There are some people who come into your life as a grace from Allah. You can’t imagine what you could have done to deserve someone like that. Yet it happens. Such a person comes into your life, touches you, and leaves. But the memory remains with you forever. For me, Bertie was such a one. My only regret is that he is not present to read this. It is now eighteen years since he passed away in 2002, but I still can’t think of him without a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. Many times, have I heard or read that one must say to those you love, that you love them. Because a time may come when you want to say it, but they are not there hear it. All I can hope for is that my friend knew how much I loved him. He was more to me than I can possibly describe. This is a tribute to him.
I first met Bertie in 1984 in the Anamallais, the Hills of the Elephants. He had transferred from Munnar where he worked for Tata Tea. He was posted to Malakiparai Estate while I was on Murugalli, which has a common border across the backwaters of the Parambikulam Reservoir. We met at the Anamallai Club one evening and it was like meeting someone I had known all my life. There have been a few people in my life whom I have shared this feeling with, where there was never a ‘beginning’ to the friendship. We were old friends from the first day. He proved to me my theory that love is a product of respect. I developed the highest respect for his principles. He was truly an honorable man and he reciprocated this love in full measure. We were like brothers, with complete trust in each other and without anything that we held back from one another. He had a manager called Gopal Vyas who used to call him, ‘De Barty’. I used to do the same. He would call me Baig Dorai – ‘Dey Baig Dorai,’ and I would respond, ‘Yessah De Barty,’ and we would have a good laugh. We lived on neighboring estates and would meet almost every alternate day either at his place or mine or at the Club. We both had excellent cooks and enjoyed good food. We would talk about the wild, animals, forests, our own experience on hunts or game tracking, and end with a lovely meal before we departed for our homes.
It is difficult to describe the beauty of the place where we lived; a place that changes the scene from season to season. In the summer, when it is hot and dry, the waters of the Parambikulam Reservoir recede towards the dam and the submerged land becomes visible. It is a surrealistic scene of a Salvador Daly painting. Gaunt, dry, tree trunks dead for years, look like they have been blasted with dynamite. Crumbling walls of what had once been villages. Homes where people lived and from where they moved, leaving the homes to be covered by the rising waters of the dam. Earth that is black with silt and initially looks dead. Then as the ground dries out a little and the sun touches it, old seeds germinate, grass starts to grow and covers the land. Where did the seeds come from? What happens to them when the water inevitably rises and covers them??
Early in the morning, Barking Deer come to graze on the grass. They seem to find the sunny spots and warm themselves as they eat. In the evenings, the Gaur come down to drink at the water’s edge and then graze on the grass as well. Sambar also come and the big males roll in the mud which protects them from biting insects. Wild Boar come in family herds and root for worms, tubers, and whatever else they can find. All this activity is restricted to the early mornings and late evening because when the sun comes out fully the entire area is too exposed for them to feel safe.
Then comes the monsoon and the water of the reservoir reclaims its own. Slowly, the water rises and once again, all that you can see are the very tops of the tall trees, which sometimes stick out of the surface. Then you need a boat to get to the islands in the middle of the reservoir, the tops of hills that were once covered with tea bushes. Now they stick out as islands, rather bare but with some shrub growth, mostly Lantana and some old tea which is now lanky trees.
One of the British planters had left behind a boat which I’d had repaired and used to get to these islands. There is nothing more peaceful and enjoyable than to sit on one of these islands in the late afternoon, enjoying the silence, listening to the lapping of the small wavelets on the edge, and watching the sun extinguish itself in the waters of the dam. The reservoir also had a lot of fish, and fishing was an interest that Bertie and I shared. One of our favorite fishing spots was at the bottom of the road going down to Manamboli Dam, from Uralikal Checkpost. If you drive down that road through some very thick forest, you reach the Power Generation Unit of the Dam. If you go past that on the Topslip forest road which runs parallel to the river, you come to our fishing spot. This is at the bottom of the rapids below the Dam where the river takes a right turn away from the Dam. There we would stand in rapidly flowing water below the sluice gates and cast for Mahseer while drinking in the atmosphere of the jungle. The water flowed fast but it was not deep and so it was safe to stand in. The Mahseer would be in the pools at the bottom of the rapids, feeding on what the water flowing from the Dam brought for them. There would be total silence except the gurgle of fast flowing water or from a bird celebrating life. There is nothing more relaxing.
One day we were in Manamboli fishing and one of the fish we had caught disappeared. “Dai Baig Dorai, you can’t tie a bloody fish properly man!!” yelled my dear friend. What wouldn’t I give to hear him yell at me once again!!!! We had each caught a good sized mahseer. His was still there. Mine had disappeared. What gave the game away was that the line looked like it had been bitten through. Just then I heard the whistles; two otters talking to one another, no doubt with evil intentions on Bertie’s fish. I called out to him in a low voice, “Yedo, noke awaday” and I pointed to the otters. Bertie laughed so much that he almost fell into the water. “What the bloody hell, so this is the bugger who stole our fish!!! Man, what do you expect? We go into their home and steal their fish, so they decide to freeload on our effort.” What memories!! But my friend is gone. So would have the otters. Nothing lives that long in the forest. Only I am alive to tell the tale and to remember my friend and to live once again that magical day, this time on behalf of both of us.
