You all know my butler Bastian who I have written about earlier. Bastian like most of his tribe spoke ‘Butler English’ and was very snobbish. My wife used to speak to him in the same way to make it easier for both to understand what was going on. So sometimes I would come in to hear, ‘Bastian, tomatoes got, not got?’ And Bastian saying, ‘Got Madam. But when Madam going Valparai please kindly bringing cream Madam. Need to make vanilla soufflé for Wood Dorai Madam’s dinner party. If Madam want, I am coming to Valparai with Madam.
“Why not telling you don’t have cream Bastian? I would have got it yesterday when Master went to the Club.”
“Not wanting trouble Madam. Going with Madam today to get it.”
The real reason being of course that he would be able to get together and chat with his cronies in Valparai during the day, because in the evenings, they would all be busy in their own jobs.
Bastian had a habit of translating Tamil names into English and announcing anyone who came with his translation of the person’s name. He didn’t do that with the Doraimaar (Manager class) but did it with anyone else. Workers or union leaders didn’t come to the bungalow to meet the Manager. We met all workers, supervisors, staff and union leaders only at the morning Muster or in the Estate Office. This was a universal rule in all estates which was strictly adhered to. This has nothing to do with being snobbish or class conscious but with maintaining boundaries of work and personal time and space. We lived on the job, as it were and if we didn’t do this, we wouldn’t have had a single day’s peace. Having said that, there were some special people who had special privileges. In my case these were my tracker, who told me about the movement of wildlife in the forests adjoining our estates in the Anamallais, the supervisor who built the hides in trees or rocks for me to watch wildlife and the two Ramans who accompanied me on my hikes on Grass Hills. All of them came to the bungalow if they needed to meet me.
The norm was that they would first go to the back, to the kitchen and Bastian’s pantry and he would give them a cup of tea and they would chat. Then he would see what I was doing and if I was free, he would announce that so-and-so had come to see me. But the way he did it was to say the least, very funny. He would say, “Master, Seven Hills is here to meet Master.” Seven Hills being the literal translation of Yedumalai. Or he would say, “Master, Golden Mountain is here and wants to meet Master.” Golden Mountain being, yes you guessed it, Thangamalai.
When I was in Paralai Estate, my bungalow was just off the main Valparai road, opposite the Iyerpadi Estate Hospital, the domain of Dr. John Phillip and his charming wife, Dr. Maya. John and Maya were very good friends. John was one of the finest diagnosticians that I have ever had the pleasure of knowing, who could tell you what was wrong with your soul by looking at your toenails. Maya, in addition to being a physician, was a very creative artist and painted and made all kinds of beautiful things. One day, I had almost finished my morning rounds and had a nasty headache. So, on the way home for lunch, I dropped in at the hospital to meet Dr. John and get something for my headache.
As I drove into the hospital compound, I saw a lot of urgent activity with nurses and attenders running here and there. I asked Mr. Karunakaran, the Pharmacist, who held fort when Dr. John was away, what was going on. He said that there was a woman in labor who was terribly anemic and needed a blood transfusion. They were trying to find her family to donate blood. I said to him, “Take mine. I am O + and a universal donor.” Karunakaran looked surprised. A nurse standing by him, looked shocked. “You will donate blood for a worker woman?” she asked. “We are trying to find her people (Dalits) to donate blood.” I said to her, “Look, I have no time for this. Take my blood and give it to her. You don’t want her dying with her baby while you hunt for her relatives.” While all this was going on, Dr. John came on the scene and on being informed that I was offering to donate blood and the reluctance of the staff to accept it, he said, “He wants to donate his blood. What is your problem? Just take it.”
