Horses, rocks and palaces

Horses, rocks and palaces

One of my teachers was Nawab Habib Jung. Nawabsaab had horses and his son Mohammad (we called him MP) and I were good friends and we used to ride together. They lived in Begumpet, where Nawab Habib Jung had built his own house in the grounds of his father Nawab Wali-ud-Dowla’s house called Vilayat Manzil (today the Country Club). Nawab Habib Jung’s house was my all-time favorite for its architecture. It had a large central courtyard open to the sky with a lawn in it, in which there was a swimming pool at one end and a low marble platform with inlay work at the other. Nawabsaab used to pray on this platform under the open sky. All around the courtyard were the bedrooms, the dining room, and the drawing room; all opening onto a wide veranda that ran right around the courtyard. Most of the time we would sit on the veranda and look at the swimming pool and chat because it was so airy and lovely. In the basement was a huge formal drawing room and Nawabsaab’s office. Nawabsaab was the one who wrote my first reference letter when I applied for a job in the tea gardens. I remember the words exactly, ‘He is keenly interested in saddle seat equitation, has an excellent seat, and shows respect where respect is due.’ He typed it himself on his formal letter head with the Paigah crest, on his portable typewriter. I always feel very honored that he did this for me.

Outside the house there was an old well and several huge old trees. At one corner were the stables. MP and I would usually ride near the house in an open area overlooking the Husain Sagar lake. One day I went to see the film ‘The Horseman’ with Omar Sharif as the hero. I was enthralled by the film principally because of the scenes of Buz Kashi and the many sequences of riding on Akhal-Teke horses. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Akhal-Teke)

The breed standard of the Akhal-Teke reads: ‘The Akhal-Teke has a fine head with a straight or slightly convex profile, and long ears. It also has almond-shaped eyes. The mane and tail are usually sparse. The long back is lightly muscled, and is coupled to a flat croup and long, upright neck. The Akhal-Teke possesses sloping shoulders and thin skin. These horses have strong, tough, but fine limbs. They have a rather slim body and ribcage (like an equine version of the greyhound), with a deep chest. The conformation is typical of horses bred for endurance over distance. The Akhal-Tekes are lively and alert, with a reputation for bonding to only one person. The breed is tough and resilient, having adapted to the harshness of Turkmenistan lands, where horses must live without much food or water. This has also made the horses good for sport. The breed has great endurance, as shown in 1935 when a group of Turkamen riders rode the 2500 miles from Ashgabat to Moscow in 84 days, including a three-day crossing of 235 miles of desert without water.’

MP

In one scene in the film they showed a riding competition where the riders would pick up a small piece of cloth from the ground with a dagger while riding at a full gallop. The day after, my friend Anoop (Vicky) Randhawa (used to be an instructor pilot with Jet Airways), MP, and I rode Nawab Habib Jung’s horses to the schooling area. I was thrilled with the display of horsemanship that I had seen in the movie and when we went to ride, I decided to try the maneuver of picking up the napkin from the ground at full gallop. The problem with this intention, which I discovered too late, was that the Akhal-Teke is 14.3 – 15.5 hands tall, whereas the Thoroughbred that I was riding was a full 17 hands. Also, its gait was a hard, pounding run that was very harsh and jolting. MP put the large napkin in the middle of the field and pulled it up a little in the middle to make a slight tent-like shape. I then wheeled my horse, trotted to the end of the field, and the turned around and came straight down at a full gallop. As the horse neared the napkin, I went down over the right shoulder and reached down with my right arm for the napkin. I picked it up alright but realized by then that I was too far down over the side and the pounding gait of the horse was further throwing me lower and lower. And sure enough, in another two or three strides, I fell. I landed on my arm and shoulder and there was a terrible shooting pain. I tried to scramble up and found that my right arm was twisted at an unlikely angle and my shoulder had dislocated. MP and Vicky, came running. I told MP to go and catch the horse, as I didn’t fancy facing his father without his horse. I told Vicky to put his fist in my armpit and pull the arm with a jerk. That put the ball back in the socket. The arm was horribly painful but at least it was back in place. We returned the horses to the stables and then I went home.

When I reached home, I told my mother what happened, expecting her to say, “Allah mera bachcha!”, or something like that and hug and kiss me. Instead she said, “Girtay hain shah sawar hi maidan-e-jang mein. (It is only knights who fall in battle).  Go to the hospital and show it to Pappa and get some medicine for the pain.” My Mom was a very matter of fact lady.

I went to the hospital and my dad looked at the shoulder, which was swollen and red and painful like hell. He said, “This will be painful for about a week. You will never be able to do an overarm movement because there will always be the danger of it coming out again.  So be careful always. The ligaments have been permanently stretched. You could have surgery, but I don’t recommend it. Take a paracetamol and do hot fomentation. Okay. Nurse, next patient please.” My father was also a matter of fact man.

As I was leaving my Dad’s compounder, Qayyum Saab came up to me. He used to wear very strong Atr (perfume) and you could smell him long after he had passed. Qayyum Saab said to me, “Baba, agar aap chahay tho main aap ku Shalibanda ley jataon, Jarrah kay paas. Ek patti mein aap achchay ho jatay. Magar Saab ku nahin bolna nahin tho meri naukri jaati.” (If you want I can take you to the bone setter in Shalibanda and he will tie a bandage which will cure you. But please don’t tell your father or I will lose my job). He wouldn’t have lost his job of course but my father didn’t believe in any native medicine and he would have been chewed out for his pains.

I promised to keep my lips sealed and off we went, Qayyum Saab and I, by bus to Charminar and then rickshaw to Shalibanda. The Jarrah applied copious amounts of creamy, sweet smelling ointment, the ingredients of which only he knew and then tied a bandage. It was like magic. My atrociously painful shoulder stopped paining immediately. And by next morning the pain had gone.

Chiran Palace which today is KBR Park, was the private property of the Nizam and was surrounded by an 8-feet high masonry wall with a huge black wooden gate in the center. There were soldiers from the erstwhile Arab Irregulars (Chaoush) from Barkas, lackadaisically guarding the gate. The paved road ended at the Green Masjid. After that it was an unpaved dirt road, all the way to the gate and beyond it, inside to the Palace. There was no road around Chiran Palace and it was all rock and scrub bush, including a lot of Opuntia cactus, Sitaphal, Neem, Lantana and Datura. There were no buildings or habitation all the way down to what is Sanjeevareddy Nagar on one side and Towli Chowki on the other. The area was alive with Peacocks, Partridge and Quail, and Chowsinga (Four-horned) antelopes, Wild Boar, Jackals and naturally, leopard (which we call Panther). Sometimes I would walk to Chiran Palace from Sanatnagar where I lived, taking a right at Sanjeevareddy Nagar and then walking through these open lands, climbing the hill all the way to the top. I would always have my yellow Labradors, Ben and Poppins, one or both, as my companions both for company and safety. Once we reached the top, I would allow them to run around for a bit and then I would climb up on my favorite rock which overlooked the Palace wall on one side and gazed across the country to the ramparts of Golconda Fort on the other. I always took my dogs up on the rock with me as to leave them below was to invite any leopard in the area for a meal. Dog is item #1 on a leopard’s menu and Labs are simply too friendly even to put up a fight.

