horizon. I know many people lived in Lower Sheikalmudi, but I don’t know of anyone other than myself and Suresh Menon, who was my assistant at the time, who enjoyed the beauty of the forest like we did. It was a rare privilege and we appreciated every minute of it.

For more stories read my book, It’s my Life
Intro to the Anamallais

Intro to the Anamallais

The plantation years were not all about work and unions. They were a time of great fun and fulfillment; of wonderful friendships and personal growth. During these years I was able to be in the rain forests of the Western Ghats and see in their natural habitat, animals that it had always been my desire to see. I have always had an abiding interest in ecology with specific reference to mammals and birds and their habitat. What better place to indulge that than the Indira Gandhi National Park inside which I lived for the 7 years that I lived in the Anamallais. My interest in ecology and wildlife was encouraged by my dear friends and mentors, Nawab Nazir Yar Jung and Capt. Nadir Tyabji. I was brought up on stories of encounters with animals in the Anamallais, which Nawabsaab used to tell us in graphic and wonderful detail. He was a born storyteller and listening to him, I could smell the forest and hear the sound of the cicadas and listen with close attention for the telltale crack of a twig which announces the approach of a big animal.

I have been very fortunate to have friends who were much older and far more accomplished than myself. As a result, I learnt a lot from all of them. In fact, I used to make it a habit after meeting any of these people to take stock of what I learnt new that day. This focus on learning has been a lifelong habit of mine which I have been very fortunate to inculcate. The credit for that goes to my father, who one day when I had finished reading some trashy novel, asked me, “So what did you learn from that?” I thought about it and decided that it had been a total waste of time and since then started asking myself that question every so often. In those days we had no TV and soap and opera were two different words. So, the temptation to send the brain into a suspended animation mode and sit with a vacant expression in front of the Electronic Income Reducer (my name for the TV) was not there. There was, however, more time for trashy friendships and wasting time in useless conversation. Asking myself what I had learned was an excellent tool to ensure that I did not waste time. Much later in life, I learnt and now teach the techniques of Investment – Impact Analysis and how to apply this to maximize the benefits of time. But all my life I have used this tool even when I did not know its fancy name.

Role models are a very important part of growing up. I was very fortunate in that I had some of the best. It is a matter of pride for me that most of them, if not all, were the result of my own effort. In some cases, I was introduced to them by my father or someone else. But then I took it upon myself to be in touch with them and develop the relationship. I found that older people respond very positively to youngsters who are genuinely interested in learning. Consequently, I got a lot of face time with people who were twenty to thirty years my seniors. It is not that every one of these relationships was always positive and that I always gained something. Some people said things that were destructive, the memory of which remains with me to this day. What I am proud of though, is the way in which I took what was said to me, as a challenge to disprove the statement. And Alhamdulillah, I always succeeded. It was not that these people, my mentors, were perfect. They were people and people are not perfect. But I taught myself never to criticize them either directly or indirectly but to learn from their behavior what to do and what not to do myself. That way the relationship remained intact and I continued to gain, no matter what they did or didn’t do.

Lion-tailed Macaque (Yal-Tee-Yam)

The Anamallai Hills are home to the Lion-tailed Macaque (called Yal-Tee-Yam – LTM), an endangered species of primate that is found only in these forests. The Anamallais are famous for the elephants that they are named after (Tamil: Anai – elephant, Malai – Hills). Ever since my arrival in the Anamallais I was most keen to see wild elephants. And I got my chance just 5 days after I reported at Sheikalmudi Estate. This first sighting was almost the last sighting, not of elephants but of anything at all. Let me tell you the story in sequence.

I was brand new on the plantations and had just got my new Jawa motorcycle, a source of great delight for me. It was late afternoon when the phone rang in the Sheikalmudi Estate office and it was Mr. Raza Husain on the line. Raza bhai was the manager of Lower Sheikalmudi Estate of which one day I would become the manager. LSM borders the reserve forest, a part of the wildlife sanctuary and national park that the Anamallais is located in. “Do you want to see elephants?” he asked me. That was like asking me, “Do you want a million dollars?” Of course, I wanted to see elephants. I had been dreaming about seeing elephants in the Anamallais. And imagine a chance to see them just 5 days after arriving in the Anamallais. I leapt on my Jawa and off I went to Raza bhai’s estate. Raza bhai asked me to meet him in the Candura Division where he was waiting for me.

