I breathed a huge sigh of relief as we loaded the
last railway sleeper on the barge. The
beginning of this particular barge story goes back to when I first arrived in
Kwakwani and saw the mining operations. Bauxite mining was done by the open
cast method, which is one of the most wasteful and destructive methods known to
man. But it made economic sense and long-term effects were not on anyone’s
mind, so it went on. The sequence of operating an open cast mine is as follows.
First the prospecting team identifies where the bauxite ore deposits are. They
do this by drilling holes on a grid pattern, and send back soil samples
sometimes from several hundred feet underground for analysis. This enables the
geologists to create a map of the underground ore deposits. The prospecting
team stays deep in the rain forests away from habitation for several weeks at a
time. Food and supplies would be trucked in to them by Land Rover. Loneliness
was a major issue and alcoholism its outcome. The prospecting teams welcomed
visitors and I would often spend a weekend with them. One day when I was with
one of the teams in the forest, one of the Amerindian drillers came to me
looking very agitated and said, “Man Baigie, I want a week’s leave.” I knew he
had no leave to his credit and told him that he could not take leave. He begged
and pleaded, “Man!! A bin out ‘ere in the jungle too long man. I miss the
ol’lady baad man. You raas na married, wa ya know about all dem ting!” I was
not getting into a discussion about the need for female company so I stuck to
my guns and told him that he had no leave to his credit and so he could not go.
Eventually he became such a pest that I said to him emphatically, “Leon, I told
you, you cyan go.” That got to him. He pulled himself up to his full height of
5 foot nothing and said to me, “Man Baigie, you cyan tell me I cyan go! You can
tell me I cyan come back. But you cyan tell me I cyan go!!” I was so amused at
this obviously logical explanation that I burst out laughing and said to him,
“Alright off with you for three days. I will look the other way. Unofficial
The Amerindians were simple people who lived from
day to day without a thought for the future. They worked when they were hungry
and relaxed when their belly was full. Alcohol was the bane of their lives, but
they were oblivious to that. Once an area had been mapped and it had been
decided to start mining, the forest would be cleared in preparation for the
mining operations. This was done by simply sending in Caterpillar D9 bulldozers
(each the size of a small house) which would push over all the trees into one
big pile which would then be burnt. Sometimes these fires would burn for
months. Then the dozers would clear the overburden, which was mostly sand,
until they reached the hard pan. Then the Dragline Excavator would come in and
start digging. The Dragline Excavator is such a huge machine that it has no
wheels or tracks but actually ‘walks’ on huge feet. It is an amazing sight to
see a Dragline Excavator moving. Eventually a colossal pit would be created
with the Dragline Excavator sitting in the middle of it, deep below the level
of the surrounding forest, like some pre-historic dinosaur working round the
clock digging out the ore. The Dragline Excavator would load the ore into huge
Caterpillar trucks with a payload of 50 tons each which would cart it away to
the crusher. The crusher would crush the ore into a uniform consistency and
load it onto barges that a tug boat would then push down the Berbice River to
New Amsterdam where it would be further processed. It would then be loaded onto
ships to be taken away to Canada and the US for smelting and extracting
I often tried to imagine what the whole operation
would look like to someone from another planet flying overhead. They’d see a
huge hole at one end, a living creature with a long neck and a wide jaw with
massive teeth, which continuously bit large chunks of the earth and spit them
into waiting trucks. Once the truck has its payload it drives up out of the
hole up the carefully graded road often circling the pit a couple of times as
the road climbs out of the depths of the earth. A hairy operation in itself as
the road had no safety barriers (not that any barrier would hold a fifty-ton
truck) and the pit yawned on one side of it. It is a tribute to the skills of
the drivers that in the five years that I lived in Guyana there was not a single
major accident. When the truck comes out over the lip, it drives swiftly
through the forest and eventually dumps its load at the ore dump near the
crusher. Then back to the pit. At the ore dump are the Front-end Loaders; huge
machines on wheels with a toothed bucket in the front. This scoops the ore from
the pile into its bucket, turns around and trundles along a few meters and
dumps it into the hoppers of the crusher. Then it would spin in its track and
back to the ore dump for its next load. In the middle of all this would be
another machine that resembles a large beetle called a Scraper. That is what it
does. It scrapes off the top soil (called overburden) into a hopper that is in
its belly and then it takes it and dumps it away from the main pit.
Then there is the Grader that ensures that the
road remains clear, level, and smooth so that the trucks can run without
interruption. It is amazing how many of these machines resembled insects. This
process would go on, day and night, continuously. As I mentioned, open cast
mining is perhaps the most destructive operation on earth. In Guyana in those
days there was not even an attempt at rehabilitating the land, so when a pit
had been mined out, it would simply be abandoned. If you drove around you would
come across many such mined out pits filled with the clearest, bluest water you
ever saw. This was the result of the minerals in the water, one of the effects
of which was that nothing lived in the water. The water was good to swim in and
we did that often. The pits were very deep so it was not totally safe to swim
in them, but when you are twenty-some years old and there are others swimming
with you, you don’t think about safety. Not the wisest thing to do, but I lived
to tell the tale.
When I checked, I found that just as I had
suspected these forests had good hardwood trees. Good for making furniture and
construction material, but nobody had the time to do anything about that and so
they simply burnt them to clear the land to get to the ore. What this burning
did to the environment is a different story and to tell you the truth, I was as
unaware in those days about environmental issues as most other people. What was
obviously clear though, was that a lot of otherwise useful timber was being
wasted simply because nobody was interested in doing anything about it. The
core operation of the company was mining and that was all that any of the
managers were interested in. I made a proposal to the company that we setup a
sawmill operation, which would be able to utilize this forest resource and be a
self-sufficient, profit making business.
The management agreed and this sawmill operation
was given to me to run in addition to my regular job as Assistant
Administrative Manager. My boss, Mr. James Nicholas Adams (Nick Adams) was a
remarkable man who was also my mentor and guide. Although he was technically in
charge of the whole operation, he let me run it the way I wanted and that was a
tremendous learning opportunity for me. Nick had a unique way of teaching by
delegating responsibility and then periodically calling me to do a
participative analysis of my own performance. He would then reinforce the
strengths and achievements and encourage me to draw lessons from my mistakes. I
remember my first ever appraisal in 1980. Nick gave me the form and told me to
fill it in myself. I was shocked because I thought appraising was something
that the boss did for you. But Nick’s point was, ‘You know what you did better
than I did. So, write it up.’ I returned with what I thought were my
achievements and then Nick and I had a long chat about them. Thanks to my
Indian cultural upbringing, Nick ended up adding several things that I had left
out feeling that they didn’t really count. I still have that form with Nick’s
signature on it, 33 years later.
One of my major learnings was that responsibility,
variety, challenge, and satisfaction in a job were largely in your hands if you
used your head and could influence people. I was not the only person who saw
the way the forest was treated or who saw that it could become an independent
source of income. I was the only one who translated these thoughts into a
workable business model. The result was that it was added to my responsibility
and I now had an official reason to spend time in the forest. I recruited my
good friend Peter Ramsingh to be the head of this operation and Peter and I
spent the next five years doing what we loved to do anyway – wander in the rain
forest at will. I recruited Amerindian workers, who knew the rain forest of the
Berbice River valley like the backs of their hands, for the sawmill operation.
These people lived a nomadic life in the forests in semi-permanent camps. They
would clear a small area of the forest and grow a few vegetables, and hunt
deer, collared peccary, capybara, and agouti that came to feed on this new
bounty in the forest. They knew the location of each Greenheart, Wamara, and
other hardwood trees in the forest, which they came across in their wanderings.
Ideal people to do the scouting operations that we needed to locate the trees
we needed for the mill. Once they had located the trees, the extracting team
would go and haul in the trees.
