You can never relive the past

You can never relive the past

 “Dorai, we are all your children. May God bless you and keep you well, Dorai. Tomorrow I will show you the tea that you planted. Hundreds of people have a livelihood because of that tea. It is the rule in the estate that the pluckers take your name first before they start plucking that tea. It is called Baig Dorai Thotam (garden). Your name will never be forgotten as long as that tea remains, Dorai.”

I was in Lower Sheikalmudi Estate, in 2007, twenty years since I had been there last, as the Manager. Now I was visiting my old haunts, living my dream of enjoying the Anamallais without worrying about YPH (Yield per hectare) or tea prices. We arrived one evening and stayed in the Manager’s bungalow where we had lived, and which was now a guest house; of sorts. It still had the same curtains that we had installed twenty years ago, and you could tell. But nostalgia is a cure for many things and so we loved spending a couple of nights in our old home without worrying about how run down it looked.

View while climbing Manjaparai

The next day we took a picnic lunch (flat masala omlettes, rolled in rotis with some pickle on the side) and walked up the hill to Manjaparai. Once we climbed down the hill from the bungalow, the climb is about four to five kilometers; never very steep but always rising. As you continue upwards, it can get quite taxing on a body used to sitting in chairs more than anything else. As you climb up out of the tea, you enter first the scrub jungle, very thick with all kinds of shrubbery including some very potent stinging nettles called Anaimarti. All my old memories came flooding back. My two friends, Raman & Raman, who worked on the estate and were my companions on my hikes and built hides for me to watch wildlife, were thrilled that I could still recognize the plants. Raman the younger cut a stout stick for me which is something that I used to like to keep as a climbing aid. Today I needed it more than simply wanting it. We walked through a path that Raman cut in the undergrowth with his pruning knife. As I walked, I remembered that this was the habitat of the Hamadryad or King Cobra (Ophiophagus hannah) which is an endangered species. Interestingly though it has ‘cobra’ in its name, it is not a cobra and is the only member of its genus. It is the longest poisonous snake in the world and can grow to as long as 18-19 feet. This snake preys on other snakes, is extremely fast but shy and so you are unlikely to see it unless you stumble on its nest. King cobras are the only species of snake to build nests for their young, which they guard ferociously. Nesting females may attack without provocation. When it is angry it rears up one third of its body which makes it as tall as a man and so the snake can actually look you in the eye. That can be terrifying to say the least. The Hamadryad has an enormous amount of venom, enough to kill twenty people or one elephant. But as I said, it is shy and so you hardly ever have any instances of people being bitten by them. The venom is neurotoxic and depending on the quantity injected into you, can kill in minutes.

Raman & Raman and I

We came out of the brush eventually, having been bitten liberally by elephant ticks (the price to pay for climbing to Manjaparai) on to the base of the rock called Manjaparai (Yellow Rock) because of the color of a lichen that grows on this rock. There is a small stream that flows through a slight depression in it and at one point forms a shallow pool. This is the drinking pool that Sambhar and Gaur come to drink in. When we reached there that afternoon, we also found some old elephant dung strewn around the pool, but no fresh sign of any elephant. Walking up the hill, we surprised a basking cobra (Naga Naga) and then startled a Sambar doe that was resting in a thicket. She exploded out of the bush and galloped down a slope that was so steep that I would have hesitated to walk down it too fast. It was in the tree that grew out of the rock near the pool, that I’d had a platform (machan) constructed to watch animals from. I would pick a full-moon night with clear skies to sit in my machan. A clear night is much colder, but the full moon gives enough light to see without a torch. Nights on this platform were very cold but the sight of the sunset and its rising next morning was well worth the discomfort of the cold.

I would get up into the tree early so as not to disturb any game. One of the Ramans would sit up with me. The other one would see us to the place and leave and return early the following morning to collect us. It was not safe to stay on the ground during the night unless you had a fire. But the fire would drive all the game away and so we had this arrangement. Let me tell you about the sounds of the forest you would hear if you were to sit with me on the machan. The first call as the sun went down was always the jungle fowl going up to roost. First the cocks would crow – kak kaak, kaa kak?? – with a question mark at the end. Then the hens would sometimes cackle as they flew up to their roosts. There were no peacocks in the Anamallais in the 1980’s as it was too wet for them. But when I returned there in 2007, I saw peacocks. This shows that in the twenty years that I had been away, rainfall had reduced enough for peacocks to migrate up the mountain range from the plains and start living there. Not a good sign at all, the decline in rainfall. It will be interesting to check the meteorological data.

Once they settled in, the nightjars would start flitting on silent wings, catching nocturnal insects in flight as they came out of their hiding places. It is a fascinating sight to watch the nightjars as they took their interceptor flights. The nightjars sit in an open place (on a small rock or in the middle of the path) and make their characteristic call chut-chut-chut-churrrrrrrrrrrr. They repeat this call endlessly, sitting absolutely still but watching the world very closely. As soon as the nightjar sees a poor unsuspecting insect going about its business, it simply erupts into the air and the world insect population is reduced by one. 100% kill rate. Amazing birds.

Spotted Owlets

Then there would be silence for a while as the jungle settled for the night. As the first light of the moon started to strengthen, a pair of Spotted Owlets would come out of their roosting places, where they had been hiding both from the sun as well as from the crows who harass them mercilessly if they see them in the open. They hunt in pairs. They fly out onto the flat branch that was their take off perch, one followed by the other. They would sit there for a while and talk to each other, perhaps discussing strategy. They are the most demonstrative birds that I have seen and to see them cuddling up to and nuzzling each other is extremely endearing. Then he would glide away in one direction and she in another. You must see an owl in flight to understand the meaning of grace. Suddenly you hear the dhank-dhank of the Sambar. This is the alarm call telling the other tenants of the jungle that one of the two big cats that live in this forest, the tiger and the leopard, is around. The Sambar is the most reliable of the sentinels and call only when they see these predators. Chital (none in these forests) also call and so do Barking Deer (plenty in the Anamallais). But both tend to be very skittish and will call on seeing many other things including shadows. Being on everyone’s dinner menu, does something to your perspective.

Another one whose alarm call must be taken seriously is the Langur; in this case the Nilgiri Langur and not the Grey Langur of the plains. They always have a sentinel watching from the highest perch that he can find, always on the lookout for big cats. But at night, the Langur are among the first to go to the treetops where they spend the night, safely out of harm’s way. Langur are at the top of the leopard’s dietary preference and so no wonder they prefer to be where the leopard is not subjected to any temptation. The Sambhar has fallen silent. This means that he can no longer see the tiger or leopard.

Indian Gaur, Munnar in winter. See the frost on the grass.

Then as you look at the deep shadows, one of the shadows moves and comes out into the open which is illuminated brightly by the moon. You can see the shine of the black coat and the white socks. You hear the snort as the bull clears his nose. The Gaur are here. As he gives the all-clear the cows and calves come out and all of them move to the shallow pool to drink. There is not enough water for all of them to drink together so they will remain there for as long as it takes for the pool to keep filling as they keep emptying it.

The presence of one herbivore is a sign to the others that the situation is safe. It is essential of course for us to keep silent, breathing softly and staying completely still. It is amazing how highly developed the senses of animals are, whose life literally depends on this. Make the slightest movement or sound and they vanish as if they had never been there. Raman seems carved in stone. I recall all my early childhood training in jungle craft and silently thank Uncle Rama and Nawab Nazir Yar Jung for teaching me to take care of myself and to reconstruct the story of the forest from the signs. Nobody could have had or wished for better teachers. Nawabsab spent many years in the Anamallais as a tea planter and he was my inspiration to join planting. A decision that I have always been very pleased about. Thanks to my decade long career as a planter, I learnt many valuable skills and life lessons and had the privilege of collecting some of the most beautiful memories and friends of my life. Raman and I sit in complete silence and watch the animals which are less than twenty meters away.

