Guests in the Gardens

Guests in the Gardens

Guests were very special in the gardens. There were no guest houses or hotels, so whoever came, stayed with you. Official guests stayed with the General or Group Manager, Manager or Assistant Manager, depending on who they were in terms of their rank or significance for the Company. Your guests stayed with you or sometimes with your friends, depending on what was happening in your life at the time. We played host to a friend’s grandmother, another friend’s heavily pregnant wife as he had to travel urgently and to several others. In the plantations we treated each other as members of our family. We stood behind each other, no question about it. I have written here about a few of the guests. We had many more. Too many to name here. So, if you visited us and are not mentioned in this article, please know that you are remembered though I have not mentioned you here.

Guests were very special firstly, because they were few and far between and because they came from the ‘outside’ world and brought news of what was happening there. Remember I am talking about the period 1983-93. The time before almost everything we know and take for granted today. This was pre-Google, Apple, mobile phones, even TV. Where there was TV, it was Doordarshan. Cable TV didn’t exist in the plantations. In 1985 we saw the first color TV. We had VCRs and VCPs (Video Cassette Recorders and Players) which coupled with the color TV, provided home entertainment to those who were interested in it. Electric typewriters were state-of-the-art and what sat on your lap was not a computer. Cyclostyle was the copying system. Faxes and Xerox machines were still in the distant future. Guests therefore came with real news, even if a few days old; thanks to the time it took for them to get to where we were, high in the mountains and deep in the forest. For those of us in the Anamallais that was close to the truth, because we lived in the middle of the Indira Gandhi National Park on the top of the Anamallai Hills; tea surrounded by thick rainforest, reached after traversing the Aliyar Ghat road with forty hairpin bends. Home to hundreds of species of mammals, birds and reptiles.

My first guests were Mr. Hasanuddin Ahmed and his wife Anees Fatima (Husnara Aunty), my mother’s cousins. I was delighted to receive them. I was living in No. 18 bungalow; the name given to Assistant Manager’s bungalow in Sheikalmudi Estate, Lower Division which was in Field No. 18. They visited me in 1983, less than 6 months after I had joined planting and I was delighted as they were my favorite uncle and aunt and I was honored that they had come to visit. Bastian, my butler and cook, who you have heard about earlier, put on a great culinary show and everyone was very impressed. One afternoon, after a cup of tea, Hasan Uncle and I were strolling down the path from the bungalow to the main road, when Hasan Uncle told me to explain the whole tea manufacturing process to him. I was very enthusiastic about it as I had just learnt it myself a couple of weeks earlier and I promptly launched into my narrative. “We pluck the top shoots, two leaves and the vegetative bud’, I said. “That is taken to the factory and put into Withering Troughs and air is blown over and through the leaf bed in the trough which removes some of the moisture to make the leaf flaccid. Without withering, they would shatter and crumble when rolled. Then the leaves are put into Rollers in which by an action akin to rubbing tobacco between your palms, tea leaves are rolled to break cell walls and express the juice which coats the small rolled pieces that break off in this process. Rolling is where the process of developing flavor starts. After rolling, the leaves are laid out for several hours, allowing oxidation to take place. This is called Fermentation, though it has nothing to do with fermenting as there is no sugar or production of alcohol as happens in a natural fermentation process. Oxidation is the process in which the oxygen in the air interacts with the now-exposed enzymes in the leaf, turning it a reddish-brown color and changing the chemical composition. The duration of this process depends on the style of tea being produced and the ambient conditions at the time. The final step is to stop the oxidation which is done by what is called Firing. This is done by putting the output from the Rollers into perforated trays and heated air is passed over the trough to dry them to below 3% moisture content which stops the oxidation process and makes the tea black. Good, even drying and low residual moisture enables the tea to keep well, which is necessary for shipping. The tea is packed in plywood boxes lined with paper and film and sealed, ready for shipping.” I stopped to take a breath.

Hasan Uncle listened with great seriousness and attention and said, “You seem to have learnt this all very well. Tell me, what happens if you simply boil green tea leaves?” I was stumped. I didn’t know. But what struck me more than the fact that I didn’t know the answer to his question was that the question had not occurred to me. There I was, working in a tea garden, living in a bungalow surrounded by tea fields and didn’t have the imagination to ask myself a simple question like that. This I what formal education does to one, I guess. Of course, we plucked two or three shoots and boiled them to produce a very ‘green’ chlorophyllic decoction that was hardly drinkable. The point of course was not what it tasted like, but whether I’d had the curiosity to ask the question. Big lesson in my life about the importance of asking the unasked and questioning the ‘accepted’ rule. Hasan Uncle and Husnara Aunty spent a few very enjoyable days with me and left behind memories which are fresh to this day. And I ask questions that nobody thinks of.

While I was the Manager of Lower Sheikalmudi Estate, we got a call to say that the Wrigleys were coming to visit. This was William Wrigley III and William Wrigley IV, the owners of Wrigley Company, the largest chewing gum (Wrigley’s gum) company in the world. On April 28, 2008, Mars announced that it would acquire Wrigley for approximately $23 billion. The Wrigleys were staying with the Group Manager of the Sheikalmudi Group, Mr. S. M. Taher. The managers and assistants from the other estates were invited to dinner to Sheikalmudi bungalow. At the dinner, I suggested that the two Wrigleys, father and son, may like to go down to the Parambikulam Dam through our cardamom plantation in Murugalli. There would be a good chance of seeing bison (Indian Gaur), Malabar Squirrel, Great Malabar Hornbill, Barking Deer and who knows what else. Anamallais and Sheikalmudi in particular, especially that part of it which borders the Parambikulam backwaters, is teeming with wildlife. The plan was to go the next day, late in the afternoon for a swim in the lake and then drive back after dark through the cardamom plantation so that we would have a chance to see some Gaur and other wildlife. It was a nice, dry afternoon and so I had no apprehensions taking the jeep, which didn’t have four-wheel drive, down to the lakeside. Taher bhai drove them down and we all met at Murugalli Bazar and went down to the lakeside.

Parambikulam from Murugalli

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.