Peter Ramsingh was a man of enormous energy,
enterprise, and initiative. Peter got along well with his people and became the
ideal manager of the mill. Peter and I would spend hours in the forests,
accompanying the scouts in their explorations, not because they needed our help
but because we both loved being in the rain forest. Peter’s wife Chandra would
send me things she cooked and would pack us lunch when we took off on our
jaunts. Chandra was Nick Adam’s secretary and a wonderful, patient lady with a
big smile always on her face. To this day, 30 years later, I can still recall
the smell of the vegetation in the dim recesses of the Berbice River forests,
so thick in places that the sun did not penetrate to the forest floor. It was
with great distress that I learnt in 2009 that Peter Ramsingh had died of
congestive heart failure in 2001. One more, dear friend gone forever. Feeling
the pain of parting is the price of friendship. Peter was a truly dear friend
whose memory I honor and will remember every time I think of Guyana.
Once the sawmill had been set up, we went order
hunting and the first big order we received was from the mining railway for
sleepers as they were renovating their tracks in two locations. We were very
excited as this would make our sawmill profitable and prove the point on which
I had projected the whole plan. The only hitch was that the sleepers had to be
sawn and shipped out of the ‘backdam’ (Creolese for forest) to the waterfront
loading point by a particular date, for the barge which would take them to New
Amsterdam. All major material came to Kwakwani by river boat which took back
bauxite ore on the return trip downriver. There was much excitement and lots of
long hours of work in felling the trees from their different locations,
dragging them to the mill and then sawing them into railway sleepers. Once the
sleeper had been sawn it had to have two 8-shaped irons hammered into either
end to prevent splitting. Since we were extracting individual trees of a
particular species from the rain forest, (as distinct from plantation felling)
we had to find the particular tree, fell it, and extract it. The machine used
was called a Skidder, also made by Caterpillar.
The Skidder was a very versatile machine with a
dozer blade on the front end and a large crab-hook at the end with a steel rope
and winch. Once the tree had been felled, the Skidder operator would drive up
to it, in the process making its own track, hook the tree, loop the steel cable
around it and winch it up to the platform on the rear end. Then the machine
would drag it to the mill. Very efficient and fast but also very wasteful as
the machine left huge swathes of crushed vegetation in its wake.
The difference between mechanical and ‘biological’
extraction became even more starkly clear to me when, several years later in
the Anamallais (Tamilnadu, South India), I went to see some timber extraction
operations being done by the Indian Forest Service, using trained elephants.
The way the animals and their mahawats worked with an almost telepathic bond,
was amazing to say the least. And the economy with which individual trees were
extracted was simply delightful to see.
To come back to our story, we had all the railway
sleepers ready and stockpiled at the waterfront in time when the barge arrived.
Now to the tricky part – twenty-four thousand sleepers had to be loaded onto
the barge in 24 hours when it was due to leave. Our innovative solution – work
straight through. And that is what we did. I mean the ‘we’ literally as I
loaded the sleepers, physically, with the loaders. We would take breaks every
two hours, eat bread and cheese and drink large mugs of sweet, milky, tea and
then get back to work.
West Indians being as they are, someone started a
very ribald chant in a catchy tune that others took up and that was the beat we
worked to. Hours flew by, night fell and our willing electrician rigged up some
make shift lights so we could continue to work. And we worked. Come sunrise,
the last sleeper had been loaded. We were all dog tired with aching backs and
bruised hands, but not much the worse for wear. I was young and tough in those
days. We headed off to our homes for a hot bath and eight hours of sleep
What was remarkable about this story was that in
the highly unionized environment of the Guyanese bauxite industry, there was
not a single cry from the union about making people work beyond hours or for
overtime wages or anything at all. Later one of the union stewards told me,
“Maan Baigie! Your raas make aa-we shut up maan. You was dey with de bais
loading sleepers and eating wat dey was eating. Wa cud we say maan?? Your raas
smart!!” Which, translated reads: You made us shut up. You were there with the
boys loading the sleepers with them and eating what they ate. What could we
say? You are smart.”
Now the big secret is that I did not do that because
I was applying strategy, but because that is how I work. I never asked anyone
to do what I would not do myself and as it happened, it is also good leadership
strategy. Leading from the front. Demonstrate the standard, not merely talk
However, this strategy did not always work in
Guyana. I remember my friend, Rev. Thurston Riehl. Father Riehl told me this
story about the time when leading from the front didn’t work. He was an
Anglican priest, Vicar of Christchurch, in Georgetown. The interesting thing
was that Father Riehl had a parish that extended into and up the Berbice River
for more than a hundred miles. He had a motor boat in which he used to go up
and down the river, often alone with only the sound of the outboard motor for
company. He was an accomplished naturalist and had a wealth of information
about the rain forest and its flora and fauna. When he learned that I was
interested in the same things, he and I would spend many hours walking in the
rain forest where he pointed out various things to me. He once told me, “When
God finished creating Hell, he threw all the leftovers in the Amazonian rain
forest.” This referred to the many
charming creatures that live in these parts. From tarantula spiders, to sting
rays, electric eels, piranhas, vampire bats, boa constrictors, anacondas,
bushmaster, black and green mamba, boomslang and an amazing variety of
Of course, the forest has its share of beautiful
creatures as well; scarlet and purple macaws, toucans, parakeets and parrots of
many types, Sakiwinki monkeys (also called Squirrel monkeys – very small with
large eyes), flying squirrels, hummingbirds the size of moths which beat their
wings at a thousand rpm, sun birds whose fluorescent plumage shines in the
gloom of the rain forest. Forest sounds that I used to look forward to were the
booming call of the Howler monkeys echoing in the early morning mist, the
raucous calls of macaw pairs who mate for life, flying to unknown destinations,
talking to each other in flight.
I was (and have always been) very fond of animals
and had all kinds of unusual pets. In Guyana, I had the opportunity to indulge
myself because I lived in the middle of the rain forest and there were no
restrictions on what I could and couldn’t own. If I could catch it, feed it and
keep from being eaten or bitten, I could keep it. I had a boa constrictor (12
feet half grown), a Toucan, a free flying Scarlet Macaw, a Tapir, and a
Sakiwinki (Spider) monkey as pets. I also had a large number of hens, Muscovey
ducks, and turkeys, which were pets until they got converted to food. The ducks
were not very good to eat, too tough and also hard to catch as they were feral
and free flying. But the turkeys and chickens regularly added to the larder.
Female turkeys are obsessive incubators of eggs. They will sit on anything
spherical. I once found a turkey that was trying to hatch an electric light
bulb which to its intense disgust refused to oblige. On another occasion, I was
searching for a missing turkey after a rainstorm and eventually found it
sitting in a hollow in the ground that had filled up with water and covered the
turkey and its eggs. The crazy bird still refused to leave its nest and was
sitting on the eggs with just her head above the water. Such were the incidents
of my life…small pleasures that added value, conversation, and fun.
Berbice was a very poor region with most people
farming in the forest. This consisted mainly of slash and burn agriculture
where people would grow cassava, yams, bananas, peppers, and pineapples. It’s
called slash and burn because that is exactly what the aspiring farmer does. He
slashes a piece of forest, leaves the chopped trees and bushes to dry for a few
days and then sets them on fire. This fire burns for a few days and leaves
behind rich potash with acts like fertilizer. The farmer then plants his crop
in the cleared area and gets a bumper crop from the forest soil rich in humus
and ash from the burnt trees. However, that is only for a couple of rounds by
when the rain leaches out the nutrients and the soil goes to it original sandy
state. Then the farmer moves on to a new patch to repeat his cycle. This is how
the rain forest gets inexorably destroyed, patch by patch.
In the Guyana of the 70’s, ideology (communism)
ruled everything – including what you could grow, sell, or eat. Potatoes were
considered signs of the colonial masters (they were called Irish Potatoes –
even though they had been brought to Ireland from South America) and were
therefore illegal to grow. Some farmers in the bush would still grow them
clandestinely. I remember we would sometimes get a gift of 2-3 potatoes, which
someone had either managed to grow or smuggled in from Suriname. The lesson
that value is in the eyes of the perceiver was something I learnt early in
One of the things Father Riehl wanted to do was to
teach his parishioners some skill by which they could make some more money and
improve their standard of life. As there was a ready market both for eggs as
well as poultry and Guyana is a high rainfall area, he thought that duck
farming would be a viable idea. The only issue was the need for some kind of
reservoir of water without which the ducks wouldn’t lay eggs. His parishioners
lived on the River Berbice but the main river with piranhas and alligators was
not the best place to farm ducks. So the potential duck farmer would need a
reservoir that was safe for his ducks. When Father Riehl mentioned this idea to
his parishioners, they typically said, “O! But father, we cyan do nothin! Whay
awe gonna ged da tank?” I can still recall the lovely sing-song tone of voice
these people of Berbice spoke in. Father Riehl thought that he would teach them
some lessons of self-help by example. He got himself a spade and a pickaxe and
marked out a large roughly circular area and started digging.