Ben, Poppins, Bell-bottom trousers and center parting – 1975

One of my most poignant memories is sitting on top of this rock as the sun was going down, with Ben lying beside me, looking at Bala Hisar, the topmost building on Golconda Fort. I thought to myself, “If this rock had a voice, it would say to me, ‘Hey kid! One day there was a king in that palace (Bala Hisar) who thought he owned the world. Today he has been gone a long time, while you are sitting on top of me thinking that the world runs because of you. But all men die and only rocks are eternal.” The reality is that I am still here, writing this, while that poor rock was blasted and reduced to rubble to go into the foundation of one of the houses that have come up all around Chiran Palace, like mushrooms after rain. One day, like the king in Bala Hisar, I will also die, and the real truth will be established, which is Rahay Naam Allahﷻ Ka (Only Allahﷻ’s name will remain). History is witness to so many who thought that they were powerful and eternal. That is the real irony.

One day, the day after Diwali which was a holiday, MP and I decided to take our horses and go camping. I was riding a black stallion and MP was riding a chestnut gelding. My horse was rather highly strung and as is the way with many stallions, constantly testing his will against mine. We rode from Begumpet all the way to the Green Masjid (Masjid-e-Hussaini) on Road # 3 Banjara Hills intending to go on to the gate of Chiran Palace and then ride along the wall and descend the hill to what we used to call ‘Secret lake’. Seeing it surrounded by buildings today it is clear that it is no longer a secret. This lake connects with the lake on Road # 1 near Taj Banjara hotel which used to be called the Banjara Hotel and was the first hotel on Banjara Hills and the first 5 – star hotel in Hyderabad. As MP and I rode past the masjid and stepped onto the unpaved dirt road, a small boy threw a firecracker under the hoofs of my horse. The firecracker literally exploded under the belly of my horse and he bolted. I let him run because he was scared and to try to stop him would have been fruitless. He galloped full tilt all the way to the gate and then stopped, foaming and blowing. MP caught up and we continued our ride.

As we rounded the wall and were crossing a flat granite rock on which my horse’s shoes rang like bells, a brace of partridge exploded in flight right under his nose. It was clearly not my day. My horse was already in a skittish mood with the firecracker incident. When the partridges did their act, he neighed and reared then slipped and fell on his side. I fell with him with my leg under him. By the grace of AllahY, I was wearing knee high boots with a very thick and stiff sole designed just for such accidents. The sole protected my foot from being crushed and my helmet kept my head from cracking on the rock. I kicked my feet free of the stirrups and rolled clear of the horse as he scrambled up, keeping a hold on the reins because if he had run away there, catching him would have been nearly impossible and would have put paid to our camping trip.

Once the dust settled, I realized that neither of us was any the worse for wear and we decided to go on. We reached the lake a few minutes later. The lake had a dam at one end with a small building at one end of it. The valley floor spread out all around the lake with some Acacia and Tamarind trees dotting it. We unsaddled and hobbled the horses and put on their halters with long ropes so that they could roll in the grass and graze but would not be able to run away. Then we made our camp. It was a brilliant starlit night with a three-quarter moon and not a human in sight. This was pure wilderness, peaceful and quiet with the occasional ‘chirr’ of the nightjar or the flight of an owl on silent wings floating overhead in search of the unwary mouse. We ate our sandwiches and drank the water from the lake and lived to tell the tale. The water was clean enough to drink. On a side note, today when I talk to people about parenting, I think of my parents and the parents of our friends, who didn’t think twice about allowing two teenagers to take their horses and go off camping all night in the bush. I would go off for weeks to the farm of my friend, Mr. V. Rama Reddy in Sethpalli, in the middle of the Adilabad jungles, with no communication to my parents from the minute I left home to the minute I returned, but they never prevented me from doing it. That is what built our character. We were not mollycoddled or over parented by anxious mothers and paranoid fathers. Of course, the world was also a different place.

On my beach – building a bamboo raft

My father was right of course about the overarm movement. I forgot about that at a crucial time. In the Anamallais, when I was Manager of Lower Sheikalmudi Estate, I made a ‘beach’ on the bank of an oxbow that the Sholayar River made at the bottom of our cardamom area. There was a large pool in the bend of the river and then the water flowed away down to the Parambikulam Dam. The pool was about six or seven feet deep. We, my wife and I, my dear friend Berty (Cuthbert Suares) from across the border in Tata Tea’s Malakiparai Estate, another dear friend, Sandy (Sundeep Singh) from another Tata Tea estate called Uralikkal along with whoever else of our planter friends were around, used to gather there on Sunday and spend the day swimming. At lunch time, Bastian, my butler would send down sandwiches and coffee. Selvaraj, the Supervisor for the cardamom area (I reclaimed scrub land and planted it with cardamom) would bring us fresh honey from the honeycombs in the area. I had set up beehives to help in pollination. They paid for their accommodation by giving us cardamom flavored honey. We ate it straight from the comb.

How to spend a Sunday afternoon

One day, Berty, Samina and I were down there. Berty and I were swimming. I was racing Berty and in my excitement forgot about my arm and tried a powerful crawl. Only one stroke and my arm was out. I sank. I thought I was done for. But my feet touched the bottom while the waves were gently lapping at my nostrils. Berty saw that something was amiss and raced back to me and dragged me into shallower water. Then he asked me, “Dey Dorai tell me what to do.” I told him my remedy. Put your fist in the armpit and jerk the arm outwards. He did and it was back in place. This time the pain was not so bad. The value of friends who know how to act in emergencies is immeasurable. Berty didn’t just start something. He asked me what to do. That is the best thing to do because the person who has the problem, usually knows what works. If you try your own remedy, it may cause more harm than good.

For more stories, please read my book: It’s my Life
Horses, friends & the AP Riding Club

Horses, friends & the AP Riding Club

1977-1993

Many of my best memories are associated with horses and riding. I love riding and used to be at the AP Riding Club in Hyderabad at the crack of dawn. I would make my salaams to Abdul Hameed Khan sahib, the ex-cavalry NCO who was the headman at the Club. He would return my salaam with great seriousness and say, “Aaj aap Fascination pey sawari karo.” (Today you ride Fascination). Fascination was an Indian Half-bred mare; about 15 hands. Half-breds are a breed created by the Indian Army by breeding Thoroughbred stallions with Kathiawari, Marwari or sometimes other imported mares. The result is one of the most delightful horses that I have ever ridden. Highly intelligent, about 14 or 15 hands or so; hardy, able to live off the land, slim, agile, fast, can turn on a dime and with a beautiful temperament. Ideal for trail riding, polo and used extensively by Mounted Police and the Army. Fascination was a superb example of the breed. I was training her for dressage and intended to enter her in the Gymkhana Competition. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_half-bred

