Blacksmiths, inheritors of Crossley

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

One of my favorite stories about how creative people without a formal education can be is as follows. When I took over Lower Sheikalmudi Estate as the Manager, one of the things that I concentrated on was to make the land more productive. I took a three-pronged approach. We dug trenches in the swamps to drain the water and planted cardamom on the ridges between the trenches and planted pepper on the shade trees – Grevillea Robusta (Silver Oak). We filled in (planted tea) all vacant patches and tea field boundaries. And we reclaimed all big vegetable gardens which had become more commercial than personal and had encroached into our tea fields. The incident I want to mention here had to do with an infilling area in the LSM Upper Division. This was a large bare hilltop which was about ten acres in extent, which we planted with clonal cuttings. Since the area was completely bare and open, I was very concerned about the survival of the cuttings as we were going into the dry weather.

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

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

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

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

With Shashi on my right in the tea nursery – 2010

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

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

Thangavelu – trying to look serious

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of Butler English etc.

Of Butler English etc.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lower Sheikalmudi Manager’s bungalow where we used to live

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

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

Manjaparai view – Sholayar Dam in the distance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to kill loneliness before it kills you

How to kill loneliness before it kills you

And the solution is – Kill loneliness before it kills you. Let me tell you how! 

But first an alert: This is going to sound a bit preachy. Please bear with me. I am talking to myself.

First, when they tell you that age in a number and that it is all in the mind, believe me, it is true. You are as old as you allow yourself to feel. This is not a pep talk. This is fact. I am 63 and I know what I am saying. It is your call. Pick a number.

Remember, work doesn’t kill you; retirement does. If you love what you do, you never need to retire. Read on. I am going to tell you what I did. You can do that or pick your own. So, here is my 9 – point program. 9 things you can do to kill loneliness.

1. Accept it: The first thing to do is to mentally prepare yourself that the day will come, sooner than later when you are going to be alone. Deaths of loved ones may hasten it but one day it will be upon us. All you need to do to accomplish it, is to remain alive. So, the first thing to do is to get used to the idea and accept that one day you will be alone. It is important to think about this, talk about it and reflect on it, because it is inevitable. The sooner you start thinking and talking about this, the easier it will be when it happens. I have seen both, those who do and those who don’t. The difference is stark and the pain entirely avoidable. But remember that this is a problem only if you hate solitude. Learn to love solitude. Seek it actively. Keep a time in your daily life when you are alone with yourself, thinking, reflecting, meditating, praying, reading, writing, looking at the world go by, watching birds fly and grass grow, listening to the wind in the trees, listening to the brook talking to itself as it flows past you, and lying on your back and looking up at the dark star-filled sky (that position doesn’t give you a crick in the neck). If you are lucky and have some energy to go where you need to go to see them, you can also watch flocks of geese crossing the rising sun, talking to each other. You can watch Baya Weavers, weaving their complex nests, as they prepare to commit matrimony. You can…okay, I will leave you to fill in the blanks. In short there is a huge number of things that you can do for which you don’t need anyone else. Being alone is not so bad after all. It can be very enjoyable indeed.

2.  Get a hobby: It can be anything, but it must interest you. The sooner you begin, the better. Pick one that needs you to do something, some research, some reading. Something that needs effort. Connect with others who have the same hobby so that you have companionship and can compare yourself and what you have with others. Not to create unnecessary stress in meaningless competition but just to initiate new friendships. It can be great fun and it opens doors to aspects of yourself that you never imagined.

When I started to learn Hindustani classical singing, the most amazing discovery I made was that there is no actual record of what I sang (unless I recorded it). Unlike writing which by default is a record, a note or a line of song you sing, is a one-time thing. Whether you did it right or wrong, it remains a memory in your mind or in the mind of others. But there is no physical record of it. That was such a liberating feeling that I was doing something which would not return to haunt me. It opened my eyes (and ears and heart) to a whole new way of expressing myself. I recall one time, when I was standing in neck deep water of a river in a forest in Tamilnadu, singing Raag Asaawari and watching how the water that touched my throat seemed to ripple in harmony to the sound. Was I imagining it? I don’t know. But I still remember it very clearly. I must have looked rather peculiar to those who were watching me. In India there is always someone watching you. But who cares?

I also realized that singing has more to do with listening than to do with making a sound. You can’t sing if your ears are not attuned to the difference in tone from one scale to another. When you learn to sing, you learn to listen. The better you can listen, the better you can sing. My teacher told me this and I experienced it. I trained for three years, from 1994-97. Then I gave up formal training because I went off to the US and got busy with building my consulting business there. But there I got interested in the recitation of the Qur’an. Guess what turned out to be a big help in that!! I would drive endlessly from one appointment to another, reciting Qur’an in my car, conscious and thankful that what was helping me then was the voice training that classical singing compels you to do. Another place where this voice training helped me tremendously is in public speaking which is a major part of my work as a trainer and keynote speaker. I speak about leadership, teaching, raising children, the Glory of the Creator and all the while, in the background what helps me to project my voice, to express passion and emotion, to show feeling and to connect with people, is my voice training as a singer. I teach conflict management and negotiation. This is another area where listening for tone, helps me very much. There is much that people give away in the way they say something. If you are listening to the tone, not only to the words, it tells you a lot more than the words do, and usually more than the speaker may want you to know. Learning to listen is a hugely important and valuable skill and learning to sing is a very enjoyable way to learn it.

My lens and I, in Yala National Park

The same thing happened to me when I started photography seriously. I was on a trip with a dear friend of mine, Aditya Mishra who is an avid and excellent photographer and showed him some of my photos taken with a point and click camera. He looked at them and said, “I think it is time for you to get a decent camera and lens.”  It took me a while to get what I now use, a Nikon D-500 with a Nikon-Nikkor 200-500 lens but all through that journey which continues, it opened my eyes to the world. Nobody sees the world like a photographer, framing an object to photograph it. I photograph birds and animals and sometimes landscapes. I learnt to pay attention to detail. I learnt to enjoy color and texture and shade of light. I learnt to admire camouflage; to look at a patch of scrub in dappled light, not high enough to hide a jackrabbit and then to suddenly realize that I am looking into the eyes of a tiger. I would never have seen that if I wasn’t looking at it through my lens. I learnt to admire the flight of a falcon and then to watch it drop out of the sky to take a pigeon on the wing, the force of her strike sounding flat like a gunshot in the still of the early morning, with a puff of pigeon feathers to bear witness to the play of life and death being enacted before my eyes. I learnt also to simply put down my camera and look at the world outside the viewfinder. Thanks to the camera I learnt to see. Not simply to look.

