Those were the days

Those were the days

His Majesty King Saud bin Abdul Aziz A’al As-Saud and
HEH Mir Osman Ali Khan, Asaf Jah VII, Nizam of Hyderabad

A dear friend of mine sent me two historical photos of King Saud bin Abdul Aziz A’al As-Saud and HEH Mir Osman Ali Khan, Asaf Jah VII, Nizam of Hyderabad. The photos came with this caption note: King Saud bin Abdul Aziz A’al As-Saud who ruled Saudi Arabia from 1953 till 1964 visited Hyderabad India in 1954 only to meet Nizam of Hyderabad Mir Osman Ali Khan to thank him for the great monetary help given by Nizam Mir Osman Ali Khan for the maintenance of Harmain Sharifayn (Makkah Mukarramah and Madinah Munawarrah) from 1911 till 1954. The Nizam built  more than thirty grand  buildings around Masjid al-Haraam in Makkah Mukarramah and Masjid un-Nabi in Madinah Munawarrah for the pilgrims visiting these sacred places for Haj and Umrah. The Nizam of Hyderabad was the largest donor for the maintenance of Harmain Sharifayn till 1954 until the Saudis got Petro-dollars.

I thought I would add something to these memorabilia. The Nizam of Hyderabad, Mir Osman Ali Khan, Asaf Jah VII was responsible for the electrification of the Haramain Shareefain. The first electric lights in the Haramain were installed by Hyderabad State. My grandfather, Mohammed Asadullah, was the Nazim, Umoor-e-Mazhabi (Director, Ministry of Religious Affairs). On two occasions he was deputed by the Nizam to lead a delegation of pilgrims for Haj. In Saudi Arabia he was treated as a guest of the State and was granted audience with His Majesty King Abdul Aziz Ibn As-Saud. His Majesty invested him with a robe of honor (Khillat), invited him to participate in the Ghusl (Ritual Washing) of the Ka’aba and was given a piece of the Kiswa (ornate fabric cover) of the Ka’aba as a relic and memento of his trip. We have that in our home, Aziz Bagh, in Hyderabad. Sadly, the Nizam himself never did Haj and to the best of my knowledge, neither did any of the major nobles of Hyderabad. The sole exception (and I will be very happy if someone can correct me) was Nawab Wali ud Dowla Bahadur, who went for Haj and died there and is buried in Al Baqi in Madina.

Mohammad Asadullah (my grandfather) and the Kiswa of the Ka’aba that he received

A sequel to this story is my own which I want to share with you. It was 2008. I was on the treadmill in the gym in Hyderabad when my Nokia phone rang. I answered the call and it was the Visa Officer from the Saudi Embassy in Delhi. I couldn’t hear him thanks to the deafening music in the gym, so I got off the treadmill and went out to talk to him. He said to me, “Shaikh we want to invite you to speak at the International Haj Conference in Makkah which is held just before Haj. Would you be able to accept our invitation?”

I pinched myself to ensure that I was alive and not asleep. I was and wasn’t. The International Haj Conference is a calendar event, to be invited to speak at which, is not something that I would have even dared to dream of. I hastily agreed before the man changed his mind. I asked him what I needed to do about getting a visa. For the uninitiated, getting a visa to Saudi Arabia is one of the most time consuming and complicated processes you can imagine. He replied, “Shaikh, we are inviting you. You don’t have to do anything. Just send me your passport and we will issue the visa.”

One more pinch. Yes, this was happening to me. “Will I be able to do Haj also? And what about my wife? Can she accompany me on this trip?”

“Shaikh, you are embarrassing me. We are inviting you with your wife. And you will be a guest of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for Haj. Please send your passports to me at the Saudi Embassy in Delhi and we will take care of everything.”

But I had a problem. I was traveling for a lecture tour to Malaysia in two days. Even if I express couriered the passports to him in Delhi, there was no way I could get them back to travel as scheduled. I said this to him and he said to me, “Shaikh, please do me a favor. Please get on a plane to Delhi tomorrow morning and come to the Embassy. I will meet you and we will have a cup of tea and you can return the same day with your visas. How’s that?” That was perfect and that is what I did. I arrived at the Saudi Embassy the next day. I was met and escorted to the office of the Visa Officer, who I had been speaking to. He welcomed me, sat me down, plied me (had me plied by his bearer) with Arabic Ghava and dates and called his assistant. He asked our passports and said to the man in Arabic, “Shaikh has been invited by the Ministry of Haj to speak at the Haj Conference. Please issue visas for him and his wife as our guests and make all arrangements for their travel and hospitality with full protocol.”

The man disappeared with the passports. Meanwhile the Visa Officer and I chatted about my stay in Saudi Arabia in 2003. I started to tell him about my consulting and leadership training work. He said to me, “Shaikh, don’t bother to tell me. We probably know more about you than you do. Your name was suggested to us as a potential speaker last year. As this is a very high-level conference, we have to do a full investigation of all invitees. If you had not come out clear in that, you would not have been invited. But Alhamdulillah you are totally cleared to the highest level.” It was several weeks later that I realized what ‘highest level’ meant. But let me not get ahead of myself. I laughed at his statement and said, “I am certainly very relieved to hear this.” A few minutes later, the assistant returned with our passports and instructions to Saudi Arabian Airlines to issue our tickets.