Everything went according to plan and we swam, ate sandwiches and drank coffee. Raman took the rowboat and Wrigley Jr. to the island in the middle of the lake but returned rather suddenly and very wisely as they found some feral buffaloes which were lying in the water on the other side of the island. These can be very dangerous, and Raman who went as the guide and boatman, insisted that they return. That was a very wise thing to do because we weren’t planning on explaining how we were one Wrigley short when we got back. We watched the sun extinguish itself in the waters of the lake and then when it got dark, we packed our stuff into the jeep and started back. Suddenly it started to rain. In this part of the world, it doesn’t leave you in any doubt, when it rains. It pours. That day, it did with a vengeance. The road quickly became slush and the jeep started skidding. We decided to wait for a bit to see if the rain would ease off. But though we waited for half an hour, nothing happened. We started off once again but realized that we couldn’t all ride in the jeep as the gradient of the road was steep and it was extremely slippery. We all got off and pushed, while Taher bhai drove. It took us over an hour of pushing and driving, to get back to Murugalli Bazar. As the jeep went skidding up the road, it threw up liquid mud in showers. As a result, all of us including our two illustrious guests, were covered with mud from head to toe. But all that I could see was two sets of the brightest teeth this side of the Atlantic. The Wrigleys were great sports and I guess we, all of us had a very good time. Not the way you usually treat billionaires. But these were two very happy billionaires with a strange story to tell.

One day a friend called to say, that a friend of his was visiting India, and could she visit us as she wanted to see a tea garden. Of course, we agreed and sent the car to pick her up from the airport in Coimbatore. Along came Elizabeth Sidney. Elizabeth owned a consulting firm in London, called Mantra Consulting (pronounced Man-tra) and was also a member and office bearer of the Liberal Democratic Party. Elizabeth became a lifelong friend until her death at the age of 86, in 2011.

Elizabeth arrived in the evening as the drive up the Aliyar Ghat from Coimbatore and then across the Anamallais to Lower Sheikalmudi was a full-day affair. At that time, we had another dear friend staying with us, Maaji, Manjit Singh’s grandmother. Manjit was the Manager of Pannimedu Estate of Tata Tea and they had a lockout, so he and his wife Devika went to stay at the Coimbatore Club. But his grandmother came to stay with us. We were very fond of her and she called my wife, ‘Puttar’ (my daughter) and we loved having her with us. Such were the times, when our friends were more than just ‘friends’. Maaji spoke only Punjabi and Elizabeth spoke only English, but they got along famously and had conversations in two completely different languages, much to our amazement. Elizabeth was a wonderfully warm person and we became very good friends and stayed with her in her Islington townhouse twice when we were in London.

The next day I took Elizabeth around the estate to show her tea cultivation and manufacture. She was fascinated that the vast majority of workers were women and she had animated conversations with some of the workers, with me translating from Tamil into English and back. That evening, I suggested that my wife and I with Elizabeth, spend the night in my machan on Manjaparai and see what animals would come to the waterhole. Manjaparai is the flat rock which forms a small flat plateau at the top of the hill, and through which flows a small perennial stream. It is called Majaparai (Yellow Rock) thanks to yellow lichens which cling to it and give it that color. In the summer the sparse grass that sprouts in the monsoon, quickly turns yellow and so the name is justified. I’d had a machan (platform) built on a tree at the edge of the forest overlooking the stream, which empties into a small pool and then goes down the slope into the forest. I had cleared a small pathway to get to the machan tree, but without disturbing the area or its animals. The machan was built in a big fork about three-quarters of the way up the tree at a height of about twenty feet from the ground. It was quite substantial and could comfortably seat four people. From my bungalow to the base of the hill on the top of which the machan was, it was about four kilometers over rough estate roads. Therefore, to make it easy for the ladies and not have them walk the entire distance and then climb the hill (assuming that they would have even agreed to do it), I decided to take them up on a Massey-Ferguson tractor to the base of Manjaparai and walk up the rest of the way. The tractor ride was not the most comfortable, but the novelty of it would hopefully override the discomfort. My wife was not very impressed but for Elizabeth, everything we were doing was a ‘first time in my life’, experience. I drove the tractor with the ladies on either side.

Manjaparai view

We reached the top, still in one piece and having taken a breather, started up the track leading to the top of the rock. Given that we had the ladies with us, I had sent out a scout, one of my Ramans, to check the pathway and to clear it of any Stinging Nettles (Anaimarti – One which drives away elephants) bushes leaning across the path. His job was also to ensure that the jungle was elephant free. Elephants in the Anamallais are dangerous as they raid vegetable gardens and get driven off by the garden owners beating drums or setting off firecrackers. Elephants hate loud noises and run away but in a foul temper. Not the best frame of mind if you happen to meet them. You always need to be careful of elephants in the Anamallais, thanks to this human-animal conflict. Once we had the all-clear from Raman, we proceeded upwards. We reached the top in time to see the fabulous sunsets that are the prize of climbing Manjaparai. We had some coffee and omelets rolled into parathas and with a coat of lemon pickle, which Bastian had given us as our dinner and then climbed the tree into the machan. As we settled down…Let me tell you this part of the story as my wife recalls it. “Yawar told Elizabeth and me that we were going with him to his machan on Manjaparai. I asked him if it would be cold. He said, ‘Not too much.’ We left on the tractor with him driving and me hanging on one side for dear life being tossed up and down on the rough field roads. Elizabeth was on the other side in the same predicament but seemed to love it. We reached the top of the road in one piece and got off the tractor and started climbing the hill to the top. The view from Manjaparai, of the sun setting, was spectacular and well worth the trouble of getting there.  