Candura contour planted tea

Candura is a tea division that is surrounded by the jungle. One of the roads leading to it passes through a thick patch of forest in which I had some close encounters with bison (Gaur) a few years later. But that is another story. The tea in Candura is planted on the contour and it is a very beautiful sight. In the middle of Candura are the Labor Lines where the Candura workers live. These quarters each had a small vegetable garden with some banana plants. Elephants love bananas. So periodically they would raid the gardens. The owners would raise a hue and cry and beat drums or let off firecrackers to drive the elephants away. The elephants would then retreat in a foul mood into a small, heavily wooded canyon that was adjacent to the quarters. This was the usual sequence of events and this is what had happened on that fateful day just before my arrival on the scene.

 When I arrived Raza bhai met me on the road just below the Labor Lines. His little son Mustafa was with him sitting on the petrol tank of his bike. It was past 5.00 pm and the sun sets very quickly in this part of the world. Mustafa was getting nervous at the idea of going to see elephants so Raza bhai said to me, “I will give you a guide and you can go see the elephants. I will wait for you to return here. It will get dark very soon and then you won’t be able to see anything so hurry.” I readily agreed. Anything to realize my lifelong dream to see elephants in the wild. Raza bhai called a man by the name of Karpusamy who was to be my guide. Karpusamy spoke only Tamil. At that time, the only Tamil word I knew was ‘Tamil’. So even though Karpusamy was to guide me, what emerged was a lot of inspired gestures and guessing. It was later that I learnt to speak Tamil fluently, in three months.

As it was getting dark, we were in a hurry and with Karpusamy in the lead, we set off along the road, which circled the ravine, looking down into the ravine with great concentration as that is where the elephants were supposed to be. Once in a while we would hear the sound of some breaking branches, so we knew that the herd was still there. I can’t describe for you my own excitement. I could hardly breathe. We left my motorcycle by the side of the road and I had the presence of mind to push it into the tea between some bushes in one of the plucking lanes in case the elephants decided to take this road back into the forest. I didn’t want them to give their attention to my motorcycle. Neither me nor the bike would survive that. As it turned out, that was a very wise decision.

I was very anxious to get to where the elephants were, so that I could get my first glimpse of an Asian Elephant in the wild. This had been a lifelong dream of mine and I was in the right place for it – a place named after them – Anamallai – Hills of the Elephants. The topography of where we were walking was very much like the Labor Lines except that now we had tea on one side and the ravine on the other. The road itself had a sharp, almost vertical embankment about six to seven feet high above which was close planted tea.

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It is at times like this, often faced with the prospect of great danger that we live most intensely. That is why people seek thrills; the adrenalin gives them a high and they need a fix again and again. I was aware of every sight, sound, and smell as I walked. This is a safety measure also apart from enhancing the pleasure of the experience because in such a situation where you are likely to meet an animal which is potentially dangerous, you’d better have all your wits about you.

As we walked along looking down into the ravine hoping to get a glimpse of the elephant herd, we could hear them moving about occasionally, breaking a branch, or shaking a tree to drop its fruit. As we neared a bend on the road, the cicadas fell silent and all sounds from the ravine stopped. The forest became completely silent as if waiting for something to happen. And then something happened. I suddenly heard an explosive sound like a tyre burst. This is the warning sound that an elephant makes just before he is ready to launch a charge. I looked up in shocked surprise and what did I see? Not more than fifty to seventy meters ahead of us, bang in the middle of the road was the herd bull. He had come up on the road when he probably realized that we were coming close to his family. And his intentions were not honorable at all. It takes longer to narrate this incident than what happened that day.