When I entered the Riding Club and was allotted my horse, my day would begin with cleaning out the stable. Then I would groom Fascination going over every inch of her with the grooming brush. I would scrape the brush over the metal cleaner and knock that out on the little mud platform at the entrance of the stable until I had eight of the signature, rectangles of horse-dust in two rows. It was essential to do this correctly so that the rows were identical and absolutely straight. Then I would lead Fascination out of the stable and saddle her and walk her in a large circle around the central watering trough and then tighten the girth once again. Horses tend to expand their bellies when you first saddle them, so that the girth is loose. If you don’t tighten it, that can be lethal as in the middle of a gallop or even more, during the tight twists and turns of dressage or polo, the saddle can suddenly slide off to one side depositing you on the ground. Being deposited at full gallop can be injurious to more than your ego. The solution is to walk the horse for a bit and then tighten the girth a second time. You can do this from the ground or even if you are mounted, by taking your foot out of the stirrup, moving that leg forward and then reaching under the skirt of the saddle and tightening the girth. But doing it before you mount, is the best and safest way to do it. Once I had tightened the girth to my and Fascination’s satisfaction, I would mount and begin my ride. The normal time of the ride was 45 minutes but because of my relationship with the riding masters and because I was willing to do more, I would ride three to four horses which needed exercise. Normally the syce of the horse would exercise him but since I was more than willing, I was given this very pleasant duty.

Fascination – Schooling for dressage

Between rides, the tea boy from the Irani hotel from across the street would come with the highly sweetened, milky brew that we all knew as Irani chai. Irani hotels, as they were called, were an institution in Hyderabad all through my childhood and youth. Today thanks to high real-estate prices these cafes have almost all disappeared, having been replaced by multi-storey shopping complexes. Typically, there was a checkout counter with the owner behind it, as you entered. In the hallway, there were square wooden tables with cloudy-white marble tops and four chairs. You sat at the table and when the waiter came to you, you could order any of the following:

  1. Ek chai (one tea)
  2. One by two (one tea and one empty cup) because you intended to share it with your friend who was accompanying you.
  3. Pauna: three quarter full
  4. Khada chamcha (standing spoon), meaning that there should be enough sugar for the spoon to be able to remain standing like a flagpole without a flag.
  5. Burqay Wali (veiled lady), meaning that you wanted a thick layer of cream on top.

There were other names which I can’t seem to recall. You had the option of having the tea served with a snack; Osmani biscuit, tie biscuit, bun-maska, samosa and lukmi. Bun-maska was a round bun, sliced in half, spread with white unsalted butter and sprinkled with sugar. Absolutely delicious. In the days I am talking about the tea cost all of 25 paisa.

I used to order four teas, for me, Hameed Saab, Sayeed Khan Saab, the boy who brought the tea and myself. We didn’t order anything else as those were the days with a lot of grace but not much money. Today when I see the world with far more money and almost no grace, I think very nostalgically about my days of ‘poverty’. The tea was half-time in my ride. After the tea I would get onto the next horse and finish with the fourth one. I groomed only the first one for the day. All the others where done by their syces and would be brought to me. However, I always insisted on checking the girth myself, much to the approval of Hameed Khan Saab who would nod with approval.

The entire grooming process took anything from 30-45 minutes and the work was smelly and sweaty. There were grooms who were paid to do what I was paying to do, but for me this was character building. What was I learning? That I was responsible for my charge. That my own welfare depended on how well I looked after him; that if I hadn’t tightened the girth or failed to pass my hand under the saddle blanket to smooth the hair in the natural direction and the horse got a saddle sore, then I could not ride until he was well again; that if I did not check the soundness of the tack and the stirrup leather broke and I fell off, guess whose fault it would be? That how my horse, the saddlery, and even the stable looked, was not a reflection on the horse or the stable, it was a reflection on me as the rider. If I rode the animal, his welfare was my responsibility. He depended on me and you never let down those who depend on you. My horse and how he was cared for was my signature.

Once my ride was over, my job continued. I would dismount and lead the horse into the stable to unsaddle him and rub him down. I would let him cool down and take him to the water trough to drink, ensuring that he didn’t drink too much as that would give him colic. Then I would lead him back to the stable and put fresh hay on the floor and his feed in his feeding trough. Finally, I would wipe down and hang up the saddle on its tree and bit and bridle on its hook. Only then would I be free to leave. Riding taught me many lessons in life; not the least important one being responsibility.

The horse itself is also an amazing teacher. Horses have an uncanny knack of sensing weakness in the rider and using it to their advantage. They sense the hand on the reins and behave accordingly. They respect strength and kindness and take advantage of weakness. They will punish cruelty and are very loyal to those who take care of them. A horse is a very intelligent animal and a great judge of character. That’s why the bond between a horse and his rider is a bond of affection born out of mutual respect. A horse is not always forgiving and blindly loyal like a dog. A horse tests you first and then decides to be your friend only if you measure up. With a horse the relationship is one of equal partnership, not of master and servant. However, to learn all these lessons one must ride the way I have described. If you ride the way rich youngsters do nowadays – the groom does all the work and stands there holding the horse, the kid mounts up, rides, dismounts and walks away – you learn nothing. The horse is not a motorcycle that you can mount and ride and then park and switch off.

In those days we learnt social skills early. I guess we still do. And those who did not know the rites of passage would hit a stone wall, the bewildered expressions on their faces bearing mute testimony to their ignorance of the ropes. A surprisingly simple system but to some, an enigma.

One of those bewildered ones was a man who was later to become the latter-day ‘Nizam’ of Hyderabad (he became Chief Minister); the then not too well-known Telugu film actor NT Rama Rao (NTR). The first time I saw him at the riding club was in strawberry pink pants and a rose-colored shirt with a white Stetson on his head. He, poor man, just walked in, brandished his ticket, and demanded a horse. Ustad Havaldar Abdul Hameed Khan (AHK), a tall lanky, taciturn man with a huge hook of a nose, dressed in khaki jodhpurs, cotton sweater, and beret, looked him up and down in silence. Then in his best parade ground voice he roared, “Yeh Phulsungni ku ghodi lau re ma ke lauday.” Duly with much ceremony the worst nag in the stables was trotted out. Quite understandably, the horse took exception to NTR’s clothing and started doing the backward circle dance. Horses do this when they don’t approve of your dressing, to let you know that they don’t want to associate with you. However, when Ustad AHK reminded him of his ancestry in the most colorful terms, he stood still and NTR mounted. After he had ridden for the shortest 45 minutes that I have ever seen and was led to the stable to dismount, he looked at the beautiful Indian half-bred mare that I was riding and asked Ustad AHK why he didn’t get her. “Hau, hau ek din tumare ku bi deyinge,” (Yes, yes, one day you will also get to ride her) was the reply. Then he turned to me and snorted, “Thailay kay waisi sawari hai aur yeh ghodi chalata katay” (He rides like a bag of potatoes and wants to ride this mare, huh). Little did he and I know that this man would one day sit on the “throne,” as the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh. Sad to say that the AP Riding Club is no more. Neither are our Ustads AHK and Sayeed Khan.