He said to me, “Every morning I would start
digging and people would stand around and watch in friendly silence. They would
make appreciative noises and comment to each other, ‘Father Riehl, he wok so
hard!’ They would bring me water to drink and would offer me lunch and dinner.
Nobody more hospitable than Guyanese and out of them, my favorites, the people
of Berbice. I lived among them as one of them and so all Berbice people were
family. The whole day would pass and in the evening when the work stopped they
would make a lot of appreciative remarks about how hard I had worked and the
tremendous progress of the hole in the ground. Then came the day when it was
finished and we let water into the pit.
It filled up nicely and all that remained was to get some ducks. But I
wanted to be sure that they would take this on and replicate this work, now
that they had seen how easy it was. But when I asked them, they said, ‘O!
Father, but we cyan do dis.’ I was flabbergasted. In shocked surprise I asked
them, ‘But you saw me do this. So you see that it is something that you can
also do. So what is the problem?’ They said, ‘O! Father, but you’z differen!!’
Guyana was ‘differen’ in many ways. Amazonian rain forest, exotic wildlife and birds, people who were very friendly, and whose life was as untouched by the rest of the world as is possible to be.
Timehri Airport, Georgetown, Guyana, South
America; a long way from home in Hyderabad, India. My first independent job, my
first foreign country. January, 1979
The plane circled to land at Georgetown, Guyana.
It was an old Boeing 707, which had seen a lot of service and belonged to the
venerable BWIA (British West Indian Airlines also known as ‘But Will It
Arrive’). By today’s (2019) standards, it was a very primitive plane. The seats
were rather cramped, but when you are with a plane load of people from the
Caribbean you forget everything. Not too many places in the world will you find
people who have so little and yet are so content. And so willing to share it
with others. It seems that generosity of the spirit is inversely proportional
to the amount of wealth a person has. The poorer they are, the more generous
and willing to share.
As the plane made its final descent, I looked out
of the window and saw lots of lush green vegetation and the sea the waves
lapping over an absolute flat and featureless black beach. I knew I was looking
at the famous mud flats, mud that was reasonably firm when the tide was out but
as the tide started to come in, the water would make the mud particles more and
more mobile. This made the whole thing extremely treacherous and if anyone was
unfortunate enough to be out on the mud flats at this time, they would simply
sink in the mud to their death. That is why there was nobody on the ‘beach’ in
Guyana immigration was a long, never-ending line.
Once I was through immigration I waited endlessly for my luggage. My two bags
contained the sum total of my worldly possessions and it appeared that both had
been lost. It was not a very auspicious beginning to arrive in a foreign land
with literally nothing more than the shirt on my back. But that was how I
arrived in Guyana.
I was met by a very pleasant gentleman with a huge
smile, which I realized is a typically Guyanese trademark. His name was Neville
and he was the driver that my father had sent to get me. The first item on the
agenda was to get some clothes, so we went to the main street in Georgetown, to
the only department store there called Guyana Stores. Even though I came from
India, which was a poor country, I noticed that the shelves of Guyana Stores
were rather bare. There was not much concern for packaging or display. Fans
stirred the still and humid air while a radio belted out some Reggae music. I
bought a couple of dishikis (a lovely West Indian shirt in colorful prints) and
some toiletries and we were ready for the journey to Linden, where my parents
lived and where the headquarters of the Guyana Mining Enterprise (GUYMINE), the
state owned, bauxite-mining company, was located.
My father had come to Guyana a few months earlier
to work as the doctor in the hospital of GUYMINE, one of the two major
employers in the country. GUYMINE (formerly Linmine) was owned by Alcan of
Canada and when they owned it, it was named Demba. Demba was nationalized by
the PNC Government in 1971 and like in the case of many good socialist
governments, people were given managerial positions based more on their
political leanings than on their managerial ability. The results were
predictable and rapid.
Neville drove his Land Rover like there was no
tomorrow and as we raced on a single track road with almost no traffic, I was
struck by how much the Guyanese countryside was like South India. Thick lush
green vegetation everywhere. Some trees I recognized – Jack fruit, tapioca
(cassava), yams, bananas in plenty, some coconut, and lots of lush green grass;
the Bread fruit tree was new for me. The soil was very sandy. And the water in
several streams and in the Demerara River to which we eventually came, was a
dark coffee color.
Neville did a running Guyana-101 with me as he
drove. He told me that the water was perfectly clean and good to drink but that
the color was due to various dyes that leached into the water from the roots of
trees on the river bank. He also told me not to jump into any river to swim
because most of them had Piranha and also because some are tidal and have some
treacherous currents. When I told him that I was fond of fishing he told me to
be careful when wading across streams as in the sandy beds sometimes would lie
concealed a kind of fish called a Sting Ray, which has a poisonous sting in the
tail. And under the overhanging banks would sometimes be concealed Electric
Eels which could give a shock strong enough to stun you unconscious. I realized
that there was much to be learnt about South America and tropical rain forests
and what lived there.
After a couple of weeks into what was supposed to
be a holiday, the routine was getting a bit mundane. I heard about a job
opening in a mining town, two-hundred miles inland in the middle of the
Amazonian rain forest on the bank of Rio Berbice, called Kwakwani. I applied
and to my great delight was immediately selected. Two days later I was in
Kwakwani. My delight at having done well in the interview was a bit short lived
when I realized a few days later that I had been the only applicant – nobody
wanted to go there. Neville and I drove the 60 miles from Linden to the bank of
the Berbice River. The road was cut through the rain forest with thick forest
on either side such that you could only see a few feet into the forest. The road
itself was not paved and its condition would vary between bad and worse
depending on how much rain fell and how busy the graders were in the mines.
When they had some free time, they would send a grader or two to do the road
work and the road would stay fairly smooth for a few weeks. Then it would go
back to its roller-coaster state until the next encounter with the graders. I
was to get to know that road very well in the five years that I lived in Guyana
and actually held the record for the fastest time on it – sixty miles in sixty
minutes – in my beat up old Land Rover. The road literally ended on the bank of
Rio Berbice such that if you were not alert and were driving too fast, you
could actually come racing out of the forest around the last bent (nothing to
tell you that it was the last bend and any different from the million other
bends just like it) and land straight in the river which was about half a
kilometer wide and perhaps 50 feet deep at that point. Not a happy thought at
When you reached the river bank, you flashed your
lights and hooted your horn until someone at the waterfront diagonally across
on the opposite bank where the bauxite crusher and loading platform was
located, heard you and sent a barge to get you. There was no bridge on the
Berbice River and so you had to drive onto a barge and be floated across to the
other side. The water of the Berbice was also coffee colored, but it was good
to drink. I got out of the car in which Neville and I had driven here and went
to the edge of the river and dipped a few handfuls of water to wash my face and
to taste it.
Neville saw me doing this and said, ‘Comrade Baig,
not sure if you know what a Piranha is, but all our rivers have them in plenty.
They really love your fingers, if you know what I mean.’ I promptly pulled my
hand out and counted my fingers.
As I stood on the bank of the river, I was struck
by the silence of the forest. Not silence as in lack of sound, for there were
many sounds, but silence as in no human sound. I could hear Macaws talking to
each other as they headed home. They pair for life and have great conversations
exceeded only perhaps by Canadian Geese who also pair for life. Lesson:
conversation is essential to a good marriage. Forests breathe and speak and are
visibly and audibly alive. Even if you don’t know their language – and it
differs from place to place – you can still hear them. Then there are the
smells. The smell of the first rain after the dry season. The smell of the
markings on trees of territorial creatures which are meant to warn away
potential threats. The smell of vegetation, growing or decomposing. When you
sit quietly in a forest and let it talk to you, it does. Gently and gradually.