Photography taught me major life lessons. Courage and resilience, for example. Not from tigers or lions but from small birds which are defenseless. They can’t fight anyone, they are on everyone’s menu, yet they survive, never give up, sing with joy every morning, build nests, raise young, sometimes only for them to become monitor lizard food. But they don’t despair, don’t go into depression, don’t commit suicide. They build another nest, lay some more eggs and raise some more young. In the end, the little bird wins every time its youngster takes to the air.

3. Become friends with yourself: Learn to like your own company because you are going to get a lot of it. Develop an interest that doesn’t need your immediate family to share it with. In today’s world of social networking that is not difficult to do. Technology can be your friend or a stranger, even an enemy. That depends on you. You don’t need to become a rocket scientist, though there is no law against that. But you can certainly learn to become techno friendly. My Hindustani classical music teacher who was 75, had a 486 PC with a camera. Behind the computer on the wall, she got someone to print out the whole sequence of things she needed to do to start the machine and logon to Skype – days of DOS-OS remember? –and off she would be talking to various friends and family across the globe. By today’s standards, the connectivity, speed, picture and audio quality were enough for one to pull out all his hair in frustration but in 1994, a 486 was state-of-the-art and lightning fast and a huge improvement over the 386. Life is relative.

Get a routine. A routine is your best friend. With a routine you are never at a loss for something useful to do. That keeps you and your mind active and out of brooding and depression. Develop an interest or a hobby. Where possible, keep a pet. Not a bird in a cage or a fish in a tank. But a real pet like a cat, or a goat or a horse. Or a chicken. Country chickens have great personality and attitude and make lovely pets. Depends on where you live, of course. But if you want to know what it feels like to be looked down upon and be valued purely as a meal ticket, keep a cat. Those who have millennial children, need not keep cats because they know what that feels like very well. Gardening, and that can be one pot, is another wonderfully therapeutic hobby. Keep a bird feeder in your yard, balcony, on your terrace. Keep water out for birds in the summer. Grow your own veggies in pots in your balcony or on your terrace. The idea is to do something that requires your contribution and where you can see it making a difference. That responsibility, even if sometimes it seems arduous, is what keeps you alive and the Big A at bay.

4. Don’t lose the ability to make friends: One of the first things that older people lose is the ability to make new friends. And when they lose their old friends, as we all do, they are left all alone. The big reason we lose that ability is because we refuse to relate to people different from ourselves. As we grow older, we become judgmental and demand (albeit perhaps unconsciously) that others must conform to our standards, before we allow them into our lives. Instead we must become more open to new ideas, new ways, new standards. I am not talking about what is clearly good and evil, moral and immoral, ethical and unethical, respectful and insulting. I am talking about, for example, hairstyles, way of speaking (not ill manners, just a different way of talking), cell phone use. If he looks like he stuck his finger in the power socket and has all his hair standing on end, it is okay. His head is his piece of real estate. Not yours. He is still a nice kid with a brain and your eyes and ears into his world. But only if you can get past the porcupine look.

As for cell phones, I have never heard anyone complain if a youngster has his head buried in a book. But if that same head is buried in a phone, we have major issues. Why? Maybe he is reading a book on his phone. Maybe he is browsing the net and accessing information that he wouldn’t have found in a hundred books. We oldies must become more tolerant, while maintaining our boundaries of what is fundamentally good and evil. When we are with youngsters, we feel younger, more energetic, we learn new things, we see the world in a different light. And we are challenged to add value to them, so that they don’t get bored with us.

What doesn’t work is when you start your stories with, “In my days, you could get one dozen eggs for one rupee and one goat for three rupees and one cow for ten rupees.” Someone went on like this for a while until one of the youngsters said, “Uncle that is great. So, in your father’s time, everything must have been free.” Live in the present with them. When I was 15, almost all my friends were 30 years older. I learnt from them. Today I am 63 and most of my friends are 30 years younger. I learn from them. We have a great relationship, and both enjoy it. Ask them, if you like.

5. Prepare your body: It is critical to ensure that you are physically fit. The vast majority of geriatric ailments are lifestyle related, not illnesses. Watch what you eat. Eat natural, not processed foods. Sleep early and wake early. Exercise moderately. Don’t do any heroics, thinking about what you used to do at age 20. Today you are three times that age. Don’t try it or you will suffer the consequences until you die. Get out of your house and hit the gym and the park. Walk a few kilometers every day and do some strength exercises. Don’t get over ambitious, don’t try to impress anyone, don’t try to break any records but also don’t let a day pass that you have not exercised. The main thing is to get out of your house into the open and connect with nature. Eat sensibly. Don’t dig your grave with your teeth. Let them use an excavator. The biggest curse is excess weight. It drags you down, makes you lethargic, makes everything a burden and gradually kills you very painfully. A pot belly is not a death warrant, it is a lifelong pain warrant. Death is inevitable. Pain is not. So, get rid of it. Think about that with every morsel of carbs you eat. Make sugar Haraam on yourself. Avoid all fizzy sugar drinks. Stop eating sugar. Sugar kills. And (sugar free) Aspartame gives you cancer. Take your pick.

I won’t even talk about cigarettes. If someone wants to pay for cancer, who am I to object? Makes no sense to pay for cancer, because cancer is free. Do you get my point? If your body is healthy, half the battle is won. So, pay close attention to that. The slide is insidious, seductive and lethal. Stay away from it.

6. Prepare your mind: Keep your mind healthy. Read. Read. Read. Pray. Pray. Pray. Focus on your mental and spiritual self. If you are like most normal people, both would have been hugely neglected. Repair your connection with Allahﷻ. You will need it soon enough. Learn a new language. It doesn’t matter if you never master it. The act itself is important because it will challenge your brain and keep it active. Play games that require cerebration. It means use your brain. Consciously look for the positive things in life and shut out all negativity – especially what you can’t control. I love watching wildlife and nature movies and I love wildlife and bird photography. Again, it is good to want to be the best at whatever you do, but don’t worry if it takes you a long time to get there. Keep at it. Don’t watch the news, talk shows, TV debates and all the totally negative, toxic media that we have allowed to take over our lives. Focus on the positive. There is plenty of it, and if you can’t find it, create your own. Nobody can stop you from doing that. Go help people. Visit hospitals and talk to strangers. Pay their bills if they can’t afford to pay them. Visit schools, especially in poor neighborhoods. Offer to teach for free. Connect with children, listen to them, talk to them, sit with them, laugh with them. This is therapy and it is free. I do this 80% of my time, every year. People think I am doing great public service. But I know why I am doing it. Believe me, it works. Also, since 2000, I have written 35 books, done over 2500 short lectures and over 650 longer ones, all free. Question to ask yourself is, ‘What am I prepared to pay for my mental health?’