We had a snack and got up into the tree. I am not much of a tree climber, but Raman and his partner had thoughtfully got a ladder which we climbed and scrambled the last few feet to the machan. The ladder was pulled up after us and stashed among the branches above us. Dusk started to fall. Yawar told us to be completely silent and as motionless as possible. He told us that animals see motion before anything else. If you don’t move and your body outline is broken up by our surroundings, you are invisible. Especially as you are sitting high above, you are out of the normal perspective of most animals. The only joker in the pack is the wind. If it blows in your face it means that animals can’t smell you. But it is behind you, then animals will know you are there and will leave. As it started to get dark, a smart wind started coming up the hill in our face. That was good, but it was getting cold. I saw Elizabeth pulling out a sweater from her substantial handbag. Then she pulled out a shawl and wrapped herself in it and sat there, snug as a bug in a rug. Yawar was wearing his waterproof raincoat, which was felt lined and very warm. But there I was in a light sweater because Yawar told me it wouldn’t be so cold. As the night wore on, I got colder and colder and my teeth were chattering so loudly that I am sure that is the reason we didn’t see any animals that night.

Eventually it got so cold that I simply couldn’t sit in the machan and we all got down onto the rock below and Raman lighted a fire and put on the teapot. The fire was a lifesaver and I can’t tell you how good it felt. There was no question of seeing any animals after the fire had been lighted, but who cares? I was finally warm and out of my misery and that is all I cared about. We sat through the rest of the night, drinking black tea, sweetened with jaggery and listening to the sounds of the forest, which by then had also quietened down. There was the occasional Nightjar which buzzed his call from time to time, but not much else. I told you that the sunset from Manjaparai was spectacular. That was because I had not seen the sunrise. Now I can’t decide which was better. Thankfully I don’t have to pick. I had seen both.”

How do you know if it is sunrise or sunset?

Elizabeth came again when we were in New Ambadi Estate. The Manager’s bungalow had been built by a previous manager called Watts Carter who was one of the best planners and executors of civil works that I have known. His work was his signature and legacy and it was truly remarkable. Rainwater collection tanks that ensured a year-long supply of water in a place were the dry season was 7-8 months long. Beautifully graded and banked roads. Contour planted fields with terraces and water conservation works that ensured that the rubber didn’t suffer in the dry season. This time Elizabeth brought her friend, Margaret Tabor, from Braintree, Essex. Margaret was a delightful lady with lots of interesting stories about her own travels. Margaret lived in her family manor house; we stayed with her once; on a two- thousand-acre estate in Essex where she raised Pheasants and had annual Pheasant shoots. She told us that her main clients were Japanese.

We got a call one day from Ms. Brewty, the Secretary to our General Manager, Mr. N. K. Rawlley. She said, “Mr. Baig, Mr. Rawlley asked me to inform you that there are two ladies from London who are company guests and are staying in Iyerpadi at the guest house. They would like to see some forest area. Could you please help with this?” Forest and me? Of course, I was delighted to help. Next day the ladies arrived in the company jeep and my wife and I met them at the Uralikkal checkpost. Of the two ladies, one was rather large and remarkably well-endowed. The other one looked like she was the counterpoint to the first one, rather like being on Social Security.

We left our car and we all went down the short windy road to the Manamboli Dam. That drive is very productive in terms of wildlife sightings and sure enough we saw Malabar squirrels, Lion-tailed Macaques, and a Barking deer which crossed the road exactly at the place I expected it to……I am convinced that it did this for a living. We stopped for a short break at the bottom of the concrete-surfaced road which ended at the Power Generation House. There was some flow over the sluice gates of the dam, and it was very relaxing to listen to the sound of flowing water.  Then we started down the unpaved forest road to Topslip. This road runs along the Manamboli river. As we rounded a bend, I recalled an incident when my dearest friend Berty and I were fishing at the foot of the rapids on the other side of the dam. We would stand in rapidly flowing water in Manamboli below the sluice gates and cast for Mahseer while drinking in the atmosphere of the jungle. Not a sound except from the river or from a bird celebrating its life.

Lion-tailed Macaque

One day we were fishing in our usual spot, when one of the fish we had caught disappeared. “Dai Baig Dorai, you can’t tie a bloody fish properly man!!” yelled my dear friend. We had each caught a good sized mahseer. His was still there. Mine had disappeared. What gave the game away was that the line looked like it had been bitten through. Just then I heard the whistles….two otters talking to one another, no doubt with evil intentions on Berty’s fish. I called out to him in a low voice, “Yedo, noke awaday” and I pointed to the otters. Berty laughed so much that he almost fell into the water. “What the bloody hell, so this is the bugger who stole our fish!!! Man, what do you expect? We go into their home and steal their fish, so they decide to freeload on our effort.” What memories!! But my friend is gone. So would have the otters. Nothing lives that long in the forest. Only I am alive to tell the tale and to remember my friend and to live once again that one magical day, this time on behalf of both of us.

On this road, one thing to watch out for, was elephants. It was a narrow road with very thick, almost impenetrable forest on one side the river on the other. Not the best place to come face to face with elephants. Mercifully, elephants are wiser than we are and when they hear a vehicle coming their way, they move off into the jungle and you won’t even see them. We didn’t meet any until we got to the Forest Department’s elephant camp. This was where they kept their elephants used for logging and other forest related activity. We took a break for coffee and our standard omelet/paratha snack and looked around the camp. The head mahawat (elephant caretaker) met us and explained what they did in the camp. I asked him if he would be kind enough to give a short ride on one of the elephants to our guests. There was a huge, very black bull elephant which was tethered at one end of the line. I asked the mahawat if we could ride him.

The mahawat didn’t look very happy about this but agreed and went off to get a couple of gunny sacks. He got the elephant to kneel and climbed up on his knee and holding his ear, he pulled himself up on his neck. Then he asked me to climb on. I did the same and settled astride behind him. Not easy at all as elephants have a very prominent backbone with protruding vertebrae. When you sit astride, you are in imminent danger of doing permanent damage to your ability to continue your line of descendants. That is why when you ride elephants in our wildlife reserves, they saddle them with very thick mattresses or have a howda in which you sit much like sitting on a sofa. But we were in a working camp. They didn’t have these luxuries. The mahawat was sitting on the neck, where the vertebrae don’t protrude and he has his gunny sack cushion under him. But the ‘passenger’ was on his own. The mahawat called out his order and the elephant stood up. If you have ever seen an elephant standing up from a kneeling position, you will know what happens. It is as close to being on the bow of a ship in a storm as you are likely to be on dry land. I knew what was coming and braced myself and remained atop the huge animal without mishap. The mahawat took us for a short walk-around in the forest and we returned to the camp.

