It was November 25, 2020, the day before Thanksgiving when my phone rang. It was Arun. In a voice, choked with emotion, he said, “Yawar, Suresh just passed away.” Suresh was 56.
We, my wife and I, landed in Kochi airport. As I walked into the airport, I heard this well-recognized and well-beloved voice calling, “Dorai!” I looked up and there he was, my beloved friend and brother Suresh Menon. Spontaneously I did what I always did – our own private ritual – I yelled, “Yedo!” and both of us with arms wide open, ran to each other and hugged. There was dead silence in the airport. Everyone turned and looked to see what the yells were about. And then they started clapping. Everyone in the arrivals area clapped. My wife says, “It was such an amazing scene! And so beautiful.”
Suresh came to me in 1985/6 when I was appointed Manager of Lower Sheikalmudi Estate. AVG Menon, my first manager and mentor and at that time, the Group Manager of the Sheikalmudi Group in the Anamallais, said to me, “Yawar, he is my nephew and I want you to train him, so I have asked for him to be appointed as your Assistant. Please don’t go easy on him. Let him learn the hard way.” And that is what happened.
Suresh joined and I put him in charge of Lower Division which had a wonderful senior Field Officer, Mr. O. T. Varughese, with the intention that Suresh would learn from him. Mr. Varughese was one of my own teachers and had taught me a lot about tea planting when I was in Lower Sheikalmudi several years earlier as an Assistant. Suresh was supposed to be on probation for one year at the end of which I had to confirm his appointment or not, as the case may be. Six months passed and I was very disappointed. In my view Suresh was not pulling his weight. He would hardly speak in my Staff meetings; he looked disinterested and seemed to be just marking time. The ‘problem’ was that I wanted him to succeed, not the least because he was AVG’s nephew and AVG was like a father to me and I loved him very much. So, one day, I called Suresh and said to him in my usual direct way, “Suresh, I have been watching your performance and I don’t think you are going to make it. It doesn’t look like you are learning anything. You are silent in meetings; you don’t answer any questions. I suggest you decide what you want to do. If you don’t like planting, this is the time to decide if you want to stay on or leave.”
Suresh’s reaction was totally unexpected. No, he didn’t kill me. He said to me, “Can I speak to you frankly?” I was shocked. In the planting culture, your Assistants treated you like a King. And you don’t say to ‘The King’, “Can I talk to you frankly?” I raised my eyebrows and when they had descended to their normal location, I said, “Yes, go ahead.” Suresh said, “You don’t give me any responsibility. You give instructions to Mr. Varghese, you ask him questions, if something is good, you praise him and if it isn’t you tell him about it. But you never speak to me directly. I feel as if I am redundant and unnecessary.”
I took a deep breath. I could see myself in what he described. He was right. I was doing all that, but I thought I had been doing Suresh a favor by going ‘easy’ with him. I didn’t ask him anything as I didn’t want him to feel pressured. I didn’t mean to ignore him, but I could see how he was seeing it. I said to him, “Okay, I accept what you said. What do you want me to do?” He said, “If you trust me, don’t come to my division for the next one month.” That was like telling me to commit suicide. For any self-respecting planter worth his salt not to visit a division for a whole month was not just impossible but it was not even thinkable. Also, no matter what Suresh said or felt, if I didn’t go to that division and something went wrong, it would still me my neck on the block. I couldn’t say to my company, “I was experimenting with training my Assistant.” Nobody would buy that and at best it would be a huge negative notation in my appraisal. And at worst I could be looking for another job. But Suresh was done. He had said what he wanted to say. It was up to me. I teach leadership. I could recognize what was happening. Suresh was challenging me, and it was up to me to decide what I wanted to do with that challenge.
“Okay”, I said, “See you next month. But if something goes wrong, before I go home, I will murder you myself, very slowly.” He laughed and went away. Not only did I not go to Lower Division for a month, after that month, I used to pass through LD to my fishing spot in the cardamom area at the bottom of the Lower Division or on my way to Valparai, but not to do any work in the division, unless I was invited by Suresh to see something. Suresh, helped very ably by Mr. O. T. Varghese did such a fabulous job that it was a delight to confirm Suresh at the end of the year. I had built one of the best teams of my career in planting. Suresh, Mr. Varghese in LD, Mr. Jeyapaul in UD and Mr. Rajendra Kumar in the office. All made of gold.