Gear was important. You had to be wearing khaki jodhpurs, white shirt, hard hat, leather knee boots polished to a high shine, and a leather belt to be able to get some ‘respect’ in those days. In winters or on formal occasions you also wore a navy blazer with a single split at the back. You carried a whip (riding crop really), but you almost never used it. Jeans, or god forbid, ordinary trousers were not acceptable, and neither were ordinary shoes. The only exception was Mr. Raza Ali Khan who used to wear leather chaps over his jeans. It was less about dress than about etiquette, form, and discipline. Tambaswamy, the Club cobbler/saddler was the man to go to, who would measure you for boots and make them. Today talking about handmade riding boots seems unreal and only for the super-rich. In Hyderabad of those days, that was the most economical option.

‘Horse riding’ was a bit of a misnomer really and it should have been called character building. Our Ustaads didn’t just teach us riding. They taught us character, manners, discipline, commitment, and responsibility. They didn’t achieve this by ordering us around. After all, they were instructors in the Riding Club. And we were not troops under their command, so they had no real authority over us. However, they offered us opportunities, most of the time unspoken, but clearly what resulted thereafter was the result of the choices we made. It was their way of influencing without authority – one of the most important lessons I learnt in my life. A lesson that has continued to yield results, working across cultures and nationalities both in the corporate world and later as a consultant and teacher. Naturally, they had no idea all this would happen. But I would be a gross ingrate if I didn’t acknowledge their contribution, albeit unconscious.

The AP Riding Club was a place where most of the venerable Hyderabadi aristocracy gathered to ride, drink tea and just meet each other for a chat before going home for breakfast. On one occasion one of the most famous of them, Brig. Tawfeeq had finished riding and was sitting in a garden chair having tea. I greeted him and he invited me to sit with him. He told me a wonderful story. He said, “There was a beautiful Arabian stallion that belonged to the Aga Khan which had a problem that his neck was very stiff. That meant that he was almost impossible to handle as no matter what kind of bit you put on him; snaffle or Pelham or anything else; he would take it in his teeth and bolt. He was uncontrollable. They tried all kinds of potions, rubs and medicines to get the horse to bend its neck, all to no avail. His neck was like iron and he wouldn’t bend it. It got to the point that the Aga Khan was contemplating putting him down. That is when I learned about it and requested the Aga Khan to let me try my hand at it. I did and it worked. In about a month, the horse was bending his neck and in two months, I was riding him on a snaffle.” I asked him, “How did you do this?” He said, “Very simple. I called for a fresh bunch of Lucerne and tied it below his chin, high up on his neck. This was done every morning and left on all day. The horse went crazy with the smell of fresh Lucerne but couldn’t get to it as it was right under his chin. All day and night he kept trying to get to the Lucerne by bending his neck as much as he could. This went on day after day and in a month his neck was supple and flexible.” I was amazed at the simplicity of the solution. The lesson has remained with me all my life – that the best solutions are the simplest.

Final story before I sign off here. It was the day of the Gymkhana Mounted Sports. This was the annual mounted sports event that was held on the Parade Ground in Secundrabad. It was sponsored by the Artillery Center where the GOC (General Officer Commanding), was General Kuldip Singh Bajwa. A most gracious and generous man who was the life and soul behind polo and mounted sports in Hyderabad. For us, youngsters, this was a very big day where all those of us who rode could show off our skills while our poor less fortunate friends (according to us) who didn’t ride watched us in amazement and envy. The Parade Ground would be decked up with a three-tiered stand made along one side with a shaded pavilion in the middle where the VIPs and their ladies would sit. The rest of the spectators sat on the steps of the stand. At one end was the commentator’s box. The commentator was Nawab Habib Jung; a better commentator than him, I have not seen. His fluency in English, a clipped British accent and his extensive knowledge of horseflesh and mounted sports and polo all came to the fore in his commentary. It was a delight just to listen to him.

Typically, the program was as follows:

After the inauguration and welcome and the national anthem played by the Army Band, there would be an exhibition polo match played between the Army and civilian AP Riding Club Teams. The Army team was mostly comprised of the 61st Cavalry and some officers from the Artillery Center with General Kuldip Singh Bajwa as its Captain. One of the names from those days that I recall is Arjuna Awardee Colonel RS ‘Pickles’ Sodhi, of the 61st Cavalry, who was a Major at that time. The AP Riding Club team had my friends, Siraj Attari, Shahzad Abbas, Raza Ali Khan, Ghulam Hyder and we younger ones on the side. Nawab Habib Jung was the team captain. It was in this match that Habib Jung took a shot at full gallop and as the ball soared in the air aimed at the goal, a pigeon flew in its way and was knocked dead by the ball. The ball lost its momentum and didn’t make the goal but the case of the pigeon being ‘shot down’ by the ball was so unique that nobody bothered about the goal. Nawab Habib Jung collected his ‘trophy’ the dead pigeon and had it mounted on a polo ball.

After the match would be the Mounted Sports with all kinds of imaginative races, like musical chairs, potato race, tent pegging and vaulting. On that day, we were competing in the Potato Race. This consisted of a bucket with 5 potatoes at one end of a track and an empty bucket at the other. The race started at the empty-bucket end. You galloped to the potato bucket, dismounted, picked up a potato, mounted and galloped to the empty bucket and dropped the potato in it. If the potato fell out, you had to dismount again and put it in the bucket. Whoever managed to complete the task first, won the race. The main thing was to be able to get on and off a horse fast. I used to ensure that I rode a Kathiawari or Marwari horse or a smaller Half-bred i.e a horse that was not more than 14 hands or so, tall. To ride a 17 hand Thoroughbred would have put you at a serious disadvantage unless you could fly. I would push the stirrups up under the skirt of the saddle and then simply leap off and on using the pommel of the saddle as my pivot. That was not quite a vault but close. Using the stirrups to mount and dismount was simply too slow, and horses were excited with all the racing and would dance around and delay you even more. The best option was to leap on and off.

We started off well enough. Then when we were on the third potato, one of my dear friends, who was riding neck to neck with me, suddenly fell off his horse and it ran away. I reined in my horse and leapt off to help him up. Friends were more important than races. Syces had already caught his runaway horse, and the race was over for us, so we walked to the stables. I asked him, ‘Kya hua Baap? Kaisa gir gaya?’ (What happened? How did you fall off?). He said to me, ‘Kuch nahin. Main ghoda ruk gaya samajh kay utar gaya.’ (Nothing. I thought the horse had stopped and dismounted). Well, he thought that in the middle of a gallop with predictable results. My question to this day is how someone riding a horse at full gallop can think that it had stopped? Simple pleasures, good friends, time for everyone, lots of outdoors. Those were good times.

The event ended with high tea; a truly sumptuous affair with an extensive menu and we all went home, replete, tired and content. As my friend Berty used to say, ‘Fully fed-up and fulfilled.’

For more stories, please read my book: It’s my Life
Grass Hills

Grass Hills

Yawar on the rocks – resting on the way to the Grass Hills hut

The Anamallai Hills are a ridge that is between three thousand five hundred to six thousand feet high and goes like the backbone of an elephant right down the Western side of India to the tip of the subcontinent. Even though it is not called by this name all along this journey and the name changes to High Range in Munnar and then other names, but it is the same range of mountains…all a part of the Western Ghats.