Next was the turn of our guests. The Social Security one declined the opportunity but the well-endowed one was keen to go. She tried to climb up on the elephant’s knee as if it was a staircase and slipped. The mahawat, spontaneously reached to take her hand to save the British Empire from an ignominious landing in the dirt almost unseating himself in the process. Eventually the lady managed to get astride the neck of the elephant. The expression on her face when she sat there, spoke volumes of what she must have encountered, but some things can’t be spoken aloud and so she suffered in silence. Then the mahawat shouted his order to the elephant and the animal lurched forward to get up. The lady fell forward on top of the mahawat and as the elephant lurched backwards straightening his forelegs, she was thrown back and grabbed the mahawat in a bear hug. The man disappeared into the British Empire, overwhelmed but not without a plaintive cry for help, “Ayyaaaaaa!!” The elephant took them for another short ride in the forest and then returned and we had a repeat performance of lurching, grabbing and plaintive cry. A memory that refuses to go away. The elephant, however, was not amused. It started rumbling and the mahawat told us that he didn’t want to chance another ride. Elephants are very patient and tolerant but are never really domesticated. They have an uneasy relationship of cooperation with humans, which can break if you push their patience beyond their tolerance. I understood the mahawat’s reluctance and agreed. Such was our entertainment in the plantations. Each day was a surprise and welcome.

One day in 1990/91, Mr. Rawlley called me and said, “Yawar, you are getting a visitor, Mr. Mark Bostock from Colombo. He is British and lives between England and Colombo where he used to be the Chairman of John Keells. He is a very interesting person and someone you can learn a lot from.” Before I go on, here is a link to an article about Mark Bostock in ‘The Island’, from Colombo.

In Ambadi there was no guest house so he stayed with us like all our guests. The question was food, because all the English people we know, eat little or no chillies, while South Indian food tends to be hot. In Ambadi we had an excellent cook, Perumal, who made the best Upma, Dosai and Idlies in the world, but had nothing Western in his repertoire. My wife decided that she would make a classic English Roast Lamb, with mashed potatoes, boiled vegetables and gravy. You can hardly get more British than that. We didn’t want the man to get the runs the day he arrived because the food was too hot. I love Roast Lamb and agreed wholeheartedly. Mark duly arrived, driven in from Trivandrum, looking very red and sweaty, as we didn’t have an air-conditioned car at that time. He told me, “Please call me Mark”, when I welcomed him as Mr. Bostock. So, Mark he was. After he had showered, we sat down to dinner. The Roast Lamb was spectacular, and I loved it. Mark also started with enthusiasm but gradually slowed down. I noticed this and asked, “Mark, is everything alright? Can I get you something?”

He said, “I don’t want to be impolite, but do you have any pickle?”

My eyebrows shot up in astonishment. “There is pickle, but it is very hot”, I said.

“Yes, can I have it please?” The pickle was brought. I was blood red, made of mangoes marinated in fire and was totally delicious if you liked to have the top of your head raising up periodically to let out the steam from your boiling brains. I gingerly slid the bottle towards Mark, debating whether I should get him to sign an Indemnity Declaration absolving me of responsibility for his expiry in flames after consuming the pickle. But to my great astonishment, he took a huge helping of it and ate it with the roast mutton (no injury intended to British sentiments or honor) with great relish. He apologized to my wife and said, “The roast is delicious, but you see, I am from Ceylon. I need chilly in my food.” So, there he would be, at lunch and dinner, eating pickles of various kinds, his face the color of the pickle but thoroughly enjoying himself. He was not ‘from Ceylon’, but had lived there for so long that his palate was totally Sri Lankan.

Next morning, I took Mark on a tour of the estate and factory. As we walked in the rubber drying sheds in which crêpe rubber sheets are dried, Mark said to me, “If there was a way to dry these evenly in controlled conditions, that would give us much better prices.” Having come to Ambadi from tea, I spontaneously said, “I think if we get a couple of withering fans from one of our tea factories and install them at one end of this shed, that will do the trick. He turned and looked at me intently and said, “What the hell! That sounds like a very good idea. I wonder why nobody ever thought of that before?” As soon as we got back to the office, I asked for three withering fans which arrived in due course. These are low RPM fans with large blades that can be used to blow or draw air without causing too much turbulence. You want the air to move over the crêpe rubber sheets without blowing them about. We installed the fans and changed the way rubber is processed.

Mr. Mark Bostock visited us several times between 1990 and 1993 when I was the Manager of New Ambadi Estate. What impressed me very much about him was how inquisitive and open to learning he was. We would go for rides in our boat on the lake that bordered the estate. He would accompany me every day when I went on my rounds of the estate and greatly appreciated the rapport that I had with the workers and unions. He understood Tamil, so he had a good idea of what was happening when he was witness to any interactions. Though he had retired in 1986, having built a conglomerate, John Keells, in Sri Lanka, there was not a grain of arrogance or even formality in him. He was easy going, very friendly, open to all new ideas, full of questions and would listen very carefully to the answers. We would spend the days in the estate and factory and the evenings, talking about anything under the moon, that came to mind. Like Nickoo said, I learnt a lot from Mark, but the best thing out of all that was the value of an open mind and the willingness to learn from anyone. I can safely say that I have never come across anyone as open to learning as Mark Bostock. I wish I had more time with him. I was very sorry to learn that in 2000 he died in Sri Lanka, in a freak accident as the rafters under his chair collapsed and he crashed through to the stone floor below. He didn’t survive the injuries. As the song goes:

Those were the days my friend
We thought they’d never end
We’d sing and dance forever and a day
We’d live the life we choose
We’d fight and never lose
For we were young and sure to have our way

Intro to the Anamallais

Intro to the Anamallais

The plantation years were not all about work and unions. They were a time of great fun and fulfillment; of wonderful friendships and personal growth. During these years I was able to be in the rain forests of the Western Ghats and see in their natural habitat, animals that it had always been my desire to see. I have always had an abiding interest in ecology with specific reference to mammals and birds and their habitat. What better place to indulge that than the Indira Gandhi National Park inside which I lived for the 7 years that I lived in the Anamallais. My interest in ecology and wildlife was encouraged by my dear friends and mentors, Nawab Nazir Yar Jung and Capt. Nadir Tyabji. I was brought up on stories of encounters with animals in the Anamallais, which Nawabsaab used to tell us in graphic and wonderful detail. He was a born storyteller and listening to him, I could smell the forest and hear the sound of the cicadas and listen with close attention for the telltale crack of a twig which announces the approach of a big animal.