7. Stop living in the past: Yes, our good old days were good, but not as good as we like to recall now after fifty years They were as good and bad as today, with the only difference that what was good and what was bad, differed. Prices were cheaper but we had very little spending money. Competition for jobs was less but there were all of four career choices. Schools were less crowded, but we did rote learning and had corporal punishment. We didn’t have high medical treatment costs because we had almost none of the medical facilities that we have today. Life is relative. Live in the present because that is the only thing we really have. The past, both the good and bad of it is gone. The future is only a thought. We may never see it. And the older we get, the truer that is.

8. Appreciate what we have today: An attitude of gratitude is the cure for all ills. We have air travel that is cheaper than it has ever been. We have Wi-Fi and smart phones which help us to connect to the world. We have Google which the opens doors of almost every kind of knowledge that we choose to learn, sitting in our homes and free of cost. We have far superior medical aid than we ever had. We have appliances at home and apps on our phones. We have all sorts of conveniences that our parents didn’t even imagine. And what’s more, far many more of us have these than was the case in our parent’s time. My driver has a fridge and my cook has a microwave oven and both have air coolers in their homes. During my childhood, microwave ovens didn’t exist, neither did air cooling or air conditioning and fridges were as rare as polar bears in the Antarctic. Yes, Hyderabad was cooler than it is today, but believe me, all those sweaters in March are only in your imagination.

9. Stay away from doctors and hospitals: That may sound strange to you, but I have seen so many elderly people who seem to be obsessed with health checkups and medicines. Let’s face it. You are not getting younger, stronger, faster, healthier or sexier. I am willing to contest that last one but not the others. What are the tests going to show you? What will that do to your morale? What is the good of that? We all die. Some die before they stop breathing. Those are the ones who are obsessed with medical tests. Remember that health care has become an industry. It is no longer about curing the sick or even better, keeping people healthy. How does an undertaker make money? By people dying. How does a doctor make money? By people being or believing or imagining and trying to find out if they are sick. ‘Health care’ is a misnomer. Today’s health care has a stake in sickness, not in health. That is the problem with becoming an industry. The only focus then is on profit and return on investment. There are too many glaring examples in our society. I don’t need to give you any examples. I am sure you have your own. Sorry doctors. My father was a doctor, but he died penniless because he didn’t treat people who were not sick. He had a stake in people’s health, not in their sickness.

You don’t need a doctor to tell you if you are sick. If you wake up in the morning with your usual aches and pains, you are as healthy as an old horse. Do what the old horse does. He does his business and goes about his business, if you know what I mean. If you don’t, go visit a farm where old horses are out at pasture and you will see what I mean. Then one day, when his time is up, he lies down in a nice patch of grass in the sun and stops breathing. What do we, who are obsessed with health checkups, do? We spend our last days hooked up to various machines, in an ICU, with tubes coming out of our orifices until we stop breathing, but all the while making doctors rich. If that is how you want to go, please do. I don’t. So, I made a ‘No Hospitalization Will’. And I pray that I will never need hospitalization. Read, ‘Being Mortal’, by Dr. Atul Gawande. Amazing book that talks about this. He is a consultant in Harvard Medical School, so he should know, right? As I told you, if it is your idea to spend your hard-earned money on unnecessary hospital bills, please do. That’s your choice.

Believe me, if you do all this, it will keep you so busy that you will have no time to feel lonely. You won’t sit there yearning for people who passed away to walk in through the door. If they did, you would walk out of your skin. Instead, your new friends will walk in through the door and take you for a walk. That is why you have friends.

And yes, I forgot to mention, stop saving money. Spend it. You can’t take it with you. And your children can look after themselves. Enjoy yourself, go on a cruise, tick all the boxes on your bucket list. Help others. That gives more satisfaction than the cruise and the bucket list. But do both. And then lo and behold, it will be time to go. May that time and that day be the best day of your life because on that day you will meet the One who made it all possible.

Loneliness Kills

Loneliness Kills

They sit there, alone and lonely, knowing that there is nobody to carry the tradition forward to the next generation.

There was a time when joint families were the norm in India, where the whole family lived together in one big house. In many or most cases there was only one kitchen, and everyone ate together. The head of the family was the oldest male. In matrilineal systems (mostly in Kerala and coastal Karnataka) it was the oldest woman. He/she controlled all the money, and everyone gave their earnings to her. She/he ran the house and with great parsimony and responsibility and ensured that everyone was taken care of. There was no question of one sibling who earned well, flaunting his or her wealth over the others. Everyone had a place, and everyone was useful until their dying day. The elders, as they got older and no longer took an active part in running the household, became highly respected and valued repositories of customs and traditions, storytellers, the passers-on of family history and the arbiters in any disputes among the younger generations. Nobody was useless or irrelevant or put out to grass. Everyone had a place and an important role and felt wanted and needed.

However, as time passed and times changed, so did this structure. Families broke up as children left the family home, city and country in search of jobs and in pursuit of their careers. Many migrated to other countries, America being one of the most preferred destinations. Even those who remained at ‘home’, usually moved away from the family home, ostensibly to be closer to the workplace or children’s school but really to get away from the control of elders. Cultural values changed, tolerance levels changed, selfishness increased, putting self before others took the place of putting the family ahead of the self. We in India, tend to blame all this on the influence of the West in our society and culture, forgetting of course that the West didn’t enforce their influence. We chose to be influenced. Be that as it may, the fact remains that the first people to feel this change were the elders. They lost significance. They suddenly became powerless, almost an unwanted nuisance that others were putting up with. And then as the younger generations moved away, they were left alone. What added to this was that many of the younger generation migrated to the West and their children were born and brought up there, often with little or no contact with the ‘home country’. ‘Home country’ for them was America or Australia or Canada; not India, Pakistan, Syria, Nigeria, Egypt or Bangladesh. Most children didn’t even speak their ‘mother tongue’, since their parents spoke English even at home and didn’t teach their children the language of their ‘home country’ and people. Language is the substrate of the culture, so when the language was lost, so was the culture, manners, poetry, history and connection with the elders.

