In 1989, I was promoted and transferred from the Anamallais to Assam. I was in two minds about this as the idea of being next door (so to speak) to Kaziranga and Manas National Parks with their rhinos was very attractive. However, after reflection and some very good advice, I declined the posting. I figured that if I went off to Assam, which was about as far as you could get from our corporate office in Chennai, I would be forgotten, and this would have a negative impact on my career. In the corporate world it is important to be physically visible, not only visible through reports. Paradoxically if you are doing well and all your reports have nothing to make anyone concerned, you are not rewarded but forgotten. It is indeed the squeaky wheel that gets the grease, and this is nowhere truer than the corporate world. This was a trying period because suddenly I had no specific job. I couldn’t complain as it was my own doing. I had to leave my job as the Manager on Lower Sheikalmudi Estate because that job had already been assigned to another colleague. That left me literally homeless as there were no bungalows in the Anamallais where I could live. I was sent off to the Mango Range until the management could decide what to do with me. I was assigned a bungalow on Caroline Estate, located in a forest thicket, which was in a dilapidated condition. The location of the bungalow was lovely, and it was a joy to wake up to bird calls every morning. However, the house itself looked like it would collapse on our heads at any time. Of particular concern were the walls, which were so waterlogged that they had fungus growing on them in huge patches. My wife is an amazing homemaker and all her talents were put to test in this place. Out of this dilapidated house she created a lovely home which we enjoyed living in.
Since I had no regular job, I decided on doing two things:
For a long time, I had been talking about the need for systematic training of new managers. The system in the plantations at that time was that a new assistant would be put under a manager and what he learnt or didn’t depended on the capability, interest, and energy of his manager and field or factory officers. If the assistant was lucky and got some people who were both knowledgeable and interested in teaching, then he learnt a great deal. If not, he remained guessing. This is a highly undesirable system, which is very time and energy intensive and does not give standard results. I had been saying for several years that there was a need for a standard textbook on tea plantation management, which could be used to provide standardized training. Any additional inputs that the young man’s manager and staff could give him would only add to this, but he would not be deficient in the basics.
During my stay in Mango Range, I decided to write this book and in 6 months, I produced a 200-page Manual of Tea Plantation Management. At the time of its publication there was no such book on the market, and it was a source of great satisfaction for me. My company published it as an internal training book and though it was never a commercial publication, it did get fairly wide publicity and was used by many new managers. It has since gone out of print and to the best of my knowledge, it has not been reprinted. A big lesson for me was the power of the written word and its high credibility in making your customer base aware of what you have to offer. After that book there was no way that I could be ignored, not that I feared that. I had a lot of people who I had dealt with over the years rooting for me in the company.
The second thing I did was to spend a lot of time in Mango Range factory and hone my expertise in CTC manufacture of tea. I was very fortunate in that Mr. T.V. Verghese, who had retired as a General Manager in Tata Tea and was consulting with our company on manufacture, was a regular visitor and we became good friends. He shared his knowledge freely and I learnt a great deal. He was a practical teacher, which meant that I got to spend a lot of time on my back on the floor meshing CTC rollers with grease anywhere on my face and body that grease would stick. I learnt all aspects of manufacture hands-on further reinforcing my belief that learning comes from doing – not from talking about doing. In Murugalli Estate, I’d had a lot of experience in Orthodox manufacture, and even though I was the Assistant Manager in charge of the Mayura Factory project, the premier CTC factory in South India, I was moved to Paralai Estate as soon as the construction was over. Consequently, my knowledge of CTC manufacture was weak. In Mango Range, as a student of Mr. T. V. Verghese and thanks to his willingness to teach, I rectified that deficiency. It was ironic that thereafter I went to Ambadi, which was a rubber plantation and never really used this knowledge, but it did come in use for writing a paper comparing Orthodox and CTC methods, which I presented at the UPASI Annual Conference in 1989, thanks to encouragement of Mr. Rawlley. Nikoo was to do this presentation and I had written the paper for him. On the day of the presentation, Nikoo said to me, “My throat is bad, and I think I have lost my voice, so please present the paper.” When you have friends like this, you don’t need enemies. I am being humorous, but he presented me with a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge was that he sprang it on me, but I guess his logic was that since I wrote the paper, how much prior notice did I need? The opportunity was that I could be noticed positively which could only do me good. Nikoo was a dear friend and mentor and we remained in touch until he passed away.