I had put out blocks of rock salt (salt licks) and some of the animals move away towards the salt lick and eventually even sit down to chew the cud around the salt lick. I have seen Sambar pick their way between resting gaur to get to the salt, all in perfect harmony with each other. As the night passes, we can hear elephants feeding in the forest bordering Manjaparai but that night they decide not to come out into the open. The night is now almost completely silent. All the grazing and hunting has been done. Now the whole world is resting. The time is 3 am according to the glow of my watch dial. The night is very, very cold. A breeze has started which blows unhindered up the slope of Manjaparai. The bison (gaur) herd has moved off back into the forest. There is nothing in sight. Raman and I are both shivering with our teeth chattering. We silently decide to descend onto the rock and light a fire. The firewood has already been collected the previous evening and is at the foot of the tree. We get down to the rock and Raman sets about creating a very nice and bright bonfire. To enjoy a fire truly one must first be at freezing point. Then you light the fire and sit in front of it and toast yourself. That is bliss.

Of course it destroys your night vision and if you have to suddenly turn and look into the darkness you are completely blind, but then in our case there is nothing to see in the darkness and so we both sit before the fire, wrapped in our blankets and talk of various matters grave enough to be spoken of at 3 am. It is amazing how people who we may dismiss as illiterate and uneducated (not that I ever did that), make observations, reflect upon them, and form educated opinions. A favorite topic with most Indians is politics and the antics of politicians. We are a very politically savvy people. We understand our politicians like nobody else. But what beats me is how we always manage to elect such puerile ones. Like the joke goes, ‘What happens when a politician drowns in the river?’ ‘It is called pollution.’ ‘What happens when they all drown?’ ‘It is called a solution.’

Raman and I would discuss the reasons for corruption in our system. Our people, the vast majority of them are good, simple, and have sincere hearts that have learned to become helpless. Every conversation ends with the same refrain, ‘Ah! But what can we do?’ The reality is that if anything can be done, it is only we who can do it. But this remains an elusive concept. Having put that to rest, we would watch the fire and simply sit in companionable silence, waiting for dawn. Raman proves that he is made of gold by pulling out a flask with piping hot tea and he and I share the tea and wait for the night to pass.

Gradually our talk runs out and we doze in spells. The fire starts to go down and every once in a while, either Raman or I put another log into it. Time passes. We see the owls that had left the previous evening, return to their perch and they have a long conversation recounting tales of the hunt. I have no idea whose story was more impressive, but both seem to have a lot to talk about. The sky is now starting to lighten. There is a strange blue light and I feel as if I am looking at the world from the bottom of the ocean. Then an orange tinge starts at the very bottom of the horizon and gradually grows upwards as if a fire has been started and is strengthening. And indeed, it has.

The final payoff of our trip is at hand. The sun is starting to rise. The sky catches fire. The flames rise higher. And then the top curve of the ball of fire appears on the horizon and rises rapidly upwards. The light is now strong. A new day has been born and I am fortunate enough to witness it. What price can I place on this privilege? All it took is a little discomfort of sitting half the night on the top of a tree. I thank Allahﷻ for showing me His creation.

Lion-tailed Macaque – pronounced locally Yal-Tee-Yum

The new day starts with the Nilgiri Whistling Thrush (Whistling Schoolboy bird) and his liquid melody which he changes at will. We had a nesting pair in the Golden Showers creeper in our veranda. I used to whistle back, and he would respond. If I stopped, he would whistle and wait for me to reply. I have no idea what I was saying in his language, but whatever it was, he seemed to like it. I can’t describe the joy of beginning every day with that to start me off. On Manjaparai, I can hear the Yal-Tee-Yams (LTM – Lion-tailed Macaque – Macaca silenus) announcing that the new day is here. Then as the light strengthens, Jungle Fowl descend from the trees and the cocks call out their challenge; kak kaak, kaa kak?? – with a question mark at the end. You don’t normally hear the alarm calls of Sambar or Barking Deer at this time because the hunters have already hunted and are now resting after their meal. Langur call, just the communication calls.

You may hear the elephant herd, if you are downwind of them. First you will smell them. Then the squeal of the youngsters, feeling their oats early in the morning, usually butting each other and testing their strength while the matriarch leads them to the river to drink and bathe. As they walk, you can hear branches breaking as they feed, stomach rumbles, the low frequency call of the matriarch (you feel the vibration more than hear it) as she gives some instruction to her family. Even a trumpet occasionally. Just a honk of the horn. Not the scream of rage as an elephant thunders down on you at fifty miles an hour with the intention of wiping you off the face of the earth. That happenedto me once, a week after I joined as a brand-new Assistant Manager, but I managed to escape.  The memory however is still fresh and lives with me. You can’t hear the hyper-low frequency calls which travel over a hundred miles, by which herds widely apart, communicate with one another. What do they say?

Then the wind shifts and their super sensitive sense, gets a whiff of you. Suddenly there is total silence. You hear nothing. No branches snapping, no squealing, no rumbles, no trumpeting. Not a dry twig will snap under a foot which has a sole like a truck tyre bearing a weight of four tons, but which can tread as softly as a feather when it wants to. If you could see them, you would see ears fanning for sounds, trunks raised, taking in sniffs of air and blowing them into the mouth to taste it. Their eyesight is not great but their hearing and smell more than makes up for that. Add to that a memory that is legendary and the fact that they are in familiar surroundings and know every patch of forest. Who knows what other senses they bring to bear to decide whether you present a threat or not? Before you realize it, the herd has gone, like the mist in the early morning. One minute they were there, and the next, there is only your memory of an encounter that will stay with you all your life.

Grey Hornbill feeding his mate who is sealed inside the nest in the tree hollow
Wilpattu National Park, Sri Lanka

As the daylight strengthens, birds come alive. They gather at their favorite trees to feed on berries, and on insects which get flushed by the berry eaters or to scratch in the dirt at the bottom of the tree for worms, beetles and caterpillars. Insects have a hard time in life, though they are so critical to everyone else’s survival. If you stand quietly and watch, you can see the tree divided into zones in which different species of birds operate. The most popular trees for birds, in this forest on the Western Ghats is the Banyan (Ficus Benghalensis), especially when it is in fruit. The tree itself is excellent nesting habitat for birds. Owls and Parakeets live in its hollows. Hornbills use those hollows to make their nests. Black Eagles, Changeable Hawk-eagles and other raptors make nests in the topmost branches. Imperial Pigeons, Green Pigeons, Ring-necked and other doves, crows, and many others, nest in the Banyan. This is a very productive tree to watch if you want to photograph birds. All this activity is accompanied by an absolute cacophony of sound with all the birds talking to one another at the top of their voices. No birdsong as such. This is feeding time and they are in a frenzy.

Changeable Hawk-eagle juvenile
Yala National Park, Sri Lanka

We often like to talk about the peace of the forest. That is a myth. The forest is a place of intense activity where to survive you need senses honed to perfection, total physical fitness, lightning reflexes and total awareness. The price of carelessness is hunger or death. And all this, every waking, living day and night of your life. No overweight animals in the forest and no pot bellies. The only exception are elephants, who thanks to their size and lifestyle of living together in family groups taking care of one another, can afford to relax. Life in the forest is all about survival. Whether you are a bird, reptile, mammal, amphibian or fish, it is all about survival. You must do one of two things and for some, you must do both; find food and prevent yourself from becoming food. Add to that finding mates, building nests, raising young and all the while protecting them and yourself from others who need to kill you to raise their own young and you have a very lethal and non-peaceful environment. But one in which you feel alive constantly. No time for depression, boredom or anxiety – all very human ailments.

To survive in the forest, you must be able to read it like you read a book. Observe signs, know what they mean and know what to do when you see them. Some you will see, some you hear, some you smell and to all you pay attention very carefully. You must know that you are also generating signs, most of the time unconsciously. And while you are not the natural food for anyone, you can get yourself into trouble if by your behavior you are seen as a threat, especially to the young of someone else. This is almost the only reason that people get injured, bitten or even killed in the forest. The solution is to learn woodcraft. If you know how to behave in a forest, you can be safe and enjoy yourself in one that is inhabited by all the potentially dangerous species you can think of. I am speaking of Indian and Sri Lankan forests. African forests are somewhat different in this respect. I have walked, camped, even slept in riverbeds in forests in India, inhabited by tigers, leopards, gaur, wild dogs, elephants and of course snakes and here I am writing about it all. That is because I learnt what to do and have a lot of respect for those whose territory, I am in.