The ‘solution’ that many well-meaning children have found is to set their parents up in their home country/city/town/village, often in the old family home, with servants and a regular income. There they stay, with their memories, each corner and wall with a tale to tell but with nobody to listen to those tales. They are repositories of the history of the family, traditions of the community and culture, teachers of customs and manners but with nobody to learn from them. They sit there, alone and lonely, knowing that there is nobody to carry the tradition forward to the next generation. And what’s more, knowing that the next generation doesn’t even care about this. They sit there, alone and lonely, knowing that they have become irrelevant. They don’t need material wealth. They want for nothing materially. What they need is warmth, respect and the company of those they love. What they need is to feel useful, needed and appreciated. What they need is to feel that they still have a place and a reason to stay alive. What they need can’t be bought with money, nor ordered on Amazon. I am not blaming the youth. This is perhaps the price we pay for the material wealth and wherewithal that we chased. A price that neither our parents, who encouraged us to sail to foreign shores calculated, nor did we realize that we would have to pay it one day. But life is relentless and extracts its pound of flesh.

With my friend John Iskandar in Aziz Bagh

I was born into a joint family in a house, Aziz Bagh, which my great-grandfather, Nawab Aziz Jung Bahadur built in 1899. His children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren all lived in their own apartments, but all lived together in every sense of the term. I recall my early childhood vividly today, more than 55 years later. The house is on three acres of land and during my childhood, had a formal rose garden, lawns, a tennis court, pigeon cotes, a terrace where family functions would take place, a dhobi ghat (where our resident washerman and his wife would wash clothes of our family and were paid for the service) and lots of huge mango trees. Out of all these what I recall most warmly is the love that I received. It was not only me but all of us children growing up, it was as if we belonged to every adult in the house. There was no feeling of strangeness. Any adult took care of you, corrected you, even gave you a smack on your bottom if you needed it. We ate with the family of whichever cousin we were playing with. Nobody told us to go ‘home’ to our parents to eat and believe it or not, the food was always enough for the unexpected guests that we were in that house.

Our elders taught us manners. Not in formal classes but through their own behavior. They knew that children listen with their eyes. They don’t care what you say until they see what you do. One of the informal rituals was that daily we, especially the little ones went to the main house where the head of our family, Nawab Deen Yar Jung lived, to greet him and his wife. One day when I must have been about five-years old, I went there to greet my grandmother, Begum Deen Yar Jung, with a rose which I had plucked from the garden. Normally this was frowned upon. Flowers were to be enjoyed on the bushes, not to be plucked. But I was five. As I went up to her, she said to me something which was so full of love (even if it was a reminder not to pluck flowers) that I recall her memory to this day.

Phool lay kar phool aya,

Phool kar main nay kaha,

Phool kyon laye ho sahab,

Tum khud hi tho phool ho

I don’t claim to have remembered the exact words, but my mother was with me and I recall hearing this story from her many times until I memorized these words. My grandmother and her sisters, brothers and their children; my mother and her siblings and cousins were all, each in themselves, examples of grace and dignity. We loved them, respected them and tried to emulate them. Our current success or failure in this respect is entirely our responsibility and not their failing.

It is not just sad but tragic to see the ‘interaction’ that happens sometimes between grandparents and their grandchildren who were born and grew up in the West. You can see both making a great effort but in vain. The older ones usually make much more effort than the youngsters who like most of their generation are short on patience, especially towards the elderly who they were never taught to respect and don’t really have any bonds with. Distance and cost of travel had a big part to play. Travel to America or Australia is neither quick nor inexpensive and not what children or their parents could afford at the time when the grandchildren were young and impressionable. By the time they have the money to afford to travel with the family either way the children are already grown and the only impact that the ‘home country’ has on them is, “O My God! Look at the dirt, traffic, mosquitos, cows on the street, smoke, power outage, Wi-Fi is so slow or God Forbid, No Wi-Fi.” Meeting grandparents, talking to them (about what? Old stories about people they didn’t know, long dead, whose names even they can’t pronounce?), eating food (It is so hot!) and then getting sick. Well, all that means is that one visit is about all that those children will do willingly. Then they are off to college and that is that. Believe me, I have seen this story so many times, that it is not funny. Parents going to live in the West is equally tragic. They don’t fit in; they have no friends and how much TV can you watch especially when it doesn’t have your favorite programs? For many it is almost like being in prison, albeit a gilded one. And for the children who went to the trouble of bringing them to live with them in America or Australia or Canada, it is a huge let down. Relationships sour and get strained. Misery all around.

What adds to the difficulty is that the grandchildren and grandparents don’t have a common language (especially the grandmothers) and where the elders speak English it is naturally with an accent, which for most Western youth is a matter of either amusement or irritation. Since the youngsters grew up in the Western culture, they are clueless about social taboos. Parents are either too busy to teach or don’t see the point as they have broken off from their ‘home country and culture’ permanently and have little respect for it. The youngsters are therefore ignorant about things that their grandparents may well expect them to know about. For example, I have seen innumerable times, grandchildren sprawled on a couch with their sneakered feet on a table on which there are also books and pointing towards the grandfather who is sitting across them. Even worse, I have seen children putting their schoolbags on the floor of the car or bus they are travelling in and sitting with their shod feet on them. I won’t go into the details of how many social taboos are crossed and how this behavior in our Eastern cultures amounts to gross disrespect. Those who understand what I am saying, will see my point. Those who don’t, underline and illustrate it. Gradually the gap between the older and younger generations grows into a gaping gulf, too wide to bridge. Too many compromises are called for; too much of new learning which there is neither the time for nor patience and people related by blood and genes become strangers to one another. Each is helpless in his own way. Each is lonely surrounded by his own family.

Life has now come full circle for our generation. Those who left their homes, cultures, countries and families and lived and worked in alien environments. It is now time to consider our own relevance to the next generation. Do they need us? Can we communicate with them? Do they understand us, and do we understand them? Are there any real connections between us apart from the fact that we share genes? Genes have no feelings; we do. What will happen to us when we sit in the chairs that our parents spent their last hours of life in, staring at blank walls? I realize that perhaps I am being a bit dramatic but better to be prepared than to be sorry.

There is a solution and I am going to tell you about it in my next post.

Leadership is about living your values

Leadership is about living your values

Me with my staff in Lower Sheikalmudi Estate, Anamallais

In the plantation world we had two cadres of staff: Covenanted and Non-covenanted. Covenanted Staff started at Assistant Manager (or Assistant Superintendent) and Non-covenanted staff ended at that level. There were very few exceptions to this ‘rule’ and where they existed, you could tell them a mile away. This system was an outcome of the fact that the British planters who ‘opened’ the plantations and for almost a century later, were all army-men, almost to the last one. They implemented the Army/Military system of Officer Staff and NCOs in the plantations also. The ‘glass ceiling’ was made of toughened, almost armored glass and was very rarely penetrated and never broken. Interestingly the same system exists in India, in the army and police (IPS Direct Recruits) to this day.