Naturally, it takes a little while because first your ears have to stop buzzing
with the residue of our own noisy, raucous sounds of so-called civilization.
They try to drown out everything that the forest is trying to tell you. But if
you are patient and give it some time, then gradually the buzzing fades away
and you start to hear the breeze rustling in the leaves. You hear water
dropping from the top levels onto the canopy below. You hear the occasional
ripe fruit or dry branch fall to the floor, to become either food or manure.
You learn to tell the difference between a sound made by a living creature –
which may be potentially dangerous or useful – and the sound of something that
is not a living creature. All this and more will happen if you give it some
time, are observant, and are willing to learn. As I looked at the South
American Amazonian rain forest for the first time, there were many sounds in
that forest which I did not recognize at the time but knew later to be those of
Howler Monkeys, Toucans and Amazonian Parakeets. I was thrilled to be there.
There was nowhere else that I would rather be.
Speaking of off road speed records, I was in
Linden very late one night. There was a dinner party at a friend’s house that
went on till midnight. I had driven to Linden from Kwakwani after work and
had arrived by about 7.00 pm. The party was what all such parties are like
– full of laughter, noise, and camaraderie. I had a lot of friends there and so
couldn’t leave as soon as I would have liked to. Also, they don’t serve dinner
until very late to give people a chance to have a spiritual experience first.
By the time I could leave, I was very tired and sleepy. Sensibly, I should have
stayed overnight at the Guymine Linden Guesthouse or with some friend, but I
decided to drive through.
I was driving a Land Rover Defender, which was at
least 15 years old – a light blue color with a rear door that would swing open
every time I went into a pothole at high speed, a fairly common occurrence on a
dirt road. I had developed a technique of simply swinging the steering wheel to
the right and bringing it back to the left and the door would slam shut. That
way I didn’t have to stop to shut the door.
Once I was out of
Linden and entered the Kwakwani Trail as we called it, I floored the
accelerator and held the truck to a steady 60 miles per hour. On a dirt road,
that is fast. The Kwakwani Trail wound its way through the rain forest without
the benefit of a single street light or any form of illumination for its entire
length up to the Berbice River. During the day, you would pass perhaps two or three
cars on this entire journey. At night and especially at the time that I was on
it that night, there was nobody at all. It was as if I was the only human being
The forest all around
was dark and silent. The road was illuminated as far as my headlights reached
and then it was dark. The Land Rover knew the road and drove itself taking the
turns and climbs and slopes from memory. Alright! Land Rovers are not that smart
– it was me. And on we went, the engine a steady roar deepening as we started
up a hill and singing a high pitched whine as we descended the other side.
Suddenly, there was a
huge crash. The Land Rover rose in the air and slammed down off the road on the
sand verge and the engine stalled. I hit my head on the steering wheel and got
a nasty bump but seemed none the worse for it. The headlights had gone off and
there was an eerie silence. All I could hear was the pinging of the cooling
engine. I realized then what had happened. I had fallen asleep at the wheel,
doing sixty miles an hour. As I say, Allah saves fools from themselves and I am
a living proof of that. The truck hit the side of the road, which at that place
was a huge sandbank, went over it and came down on the other side in the loose
white sand of the savanna. If this accident had happened a mile earlier, I
would have driven straight into one of the huge forest giants and wrapped
myself and the truck around its trunk. If it had happened a mile later, I would
have gone off the side of the road into a ravine which the road went along for
quite a few miles from that point on. As it was, I was intact and the car
appeared to be so as well.
There was no point in trying to take the truck out of the sand or to try to drive and risk a worse accident. I decided that the wisest thing to do at that point would be to simply go to sleep in the truck and so locking the doors, that is what I did. I fell asleep almost immediately. When I woke up it was just beginning to get light. I started the engine and it started immediately. I put it into four wheel drive and reversed over the road side barrier and then took off for Kwakwani in the rapidly brightening dawn. As the sun rose, I rounded the last bend and took the slope of the Trail going down to the river, thankful for having lived to tell the tale of this rather hairy drive.
It is 5.30 am. We have just finished Subh (Fajr as it is called in Sri Lanka and most Shafi countries including Kerala). And he walks in. The human conducting tower. His hair has the benefit of what I believe must be at least half a tube of gel, jet black, thick and all standing on end pointing in more directions than there are directions on the globe. They are so spiky that for a minute I wondered if Darwin had met our friend, would he conclude that there we have a genetic connection with porcupines. I suspect that they probably oscillate to catch the radio signal from wherever it may be coming. He carries a bright red Nokia phone of ancient vintage which can only make and receive calls. This it does when all our far more sophisticated and ‘smart’ phones are deader than a Dodo. I couldn’t imagine why, until Kader had the brainwave of holding his phone together with our driver’s phone in the same hand and he loed and beheld that his phone resurrected and came to life. What this does to his brain which is exposed to radiation all his waking moments, is another matter. This means that he does everything else with his left hand alone, which is a feat that we are all reminded of, every time we sit in his ‘Jeep’. More about that in a minute. That is why I believe that his hair are actually radio receiver antennae in disguise which enable him to talk on his phone constantly. He is our driver. His steed, a Mahindra Bolero ‘Jeep’.
He has bathed and smells sweet, has a massive smile that illuminates his face with the light reflecting off his brilliant teeth. He announces loudly, speaking through his smile, “Good morning. “අපිට යන්න දෙන්න. ප්රමාද වන්නේ. (apiṭa yanna denna. pramāda vannē.)” Which translates to, ‘Let us go. It is getting late.’ It is still pitch dark, especially as we are in the heart of Yala National Park which means thick shade everywhere. Since we are photographers, my dear friend Ifham Raji and I and our other friends, Rizky, Zudy, Rizan and Kader don’t have night vision, I can’t imagine what we are getting late for? We continue with our preparations to go out on our drive, by first drinking some excellent ‘Ceylon’ tea. Accompanied by biscuits.
Being a ‘Tea man’ myself, I always appreciate good tea and lament its destruction. In Sri Lanka, the amazing thing is that no matter who makes your tea, it is always of the standard that you would expect from a high-grown Nilgiri estate. Our bungalow bearer sets out the tea in a proper tea pot with a milk jug, matching tea cups, saucers and sugar bowl on the dining table. A level of service that reminds me of my butler, Bastian and our bearers Asaithambi and Armugham. The quality of service complements and adds to the taste of the tea. Meanwhile our ‘Murshid’ (Arabic for Guide or Murshid-us-Sayyarah, Driver) is getting more and more impatient at our inability to jump to his command. Eventually, he leaves in disgust to talk on his phone; his constant companion, part of his right hand and the adhesive that attaches his hand to his ear.
Having finished our tea and loaded our camera equipment and ourselves into the Mahindra Bolero ‘Jeep’, we set off for our morning ‘safari’. Sri Lankan national parks use several different ‘safari’ vehicles. Toyota Hilux, Toyota Land Cruiser, Land Rover and Mahindra Bolero. Of these the Mahindra Bolero ‘Jeep’ is the most uncomfortable and potentially unsafe. To put it mildly, given the combination of the absolutely atrocious roads which have craters instead of potholes and the Mahindra Bolero’s short wheelbase and high cabin bed, you get to experience the term which used to be on all medicine bottles in the old days, ‘Shake well before use’. I know that there are six basic directions; forward, backward, right to left, left to right, upwards and since there is gravity, downwards. But I never knew that it was possible to experience all of them simultaneously until I rode in a Mahindra Bolero ‘Jeep’. What this obviously does to your spine and all your internal organsyou can well imagine. It is a measure of my love for the wild and for Sri Lanka’s fabulous parks that I go there again and again and take painkillers to see me through the day. But a word of advice, if you are ever in a Sri Lankan national park, avoid the Mahindra Bolero ‘Jeep’ like the plague. I sincerely hope that Sri Lankan National Parks Authorities repair the roads. In the current state, the wear and tear on vehicles and on poor unsuspecting human beings is pitiable. Repairing roads would enhance the wildlife viewing experience while adding years to both vehicles and tourists.