From Valparai Taluk, where the tea plantations of the Anamallais are and where I lived, there is a clear section of the ridge that goes all the way to Munnar in Kerala. These are the famous Grass Hills.

They are called Grass Hills because the hilltops are covered with tough tussocky grass which looks like a beautiful lawn from a distance but is very tough to walk through.  The land is very acidic and unable to grow anything else. The local Forest Department in its usual ham-handed way decided in the early 80’s to plant Eucalyptus trees and convert the Grass Hills into money making machines. Nobody of course thought to ask the most logical question, “Why is it that if this land could grow trees, there is not a single tree to be seen?” But many millions of rupees and many thousands of man-hours later they learnt the lesson the hard way that these hills will grow nothing but the grass that’s on them. In the grass are also some other small shrubs that are resistant to the wind and cold of the hilltops, which once in a year put forth the most beautiful flowers. I am not enough of a botanist to know all the names, but one of these flowers is famous and gives its name to the hills.

I quote from a website dedicated to the flower: http://kurinji.in/kurinji.html

Neelakurinji (Strobilanthes kunthiana) is a shrub that used to grow abundantly in the shola grasslands of Western Ghats in India. The Nilgiris, which literally means the blue mountains, got its name from the purplish blue flowers of Neelakurinji that blossoms gregariously once in 12 years. Once they used to cover the entire Nilgiris like a carpet during its flowering season. However, now plantations and dwellings occupy much of their habitat. Neelakurinji is the best known of a genus whose members have flowering cycles ranging from one to 16 years. It belongs to the family of Acanthaceae. The genus has more than 500 species, of which at least 56 occur in India. Besides the Western Ghats, Neelakurinji is seen in the Shevroys in the Eastern Ghats.

It occurs at an altitude of 1300 to 2400 metres. The plant is usually 30 to 60 centimeters high on the hills. They can, however, grow well beyond 180 cm under congenial conditions at lower elevations. Plants that bloom at long intervals like Kurinji are called Plietesials.

The valleys are thickly forested often with little streams and waterfalls in them. These are called ‘Shola’ forests in Tamil. The Shola vegetation is peculiar to this habitat and is not found lower down. The trees have thick gnarled trunks, leathery leaves and grow densely together. This means that below them there is no undergrowth and that creates a microclimate that is very cool, even cold. The streams flowing in the Sholas add moisture and this encourages the growth of moss, lichens and orchids and in the higher reaches, Rhododendrons. Philodendrons of many kinds are found in plenty, using the tree trunks to pull themselves upwards in the never-ending struggle for light.

Grey Jungle Fowl – grandfather of all chickens

Walking under the trees in the Shola forests is an experience that is impossible to describe but which once lived is never forgotten. Your footing is very uneven and slippery and so you must walk carefully. The ground is soft and damp and usually inclined, so you have one foot higher than the other as you walk. Not very conducive to long walks. But as you walk, suddenly you hear a rustle and a loud cackle and you see the fast disappearing tail feathers of a Jungle Cock and his harem, who were busily feeding on seeds and insects until you disturbed their breakfast. At this altitude in South India, it is the Grey Jungle Fowl that you will see. This is literally the grandfather of all chickens, as all chicken species are supposed to have descended from this one. The females, as in the case of many birds, are a plain brown, their beauty lying only in the eyes of the beholding roosters. However, the males are flamboyant (takes more to attract a woman, I guess) with literally fluorescent, scintillating colored feathers, especially on the neck, which we call the hackle. These feathers shine and change color depending on the angle of the sunlight. The head is topped by a blood-red comb and the tail is a flowing graceful postscript to the whole story of the Grey Jungle Fowl. Just to see them move is a joy. Having extolled their virtues, let me add that they are very good eating, though a lot more gamey than farmed free-range chickens. The hackle makes extremely good flies for fly fishing and a couple of hackle feathers in a hat look very attractive indeed. However, farm chickens are easier to get, and the hackle looks far nicer on the neck of the rooster, so leave them alone and shoot only with your camera.

Malabar Whistling Thrush – Whistling Schoolboy bird

Another delightful inhabitant of the Shola forests is the Malabar Whistling Thrush – also called the Whistling Schoolboy bird. It is a gorgeous blue-black bird, slightly larger than a Myna and whistles just like we do. It is most vocal in the early mornings and late evenings and is an absolute delight to listen to. There was a pair that used to nest in a thick vine of Golden Showers which overhung the veranda roof of my bungalow on Lower Sheikalmudi Estate, and it was wonderful to open your eyes every morning to the whistling of the beautiful bird. Grass Hill Shola forests has more than their fair share of these birds and to listen to them is a delight.

Snakes are around, especially at the lower elevations, so keeping an eye open and wearing leather walking shoes is a good idea. In the stream of light that is let in because of the death of one of the trees, you will find lush growth of grass, other vegetation, and sometimes an explosion of flowers. These sunny patches are also the ideal places to look for the Muntjac antelope, also called Barking Deer. Its alarm call sounds like the bark of a dog, thus the name. When a Barking Deer is calling, almost always it means that he is looking at a leopard or tiger on the prowl and is warning all those who can understand the call to be on their guard. The Sambar is a more reliable sentinel for this warning, but the Muntjac is not too bad either. It’s only that the Muntjac is skittish and sometimes calls even when he is imagining one of the major predators.

Hunting leopard

The Shola forests of Grass Hills are ideal habitat for both predator and prey species. The forests impartially shelter leopards, tigers, wild boar, Muntjac, and Sambar. The thick shade hides the hunters and helps the hunted to escape. Depending of course on who sees whom first. Grass Hills and that entire ridge is also home to the Nilgiri Tahr (mistakenly called Ibex). These mountain goats live on the rocks walking up and jumping down from one invisible fold in the rock to another sometimes to get away from predators but often just for the fun of it. Their main predator is the leopard and they retreat to inaccessible vertical ridges in the night to rest in relative safety. The Grass Hills are also home to elephants and it is amazing to see how these huge animals negotiate steep ridges. First, they follow the easiest gradients as they go to the top. Many a savvy road engineer in these parts has simply widened an old elephant track to convert it into a motorable road, saving himself some arduous surveying. Then when they reach the top and must actually negotiate the ridge, they walk in single file, each holding the tail of the one before it. And as they climb over the ridge, the one behind gives the one ahead a push if he needs it. On the way down they do it more simply – they sit down, keep their forelegs extended before them to act as speed breakers, and toboggan down the slope on their behinds.