I have been very fortunate to have friends who were much older and far more accomplished than myself. As a result, I learnt a lot from all of them. In fact, I used to make it a habit after meeting any of these people to take stock of what I learnt new that day. This focus on learning has been a lifelong habit of mine which I have been very fortunate to inculcate. The credit for that goes to my father, who one day when I had finished reading some trashy novel, asked me, “So what did you learn from that?” I thought about it and decided that it had been a total waste of time and since then started asking myself that question every so often. In those days we had no TV and soap and opera were two different words. So, the temptation to send the brain into a suspended animation mode and sit with a vacant expression in front of the Electronic Income Reducer (my name for the TV) was not there. There was, however, more time for trashy friendships and wasting time in useless conversation. Asking myself what I had learned was an excellent tool to ensure that I did not waste time. Much later in life, I learnt and now teach the techniques of Investment – Impact Analysis and how to apply this to maximize the benefits of time. But all my life I have used this tool even when I did not know its fancy name.

Role models are a very important part of growing up. I was very fortunate in that I had some of the best. It is a matter of pride for me that most of them, if not all, were the result of my own effort. In some cases, I was introduced to them by my father or someone else. But then I took it upon myself to be in touch with them and develop the relationship. I found that older people respond very positively to youngsters who are genuinely interested in learning. Consequently, I got a lot of face time with people who were twenty to thirty years my seniors. It is not that every one of these relationships was always positive and that I always gained something. Some people said things that were destructive, the memory of which remains with me to this day. What I am proud of though, is the way in which I took what was said to me, as a challenge to disprove the statement. And Alhamdulillah, I always succeeded. It was not that these people, my mentors, were perfect. They were people and people are not perfect. But I taught myself never to criticize them either directly or indirectly but to learn from their behavior what to do and what not to do myself. That way the relationship remained intact and I continued to gain, no matter what they did or didn’t do.

Lion-tailed Macaque (Yal-Tee-Yam)

The Anamallai Hills are home to the Lion-tailed Macaque (called Yal-Tee-Yam – LTM), an endangered species of primate that is found only in these forests. The Anamallais are famous for the elephants that they are named after (Tamil: Anai – elephant, Malai – Hills). Ever since my arrival in the Anamallais I was most keen to see wild elephants. And I got my chance just 5 days after I reported at Sheikalmudi Estate. This first sighting was almost the last sighting, not of elephants but of anything at all. Let me tell you the story in sequence.

I was brand new on the plantations and had just got my new Jawa motorcycle, a source of great delight for me. It was late afternoon when the phone rang in the Sheikalmudi Estate office and it was Mr. Raza Husain on the line. Raza bhai was the manager of Lower Sheikalmudi Estate of which one day I would become the manager. LSM borders the reserve forest, a part of the wildlife sanctuary and national park that the Anamallais is located in. “Do you want to see elephants?” he asked me. That was like asking me, “Do you want a million dollars?” Of course, I wanted to see elephants. I had been dreaming about seeing elephants in the Anamallais. And imagine a chance to see them just 5 days after arriving in the Anamallais. I leapt on my Jawa and off I went to Raza bhai’s estate. Raza bhai asked me to meet him in the Candura Division where he was waiting for me.

Candura contour planted tea

Candura is a tea division that is surrounded by the jungle. One of the roads leading to it passes through a thick patch of forest in which I had some close encounters with bison (Gaur) a few years later. But that is another story. The tea in Candura is planted on the contour and it is a very beautiful sight. In the middle of Candura are the Labor Lines where the Candura workers live. These quarters each had a small vegetable garden with some banana plants. Elephants love bananas. So periodically they would raid the gardens. The owners would raise a hue and cry and beat drums or let off firecrackers to drive the elephants away. The elephants would then retreat in a foul mood into a small, heavily wooded canyon that was adjacent to the quarters. This was the usual sequence of events and this is what had happened on that fateful day just before my arrival on the scene.

 When I arrived Raza bhai met me on the road just below the Labor Lines. His little son Mustafa was with him sitting on the petrol tank of his bike. It was past 5.00 pm and the sun sets very quickly in this part of the world. Mustafa was getting nervous at the idea of going to see elephants so Raza bhai said to me, “I will give you a guide and you can go see the elephants. I will wait for you to return here. It will get dark very soon and then you won’t be able to see anything so hurry.” I readily agreed. Anything to realize my lifelong dream to see elephants in the wild. Raza bhai called a man by the name of Karpusamy who was to be my guide. Karpusamy spoke only Tamil. At that time, the only Tamil word I knew was ‘Tamil’. So even though Karpusamy was to guide me, what emerged was a lot of inspired gestures and guessing. It was later that I learnt to speak Tamil fluently, in three months.

As it was getting dark, we were in a hurry and with Karpusamy in the lead, we set off along the road, which circled the ravine, looking down into the ravine with great concentration as that is where the elephants were supposed to be. Once in a while we would hear the sound of some breaking branches, so we knew that the herd was still there. I can’t describe for you my own excitement. I could hardly breathe. We left my motorcycle by the side of the road and I had the presence of mind to push it into the tea between some bushes in one of the plucking lanes in case the elephants decided to take this road back into the forest. I didn’t want them to give their attention to my motorcycle. Neither me nor the bike would survive that. As it turned out, that was a very wise decision.

I was very anxious to get to where the elephants were, so that I could get my first glimpse of an Asian Elephant in the wild. This had been a lifelong dream of mine and I was in the right place for it – a place named after them – Anamallai – Hills of the Elephants. The topography of where we were walking was very much like the Labor Lines except that now we had tea on one side and the ravine on the other. The road itself had a sharp, almost vertical embankment about six to seven feet high above which was close planted tea.