In due course we boarded the plane and the ‘dream trip’ began. We were welcomed on board and treated with great courtesy and hospitality. We landed in Jeddah and when the door opened there was the ubiquitous Saudi youth holding a placard with my name in Arabic and English. His name was Hani. I say ‘ubiquitous’ because there seems to be an endless supply of them. They all look alike wearing a white thobe and ghutra, talk non-stop in Arabic only, don’t know a word of any other language, are very good natured, extremely aggressive when they need to be, one hand holding their mobile phone and the other, a cigarette. In this case he didn’t have a cigarette as smoking is not permitted inside the airport in Jeddah. Hani escorted us into a lounge, pointed to the ever-present Ghava and dates and took our passports. He disappeared and reappeared before I could decide if I wanted to drink the Ghava or not. He returned the passports to us, duly stamped, and took us to the luggage carousel. There our bags were the first out. Hani gestured to a porter who took our bags while he took charge of my cabin bag. And off we went out of the terminal to find a brand-new GMC awaiting us. He opened the rear door and welcomed my wife and me to board the vehicle. We did. Hani got in with the driver and off we went to Makkah.

All Saudis are born with a car key in their hands and drive as if they are being chased by the Spirits of Hades. But maybe it was the official plates or something else, we were never stopped for speeding. We reached Makkah in record time and arrived at our hotel, Le Meridien, having been waved through the many roadblocks which are a feature on Saudi cities, especially Makkah at the time of Haj and Ramadan, to regulate the huge peak in traffic. But with our escort we had special status and so no delays. Hani told us to check in, freshen up and come down to the lobby.  The Front Office Manager escorted us to our suite; bedroom, living/dining room, two bathrooms; luxurious to say the least with all the frills that come with such accommodation. We freshened ourselves and went down to the lobby and there was Hani, with his big smile and said to me, “Are you ready to go for Umrah?” Yes, indeed we were. And off we went. Once again, the special status helped no end to beat the crowds. After completing Umrah, we agreed to meet at the McDonalds in the apron of the Hilton. From there our friend took us back to our hotel. The distance between the two hotels is not much but the crowds make the going very slow. But when you are ensconced in a GMC with a local driver and escort, all you do is sit back and thank Allahﷻ for His Mercy.

The next two days I was busy with the conference. All very formal and enjoyable, if you like conferences. I don’t. But I was there for Haj and the conference was the means. That night, Hani said to me, “Tomorrow morning after breakfast we will leave for Mina.” Since we had done Haj before this time, we were aware of how things work i.e. when you leave for Mina, you put all your luggage in storage in the hotel and vacate your room as you would be gone for 4-5 days. Then when you returned to Makkah, you would be given usually a different room. So, I asked Hani, “Where should we leave our luggage?” Hani looked surprised. He said to me, “Shaikh, you are our guest. That suite is for you. Leave everything as it is. You can return to the hotel any time you want to shower or change or whatever. The car and driver and I will be with you.” I was delighted and astonished. I was not used to such treatment. But then when had I been a royal guest?

The Haj was like a dream. We, there were thirty-five of us, scholars from many different lands, all invitees to the Haj Conference, boarded two luxury buses and went from Makkah to Mina and the next day to Arafah. Both journeys took us minutes where others take hours. We had special traffic arrangements and police escort outriders and breezed along. There were special accommodation arrangements for us in Mina and Arafah; luxurious air-conditioned tents with carpets, sofas, a buffet on which I counted over a dozen desserts. Tea, coffee, soft drinks, snacks were on, throughout the day and night. And then the main meals, each one a study in hospitality. Delicious food beautifully presented and served with great love and respect.

The highlight was in Arafah. It was late morning when one of the scholars suggested that we all make dua. We were all sitting in a circle in the main tent and one of them started to make dua aloud. Arabic is the language of dua. Arabs constantly make dua in their normal speech. ‘May Allahﷻ grant you a long life’, ‘May Allahﷻ protect you’, ‘May Allahﷻ be pleased with you’ and so on, are all part of polite Arab conversation. So, when a scholar starts to make dua in Arabic, it is something special. When he is joined by thirty-four more, it is out of this world. I was hugely privileged that I was a beneficiary of this spiritual bounty. Another personal highlight for me was a call from my dear friend Ebrahim bhai Gangat (May Allahﷻ have mercy on him) from Cii Radio asking me to tell the listeners about the scenes that I was witness to, where Muslims were connected to their Rabb (Creator, Sustainer and Protector), begging Him for His Mercy and Forgiveness and for His Bounty. A scene that our Prophet Muhammadﷺ told us, Allahﷻ shows those around His Glorious Throne, with pride and love. I can still hear Ebrahim bhai’s booming voice, full of energy and love. At the end of all that I had to say, he said as he always used to do, “Yawar bhai, please recite some Qur’an for us.” He always used to end my interviews with this. May Allahﷻ bless him and forgive him and enter him into Jannatul Firdous without reckoning.