Add to this our driver’s style of going at breakneck speed (no matter that the speed limit is 25 km/hr), screeching to almost a halt at a particularly deep crater while bashing on regardless through anything less than 2-feet deep and you have an experience of mortality that can’t be equaled. Another charming trait of our driver was that when he came to a one-way road, he would simply reverse down it, at the same speed as he would have done if he were driving forwards, while glancing occasionally at his side mirrors. Imagine this (I experienced it multiple times) when that road is the raised bund of a lake with the water and crocodiles on one side and a drop of about 30 feet on the other and there you are racing down it, backwards. Since he has very little English and I have no Sinhala I couldn’t check this with him, but I assume his theory is that it is only prohibited to go down a one-way road nose first. If you go hindquarters first, then your nose is pointed the right way and so it permissible. So, there we were, holding our breath, hanging on to our camera equipment and trying to remain attached to whichever part of the Jeep that came to hand while trying to spot the evasive leopard, in whose aid all this was being done anyway. Talk about multitasking. Why did we not stop this flirtation with the other dimension? Well, for one, short of the application of a blunt instrument to the back of his head, there was no way to stop him and none of us wanted to spoil his hair setting. All that gel, remember? And for another, you need a limb to apply said blunt instrument to the back of the aforementioned head. All ours were engaged in keeping us attached to the Jeep. See?
It was that lazy part of the afternoon when everything is still. Not a leaf moved. Not a gust of breeze. It was not as hot as it can get but was getting there. The bungalows in Yala and Wilpatu are beautifully located. Our bungalow was on the bank of a river which flows just a few feet below. Totally tranquil. The bungalow design is more or less standard, with two rooms, two bathrooms and an L-shaped wide, open veranda with a low parapet wall on two sides. You can sleep in the rooms, but usually you sleep on the veranda under mosquito nets. You eat on the veranda which is big enough for a table seating ten people. There is a kitchen just off the veranda. In the veranda is also a wash basin for you to wash your hands after your meal. More about that in a minute.
Nothing to beat the atmosphere, listening to the sounds of the jungle, especially in the night and early morning. Bungalow maintenance can be better, which we discovered when it rained one day. Both rooms leaked heavily though the bungalow had been recently renovated. We were all relaxing or more accurately, recuperating from the morning drive, waiting for lunch to be served. Suddenly, the bearer came rushing in and said, ‘There is a Thith Polanga (Russel’s Viper’).’ He had good reason to be afraid as the Russel’s Viper has the record for highest number of fatalities in Sri Lanka. It’s poison is particularly venomous exceeded only by that of the Saw-scaled Viper. More about this snake here http://itsmejumbo.blogspot.com/2013/08/russells-viper-ultimate-viper-in-sri.html
All of us leapt out of our beds and ran outside to see what the bearer had discovered. Think of ten reasons that your sink may be blocked. I bet one of them is not, “6-foot young python lost his way.” That’s what had happened. The cook and his helper first thought it was a Russell’s Viper and wanted to kill it. But I identified it as a young python who got there chasing the little frogs of which we have a profusion. He slid up the drainpipe and got stuck. The standard solution was once again proposed but I vetoed it. I then caught it and released it in the forest. Did wonders for my mystique. I wisely remained silent about the fact that what I did was easier than taking off my hat. Sometimes silence does more for you than all the talk in the world. It is not surprising that the bearer thought it was a Russel’s Viper because there is some similarity in markings. But that is where it ends. The young python was totally harmless and would have been in danger of meeting a nasty end thanks to people’s fear of snakes. Snakes are highly beneficial in that they keep rodents under control. Had it not been for snakes we would be run over with mice and rats. My friend Ifham took a video of the event. So much for a lazy afternoon in the bush.
The bungalow premises have a lot of shade trees. One of them right opposite the front door has a hollow high up on the trunk. I saw a couple of parrots on the tree and suspected that they were nesting in that hollow. Then one afternoon, as I was dozing on my cot, I heard the parrots screeching and making a lot of noise. I got up to see what the matter was and discovered a monitor lizard coming out of the hollow. Sadly, neither I nor the parrots spotted him climbing the trunk and so by the time the parrots got their act together, the lizard had had his dinner. There is a great profusion of Monitor Lizards in Sri Lanka and they are excellent climbers. Using their claws, they simply walk up the trunk of the tree. Once they discover a nest, then it is curtains for the eggs and any chicks. The adult birds usually fly away but their grief can be seen and felt long after. Nature is relentless. One dies, so that another can live.
There is one downside of the forest bungalows or more correctly of people who stay in them. They provide food for animals. There are squirrels and Bonnet Macaque monkeys which steal. The latter are extremely intelligent about it. They know when new guests come and are unloading their cars, that it is a time when they are least vigilant and leave foodstuff unattended as they unload other things. The monkeys literally lie in wait and rush in and grab what they can. One got all our bread supply for the week. Others like the two big wild boars that come at night, come for the leftovers and garbage that is simply thrown out of the kitchen or flows down the kitchen drain. Just as dusk is falling the two come out of the forest and start rooting around. Interestingly there is a troop of Langurs, which doesn’t behave like the Bonnet Macaques and don’t come to the bungalow. They hang around the trees, with their young doing all kinds of acrobatics on the branches. You can literally sit for hours and watch Langur young at play while the elders engage in mutual grooming. Those who know Langur culture know that the grooming is strictly controlled and is a mark of social status with the higher-ups being groomed by their inferiors.
In this milieu one night we finished our dinner, followed by a cup of excellent Ceylon tea and had retired when our driver, he with the gelled hair, came running and said, ‘Kotiya!’ (means ‘tiger’ but in Sri Lanka it means ‘leopard’). We rushed with him to the servant’s quarters. He shone his torch and there he was; an almost mature juvenile (does that sound oxymoronic?), about 20-feet away looking at us. He then looked around as if searching for something and then very slowly walked away in to the forest. Imagine spending all day haring around all over the park looking for leopards in vain `and one comes calling in the night! The trill of seeing a big cat is unequalled by anything else. The story was that for reasons best known to the ‘establishment’ the bathroom/toilet for the servant’s quarter is built a few meters away from the house. Why it can’t be attached like it is for the bungalow is not known to me. But the result is that if one of the servants needs to relieve himself, he must go out of the house and into the bathroom/toilet. The cook said that (very wisely) his practice is to first scan the surroundings with his torch before venturing outside in case there is a bear or something else around. The whole area is unfenced, which means that any animal can come into the compound.
This night he shone his torch and he saw this leopard sitting a few feet away, watching him. The cook sent the driver to call us. The driver jumped over the parapet wall and came for us, while the leopard moved over to the other side of the house. To be frank, neither the cook nor any of us were in any danger from the leopard, which was a juvenile. But had it been a Sloth Bear or an elephant, it would be another story. Even with those however, if you stay inside the house, there is no danger. That is why the bungalows have open verandas on which you sleep safely and perfectly soundly. The only sign of a leopard on the premises would be peacocks calling their alarm, picked up by the Langur who boom out their calls while shaking the trees in which they roost. Leopards are excellent climbers and are famous for catching Langur and other monkeys as well as peacocks, as they roost in the night. Nobody knows this better than the Langur and they make sure everyone knows the wily ways of the leopard as well as make it hard from him to retain his footing if he is indeed clambering up to them.
It was our last day in the park and as we rounded a bend, we saw this massive, majestic elephant, holding his trunk in his mouth, walking towards us down the middle of the road. At that moment our engine stalled and no matter what our driver tried, it wouldn’t start. I think the Jeep wanted to register a protest at the way it had been treated and chose a particularly delicate moment to do it. I say delicate, because as the elephant neared us, we could smell the strong smell of his Musth-gland secretion. Musth is a periodic condition that male elephants undergo when they have heightened testosterone levels (more than 6 times the normal) which makes them aggressive and violent against other elephants and humans. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Musth The signs are the secretion from the Musth-gland in front of the ear and almost constant urination which colors the hind legs, black. This bull exhibited all the signs of Musth and was coming towards us and we had nowhere to go. But to my great relief and surprise, he merely moved to the side and walked past us, stopping briefly to face us and take a good look and then moved off into the forest.