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It is at times like this, often faced with the prospect of great danger that we live most intensely. That is why people seek thrills; the adrenalin gives them a high and they need a fix again and again. I was aware of every sight, sound, and smell as I walked. This is a safety measure also apart from enhancing the pleasure of the experience because in such a situation where you are likely to meet an animal which is potentially dangerous, you’d better have all your wits about you.

As we walked along looking down into the ravine hoping to get a glimpse of the elephant herd, we could hear them moving about occasionally, breaking a branch, or shaking a tree to drop its fruit. As we neared a bend on the road, the cicadas fell silent and all sounds from the ravine stopped. The forest became completely silent as if waiting for something to happen. And then something happened. I suddenly heard an explosive sound like a tyre burst. This is the warning sound that an elephant makes just before he is ready to launch a charge. I looked up in shocked surprise and what did I see? Not more than fifty to seventy meters ahead of us, bang in the middle of the road was the herd bull. He had come up on the road when he probably realized that we were coming close to his family. And his intentions were not honorable at all. It takes longer to narrate this incident than what happened that day.

It seemed like a split second and in any case could not have been more than a second or two. The elephant made the alarm warning sound. Karpusamy and I looked up simultaneously, shocked out of our wits to see this huge bull elephant standing so close ahead. Karpusamy screamed, “Dorai!!” and spun around and ran back towards me. The elephant trumpeted and charged. You must hear the trumpet of an angry elephant to know what fear is. It is a scream. It is a loud scream. The volume of sound is all that can be expected from that great body. And it turns the knees to jelly instantly. A charging elephant moves at 50 miles per hour. With a stride of 12 feet at a go, it did not take long for that elephant to cover the distance from where he was to where we were.

As for myself, the next thing I remember is that I was sitting under some tea bushes up on top of the vertical embankment. No sign of Karpusamy. I don’t remember running or jumping or anything else. Just that I was out of reach of the elephant and very frightened but safe. The elephant was enraged that he did not get me and vented his anger on the embankment below where I was sitting. He dug up the embankment with his tusks and threw up mud all over the place. Meanwhile, the cows came up from the ravine and calmed him down and eventually the whole family moved away towards the forest.

I simply sat there, frozen both with fright in the gathering dark as the cold forest night closed in, wondering how on earth I had managed to get up on the embankment without touching a thing. I know I can’t leap seven feet high. The wall was vertical. And yet there I was sitting safely out of reach of the elephant. This is a mystery that I have tried to solve many times to no avail. Many times, after that evening I went to the site of this incident and actually measured the wall. It was seven feet tall. I looked to see if there were any handholds or footholds that I could have made use of. There were none. Yet there I was on top. Maybe it is true that fear lends wings to the feet. As it is true that when your time has not come, you can’t die. And die, I would have, very quickly and thoroughly, if that elephant had caught me that evening. For a couple of days after that, I used to wake up in the night in a cold sweat with the angry trumpet of the elephant ringing in my ears. Mercifully, that memory has worn off, but the memory of the entire incident is still vivid in my mind.

And what about Karpusamy, you ask. Well, he did the only thing that he could have done. He took a flying leap into the depths of the ravine. He just ran and leapt off the edge into the abyss. It must have been about fifty feet to the bottom, but like in my case, it was not his time. So, he landed on the top of a tree. Bruised, but not hurt gravely at all. Once all the excitement had died down, he climbed down to the bottom and walked back to the Labor Lines. That is what I also did once I got my senses together and ensured that the elephants had indeed left the place. It had gotten quite dark by then and I did not have so much as a torch with me. But once I climbed down from the embankment, I was on the road and all that was necessary was to keep walking on the circular road till I got to the Labor Line. The biggest challenge was to keep walking in the dark even though I was seeing elephants in every shadow. My childhood training in the forests of Adilabad came very handy. I could recognize sights and smells and knew at least cognitively that there was no real danger anymore. Controlling my heartbeat was another matter. 

Our friends waiting for us at the Labor Lines had an exciting time of it as well. They could not see what was happening as there were a lot of trees between them and us. But they heard the angry trumpeting of the elephant and all the commotion he made. Then they saw the herd move out. And they did not see either Karpusamy or myself. So, they came to the only conclusion that anyone would have –I had just ended the shortest career in tea planting that anyone had ever had. Since both of us did not get back to them for a couple of hours, by the time we arrived, there was much sadness and apprehension. So, the welcome that I received was the biggest that I have ever had. I was hugged and made much of. And people wanted to hear the story in total detail of how I escaped the elephant. My stock went up very high, because being India and the plantations, my escape was seen by some as a sign of my high spiritual status where I had actually performed a miracle to save my skin and some ‘thing’ had transported me out of reach of the elephant. As for myself, thing or no thing, I was jolly glad I’d seen wild elephants and lived to tell the tale. Little did I know, this would not be the last I would need to escape a charging bull elephant – the second incident being on a different continent.

The biggest learning for me in this entire incident was the difference between theory and practice. I knew from all my reading and talking to experts that even if you get to the stage where you are facing an elephant which snorts in warning, all you need to do is to start moving back slowly. Not run. Not make any noise. Just move back slowly. Continue to face the animal but keep moving away and increase the ‘trigger distance,’ which can precipitate the charge. Now, does this work in practice? Who knows? What I did and what you will also probably do if you are ever in such a situation, is to turn around and run like hell. Knowing fully well that a person has as much chance of outrunning a charging elephant as they have of outrunning an express train. And that unlike an express train, this one is not bound by the railway track. But then there is a force that protects that is more powerful than the elephant, which will pick you up by the scruff of your neck and put you high above harm’s way. So, theory is good. But practical life sometimes plays tricks with theory.

Another big learning was the need to take risk if you want to make your dreams come true. Certainly, there is the importance of preparation and contingency planning, but in the end, there must be that leap of faith. With this comes the excitement of the win. It is the absence of guarantees that makes the win so thrilling. If there are guarantees, if safety is taken to a level where risk is eliminated completely, then there is no thrill of winning. This does not mean that we disregard safety or take unsecured risks. It just means that there comes a time when you need to act. At that time, you may be working with incomplete data, with incomplete resources, with incomplete plans. But you need to act. And then as you move forward you will find that what you need comes to you from sources you could not imagine.