My invitation to the Royal Banquet and Audience with King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, 2008

After Arafah, we returned to Mina by way of Muzdalifa. There as I was resting in my bedroom, I was paged. It was an official from the Royal Palace in Mina. He had a register in which he requested me to sign, in token of having received the invitation which he brought. It was an invitation in the name of His Majesty King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz A’al As-Saud (May Allahﷻ have mercy on him), the noble son of the King who received my grandfather, inviting me to a banquet at the Royal Palace in Mina. This was totally unexpected. I didn’t expect to be invited to a Royal Banquet, but there it was. The man then advised me about the protocol with respect to meeting the King. It was far simpler than I would have imagined. We were to board our bus the next morning minus our mobile phones to be driven to the palace where the King receives visitors. There we would be ushered into the Audience Hall. Once everyone was there, the King would enter. Then we would be invited to file past him and he would shake hands with each guest. From there we would go into the banquet hall where we would have lunch and then return to our accommodation.

The next day at about midday we boarded our bus and drove the short distance to the Palace. For those used to the ornate palaces in India with domes and minarets and arches, this palace was very utilitarian. Straight lines, more like a hotel. We drove up a winding driveway bordered by date palms and a grass verge. Some fountains playing as the bus turned into the porch. There we were received by the Protocol Officer and ushered into the lobby. The lobby was huge; well, it is a palace lobby after all. The center piece was two scale models of the Haramain Shareefain; Masjid Al-Haraam on one side and Masjid An-Nabawi Ash-Shareef on the other. Both were very beautifully done. From there we were led into the masjid where we prayed Dhuhr (the midday prayer) and then into the Audience Hall.

The Audience Hall was a large rectangular room that could seat perhaps five hundred people with chairs placed in rows facing the wall at the end of the hall. On the center of the wall was the Saudi coat of arms. Along the wall were chairs, exactly like the ones in the rest of the hall; facing us No throne: not even a chair that was more ornate or grand than the others. We sat. Bearers came along with cups of Zamzam water and Ghawa and dates. In total there were about three hundred invitees. That is what I estimated from a rough calculation based on the number of chairs in each row and the number of rows. We didn’t need to wait too long.

About five minutes later, the door on the side at the end of the hall opened and seven people walked in. If I had not known the King by sight, there was no way to say who was the king and who was a subject. Everyone was dressed exactly alike. The King came to the chair under the coat of arms and said, “As salaamu alaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuhu. Marhaba bikum.” And then he made a short speech, welcoming us who he called, Dhuyoofullah – Guests of Allahﷻ. The Protocol Officer signaled to us to move forward. As each person came up to the King, he shook his hand and said a word or two to him. He remained standing through this entire time, which given the number of people, was long and tedious, to say the least. He was 83 years old at that time, but when he shook my hand, his grip was powerful, and his hand felt like the hand of a working man. He passed away in 2015 at the age of 90. I said to him, “As salaamu alaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuhu.” He replied, “Wa alaikumus salaamu wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuhu. Hayyakallah. Taqabbal-Allah Ibadaatukum.” He held my hand in his strong grip as long as he spoke and then he invited me to go into the banquet hall and have lunch.

While all this was happening, the dominant thought in my mind was that if only I had a way of photographing this meeting, I could show it to my mother in Hyderabad when I returned. After all I don’t meet kings every day. But there was no way to do that as not only did I not have a camera, but my phone was also in my room at the camp. There was Saudi TV onsite of course but what good was that to me? Anyway, I followed those before me into the banquet hall. There I discovered Shaikh Jibreel from Cape Town, an old friend and we sat together at one of the tables. The center piece on each table was a full roasted sheep done in the traditional style, Lahm Mandi. Meat so tender that if you glared at it, it would separate itself from the bone. Resting peacefully in a bed of yellow aromatic Basmati rice laced with saffron, dotted with boiled eggs. Surrounded by different condiments and vegetables. Then there were salads, and Humus, Mutabbal, and all kinds of bread. After we ate, came the desserts, starting from the traditional Kunafa and Ummali to different kinds of Baclava, pastries, cheesecakes and so forth. Then came the tea and coffee accompanied by fresh fruit of every kind. It was a delicious, sumptuous meal. Part of the protocol was that you remained seated until the King got up and then you followed him out to the reception lobby and waited for him to leave before you left. During all this you maintained a respectful distance. To my Indian perception, used to political minions and even minor bureaucrats in my country being escorted everywhere by guards brandishing submachineguns, it was strange indeed to see a king, without a single bodyguard or weapon in sight. No bowing and scraping. No ostentatious display of wealth or officiousness in demeanor. Just good manners as he easily moved among his guests, talking to this one or that as he moved towards the doors. I managed to keep to the front as I wanted to see him leave, imagining great pomp and splendor with maybe bands playing and mounted lancers. Instead a black Mercedes 500 SL drove up. The driver remained seated behind the wheel. Someone opened the front passenger door and to my great astonishment, His Majesty King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz got into the car, sitting next to the driver. The driver was uniformed with the palace headgear and so, it was not his son, driving dad to work. This was one very simple and down-to-earth king.