Nilgiri Thar watching warily

As you climb up from Akkamalai Estate in the Anamallais after walking about 14 kilometers you eventually come upon a substantial stream. In the 70’s and 80’s it used to be stocked with Brown Trout. Usually some enthusiastic planters from nearby estates (Mr. Basith Khan of Tea Estates India was one) would ensure that the check dams were regularly repaired so that the level of water in the stream did not fall too low. The check dams and the little pools they created became good drinking places for Gaur, Sambar, and elephant. While Sambar did not do any damage to the dam, Gaur and elephant sometimes inadvertently broke the dam and the water would drain away. This was disastrous for the fish, which would either be stranded or in the case of the young fry, would become easy prey for the many Kingfishers in the area. So, these dams had to be regularly maintained. Given that maintenance, the Grass Hills stream provided some excellent fly fishing in an ambience that simply can’t be equaled. Where else in the world could you imagine being able to watch a herd of elephants or a lone Sambar while you were standing on the bank of the stream casting your fly? I won’t talk about what the sight does to your casting because that is something that you must experience.

The APA (Anamallai Planter’s Association) had built a cottage on the bank of the stream, called the Grass Hills Hut. It was a substantial two-bedroom cottage with a small veranda and an elephant trench all around. There was a flimsy bridge made of planks that you had to walk across to get inside. This was essential because without it, elephants would try to re-engineer the hut; something which they did manage to do on a couple of occasions. It then fell into disuse and later the Forest Department took it over and has now constructed a big concrete structure in its place at a huge cost, totally incongruous and sticking out like a sore thumb.  

I used to go to Grass Hills as often as I could with my two companions, the Raman brothers. They were cousins and had the same name. We would leave my motorcycle in the garage of the Assistant Manager of Akkamalai Estate – it didn’t matter if you knew the person or not. It was our code of hospitality that at such places your house was open to anyone who needed help. If someone wanted to park a car or motorcycle or needed some petrol or a cup of tea, he only had to ask, and it was all provided with a smile. The Raman brothers and I would start walking up. The distance to the APA Hut is about fourteen kilometers. If you don’t take the road and instead walk up the hillside it is a couple of kilometers shorter, but you need a lot of stamina for the climb. The climb is steep, the elevation (six thousand feet) takes its toll especially if you are not used to it – as I discovered when I went to the Grass Hills in 2007 after a gap of twenty years. The footing is very rough and uncertain as the tough tussocky grass grows in clumps and you must find your way between clumps. If it has been raining, then almost every single blade of grass will have a leech or two on it and you are more than likely to be viewed as manna from heaven by them. But if you can overcome the effort and the bloodshed then you are rewarded with some of the most spectacular views that you could ever imagine. The road is simpler and easier but like all simpler and easier tasks, less rewarding.

Grass Hills, Raman & Raman and I, 1987

On one occasion the Raman brothers and I decided to walk up to a high ridge, which has some caves. When we eventually reached there, we discovered that there was a whole field of marijuana being cultivated in the valley behind the ridge and the cave was the living quarters of the farmers. In the middle was the cooking fire with their bedding stacked neatly in the corners. In one corner there were wires to make snares for small game. Come to think of it, it was a very nice place to live with spectacular views, a stream of clear, cold water to drink from, a waterfall of ice cold water to shower under if you like that kind of thing, dry and warm accommodation, fresh meat, and safety from the long arm of the law. And if the arm did get extended this far, it was sent away with a handful of money. The occupants of the cave were not present when we reached there, which was probably a good thing for us. Such people tend to take a different view of guests.

We descended the ridge and made our way to the APA Hut. There the Raman brothers got busy with cooking our evening meal, the makings of which we had carried with us while I went downstream with my rod to catch a fish or two for the pot. To my disappointment, the check-dams had been broken by elephants and the pools had been drained and so there were no fish to catch except some very small fingerlings which were not worth the effort. But that didn’t detract from the wonderful view of the sun going down behind the high ridge leaving behind an orange glow long after it had disappeared. I sat there until Raman the Elder came to call me. We ate our meal together and I got into my sleeping bag while the Ramans had their last smoke for the day before turning in. There was no need for a watch as we were surrounded by a trench around the hut. There is no danger in sleeping in the wild except from men with evil intentions.

The Grass Hills hut

Grass Hills is very cold at night, so a good sleeping bag is essential. It is a very rare pleasure to be able to lie in your sleeping bag and listen to the sound of silence, broken occasionally by the call of the hunter or the unlucky hunted as it ends its life. There is the hooting of the owl and the occasional moan of the tiger. But for the most part, the night at that elevation is silent. As the sky lightens, the precursor of dawn, I hear stirring in the kitchen where the Ramans made their bed. Social barriers (I was the manager) remain despite my every attempt at destroying them. But the fact that I don’t practice them gets me loyalty that transcends time.

When I visited the Anamallais in 2007, one of the things I did was to revisit Grass Hills with my friends, the Ramans. They were as eager to go there again as I was. This time we didn’t spend a night in the hut, but we did the walk up the hill, a source of great satisfaction and achievement for us all that we were still able to do it, despite being twenty years older. Almost nothing has changed in Grass Hills, mainly because the road is unmotorable and people are too lazy to do the climb. So, it remains relatively untouched. We did see a dozen forest guards with backpacks walking back from the Forest Department Cottage, which is what the APA Hut has been transformed into. What they are doing there in those numbers, I have no clue. But I hope it is something for the preservation of that wonderful habitat.

For more stories, please read my book: It’s my Life
Every choice has a price tag

Every choice has a price tag

Lower Sheikalmudi like most estates had fallen victim to a custom that had been set up by the British planters; that of worker’s vegetable gardens. The original idea was to informally give some land to estate workers so that they could grow some vegetables to supplement their diet. In those days, transporting fresh vegetables from the plains was not a feasible option and so these vegetable gardens had been cultivated for decades.

As time passed these gardens gradually grew in size and encroached on the tea. The people who grew the gardens were few and what they grew started becoming more for sale than for personal consumption. Also, since vegetables also need fertilizer and pesticides, these started to be pinched from the estate supplies. When I became the manager of Lower Sheikalmudi Estate, I made a quick survey of the vegetable gardens and discovered that there were close to fifty acres of gardens, give or take a few. I decided that the time had come to start reclaiming the gardens and planting them up with tea.

I chose the lean season for this and called meetings with the unions and the garden owners. I told the unions that I was not claiming the gardens for my personal use. I was claiming them to plant tea, which when it came into bearing would mean additional employment for their members. At present the garden was providing an income to a few individuals. The tea, when it was mature in four years, would provide employment to more than a hundred people. I asked the unions to support my effort and to persuade the owners of the gardens to return the land to the estate. I told the garden owners that they had enjoyed the fruits of the gardens for so many years, rent free. Now I was asking them to return the gardens to the real owner, which was the estate. Consequently, they would be creating employment for their own children.

By sheer hands-on practice in this and other similar events in my life, I learnt some very valuable lessons in negotiation and influencing without formal authority. The key learning was that in order to get anyone to do anything, or change their ways, especially where it involved them contributing something, be it time, money or anything else, it was essential to be able to show them how they would personally benefit from this change. It is not a matter of some clever talk or pulling the wool over their eyes. Firstly, people see through all such subterfuges quite easily, and even if they don’t in the beginning, they quickly wise up to it as events unfold and then you lose all credibility and moral authority. You need to really be able to see the value in your own proposition and to be able to show it to the people whose cooperation you need. In the vegetable gardens case, the issue was important to me as it would give me positive points with the company management, but it was not a serious enough issue from the management’s point of view (after all it had been going on for more than sixty years without anyone bothering too much about it) to make it worth a fight. So if the workers decided to seriously protest, and especially if it resulted in any work stoppage or labor unrest, it was highly doubtful that I would get top management support or thanks for raising up an issue which they did not see as important enough. It was a tricky situation for me – I needed the workers to give up their gardens and to support me in taking them over without much of a company backing. Seemed like a crazy proposition and some of my friends warned me that it was crazy and that I was unnecessarily putting my job on the line. I have always taken high risks and it was the excitement of challenge that motivated me.