The pecking order of the servants in the bungalow was that the butler was on the top, followed by the Chokra (a Hindustani word with a derogatory tone which literally means ‘urchin’). This worthy was the assistant of the butler who did all the cleaning, scrubbing, and polishing work in the bungalow. Then there was the gardener who did all the work outside. If you had a cow, there was the cow-keeper. There was the dhobi (washer man) who washed and ironed your clothes. All these for you as the Assistant Manager in South Indian gardens. I am informed that Managers in Assam and Bengal had more servants and bigger bungalows.

When you got promoted and went to the Big Bungalow, you got an additional servant inside the bungalow and a driver for your car. The pecking order remained the same. The pecking order was very strictly followed. Almost always the only person you spoke to or who spoke to you was the butler. He was the one who handled the money. You would give it to him, to give to the others or to the provision merchant from whom food for the bungalow was bought on credit. Credit played a major role in life as most assistants had no money. Many who liked high living had club bar bills that took up most of their salaries and so they lived on credit. This was obviously an evil because apart from the obvious reasons, many butlers set up their own kickback systems as a result. It was a given that you would pay more for provisions than other people but that was the burden of being the Chinna Dorai (Small Boss). Some managers were very stingy and corrupt and set up systems of gratuity and underhand payment in kind that they would write off to some estate expense or the other. These systems were well learnt by their subordinates who added to these systems of subterfuge and deception and ran a very corrupt ‘ship’ as it were.

One cardinal fact of plantation life always took its toll – nothing in planting life was private. If you took a bribe, its exact amount, who gave it, and for what, was the subject of much conversation in the bazaar. If you refused to be corrupt and lived a life of honesty, that also became common knowledge. The result was that the actual love and respect that you received from the workers and staff was directly proportional to the kind of life you lived. And in the end, it affected your own success, the loyalty that people showed you, and the peace of mind you lived with. People spoke with great respect about managers who were incorruptible and with disgust and disdain about managers who were corrupt. And in a place where you were the subject of most conversation, public opinion made a very big difference to your success as a Manager.

Most people understood the responsibility and meaning of being ‘Covenanted Staff’ and that it was precisely the superior moral position that gave them the ‘command authority’ that neither any special educational qualifications nor social order bestowed on them. They understood the importance of these unwritten rules and respected them. But there were others who abused this position much to everyone’s disgust. They didn’t realize until too late that the resultant loss of respect was the most expensive loss they would ever suffer and something that was never redeemable. People spoke disparagingly about such managers who stole or womanized or got drunk and made fools of themselves and the resultant loss of respect plagued them in their administrative duties. In my decade in planting, I had the opportunity to see both kinds. People for whom I developed the highest respect and those for whom pity, and contempt were the only emotions possible. But the saddest was when some of those who I respected the most showed that their previously uncompromising principles were okay to compromise when it came to what they thought was good for their own careers. They supported someone who was clearly corrupt on the plea that he was able to ‘get results’. I went through a lot of anguish trying to convince them that to get business results you don’t need to be corrupt, but to no avail. What hurt was that these very same people were the ones who spoke about integrity and the importance of never compromising values. So, what happened to that? I guess this was a part of my own growing up to accept that my idols had feet of clay which stank.

To be disillusioned is never easy. To see that your leaders who spoke very strongly about values buckled under when it came to stand by them and sided with the corrupt instead of standing up against corruption, only made me pity them and accept their weakness. It also strengthened me. I have been stubborn with my principles and have learnt from experience that the price you pay to live by your principles, no matter how painful it may seem, is always much less than what it costs to compromise them. Once you compromise your principles, you can never look those who you used to inspire, in the eye. Maybe some can live with that shame. I can’t. I am grateful that there were others who stood by me and that I never compromised my own principles and ethics. I paid the price by making enemies who did their best to hurt me in every way. That they didn’t succeed was the grace of Allah and not a measure of my own strength or the support of anyone else. I learnt the lesson that if you want to lead you must learn to like being alone. For the tiger walks alone while sheep have plenty of company. We define ourselves and world accepts that definition. Who am I to argue with how you define yourself?

Traditionally, like in the army, there has always been a social distance between the Managers and other staff. There is social interaction, but in a very formalized and rule bound way. Most of it is restricted to ceremonial occasions around festivals. The Manager was the ‘Headman’ of the estate and was expected to be completely secular to the extent that he was supposed to preside at all festivals irrespective of his or the celebrator’s religion. We had Hindu and Christian Managers presiding at Eid celebrations and Muslim Managers flagging off the cart bearing the deity at temple festivals. This tradition came out of the history of plantation labor almost all of whom were Dalit and in their own homelands, were not allowed into temples as they were considered ‘untouchable.’ But in the plantations, thanks to the fact that they were all displaced and almost all from the same caste, they created their own religious customs. So many temples in the plantation districts have Dalit priests, an anomaly in itself. Later, some Brahmin priests who were perhaps short of money in their hometowns started to come and preside at the temple, but the shots were called by the Dalits who built the temple and paid their salary. So, Dalits could not be prevented from entering the temple and were treated respectfully by the Brahmin priest. That is why the religion of the Manager didn’t matter; by definition, a Christian or a Muslim were untouchable in the Hindu caste system anyway. But in a world comprised of untouchables, everyone was touchable.

The Managers were initially all British, Christian, and white and lived by their own traditions which were more British Military than Christian. Many of them were only nominally practicing Christians for whom the daily pilgrimage to the local Planter’s Club bar was more sacrosanct than weekly attendance at the Church. Over the years, more out of necessity than ‘equal opportunity,’ the British planters started recruiting Indians to the ‘Covenanted Staff’ cadre because British youngsters were not willing to go out to India. These people came from upper class families, sometimes local nobility (which is how we had a number of Hyderabadis from the noble families of erstwhile Hyderabad State). The key, non-negotiable requirement was social acceptability. The logic was that everything else could be taught. But Covenanted Staff needed to be people who held themselves apart and considered themselves somewhat superior to others. To give this a positive spin, it was probably not racism alone but the need for the Officer Cadre to have the moral authority to command. However, there was a thin line which a lot of times got very faint indeed.