Barbara Winters says: “When you come to the end of the light of all that you know and are about to step off into the darkness of the unknown, faith is knowing that one of two things will happen; there will be something firm to stand on or you will be taught how to fly.”

I was taught how to fly.

For more stories read my book, It’s my Life
Nawab Saab

Nawab Saab

It was 1968 and I was 13 years old, in Grade (we called it Class) 8 in the Hyderabad Public School. If you left the school from its main gate and walked over the bridge across the stream which flowed full and freely in those days (not the trickle of sewage and toxic chemicals today) and on which we used to sometimes canoe, you came to the Begumpet Railway Station. This was at the bottom of the garden of a very graceful British Country Mansion, except that it was in Begumpet and not in England. Be that as it may, it would have been totally at home in the Shires of England. It was called Vilayat Manzil. It had a huge wooden gate about 8 feet tall and wide enough to take a Four-in-hand or perhaps an elephant or two. Not surprising as this was the house of Nawab Wali ud Dowla, the Prime Minister of Hyderabad State. The son of the man who built Falaknuma Palace, Nawab Vicar ul Mulk, who was also a Prime Minister of Hyderabad State in his time. That is where Nawab Nazir Yar Jung Bahadur , son of Nawab Wali ud Dowla, lived . By the time I met him, his father had passed away (he died in Madina in 1935) but his mother (Ameerunnisa Begum) and younger brother, Nawab Bashir Yar Jung lived in Vilayat Manzil. His older brother, Nawab Habib Jung, also a good friend, lived nearby in his own house, built in another part of the garden that surrounded Vilayat Manzil. A beautiful Spanish style Hacienda with an open central courtyard. Nawab Habib Jung Bahadur wrote the very first reference letter for me when I had applied to Harrisons & Crossfield Limited (Harrisons Malayalam) in 1979. I recall two things in it. He wrote, “He is excellent in saddle seat equitation and always shows respect where respect is due.” Habib Jung had horses and I used to ride them with his son Mohammed and he fine-tuned both our riding style.

Nawab Nazir Yar Jung , Ghulam Hyder and Nawab Habib Jung

As you came through the gate, you were on a circular driveway which curved past two large water tanks with marble fountains with carved lions. Even then water was getting scarce and so I never saw those fountains functioning, but the sculptures were striking. This is where I met Nawab Nazir Yar Jung first. I had heard of him as a dog breeder, trainer and judge. He was a prominent member of the Kennel Club of India (KCI) and a highly respected judge in dogs shows all over the world. I had the privilege of accompanying him to several dog shows and can still see him racing around the ring with his German Shepherds or in the field trails of his Labradors. I was very keen on owning one of the dogs from his kennel, the famous Paigah Kennels but to my great surprise and disappointment the price was Rs. 500 for a puppy. In 1968 that was more money that I could have dreamt of. So, I never bought a puppy. Nawab Saab however, took a liking to me and allowed me to spend time with him in caring for his dogs. This rather unlikely friendship grew, and in time he treated me like his own son. At that time, he used to have more than one hundred dogs in his kennels. It was a sight to see. I didn’t get a puppy at that time (later I got several) but I got the friendship of Nawab Saab, which was a priceless gift. He became my mentor, teacher and father figure.

My keenness for tea planting also came from listening to stories of plantations – the Anamallais in particular from Nawab Nazir Yar Jung. Nawab Saab had been a planter with Brooke Bond Tea Company (Tea Estates India) and was on Monica Estate (SenguthaparaiDivision).

Another very dear friend and mentor, Mr. K. Ahmedullah wrote this piece about Nawab Nazir Yar Jung which gives an insight into his planting life, which he never mentioned in the more than 50 years of our friendship. He talked about his hunting in Grass Hills and Highwavys, the exploits of his dogs and about his tracker friend called Kali, who he mentioned with great affection. But he never mentioned anything about his planting career. Being a planter myself, I can appreciate what Mr. Ahmedullah writes. Here it is:

NYJ was an authority on dog breeding, training, and was often a judge of international dog shows. It is a pity that this was not mentioned in the item that carried the news of his passing away. The news only harped on his Paigah connection, Jung title and so on. NYJ was on Monica Estate, Anamallais, reporting to Raghava Menon, just before he quit planting. As you know, Monica was a prestige posting, being the flag ship Estate of M/s Tea Estates of India, of Brooke Bond. 

It so happened that I was moved to Monica as assistant manager, immediately after NYJ resigned. Soon thereafter Raghava Menon was promoted as Group Manager in addition to his holding charge of Monica. He continued to reside in Monica Estate. I was asked to look after the operations of the entire estate to allow Raghava Menon to look after his additional duty, but I remained an assistant manager! That is when I took charge of Senguthaparai, which was looked after by NYJ.

And that is when I discovered that NYJ had planted the most advanced 100 hectares of coffee selections from Kenya. Not only that but he had created a most advanced system of curing and pulping the coffee harvest, using gravity as the driving force, from a stream which flowed on Senguthaparai. That coffee commanded a premium at the Auctions. 

I thought I should put this on record as not many are aware of the talents this man had.  NYJ was a decent, pious man, who never harmed anyone. IN FACT HIS GENEROSITY IS A LEGEND ON THE PLANTATIONS WHERE HE WORKED. He died with the KALEMA on his lips, which is the best possible reward The Almighty bestows on those who walk in HIS WAY . 

Some asides:

NYJ never entered the Anamallais Club! Siasp Kothavala, Doon School contact, was his close friend and just a few others, whom he entertained lavishly. He had about 20 dogs and a donkey, which was used to carry meat daily from Valparai town for his dogs! 

The famous donkey

I got all this information from Raghava Menon, who had a high opinion of NYJ and from Siasp and his wife Zarine , who were good friends of ours.