The challenge was to get them to see how they would all benefit in the long term as a collective if a few of them agreed to give up the gardens to the estate to be planted with tea. Once again, my knowledge of the local language (Tamil) and culture (which one can never understand unless one learns the language) came to my aid. Also, the psychology of involving people in their own decision making. I needed not only to persuade the garden owners but the rest of the population that this was good for everyone. That way, there would be moral pressure on the garden owners from their own people, which would be very hard for them to resist. The benefit of additional employment was real, and they all understood it. The issue was to persuade them to do something today to get the benefit four to five years later.

I called a meeting of the Works Committee (Union Leaders) and some of the elders among the workers who were not WC members, but were respected in the community. I spoke to them about what I was planning to do and why. I showed them how by a few of them giving up the vegetable gardens they would enable the perennial employment of future generations. I showed them how by doing this, their names would be immortalized as those who sacrificed their own personal gain for the benefit of the community of workers. I also gently pointed out that over all the years that they had been using the produce of the gardens, the company had not charged them any rent nor interfered with them in any way (actually, these were our legal weaknesses, but I projected them as favors on them by previous managers). Now was the time when they must pay their dues, not to me or to the company, but to their own brethren, by cooperating with us and planting tea instead of vegetables. It took a few meetings over about two weeks or so, but in the end they all agreed, and we took over the gardens and started planting tea.

The exception was one garden which was about five acres in size and was cultivated by a man called Doraisamy, who was not on the estate rolls. The man was an ex-employee of the estate and an ex-serviceman. He was about my height, heavier, and extremely muscular, the result of working hard in the garden. The garden was beautifully terraced and cultivated and planted with pineapple. It had a thick thorn fence all around to keep out Wild Boar that would have destroyed the entire garden in one night if they could get access to it. Doraisamy had a small hut in the middle of the garden where he lived by himself.

When we decided to take back the garden, I called Doraisamy and asked him to hand over the garden to the estate, he refused. I told him that we would have to evict him if he did not give up the land voluntarily. He challenged us to try. There was much whispering going on in the estate bazar in the evening, which was regularly reported to me. I sent some people to talk to Doraisamy privately, but the man refused to budge. I offered him a job as a forest watcher, which would have suited him ideally and given him a steady income. No change. He insisted that he would cultivate the garden and that nobody could move him. Prestige issues become symbolic and then morph into more complex challenges to authority. I was aware of this and decided that there was no alternative but to call his bluff. So, one morning I took twenty workers to the site and ordered them to remove the fence. As the workers started to take out some of the thorny branches, Doraisamy rushed out of his hut with a loud yell and came at the workers. He had a huge chopping knife in his hand. The workers all ran back as a body. Doraisamy came to the gate of the garden and after describing the ancestry of the people who had come to take down his garden fence in very imaginative language, said, “Let me see who is man enough to step inside here. I will chop off his leg.”

There are critical incidents when as a leader you must take a call. At that moment you are alone. You believe in the depths of your heart that you can succeed. You know in your gut the real challenge that you must face. You are afraid, but you don’t show it. You take the first step forward and then you stand aside and watch yourself. For the rest is already written. And it is waiting for you to take the first step, so that the script for the right scene can be played out. Once you take the first step, doors open from undiscovered places. Once you take the first step, angels descend and walk with you and turn aside the hand that rises to strike you. And AllahY puts love and respect in hearts where once resided fear, anger, and hatred. All this, however, depends on the first step. For that one instance, you are alone and all of creation is waiting to see what you will do. It is the choice you make that decides what the consequences will be. We are free to choose. But no choice is free. Every choice has a price tag.

It takes far longer to narrate this tale than the time it took for it to happen. All that I am telling you probably happened in less than five minutes. And of that, the first part during which I took the crucial steps, took not more than a few seconds. The ‘decision’ was not as cognitive as it may sound as you read this. It was instinctive and inspired, more than thought-out. Who knows, but maybe in such situations, the only way to act right is to simply act; not think too long. It is when one thinks too long that logic takes the place of passion. Then the brain rules the heart. And the moment is lost to false concerns of safe harbor. This is where the rubber meets the road and you either walk your talk or fail.

The objective of life is to achieve that which you did not know you could. To scale heights that leave you breathless with fear until you realize that it is excitement and not fear at all. Excitement is fear that anticipates a happy ending. Short breath, dry mouth, alive senses, and joy. The objective is to see how much more you can achieve. And you never can tell that unless you try to do that which you have never done before. Safety is only one of the considerations in the strategy to achieve that. Never the objective. As they say, ‘Ships are safest in the harbor. But ships are not made to remain in the harbor.’ To live is not simply to draw breath.

I saw myself looking at the people around me. They were all standing in a bunch, crowded together, watching to see what I would do. My Field Officer, Mr. Govindraj was standing a little behind me, also watching to see what I would do. Mr. Jeyapaul, the Field Officer of Lower Division, was also there, as was Suresh Menon, my Assistant Manager. I was standing on top of a small rock. I looked straight ahead and saw Doraisamy standing in the doorway of his garden with the chopper in his hand. Strangely, my heart was with the man. I was amazed at myself. Here I was facing a man who was threatening to chop off my leg and I felt what he was feeling. He saw me as someone who was bent on destroying his life’s work. He had put untold hours into this garden. He had cleared the land, fenced it cutting thorn bush from the forest, in the process donating his blood to the millions of leeches and the thorns themselves. He had then cut terraces to hold the plants. He had planted pineapples and tapioca and tended them. He had guarded them in the bitterly cold, dark nights against the depredations of gaur, elephant and wild boar, sitting awake sometimes all night, shouting and beating an empty tin can to chase them away. He had seen his plants grow and as a planter, I knew exactly what the emotional attachment is to something that you plant with your own hands and nurture with your sweat and love. Anyone who has never planted a garden can never understand what was going on in the mind and heart of that man. He could and would have killed, if he needed to, to save his garden. And I was the man who was his principal target.

With hindsight, I know that if I did not understand him and feel for him, I would never have taken that fateful step and would have probably left the place, never to return. For such incidents are never repeated. They happen once and they set the boundary. It is only with love that one can deal with the worst conflicts. In order to resolve a conflict in your favor and be able to show the opponent the benefit that he will get by accepting your position, paradoxically, you must love your enemy. You must love him, feel for him, and understand him.