That leads me to believe that the nature of Sri Lankan people, politeness, dignity and kindness combined with great law abidance also extends to wild elephants of Sri Lanka. He was a magnificent sight and left his strong smell in our nostrils and his majesty in our hearts for a long time.
Yet another beautiful trip to Yala.
Some photos: https://photos.app.goo.gl/P54AXqdKFNQUbrQD9
One day we were at dinner in my bungalow in Lower Sheikalmudi when suddenly I noticed an orange glow in the sky. It looked like a brilliant sunset, but we were a long time past sunset. It was so marked that I got up and walked out on the veranda to see what it was. What I saw is a sight that I will never forget and which I hope I will never see again. It was like a picture out of a war movie. Sheikalmudi factory, which was probably about four km away as the crow flies, was enveloped in the brightest and biggest fire that I have ever seen. From where I stood on my veranda, I could see flames shooting high above its roof which was three stories above the ground. Tea factories that were built by the British planters were made primarily of wood, bolted over a steel structure. This wood was old and weathered and burnt with a vengeance. Fire was always a hazard and something that we took very seriously. Obviously something had gone very badly wrong and here was the grandmother of all fires, way beyond control.
I grabbed my coat and drove my bike like a racer and reached Sheikalmudi in record time, going hell for leather over dark unpaved field roads. Mercifully, the ride itself was uneventful. When I reached the factory, I parked my bike some distance away and ran to the fire. Lots of people had come to see a sight that thankfully most never see in their lifetimes. The manager of Sheikalmudi, Mr. S. M. Taher, a dear friend was standing by with tears in his eyes, watching his factory burn down. I stood by him. The heat was so intense that we were forced to stand at a distance. As the higher floors burned through, fan motors from the leaf withering lofts started to fall like meteors. The force of impact was so tremendous that in places it cracked the concrete floor. Steel girders got soft with the heat and twisted and bent under their own weight into strange snaky shapes. Every time the fire found something that burned more brightly there would be a huge flare and a lick of flame would reach for the sky.
There was no lighting and neither was there need for any. The fire lit up our whole world in its eerie orange glow. I dare not call it beautiful because it destroyed something that had stood for almost a century. But then, it was beautiful in its own way. A transitory beauty that belied its real destructive power. Among the first people to reach there after I did was Mr. Saleem Shareef who had seen the fire from his estate Uralikal, which was much farther away. He came as fast as he could to try to help in any way he could. This was the code of the planter. We all went to each other’s aid, no matter who it was and no matter how far we had to go and no matter that we may actually not be able to do anything concrete. To stand by the side of a friend is to fill an invaluable space.
In this case there were literally hundreds of people gathered but nothing that anyone could do to put the fire out. As I stood there, watching this sight, the thing that I was most conscious about was my own helplessness. The fire was so big and powerful that there was simply no way to put it out. We had tried everything already. All the fire extinguishers that we could reach had been used up. The ones inside the factory simply melted in the heat. There was no Fire Service to call. We were left to our own resources to fight the fire. And we had none other than a garden hose which was less than useless. All we could do was to stand by and watch. It was a sense of helplessly bearing witness to destruction that we had no power to halt. Today as I read about world events (2002-19 and still watching), I am reminded of that night. Standing by and watching something that was so valuable to us, burn to the ground, with no power to stop it.
But despite that we could not imagine leaving the place until the fire itself had gone cold and all that was left was a black pile of debris, soot, and ash. It was sacrilege to leave and not stand by to bear witness to the end of the life of Sheikalmudi factory. It was like being next to a dying friend. How could you possibly leave? Somehow just the standing by seemed to have some meaning in itself and gave us a sense of parting that those who had not been able to come by that night, did not have.
Fires and estates are companions. Not surprising given the combination of people who smoke and don’t always bother to put out their cigarettes, and forests with semi deciduous trees that regularly carpet the floor with their leaves every summer. We used to take a lot of preventive steps including clearing fire boundaries where we would clear a wide swathe of ground of all undergrowth and leaves and keep it swept clean so that even if a fire started it could be contained. We had also constructed water tanks and dammed streams to create small reservoirs, which would be useful if we needed water in a hurry to put out a fire. These reservoirs were also very useful as watering holes for wildlife in the summer and a source of endless delight for my dear friend, Berty and me to watch the animals as they came down to drink.
One day late in the afternoon someone came running to the office (days without mobile phones or walky-talky radios) and said that a fire had started in the Murugalli coffee area. In the plantations emergencies were everyone’s affair. News would go to all those who could be informed and they all rushed to the aid of the estate which had the problem. All who could go would go, regardless of whose estate it was.
As soon as the runner caught his breath, I put him on the back of my motorcycle to guide me and we were off. When I reached the place I realized that this was a fairly large forest fire. There were about thirty of our workers and two supervisors who had been working in the area. I marshaled them all and got them to clear a belt and start a counter fire. The idea was to burn an area across the direction of the fire and clear it of all inflammable material so that when the main fire reached this place it would simply starve to death. We started the counter fires and once the dry stuff was burnt we beat out the flames with green leafy branches that we had previously cut and kept at hand. The main fire was moving very fast as it was being pushed by a tail wind. As it came up to us it was our task to ensure that it did not jump the cleared boundary. Every time a flame jumped the fire boundary, we beat it to death. There was no water available where we were otherwise to wet as much area as possible as a preventive measure.
It is very interesting to reflect that not a single one of us there had been formally trained in firefighting. Yet we did all the right things. The result in my case of a lot of reading, some of it about forest fires. And in the case of the others, the result of listening to stories of fires of the past that others had fought. Story telling as a way of informal, but very powerful teaching is the mainstay in villages. This is how even great classics of literature are born; as stories to teach life lessons. Over the centuries they acquire a life of their own, get embellished with local color and imagination and are even believed to be real. Be that as it may, their teaching value remains until the story gets converted to mythology where it starts to be considered holy and read as a ritual instead of as a means of learning.
There was huge excitement. People shouting instructions to each other, cheers as a small fire was put out, curses at the main fire and so on. But in all this excitement, we did not pay attention to one small, but critical detail. The main fire had sent a tail around a small hump in the land and while we were busy fighting the main head, its tail had all but surrounded us. I can’t remember who it was who first noticed the smoke and glow because it had become dark by now. We had been fighting the fire for more than four hours when suddenly one of the workers shouted that we were getting surrounded by the fire. All activity stopped and people looked to me for direction.
This is the kind of leadership challenge that the plantation career faced you with. Not every day but certainly more than once in your career. And you had only one chance. I realized that the only way left for us was to actually go across the face of the main fire and down a very steep hillside which would take us down to the Parambikulam Lake. I called out the directions to the people and said to them, “Go ahead, I will follow you.” The reason for this was because the danger was behind us and so I wanted to be the last in the line. But the people of the estates form bonds that are hard to describe. The formal relationship is that of manager and subordinate with all its usual ways. The fact that we all lived together and shared in each other’s joys and sadness led to bonds that may not be visible in normal times, but which in time of crisis came to the fore.
The result of this was that the workers refused to obey me. They told me to go first. I refused. And we had a stalemate in the middle of the fire. Eventually one of them said to me, “Dorai, if something happens to you while we all get away, how will we face Madam?” To this I replied, “If the father gets away and leaves the children to die, what do you have to say about such a father?” That clinched the argument and we started out the way I had ordered in the first place with one small change. Two of the biggest guys flanked me as body guards while the others ran ahead. A knowledge of the culture, tradition and the local language all play a very strong role in leadership situations. As also does symbolism in a culture that is based on a very strong mythological foundation. I loved those people and they loved me. We fought when we had to, but the bond of love based on respect only became stronger.