African forests are different primarily because of lions. African lions are very different from Indian tigers and leopards and are addicted to junk food. I believe, so also are African leopards and Spotted Hyenas. So, sleeping in riverbeds in Africa is not what I would advise. I wouldn’t advise that in India or Sri Lanka either as a matter of course, but as I said, if you needed to, you could do that here. But in Africa, if you find yourself in such a situation, where there is a possibility of lions in the vicinity, find yourself a tall tree and climb it as far up as you can get. Think of yourself as a bag of potato chips or a bar of chocolate if you like. You get the message? Having said that, there are unfenced resorts in wildlife parks where you can camp and as long as you are inside your tent or in your car, you are safe. But if you need to go in the night, because when you gotta go you gotta go, it presents interesting possibilities. Not my idea of a holiday for sure.

To return to our story, it was as if I was watching a flashback movie. As I sat on the rock, eating my egg roll I remembered all these things as vividly as if I were watching it happen all over again. Twenty years had passed. The gaur I saw are all gone. So are the Langur. Their offspring have taken their place. Raman is there with me, but his hair is now jet black with hair dye. My beard is a salt-pepper shade with far more salt than pepper. There is change, but the rock is timeless. So is the forest. Ever changing of course, but strangely, still the same. Not often is one privileged to go back in time. I finished my meal and lay down on the rock close to the stream to sleep for a while. Raman & Raman moved away to either ends of the open space to take up watch positions. We are old friends and companions. Nothing needs to be said. Each knows what he should do. I can hear the small stream gurgling as I drift off into the best sleep that I have had in a very long time.

Sunset in the Anamallais, Lower Sheikalmudi Estate

I woke up as the sun started its final journey to America. Only if it set here could the Americans have another day. So, we can’t delay it, can we? We gathered our things and started off back home, this time on a new track past the tea that I had planted 20 years ago. Today I was very eager to see what had become of it. Once again, we descended into the dark thickness of the undergrowth at the bottom of Manjaparai, now a little apprehensive as we can see fresh sign of elephant. We walk in single file with Raman in the lead and me at the rear with our friends who are new to this environment in the middle. We walk silently. Everyone has been given instructions about what to do if we come across elephants. But nothing as exciting as that happens and we emerge into what has become known as Baig Dorai Thotam (Baig Dorai’s Garden – the name that the pluckers gave it). I looked at it with tears in my eyes. It was the most beautiful sight that I had seen in a long time.

Baig Dorai Thotam – the tea I planted in Lower Sheikalmudi Estate in 1987, as seen in 2007

The tea has been extremely well looked after. They had done a height reduction prune to it and it is now back in plucking. Flat as a table, deep green maintenance foliage with light green plucking shoots standing proud and tall. Someone obviously has done an extremely fine job here. I was delighted that I had decided to come here and visit after so long.

We climbed up on another rock on the border of the tea overlooking the thick evergreen rain forest that the Anamallais are famous for. There is a single Spathodia in full bloom in the middle of the sea of green, the flame red color of the flowers standing out like a bonfire. I can see why it is called the Flame of the Forest. We sit in silence and watch the sun rise somewhere else. As the night descends, I thank Allahﷻ once again for giving me this opportunity to come back and see the result of my work and meet my old friends. I feel privileged and honored.

Blacksmiths, inheritors of Crossley

The Crossley engine was iconic and as much a part of a tea garden as a tea bush. Crossley engineers trained local men with an aptitude for mechanical tinkering who became Blacksmiths’ and were a legend. Most of them had had no formal education to speak of. All they had was the interest to learn, curiosity and dexterity and were very creative. They attempted anything and succeeded where highly trained mechanical engineers would be stumped. I put this down to what our formal education does to the mind, where our creativity is severely curtailed within the imaginary boundaries of what ‘can’ and ‘can’t’ be done. Those who are not mentally conditioned in this way, try all sorts of new ways with great success because nobody told them what ‘can’t’ be done.

One of my favorite stories about how creative people without a formal education can be is as follows. When I took over Lower Sheikalmudi Estate 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 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 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.

I immediately stopped Govindraj and said to the man, ‘Tell me how you will do it?’

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. 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 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.

With Shashi on my right in the tea nursery – 2010

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.’

Our Blacksmiths kept machinery which should have legitimately been given a decent burial in the 19th century, alive and kicking – generating electricity, running pumps, factories and what-have-you. Amazing work, mostly unsung but hugely appreciated by those who benefited from it. These ‘Blacksmiths’ were able to keep not only the Crossley engines running but handled anything that moved with equal confidence and aplomb. This included tractors without generators or starters, motorcycles with temperamental carburetors and even the Peria Dorai’s (PD) car. All passed through the hands of the Estate Blacksmith and lived to tell the tale. They were also artists with the lathe machine. All CTC factories have lathe machines to sharpen CTC rollers. On these machines were made all kinds of knickknacks, tools and what-have-you, as required or desired – sometimes the difference between the two being non-existent. 

Thangavelu – trying to look serious

I had a blacksmith on my estate, Lower Sheikalmudi, called Thangavelu. His trademark was his smile, showing huge gaps of missing teeth but bright and shining like the rising sun, no matter what time of the day or night you called him. The other thing about him was that no matter when you saw him, he always looked like he had been freshly dipped in a drum of lube oil. I used to tell him that if I cut him, oil and not blood would flow. Which got a huge laugh as my reward. Thangavelu was an absolute wizard with his hands. He’s had no education to speak of and so his creativity and initiative were intact. He did things with bits of wire, soap, wire mesh and coconut fiber which kept machines turning in an emergency until we could get the right part or consumable that had given up the ghost. He once made me a pruning knife with a truck spring blade and put a handle on it encased in staghorn (from a discarded Sambar horn picked up in the forest), secured with copper bands. It was a thing of real beauty and I carried it with pride for a number of years.

One day when I had been transferred to Paralai Estate, I gave it to one of my pruning workers to sharpen. Then I left to inspect some plucking and then went to the office in the afternoon. While I was in the office, some workers came running and said that Forest Department officers had come and arrested several of our workers from the pruning field and taken them off to Pollachi. I was astonished until I learnt that while they had been pruning, a Barking Deer got flushed out from under some unpruned tea. The deer ran for its life but one of the workers threw his knife which brought it down and before anyone could think, other workers had butchered it. I was furious at them for having killed a poor animal which apart from the kindness angle was also illegal. This whole thing was reported to the Forest Range Officer who came and arrested the workers and hauled them off to the Police Station in Pollachi. The workers who came to me, said that they had been locked up and had not had anything to eat and their families were distraught.

I drove down to Pollachi and met the Range Officer and the Superintendent of Police. I arranged for the workers in the lockup to be fed. Then I persuaded the officers to drop the case against them as they had done their deed without any thought, almost as a reflex. It took a lot of talking and the fact that I knew the officers concerned and had a good relationship with them. What also helped was the fact that I had driven all the way down from the Anamallais for these workers, which was not usual and so everyone was very impressed, and the case was dropped, and the workers released. The only casualty, apart from the poor Barking Deer (which incidentally made a nice meal for the Forest Department and Police guys) was my pruning knife. It had been ceased by the Range Officer, who fell in love with it and when I went to meet him, it was on his table. He asked me if I would be kind enough to allow him to keep it. With my workers’ freedom in his hands, I had hardly any choice. So, I bid it farewell. Thangavelu never got around to making me another one though we talked about it many times.

As was the custom of the plantations when any Assistant Manager got married and returned with his wife, there was a round of parties to meet the couple. So also, in our case and since I was the Secretary of the Anamallai Club, I had more than my fair share of friends and so we had a party to go to every night.  The parties were formal suit and tie affairs and the hostess would go to great lengths to cook special dishes in honor of the guests and at the end the couple would be given a gift. In a place where social relationships were very important, these parties were not simply for entertainment. They were rites of passage and thresholds of entry from bachelorhood to married status, which gave you a higher level of status and respect. They also had ‘snob value’ associated with who invited you and who didn’t. I didn’t bother with that at all, but then again, I was invited by everyone, so it didn’t matter. The parties were also a good way to introduce the new bride to a way of life that was foreign to her and helped her to make contacts with senior ladies and others more experienced in this lifestyle, which could be challenging for someone born and brought up in the city. Most people who go to tea gardens for a holiday in good weather don’t realize the difficulty of that environment for those who must live there all year round.