I was duly laid down and bled to the extent of two bottles of blood. It was thick and almost black with hemoglobin and had my friend John smiling in satisfaction. They disappeared with the blood into the operation theatre. I was kept under observation for a while and given some tea, just to ensure that I didn’t croak. I realized that in all this, my headache had disappeared. Clearly donating blood cures headaches. I then went home and had lunch and went off for my siesta. A most civilized practice that I learned to do in the plantations and have adhered to ever since. I am told it is also very good for the heart. It is certainly very good to rejuvenate you for the rest of the day. After my siesta of about forty-five minutes, I got up for my cup of tea, when Bastian announced, “Master, Golden Mountain and the entire Works Committee are here to meet Master.” I was surprised because it was my rule that I never met any union leaders at home, and everyone knew and respected it. What was so urgent today that they couldn’t meet me in the office?
I walked out on to the veranda to see Thangamalai, who was the head of the union, Madasamy who was his Deputy and entire Works Committee with them. I was a little apprehensive also, because usually it is not good news when the whole committee wants to meet you urgently. We made our greetings. Then I asked them why they had come. They didn’t say a word. Thangamalai stepped forward and bent down to touch my feet. I stepped back in amazement and irritation because I never encouraged the touching of my feet. They knew this. I told them, “Why are you touching my feet? You know I don’t like this and don’t allow anyone to do it.” Thangamalai said in a grave tone, “Yes Dorai, we know. But today you will have to allow us to touch your feet. So, please don’t stop us.” He then bent down and touched my feet. And all the others followed suit. I stood there, totally amazed at all this. When they had all finished, I asked them, “So, tell me, what is all this for? What did I do?”
Thangamalai said, “Dorai, today you did something that has never happened in the more than one hundred years since this tea was planted. You gave your blood for one of us. No manager ever did this. So, we must thank you.”
I said, “What is so special about that? Wouldn’t you have done the same for me?”
“Yes Dorai, we would. But Doraimaar (Manager class) don’t do it for us. You are the first one and the only one who ever did it.” Then he said something which has stayed with me ever since. He said, “Dorai, this is our land. It is our land not because we were born here but because we will be buried here, if we die. It can never be the land of the Managers, because if you die, they will take you away to your hometown to bury you. They will not bury you here. The land you are born in is not your motherland. It is the land you die in and are buried in that belongs to you. But from today, this is also your land because your blood is now our blood.” I had tears in my eyes and to this day when I think of this whole event, it fills my heart with warmth and love for these simple, lovely people. I have never believed in caste and class divisions and never practiced them and that day, they accepted me as their own. I was a Dalit for them and for me that was the greatest honor.
There is a very happy ending to this story. Almost twenty-five years later, in 2010, I returned to the Anamallais with my wife Samina and some friends of ours from South Africa and my nephew Aly, to show them one of the most beautiful places on earth. We stayed for two nights in the bungalow we used to live in, the Manager’s bungalow on Lower Sheikalmudi Estate. We walked the trails that I used to walk and met all those workers and staff who were still there. Many had retired. Some had passed away. But those who were there, remembered me and left their work and came to meet me. I was taken in an informal procession and ‘installed’ in my old Muster. Someone put a shawl on the chair for me to sit upon. Others brought tea and vadas from the teashop which every estate has. Many of my old workers brought their children to meet me and told them, “This is the Dorai we have told you about.”
One young fellow came up to me, greeted me with, “Vanakkam Dorai.” I returned his greeting. He asked me, “Do you recognize me?” I always find this question very disconcerting. If you don’t remember them, it puts you in an embarrassing position. You can try to wing it by saying, “Of course I remember you. How can I ever forget you?” But some horrible fellows won’t let you get away with that. They will persist, “Then tell me who I am!” Then you must say, “You are the one for whom I pray every day that your socks should shrink in the wash and that you should discover after having showered that you forgot your towel in another room and that when you are in a rush to urgently go to the toilet in the airport, after you have done the deed, you should discover that you were in the toilet meant for the opposite gender.”