In Murugalli, on my side of the lake was a small creek that eventually ran into the reservoir. The stream meandered through the cardamom fields, which we had planted on the hillside leading to the reservoir. In one place it made a little waterfall as it descended the slope and eventually it flattened and spread out as it entered the lake. At this point there were two very tall trees. It was on one of these trees that I’d had a machan (a tree platform for watching wildlife) built. In the summer, especially on moonlit nights, this was a wonderful place to sit up. Moonlight with its special soft quality blurs the lines and so the shapes become ghostly and ephemeral. And since the water recedes towards the dam, sometimes the animals are a long way off. However, because the intervening space of the lake bed is almost bare, they are still visible, especially if you use good quality binoculars. On moonlit nights you don’t even need special night sight binoculars. Ordinary lenses catch enough light to show the dark shapes, especially of Gaur clearly.
Bertie and I shared interests, values, a commitment to quality and results. We competed against each other in the friendliest manner, sharing information about planting techniques. I had modified tea plucking shears to prevent them from taking the smaller buds as the plucker sheared the fields. I got my workshop to make a few samples for him and we both had the highest plucking productivity in the Anamallais district.
Bertie’s estate, being in Kerala, was an exciting place as far as labor was concerned. They had a CITU (Communist Party of India, Trade Union) union which was very militant. We would share strategies and techniques of handling them. Both of us spoke Malayalam and Tamil fluently and most of our conversation used to be in three languages: English, Tamil, and Malayalam. Anyone listening to us would have wondered at the way we switched languages but then most Indians did the same, since most of us are multilingual. We can think in several different languages simultaneously and we are not constrained by any one language to convey the meaning of what we want to say. Those days passed all too soon. Bertie and I were bachelors. In 1985 I got married. Samina also took to Bertie and they became great friends. Bertie was the perfect gentleman with impeccable manners and great social skills, warm and caring and a person worthy of the highest respect. He was one of those to whom words like honor, friendship, loyalty, faithfulness, and courage were the stuff of life – not merely words. His word was worth more than the oaths of most people. He was someone we trusted with all our hearts and a he upheld that trust till the end.
Then there was talk of Bertie getting married. He went to Chennai to meet his bride to be. He came back looking like an inebriated sheep. He had fallen in love like a ton of bricks which afforded me much amusement at his expense. After he returned, he asked Samina and me to meet Jenny and we went to meet her in Chennai. Jenny used to work at Malaysian Airlines, and we formed an opinion that has never changed – that she was the ideal wife for Bertie. A wonderful woman for a wonderful man.
Shortly thereafter, I crashed my bike. In August, five months after I got married, I had gone to visit Taher who was the Manager in Sheikalmudi and on my way back, riding down the road on a cold and wet day, my bike skidded and I flew over the handlebars and landed on the road with my right leg buckled under me. There was a very sharp excruciating pain and I had almost blacked out. It was raining and it was a Sunday, so there was nobody nearby. I hit my head on the road and my helmet had cracked, indicating the severity of the impact. I was a little concussed as well. As I lay there wondering what to do, I saw two Sheikalmudi workers came running down the hillside. I was amazed at how they happened to be there. When I asked them they said that they had seen me going around one bend and when I did not come past the next bend they suspected that something was wrong, so despite the rain, they came to investigate. Tea estate workers and managers form a bond that is hard to describe. We have our differences but living together in the same place and taking part in each other’s lives creates a friendship that transcends the strong boundaries of social hierarchy.
I was taken to the hospital where I was examined by the doctor who assured me that nothing was wrong. He put a pressure bandage on my knee and diagnosed the rupture of the anterior cruciate ligament as a sprain and advised me to rest for three days. His diagnosis was totally wrong, which I discovered at my expense. At that time, my boss was a man about whom the less said, the better. On the third day, he wanted me back in the field, walking ten to twelve kilometers up and down hillsides and riding my bike. I was too proud and adamant to ask any quarter and so I went to work. Naturally, walking up and down hillsides was just about the worst thing that could have done for my injured knee and two days later, as I got off my bike in the new Mayura factory, I collapsed. Once again, I was carted off to the estate hospital to the same doctor who had a vested interest in sticking to his original diagnosis. This time though, I was having none of it and I called Mr. Rawlley, the General Manager and reported the matter. He immediately sent his car for me to go down to Coimbatore to see an orthopedic surgeon, a very eminent man called Dr. David Rajan.