I have written about how my estate workers welcomed us when we returned to the estate. https://yawarbaig.com/wherearetheleaders/see-with-their-eyes/  The beauty of planting life was that it was like being in a family. You had your bickering, sometimes it could be trying. But always there was mutual affection and traditions to uphold and the proper etiquette in all things. And most importantly, in an emergency, everyone stood by you.

These dinner parties in our honor were so frequent that my wife could recognize a road only in the dark. The parties, enjoyable though they were and were a good way to meet friends who lived too far to visit frequently, could be very taxing as they tended to go on very late. We were expected to put in an appearance at the morning muster on the estate at 6:00 am no matter when we returned. The night of Mayura Factory inauguration (the day that started at 2:00 am), we had been invited to dinner at the home of our dear friends, Prema and Ricky Muthanna in Mudis. Ricky was the General Manager of BBTC and we were honored to be invited to their home.

As it happened, there was no time even for a short snooze in the afternoon thanks to the inauguration and to top it all, my car was once again in hospital. I didn’t fancy the idea of going all the way to Mudis (about thirty km on serpentine estate roads, decorated with potholes) on my motorcycle. I asked Mr. AVG Menon if I could borrow car, a brand new Hindustan Ambassador which had arrived just that week, for the evening and he graciously agreed.

We set off at about 7:00 pm as the dinner was for 8:00 pm. I was exhausted as I had been awake for 48 hours with about 2 hours of sleep, but we set off, Samina and I, on this long drive. We arrived at Prema and Ricky’s house to a very warm welcome. Samina and Prema became friends instantly and have remained friends all these years. Ricky and Prema’s home was a delight, very tastefully decorated and one of the iconic bungalows in the Anamallais. It was the only bungalow to my knowledge which had a central courtyard with a veranda all around it and so it had a garden inside and outside. Prema had called a lot of people in our honor and the house was full of our friends and some others who I knew by name but was meeting for the first time.

All plantation parties (except in my house) started with drinks, which the men consumed in large quantities while the women sipped soft drinks and discussed matters of great import. As I was not one for the spiritual experience, I would take my orange juice or fresh lime soda and chat with whoever was still on mother earth. But as many left for higher altitudes in proportion to the fuel inside them, I would usually take myself off into a corner and contemplate the world. That day I was so sleepy and tired that my eyes were self-shutting unable to withstand the weight of my eyelids, while the party was in full swing. I was clearly out of it. Prema saw me in that state and said to Samina and me, ‘Yawar looks like he is going to drop. Let me give you dinner so that you can eat and leave. I have no idea when these men will eat, and you look like you won’t last too long.’ I agreed wholeheartedly and we ate, said our farewells quietly and left.

Even up to that point I had my faculties still intact. You had to be alert when driving in the Anamallais, both on account of the road conditions as well as the possibility of coming upon a herd of elephants or gaur around a bend. That night was mercifully elephant free and we reached Lower Sheikalmudi Estate without incident. As I took the final turn on the road leading up to our bungalow (the ‘Tennis Court Bungalow’), I relaxed and that was my undoing. The next thing I knew, there was a crash and the car came to an abrupt halt. I was shocked back into awareness and realized that I had driven off the road. The left front wheel of the car was hanging off the side of the road in midair with the front fender resting against a tea bush, which was the reason we didn’t go all the way down into the ravine. The chassis was resting on the roadbed. Samina and I were shocked. It was 2:00 am and there we were.

I realized that this was not a good situation because the car didn’t belong to me. It was Mr. Menon’s car and a new one to boot. It was therefore my responsibility to get out of this situation. It didn’t even occur to me that I could leave the car where it was until morning and then get assistance to take it out of its predicament. I had crashed it and it was up to me to get it out. And I had to do it right away; it was not even a matter to think about. As it was, the car was directly below a stairway that led up to our house. I told Samina to walk up to the house so that she would be safely home. Then I went in search of a tractor to pull the car out. I knew that the leaf transport tractors – Massey Ferguson – used to be parked near Mayura Factory, about 2 kilometers from where I was. Our roads had no streetlights and it was a dark night. The tea fields were home to wild boar and other friendly species, not to mention several species of snakes, but none of them was my boss while Mr. AVG Menon was. I hiked off in search of a tractor. On the way I called my good friend, mechanic Thangavelu, because there was no way that I could pull the car out alone. Both of us got to where the tractors were parked and selected the one we wanted.

None of the tractors had self-starters and used to be parked on an incline so that you could roll down and start the engine. And they had no lights; I never understood why. Working in starlight, I got into the driver’s seat, rolled down, and started the tractor. Now we needed a tow rope. Thangavelu recalled that the telephone company people had been working on a line passing through one of our fields and had left a coil of telephone wire there. So off we went, with Thangavelu standing on a plank behind me, holding the seat as I drove the tractor. We picked up the coil of wire and drove back to where the car was; hooked up the wire to the chassis at the back and pulled the car back on the road. When I examined the damage, I saw that the tea bush had taken the shock and except for a small side indicator light, nothing was broken. That was a big relief to put it mildly. Thangavelu then took the tractor back to its parking spot and I drove home at 3:30 am.

I still recall the first thing that AVG asked me when I told him that we’d had an accident in his new car. He said, ‘I hope you and Samina are alright?’ I told him that we were fine but that his new car had been inaugurated with a broken indicator light. He was amused and laughed it off and said, ‘That can be fixed. I am happy that nothing happened to you both.’ That is why we used to call him A Very Good Menon.

Of Butler English etc.

Of Butler English etc.

You all know my butler Bastian who I have written about earlier. Bastian like most of his tribe spoke ‘Butler English’ and was very snobbish. My wife used to speak to him in the same way to make it easier for both to understand what was going on. So sometimes I would come in to hear, ‘Bastian, tomatoes got, not got?’ And Bastian saying, ‘Got Madam. But when Madam going Valparai please kindly bringing cream Madam. Need to make vanilla soufflé for Wood Dorai Madam’s dinner party. If Madam want, I am coming to Valparai with Madam.

“Why not telling you don’t have cream Bastian? I would have got it yesterday when Master went to the Club.”

“Not wanting trouble Madam. Going with Madam today to get it.”

The real reason being of course that he would be able to get together and chat with his cronies in Valparai during the day, because in the evenings, they would all be busy in their own jobs.  

Bastian had a habit of translating Tamil names into English and announcing anyone who came with his translation of the person’s name. He didn’t do that with the Doraimaar (Manager class) but did it with anyone else. Workers or union leaders didn’t come to the bungalow to meet the Manager. We met all workers, supervisors, staff and union leaders only at the morning Muster or in the Estate Office. This was a universal rule in all estates which was strictly adhered to. This has nothing to do with being snobbish or class conscious but with maintaining boundaries of work and personal time and space. We lived on the job, as it were and if we didn’t do this, we wouldn’t have had a single day’s peace. Having said that, there were some special people who had special privileges. In my case these were my tracker, who told me about the movement of wildlife in the forests adjoining our estates in the Anamallais, the supervisor who built the hides in trees or rocks for me to watch wildlife and the two Ramans who accompanied me on my hikes on Grass Hills. All of them came to the bungalow if they needed to meet me.

The norm was that they would first go to the back, to the kitchen and Bastian’s pantry and he would give them a cup of tea and they would chat. Then he would see what I was doing and if I was free, he would announce that so-and-so had come to see me. But the way he did it was to say the least, very funny. He would say, “Master, Seven Hills is here to meet Master.” Seven Hills being the literal translation of Yedumalai. Or he would say, “Master, Golden Mountain is here and wants to meet Master.” Golden Mountain being, yes you guessed it, Thangamalai.