No, I didn’t say all that. I said to him, “I am sorry I don’t recognize you.” He said, “Not surprising Dorai. The last time you saw me was twenty-five years ago. I am the little boy who you would always give a ride to school on your bike. I would be walking down the road to the school and you would come down from the office and you would always stop and ask me to hop on behind you and you would take me to school. I can never forget you.” Then I remembered him of course. For me it was such an unremarkable thing to do. I like children and this little fellow was so happy to ride behind me and it made him such a big shot before all his friends that I always gave him a ride. Of such simple, unthinking, spontaneous actions are enduring memories made.
The two Ramans, my partners in all my jungle hikes, which we did regularly, came to meet me. One of them is the son of Kullan, who had passed away, about whom I have written in my book, ‘It’s my Life’. Kullan who would visit me in the evenings, and we would sit on my veranda and Kullan would tell me stories of the ‘old days’ (Palaya Gaalam). Wonderful stories of struggle, pain, joy, success and the inevitability of life, which tells you that after all is said and done, you must get up tomorrow morning and go to the field. Raman the Elder said to me, “Dorai, you have not forgotten your old ways. You came walking up the path from the old coffee area, where there is a lone elephant. But then you know the signs and you are not afraid. Do you want to go up to Manjaparai? Let us plan for that tomorrow.” Manjaparai is the highest point, a rock rising out of the forest that was the top boundary of the estate. Raman had built me a hide, a machan in a tree, above a waterhole from where he and I would go on full moon nights to watch elephants come, to drink. He recalled that and said, “Our machan is gone but we can still go up and sit and watch the sunset.” And that is what we did.
After two days, we went to Paralai to the new Anamallai Club and stayed in the chambers for another two days. The new club is a concrete building without the charm of the old one. It is just a building sitting in the middle of nothing. The old club in Valparai had tennis courts, a nine-hole golf course and a very charming colonial bungalow style building which we all loved. Sadly, that became the victim of Indian politics and our elected representative from the district, a servant of the people, no less; came one day with a huge mob and ransacked the club and demolished most of it and tried to illegally occupy the land. The police came as usual conveniently after all the damage had been done to the relic of capitalist India and locked up the ruins. And that is how that has stayed and remains to this day, to the best of my knowledge. Meanwhile planters needed a club and so the company I worked for, donated the land and all the other companies contributed the money to build the new club.
The day after we arrived, word got around to the workers of Paralai that Baig Dorai had come after twenty-five years and many people came to meet me. In the course of that, came two women and a man. The man was an old servant of ours who had worked as Bastian’s assistant, Asaithambi. He greeted me, “Vanakkam Dorai.” Then he gestured to the two women to come forward and asked me, “Do you know who they are Dorai?” I had no clue. He said, “This one is the one you gave your blood to. And this is her daughter. Without that blood they would both have died that day. It is with your blood in their veins that they are living. And Dorai, this girl is studying medicine in Coimbatore.” I wept with joy and gratitude. That is all that I could do.
Bastian was a brilliant cook and claimed that he knew more than 100 recipes for soufflés and puddings. I have no doubt he did, and I was the beneficiary of many, if not all. His cream soups were brilliant. So were his fruit soufflés. He would top some of them off with caramelized sugar like an elaborate web. Very stylish. But for the love of anything, he wouldn’t teach anyone else how to cook those things. My wife and many other ladies tried every trick to learn. Bastian would very politely say, ‘Of course Madam. I will teach Madam. Madam come when I am making it.’ But when Madam went there, at the final moment, he would do something to distract attention and there it was all ready and made and Madam would have to wait for the next opportunity. After a few such attempts, Madam got the hint and satisfied herself with eating Bastian’s cooking without trying to learn how to cook it. On one occasion, my wife suggested to Bastian that he should teach the houseboy who was his assistant in the kitchen. Bastian’s response was classic. He said, ‘No Madam. Chokra dull Madam. Can’t learn anything.’ And that was that. Chokra dull Madam. This was so funny that when my wife said something to me and I didn’t get it immediately she would say to me, “Chokra dull Madam.”