By the time I reached him, my knee was swollen to the size of a small football. He immediately aspirated it and drew out a huge amount of black blood which had created the swelling. He then did an arthroscopy and told me that the anterior cruciate ligament had completely ruptured. He said that if I had come to him the day of the injury, he would have been able to repair the ligament as it was still attached to the bone. But the three days of walking, enforced by my manager and supported by the wrong diagnosis of the doctor who refused to acknowledge his own incompetence, did the trick and the ligament had completely ruptured. I was advised complete rest and then an operation to put a Dacron fiber ligament in the place of the original one. This took time and finally in October 1985, I was operated in Chennai by Dr. Mohan Das in Vijaya Hospital.
Coincidentally, Bertie had had the same injury as I did, while playing football a couple of years before this incident. He also ruptured the same ligament in his right knee as I did. He was also operated in the same hospital by the same doctor. And in the case of my operation and subsequent recuperation, he played a great role in giving me the emotional support that I needed.
The only thing that I remember about my operation was the pain. The operation is very complex with drilling a figure of eight shaped canal through which a section taken from the Patella tendon, reinforced with Dacron fiber is threaded and anchored to either side by steel pins driven into the bone. When I gained consciousness a few hours later, I was moaning with agony. They gave me several injections of Fortwin (a very powerful pain killer), but when even the fourth one for the day did not suppress the pain fully the doctor told me, “This is the trouble with you planters. You drink too much and are resistant to sedation.” I told him that I don’t drink at all as I am a Muslim. He was very surprised and said, “Then why are you so resistant to sedation?” Whatever be the reason, that was the wrong time to discover this. I can still remember the five days that passed before the pain got under control. Samina, my wife of six months, had a rocky introduction to our marriage. Samina and our butler at that time, Mahmoud, stayed with me day and night and did all they could to keep me as comfortable as possible. But there was only so much they could do. The pain was beyond them and that is the most vivid of my memories. Some good memories of that time were that Mrs. Alagappan, the wife of my Managing Director, came to visit me and then insisted on sending me fresh breakfast, idlis, dosas, and upma daily from her home as she insisted that hospital food was no good. My aunt Jahanara who lived in Chennai was a great source of support and strength for Samina and I and so were so many of my colleagues from Chennai Head Office who came to visit.
Once I had been discharged from hospital, I had a thigh to ankle plaster on my right leg and had to walk using crutches. This remained for two months, so I went home to Hyderabad. Mercifully, it was winter and so the plaster was not too bad, though when the skin scratches inside the plaster it is the most sublime torture. After spending a week in Hyderabad, we decided to go to Jagtial, a small town where my father in law had spent twenty-five years as a doctor and where they still had their house, though they had moved to Hyderabad after his retirement. Their good friend, a Hindu landlord from the same place, a wonderful man, unique in that he had three wives all of whom lived very peacefully and happily with him in the same apartment, offered to drive us there. A journey of one-hundred-and-fifty kilometers which took all of five hours. He was a very careful driver indeed.
The enforced inactivity was a big burden on me initially. I have always been a very high energy person and to be put into plaster and to be on crutches was something that I was certainly not prepared for mentally. An old friend, Ronnie Lynton, sent me a book, ‘A Leg to Stand on’, by Oliver Sacks. It is about a man who had been attacked by a bull and had badly fractured his leg. That story was a powerful motivator. As it happened, that period of my life and my emotional trials almost mirrored what happened with the man in the book. The most difficult thing to get used to was the thought that what I was used to doing all the time, walk, run, jump, ride horses, and bikes, I may not be able to do any more. I am not only a very outdoors person, but I also take a lot of pride in doing outdoor things well. Horse riding was a childhood passion and I was an expert in dressage. I enjoyed hiking and climbing and especially trekking in the Western Ghats where you could walk in the wildlife sanctuaries and see wild animals as you walked along. Suddenly to think that all this was perhaps gone forever, took a lot of getting used to.
After having been in plaster for two months the time came to remove it. I went to Chennai (called Madras in those days) to Vijaya Hospital to get it removed. When they cut away the plaster, imagine my shock at seeing what was left of my leg. My leg was completely black in color, scaled as if the skin was that of a fish and wasted away to the bone. I was almost beside myself with despair. I thought I had lost my leg forever and would have to live the rest of my life on crutches. The leg had no strength at all and would not bear the weight of my body. Psychologically, I rejected my leg and could not bear the thought of what had happened to it. But the resilience of youth and the power of faith came to my assistance and I broke out of my despair.
During this period, Bertie was an anchor for my spirits. He was a living example that I could also come out of this accident without losing the use of my leg. He was a constant source of hope, someone who kept pushing me to do physiotherapy regularly and never let me brood about some dark future. In a place where there was no physiotherapist, Bertie was my coach and guide. He would come every evening and spend the evening with me making me exercise, cheering me up with plantation gossip and planning all kinds of hunting expeditions once I was up and about again. He rigged up a frame with a pulley on the top. Over this went a rope to which he hung a weight. On the other end was a loop through which I had to hook my foot and pull the weight up and down till I felt I could not do it anymore. Then he made me do it some more. This was to strengthen the hamstrings. To strengthen the quadriceps, he made a bag filled with sand with a loop on the top which I used to slide my foot through and lift up repeatedly. We used to measure the girth of the thigh and calf muscles every day and gradually we could see a change. Terribly slow and painful, but the improvement happened. Gradually, my leg became stronger though I still needed crutches I was not so totally dependent on them.