When I was in Paralai Estate, my bungalow was just off the main Valparai road, opposite the Iyerpadi Estate Hospital, the domain of Dr. John Phillip and his charming wife, Dr. Maya. John and Maya were very good friends. John was one of the finest diagnosticians that I have ever had the pleasure of knowing, who could tell you what was wrong with your soul by looking at your toenails. Maya, in addition to being a physician, was a very creative artist and painted and made all kinds of beautiful things. One day, I had almost finished my morning rounds and had a nasty headache. So, on the way home for lunch, I dropped in at the hospital to meet Dr. John and get something for my headache.

As I drove into the hospital compound, I saw a lot of urgent activity with nurses and attenders running here and there. I asked Mr. Karunakaran, the Pharmacist, who held fort when Dr. John was away, what was going on. He said that there was a woman in labor who was terribly anemic and needed a blood transfusion. They were trying to find her family to donate blood. I said to him, “Take mine. I am O + and a universal donor.” Karunakaran looked surprised. A nurse standing by him, looked shocked. “You will donate blood for a worker woman?” she asked. “We are trying to find her people (Dalits) to donate blood.” I said to her, “Look, I have no time for this. Take my blood and give it to her. You don’t want her dying with her baby while you hunt for her relatives.” While all this was going on, Dr. John came on the scene and on being informed that I was offering to donate blood and the reluctance of the staff to accept it, he said, “He wants to donate his blood. What is your problem? Just take it.”

I was duly laid down and bled to the extent of two bottles of blood. It was thick and almost black with hemoglobin and had my friend John smiling in satisfaction. They disappeared with the blood into the operation theatre. I was kept under observation for a while and given some tea, just to ensure that I didn’t croak. I realized that in all this, my headache had disappeared. Clearly donating blood cures headaches. I then went home and had lunch and went off for my siesta. A most civilized practice that I learned to do in the plantations and have adhered to ever since. I am told it is also very good for the heart. It is certainly very good to rejuvenate you for the rest of the day. After my siesta of about forty-five minutes, I got up for my cup of tea, when Bastian announced, “Master, Golden Mountain and the entire Works Committee are here to meet Master.” I was surprised because it was my rule that I never met any union leaders at home, and everyone knew and respected it. What was so urgent today that they couldn’t meet me in the office?

I walked out on to the veranda to see Thangamalai, who was the head of the union, Madasamy who was his Deputy and entire Works Committee with them. I was a little apprehensive also, because usually it is not good news when the whole committee wants to meet you urgently. We made our greetings. Then I asked them why they had come. They didn’t say a word. Thangamalai stepped forward and bent down to touch my feet. I stepped back in amazement and irritation because I never encouraged the touching of my feet. They knew this. I told them, “Why are you touching my feet? You know I don’t like this and don’t allow anyone to do it.” Thangamalai said in a grave tone, “Yes Dorai, we know. But today you will have to allow us to touch your feet. So, please don’t stop us.” He then bent down and touched my feet. And all the others followed suit. I stood there, totally amazed at all this. When they had all finished, I asked them, “So, tell me, what is all this for? What did I do?”

Thangamalai said, “Dorai, today you did something that has never happened in the more than one hundred years since this tea was planted. You gave your blood for one of us. No manager ever did this. So, we must thank you.”

I said, “What is so special about that? Wouldn’t you have done the same for me?”

“Yes Dorai, we would. But Doraimaar (Manager class) don’t do it for us. You are the first one and the only one who ever did it.” Then he said something which has stayed with me ever since. He said, “Dorai, this is our land. It is our land not because we were born here but because we will be buried here, if we die. It can never be the land of the Managers, because if you die, they will take you away to your hometown to bury you. They will not bury you here. The land you are born in is not your motherland. It is the land you die in and are buried in that belongs to you. But from today, this is also your land because your blood is now our blood.” I had tears in my eyes and to this day when I think of this whole event, it fills my heart with warmth and love for these simple, lovely people. I have never believed in caste and class divisions and never practiced them and that day, they accepted me as their own. I was a Dalit for them and for me that was the greatest honor.

Lower Sheikalmudi Manager’s bungalow where we used to live

There is a very happy ending to this story. Almost twenty-five years later, in 2010, I returned to the Anamallais with my wife Samina and some friends of ours from South Africa and my nephew Aly, to show them one of the most beautiful places on earth. We stayed for two nights in the bungalow we used to live in, the Manager’s bungalow on Lower Sheikalmudi Estate. We walked the trails that I used to walk and met all those workers and staff who were still there. Many had retired. Some had passed away. But those who were there, remembered me and left their work and came to meet me. I was taken in an informal procession and ‘installed’ in my old Muster. Someone put a shawl on the chair for me to sit upon. Others brought tea and vadas from the teashop which every estate has. Many of my old workers brought their children to meet me and told them, “This is the Dorai we have told you about.”

One young fellow came up to me, greeted me with, “Vanakkam Dorai.” I returned his greeting. He asked me, “Do you recognize me?” I always find this question very disconcerting. If you don’t remember them, it puts you in an embarrassing position. You can try to wing it by saying, “Of course I remember you. How can I ever forget you?” But some horrible fellows won’t let you get away with that. They will persist, “Then tell me who I am!” Then you must say, “You are the one for whom I pray every day that your socks should shrink in the wash and that you should discover after having showered that you forgot your towel in another room and that when you are in a rush to urgently go to the toilet in the airport, after you have done the deed, you should discover that you were in the toilet meant for the opposite gender.”

Manjaparai view – Sholayar Dam in the distance

No, I didn’t say all that. I said to him, “I am sorry I don’t recognize you.” He said, “Not surprising Dorai. The last time you saw me was twenty-five years ago. I am the little boy who you would always give a ride to school on your bike. I would be walking down the road to the school and you would come down from the office and you would always stop and ask me to hop on behind you and you would take me to school. I can never forget you.” Then I remembered him of course. For me it was such an unremarkable thing to do. I like children and this little fellow was so happy to ride behind me and it made him such a big shot before all his friends that I always gave him a ride. Of such simple, unthinking, spontaneous actions are enduring memories made.

The two Ramans, my partners in all my jungle hikes, which we did regularly, came to meet me. One of them is the son of Kullan, who had passed away, about whom I have written in my book, ‘It’s my Life’. Kullan who would visit me in the evenings, and we would sit on my veranda and Kullan would tell me stories of the ‘old days’ (Palaya Gaalam). Wonderful stories of struggle, pain, joy, success and the inevitability of life, which tells you that after all is said and done, you must get up tomorrow morning and go to the field. Raman the Elder said to me, “Dorai, you have not forgotten your old ways. You came walking up the path from the old coffee area, where there is a lone elephant. But then you know the signs and you are not afraid. Do you want to go up to Manjaparai? Let us plan for that tomorrow.” Manjaparai is the highest point, a rock rising out of the forest that was the top boundary of the estate. Raman had built me a hide, a machan in a tree, above a waterhole from where he and I would go on full moon nights to watch elephants come, to drink. He recalled that and said, “Our machan is gone but we can still go up and sit and watch the sunset.” And that is what we did.

My machan tree and the stream – now almost dry – 2010

After two days, we went to Paralai to the new Anamallai Club and stayed in the chambers for another two days. The new club is a concrete building without the charm of the old one. It is just a building sitting in the middle of nothing. The old club in Valparai had tennis courts, a nine-hole golf course and a very charming colonial bungalow style building which we all loved. Sadly, that became the victim of Indian politics and our elected representative from the district, a servant of the people, no less; came one day with a huge mob and ransacked the club and demolished most of it and tried to illegally occupy the land. The police came as usual conveniently after all the damage had been done to the relic of capitalist India and locked up the ruins. And that is how that has stayed and remains to this day, to the best of my knowledge. Meanwhile planters needed a club and so the company I worked for, donated the land and all the other companies contributed the money to build the new club.

The day after we arrived, word got around to the workers of Paralai that Baig Dorai had come after twenty-five years and many people came to meet me. In the course of that, came two women and a man. The man was an old servant of ours who had worked as Bastian’s assistant, Asaithambi. He greeted me, “Vanakkam Dorai.” Then he gestured to the two women to come forward and asked me, “Do you know who they are Dorai?” I had no clue. He said, “This one is the one you gave your blood to. And this is her daughter. Without that blood they would both have died that day. It is with your blood in their veins that they are living. And Dorai, this girl is studying medicine in Coimbatore.” I wept with joy and gratitude. That is all that I could do.

