The Crossley engine was iconic and as much a part of a tea garden as a tea bush. Crossley engineers trained local men with an aptitude for mechanical tinkering who became Blacksmiths’ and were a legend. Most of them had had no formal education to speak of. All they had was the interest to learn, curiosity and dexterity and were very creative. They attempted anything and succeeded where highly trained mechanical engineers would be stumped. I put this down to what our formal education does to the mind, where our creativity is severely curtailed within the imaginary boundaries of what ‘can’ and ‘can’t’ be done. Those who are not mentally conditioned in this way, try all sorts of new ways with great success because nobody told them what ‘can’t’ be done.

One of my favorite stories about how creative people without a formal education can be is as follows. When I took over Lower Sheikalmudi Estate as the Manager, one of the things that I concentrated on was to make the land more productive. I took a three-pronged approach. We dug trenches in the swamps to drain the water and planted cardamom on the ridges between the trenches and planted pepper on the shade trees – Grevillea Robusta (Silver Oak). We filled in (planted tea) all vacant patches and tea field boundaries. And we reclaimed all big vegetable gardens which had become more commercial than personal and had encroached into our tea fields. The incident I want to mention here had to do with an infilling area in the LSM Upper Division. This was a large bare hilltop which was about ten acres in extent, which we planted with clonal cuttings. Since the area was completely bare and open, I was very concerned about the survival of the cuttings as we were going into the dry weather.

There was no water on site to irrigate the plants. If we dug a well in the swamp at the bottom of the hill, we would have to install a diesel pump because there was no electricity there, then put in a pipeline and build a tank on top of the hill. Only then would we be able to irrigate this plot. An expensive proposition to say the least. We were taking all other moisture conservation measures; mulching the plants, digging lock and spill trenches and filling them with coconut husk to retain whatever moisture that occasional rain and daily dew fall would yield. But I knew that these would not be enough when the summer set in and we would probably have heavy casualties if we couldn’t irrigate the plants. One day I was standing on the hilltop with Mr. Govindraj, my Field Officer, and we were talking about the problems of irrigation and how important it was for the successful survival of these plants. There were a few workers around us, digging trenches. As we were speaking, one of them, Shashi, said to me, ‘Dorai, if you permit me, I can bring water here to this hilltop.’ Mr. Govindraj’s instant reflex reaction was, ‘Hey! Keep quiet and do your work. Don’t interrupt the Manager when he is speaking.’ Such were those days.

I immediately stopped Govindraj and said to the man, ‘Tell me how you will do it?’

Shashi said, ‘Dorai, I want two helpers for two days, permission to cut bamboo in our reserve forest, and two or three empty diesel barrels (they have a capacity of two-hundred liters). Give me this and I will get water here from that stream over there,’ and he pointed to the stream in the ravine near the forest boundary. The stream was at least three kilometers away as the crow flies in a small ravine abutting the forest. If the crow walked it was much further. I was very intrigued. He wouldn’t explain any more when I asked him. I instructed Govindraj to give him what he asked as I wanted to see what he would do.

About a week later he came to meet me in the Muster and asked me to go to see what he had made. I was astounded to see what he had done. He had cut mature bamboo and punched through the nodal septa to create a pipe. Then he had rigged up a siphon system using the diesel barrels to lift the water from one level to another and had water from the stream flowing out of the end of the bamboo pipe into a small tank in the middle of the tea infilling area. It was a system that cost next to nothing to build, needed neither power nor manual attention to run, and was made by a man whose job was manual labor. In effect we had a hydraulic engineer in our midst who had never gone to college, could barely read and write, usually dug holes in the ground or did other such unedifying jobs, and his knowledge was hidden because nobody bothered to ask him. If I had also followed suit and allowed my Field Officer to shut him up, we would have unnecessarily spent a fortune to do something that one of our own workers did for us, free of cost. I invited our General Manager to visit the estate and see what he had done, and we took photographs and gave him a gift. Everyone all around was delighted but none so much as myself for the life lesson I learnt.

With Shashi on my right in the tea nursery – 2010

I later promoted Shashi to Supervisor and put him in charge of our tea nursery as he was very smart and had a lot of good ideas. I used to listen to him carefully and we did many an interesting thing as a result of his ideas. People close to the job know the most about it, if only managers will listen. And it’s all free. He did a brilliant job with the nursery and several years later after I had left, I understand that he was promoted to the Staff grade. As they say, ‘you can’t keep a good man down.’