These people and their families automatically got membership in the Planter’s Club and were strictly supposed to follow tradition. Almost everyone did to the extent that many even spoke their own languages with a British accent. I used to have a very hard time trying to keep a straight face when I heard emanating from a black Tamilian face the words, “Angamootoo yenge da irkain??” in a very British accent. Those of my readers who know Tamil can probably imagine how funny this would sound. There is a very funny story about one of these black-outside-white-inside managers driving to visit another manager friend in an estate where he was not familiar with the roads. He stops his car and calls out to a worker who was walking down the road, “Dey, payyan inge wa da. Inda wali yenge pohudoo?” The man, obviously irritated replied, “Dorai inda wali nayra Englandu ku pohudoo” (Sir this road goes straight to England). Once again those who know Tamil will see how highly disrespectful this entire conversation is towards the worker. There is nothing more pathetic than someone who disrespects his own people and imagines himself to be superior and different because of his pretensions.

This internalization of British tradition is exemplified to this day in the fact that while the racist signs (Dogs and Indians not allowed) have come down the ‘formal dress’ in most ex-British Clubs is still lounge suit or dinner jacket and if you, Mr. Indian, make the mistake of imagining that your country’s national dress is more holy and come dressed in it, you will be stopped at the door of the Club lounge and told politely that you will be able to sit on the veranda. But if you entertained any hope of having dinner in the formal dining room you would have to go home and get changed into ‘decent’ clothes. At last count, it has been over sixty years since we became ‘independent’ from the British. As I always tell people, nobody can enslave you. You enslave yourself. And you have nobody in the world to blame for it. We Indians are particularly good at this voluntary enslavement. At the time of this writing, we are very busy exchanging traditional British chains for American ones. But seeing that the British have themselves done that already, it is hardly surprising that their erstwhile colonials are following suit, never having truly shed the colonial baggage themselves.

I remember with amusement my first job interview in 1978 with the Kannan Devan Tea Company (now Tata Tea) in Munnar, Kerala. I was asked to report one day prior to the date of the interview. An old friend, who was an Assistant Manager and knew the ropes, told me that this was to see if the candidates would fit the social scene. I was to wear a tie and lounge suit, he said. We would start in the Men’s Bar and after the drinks were over, we would be asked into the dining room to have dinner which we would have all together. While we did this, different people would come and talk to us. And all this would be observed and would count in our favor or against us in the interview the next day.

Sure enough, that evening we were asked to present ourselves at the High Range Club, sharp at 7.00 pm. About twelve of us in various styles of suits and ties found ourselves in the Men’s Bar (women not allowed). We were asked what we drank. When it came to my turn, I said that I would like to have a soft drink. People looked at me with various expressions; the barman with pity, fellow contestants with derisive smiles, and other inhabitants of the bar with a variety of expressions related to whether they thought I was a poor fool, uncultured, or just plainly idiotic. To put the record straight, someone in the meanwhile gave me a fresh lime soda.

As I sat there (I was all of twenty-two years old) wondering about the job that I had applied for and what drinking alcohol had to do with it, I heard a loud, “Hello there!” I looked up to see a florid red face in a body without a neck and a large smile looking at me. “So you don’t drink, eh?” he asked. Seeing that I was drinking a fresh lime soda (what else can you do with an FLS?) and that he could see what I was doing, I decided to keep silent and simply smiled and nodded. Smiling and nodding is an excellent strategy to allow people to interpret whatever they want.

“Tell me something young fellow,” he said, “Do you play cricket?”

I said that I did, but others who played with me wished that I didn’t.

Then he asked me, “Are you a Mason?” At that time, not being aware of the Free Masons Society I thought he wanted to know if I could build walls. “No, I’m not,” I said.

He looked me up and down with a sad expression on his face and said, “You don’t drink, you don’t play cricket, and you are not a Mason. Boy! You don’t have a chance.” Then looking at my face once again, he said, “Anyway, don’t worry, I am not on the recruitment panel.”

As it turned out, that did not make any difference to the outcome since those who were on the panel had the same views. I was asked a lot of questions about everything other than planting tea and given the ‘kiss of death’ – “Thank you very much, we will get back to you.” In plain English this means, “We are very glad that we are seeing the back of you.”

Thinking back over this incident, what is clear to me is the principle behind this method. In a place with a limited population (you did not count the estate staff and God Forbid, the workers as people) that you could socialize with, it was essential that you hired people who were socially acceptable. So social values that matched those of the locals had overwhelming importance. The skills of tea plantation management were all trainable. On the other hand, eating at table using the right fork for the right meat, drinking yet not getting drunk, making conversation that was inane yet interesting, dancing with the manager’s wife and so on were all skills that were either thought to be not trainable or too much trouble. So British managers (including their acolytes, the Brown Sahibs) hired young people from backgrounds that were socially acceptable to them and then trained them for job related skills, on the job. I obviously didn’t match and so was rejected.

The Sahib’s prediction was right, even though he was not on the panel. Brown Sahibs were always more conscious of snobbery; who wanted a fellow who neither drank nor played cricket? The British indoctrinated Indians so well in what was ‘decent, socially acceptable, and respectable’ that Indians adopted their ways as their own. Take the issue of clothing for example. Even though India has its own national and regional attire, the official attire for all ‘business, formal, decent’ occasions is Western clothes. Even today, nobody in their right mind would even dream of going for a job interview in an Indian company, knowing full well that the hiring manager is also Indian and that there is not a British person on the rolls of the company, in anything but Western clothes. And if he did turn up in a dhoti-kurta or a sherwani (the national attire of India), it is more than likely that he would not be hired for that reason alone – over sixty years after our official Independence from British colonial rule.

People adopt new standards because they like them and see them as adding value to them. Even when it can be argued in some cases that there is no real value addition, as long as people feel that there is, they will take to the new standard. The British, in order to demean Indians, made their doormen dress like Maharajas, in a Sherwani and turban. Sadly, to this day, this is the dress of our doormen at most hotels.

The most common lament that I hear today has to do with the fast disappearing “Eastern/Indian values,” which are being replaced by Western Pop culture. We tend to blame various agents for this, the chief being TV. My question is, “Why is it that our ancient cultures and their values are so weak that they are so easily replaced by some silly trend popularized on TV?” Blaming is of no use to anyone. What we need to do is to ask these questions and find answers, no matter how painful the process. Why is it that we and the generation before ours have not been able to communicate and sell the values we talk about so nostalgically to our children? What have we done in our own lives to reinforce those values? To what extent are we responsible for creating the exposure to the values we criticize? For example, we complain that our children do nothing but watch TV serials, music videos with all their shamelessness, and play Nintendo and other video games. But we never ask ourselves, “Who bought the TV, the Nintendo Game Controller, and the cable connection?” Do we sit with the children after they have watched something to analyze that program and derive its learnings? Do we spend time to understand what it is that they like about programs that we disapprove of? In short, do we have a conversation with our children? Or are we seen as mobile ATM machines that can be manipulated to get money to do what the kids want to do and can then be ignored until the next urge surfaces?