Mango Range was an interlude in my career. I was marking time and waiting for some positive change to happen, and in the meanwhile I enjoyed myself. It has long been my philosophy to live one day at a time and to try to create as much happiness for myself and around me as possible. I have learnt that the two are the same. You can only be happy if those around you are happy. This is true whether you are an individual, an organization, or a country. Imagine what a wonderful world we would have if instead of competing, we collaborated and shared resources. We would all be wealthier, happier, and healthier. I have always held that the secret of happiness is to be thankful for and enjoy the small things in life. There are far many more of them than the big events. If we can enjoy the small things, then we can be happy all the time. The key to enjoyment is to appreciate them and be thankful for them. The key to contentment is not amassing, material but in being thankful for what one has. The happiest people are those who are content. Content people are those who are thankful. Material wealth has nothing to do with it.
One of the things that I was very appreciative of and thankful for was the leisure that I had in Mango Range. I had no specific work except what I decided to do for myself. And I was still getting my salary. I decided to learn to play golf. I got a caddy from Ooty Gymkhana Club (Ooty Gym) to come and stay with me in the estate for three weeks. His name was Frank Augustine (I used to call him Frankenstein) and he looked like a dried prawn. But when he swung the club, he always hit the ball with that sweet phut that all golfers love to hear. And the ball would travel straight like a bullet down the freeway. Shows that it’s technique and not strength of the arm that works in golf. Also, in many other things in life. My club, on the other hand, would come up with a good measure of earth and top the ball to boot. Frankenstein believed in hard work – meaning, making me work hard. He set up a practice net, produced a set of a hundred used golf balls and we were good to go. I would hit the ball into the net until I felt my arms would drop off. All the while, Frankenstein would sit on his haunches under the Champa tree that was to one side and watch me and make clucking noises. The effect of all this clucking and my swinging at the ball became clear when one day about midway in our training Frankenstein suggested that we should go and play a round at the club. So off we went on the three-hour drive to Ooty. After a cup of tea and a sandwich, I teed off and that is where all the practice paid off. Ooty Gym has very narrow freeways bordered by spiky gorse. If you didn’t hit your ball straight, you would send it into the gorse and then you may as well forget about it because if you want your ball back, you must pay by leaving your blood and skin on the gorse and acquiring gorse thorn furrows in your hide. As Frankenstein continued his mother-hen act, I could see the distinct improvement in my style and capability.
Another one of my joys while living in Mango Range was the time I got to spend with Mr. Siasp Kothawala and his wife Zarine, at their lovely guesthouse in Masanigudi called Bamboo Banks. Masanigudi is in the foothills of the Nilgiris at the edge of the Mudumalai-Bandipur National Park, so there is a lot of wildlife around. You see a lot of Chital, some Gaur, and some elephant, the latter being dangerous as they are too close to human habitation and often in conflict with people. Mudumalai is also supposed to be a tiger reserve though I have never seen a tiger in it. The gate of Bamboo Banks was an ingenious contraption. It was a pole, suspended horizontally across the road and had a plastic water container on one end. There was a sign for you to tug on a rope if you wanted to open the gate. The rope was connected to an overhead tank so when you tugged it, water would flow into the plastic can on the pivoted side of the pole, which then went down and lifted the other end. All this happened while you were comfortably sitting in your car. The water would then drain out of a hole in the can and flow into an irrigation ditch and into some fruit trees, closing the gate. Siasp was a tea planter and had worked for the Bombay Burma Tea Company (BBTC). He then went into the tourism business and did very well. We would spend lovely afternoons talking about the tea industry and the general state of the world and drinking tea. Siasp always had an angle to everything, which he would put across in a hilarious and entertaining way.
Siasp also had horses on his farm and having had tea I would take one of the horses and go riding in the buffer zone of Mudumalai National Park. This had its exciting moments and I recall two of the best. One day, late in the afternoon, I was riding out of the farm and into the dry fields that surrounded it before the track entered the bamboo thickets that bordered Mudumalai, when I saw a Peregrine falcon hovering in the sky ahead of me. I pulled up to watch it and saw a dove break out of cover from a hedge and head for the safety of the forest flying very fast. The falcon folded his wings and stooped coming down like an arrow out of the heavens. The dove had almost made it to the forest cover when the falcon hit it in middle of its back with a slap that I could hear where I was sitting on my horse. The dove must have died with the impact, but the falcon bore it to the ground and then holding it in its claws, looked up right and left, its pale yellow eyes scanning the world to challenge any takers. What a magnificent sight that was. The image is engraved in my memory.