Once the King had left, we boarded our bus and returned to our camp. There I had an amazing surprise. To begin with there were four missed calls on my phone from my mother in Hyderabad. My father had passed away the previous year and my mother was recovering from that bereavement. My sister was with her, but four calls had me seriously worried. What had me even more worried was because my mother never called anyone. We would call her everyday and talk to her, but she was a very undemonstrative and unemotional person. I called her immediately and asked her if all was well. She said, “Main achchi hoon. Tum Badshah say haath milarahay thay. Main dekhi.” (I am well. I saw you shaking hands with the King.) I thought that she had seen me in her dream. “Aap kaisa dekhay?” (How did you see?) I asked.  I was astonished to say the least, because for one thing, my mother didn’t even know that I was going to a banquet at the palace or that I would be presented to the king and be able to meet him. What is more, she was in India with a time difference of 2 hours and 30 minutes. She said that she got up from her afternoon nap and went into the sitting room and turned on the TV and there I was, shaking hands with the King of Saudi Arabia. She said to me, “Your grandfather (her father) had met his father and now you met him.”

What can I say? I only had tears of gratitude in my eyes, thanking Allahﷻ for granting my wish, unasked. After all what is the probability of the TV turning on to the Saudi channel, which nobody watched in our home, because nobody speaks Arabic, at the exact time that I was shaking hands with the King? The whole meeting took less than two minutes at the very most. Yet my mother caught it, totally without even knowing what it was that she was going to see. To this day, I marvel at the mercy of Allahﷻ.

Guests in the Gardens

Guests in the Gardens

Guests were very special in the gardens. There were no guest houses or hotels, so whoever came, stayed with you. Official guests stayed with the General or Group Manager, Manager or Assistant Manager, depending on who they were in terms of their rank or significance for the Company. Your guests stayed with you or sometimes with your friends, depending on what was happening in your life at the time. We played host to a friend’s grandmother, another friend’s heavily pregnant wife as he had to travel urgently and to several others. In the plantations we treated each other as members of our family. We stood behind each other, no question about it. I have written here about a few of the guests. We had many more. Too many to name here. So, if you visited us and are not mentioned in this article, please know that you are remembered though I have not mentioned you here.

Guests were very special firstly, because they were few and far between and because they came from the ‘outside’ world and brought news of what was happening there. Remember I am talking about the period 1983-93. The time before almost everything we know and take for granted today. This was pre-Google, Apple, mobile phones, even TV. Where there was TV, it was Doordarshan. Cable TV didn’t exist in the plantations. In 1985 we saw the first color TV. We had VCRs and VCPs (Video Cassette Recorders and Players) which coupled with the color TV, provided home entertainment to those who were interested in it. Electric typewriters were state-of-the-art and what sat on your lap was not a computer. Cyclostyle was the copying system. Faxes and Xerox machines were still in the distant future. Guests therefore came with real news, even if a few days old; thanks to the time it took for them to get to where we were, high in the mountains and deep in the forest. For those of us in the Anamallais that was close to the truth, because we lived in the middle of the Indira Gandhi National Park on the top of the Anamallai Hills; tea surrounded by thick rainforest, reached after traversing the Aliyar Ghat road with forty hairpin bends. Home to hundreds of species of mammals, birds and reptiles.

My first guests were Mr. Hasanuddin Ahmed and his wife Anees Fatima (Husnara Aunty), my mother’s cousins. I was delighted to receive them. I was living in No. 18 bungalow; the name given to Assistant Manager’s bungalow in Sheikalmudi Estate, Lower Division which was in Field No. 18. They visited me in 1983, less than 6 months after I had joined planting and I was delighted as they were my favorite uncle and aunt and I was honored that they had come to visit. Bastian, my butler and cook, who you have heard about earlier, put on a great culinary show and everyone was very impressed. One afternoon, after a cup of tea, Hasan Uncle and I were strolling down the path from the bungalow to the main road, when Hasan Uncle told me to explain the whole tea manufacturing process to him. I was very enthusiastic about it as I had just learnt it myself a couple of weeks earlier and I promptly launched into my narrative. “We pluck the top shoots, two leaves and the vegetative bud’, I said. “That is taken to the factory and put into Withering Troughs and air is blown over and through the leaf bed in the trough which removes some of the moisture to make the leaf flaccid. Without withering, they would shatter and crumble when rolled. Then the leaves are put into Rollers in which by an action akin to rubbing tobacco between your palms, tea leaves are rolled to break cell walls and express the juice which coats the small rolled pieces that break off in this process. Rolling is where the process of developing flavor starts. After rolling, the leaves are laid out for several hours, allowing oxidation to take place. This is called Fermentation, though it has nothing to do with fermenting as there is no sugar or production of alcohol as happens in a natural fermentation process. Oxidation is the process in which the oxygen in the air interacts with the now-exposed enzymes in the leaf, turning it a reddish-brown color and changing the chemical composition. The duration of this process depends on the style of tea being produced and the ambient conditions at the time. The final step is to stop the oxidation which is done by what is called Firing. This is done by putting the output from the Rollers into perforated trays and heated air is passed over the trough to dry them to below 3% moisture content which stops the oxidation process and makes the tea black. Good, even drying and low residual moisture enables the tea to keep well, which is necessary for shipping. The tea is packed in plywood boxes lined with paper and film and sealed, ready for shipping.” I stopped to take a breath.