If only Bastian’s tribe had taught others what they knew they could have created very competent successors. But Bastian’s kind were very jealous, even insecure, about their positions and knew that it was their cooking skills which were their biggest asset. They guarded them jealously, never trained anyone else and took their skills to their graves. Very sad but very similar to what a lot of talented and skilled people in the corporate world do.
I always praised Bastian for his cooking, which was a delight to come home to. My wife is also a very good cook but doesn’t do it regularly. But once in a while when she felt like it, she would make something. When it came to the table, I, not knowing who had cooked that dish would automatically say to Bastian, “Bastian this bake is lovely.” Bastian would promptly say, “Thank you Master.” Taking all the credit for it and not telling me that he had not cooked it. But on the occasion when my wife made something and there was something the matter with it, and I said to Bastian, “Bastian, there is too much salt in this.” His immediate response would be, “Madam fault Sir.”
Butlers were an institution and we planters exchanged many ‘Butler stories’. One dear friend told us this story about his butler. The worthy would give him brown soup every single day. After some time, my friend got tired of eating the same soup and asked him if he didn’t know how to make some other kind of soup. “I giving Master two different soups,” says the butler. “Which two different soups?” “Thin brown soup and thick brown soup, Sir.” Another time, the Field Officer said to my friend, ‘Sir I am sorry to report but the quality of bread from your bungalow has gone down.’ When my friend asked him how he knew anything about the quality of the bread in his bungalow, the man replied, ‘But we are buying bread from you Sir.’
When I joined CWS (India) Limited, I heard a story about one of the GMs, Mr. Douglas Cook. Mr. Cook had a butler called Xavier. Mr. Cook lived in India alone but loved to entertain his friends. One day he invited some of his British friends and after dinner, he asked them if they would like some Cognac. Then he went to his bar to pour the drinks, only to discover that his Remy Martin was missing. Clearly very embarrassing. He apologized to his guests and they made do with something else. After everyone left, Mr. Cook was alone in his drawing room, when Xavier came in to bid goodnight to the Master as all the servants did each night. This was a standard ritual with the butler, being the highest-ranking individual in the household saying with a bow, “Anything else Master? Good night Master.” When Xavier said, “Anything else Master?” Mr. Cook asked, “Where is my Cognac Xavier?” Xavier mumbled something, reversed out of the drawing room and disappeared into the pantry. Next morning Xavier took the tray with Mr. Cook’s bed tea, into his bedroom and greeted him as usual, “Good morning Master.” Mr. Cook replied, “Where is my Cognac?” Later at breakfast, at lunch, at tea, when serving dinner and when he came to say, ‘Goodnight’, the same ritual; “Where is my Cognac?” To give him his due, Xavier took this for three days. Then on the fourth day, Xavier disappeared for good. Mr. Cook’s Cognac and his butler were never seen again.
Butler English was not restricted to butlers. I once had one of my Field Officers come to me, very happy one morning, saying, “Congratulations Sir. My wife delivered a baby yesterday.” Not having had anything to do with that development, I was in a quandary whether to accept the congratulations or not. Accepting seemed very much like admitting to the crime. Not accepting would have seemed rude. I am still thinking about that. Another Field Officer came one morning to the Muster, wanting his backyard to be fenced. To emphasize the point, he said very passionately, “I need this badly Sir. My backside is completely open.” I had no desire to verify this and so quickly agreed to allot the labor and barbed wire for his ‘backside’.
Life was simpler in those days. We had less technology and more time. People were more open, warm, and less complicated. People looked at commonalities and bonded on that basis. If I think about how many differences there were between me and some of my dearest friends, I can tell you that we differed on many things. But what we had in common was enough to keep our hearts together for now over forty years. That is the real meaning of respect. Not to demand that everyone becomes vanilla flavor; one ‘official, approved version’. Real respect is to respect difference and the right of everyone to live that difference without demanding that they change or even explain why they are the way they are. Real respect for each other is to accept our differences like the giraffe accepts the elephant’s trunk while the elephant accepts the giraffe’s long neck. That’s it for now. Vanakkam!