What started as a work relationship, developed into a friendship that lasted lifelong. Suresh was by my side through thick and thin in the turbulent times we had in Lower Sheikalmudi and later in New Ambadi Estate. Turbulent times in both places which ended in harmony while setting benchmarks in productivity, labor relations, innovation, and quality. Between work, we indulged in what both of us loved, wildlife watching. I had a machan (tree house) built on Manjaparai and another on a very high rock on the top end of Lower Sheikalmudi Upper Division in the coffee area and we would spend very enjoyable evenings and sometimes nights, sitting up waiting for bison (Gaur) and Sambar to come to the stream and water hole or to the salt licks that I had set up there. Lots of memories and stories, but this is not a biography, so I will leave those for another day.
When I was posted to New Ambadi Estate and when Arun Kumar Menon, another very dear friend, who was the Assistant Manager there was due to be posted out, I asked for Suresh to be posted in his place, so we had another innings together in another very turbulent place. But Suresh was a friend and a rock of support and with the others, Arun, Roshan Appaiah, Sunil Abraham and Jayanand, we had another great team which I recall with great pleasure and affection. We had a particularly hairy time in Ambadi when we declared a lockout and I received death threats. Kulasekharam was a violence prone place and these threats were serious. The Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) warned me about it and offered to send a unit of armed police for my protection. My Managing Director called and told me to take my wife and go to Trivandrum, check into a hotel there and stay there until the matter had been resolved. I asked him, “What about my Assistants?” He said, “They are not being threatened. They are not in danger. Only you need to go, and I am advising you because I don’t want anything to happen to you.” I told him, “If they don’t go, I don’t go. I will stay with them. I can’t leave my team and run away. I appreciate your concern, but I am not going.” He accepted my stand.
For everyone’s safety, I asked them all to move into my bungalow and they did. We had a great time of it, and it resulted in an even more cohesive and powerful team at the end of the episode. Threat and danger are like the fire that welds steel. It was during this time that Suresh got married and Bindu came to the estate. It is in Ambadi that their son Varun (Voovi) was born. In 1993 when I decided to leave planting to set up on my own in Leadership Development Consulting, Suresh asked me for advice about his career. I advised him to get an MBA. He asked me where he should apply. I told him to apply to the IIMA where I had also studied. Then I left.
One day about a year later, he called me and said, “I want to do it, but I have two problems. The exam is very tough, and I am not sure if I can get in. And if I do, I don’t have the money for the fee.”
I asked him, “How many people get into the IIMA every year?”
He replied, “200.”
I said to him, “Suresh all I am asking you to do is to be No. 200. Can you do it?”
“What about the fee? I don’t have the money.”
“First you do the exam,” I said, “then we will worry about the fee. At that time if you still don’t have the money, I will pay your fee.”
The rest is history. Suresh got in, he never asked me for the money to pay the fee. Bindu supported him like a rock throughout those two very tough years, sleeping on a mattress on the floor looking after an infant and taking care of the house and ensuring that Suresh didn’t have to worry about anything while he was studying. Time passed, Suresh qualified and got a job in Harrisons Malayalam as No. 2 in their Marketing Division. He helped them set up operations in Sri Lanka and in Africa.
One day in 2009, he called me and said, “Dorai, how about you come to Kochi and we go on a Kerala tour. We will go to the Anamallais and I will take you to Malayalam estates which I need to visit.” It had been 20 years since I had left Anamallais and I thought this was a great idea. We had a beautiful trip visiting old haunts, meeting old friends, trekking up Grass Hills in the Anamallais. Suresh took me to his ancestral home – Anakara Vadakkath. I asked him about the name. He told me, “Some fellow tied his elephant to a stick on this side of the river. The elephant decided to go for a swim and went across the river while the stick remained. When people asked the guy, he pointed to the elephant on the other side of the river and said, “Anai akkara, vaddak ithey.” So, it was called Anakara Vadakkath.” Whatever be the truth of it, it is a nice story. We had a grand time and ate my favorite Kerala cuisine all through the trip. That was one of the most enjoyable trips of my life.
Both Suresh and I moved on. He did different things, and I became busy with my consulting work. One day about 8 years later, my phone rang. I was in Kruger National Park in South Africa without the best reception. That evening when we returned to the lodge, I returned his call. He wanted my advice about a new business venture he was planning which combined tea tasting and advising estates on planting practices. He asked me if I would be available as a resource for Estate Management if anyone needed that. For me anything to have a chance to spend a few days on a tea estate is most welcome and enough to say, ‘Yes.’ Life went on for both of us. We had planned another trip in 2020; ten years after our last trip. In September 2019, I came to the United States on holiday and got stuck thanks to Covid travel restrictions. I got involved with my work here, which thanks to its nature, never stops. Suresh and I almost never called each other unless we had something to discuss, but when we did talk to each other, even if that was after several years, it was always as if we had spoken the previous evening.
Now suddenly he has gone. A friend is not a name. Or even just a person. A friend is something inside your heart. And when he leaves, the hole remains.