Hasan Uncle listened with great seriousness and attention and said, “You seem to have learnt this all very well. Tell me, what happens if you simply boil green tea leaves?” I was stumped. I didn’t know. But what struck me more than the fact that I didn’t know the answer to his question was that the question had not occurred to me. There I was, working in a tea garden, living in a bungalow surrounded by tea fields and didn’t have the imagination to ask myself a simple question like that. This I what formal education does to one, I guess. Of course, we plucked two or three shoots and boiled them to produce a very ‘green’ chlorophyllic decoction that was hardly drinkable. The point of course was not what it tasted like, but whether I’d had the curiosity to ask the question. Big lesson in my life about the importance of asking the unasked and questioning the ‘accepted’ rule. Hasan Uncle and Husnara Aunty spent a few very enjoyable days with me and left behind memories which are fresh to this day. And I ask questions that nobody thinks of.

While I was the Manager of Lower Sheikalmudi Estate, we got a call to say that the Wrigleys were coming to visit. This was William Wrigley III and William Wrigley IV, the owners of Wrigley Company, the largest chewing gum (Wrigley’s gum) company in the world. On April 28, 2008, Mars announced that it would acquire Wrigley for approximately $23 billion. The Wrigleys were staying with the Group Manager of the Sheikalmudi Group, Mr. S. M. Taher. The managers and assistants from the other estates were invited to dinner to Sheikalmudi bungalow. At the dinner, I suggested that the two Wrigleys, father and son, may like to go down to the Parambikulam Dam through our cardamom plantation in Murugalli. There would be a good chance of seeing bison (Indian Gaur), Malabar Squirrel, Great Malabar Hornbill, Barking Deer and who knows what else. Anamallais and Sheikalmudi in particular, especially that part of it which borders the Parambikulam backwaters, is teeming with wildlife. The plan was to go the next day, late in the afternoon for a swim in the lake and then drive back after dark through the cardamom plantation so that we would have a chance to see some Gaur and other wildlife. It was a nice, dry afternoon and so I had no apprehensions taking the jeep, which didn’t have four-wheel drive, down to the lakeside. Taher bhai drove them down and we all met at Murugalli Bazar and went down to the lakeside.

Parambikulam from Murugalli

If you walked down the river for a couple of kilometers you would come to the Parambikulam Dam backwaters into which this river flowed. I had built another pool there at the bottom of a waterfall, thanks to a stream that flowed through Murugalli Estate. We used to keep a boat in the dam to go fishing on the lake. There was a thickly wooded island in the lake about half a kilometer from the shore on which one could go and spend the whole day, swimming and lazing in the shade, a very welcome occupation, free from all stress. The only sounds that you would hear would be the wailing call of the Rufus Backed Hawk Eagle and the Fishing Eagle. In the evenings, the Jungle Fowl called the hour. If you stayed beyond sunset, the only danger was that you could encounter bison (Gaur) as you walked home. That encounter was not something to look forward to as I discovered one day. Mercifully, I was walking softly, and the wind was in my face, so the Gaur was as startled as I was. He snorted, spun on his heel, and vanished, crashing through the undergrowth. I was very fortunate.

Everything went according to plan and we swam, ate sandwiches and drank coffee. Raman took the rowboat and Wrigley Jr. to the island in the middle of the lake but returned rather suddenly and very wisely as they found some feral buffaloes which were lying in the water on the other side of the island. These can be very dangerous, and Raman who went as the guide and boatman, insisted that they return. That was a very wise thing to do because we weren’t planning on explaining how we were one Wrigley short when we got back. We watched the sun extinguish itself in the waters of the lake and then when it got dark, we packed our stuff into the jeep and started back. Suddenly it started to rain. In this part of the world, it doesn’t leave you in any doubt, when it rains. It pours. That day, it did with a vengeance. The road quickly became slush and the jeep started skidding. We decided to wait for a bit to see if the rain would ease off. But though we waited for half an hour, nothing happened. We started off once again but realized that we couldn’t all ride in the jeep as the gradient of the road was steep and it was extremely slippery. We all got off and pushed, while Taher bhai drove. It took us over an hour of pushing and driving, to get back to Murugalli Bazar. As the jeep went skidding up the road, it threw up liquid mud in showers. As a result, all of us including our two illustrious guests, were covered with mud from head to toe. But all that I could see was two sets of the brightest teeth this side of the Atlantic. The Wrigleys were great sports and I guess we, all of us had a very good time. Not the way you usually treat billionaires. But these were two very happy billionaires with a strange story to tell.

One day a friend called to say, that a friend of his was visiting India, and could she visit us as she wanted to see a tea garden. Of course, we agreed and sent the car to pick her up from the airport in Coimbatore. Along came Elizabeth Sidney. Elizabeth owned a consulting firm in London, called Mantra Consulting (pronounced Man-tra) and was also a member and office bearer of the Liberal Democratic Party. Elizabeth became a lifelong friend until her death at the age of 86, in 2011.

Elizabeth arrived in the evening as the drive up the Aliyar Ghat from Coimbatore and then across the Anamallais to Lower Sheikalmudi was a full-day affair. At that time, we had another dear friend staying with us, Maaji, Manjit Singh’s grandmother. Manjit was the Manager of Pannimedu Estate of Tata Tea and they had a lockout, so he and his wife Devika went to stay at the Coimbatore Club. But his grandmother came to stay with us. We were very fond of her and she called my wife, ‘Puttar’ (my daughter) and we loved having her with us. Such were the times, when our friends were more than just ‘friends’. Maaji spoke only Punjabi and Elizabeth spoke only English, but they got along famously and had conversations in two completely different languages, much to our amazement. Elizabeth was a wonderfully warm person and we became very good friends and stayed with her in her Islington townhouse twice when we were in London.