The forests of the Anamallais are evergreen rain forests and so are not susceptible to burning down completely like temperate forests of coniferous trees which exude oil that is itself inflammable. So during a forest fire, there is no real danger to the trees apart from some temporary damage. The undergrowth burns down and leaf litter converts into potash-rich ash. Fallen dry logs burn partially in every fire. Once the fire cools the forest regenerates. New green grass, germinating seeds and the ash itself attracts all kinds of herbivores. If the fire burns in the day, Bee Eaters, Swallows, and other birds follow the fire and eat insects that the fire flushes. Snakes leave their holes and race to safety. At this time they are harmless as they are too busy trying to get away. Larger animals are in no danger at all as they have plenty of time to get away. The real danger is to the plantation crops that border the forests and that is why we planters are very concerned about fires. This time around, our tea wasn’t damaged apart from some damage to the bushes on the boundaries.
I started my career in Guyana, working as the Assistant Administrative Manager for GUYMINE’s Berbice Operations, in Kwakwani, in 1979. This was a little mining town in the middle of the Amazonian rain forest on the bank of the Berbice River. I spent five years there, living on my own, learning lessons of life about working across boundaries of race, culture and religion. With my love of the forest and wildlife, Guyana was heaven. But I knew that since all promotions at that time had a big political overtone, there was no way that I, a foreigner, would ever have a serious career in Guyana.
When I returned to India and joined the plantation industry, I was serious about making a career as a planter and about reaching the top of my company on the basis of merit and results. So, I put my heart and soul into the job. What helped also was that the surroundings were something that I loved. I started working in the Anamallai Hills, part of the Western Ghats as they tapered down all the way into the tip of the subcontinent. The area that contained the tea plantations was part of the bigger Indira Gandhi National Park. The park is home to an amazing variety of wildlife which thanks to the difficult terrain, plethora of leeches, and shortage of motorable roads is still safe from the depredations of ‘brave’ hunters in their Jeeps and searchlights. In the Anamallais if you want to hunt (it is illegal to shoot anything in the National Park, but there are those who are not bothered about what is legal and what is not) you must be prepared to walk in the forest, up and down some very steep hills, be bitten by leeches and have a very good chance at becoming history at the feet of an elephant.
However, if you are not interested in hunting and killing animals, you have all the same pleasures and risks without the benefit of some wild meat at the end of it. But that is how I was. I wanted to see and photograph animals, not kill them. I had hunted enough in my youth and had lost interest in killing things as my connection with nature strengthened. I was looking for an opportunity to just spend time in the environment that I loved. My job as an Assistant Manager in Sheikalmudi Estate, my first posting, gave me all that I could have wished for.
Sheikalmudi borders the Parambikulam forest. This extends from the shore of the Parambikulam Reservoir (created by damming the Parambikulam River) up the steep mountainside all the way to the top. Sheikalmudi is the crown on that mountain’s head, manicured tea planted after cutting the rain forest, more than a century ago by British colonial planters. Where the tea ends, starts the rain forest of the Western Ghats. Anamallais is the second rainiest place on the planet. In the early part of the century it used to get more than three hundred centimeters of rain annually and consequently it rained almost six months of the year. Even when I joined in 1983, we frequently saw spells of more than a week at a stretch, when it rained continuously day and night without any easing of the volume of water. I was horrified the first time I saw this. I was used to rain in Hyderabad, where we get about thirty centimeters annually. And to the rain in Guyana, where because of the Trade Winds which brought the rain, it rained on most days in the evenings for a little while and then cleared up.
Now here was rain and more rain and more rain. Walls of the bungalow would have mildew growing on them in damp patches. Small leaks would develop in the roof and their yield would be received in sundry pots and pans placed under them. This would create its own music. Little frogs would emerge from every crevice and would hop all around the house. In the night, they would find some resting place and add their voices to the night chorus of frogs and insects in the garden, that would rise and fall like an animal breathing. But sometimes the rain would be so heavy that all you could hear was the rain on the galvanized iron sheet roof. This sound would drown out every other sound. Within the first week of the beginning of the monsoon, all telephone lines would be down. Power supply would become extremely erratic. And more often than not, landslides would block roads. So being cut off from everyone for several days was a common phenomenon. When there came the occasional storm – every year we used to have at least two or three – all these problems would get magnified.
Lower Sheikalmudi Estate bungalow
Candle light dinners with a roaring fire in the fireplace were the fringe benefit of this weather. That and in my case, a lot of chess by the fire. The year I got married, 1985, there was a storm in which twelve-hundred trees fell on my estate alone, taking down with them all power and telephone lines. There were two major landslides and we were cut off from the world for a total of fifteen days. It rained almost continuously for this period and my poor wife had a wet introduction to the new life ahead of her. But typical for us both, we enjoyed this time, playing chess by the fireside. She started by not knowing chess at all and I taught her the game. By the end of our enforced seclusion she was beating me. Now take it as her learning ability or the quality of my game but being rained-in has its benefits.
I always look for challenges. Anything that comes easy does not excite me. My learning that it is the extraordinary goal that inspires extraordinary effort is very personal to me. In the plantation industry I was constantly focused on setting new records. And over the years I was able to do this in all aspects of tea and rubber planting. I set the record in yield per hectare, in work tasks in various cultivation activities, and in the price of the manufactured product.
1983-86 were boom years for tea in South India. Anything that was produced would sell. The biggest buyers were the Russians who bought on the rupee trade agreements between the governments of both countries. Anything that could be manufactured in South India was bought by the Russians. Naturally, quality went out the window. Some people, including myself, were able to see the writing on the wall and tried to get manufacturers to focus on quality and to get out of the commodity market and instead create brand. That, however, meant investing in brand building and hard work in maintaining quality standards. Since people were making money, nobody was interested in listening to anything that meant more work or investment. Eventually, of course, the inevitable happened. USSR collapsed and so did their buying trend and it almost took the South Indian tea industry down with it. Some companies shut down. Others were more fortunate. But the whole industry faced some really hard times.
But then vision is to be able to see that which doesn’t exist. Anticipation is the key which is not difficult to achieve if you do some scenario planning.
I was a member of the team that built the Mayura Factory in the Anamallais where I was the Assistant Manager in charge of the building project. So, I was closely associated with the project from the word ‘Go.’ The factory was built on Lower Sheikalmudi Estate and AVG Menon, my first manager was made responsible for the project. He appointed me as his assistant for the day to day supervision of the construction. So, I became the defacto Site Manager of the project. At that time, I was the Assistant Manager in charge of the factory on Murugalli Estate which borders Lower Sheikalmudi. Murugalli factory manufactured tea in the Orthodox way and I was well versed in that. Mr. Kumaran was the Tea Maker (that is what the Factory Manager was called) and was kind enough to teach me about his art. Tea making is an art. Despite all the science and technology that is in it and more so today, it remains an art which you must see those who know it, to appreciate. Kumaran was one of them.
When the Mayura offer came, I was told that I would not be relieved from my role in Murugalli factory and that if I wanted to take the offer then I was free to do it without any additional pay or facilities. I accepted. The thought that I could refuse didn’t even enter my head. For one thing, AVG was a dear friend and my first manager. For another, it was a unique opportunity for me to learn about CTC manufacture. And much more importantly, I would be part of a new factory project, which happened in the tea industry very rarely indeed. So, though it meant practically double the hours, I did this job gladly. Mayura was unique for many reasons. For one thing, it would have a capacity to process one-hundred-thousand kilograms of green leaf per day. At a time when the average production was two-thousand-five-hundred kilograms made-tea per hectare, this was a huge figure, one that nobody thought could ever be reached.
It was the vision of Mr. K. Ahmedullah the General Manager who proposed the theory that creating capacity would stimulate production as it would put pressure on the estates to supply the factory and so the yield per hectare of the estates would go up. Initially, nobody believed them except the Murugappa family; Mr. Alagappan and Mr. AMM Arunachalam in particular. But that was enough as they were the ones who were funding the project. Once the factory was completed, Ahmed’s vision was proved right. The production of the estates went up from two-thousand-five-hundred to four-thousand kilograms per hectare. Needless to say, this did not happen by magic. A lot of people put in a lot of effort, but there is no doubt that it was the presence of Mayura that pushed us all to excel. Once again this proved to me the value of vision.