For more please read my book, ‘It’s my Life’, available on Amazon worldwide

People listen with their eyes

People listen with their eyes

The plantation industry is perhaps the finest place in which to learn leadership in a very hands-on manner. It is hugely exciting, sometimes very painful and always beneficial; the lessons learnt of lasting benefit. It is a treasure-trove of memories that last all life long; decades after most of us left planting. It enriches us with friendships that transcend all boundaries of religion, culture, region or language and with the cohesiveness of steel rope. If I am asked to name three of my closest friends, two if not all three would be planter friends. Of such a place and time, I speak.

The vast majority of workers in the estates were Dalit (lower caste Hindus). In some estates there were some Christians (converts from Dalits). In some estates, especially close to Kerala there were Malayali (Kerala) Muslims. Anamallais, where I joined, had a majority of Dalit workers. In the Hindu caste system, these Dalits are considered ‘unclean’ by other high caste Hindus and so in their villages they have to live in a separate area, are not allowed inside the temple, and have to even draw their water from a well set apart from the common village well. These are some of the facts about discrimination against Dalits, which is still prevalent in India.

When these people came to work in the plantations, more than a century ago, they organized themselves according to the villages they came from. Since they were the only Hindus on the estates, they built temples in some of which they performed the rituals themselves. In other temples, they hired a Brahmin priest from the plains to do the honors. By and large, they were able to create their own society on the estates and so lived with a great deal more honor and self-respect than their own relatives were allowed to live in the plains in their native villages. However, some of the sense of low self-esteem and awareness of their own low status in the so-called real world remained. I got a taste of this very early in my planting career.

One of our workers in Sheikalmudi Estate died while he was away on leave in his village. Several of his family asked me for 5 days leave to go to his funeral. I was not too happy giving so much leave to so many people, but I agreed because in the words of my Manager Mr. A.V.G. Menon, ‘Nobody dies so that others can get leave.’ Imagine my amazement however, when the next day I saw them all back in the estate. I asked them what had happened and why they were back so soon. They all looked sheepish and refused to say anything. Finally, after much persuasion, this is the story they told me.

“We reached our village late in the night. The next morning, we went to the local tea shop to get have some tea. But to our surprise (and embarrassment) we were not allowed inside the shop. We were told that if we wanted to have tea, we could take the coconut half-shells that were hanging on nails from one of the roof rafters and sit outside on the ground outside the shop and drink the tea. Once we had drunk the tea, we had to wash the ‘utensils’ and put them back on their nails.”

“But you know Dorai,” one of the younger ones told me, “The price of the tea is the same for us and for the high caste Hindus who are given proper cups. No discount price for drinking in coconut cups sitting in the dust.”

“I guess we forgot who we were, Dorai,” said their leader. “After all, we all came from the same village, but we have lived here for so long that we started believing that we also are human beings. This visit reminded us of what we are.”

I was speechless with anger and sadness. What could I say to them? Thousands of years of oppression and apartheid, alive and well in Tamilnadu, a state that claims to have 100% literacy. And a collective helplessness that seems to be able to do nothing about it. One of my major motivators in working with Dalits all my life is this incident. I can still feel the anger and the shame of a society that allows this discrimination while mouthing all kinds of platitudes about ‘children of god’ – Harijan – the name that Gandhiji gave the Dalits. If they are children of god, then we must question what kind of god it is who allows such discrimination.

When I joined Sheikalmudi Estate in 1983 as Assistant Manager, Lower Division, the pruning season was going on at the end of which, it was estate tradition to have a big lunch to which all the pruning workers, supervisors and managers are invited. On the given day, I arrived at the Muster (gathering place to allot work) and was ceremonially met by the Union leaders, staff, and some workers, garlanded with flowers and taken in a procession to the Crèche which was the site for the lunch. In South India we eat off a grass mat spread on the floor on which plantain leaves are spread in lieu of plates and so the seating was arranged accordingly for all the gathering. I noticed that in the corner there was a table set aside with a place setting; knife, fork, and porcelain plate. I realized what was going on. The special seating was for me so that I would not be embarrassed at having to eat with them and save them from the resultant embarrassment in case I refused to eat with ‘low caste’ people. The diplomatic thing to do was to use social status as the excuse and set up a separate eating place where both their honor and mine would remain intact. At the time of this story I was new, and they did not know what my values were, so they weren’t taking any chances.

I decided to make a point and set the record straight right away in the context of my relationship with them.

Pointing to the table and chair, I asked the organizers, “Who is that place for?”

“For you Dorai!” he said.

“You mean you called me to this function, but I can’t eat with you and have to eat separately?” I challenged him.

He was horrified at this turn of events. “Ayyo! Dorai, we thought you may not like to eat with us. That is why we set this table for you. The fact that you are here is an honor for us. You don’t have to sit and eat with us on the floor.”

I knew of course why he was saying what he was saying. This was the Dalit speaking to someone who was socially higher than himself. Even though the caste issue did not apply in my case as I am Muslim and we have no caste system, all human beings being equal in Islam irrespective of caste or race. However, the Dalits have learnt to play safe. So, they were giving me the honor due to a high caste Hindu.

I wanted to make my point. I said to him, “In my culture, the guest is only honored if the host eats with him. So, if you people are not going to eat with me, then I will leave as I have no need to be insulted.”

“Ayyo Dorai, please don’t misunderstand. If you eat with us, it is we who will be honored,” he replied. There were now big smiles on the faces of everyone. “Dorai said he will eat with us,” the whisper flew through the crowd. A place was set for me at the head of the eating mat and we sat down to a wonderful meal, something which they said was the first experience of its kind in their lives. My point was made; here was a man who did not differentiate on the basis of caste and who genuinely believed in equality of people. I did not fully realize the power of what I had done, just by following my own religion. Many years and many incidents later, some of the workers who were with us at that banquet that day said to me, “That day we decided that you were one of us.” I have seldom felt more honored in my life.