The next day I took Elizabeth around the estate to show her tea cultivation and manufacture. She was fascinated that the vast majority of workers were women and she had animated conversations with some of the workers, with me translating from Tamil into English and back. That evening, I suggested that my wife and I with Elizabeth, spend the night in my machan on Manjaparai and see what animals would come to the waterhole. Manjaparai is the flat rock which forms a small flat plateau at the top of the hill, and through which flows a small perennial stream. It is called Majaparai (Yellow Rock) thanks to yellow lichens which cling to it and give it that color. In the summer the sparse grass that sprouts in the monsoon, quickly turns yellow and so the name is justified. 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 into the forest. I had cleared a small pathway to get to the machan tree, but without disturbing the area or its animals. The machan was built in a big fork about three-quarters of the way up the tree at a height of about twenty feet from the ground. It was quite substantial and could comfortably seat four people. From my bungalow to the base of the hill on the top of which the machan was, it was about four kilometers over rough estate roads. Therefore, to make it easy for the ladies and not have them walk the entire distance and then climb the hill (assuming that they would have even agreed to do it), I decided to take them up on a Massey-Ferguson tractor to the base of Manjaparai and walk up the rest of the way. The tractor ride was not the most comfortable, but the novelty of it would hopefully override the discomfort. My wife was not very impressed but for Elizabeth, everything we were doing was a ‘first time in my life’, experience. I drove the tractor with the ladies on either side.

Manjaparai view

We reached the top, still in one piece and having taken a breather, started up the track leading to the top of the rock. Given that we had the ladies with us, I had sent out a scout, one of my Ramans, to check the pathway and to clear it of any Stinging Nettles (Anaimarti – One which drives away elephants) bushes leaning across the path. His job was also to ensure that the jungle was elephant free. Elephants in the Anamallais are dangerous as they raid vegetable gardens and get driven off by the garden owners beating drums or setting off firecrackers. Elephants hate loud noises and run away but in a foul temper. Not the best frame of mind if you happen to meet them. You always need to be careful of elephants in the Anamallais, thanks to this human-animal conflict. Once we had the all-clear from Raman, we proceeded upwards. We reached the top in time to see the fabulous sunsets that are the prize of climbing Manjaparai. We had some coffee and omelets rolled into parathas and with a coat of lemon pickle, which Bastian had given us as our dinner and then climbed the tree into the machan. As we settled down…Let me tell you this part of the story as my wife recalls it. “Yawar told Elizabeth and me that we were going with him to his machan on Manjaparai. I asked him if it would be cold. He said, ‘Not too much.’ We left on the tractor with him driving and me hanging on one side for dear life being tossed up and down on the rough field roads. Elizabeth was on the other side in the same predicament but seemed to love it. We reached the top of the road in one piece and got off the tractor and started climbing the hill to the top. The view from Manjaparai, of the sun setting, was spectacular and well worth the trouble of getting there.  

We had a snack and got up into the tree. I am not much of a tree climber, but Raman and his partner had thoughtfully got a ladder which we climbed and scrambled the last few feet to the machan. The ladder was pulled up after us and stashed among the branches above us. Dusk started to fall. Yawar told us to be completely silent and as motionless as possible. He told us that animals see motion before anything else. If you don’t move and your body outline is broken up by our surroundings, you are invisible. Especially as you are sitting high above, you are out of the normal perspective of most animals. The only joker in the pack is the wind. If it blows in your face it means that animals can’t smell you. But it is behind you, then animals will know you are there and will leave. As it started to get dark, a smart wind started coming up the hill in our face. That was good, but it was getting cold. I saw Elizabeth pulling out a sweater from her substantial handbag. Then she pulled out a shawl and wrapped herself in it and sat there, snug as a bug in a rug. Yawar was wearing his waterproof raincoat, which was felt lined and very warm. But there I was in a light sweater because Yawar told me it wouldn’t be so cold. As the night wore on, I got colder and colder and my teeth were chattering so loudly that I am sure that is the reason we didn’t see any animals that night.

Eventually it got so cold that I simply couldn’t sit in the machan and we all got down onto the rock below and Raman lighted a fire and put on the teapot. The fire was a lifesaver and I can’t tell you how good it felt. There was no question of seeing any animals after the fire had been lighted, but who cares? I was finally warm and out of my misery and that is all I cared about. We sat through the rest of the night, drinking black tea, sweetened with jaggery and listening to the sounds of the forest, which by then had also quietened down. There was the occasional Nightjar which buzzed his call from time to time, but not much else. I told you that the sunset from Manjaparai was spectacular. That was because I had not seen the sunrise. Now I can’t decide which was better. Thankfully I don’t have to pick. I had seen both.”

How do you know if it is sunrise or sunset?