It seemed like a split second and in any case could not have been more than a second or two. The elephant made the alarm warning sound. Karpusamy and I looked up simultaneously, shocked out of our wits to see this huge bull elephant standing so close ahead. Karpusamy screamed, “Dorai!!” and spun around and ran back towards me. The elephant trumpeted and charged. You must hear the trumpet of an angry elephant to know what fear is. It is a scream. It is a loud scream. The volume of sound is all that can be expected from that great body. And it turns the knees to jelly instantly. A charging elephant moves at 50 miles per hour. With a stride of 12 feet at a go, it did not take long for that elephant to cover the distance from where he was to where we were.

As for myself, the next thing I remember is that I was sitting under some tea bushes up on top of the vertical embankment. No sign of Karpusamy. I don’t remember running or jumping or anything else. Just that I was out of reach of the elephant and very frightened but safe. The elephant was enraged that he did not get me and vented his anger on the embankment below where I was sitting. He dug up the embankment with his tusks and threw up mud all over the place. Meanwhile, the cows came up from the ravine and calmed him down and eventually the whole family moved away towards the forest.

I simply sat there, frozen both with fright in the gathering dark as the cold forest night closed in, wondering how on earth I had managed to get up on the embankment without touching a thing. I know I can’t leap seven feet high. The wall was vertical. And yet there I was sitting safely out of reach of the elephant. This is a mystery that I have tried to solve many times to no avail. Many times, after that evening I went to the site of this incident and actually measured the wall. It was seven feet tall. I looked to see if there were any handholds or footholds that I could have made use of. There were none. Yet there I was on top. Maybe it is true that fear lends wings to the feet. As it is true that when your time has not come, you can’t die. And die, I would have, very quickly and thoroughly, if that elephant had caught me that evening. For a couple of days after that, I used to wake up in the night in a cold sweat with the angry trumpet of the elephant ringing in my ears. Mercifully, that memory has worn off, but the memory of the entire incident is still vivid in my mind.

And what about Karpusamy, you ask. Well, he did the only thing that he could have done. He took a flying leap into the depths of the ravine. He just ran and leapt off the edge into the abyss. It must have been about fifty feet to the bottom, but like in my case, it was not his time. So, he landed on the top of a tree. Bruised, but not hurt gravely at all. Once all the excitement had died down, he climbed down to the bottom and walked back to the Labor Lines. That is what I also did once I got my senses together and ensured that the elephants had indeed left the place. It had gotten quite dark by then and I did not have so much as a torch with me. But once I climbed down from the embankment, I was on the road and all that was necessary was to keep walking on the circular road till I got to the Labor Line. The biggest challenge was to keep walking in the dark even though I was seeing elephants in every shadow. My childhood training in the forests of Adilabad came very handy. I could recognize sights and smells and knew at least cognitively that there was no real danger anymore. Controlling my heartbeat was another matter. 

Our friends waiting for us at the Labor Lines had an exciting time of it as well. They could not see what was happening as there were a lot of trees between them and us. But they heard the angry trumpeting of the elephant and all the commotion he made. Then they saw the herd move out. And they did not see either Karpusamy or myself. So, they came to the only conclusion that anyone would have –I had just ended the shortest career in tea planting that anyone had ever had. Since both of us did not get back to them for a couple of hours, by the time we arrived, there was much sadness and apprehension. So, the welcome that I received was the biggest that I have ever had. I was hugged and made much of. And people wanted to hear the story in total detail of how I escaped the elephant. My stock went up very high, because being India and the plantations, my escape was seen by some as a sign of my high spiritual status where I had actually performed a miracle to save my skin and some ‘thing’ had transported me out of reach of the elephant. As for myself, thing or no thing, I was jolly glad I’d seen wild elephants and lived to tell the tale. Little did I know, this would not be the last I would need to escape a charging bull elephant – the second incident being on a different continent.