My other butler who joined service with me when Bastian left was Mohammed Khan, who I used to call Mahmood because he had the name of the Prophet and I didn’t want to use it to call him as it sounded disrespectful to yell out, ‘Mohammed’. So, I used to call him Mahmood. He was perfectly happy with that as he knew that was a mark of respect on my part. Mahmood was a great cook and intensely loyal. At that time, I was an Assistant Manager working under a very corrupt Manager. I tried to keep my nose clean on the principle that his doings didn’t concern me until one day he called me and ordered me to certify the work of a civil contractor who was his man and gave him a kickback in every contract. I agreed and asked the contractor to show me the work so that I could measure it. The contractor looked very surprised and asked me, ‘Did you speak to Peria Dorai (Big Manager)?’ I said to him, ‘Yes I spoke to him. He told me to certify your work. So, show me your work and I will certify it.’ The man went away and shortly, as expected, my manager called me.

‘Didn’t I tell you to certify his work?’

‘Yes, you did. I told him to show it to me so that I can certify it.’

‘I have seen the work, so you can simply sign the bills.’

‘If you have seen the work, then why don’t you sign the bills? I don’t sign anything until I see it myself.’

That was that. Obviously, the man was not pleased. So, he started to try to make my life miserable. I worked much harder than him and made no mistakes so there was nothing he could do to get at me. One day he decided to ‘inspect’ my house. He had a reputation for entering the bungalows of his assistants and opening drawers and outraging their privacy. He waited until I had left home and gone to the field and drove up to my bungalow. Mahmood greeted him at the door.

Mahmood had a signature greeting. He would bend over at an angle of forty-five degrees and put his left hand behind his back and bring his right hand in a wide sweeping gesture from his side up to his forehead in a salute and say, ‘Salaam Sahib.’ The Manager said to him, ‘I have come to inspect the bungalow.’

Mahmood, ‘But Sahib, Baig Dorai is not here.’

‘That doesn’t matter. This house belongs to the company and I have the right to enter it at any time without his permission.’

Mahmood responded, ‘Dorai, until he returns, I can’t allow you to enter.’

‘I told you the house belongs to the company,’ he yelled.

Mahmood said in a quiet voice, ‘Dorai, but I don’t belong to the company. I will not allow you to enter until Dorai returns. Please come back when he is here.’

The Manager was enraged but could do nothing short of physically forcing his way in and Mahmood would have put him in a hospital if he had tried. So, he left threatening to have him sacked. As soon as I went to the office in the afternoon, he called me and said, ‘Sack that bloody butler of yours right now.’

I asked him, ‘What happened?’ I knew exactly what happened but wanted to hear it from him.

‘I went to inspect your bungalow, but he refused to let me enter. Sack him right away.’

‘Why did you go to my bungalow when I was not there? He was perfectly right in not allowing you. I will not sack him. If you want to inspect the bungalow come when I am there.’ He never did and Mahmood remained where he was until I moved to Ambadi when he left me and went back to Ooty where he had his family.

Mahmood, making sure that I got properly married

It was in that year that I crashed my motorcycle and went through one year of very difficult times. I had to have an operation to replace the anterior cruciate ligament in my knee and then a very long recovery followed by physiotherapy. All through that period Mahmood served me faithfully and without complaint. He came with me to Hyderabad for my marriage and the only decent marriage picture that I have has Mahmood peering over my head through a curtain of flowers. My wedding photography was a complete disaster and all that I have to show that I’d had a wedding is that one picture. The best thing about both Bastian and Mahmood was that they were completely trustworthy in every respect. They were faithful, their integrity was beyond question, they maintained complete confidentiality, took pride in their work, and cared for me and later when I got married, cared for both of us like members of our own family. We also treated them as members of our own family. I truly have wonderful memories of these two dear friends, both of whom have passed away.

The tea plantations were an interesting place where strange things happened as a matter of course. Over the years, I learned never to be surprised at anything. In the Iyerpadi Hospital where Dr. John Philip was the RMO as I’ve mentioned and his wife Maya was the Lady Doctor, a man was brought in after having been bitten by a cobra on his face. How this happened is a story in itself. This man had the reputation of knowing some sort of magic spell that he claimed neutralized the effect of snake venom. He would catch snakes and get them to bite him on his hand and then show people that nothing happened to him. This naturally gave him a lot of ‘brand’ in a place as superstitious as Anamallais was. The reality is that most snakes are non-poisonous to begin with and those that are poisonous usually don’t inject a full dose, either because they had hunted recently and have used up their poison on their natural prey – rats – and have not regenerated a new supply, or for some other reason. Never having been a snake, I can’t speak on their behalf. The long and short of it is that most people who die of snake bite die more out of fear than anything else.

In this case, however, our friend chased a cobra, which tried to escape down a hole in the embankment by the side of the road but he caught it by the tail and hauled it out and then caught it behind its head and kissed it. He was himself sloshed out of his mind at the time and his bravado far exceeded his intelligence. The result was that the snake reciprocated the affection and he was bitten twice or thrice on the face. Given that this snake did have some venom to donate and that he was bitten on the face, he collapsed. Mercifully, some people saw him and brought him to the hospital. At the hospital, there was no anti-venom and so Dr. John Philip gave him some antihistamine and put him on the ventilator. Now, the interesting thing was that the hospital didn’t have an electrical ventilator. What they had was a mechanical device which was like a bellows and needed someone to sit there and pump it constantly to ensure that the air supply continued uninterrupted. It was amazing how everyone in the hospital, nurses, doctors, other patients, their visitors, passersby who heard the tale, all came to the aid and took turns to keep the air flowing into the lungs of the man who was completely comatose. This continued day and night, hour on hour for 48 hours, and then we beheld that the man’s eyes opened, and he sat up and a couple of hours later he was as good as new. His love of kissing snakes though, had dampened a bit. I asked Dr. John about this ‘miraculous’ event. He told me, ‘No miracle at all. The poison is neurotoxic, but protein based. It affects the nerves and stops the breathing. But being protein based, if you can keep the patient breathing mechanically by forcing air into his lungs, when the poison naturally degenerates within 48 hours the patient can breathe again’. However, miracles are far more fun to believe in than science and so our friend’s stock went up even higher after it was ‘proved’ that snake venom had no effect on him. The fact that he was in a coma and had been kept alive mechanically for 48 hours was soon forgotten because it came in the way of the belief in the nice miracle.

Shows how such beliefs thrive in all parts of the world, whereas the truth lies either in some straightforward physical reason or in less straightforward skullduggery and playacting.

For more, please read my book, ‘It’s my Life’. It is on Amazon worldwide