This went on for four months more, but I was still on crutches. The leg became stronger and gained flesh and started to build muscle. The exercise continued. When I was not exercising, I would read a lot. I was not permitted to go to work in the field and so spent a lot of time reading. That is when the idea of a book on tea plantation management came into my mind. I started writing the notes for it and eventually published it three years later. Given that writing literally meant writing in those days, that is not too long a span. I also pursued my reading and study of Applied Behavioral Science as well. I had started my internship with the Indian Institute of Applied Behavioral Science (ISABS) in 1983 and I still had two years to go to complete it.
Meanwhile, the days grew shorter as winter set in and the time came for Bertie’s wedding on January 4, 1986. The wedding was in Chennai in the St. Xavier’s College Chapel. Samina and I went down for it. This was the first time that we attended a church wedding and there were many new things to see. After the ceremony everyone lined up for the Grand March. Samina and I stood to one side as I still had my crutches. As we stood watching the crowd milling around and people congratulating the bride and groom and their families, suddenly Bertie left everyone and came to me and said in his usual way, “Dey Baig dorai, throw away the bloody crutches man!! I want to see you walking.” And as it happened, he did. I threw away the crutches and I walked.
Bertie was a wonderful friend, the like of which I do not think I will get ever again in my life. We shared each other’s happiness and sadness. He was one person who was genuinely happy for me if something good happened. He was one person who I believe did not have a single bad quality that I can think of. I wonder if anyone can say that about me. Certainly, I can’t. And if anyone does then all I can say is that they do not know me well enough. But I knew Bertie better than any of his other friends and I can vouch that the man was pure and good. He was an honorable man whose word could be trusted implicitly. He was caring and full of concern. He was tough but the kindest person I ever knew. He was smart and brave and wise. He was a friend whose absence I miss painfully to this day. He left behind a void in my heart that will never be filled.
There are so many memories of Bertie that I wonder which to share with you.
Bertie was very fond of hunting. So was I. But for both of us it was the whole environment of the jungle, the excitement of tracking game, of getting up to a quarry in conditions where it had more than a fair chance to get clear, which were all more important than killing some animal or the other. I stopped hunting many years ago and now spend all my time with a camera and enjoy myself far more than I did when I carried a gun. But the memories of those days are also very pleasant and exciting to recall.
One day Bertie and I went hunting geese in the area behind Krishnarajsagar Reservoir. These were Bar-Headed Geese which are migratory birds and come south from the Arctic Circle for the winter. We reached there late at night and spread our sleeping bags on the ground in the dry fields and slept. I should clarify – we tried to sleep while trying to hang on to the ground to prevent the mosquitoes from flying away with us. Never have I seen such strong and powerful mosquitoes. Must have been something in the air or water. It is a good thing that the passing of time has nothing to do with whether you sleep or not and so the night passed. The sky started lightening and then the sun peeked over the horizon to see if all was well and if it was okay to come out. Having assured itself it started its upward journey.
How can I describe how the light of the dawn first peeks over the horizon and how it then becomes a little darker before the real dawn breaks? The sky becomes first a deep shade of blue in which the wispy white clouds look almost transparent. Then it takes on an orange hue that gradually strengthens as the fire of the sun lights all it touches. Then it changes to gold and then the brightness of the full morning blazes forth. How can I describe how it felt to sit on the ground with my friend, both of us huddled against the cold in our sleeping bags, watching the first flights of geese? The V-formations, with the leaders breaking the force of the wind and the followers coasting in the easier flying they create; their conversations with each other as they fly, constantly in touch with one another by voice. Geese are highly social birds and talk to each other all the time. When they are feeding in a field, which they do in large numbers, you can hear them chattering a long way off. But in the middle of all that, there is always the sentinel who does not eat, nor does he take part in the conversation, but keeps a very alert eye open for any predators. After a while, one of the others takes over and he feeds. How can I describe the sight of a flight of geese flying into the sun from one end, disappearing in the glory of the light for a few instants and then emerging from the other side flying strongly in formation? We sat in silence and I praised the One who created the geese and the sun and who created me and my friend.
Bertie had a Labrador Retriever called Rocky which he had trained as a gun dog. It was a fantastic animal, true to its type with a nose that made you wonder if it was real or some kind of magic. He could smell at distances which we could not even dare to imagine. A mouth so soft that it would sometimes catch and bring the watchman’s rooster home and present it to Jenny, held firmly in its mouth, but not a tooth would touch it. Rocky had another neat trick when he felt he was not getting enough attention. He would go into the storeroom and pick one egg out of the egg tray and go to Jenny and sit before her, and stare at her with the egg in his mouth. When she put her hand out, he would drop the egg neatly in her hand. One day the egg trick misfired, and the egg fell and broke on the floor. The egg tray found a new home higher up where Rocky could not get to it.