Elizabeth came again when we were in New Ambadi Estate. The Manager’s bungalow had been built by a previous manager called Watts Carter who was one of the best planners and executors of civil works that I have known. His work was his signature and legacy and it was truly remarkable. Rainwater collection tanks that ensured a year-long supply of water in a place were the dry season was 7-8 months long. Beautifully graded and banked roads. Contour planted fields with terraces and water conservation works that ensured that the rubber didn’t suffer in the dry season. This time Elizabeth brought her friend, Margaret Tabor, from Braintree, Essex. Margaret was a delightful lady with lots of interesting stories about her own travels. Margaret lived in her family manor house; we stayed with her once; on a two- thousand-acre estate in Essex where she raised Pheasants and had annual Pheasant shoots. She told us that her main clients were Japanese.

We got a call one day from Ms. Brewty, the Secretary to our General Manager, Mr. N. K. Rawlley. She said, “Mr. Baig, Mr. Rawlley asked me to inform you that there are two ladies from London who are company guests and are staying in Iyerpadi at the guest house. They would like to see some forest area. Could you please help with this?” Forest and me? Of course, I was delighted to help. Next day the ladies arrived in the company jeep and my wife and I met them at the Uralikkal checkpost. Of the two ladies, one was rather large and remarkably well-endowed. The other one looked like she was the counterpoint to the first one, rather like being on Social Security.

We left our car and we all went down the short windy road to the Manamboli Dam. That drive is very productive in terms of wildlife sightings and sure enough we saw Malabar squirrels, Lion-tailed Macaques, and a Barking deer which crossed the road exactly at the place I expected it to……I am convinced that it did this for a living. We stopped for a short break at the bottom of the concrete-surfaced road which ended at the Power Generation House. There was some flow over the sluice gates of the dam, and it was very relaxing to listen to the sound of flowing water.  Then we started down the unpaved forest road to Topslip. This road runs along the Manamboli river. As we rounded a bend, I recalled an incident when my dearest friend Berty and I were fishing at the foot of the rapids on the other side of the dam. We would stand in rapidly flowing water in Manamboli below the sluice gates and cast for Mahseer while drinking in the atmosphere of the jungle. Not a sound except from the river or from a bird celebrating its life.

Lion-tailed Macaque

One day we were fishing in our usual spot, when one of the fish we had caught disappeared. “Dai Baig Dorai, you can’t tie a bloody fish properly man!!” yelled my dear friend. We had each caught a good sized mahseer. His was still there. Mine had disappeared. What gave the game away was that the line looked like it had been bitten through. Just then I heard the whistles….two otters talking to one another, no doubt with evil intentions on Berty’s fish. I called out to him in a low voice, “Yedo, noke awaday” and I pointed to the otters. Berty laughed so much that he almost fell into the water. “What the bloody hell, so this is the bugger who stole our fish!!! Man, what do you expect? We go into their home and steal their fish, so they decide to freeload on our effort.” What memories!! But my friend is gone. So would have the otters. Nothing lives that long in the forest. Only I am alive to tell the tale and to remember my friend and to live once again that one magical day, this time on behalf of both of us.

On this road, one thing to watch out for, was elephants. It was a narrow road with very thick, almost impenetrable forest on one side the river on the other. Not the best place to come face to face with elephants. Mercifully, elephants are wiser than we are and when they hear a vehicle coming their way, they move off into the jungle and you won’t even see them. We didn’t meet any until we got to the Forest Department’s elephant camp. This was where they kept their elephants used for logging and other forest related activity. We took a break for coffee and our standard omelet/paratha snack and looked around the camp. The head mahawat (elephant caretaker) met us and explained what they did in the camp. I asked him if he would be kind enough to give a short ride on one of the elephants to our guests. There was a huge, very black bull elephant which was tethered at one end of the line. I asked the mahawat if we could ride him.

The mahawat didn’t look very happy about this but agreed and went off to get a couple of gunny sacks. He got the elephant to kneel and climbed up on his knee and holding his ear, he pulled himself up on his neck. Then he asked me to climb on. I did the same and settled astride behind him. Not easy at all as elephants have a very prominent backbone with protruding vertebrae. When you sit astride, you are in imminent danger of doing permanent damage to your ability to continue your line of descendants. That is why when you ride elephants in our wildlife reserves, they saddle them with very thick mattresses or have a howda in which you sit much like sitting on a sofa. But we were in a working camp. They didn’t have these luxuries. The mahawat was sitting on the neck, where the vertebrae don’t protrude and he has his gunny sack cushion under him. But the ‘passenger’ was on his own. The mahawat called out his order and the elephant stood up. If you have ever seen an elephant standing up from a kneeling position, you will know what happens. It is as close to being on the bow of a ship in a storm as you are likely to be on dry land. I knew what was coming and braced myself and remained atop the huge animal without mishap. The mahawat took us for a short walk-around in the forest and we returned to the camp.