Since the Anamallais is hilly, locating a huge factory was no easy task. It involved leveling the land to create the construction site. The main building was on columns, but we still needed a level site to locate all the rest of the buildings and bays. We had two bulldozers come up from Coimbatore to do the cutting and filling of soil on the hillside to get enough level land to start building. I went down to the site on the first day that the work started. The bulldozer operators were already on their machines with the engines running. I called the leader of the team to give him instructions. He switched off the engine and came to me. I showed him from which part of the hillside I wanted the soil to be cut and where I wanted it to be moved and dumped so that eventually we would get a flat surface. He listened in silence, then handed me the key and said, “Why don’t you show me how to do it?”
I was taken aback by this obvious insubordination so early in the morning. But I took the key from him, climbed up on the track of the dozer and into the seat. I started the engine, engaged gear, and started cutting the soil. I worked for about half an hour. Then I parked the machine, switched off the engine, got off the machine, and handed the key back to the driver and walked away, all in silence. I had a hard time keeping a straight face at the look of shock on the driver’s face for having called his bluff. The long and short of this was that I never had a problem with any driver again for the duration of the land clearing stage. When the work was done, and the drivers were going back, he came to me and said, “I apologize for challenging you on the first day, but tell me where did you learn to drive a bulldozer?” I told him, “In future, before you challenge anyone, first find out what they know.”
My knowledge of bulldozers and machinery acquired in Guyana in the mines, came in very handy when later I was doing a Job Evaluation exercise in the company and had to evaluate the difficulty of each job. Knowing how to do the job yourself is obviously a big advantage and not one that most non-technical people have. My learning in this incident of the bulldozer was the fact that to build credibility it is important to be able to lead from the front. You don’t have to do people’s jobs for them. It is not even desirable to do this. But you do need to demonstrate that you know what they do and can do it if necessary. It is when subordinates get the impression that you know nothing about what they do, that it makes them nervous and lose motivation. The good ones feel a little lost. The crooks take you for a ride.
Mayura Factory’s construction was a time of learning for me. The site engineer was a wonderful elderly gentleman called Mr. D.R.S. Chary, who stayed with me in my bungalow throughout the project. He was a very well read and learned man, many years my senior but with a great sense of humor. We hit it off from the first day and became great friends. Chary taught me a great deal about constructing large buildings. I found this a fascinating time and used every opportunity I could, to add to my knowledge. On the factory site, the contractor’s site engineer was another wonderful man called Mr. Dakshinamurthy. He also became a good friend and was helpful in many ways.
Chary and I lived in the bungalow behind the tennis court. We could see the construction site from our veranda. Since Chary was a Brahmin, out of consideration for him, I had instructed Bastian not to cook any meat while he was staying with us. No meat was cooked for over six months in our kitchen. I would go to some of my other friends like Berty Suares and Taher for my meat fix.
The bungalow had a somewhat shady history in that it was supposed to have been the estate hospital in the remote past during an epidemic and many people had died in it. All this and more news was given to me by my dear friend, Kullan. Kullan had retired and his son Raman was a worker in the Upper Division. Raman used to be my companion on my treks to Grass Hills and his father became my friend. Kullan would turn up in the evenings and he and I would sit out on the veranda and he would tell me stories of these hills. The fact that I had learnt Tamil and spoke it fluently was the root cause for this and many more friendships and for my being able to have a very different relationship with my workers, from most managers. What also helped was my whole attitude of treating my workers like colleagues and not as servants. They appreciated it and returned my affection manifold. Having said all that, Kullan refused to enter my bungalow and sit in the drawing room. He looked horrified when I suggested it and insisted on sitting in the veranda. There too he refused to sit on a chair and so both of us would sit on the steps. That having been settled, both of us would drink tea and Kullan would talk.
It was Kullan who told me about the number of people who had died in my bungalow it is erstwhile incarnation as a hospital. He told me that when he was a boy there had been an epidemic (my guess is cholera) and many people were brought to the hospital but few survived. This was evidently in the rainy season, which meant torrential rain. I asked him what they did with the bodies, because cremation would have been almost impossible. In any case most tea estate workers who live on the plantations, bury their dead instead of cremating them but that also would have been very difficult in the monsoon, especially if the numbers were catastrophic as they would have been during an epidemic. “They threw them into the ravine,” he told me, in a very matter of fact manner. “Which ravine?” I asked him. “That one,” he gestured to the ravine behind my bungalow. That was, to say the least, not very comforting. However, I don’t believe in ghosts and so was not too bothered. But….
My bungalow also had the dubious distinction of having a resident demon. There was a small shrine at one end of the garden, which I was told was a shrine to Karpuswamy (literally means: Black God), who the people described as a very powerful and evil entity that needed to be placated with an annual animal sacrifice. The sacrifice itself was not done in the bungalow garden because it was done at a larger temple, but every morning one of the tea plucker women would put some flowers at the shrine. Mr. Chary, like most highly educated Hindus, did not believe in any of this, given more to keeping to the social norms than any real belief in the religious mythology. On occasion he would sit with me and Kullan and listen to Kullan’s stories with a skeptical expression on his face. But then in the 80’s there was precious little in the form of entertainment in the Anamallais and going to the Anamallai Club in Valparai meant a motorbike ride of thirty-five kilometers one way on windy hill roads and a return late in the night with good prospects of meeting elephants on the road. While I loved to do it and have some tales to tell, it was not Mr. Chary’s cup of tea. So, most evenings we sat in pleasant companionship and talked about Tamilnadu and Tamil culture or listened to Kullan.
Some weeks after Chary and I moved into the bungalow, some rumors started to circulate in the estate to say that my bungalow was haunted, and that people had seen Karpuswamy near the bungalow at night. I saw nothing and was not perturbed by the rumors. I don’t believe in ghosts and don’t believe that anything can harm or benefit anyone except the Creator Himself. So, I slept well. Chary told me one day when he was leaving after the completion of Mayura Factory that he never seemed to sleep well in this bungalow. But I was not sure how much of that was because of some unconscious effect of Kullan’s stories and Karpuswamy rumors and how much of it was plain indigestion or some such thing. He was over sixty years old at the time, after all.
I had recently bought a used Ambassador car. Among its other attributes was the fact that it was graced with a carburetor that was cracked down the middle and was held together with a wire. Now hold on – before you go making sly remarks about Ambassadors, ask yourself, ‘which other car would still run in this condition?’ And run it did. However, it did need long hours in the workshop. In the plantations the workshop came to you, as did most other things. One night Velayudhan, the mechanic, was working on the car in my garage behind the house. He worked late into the night and promised to return the next day to complete the job. The next morning there was no sign of him and when I sent someone to look for him, the man returned and said that Velayudhan was in hospital.
I was very surprised and concerned as the man had been working in my house the previous evening and had been well and healthy. What could have happened to him for him to be hospitalized? He was a cheerful and willing worker and I had a very good relationship with him, so I was genuinely concerned for him. I went to the hospital and first asked the doctor what the matter was with Velayudhan. The doctor told me that he had been brought to the hospital late the previous night hysterical, his heartbeat racing and in a semi-conscious state. He was so bad that the doctor had been afraid the man would have a heart attack or a stroke. All this seemed to have been brought about by intense fear. He had to be given a heavy dose of sedative to put him to sleep. In short, the man had been extremely frightened by someone or something.
I went to see him, and he told me the story, which I present to you without comment.
He said to me, “Dorai, I had finished my work for the day on your car and decided to take the short cut through the tea field down the hillside instead of the main road. It was a full moon night and the footpath was clearly visible in the moonlight. As I started down the path, I suddenly heard a heavy snort behind me, like a cow sometimes makes as it is grazing. I looked back over my shoulder and saw a huge man with flaming red eyes and huge teeth. I turned and ran and then I fell down and fainted.” Some people who were going past on the main road below heard the sound of his running and then saw him fall. They picked him up and took him to the hospital. There was some suspicion that perhaps he’d hit the bottle, but the doctor denied that and said that he did not show any sign of having been inebriated. He was just very badly terrified and completely hysterical with fear.
I lived in that bungalow for two years and went in and out at all hours, but never saw a thing. That is what led to the rumor that Karpuswamy was the guard on the bungalow and guarded me. In the plantations such rumors add to your mystique and reputation. In any case, I could do nothing to refute it.