One day we went hunting Imperial Pigeons. These are rather large birds which are migratory and pass through the Western Ghats on their way north. They have a deep booming call and usually sit on the topmost branch of the tallest tree they can find. They have good eyesight and are very wary of people creeping up on them. Consequently, they are difficult to shoot.
That day we walked up a jungle path along a hillside with Rocky in tow. The excitement of the dog was palpable. He knew that he was going to do the thing for which he had been bred and trained and which he could do better than anyone else. The joy of living to the edge of your potential is something that energizes all those about you, even if you are only a dog.
We walked along listening for the tell-tale cooing of the Imperial Pigeons. And then we heard it. The deep booming sound amplified by the hills. I looked up and there he was. A big bird sitting on the topmost branch of a Eucalyptus tree about seventy meters away. The tree was on the edge of the ravine we were walking along and below it the ground dropped away, covered by a thick blanket of Lantana and thorn bush. Through it were the usual pathways made by wild boar and expanded by gaur, but not something that you looked forward to using yourself. Lantana is ideal habitat for wild boar, jungle fowl, and small predators like jackals, jungle cats, and the occasional panther. The thick growth hides the birds from the air and the fruit of the Lantana is relished by jungle fowl. Wild boar use the Lantana as a place to lie up in the heat of the day. The shade under the Lantana is so thick as to be almost dark. Water is retained in the soil and so it is also several degrees cooler under the growth. Gaur use the wild boar paths on occasion to get to water and such paths are consequently wider.
Bertie, always the gentleman, asked me to shoot first. I stalked the bird, and very slowly crept up under a clump of Lantana that grew near the Eucalyptus in which the bird was perched. Using a .22 rifle, I aimed and fired and the bird dropped. As it fell, it flapped a little and so did not drop directly under the tree but into a large thicket of Lantana and thorn bush that grew all the way to the bottom of the ravine. “Good shot Dorai,” Bertie called to me with that wonderful smile that put deep dimples in both cheeks. “Now let’s see how good this dog is.” Saying that he sent Rocky into the Lantana. We followed. It is a joy to see a well-trained dog and its master working. There is a bond between the man and the animal that is almost supernatural. The dog senses every mood and reacts to movements that are impossible for any observer to notice. Being a dog trainer and handler myself, I especially appreciated the nuances of great training.
Rocky took off and was soon lost to sight. But every now and again he would run back to tell us to hurry up. The ground was treacherous as it was wet and very steep. I was always wary of my game leg and Bertie, ever considerate, would never tell me to move faster than I felt comfortable doing. As we walked along suddenly Rocky started barking. Now a Labrador works silently. It will bark only very rarely when it is in a situation where it needs help. As we rounded a bend, we saw him looking up into the thick Lantana overgrowth and he continued to bark. His tone was the high-pitched excited bark of the dog which is on its prey. Yet when we reached him, we could see nothing, no sign of the pigeon. Bertie sent him to search again but the dog refused and continued to bark and kept looking up at the roof of Lantana bush. When this had happened a few times, we decided to follow Rocky’s lead and started to search in the thick roof of Lantana branches and leaves overhead. Lantana is thorny with small thorns and so the search was not painless. But sure enough we saw what Rocky’s nose had already told him. The bird had fallen from the tree but could not break through the Lantana foliage and so was stuck overhead in the thicket. Some inspired climbing and we had the bird. For Rocky, this was heaven itself.
Many years later Bertie and I were in Ooty on a game drive for wild boar. These boar are considered a pest as they destroy the potato fields that are a mainstay of cultivation in Ooty and its surroundings. Consequently where shooting all wildlife is banned, farmers are permitted to shoot Wild boar on their land. The work of a herd of boar overnight on a potato field is awesome, to put it politely and so it is easy to understand why the farmers hate them so much. Boar can and do destroy all the farmer’s hard work and threaten his living in a couple of hours. The farmers therefore invited us planters to shoot boar on their land. The farmers liked the idea of me shooting boar also because I don’t eat pork and so they didn’t have to share anything with me. Normally hunters are given a share of the meat, but I took none.