Next was the turn of our guests. The Social Security one declined the opportunity but the well-endowed one was keen to go. She tried to climb up on the elephant’s knee as if it was a staircase and slipped. The mahawat, spontaneously reached to take her hand to save the British Empire from an ignominious landing in the dirt almost unseating himself in the process. Eventually the lady managed to get astride the neck of the elephant. The expression on her face when she sat there, spoke volumes of what she must have encountered, but some things can’t be spoken aloud and so she suffered in silence. Then the mahawat shouted his order to the elephant and the animal lurched forward to get up. The lady fell forward on top of the mahawat and as the elephant lurched backwards straightening his forelegs, she was thrown back and grabbed the mahawat in a bear hug. The man disappeared into the British Empire, overwhelmed but not without a plaintive cry for help, “Ayyaaaaaa!!” The elephant took them for another short ride in the forest and then returned and we had a repeat performance of lurching, grabbing and plaintive cry. A memory that refuses to go away. The elephant, however, was not amused. It started rumbling and the mahawat told us that he didn’t want to chance another ride. Elephants are very patient and tolerant but are never really domesticated. They have an uneasy relationship of cooperation with humans, which can break if you push their patience beyond their tolerance. I understood the mahawat’s reluctance and agreed. Such was our entertainment in the plantations. Each day was a surprise and welcome.

One day in 1990/91, Mr. Rawlley called me and said, “Yawar, you are getting a visitor, Mr. Mark Bostock from Colombo. He is British and lives between England and Colombo where he used to be the Chairman of John Keells. He is a very interesting person and someone you can learn a lot from.” Before I go on, here is a link to an article about Mark Bostock in ‘The Island’, from Colombo.

In Ambadi there was no guest house so he stayed with us like all our guests. The question was food, because all the English people we know, eat little or no chillies, while South Indian food tends to be hot. In Ambadi we had an excellent cook, Perumal, who made the best Upma, Dosai and Idlies in the world, but had nothing Western in his repertoire. My wife decided that she would make a classic English Roast Lamb, with mashed potatoes, boiled vegetables and gravy. You can hardly get more British than that. We didn’t want the man to get the runs the day he arrived because the food was too hot. I love Roast Lamb and agreed wholeheartedly. Mark duly arrived, driven in from Trivandrum, looking very red and sweaty, as we didn’t have an air-conditioned car at that time. He told me, “Please call me Mark”, when I welcomed him as Mr. Bostock. So, Mark he was. After he had showered, we sat down to dinner. The Roast Lamb was spectacular, and I loved it. Mark also started with enthusiasm but gradually slowed down. I noticed this and asked, “Mark, is everything alright? Can I get you something?”

He said, “I don’t want to be impolite, but do you have any pickle?”

My eyebrows shot up in astonishment. “There is pickle, but it is very hot”, I said.

“Yes, can I have it please?” The pickle was brought. I was blood red, made of mangoes marinated in fire and was totally delicious if you liked to have the top of your head raising up periodically to let out the steam from your boiling brains. I gingerly slid the bottle towards Mark, debating whether I should get him to sign an Indemnity Declaration absolving me of responsibility for his expiry in flames after consuming the pickle. But to my great astonishment, he took a huge helping of it and ate it with the roast mutton (no injury intended to British sentiments or honor) with great relish. He apologized to my wife and said, “The roast is delicious, but you see, I am from Ceylon. I need chilly in my food.” So, there he would be, at lunch and dinner, eating pickles of various kinds, his face the color of the pickle but thoroughly enjoying himself. He was not ‘from Ceylon’, but had lived there for so long that his palate was totally Sri Lankan.

Next morning, I took Mark on a tour of the estate and factory. As we walked in the rubber drying sheds in which crêpe rubber sheets are dried, Mark said to me, “If there was a way to dry these evenly in controlled conditions, that would give us much better prices.” Having come to Ambadi from tea, I spontaneously said, “I think if we get a couple of withering fans from one of our tea factories and install them at one end of this shed, that will do the trick. He turned and looked at me intently and said, “What the hell! That sounds like a very good idea. I wonder why nobody ever thought of that before?” As soon as we got back to the office, I asked for three withering fans which arrived in due course. These are low RPM fans with large blades that can be used to blow or draw air without causing too much turbulence. You want the air to move over the crêpe rubber sheets without blowing them about. We installed the fans and changed the way rubber is processed.

Mr. Mark Bostock visited us several times between 1990 and 1993 when I was the Manager of New Ambadi Estate. What impressed me very much about him was how inquisitive and open to learning he was. We would go for rides in our boat on the lake that bordered the estate. He would accompany me every day when I went on my rounds of the estate and greatly appreciated the rapport that I had with the workers and unions. He understood Tamil, so he had a good idea of what was happening when he was witness to any interactions. Though he had retired in 1986, having built a conglomerate, John Keells, in Sri Lanka, there was not a grain of arrogance or even formality in him. He was easy going, very friendly, open to all new ideas, full of questions and would listen very carefully to the answers. We would spend the days in the estate and factory and the evenings, talking about anything under the moon, that came to mind. Like Nickoo said, I learnt a lot from Mark, but the best thing out of all that was the value of an open mind and the willingness to learn from anyone. I can safely say that I have never come across anyone as open to learning as Mark Bostock. I wish I had more time with him. I was very sorry to learn that in 2000 he died in Sri Lanka, in a freak accident as the rafters under his chair collapsed and he crashed through to the stone floor below. He didn’t survive the injuries. As the song goes:

Those were the days my friend
We thought they’d never end
We’d sing and dance forever and a day
We’d live the life we choose
We’d fight and never lose
For we were young and sure to have our way

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. (

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.’


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


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.

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:

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. Mrs. Alastair Craig, whose husband was a planter in the Anamallis in the 1960s/70s informed me that hut was built in the first instance as a staging post to the South, during World War II in case evacuation became necessary. 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