Bastian was a brilliant cook and claimed that he knew more than 100 recipes for soufflés and puddings. I have no doubt he did, and I was the beneficiary of many, if not all. His cream soups were brilliant. So were his fruit soufflés. He would top some of them off with caramelized sugar like an elaborate web. Very stylish. But for the love of anything, he wouldn’t teach anyone else how to cook those things. My wife and many other ladies tried every trick to learn. Bastian would very politely say, ‘Of course Madam. I will teach Madam. Madam come when I am making it.’ But when Madam went there, at the final moment, he would do something to distract attention and there it was all ready and made and Madam would have to wait for the next opportunity. After a few such attempts, Madam got the hint and satisfied herself with eating Bastian’s cooking without trying to learn how to cook it. On one occasion, my wife suggested to Bastian that he should teach the houseboy who was his assistant in the kitchen. Bastian’s response was classic. He said, ‘No Madam. Chokra dull Madam. Can’t learn anything.’ And that was that. Chokra dull Madam. This was so funny that when my wife said something to me and I didn’t get it immediately she would say to me, “Chokra dull Madam.”

If only Bastian’s tribe had taught others what they knew they could have created very competent successors. But Bastian’s kind were very jealous, even insecure, about their positions and knew that it was their cooking skills which were their biggest asset. They guarded them jealously, never trained anyone else and took their skills to their graves. Very sad but very similar to what a lot of talented and skilled people in the corporate world do.

I always praised Bastian for his cooking, which was a delight to come home to. My wife is also a very good cook but doesn’t do it regularly. But once in a while when she felt like it, she would make something. When it came to the table, I, not knowing who had cooked that dish would automatically say to Bastian, “Bastian this bake is lovely.” Bastian would promptly say, “Thank you Master.” Taking all the credit for it and not telling me that he had not cooked it. But on the occasion when my wife made something and there was something the matter with it, and I said to Bastian, “Bastian, there is too much salt in this.” His immediate response would be, “Madam fault Sir.”

 Butlers were an institution and we planters exchanged many ‘Butler stories’. One dear friend told us this story about his butler. The worthy would give him brown soup every single day. After some time, my friend got tired of eating the same soup and asked him if he didn’t know how to make some other kind of soup. “I giving Master two different soups,” says the butler. “Which two different soups?” “Thin brown soup and thick brown soup, Sir.” Another time, the Field Officer said to my friend, ‘Sir I am sorry to report but the quality of bread from your bungalow has gone down.’ When my friend asked him how he knew anything about the quality of the bread in his bungalow, the man replied, ‘But we are buying bread from you Sir.’

When I joined CWS (India) Limited, I heard a story about one of the GMs, Mr. Douglas Cook. Mr. Cook had a butler called Xavier. Mr. Cook lived in India alone but loved to entertain his friends. One day he invited some of his British friends and after dinner, he asked them if they would like some Cognac. Then he went to his bar to pour the drinks, only to discover that his Remy Martin was missing. Clearly very embarrassing. He apologized to his guests and they made do with something else. After everyone left, Mr. Cook was alone in his drawing room, when Xavier came in to bid goodnight to the Master as all the servants did each night. This was a standard ritual with the butler, being the highest-ranking individual in the household saying with a bow, “Anything else Master? Good night Master.” When Xavier said, “Anything else Master?” Mr. Cook asked, “Where is my Cognac Xavier?” Xavier mumbled something, reversed out of the drawing room and disappeared into the pantry. Next morning Xavier took the tray with Mr. Cook’s bed tea, into his bedroom and greeted him as usual, “Good morning Master.” Mr. Cook replied, “Where is my Cognac?” Later at breakfast, at lunch, at tea, when serving dinner and when he came to say, ‘Goodnight’, the same ritual; “Where is my Cognac?” To give him his due, Xavier took this for three days. Then on the fourth day, Xavier disappeared for good. Mr. Cook’s Cognac and his butler were never seen again.

Butler English was not restricted to butlers. I once had one of my Field Officers come to me, very happy one morning, saying, “Congratulations Sir. My wife delivered a baby yesterday.” Not having had anything to do with that development, I was in a quandary whether to accept the congratulations or not. Accepting seemed very much like admitting to the crime. Not accepting would have seemed rude. I am still thinking about that. Another Field Officer came one morning to the Muster, wanting his backyard to be fenced. To emphasize the point, he said very passionately, “I need this badly Sir. My backside is completely open.” I had no desire to verify this and so quickly agreed to allot the labor and barbed wire for his ‘backside’.

Life was simpler in those days. We had less technology and more time. People were more open, warm, and less complicated. People looked at commonalities and bonded on that basis. If I think about how many differences there were between me and some of my dearest friends, I can tell you that we differed on many things. But what we had in common was enough to keep our hearts together for now over forty years. That is the real meaning of respect. Not to demand that everyone becomes vanilla flavor; one ‘official, approved version’. Real respect is to respect difference and the right of everyone to live that difference without demanding that they change or even explain why they are the way they are. Real respect for each other is to accept our differences like the giraffe accepts the elephant’s trunk while the elephant accepts the giraffe’s long neck. That’s it for now. Vanakkam!

See with ‘THEIR’ eyes

See with ‘THEIR’ eyes

Have you ever been in the shower in a 5-star hotel, nice and wet all over and you reach for the shampoo bottle, only to find that there are three? That is not because you are drunk and are seeing triple but because you are faced with three identical bottles but with totally different contents. What is in the bottles is not a mystery of course. It has been helpfully printed on the label. However, the label was designed by a 20-something design engineer sitting in a sweatshop in India or Bangladesh, who has never seen the inside of a 5-star hotel shower and won’t until he gets old enough to need glasses to read and the money to pay for the hotel. Then he will realize what he did all his life when he is forced to play Russian Roulette with the shampoo, body lotion (complicated way to say ‘soap’) and conditioner. If you think this is funny, put conditioner on your head instead of shampoo and you will think that is even funnier. That is perhaps the reason why I had to decline a haircut recently which was for Rs. 350 on the plea that I refuse to pay more than Re. 1 per hair, aforementioned number being an optimistic hair-count of my head. The refusal of hair to adhere to my scalp may be ascribed to the times that I used conditioner instead of shampoo. No self-respecting hair can stand such treatment and so they decide to part company with me forever.

“What’s the big deal?” you ask me. “Why can’t you read the label?”

“I need glasses to read but I don’t need glasses to shower. So, I don’t wear glasses in the shower, which is where I need glasses to read the labels on the bottles.”

What is the solution?

Take all shower bottle label designers to a 5-star hotel, blindfold them, strip them naked and shove them into the shower.

Why blindfold them?

How else will they understand how it feels to hold the bottle in your hand and not know what is in it?

Customer Satisfaction and Customer Delight can be condensed into one phrase and that is, “See with their eyes.” The keyword being ‘Their’.

Let me give you another example. A good friend sent me this video: Titled Mumbai Motorman, peeing in front of local train. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K5lt4avsHsM

As they say, ‘When you gotta go you gotta go.’ But then the question arises, where does he go? And what’s more, what if he had to do more than just irrigate the tracks? And even more critical, what if the ‘Motorman’ was a ‘Motorwoman’. Incidentally for those who may think that I am being facetious, let me assure you that I have seldom been more serious in my life. This, lack of facilities to do it decently and in private, is a major problem with Traffic Police Constables also, especially women Constables. Maybe the fact that we don’t have a distinct word for a woman police constable is an indicator of our blindness to their needs.

To return to our ‘Motorman’ video and the lessons from it, the reason the man has to do what he did is because the designer of the engine driver’s cab, never drove an engine in his life. If you think I am exaggerating, let me tell you another story.

