One of the first things I did when I joined the tea industry was to learn Tamil. I recall Mr. Ahmedullah, the General Manager telling me, ‘You must speak Tamil not only fluently but like a Tamilian, not like a Hyderabadi or an Englishman.’ And that is what I proceeded to do. I engaged the local school teacher in Sheikalmudi, Mr. Kannan (called Kannan Vadiyar – Kannan the Teacher) to teach me Tamil. He was a great teacher and I was very enthusiastic to learn. Not only did Mr. Kannan teach me to speak, he taught me to read and write Tamil and also taught me something of the most famous of Tamil classics, the Thirukkural. This is a book of proverbs written by the famous sage, Thiruvalluvar who is revered for his wisdom. Thirukkural is structured into one-hundred-thirty-three chapters, each containing ten couplets, thus a total of thirteen-hundred-thirty couplets. Each couplet has seven words, four in the first line and three in the second. Amazing achievement, conveying amazingly wise advice strictly within this framework. Poetry has this power of enforcing discipline in thinking. When you are keeping to the rules of classical poetry, you must think clearly and express yourself concisely. Mr. Kannan used to read and explain them to me and I even memorized a few of them and would on occasion recite them in my speeches, much to the amazement of the audience. In six months of daily lessons, I became completely fluent and thanks to Mr. Kannan’s accent, I speak Tamil like a Coimbatore Gounder or Brahmin. Knowing the language is a window into the culture and so it was with me.
Knowing Tamil proved to be a big asset, both on the estate as it gave me a major advantage to be able to communicate with my people in their own language, and later in consulting as I now have several Tamil business families as clients. Knowledge of Tamil was also a great asset in communicating with the Chairman of my company, Mr. AMM Arunachalam, who despite being fluent in English preferred to speak in his own mother tongue, Tamil. So, when he would come to visit Ambadi Estate and visit the Suchindram temple at Kanyakumari, his wife and he would stay with us, as I was by then the Manager of Ambadi Estate. In the evenings he would sit with us after dinner and at my request, he would tell me the story of their family and their move from Burma to India and how they evolved from being money lenders to one of the leading industrialist families in India. The conversation would mostly be in Tamil with a few sprinkles of English. These evenings gave me an insight into the minds of one of the foremost business family heads and were instrumental in helping me understand the mind of an entrepreneur. Years later when I wrote my book, ‘The Business of Family Business,’ I dedicated it to the memory of Mr. AMM as we called him and to his generously sharing his life experience with me. He was a great teacher and I was an interested and willing student
Life in the Anamallais passed like a dream. Berty Suares was the Assistant Manager on the neighboring estate, Malakiparai. And Sandy (Sandeep Singh) was on Urlikal. Both dear friends. They would come over to my place and we would spend the Sunday picnicking on the bank of the Aliyar River where on a bend in the river that passed through our cardamom plantation, I had built a natural swimming pool. I deepened the stream bed and deposited the sand from there on the near bank, thereby creating a very neat ‘beach.’ Sitting on this beach under the deep shade of the trees after a swim in the pool was a heavenly experience. Add to it, eating cardamom flavored honey straight from the comb, taken from the many hives that I had set up in the cardamom fields for pollination. The flavor comes from the pollen of the flowers which the bees take to make the honey. Depending on where you set up your hives or where the bees go to find pollen, honey has as many flavors as there are flowers. While we lazed about at noon, our lunch would be brought down to us and we would all eat together. The joys of being a planter in the days when we had people who knew how to enjoy that life. And no mobile phones, net coverage and Wi-Fi to worry about.
If you walked down the river for a couple of kilometers you would come to the Parambikulam Dam backwaters into which this river flowed. I had built another pool there at the bottom of a waterfall, thanks to a stream that flowed through Murugalli Estate. We used to keep a boat in the dam to go fishing on the lake. There was a thickly wooded island in the lake about half a kilometer from the shore on which one could go and spend the whole day, swimming and lazing in the shade; a very welcome occupation, free from all stress. The only sounds that you would hear would be the wailing call of the Rufus Backed Hawk Eagle and the Fishing Eagle. In the evenings, the Jungle Fowl called the hour. If you stayed beyond sunset, the only danger was that you could encounter bison (Gaur) as you walked home. That encounter was not something to look forward to as I discovered one day. Mercifully, I was walking softly, and the wind was in my face, so the Gaur was as startled as I was. He snorted, spun on his heel, and vanished, crashing through the undergrowth. I was very fortunate.
The more I spent time with myself, clearer it became that it is important to be ‘friends’ with yourself. The more you are self-aware and comfortable internally, the more you can enjoy the world outside. When you are not aware of what is happening to you inside or are unhappy with decisions you have taken, or with your own internal processes, the unhappier you are likely to be with your surroundings. The normal tendency is to blame the outer world, but if one looks within, it is possible to find the solution. One rider however, that you will find only if you seek and only if you have the courage to recognize what you see. That is where sometimes the matter remains unresolved. Not because there is no solution. But because we are unwilling to accept the solution or to implement it.
Time for another dip, then climb into the hammock and gently swing in the breeze that comes blowing over the water. Those were the days……………………
It was in this period that I was promoted and transferred from the Anamallais to Assam. I declined the promotion because Assam is a backwater and one tends to get lost there. 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 in the corporate world. I figured that if I went off to Assam, which is 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. I declined the promotion. However, since I had been transferred, I had to move out of the estate. This was a trying period because suddenly I had no specific job. 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 ‘parked’ in Carolyn Estate in Mango Range until the company could decide what to do with me. I was assigned a bungalow 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 current system in the plantations was that a new assistant would be put under a manager and what he learnt or didn’t depended on his own capability and the 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 text book 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 worked 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 knew Orthodox manufacture as I had been Assistant Manager in charge of Murugalli factory in the Anamallais. But though I was part of the project team for Mayura factory construction and defacto Site Manager, I had never done CTC manufacture. So, I considered it my great good fortune 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 to Carolyn. He and I became very 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. 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.
Carolyn , 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 golf. I got a caddy from Ooty Club 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. When he swung the club though, 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. Whereas my club would come up with a good measure of earth and top the ball to boot. Shows that technique and not strength of the arm is what works in golf. Also, in many other things in life. Frankenstein believed in hard work – meaning, making me work hard. He set up a practice net, produced a bag 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, smoking a beedi, watching me and making 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 Club 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 – you must pay to get the ball back by leaving your blood 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 spent with Mr. Siasp Kothawala at his 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. My wife and I used to go to Bamboo Banks on some weekends. The gate of Bamboo Banks was an ingenious contraption. It was a bamboo pole, suspended horizontally across the road and had a plastic water container secured 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 container, 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 on into some fruit trees, closing the gate. Siasp was a tea planter and worked for the Bombay Burma Tea Company (BBTC). He then went into the tourism business and has done 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 sanctuary. 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 hawk 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 hawk 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 hawk 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 hawk 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 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. 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! 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.
For more please read my book, “It’s my Life”