Our Blacksmiths kept machinery which should have legitimately been given a decent burial in the 19th century, alive and kicking – generating electricity, running pumps, factories and what-have-you. Amazing work, mostly unsung but hugely appreciated by those who benefited from it. These ‘Blacksmiths’ were able to keep not only the Crossley engines running but handled anything that moved with equal confidence and aplomb. This included tractors without generators or starters, motorcycles with temperamental carburetors and even the Peria Dorai’s (PD) car. All passed through the hands of the Estate Blacksmith and lived to tell the tale. They were also artists with the lathe machine. All CTC factories have lathe machines to sharpen CTC rollers. On these machines were made all kinds of knickknacks, tools and what-have-you, as required or desired – sometimes the difference between the two being non-existent. 

Thangavelu – trying to look serious

I had a blacksmith on my estate, Lower Sheikalmudi, called Thangavelu. His trademark was his smile, showing huge gaps of missing teeth but bright and shining like the rising sun, no matter what time of the day or night you called him. The other thing about him was that no matter when you saw him, he always looked like he had been freshly dipped in a drum of lube oil. I used to tell him that if I cut him, oil and not blood would flow. Which got a huge laugh as my reward. Thangavelu was an absolute wizard with his hands. He’s had no education to speak of and so his creativity and initiative were intact. He did things with bits of wire, soap, wire mesh and coconut fiber which kept machines turning in an emergency until we could get the right part or consumable that had given up the ghost. He once made me a pruning knife with a truck spring blade and put a handle on it encased in staghorn (from a discarded Sambar horn picked up in the forest), secured with copper bands. It was a thing of real beauty and I carried it with pride for a number of years.

One day when I had been transferred to Paralai Estate, I gave it to one of my pruning workers to sharpen. Then I left to inspect some plucking and then went to the office in the afternoon. While I was in the office, some workers came running and said that Forest Department officers had come and arrested several of our workers from the pruning field and taken them off to Pollachi. I was astonished until I learnt that while they had been pruning, a Barking Deer got flushed out from under some unpruned tea. The deer ran for its life but one of the workers threw his knife which brought it down and before anyone could think, other workers had butchered it. I was furious at them for having killed a poor animal which apart from the kindness angle was also illegal. This whole thing was reported to the Forest Range Officer who came and arrested the workers and hauled them off to the Police Station in Pollachi. The workers who came to me, said that they had been locked up and had not had anything to eat and their families were distraught.

I drove down to Pollachi and met the Range Officer and the Superintendent of Police. I arranged for the workers in the lockup to be fed. Then I persuaded the officers to drop the case against them as they had done their deed without any thought, almost as a reflex. It took a lot of talking and the fact that I knew the officers concerned and had a good relationship with them. What also helped was the fact that I had driven all the way down from the Anamallais for these workers, which was not usual and so everyone was very impressed, and the case was dropped, and the workers released. The only casualty, apart from the poor Barking Deer (which incidentally made a nice meal for the Forest Department and Police guys) was my pruning knife. It had been ceased by the Range Officer, who fell in love with it and when I went to meet him, it was on his table. He asked me if I would be kind enough to allow him to keep it. With my workers’ freedom in his hands, I had hardly any choice. So, I bid it farewell. Thangavelu never got around to making me another one though we talked about it many times.

As was the custom of the plantations when any Assistant Manager got married and returned with his wife, there was a round of parties to meet the couple. So also, in our case and since I was the Secretary of the Anamallai Club, I had more than my fair share of friends and so we had a party to go to every night.  The parties were formal suit and tie affairs and the hostess would go to great lengths to cook special dishes in honor of the guests and at the end the couple would be given a gift. In a place where social relationships were very important, these parties were not simply for entertainment. They were rites of passage and thresholds of entry from bachelorhood to married status, which gave you a higher level of status and respect. They also had ‘snob value’ associated with who invited you and who didn’t. I didn’t bother with that at all, but then again, I was invited by everyone, so it didn’t matter. The parties were also a good way to introduce the new bride to a way of life that was foreign to her and helped her to make contacts with senior ladies and others more experienced in this lifestyle, which could be challenging for someone born and brought up in the city. Most people who go to tea gardens for a holiday in good weather don’t realize the difficulty of that environment for those who must live there all year round.

I have written about how my estate workers welcomed us when we returned to the estate. https://yawarbaig.com/wherearetheleaders/see-with-their-eyes/  The beauty of planting life was that it was like being in a family. You had your bickering, sometimes it could be trying. But always there was mutual affection and traditions to uphold and the proper etiquette in all things. And most importantly, in an emergency, everyone stood by you.

These dinner parties in our honor were so frequent that my wife could recognize a road only in the dark. The parties, enjoyable though they were and were a good way to meet friends who lived too far to visit frequently, could be very taxing as they tended to go on very late. We were expected to put in an appearance at the morning muster on the estate at 6:00 am no matter when we returned. The night of Mayura Factory inauguration (the day that started at 2:00 am), we had been invited to dinner at the home of our dear friends, Prema and Ricky Muthanna in Mudis. Ricky was the General Manager of BBTC and we were honored to be invited to their home.