The biggest learning for me in this entire incident was the difference between theory and practice. I knew from all my reading and talking to experts that even if you get to the stage where you are facing an elephant which snorts in warning, all you need to do is to start moving back slowly. Not run. Not make any noise. Just move back slowly. Continue to face the animal but keep moving away and increase the ‘trigger distance,’ which can precipitate the charge. Now, does this work in practice? Who knows? What I did and what you will also probably do if you are ever in such a situation, is to turn around and run like hell. Knowing fully well that a person has as much chance of outrunning a charging elephant as they have of outrunning an express train. And that unlike an express train, this one is not bound by the railway track. But then there is a force that protects that is more powerful than the elephant, which will pick you up by the scruff of your neck and put you high above harm’s way. So, theory is good. But practical life sometimes plays tricks with theory.

Another big learning was the need to take risk if you want to make your dreams come true. Certainly, there is the importance of preparation and contingency planning, but in the end, there must be that leap of faith. With this comes the excitement of the win. It is the absence of guarantees that makes the win so thrilling. If there are guarantees, if safety is taken to a level where risk is eliminated completely, then there is no thrill of winning. This does not mean that we disregard safety or take unsecured risks. It just means that there comes a time when you need to act. At that time, you may be working with incomplete data, with incomplete resources, with incomplete plans. But you need to act. And then as you move forward you will find that what you need comes to you from sources you could not imagine.

Barbara Winters says: “When you come to the end of the light of all that you know and are about to step off into the darkness of the unknown, faith is knowing that one of two things will happen; there will be something firm to stand on or you will be taught how to fly.”

I was taught how to fly.

For more stories read my book, It’s my Life
Mango Range but no mangoes

Mango Range but no mangoes

In 1989, I was promoted and transferred from the Anamallais to Assam. I was in two minds about this as the idea of being next door (so to speak) to Kaziranga and Manas National Parks with their rhinos was very attractive. However, after reflection and some very good advice, I declined the posting. I figured that if I went off to Assam, which was about as far as you could get from our corporate office in Chennai, I would be forgotten, and this would have a negative impact on my career. In the corporate world it is important to be physically visible, not only visible through reports. Paradoxically if you are doing well and all your reports have nothing to make anyone concerned, you are not rewarded but forgotten. It is indeed the squeaky wheel that gets the grease, and this is nowhere truer than the corporate world. This was a trying period because suddenly I had no specific job. I couldn’t complain as it was my own doing. I had to leave my job as the Manager on Lower Sheikalmudi Estate because that job had already been assigned to another colleague. That left me literally homeless as there were no bungalows in the Anamallais where I could live. I was sent off to the Mango Range until the management could decide what to do with me. I was assigned a bungalow on Caroline Estate, located in a forest thicket, which was in a dilapidated condition. The location of the bungalow was lovely, and it was a joy to wake up to bird calls every morning. However, the house itself looked like it would collapse on our heads at any time.  Of particular concern were the walls, which were so waterlogged that they had fungus growing on them in huge patches. My wife is an amazing homemaker and all her talents were put to test in this place. Out of this dilapidated house she created a lovely home which we enjoyed living in.

Since I had no regular job, I decided on doing two things:

For a long time, I had been talking about the need for systematic training of new managers. The system in the plantations at that time was that a new assistant would be put under a manager and what he learnt or didn’t depended on the capability, interest, and energy of his manager and field or factory officers. If the assistant was lucky and got some people who were both knowledgeable and interested in teaching, then he learnt a great deal. If not, he remained guessing. This is a highly undesirable system, which is very time and energy intensive and does not give standard results. I had been saying for several years that there was a need for a standard textbook on tea plantation management, which could be used to provide standardized training. Any additional inputs that the young man’s manager and staff could give him would only add to this, but he would not be deficient in the basics.

During my stay in Mango Range, I decided to write this book and in 6 months, I produced a 200-page Manual of Tea Plantation Management. At the time of its publication there was no such book on the market, and it was a source of great satisfaction for me. My company published it as an internal training book and though it was never a commercial publication, it did get fairly wide publicity and was used by many new managers. It has since gone out of print and to the best of my knowledge, it has not been reprinted. A big lesson for me was the power of the written word and its high credibility in making your customer base aware of what you have to offer. After that book there was no way that I could be ignored, not that I feared that. I had a lot of people who I had dealt with over the years rooting for me in the company.