In 2000 I was invited to teach a series of leadership courses, which we called From Managing to Leading, for the design team of one of the two major truck manufacturers in India. There were totally two hundred engineers who would take this 3-day residential course at their training facility. They were all graduates from the IITs (Indian Institutes of Technology) with a sprinkling from REC’s (Regional Engineering College); some of the most highly qualified engineers in the country. The IITs have an entrance test about which someone asked one of the professors of MIT what he would do if he had to write that test. He said, ‘I would leave, in tears.’ In short these were very smart people with arrogance to match. I asked for a meeting with the Head of the Division, the Head of HR and a cross section of the design engineers to understand their issues so that I could design a program that suited their special needs. This is how that went:

Me: “Many thanks for agreeing to meet me. I am hoping to understand from you, what you see as the special leadership challenges that you face and what you see as being the key deliverables for this course. So, let me begin with a question to all and each of you; Do you have a heavy license (license to drive a truck)?”

They: Thinking: Total silence. Odd looks. “Looks like we made a mistake. This guy looks like he’s flipped it. Heavy license? Why on earth would we, IIT grads, have a heavy license? Do we look like truck drivers to him?” But then this is India and he is older than we are, so we can’t just tell him that he is crazy. So, we remain silent.

Me: “Hmm! Does this mean that you don’t have a truck driving license? Nobody has one?”

They: “Yes.”

Me: “You mean that you design these trucks but none of you has ever driven what you designed?”

They: Thinking: “Now this is getting uncomfortable. How do we answer this?”

“No.”

Me: Thinking: “Expressive lot!!” 

“Okay, let me ask you another question; How many of you sat with the driver in one of your trucks as he drove from Chandigarh to Chennai?”

Eyes roll, silence is now so heavy that it is oppressive.

They: “Nobody.”

Me: “Okay, Chandigarh to Chennai is long, though your trucks are being driven on that route. But let me make it simpler; has anyone sat with the driver as he drove from Chennai to Bangalore?”

Eyes roll again. More silence.

They: “No.”

Me: Now I am twisting the knife: “So, you are telling me that you design trucks that you have never driven or ridden in?”

They: Sheepishly: “Yes.”

Me: “Let me ask you another question: Who makes the buying decision in the case of a truck?”

They: “The owner of the trucking company.”

Me: “Right and wrong. The owner ‘decides’ but he is totally influenced by his drivers. If the drivers like a certain brand of truck, the owner will always buy that brand unless there is a huge price difference between that brand and its competitor. No owner wants unhappy drivers who are constantly complaining about the truck which results in slower turnaround time, directly translating to lower profits. The owner wants the best, most efficient transport and his driver decides. Who is that driver? He is the one whose reality you have not even tried to understand. You were looking at me like I was crazy when I asked if you had a heavy license. What do you say now?”

Sadly, this inability to see with their eyes is widespread and is the real reason behind bad design and bad service.

Try an experiment. Walk down a street that you usually walk down. Notice how it looks and try to remember the details. When you get to the end of the street or if it is a long street, then when you have walked a few hundred meters, turn around and look up the street you just walked down. How does it look? Does it look like it had been a few minutes ago when you walked down it? Or does it look different? This is a good way to understand how perspective is a factor of position. What you see depends on where you look at it from. The same principle holds in life. One of my friends, a senior police officer was talking to me about human trafficking, which is a very big issue in India. She talked about how her subordinate officers seemed to have become calloused about it. She asked me for ideas about how she could get them inspired to solve human trafficking cases and bring the perpetrators of urban slavery to book. I told her, “Ask them to give the victim a name. The name of their daughter.” Simple as it sounds, it worked. Things change complexion when we put ourselves in the shoes of the ‘other’. The other is no longer a stranger to be ignored at best or at worst, maligned and hated.

We see the other, and in him, we see ourselves.

This is the origin of the Golden Rule: “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.” Or as someone else put it: “Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want them to do to you.” Or as yet someone else put it: “People may forget what you did but they will never forget how you made them feel.”

See with ‘their’ eyes

Before I end, let me assure you that this is not about business or winning customers. The biggest lesson I learnt in this context was one week after I got married. I married when I was thirty and had been living alone since I was eighteen. We got married in Hyderabad and left the next day for the Anamallais (where I was an Assistant Manager in the tea gardens) we arrived in Madras at my aunt’s place. Jahanara Aunty and Mohammed Uncle were absolute gems whose hospitality was legendary and recalled to this day by everyone who was fortunate enough to enjoy it. Two days later we boarded the train for Coimbatore from where we drove up the Aliyar Ghat of forty hairpin bends. Samina was violently sick all the way up the Ghat. Being prone to motion sickness anyway, the Ghat road was not doing her any good at all. I was very concerned because this Ghat road was a given if we lived in the Anamallais and with Samina being so sick on it, it didn’t seem to portend well for us. The prospect of a repeat performance every time we traveled was definitely not something to look forward to. But as it happened after a couple of trips Samina got over her motion sickness altogether. Maybe the Ghat road shocked it out of her system.

It was a tradition that estate workers welcomed the Assistant Manager when he returned with his wife. But it was not something that happened always. The workers decided who they wanted to welcome and who they didn’t. In our case as our car rounded the bend off the Sholayar Dam and came towards ‘Black Bridge,’ we were stopped and requested to alight. Samina and I came out of the car, glad for the chance to stretch our legs. The road was lined with girls who sang a welcome song and showered us with flower petals as we walked through this guard of honor. We were taken to a pavilion which I realized had been made by tying the best sarees of the women to the poles and decorated with lots of flowers. Tea garden workers can be the most loving people in the world and if you were good to them, they appreciated it and reciprocated. I saw many examples of that in my decade long career. We were garlanded and sat at a table on the two grandest chairs that they could find. Then we were served tea and biscuits and sweets. It was then that a depressed fly decided to end its meaningless life in my wife’s teacup. But Samina, being the perfect lady that she is, merely fished the fly out and drank the tea without batting an eyelid. An amazing performance which saved us from a lot of embarrassment.  

Then speeches were made, and the women danced and sang a song in our honor in which we were mentioned repeatedly in sometimes a humorous way and sometimes with great respect. The amazing thing was that this song was made up then and there and they sang about various habits of mine, including singing while I rode my motorcycle. People observe you and remember and respond to you the way they perceive you. People listen with their eyes. They don’t care what you say, until they see what you do. I have seen this in my life more times than I can possibly recall. All the more reason to ensure that whatever it was, remained good and honorable.

At the end of all this song and dance there were some speeches by the local union leaders and one supervisor and then I was asked to speak. It was permitted for the manager to speak in English and the speech would be translated. But I had learnt Tamil for occasions such as these and spoke it well, much to everyone’s delight. When I had finished and thanked them for all their trouble and expressed our gratitude for the honor that we had been granted, they gave my wife a gold ring as their gift as a mark of their love and honor for me. I was floored. These were poor people who had collected money for this, something which was not expected of them at all. What could I say? As I mentioned earlier, Managers and workers in the plantations form bonds that are more like family than anything else.

That story was the background for the lesson I mentioned earlier. A lesson in seeing with ‘their’ eyes. It was about a week later when one day I was saying something to my wife about my car and so on when she stopped me and said, ‘If you keep talking about everything as my-this and my-that, how will I ever feel that I share it with you?’ I was flabbergasted. I didn’t realize the effect of my perfectly innocuous speech on my wife. I had lived alone since I was eighteen and was used to thinking of everything as being mine. Sharing didn’t come into it as I’d had nobody to share with. But now I did. I realized that I needed to change my outlook. I needed to see with her eyes. Today, thirty-four years later, I am very happy that I learnt that lesson.

Attitude

Attitude can’t be enforced

“Can we change their attitude?”

“No.”

“Can they change their own attitude?”

“Yes.”

“So, what is our goal? To change their attitude, or to convince them that they need to change it themselves?”

“That is challenging, difficult, will take sweat and tears……….do I really want to even try it?”

“Ah! We are now at the root of the problem and it is: Do I want to change my own attitude?”