As I rode on, I took a path that went along the middle of a forest glade which had scattered clumps of bamboo. After a kilometer or two, the path passed between two very thick and large clumps of bamboo and dipped into a dry stream bed and went up the other bank. I used to like to gallop this stretch and my horse knew the routine. Strangely, on that day as we came near the bamboo clumps my horse shied and stopped and refused to go forward. This was odd behavior, but I have enough experience to know that in the forest your animal is your eyes and ears and you only ignore its signals at your own peril. I listened to the horse and turned around and then took a long and circuitous route to go around whatever it was that was bothering my horse. As we came around, I saw what was bothering him. It was a lone male elephant which was hiding behind the clump of bamboo. Now I have no idea what the elephant’s intention was, but I was not taking any chances. My horse obviously didn’t like the idea of passing close to the elephant and if we had continued on that track, we would have encountered that elephant where the path was the narrowest and where it was bordered and hedged in by the bamboo. In case of an attack, we would not have had any chance to escape. Lone elephants are famous for such attacks. A rather terminal situation which we were happy to have avoided.
On one of those trips to Bamboo Banks, I saw an elephant by the roadside, a little way inside the forest. As this was quite close to the Forest Department’s housing and elephant camp, I thought that it was a tame elephant and decided to take a picture. I had a small box camera at the time in which you were the telephoto – if you wanted greater magnification, you had to go closer to the object. So, I got out of the car and walked almost to the side of the elephant and took a photo. Suddenly I heard someone yelling at me, his voice high pitched in panic. I looked up and there was a forest guard, a good two-hundred meters away, waving frantically at me and yelling at me to get back into the car. Since it is not an offence to get out of your car on the main road in Mudumalai, I was irritated at this man’s insistence but since I already had my picture, I returned to the car. As we drove on and came up to him, the man waved us to a stop and still in an angry voice asked me in Tamil, ‘What do you think you are doing? If you want to die, go do it somewhere else.’
I said to him, ‘Hey man! Relax. What is all this about dying? I was only taking a picture of one of your elephants. Who said I want to die?’
The man said, ‘Our elephants? That was a lone wild tusker that you were standing next to. I have no idea why he let you get that close or why he did nothing. Your lucky day. That is a wild elephant and a lone one at that. Don’t do these stupid things.’ And he went on for a while in the same vein. I was so shocked that I listened in silence. And of course, how can you get angry with someone who is only interested in preserving your life? But I still have the picture, which is very impressive.
Final story here involving my good friend Siasp. Siasp had a very good friend in Mysore who was the Commandant of Police in charge of the Karnataka Armed Reserve Police Mounted Company, called SG Mariba Shetty. https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/society/thoroughbred-tales/article4054508.ece
Mariba Shetty was known for his high standards and a visit to the stables of the Armed Reserve Police Mounted Company was a delight to say the least. I love the smell of freshly groomed horses and fresh hay. Yes there is the smell of horse dung also but it is a pleasant smell. I spent a lot of my youth grooming horses, because that is how we were taught riding at the AP Riding Club in Hyderabad, by our ex-cavalry Ustaads, Abdul Hameed Khan and Sayeed Khan. Our training was rigorous. You started one hour before it was time to ride by mucking out the stable and grooming your horse. Then you saddled up and you were ready to go. All this was unwritten. Nobody forced you. If you didn’t want to do that and wanted to ride a horse like you ride a motorcycle by just getting on and getting off and handing it to a syce, you could do that. But then you were given the worst nag in the stable. If you wanted to ride the Thoroughbreds or the Kathiawari and Marwari horses, then the unwritten rule was that you showed your readiness by starting with mucking out the stables. Great character building, if you ask me.
To return to Siasp’s story with Mariba Shetty, let me tell you how Siasp told me. “You remember Maiba Shetty? The Mysore Mounted Police Commandant?”
“Yes, I do. What happened to him?”
“I heard that there was a riot during a Dussera procession, and he tried to stop it but was pulled off his horse and killed. I was very sad to hear this. You know he was a great friend of mine. So, I wrote a long letter to his wife, telling her what a wonderful man he was and how much I appreciated our friendship.”
A couple of weeks passed. Then I get a call from Mariba Shetty. He says to me, “Mr. Khotawala, I called to tell you that I am well and that report about my death was wrong. Thank you very much for your letter. I didn’t know you thought so highly of me.”
Big lesson in telling people that we appreciate them while they are alive, instead of writing moving obituaries after they are dead. In this case, the man got to read his obituary but in most cases, it is a waste of effort.