On that cold, bright morning over the Christmas weekend, Bertie and I were standing, wearing Army camouflage jackets, our body outlines broken up by some scrub bushes listening to the farmer’s dogs barking in the distance as they started the drive. Suddenly the tone of the dogs’ barking changed to a high-pitched excited yelping as they sighted the boar herd and they were off. We expected the boar to break out into a short open glade before us before they would be gone into the forest on the other side. We would have less than 2 seconds of shooting time because a galloping boar with dogs on his tail is anything but slow on his feet. The dogs had serious respect for the boars because they knew from personal experience what an angry boar or sow can do in seconds to a dog. The result is not pretty and, in many cases,, there is nothing more to be done than to use a bullet to put the dog out of his pain. Not a pleasant thing to do at all. For us, the complication was to make sure that we hit the boar and not an over enthusiastic dog which could also break out right behind. This takes much longer to say than what happened that day. As I stood there with my .12 bore shotgun loaded with rifle shot, I suddenly saw bushes violently shaking as the boar galloped through and suddenly a boar and a sow broke through at full gallop. I lifted the stock to my shoulder and took the boar in the head and without moving the gun from my shoulder, panned it a little to the left before firing the second shot and both animals somersaulted to a halt. I can still see the huge smile on Bertie’s face and his shout of, “Brilliant shooting Baig Dorai.” And he came across and hugged me hard. He is the only person I know who would be happier when I succeeded than he would be for his own success. What a friend I had! And how much I miss him today!
February 1, 1989, I was still in the Anamallais when one night I got a phone call from Val, Bertie’s sister from Coonoor informing us that their father, Lt. Col. Cuthbert Suares Sr. had passed away. He was a wonderful man. A thorough gentleman, an artist and painter of no mean standard and a dear friend to all of us. He called me ‘The Nawab’, thanks to my Hyderabad connection. He once told me with a big smile on his face, “I am living on borrowed time. Our Lord Jesus said that the lifetime of a man is three score and ten and mine is over. So, all this is borrowed time.” And that day it ended.
Val called to inform us as we were all very close friends and she said to me, “Junior is here but he is in a very peculiar state. He is not crying at all and we are all very worried about him.” Samina and I left at first light and drove down from the Anamallais to Coimbatore and then up the Ooty Ghat to Coonoor. By the time we reached Wellington all was ready for the funeral. Bertie was somewhere inside the house and I could see him through the window talking to someone. Then someone told him that I had come. He came straight out, shook my hand, hugged me, and started crying. All the tears that he was holding back came out. I silently held him till he was at peace and then he gave me another hug and we parted. He did not say anything to me. I did not say anything to him. No words were necessary. In the words of another dear friend of both Bertie and I, Sandeep Singh (Sandy), “True friendship is when silence is comfortable between individuals.” I will add to that the fact that with real friends words are often not necessary. Each knows without being told what the other feels. It is uncanny but it is real and feels very natural.
Several years passed. I went to Ambadi Estate. That was a period when I was away from Bertie for the longest period. Bertie and Jenny never did manage to visit us in Ambadi though we would speak on the phone. Bertie had left Tata Tea in Munnar and had joined the Spencer’s Group in Burnside in August 1995. We had spoken at great length about developments at Tata Tea and agreed that it was time for him to change. At Burnside he turned around the property and greatly improved its manufacture. He put Burnside tea on the quality map. He was instrumental in helping start an export business of these teas which was very profitable for the company. During this time, I turned around Ambadi Estates. I confronted the unions on long pending issues, resolved them to the company’s satisfaction, and established productivity, price, and labor agreement records that remain as standards to this day. We were both deeply passionate about our work, enjoyed it immensely, and took a lot of pride in doing it well.
In 1992 I left planting. Bertie was in Munnar.
I spent a year in Delhi as the head of a national travel company and learnt the travel trade and got some hands-on experience in marketing. Eventually in 1994, I decided to take the risk of living my dream, to be on my own. We packed our bags and went to Bangalore and I launched my company, Yawar Baig & Associates. The sum total of all my savings after working for 10 years was Rs. 25,000.00 (less than US$ 400), which was the gratuity that I got from the company. I had some additional savings in the form of shares and some money in the bank, all of which came to the princely sum of Rs. 500,000.00 (less than US$ 7,000). This was the sum total of by then sixteen years of working. I was very glad that I had joined the ranks of the educated unemployed. We took an apartment in Bangalore in a very nice, quiet area called Jayamahal Extension for a rent of Rs. 7500.00 per month. To hedge against the risk of starting a new business I invested all our savings with another friend who had just started a business manufacturing leather garments. Then I hit the road, trying to establish myself as a leadership development trainer and a management consultant. I have written in detail about the trials and travails of entrepreneurship elsewhere so will skip the detail here and go directly to the part of this story where Bertie touched my life once again.
We had been in Bangalore for about a year. It had been the most difficult year of my life till then. I was completely new to the consulting environment. I had no established network as I had never been in the HR area myself and had spent all my working life in the plantations away from the real world. Plantation experience was not very respected because most people did not understand what we did in the plantations, what challenges we faced, what constraints we worked under and for what little monetary gain. They had a romantic idea of plantation life that revolved around golf courses, tennis courts, billiards tables, and the plantation club bar with people doing a little work now and again between these more serious pursuits. Nothing was further from the truth, but nobody wanted to believe it. So, I had to translate my work experience into language that people in the IT and business world could understand. Meanwhile, there was no money coming in. Things were so difficult in some months that I was not sure where the money for that month’s rent would come from. But we had a small income from the investment in the leather business and we managed with that.