The second thing I did was to spend a lot of time in Mango Range factory and hone my expertise in CTC manufacture of tea. I was very fortunate in that Mr. T.V. Verghese, who had retired as a General Manager in Tata Tea and was consulting with our company on manufacture, was a regular visitor and we became good friends. He shared his knowledge freely and I learnt a great deal. He was a practical teacher, which meant that I got to spend a lot of time on my back on the floor meshing CTC rollers with grease anywhere on my face and body that grease would stick. I learnt all aspects of manufacture hands-on further reinforcing my belief that learning comes from doing – not from talking about doing. In Murugalli Estate, I’d had a lot of experience in Orthodox manufacture, and even though I was the Assistant Manager in charge of the Mayura Factory project, the premier CTC factory in South India, I was moved to Paralai Estate as soon as the construction was over. Consequently, my knowledge of CTC manufacture was weak. In Mango Range, as a student of Mr. T. V. Verghese and thanks to his willingness to teach, I rectified that deficiency. It was ironic that thereafter I went to Ambadi, which was a rubber plantation and never really used this knowledge, but it did come in use for writing a paper comparing Orthodox and CTC methods, which I presented at the UPASI Annual Conference in 1989, thanks to encouragement of Mr. Rawlley. Nikoo was to do this presentation and I had written the paper for him. On the day of the presentation, Nikoo said to me, “My throat is bad, and I think I have lost my voice, so please present the paper.” When you have friends like this, you don’t need enemies. I am being humorous, but he presented me with a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge was that he sprang it on me, but I guess his logic was that since I wrote the paper, how much prior notice did I need? The opportunity was that I could be noticed positively which could only do me good. Nikoo was a dear friend and mentor and we remained in touch until he passed away.

Mango Range was an interlude in my career. I was marking time and waiting for some positive change to happen, and in the meanwhile I enjoyed myself. It has long been my philosophy to live one day at a time and to try to create as much happiness for myself and around me as possible. I have learnt that the two are the same. You can only be happy if those around you are happy. This is true whether you are an individual, an organization, or a country. Imagine what a wonderful world we would have if instead of competing, we collaborated and shared resources. We would all be wealthier, happier, and healthier. I have always held that the secret of happiness is to be thankful for and enjoy the small things in life. There are far many more of them than the big events. If we can enjoy the small things, then we can be happy all the time. The key to enjoyment is to appreciate them and be thankful for them. The key to contentment is not amassing, material but in being thankful for what one has. The happiest people are those who are content. Content people are those who are thankful. Material wealth has nothing to do with it. 

One of the things that I was very appreciative of and thankful for was the leisure that I had in Mango Range. I had no specific work except what I decided to do for myself. And I was still getting my salary. I decided to learn to play golf. I got a caddy from Ooty Gymkhana Club (Ooty Gym) to come and stay with me in the estate for three weeks. His name was Frank Augustine (I used to call him Frankenstein) and he looked like a dried prawn. But when he swung the club, he always hit the ball with that sweet phut that all golfers love to hear. And the ball would travel straight like a bullet down the freeway. Shows that it’s technique and not strength of the arm that works in golf. Also, in many other things in life. My club, on the other hand, would come up with a good measure of earth and top the ball to boot. Frankenstein believed in hard work – meaning, making me work hard. He set up a practice net, produced a set of a hundred used golf balls and we were good to go. I would hit the ball into the net until I felt my arms would drop off. All the while, Frankenstein would sit on his haunches under the Champa tree that was to one side and watch me and make clucking noises. The effect of all this clucking and my swinging at the ball became clear when one day about midway in our training Frankenstein suggested that we should go and play a round at the club. So off we went on the three-hour drive to Ooty. After a cup of tea and a sandwich, I teed off and that is where all the practice paid off. Ooty Gym has very narrow freeways bordered by spiky gorse. If you didn’t hit your ball straight, you would send it into the gorse and then you may as well forget about it because if you want your ball back,  you must pay by leaving your blood and skin on the gorse and acquiring gorse thorn furrows in your hide. As Frankenstein continued his mother-hen act, I could see the distinct improvement in my style and capability.