Attitude is at the root of everything. Attitude decides whether we will succeed or fail. Whether when in difficulty, even that which seems to be life threatening, if we will survive or perish. Attitude decides if when hit by life (or by someone) we stay down or get up. And how many times we get up. And what the result of getting up every time we fall, will be. Attitude, not wealth, dictates happiness. If you don’t believe me, watch slum children leaping into pools of rainwater after the first rains. Do they look happy? Then go and watch your children, who will most likely be complaining about the rain. And ask yourself, “Who has more wealth?” I know that is a dumb question, but then to decide to remain dumb is an attitude issue. To decide to remain blind, even though we have eyes is an attitude issue. To witness a crime in progress and to decide to take a video to post on Instagram, instead of taking action to prevent the crime or to help the victim, is a matter of attitude. Cherophobia (the fear of being ‘too happy’ because you feel that if you allow yourself to feel happy, then disaster will strike), is a matter of attitude. Satisfaction, gratitude, ambition, courage, compassion are all attitudes. So also, are their opposites. And each one has an impact on our life.

The first Kural in Thirukkural is:

Agara mudhala ezhuthellam aadhi
bhagavan mudhatrey ulagu

(As Agara – A – is the first letter of the alphabet, so also God is before all creation)

In the same way, attitude comes before all situations and circumstances and decides how they will affect us. Incidentally, another A-word; affect. Let me tell you some stories to illustrate what I mean.

It was 1987 and I was doing a course at XLRI, Jamshedpur. One evening my friends decided to show me the sights around Jamshedpur. As we drove in the Hindustan Ambassador car, which was provided for us, the road suddenly deteriorated. My friend announced, “This is where Jamshedpur ends, and Bihar begins.” We continued onwards, headed towards Dimna lake and bird sanctuary. This is a lake made by Tata Steel and provides drinking water to Jamshedpur. On the way we stopped at a traffic light. The road was a patchwork of potholes joined together by bits of tarmac to prove that once upon a time when the world was young, it had been surfaced with bitumen. As I was contemplating life and its trials, a young boy came coasting down the slope on his bicycle a bit oblivious to his situation and hit a pothole, bounced out of it and yelled, ‘Wah! Kya khadda hai!’ (Wow! What a pothole!). Today I am writing this on July 13, 2019, 32 years later, but the incident is fresh in my memory. I remind myself that nothing changed for that kid or for me. The road, the potholes, the responsibility of the government, the use of taxes, you name it, everything remained the same. Yet that kid decided to be happy. So, when he hit a pothole, he appreciated the pothole instead of complaining. A matter of attitude.

In my view the best thing about attitude is that it is entirely in my control. Nobody can give it to me or take it from me or change it for me or do anything at all with my attitude. I, and only I, can have whatever attitude I want to. So only I, can decide if I want to be sad, glad, bad, mad or whatever. That means that until I want to change it, nobody can help me and if I want to change it, nobody can stop me. That is power.

In 1978, soon after I finished graduation with a BA in history, political science and Urdu literature, I boarded a flight for Guyana where my father was on a one-year assignment, with the Guyana Mining Enterprise hospital in Linden. It was a long flight and a long story. I flew from Hyderabad to Bombay to London to New York to Miami to Georgetown which took more than 24 hours. I flew in a SE 210 Caravelle, Boeing 707, McDonnell Douglas DC-10, and Boeing 707 once again. I flew on Indian Airlines, British Airways, Pan Am (Pan American World Airways), Delta and BWIA. And at the end of it all, more than 24 hours after I left Hyderabad, I arrived literally at the other end of the world, without my baggage. My baggage apparently had other travel plans and I have no idea which country it was destined for. But for me that meant that not only did I get to lose all my worldly possessions but also the proof of my education, my degree certificate, which I had kept in my checked-in baggage for safety.  

Guyana, my first home

I should have been devastated. I wasn’t. It took me about ten minutes to come to terms with the fact that I was walking with all my worldly assets, the shirt on my back. I found this was a very liberating idea. In Guyana I got a job, lived and worked in a small mining town in the middle of the rainforest. My experience of the five years that I spent there was far from negative. It was one of the most enjoyable and rewarding periods of my life during which I made lifelong friendships, had many unique experiences, and learnt a huge amount about human relations and conflict management which has stood me in good stead throughout my career, now many decades later. I will talk about those days in context in the articles and podcasts that will come later but want to say that all this happened because of the way I approached the challenge.

For one thing, I didn’t see it as a ‘challenge = difficulty’, at all. I saw it as the possibility to have great fun and great learning, each day filled with new possibilities. I was in a new country, totally new (alien!!) culture, food, climate, language, working with people who were completely different from me in every way, living in a part of the world that I had never been in and which was as different from my life in Hyderabad as to make it seem like I was on another planet. Yet it turned out to be one of the best periods of my life which I recall very fondly today, more than forty years later. The reason was attitude.

Attitude therefore is how you choose to see what you are faced with. You can choose to appreciate the good in it and enjoy it and to see the difficulties as you look at weights in the gym; something that is tough to lift but can only benefit you if you do. Who makes that choice? You.

Back home in India, I worked in the plantation industry for ten years, managing tea, and rubber plantations with coffee, cardamom, coconut and vanilla thrown in, before striking out into the field of leadership consulting. During my last three years in the company, I was posted as Manager of the company’s operations in Kanyakumari District in Tamilnadu. That comprised of two rubber estates, two factories and a higher secondary school. The challenge there was the labor force, which was highly militant, unionized, communist union (CITU – Marxist) and a history of tension between the management and union. To spice up my life I had an immediate task of introducing Controlled Upward Tapping (CUT) in rubber. This involved the tappers using special tapping knives to tap upwards instead of the normal downward tap. This put a strain on their shoulders and initially it could be uncomfortable, even painful, until they got used to it. The standard response to this was to refuse to do it. That led to tensions and some ugly situations before I got there, including an Assistant Manager having been grievously assaulted. My challenge was to get the workers to accept this method of tapping, which meant that I had to convert their dislike and resistance to liking. To change their attitude from resistance to acceptance.

I spoke to another company in Kerala who were using this technique and had good results. I requested their management to allow me to send my tappers to visit them to see their tapping, meet their tappers and talk to them about the technique. I wanted them to do this freely without any supervision, so I didn’t go with them. I sent them in a bus and arranged for them to have a nice sumptuous meal with their hosts and to be given CUT knives as a take-away gift (for which we paid). I told them to go and see the work, ask any questions that they wanted to ask their compatriots and satisfy themselves that this method was a good method for them to earn more income as well as something which would not be difficult to do after they had gotten used to the new angle of tapping. All this was treated with suspicion to begin with, given the history of management labor relations, but I expected that and didn’t react to it. However, the prospect of a company paid holiday was tempting and unique and so they went. After that, as they say, the rest is history. They returned enthusiastic about trying out the new technique and when they saw that as promised, their yield was better resulting in better earning, there was nothing more for me to do.

What I had been able to do was to get them tuned into the channel that everyone listens to; WiiFM (What’s in it For Me). That is the key to attitude change. Get people to see what’s in the change for them. Help them to see how they will benefit. Naturally they must really benefit. It is not a PR exercise. If there is really no benefit, then you will lose credibility big time if you try to sell it. But it happens often that people don’t see the benefit until you can show it to them. Once they see how they will gain by changing their attitude, it happens easily enough. The challenge is for us to show it to them.

What is essential for the one wanting to bring about attitude change is to put himself into the shoes of the other and see their world through their eyes. I had a very interesting experience in this context. I was doing a series of coaching skills workshops for senior management at ICRISAT in Hyderabad. This required helping people understand the fact that you can never coach anyone effectively if you don’t see their world through their eyes. In other words, you need to put yourself in their shoes. To illustrate this, I took off my shoes and said to the Deputy Director General, the most senior manager who was sitting right in front, “Please get into my shoes.”

He got up very reluctantly and started to take his shoes off. I stopped him when he had taken one shoe off. I asked him, “What are you doing?”

He looked surprised and replied rather testily, “Taking off my shoes.”

I asked, “Why?”

He looked really exasperated and said, “How else can I get into your shoes?” Then it suddenly dawned on him and he almost yelled, “Wah! What an insight!! I can never get into your shoes until I take my own shoes off. Wah! Sahab Wah!”

It is often as simple as that. The lesson is simple but very powerful.

If we want to change people’s attitudes, we need to first change our own. We must own up that we need to see their world as they see and feel it. We must empathize and understand. Then we need to show them how they will benefit from the change. Only then will it happen.