Then came a day when my partner in the leather business said to me that he was going to increase his investment and if I wanted to maintain my share of the business I needed to bring in another Rs. 500,000.00. I was in a fix. I did not have the money. I had no way of getting it. And if I did not get it in time, I would become a minor shareholder with its attendant problems. And all this at a time when I was already in financial difficulties trying to establish my consulting business. That weekend Bertie came to Bangalore for the weekend. As was our custom, we met for lunch.
He took one look at me and said, “Dey, Baig Dorai, what’s bothering you?”
“Nothing Da. I’m fine,” I replied.
“Don’t tell lies you bugger. I know you better than you know yourself. Tell me, what is it?”
When he kept asking me, eventually I told him what the issue was. He became silent for a while and then he said to me, “I am going back on Monday, you come with me.” I asked him why he wanted me to go to Wellington with him. He would not tell me. I finally agreed to go also because I thought a break would be a good thing for me at that stage. We reached his home in Wellington late that evening and had dinner and slept. Early the next morning after breakfast, Bertie drove us to Ooty and went to the office of a lawyer friend of his. He pulled out a file of documents and said to his friend, “Here are the papers for my house. Please pledge them to the bank and get a loan of Rs. 500,000.00 for Yawar.” I grabbed the file from his hand and refused to be a part of this. I said to him, “Bert, your house is worth more than 3 times that value. You worked extremely hard to pay for that house. What if my business goes bad and I cannot return the loan? The bank will take away your house.”
What he said to me will remain with me to the day I die. He said to me, “Yawar, what is the use of me having a house if I can’t help you when you need the help?” I wept. I could not believe I was hearing this. What had I done to deserve a friend who would sacrifice his own home to help me?
I said to him, “Bert, you are not alone in this. What about Jenny? What will she say?” He said, “I already spoke to Jen. She agreed with me and she also wants you to take this.” I had no words. I simply took the file and went back to the car and sat in it and said to Bertie, “Let me think about this. I will come back to you. But just now, let us go home.” The thing about him was that he respected me enough to accede to my wishes and so we went home. I never did take the money from him. Eventually another dear friend, Thambi (Kurien Abraham) lent me the money which I returned to him a few months later because I decided to get out of the leather garments business altogether. That turned out to be a good decision because a few months later, thanks to some new rules implemented by the EU, the leather garments industry in India went through some very rough times and my partner had to shut down his business instead of expanding as he was hoping to do.
Visiting Bertie and Jenny was like coming home. There is something about old friends with whom you have nothing to prove, nothing to hide, nothing to pretend. You are free to be yourself and know that you are accepted as you are. We would go to Burnside whenever the ‘city got to me’…which it did regularly every few months. Of all the things that I miss about my life in the plantations, it is the greenery, the peace and quiet, and the bird calls. All of them missing in our Indian cities.
Once we got to Bertie’s place, his little son Jason would take me over. Jason and his elder sister, Shonali are like our own children. Jason was four and had not started school yet. He would grab my hand and say, “Yawar, come I’ll show you the wild boar I shot.”
His mother would always say, “Jason, say Uncle Yawar. Not Yawar.”
Jason would go, “Yes. Yawar, come!!!” And then he would take me into the morning room where his father’s hunting trophies were displayed and say, “See, I shot that bugger!”
Jason and I would sometimes climb the hill behind the bungalow and sit on top looking at the view. We would just sit together in companionable silence – the age gap of over forty years, no bar to friendship. I would lend him my binoculars which at age four he knew how to handle perfectly, thanks to his Dad’s training. He would look through them and then I would hear this excited, “Yawar, look!!!” And I would sit up and look. Why?? Well, try ignoring a four-year-old and you will know why.
Jason was an early bird like me. On weekends, when we were staying with Bertie and Jenny on Burnside, both of us would get this warning from Bertie just as we were about to go to bed, “Dey Baig Dorai, if you and Jason walk around all over the house at some unearthly hour I’ll shoot both of you.” So of course, promptly at 6 a.m. Jason would be in our room talking to me in a loud whisper which he thought was being quiet. Then we would both sneak out of the house into the cold morning and go looking for bird’s nests, grazing bison or whatever it was that the morning wanted us to see. We made sure we did not walk in the house as it had a wooden floor that amplified the sound of footsteps and would have attracted Bertie’s wrath. Once we had been out for a while, Jason would run back into the house, go straight to our room and say, “Thamina, thamina, move, move. I want to thleep on your thtomach.” And that is what he would do. He used to speak with a lisp which sounded very cute indeed, especially combined with bright sparkling eyes and one huge dimple.
Bertie would take me around the estate and ask for advice. Predictably, there was nothing to say except to praise his wonderful work. I had much to learn especially in manufacturing in which he was a master. And I enjoyed the sessions very much.