Another one of my joys while living in Mango Range was the time I got to spend with Mr. Siasp Kothawala and his wife Zarine, at their lovely guesthouse in Masanigudi called Bamboo Banks. Masanigudi is in the foothills of the Nilgiris at the edge of the Mudumalai-Bandipur National Park, so there is a lot of wildlife around. You see a lot of Chital, some Gaur, and some elephant, the latter being dangerous as they are too close to human habitation and often in conflict with people. Mudumalai is also supposed to be a tiger reserve though I have never seen a tiger in it. The gate of Bamboo Banks was an ingenious contraption. It was a pole, suspended horizontally across the road and had a plastic water container on one end. There was a sign for you to tug on a rope if you wanted to open the gate. The rope was connected to an overhead tank so when you tugged it, water would flow into the plastic can on the pivoted side of the pole, which then went down and lifted the other end. All this happened while you were comfortably sitting in your car. The water would then drain out of a hole in the can and flow into an irrigation ditch and into some fruit trees, closing the gate. Siasp was a tea planter and had worked for the Bombay Burma Tea Company (BBTC). He then went into the tourism business and did very well. We would spend lovely afternoons talking about the tea industry and the general state of the world and drinking tea. Siasp always had an angle to everything, which he would put across in a hilarious and entertaining way.

Siasp also had horses on his farm and having had tea I would take one of the horses and go riding in the buffer zone of Mudumalai National Park. This had its exciting moments and I recall two of the best. One day, late in the afternoon, I was riding out of the farm and into the dry fields that surrounded it before the track entered the bamboo thickets that bordered Mudumalai, when I saw a Peregrine falcon hovering in the sky ahead of me. I pulled up to watch it and saw a dove break out of cover from a hedge and head for the safety of the forest flying very fast. The falcon folded his wings and stooped coming down like an arrow out of the heavens. The dove had almost made it to the forest cover when the falcon hit it in middle of its back with a slap that I could hear where I was sitting on my horse. The dove must have died with the impact, but the falcon bore it to the ground and then holding it in its claws, looked up right and left, its pale yellow eyes scanning the world to challenge any takers. What a magnificent sight that was. The image is engraved in my memory.

As I rode on, I took a path that went along the middle of a forest glade which had scattered clumps of bamboo. After a kilometer or two, the path passed between two very thick and large clumps of bamboo and dipped into a dry stream bed and went up the other bank. I used to like to gallop this stretch and my horse knew the routine. Strangely, on that day as we came near the bamboo clumps my horse shied and stopped and refused to go forward. This was odd behavior, but I have enough experience to know that in the forest your animal is your eyes and ears and you only ignore its signals at your own peril. I listened to the horse and turned around and then took a long and circuitous route to go around whatever it was that was bothering my horse. As we came around, I saw what was bothering him. It was a lone male elephant which was hiding behind the clump of bamboo. Now I have no idea what the elephant’s intention was, but I was not taking any chances. My horse obviously didn’t like the idea of passing close to the elephant and if we had continued on that track, we would have encountered that elephant where the path was the narrowest and where it was bordered and hedged in by the bamboo. In case of an attack, we would not have had any chance to escape. Lone elephants are famous for such attacks. A rather terminal situation which we were happy to have avoided.

On one of those trips to Bamboo Banks, I saw an elephant by the roadside, a little way inside the forest. As this was quite close to the Forest Department’s housing and elephant camp, I thought that it was a tame elephant and decided to take a picture. I had a small box camera at the time in which you were the telephoto – if you wanted greater magnification, you had to go closer to the object. So, I got out of the car and walked almost to the side of the elephant and took a photo. Suddenly I heard someone yelling at me, his voice high pitched in panic. I looked up and there was a forest guard, a good two-hundred meters away, waving frantically at me and yelling at me to get back into the car. Since it is not an offence to get out of your car on the main road in Mudumalai, I was irritated at this man’s insistence but since I already had my picture, I returned to the car. As we drove on and came up to him, the man waved us to a stop and still in an angry voice asked me in Tamil, ‘What do you think you are doing? If you want to die, go do it somewhere else.’