As it happened, there was no time even for a short snooze in the afternoon thanks to the inauguration and to top it all, my car was once again in hospital. I didn’t fancy the idea of going all the way to Mudis (about thirty km on serpentine estate roads, decorated with potholes) on my motorcycle. I asked Mr. AVG Menon if I could borrow car, a brand new Hindustan Ambassador which had arrived just that week, for the evening and he graciously agreed.

We set off at about 7:00 pm as the dinner was for 8:00 pm. I was exhausted as I had been awake for 48 hours with about 2 hours of sleep, but we set off, Samina and I, on this long drive. We arrived at Prema and Ricky’s house to a very warm welcome. Samina and Prema became friends instantly and have remained friends all these years. Ricky and Prema’s home was a delight, very tastefully decorated and one of the iconic bungalows in the Anamallais. It was the only bungalow to my knowledge which had a central courtyard with a veranda all around it and so it had a garden inside and outside. Prema had called a lot of people in our honor and the house was full of our friends and some others who I knew by name but was meeting for the first time.

All plantation parties (except in my house) started with drinks, which the men consumed in large quantities while the women sipped soft drinks and discussed matters of great import. As I was not one for the spiritual experience, I would take my orange juice or fresh lime soda and chat with whoever was still on mother earth. But as many left for higher altitudes in proportion to the fuel inside them, I would usually take myself off into a corner and contemplate the world. That day I was so sleepy and tired that my eyes were self-shutting unable to withstand the weight of my eyelids, while the party was in full swing. I was clearly out of it. Prema saw me in that state and said to Samina and me, ‘Yawar looks like he is going to drop. Let me give you dinner so that you can eat and leave. I have no idea when these men will eat, and you look like you won’t last too long.’ I agreed wholeheartedly and we ate, said our farewells quietly and left.

Even up to that point I had my faculties still intact. You had to be alert when driving in the Anamallais, both on account of the road conditions as well as the possibility of coming upon a herd of elephants or gaur around a bend. That night was mercifully elephant free and we reached Lower Sheikalmudi Estate without incident. As I took the final turn on the road leading up to our bungalow (the ‘Tennis Court Bungalow’), I relaxed and that was my undoing. The next thing I knew, there was a crash and the car came to an abrupt halt. I was shocked back into awareness and realized that I had driven off the road. The left front wheel of the car was hanging off the side of the road in midair with the front fender resting against a tea bush, which was the reason we didn’t go all the way down into the ravine. The chassis was resting on the roadbed. Samina and I were shocked. It was 2:00 am and there we were.

I realized that this was not a good situation because the car didn’t belong to me. It was Mr. Menon’s car and a new one to boot. It was therefore my responsibility to get out of this situation. It didn’t even occur to me that I could leave the car where it was until morning and then get assistance to take it out of its predicament. I had crashed it and it was up to me to get it out. And I had to do it right away; it was not even a matter to think about. As it was, the car was directly below a stairway that led up to our house. I told Samina to walk up to the house so that she would be safely home. Then I went in search of a tractor to pull the car out. I knew that the leaf transport tractors – Massey Ferguson – used to be parked near Mayura Factory, about 2 kilometers from where I was. Our roads had no streetlights and it was a dark night. The tea fields were home to wild boar and other friendly species, not to mention several species of snakes, but none of them was my boss while Mr. AVG Menon was. I hiked off in search of a tractor. On the way I called my good friend, mechanic Thangavelu, because there was no way that I could pull the car out alone. Both of us got to where the tractors were parked and selected the one we wanted.

None of the tractors had self-starters and used to be parked on an incline so that you could roll down and start the engine. And they had no lights; I never understood why. Working in starlight, I got into the driver’s seat, rolled down, and started the tractor. Now we needed a tow rope. Thangavelu recalled that the telephone company people had been working on a line passing through one of our fields and had left a coil of telephone wire there. So off we went, with Thangavelu standing on a plank behind me, holding the seat as I drove the tractor. We picked up the coil of wire and drove back to where the car was; hooked up the wire to the chassis at the back and pulled the car back on the road. When I examined the damage, I saw that the tea bush had taken the shock and except for a small side indicator light, nothing was broken. That was a big relief to put it mildly. Thangavelu then took the tractor back to its parking spot and I drove home at 3:30 am.

I still recall the first thing that AVG asked me when I told him that we’d had an accident in his new car. He said, ‘I hope you and Samina are alright?’ I told him that we were fine but that his new car had been inaugurated with a broken indicator light. He was amused and laughed it off and said, ‘That can be fixed. I am happy that nothing happened to you both.’ That is why we used to call him A Very Good Menon.