It is very much like hunting. The best hunter is the one who loves his quarry. You kill the animal, but not because you hate him. You kill him in a test of skill where you come out on top. It is true that you have a sophisticated weapon. But he has instincts honed over centuries of selective breeding and developed to an extent where they are almost magical in their power to keep him safe from harm. He has endurance and knowledge of his surroundings that the hunter can never match. And most of all, he has the supreme motivation of saving his own life. Yet you as the hunter must beat him at his own game. And that takes some doing. But the central theme in it all is to love the quarry. On occasion, after tracking down the quarry and seeing it fully in the sights of my rifle, I have lowered the weapon and watched it go away. The satisfaction far more than in squeezing the trigger. For in giving life there is always more joy than in taking it.

To come back to my story, I understood and empathized with Doraisamy. Yet I had my goal to achieve and I knew that there would be no second chance. This was no longer about Doraisamy or his garden. This had escalated into a trial of strength, which would define me and my power as a Manager. If I lost this, I may as well leave my job for it would destroy my authority in a place where moral authority and the aura that went with the position was the main resource in making you effective. Without that you were another person like anyone else and that spelt doom. People obeyed you because disobedience was not an option. If it ever did become an option, then you may as well leave because there was no way that you could govern hundreds of people by force. You governed them because they considered you worthy of obedience and loved and respected you enough not to think of rebelling. You needed to be fair, compassionate and kind, but above all, strong. Kindness coming from a position of strength is respected; from a position of weakness it is not seen as kindness at all but helplessness to be taken advantage of.

I stepped off the rock.

I walked straight towards Doraisamy. Behind me, I heard the voice of Mr. Govindraj telling me to stop and not to go near him. Suresh made to accompany me. I signaled them to stay where they were. This was about me, personally. Not about anyone else. I heard all the men standing around Govindraj murmuring. I noticed nobody. My eyes were fixed on Doraisamy in the doorway. I walked straight towards him. I was unarmed. I was smaller than he was and much younger. I stepped inside the doorway and stopped literally a few centimeters from him. I looked straight into his eyes and said, “Okay, chop off my leg.” For a few moments he held my gaze. Then his eyes dropped. I knew in that instant that I had won. The critical incident was past. The danger was no more.

“I did not mean to say that to you,” he said. I extended my hand and said, “Doraisamy, give me that chopper.” He handed it to me without a murmur. I said to him, “Were you really going to kill me?” He looked down and said, “No Dorai. I was not going to kill you or anyone.”

I then looked at his hut and said, “So Doraisamy are you not going to invite me into your house?” Immediately the rural spirit of hospitality kicked in and he said, “Of course. It is your home. Please come in.” I bent down and went in through the low doorway, having first handed him his chopper. Also deliberately putting yourself in his power and turning your back to him only demonstrates your own psychological superiority. If you have judged the situation right, you are not in the slightest danger. But by handing the weapon to the man, you are asserting the fact that you trust him. He then becomes honor bound not to harm you, even though you are now physically in his power. It is very essential to ensure that you allow a person in such a situation to save face. That enables him to back off with honor and defuses tension. Only a fool shuts all escape routes for the opponent because when cornered even a rat will fight to the death. Only a fool looks for a fight. In the words of Sun Tzu, ‘Build for your enemy a bridge of gold to retreat over.’ My purpose was not to humiliate Doraisamy. It was to get him to give up the land he had been illegally occupying with the least amount of fuss. To enable him to do that honorably without feeling insulted or losing face in the community, was the best way.

The inside of the hut was very neat and clean. The floor had been sprinkled with a mixture of cow urine and dung and then swept clean and tamped down. That makes it hard and dust free and completely odorless. A traditional method of maintaining floors in the villages. There was a cot with a rope mesh with a blanket on it. There were some pots and pans neatly placed in one corner with a small stove near them. He asked me, “Will Dorai have some tea?” I said, “Of course.” Then as he made the tea, I told him, “Doraisamy, look, you have a beautiful garden here. You are a very skillful gardener and a very hard-working man. I appreciate your work and hate to take it away from you, but what can I do? Your land is the only one left. You took the fruit from this for so many years. Now with this land going back to the estate, you will lose that income. I will employ you as a forest guard, which is a position I need to fill. That will give you a regular income and the work is far easier than this. And when we finish planting the tea your children will pluck it. What do you say?”

He said, “Dorai, you are the owner. Do whatever you like.” I felt sad that I was taking away this land but was very happy that it ended as easily and smoothly as it did. We removed the fence and then eventually we planted tea in all the lands that we had reclaimed, adding almost fifty acres of planted area to the estate. I look on these areas with great pride and satisfaction because it is not everyone who has a chance to plant large acreages of tea in today’s times in South India.

Baig Dorai Thotam

The closing of this loop was when I returned to Lower Sheikalmudi Estate in 2007, twenty years after this incident and was delighted at how beautifully the tea that I had planted had come up. As I stood there looking at the tea, Raman, my guide told me, “Dorai, they call this Baig Dorai Thotam (Baig Dorai’s Garden). When the workers come here to pluck tea, they first take your name. Till the day this tea is here, your name will not be forgotten.”

In this whole incident the one thing that is not logically explainable but an essential part of leadership, is the willingness to trust your inner voice. When you do that you enter a state of grace. It is a state where you do things that you did not know were possible. You will find yourself saying things that you were not aware that you knew. You will find your mind working at a heightened state of awareness. You will feel more alive and full of energy than you ever did before.

Another big learning for me was the importance of actively participating in the action. I spoke to Mr. Jeyapaul on January 4, 2008, more than twenty years after the incident. I mentioned to him that I had visited the Anamallais the previous month and was very happy to see that people still remembered me. He said to me, “Sir, how can they forget? To this day they talk of how you faced Doraisamy and then when he backed down, you did not insult him, but went into his hut and drank tea with him.”

Suresh and I

What struck me was the quality of my own memory of this incident, which to this day is uplifting for me. For Mr. Jeyapaul, even though it is an important enough memory for him to remember it twenty years later, obviously the quality of it is different. So even though we were both (and many others) present on the occasion, the impact of what happened to each of us is in direct proportion to our own active participation in the events. To give people like Mr. Jeyapaul and Suresh their due, they watched because I had expressly forbidden them from coming with me when I went down to meet Doraisamy. Knowing them as well as I do, they would have walked by my side gladly. But in my assessment the issue was between me and Doraisamy. Man, to man. If I allowed anyone else to accompany me, it would reduce my own moral authority. If I did it alone, I would be the only one risking myself, but then the result would also be proportional. In any case, I did not want the additional responsibility of looking out for anyone else in case something went wrong, having to deal with the thought that I had allowed them to risk their lives. Another matter was that given the critical nature of the situation it was entirely likely that Doraisamy would have attacked someone other than me, who he saw as less powerful. So, I ordered them all to remain where they were and went down alone.

The benefit of reflecting on your life in seeking to learn from it is that even twenty years later, there are things you can learn.

For more stories please read my book: It’s my Life
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 Manjapettai (Yellow Ridge). 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.

Manjapettai, the tree in which I had my machan

If you continue to climb then you would eventually come to the top of Manjapettai, 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 Manjapettai. 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.

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