My last meeting with Bertie was the time I went to visit him with my friend Taqi from Hyderabad. Bertie arranged for Taqi and me, to stay one night at a hideaway cottage of another friend, inside the wildlife sanctuary near the Pykara Dam. This was a fantastic little place in the middle of the wilderness very much like the Grass Hills cottage used to be when I first went to the Anamallais. We walked all over the surrounding hills and then sat by the fire in the cold night. I can’t describe for you how beautiful that experience was. No light except that of the fire. A sky sprinkled with stars that you never see in the cities. No sound except the calls of owls departing on their hunting sorties; Nightjars buzzing like little machines while they sit, lying in wait for the unwary moth; and occasionally the call of Sambar as they ‘bell’ to let the world know that a tiger is on the prowl. The next morning, we drove back to Kotagiri and saw several Sambar enroute. Back at Burnside we lazed around all day. Then in the night, Bertie took us out with a spotlight to see the resident herd of bison on the estate. This was a small herd with animals much smaller than the huge monsters that we had on the Anamallais. These animals had become so used to people that I filmed an almost full-grown calf nursing from his mother for more than ten minutes. We eventually moved away leaving them to their own devices. Little did we know that a few months later, Bertie was to be knocked down by one of the animals from this very herd.
The story as I heard it is as follows: Bertie and Jenny were supposed to go for a dinner party that night. The date was 13th March 2002. He called Jenny from the office to ask her to finish her shower and get ready and to put on the water heater for him so that he could shower and get ready quickly. They were due to pick up the Bosen’s (some other friends) as well. Jenny had just finished her shower when he called back to say that he was just leaving the office. Five minutes later, he called to say that as he was with the Forest Department officials who had requested his help with a problem. A bison had fallen into an irrigation pit and could not get out (the pit was quite small and deep – the bison fit in exactly and could not turn around nor get out. This had happened that morning and the bison was still stuck in the pit. Bertie being Bertie, he immediately took some workers from the estate and went down to the spot. To complicate the issue, a TV crew which happened to be in the area got to hear about the bison that was stuck, and they arrived on the scene, complete with lights and cameras. Bertie’s plan was to fill the pit with brushwood so that its floor could be raised, and the bison would be able to get a foothold and get out. They had barely started doing this when the bison managed to find some foothold to get out. Maybe it was the lights from the TV camera that must have triggered this off and scared the animal. The pit was adjoining the forest and there was a small path leading down from it.
Bertie was standing on the path along with a few other men. Bertie was facing away from the pit where the bison was, trying to get two children who were on the path to get out of the way so he missed seeing the animal jump out and charge down the track. The bison was running to save itself and Bertie was in the way. As it ran past, it threw Bertie up and he fell way below (it was a sloping area with some tea bushes and irrigation pipes). Bertie fell on one of the irrigation pipes which was his undoing. He passed out immediately and the Forest Department men took him to a nearby hut, revived him, carried him to their jeep, and took him immediately to the hospital. He had an external wound on his head, but the much more serious injuries were all internal. They had to operate immediately as he was bleeding internally, and they had no idea what the extent of the damage was. His boss and friend Prem Wallia and his family made heroic efforts to get him the best possible medical attention. He was moved to a bigger and more sophisticated hospital in Coimbatore the same night accompanied by one of the best surgeons of Coimbatore who Prem personally brought with him. Bertie’s constitution was very strong, and he started to recover.
I immediately flew to Coimbatore. Jaikant Chaturvedi, another dear friend of both Bertie and me, picked me up from the airport and we went to the hospital where I spent a day praying for his recovery outside the ICU where he was recuperating. Much to my grief, I was not able to meet or talk to him. But I did manage to peek into the room and see him. That evening, after being assured by the doctors that he was recovering well, I returned to Hyderabad.
Then on 29th March which was also good Friday, at about 9 p.m. the phone rang and a common friend, Don Henderson said to me, “Yawar, he’s gone.”
I will never forget those words. My dearest friend was gone. I would never see him again. The finality of death hit me once again with a severity that took all my faith in my own religion to deal with. And despite that, to date, I can hardly believe that Bertie is no more. The hole he left in my heart will go to my grave with me.
Friendship is a strange thing. It is an investment where the pain of parting is directly proportional to the investment. The better and closer the relationship, the more painful the parting. And parting is inevitable. There is no escaping that reality. Our choice is between superficial relationships that have no meaning while they exist and leave no pain when they end, and deep friendships which add meaning to life in the sharing of joy and hardship and are forged at the anvil of adversity. And when they end, a part of you dies with them and the parting leaves a vacuum that can never be filled. My relationship with Bertie was such. His space in my heart his space. Nobody can ever fill it.
Even as I am desolated that he had to go as early as he did. I am reminded of the Urdu couplet where the poet says:
Tu bacha bach ke na rakh ise; Tera aaina hai wo aaina
Jo shikasta ho tho azeez tar hai; Niga-he aaina saaz mein
In translation the beauty and music of the poetry is lost but here it is…
(Don’t try to protect your mirror from breaking; your mirror is such a mirror (the heart); that only when it is broken, is it considered the most valuable in the eyes of its Creator.)