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 the time was long 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 kilometers 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.
A word about tea factory construction. There were two major constraints to factory construction in South India with its hills and valleys. Level land and building material. To level land in the early 1900’s was not a simple matter. There were no earth moving machines and doing it by hand was expensive and took far too long. As for material, the cheapest was wood, which was cut and dressed locally. So, tea factories that were built by the early British planters were made primarily of wood, bolted over a steel structure. Given the space shortage, factories were multilevel with manufacturing machinery, especially the driers, on the ground level and withering troughs above them in two of three levels. This created a kind of flue which in case the factory caught fire, created a strong updraft of wind that ensured that the fire burned brightest. The wood with which the factory was constructed 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 horribly wrong and here was the grandmother of all fires, way beyond control.
I grabbed my coat and rode 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 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 (2002-20 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.
My dear friend and at that time, the VP, Plantations and Head of the company, Mr. K. Ahmedullah has this to add to my story of the Sheikalmudi factory fire. I was not aware of any of this at the time. He was kind enough to share this after reading this post and permitted me to include this as a part of the story.
“Sheikalmudi factory had been shut down after Mayura was built. I had moved to Madras Head Office by then. There was shortage of coal at that time. We were running hand to mouth in Mayura, which was the only factory working. There was an attractive offer of considerably cheap Australian coal from Cochin if we could buy a whole “Railway rake” in bulk. I jumped at it. When the coal started arriving, we realized that there was not enough space at Mayura Factory’s coal yard for the enormous quantity of coal we had purchased. A decision was taken to store the coal in the Sheikalmudi Factory yard, which was empty as the factory had been permanently closed after Mayura started functioning.
One of my early decisions after taking over the management of CWS (India) Ltd. was to renew the insurance policies of all our factories against fire. This is because I had personally seen , Sirikundra ( TEI ), Velloni ( Tata Tea ), Sholayar ( Birlas ), and Periakaramalai factories burning ! This could be a record of tea factory burning sightings by an individual planter! All the Insurance policies were renewed and changed to Replacement Value, with a much higher premium than the previous arrangement.
When Sheikalmudi and Murugali factories became defunct after Mayura was commissioned, we had called for tenders to sell them as junk. To our surprise, the price quoted was way below our expectations. In fact, a couple of guys wanted us to pay them for dismantling them and taking the material away! When I was informed on the phone that Sheikalmudi Factory was on fire, I asked for the Insurance policy and was relieved that the premium had been duly paid. With that information, I went to Mr Alagappan’s room and told him about the fire and the amount we are likely to get as Insurance Compensation. We were very relieved.
I arrived the next day from Madras at the burnt-out factory site. Taher, the Manager, met me there with tears in his eyes. My first words to Taher were, “CONGRATULATIONS!” Taher thought I was being unkind and sarcastic. He told me very earnestly that he had his resignation ready and may be relieved immediately. I told him that thanks to the fact that our insurance premiums were all paid and valid, the loss of the factory would not be catastrophic.
Another interesting aside. The entire factory site was a heap of ashes, burnt, twisted metal, burnt wires, half burnt pipes and so on. But the Australian coal, stored in the vicinity was intact !!! We later had trouble persuading the Mayura Factory Tea Maker to start using the Australian coal! He said, “Sir, this coal did not burn when the whole factory burnt down, how will it burn in my driers ?”
When I submitted my proposal for a new, Mayura Factory, I had written something to this effect. “I have already seen many Tea Factories burning. Apart from the loss of a factory, entire production of an Estate gets affected. Therefore, the loss of a Tea Factory is not just a Capital Loss but does collateral damage to the running of Estates and productivity of field operations. South Indian and Darjeeling tea factories are built like chimneys for most efficient burning down. The drier rooms with their heaters are at the bottom, at ground floor level. Right above, absolutely right above the driers are the withering lofts, three floors built of old, seasoned wood. If a fire starts in the drier, the most likely starting point, the factory, designed like a chimney, ensures a fast, complete burn within minutes! I am proposing a factory design borrowed from Assam where the drier rooms are completely separated from the lofts. In Assam, there is no dearth of levelled ground. In the hills of South India and Darjeeling, hilly terrain must be levelled, which costs money, so, in the past they have gone in for this risky, faulty design of factories “.
We built Mayura with non-combustible building material, only steel and cement, with driers rooms, for the first time in South India, totally unconnected to the withering lofts and on a separate elevation. Even if someone wants to set Mayura on fire, it is incombustible!”
PS: As for the coal not catching fire, I would say that it is perhaps because the place is cold. The fact is that coal which is stockpiled must be soaked with water regularly to prevent it from spontaneously alighting. This is done in the ports where coal is unloaded. I have seen it as one of the major stevedoring companies in Chennai Port is a client of mine. I am not sure if the coal in Sheikalmudi was being soaked. I doubt it. But it was extremely fortunate that it didn’t burn.
As I mentioned earlier, about the design being ideal for it to burn down in the shortest possible time, in the days before bulldozers, to manually create level ground was neither easy nor cheap. Given also the relatively short window of dry weather in the Anamallais (and Western Ghat highlands) of a century ago you needed to get the construction done fast.
I know how we created the place to build Mayura, as I was in charge of the construction site and on the first day had a stand-off with the bulldozer driver when I tried to tell him how to cut the soil and where to dump it. Until I drove the bulldozer myself and demonstrated it. Much to his astonishment. But that is another story for another day.
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 extremely 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 is a preventive measure.
It is 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 enormously 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 cannot 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 go across the face of the main fire and down a very steep hillside which would take us down to the Parambikulam Lake. Then to run along the lake bank until we could find a track to take us back up the hill to the main Sheikalmudi road. All this had to be done in darkness without any torches. The fire added its light and that helped. I called out the directions to the people and told 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 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 bodyguards while the others ran ahead. A knowledge of the culture, tradition and the local language all play a strong role in leadership situations. As also does symbolism in a culture that is based on a 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 was not damaged apart from some damage to the bushes on the boundaries.
So, it all ended rather well.