I said to him, ‘Hey man! Relax. What is all this about dying? I was only taking a picture of one of your elephants. Who said I want to die?’

The man said, ‘Our elephants? That was a lone wild tusker that you were standing next to. I have no idea why he let you get that close or why he did nothing. Your lucky day. That is a wild elephant and a lone one at that. Don’t do these stupid things.’ And he went on for a while in the same vein. I was so shocked that I listened in silence. And of course, how can you get angry with someone who is only interested in preserving your life? But I still have the picture, which is very impressive.

Final story here involving my good friend Siasp. Siasp had a very good friend in Mysore who was the Commandant of Police in charge of the Karnataka Armed Reserve Police Mounted Company, called SG Mariba Shetty.

Mariba Shetty was known for his high standards and a visit to the stables of the Armed Reserve Police Mounted Company was a delight to say the least. I love the smell of freshly groomed horses and fresh hay. Yes there is the smell of horse dung also but it is a pleasant smell. I spent a lot of my youth grooming horses, because that is how we were taught riding at the AP Riding Club in Hyderabad, by our ex-cavalry Ustaads, Abdul Hameed Khan and Sayeed Khan. Our training was rigorous. You started one hour before it was time to ride by mucking out the stable and grooming your horse. Then you saddled up and you were ready to go. All this was unwritten. Nobody forced you. If you didn’t want to do that and wanted to ride a horse like you ride a motorcycle by just getting on and getting off and handing it to a syce, you could do that. But then you were given the worst nag in the stable. If you wanted to ride the Thoroughbreds or the Kathiawari and Marwari horses, then the unwritten rule was that you showed your readiness by starting with mucking out the stables. Great character building, if you ask me.

To return to Siasp’s story with Mariba Shetty, let me tell you how Siasp told me. “You remember Maiba Shetty? The Mysore Mounted Police Commandant?”

“Yes, I do. What happened to him?”

“I heard that there was a riot during a Dussera procession, and he tried to stop it but was pulled off his horse and killed. I was very sad to hear this. You know he was a great friend of mine. So, I wrote a long letter to his wife, telling her what a wonderful man he was and how much I appreciated our friendship.”

A couple of weeks passed. Then I get a call from Mariba Shetty. He says to me, “Mr. Khotawala, I called to tell you that I am well and that report about my death was wrong. Thank you very much for your letter. I didn’t know you thought so highly of me.”

Big lesson in telling people that we appreciate them while they are alive, instead of writing moving obituaries after they are dead. In this case, the man got to read his obituary but in most cases, it is a waste of effort.

For more please read my book, “It’s my Life”

On becoming a Consultant

On becoming a Consultant

Many young and old (post retirement) friends and acquaintances ask me for pointers to enter the world of Organizational Consulting & Training which I have been in since 1985. I thought it would be good to share generally what I have been advising people for several years. I hope it will benefit many more. It is easy if you are a motorcycle mechanic. What you do is clear. The customer has a pressing need. It doesn’t cost much to repair his motorcycle. So, he comes.

 But with Organizational Consulting & Training you are dealing in concepts, feelings, emotions and some techniques which mostly depend on the sincerity of the learner in applying them as well as his expertise in doing so; to show their effectiveness. That is a very challenging ‘s environment. The customer’s need is not as immediate or pressing like the man with the broken motorcycle. And he must pay a jolly sight more to fulfill his need. Moreover, his benefit is far less clear, especially as it depends on what he does with what he learnt from you. Having been in this business now since 1985, I can tell you that it is perhaps the most challenging and exciting business that exists – provided you know what to do. So here are some thoughts about what works and what doesn’t.