Like most of my friends at that time, Nawab Saab was about twenty years my senior. I think I benefited a great deal from being friends with older people as I learnt from their experience and my equation was always as a learner and they had something to teach. Nawab Saab was an exception in that he had a variety of life experience that I have seldom found anywhere. He would not only tell stories but would draw lessons from them which I found very useful and applied in my life many years later. He was a Judo Brown belt, a pilot in the Royal Air Force, polo player and dressage expert, a crack shot with a rifle and shotgun, a woodsman who taught me to love the forest and how to take care of myself in it. He was a swimmer trained as a lifeguard. He was a planter, manager and a role model par excellence.

Nawab Saab and I

The thing I remember about Nawab Nazir Yar Jung above all else is his storytelling. Storytelling is an art. Not everyone can tell a good story. Nawab Saab was a master of this art. Listening to him I remember being transported to the misty slopes of Grass Hills, waiting in the cold of the dawn for the Nilgiri Thar to present the opportunity for a good shot as they came out on the crags to take the sun. I recalled these descriptions when I went to Grass Hills more than 25 years after him and felt that I had been there before. So vivid and detailed were his descriptions.

I remember feeling a hollow dropping sensation in the pit of my stomach as I listened to him tell the story about how he was charged by a wounded Bison (Gaur) and how his Airedale Terrier saved the day by drawing the animal away towards it, allowing Nawab Saab to get the killing shot. But the dog, whose name was Khan, went over the cliff with the bison and died. Nawab Saab would have tears in his eyes when he told this story. I remember all the tips he gave me about survival in the jungles and about woodcraft, all of which I have tried and found to be superb. Every tip he gave me, be it about planting, or hunting, or safety or human psychology, was true.

The key to a good story is detail. Detail is what fills color into the outline. Detail is what helps you to see what the storyteller has seen. I can vouch for the fact that I could see the mist rise from the forest in the dawn as the sun rose. I could smell the rank smell of elephant urine which announces their presence in the forest. I could hear the rumblings of their stomachs and the low deep hum by which they communicate. And many years later when I had the privilege to walk in the same path that Nawab Nazir Yar Jung walked, I knew that I had been there before. I had walked those paths in spirit, listening to the narrative of a master storyteller and today I walked them myself and found the story to be true in every respect. I knew the smells, the sights and the feelings. Nawab Saab walked in spirit beside me and it felt good to know that.

Nawab Nazir Yar Jung with one of his dogs at a dog show –
photo courtesy Munir Salahuddin (his son)

Nawab Nazir Yar Jung was an international expert on dogs and was invited to judge dog shows around the world. With him, I learned to train dogs for various activities, from tracking to retrieving to guarding. Dogs are amazing creatures. One must live with them and train them to know this. I spent many years right through school and college doing this. Nawab Saab was at that time training a dog squad for Thengakal Estate in Vandiperiyar, Kerala, which had perennial problems with theft. More about that later. I worked with him training Dobermans, German Shepherds, and Labradors for tracking and guard/attack work. Nawab Saab was a strict disciplinarian and didn’t allow even his own cousin who was on our team to call him anything other than Sir or Nawab Saab. He disliked people calling him ‘Uncle’. He used to say, ‘I have nephews and don’t need any more. You can call me Nawab Saab or Sir.’ This, however, didn’t reduce the warmth and friendship with which he treated us. We would start very early in the morning and work right through the day till it got very hot. Then we would stand down and give the dogs a bath and feed them and we would all rest. Then in the night, once it got dark, we would start the training once again.

From Nawab Nazir Yar Jung, I learnt the importance of commitment to quality. He never once used the word, but he never accepted anything but the best. Be it in breeding dogs or in their training, or in training horses. Attention to detail and insisting on the best. He was an expert in Judo and that also added to the quality of what he taught us. He taught us many self-defense techniques using our bare hands or ordinary objects of everyday use that are always at hand and can be converted into weapons to defend yourself and make the attacker think twice about attacking you. Martial arts training is more about training the mind than about the body. Martial arts is about living with awareness, studying your opponent, discovering his weakness, and exploiting it to your advantage. It is also about building your opponent a bridge of gold to retreat over – as Sun-Tzu calls it. But to do that you have to conquer your ego before conquering your enemy. The worst enemy is an overindulged ego.

In the years that I spent with Nawab Saab I learnt that when you work with animals your own sensitivity and communication improves. Your language is useless as the animal is only responding to sound, facial expression and signal. So the importance of being absolutely precise not only in what you say, but in how you say it and being aware of your body language when you are giving that command are essential to get the instant obedience that only a dog can give you. Dogs are so incredibly sensitive that they will pick up your facial expression or the way you hold your hand when you give a command. And the next time you don’t give it in that exact way, the animal gets confused. It is always essential to be extremely self-aware to be a good trainer. I realized that training dogs was equally if not more about training myself in how to communicate effectively. It was hands-on experiential learning in being intensely aware of myself, my posture, facial expression, tone of voice, mood, and overall disposition. I learnt all this training dogs, but over the decades since then this helped me in communication, public speaking, negotiating, and coaching people across three continents. I thank Nawab Nazir Yar Jung for teaching me these lessons and I know that he was pleased with me.

Dogs anticipate you to such an extent that to see a highly trained dog and his handler at work is to witness magic. That is what we saw when we saw Nawab Saab working with his dogs. The dog seemed to be doing everything on its own whereas he was doing nothing without his handler’s command. But the commands are so subtle that they are invisible to all but the trained eye that knows what to look for. There is a wonderful program on British Television which shows sheepdog trials. You see this handler standing a long way off in the field directing his Border Collie (the favorite breed for these trails) entirely by hand signals. The dog goes to the flock, cuts out precisely the number of sheep that he is ordered to cut out, and drives them into the pen all on its own by responding to signals that are invisible to us.

We had for our own trainer, the best in the world. A man who had trained everything from sheep dogs to tracking dogs, gun dogs, hunting dogs, and guard dogs. And we learnt from him. I hope we learnt well. To test how well we had trained the dogs to track, we would stand on one side of a wall that bordered a large area of scrub vegetation. Then we would give our dog a ball which he would hold in his mouth and smell. Then we would command him to sit and stay and throw the ball as far as we could over the wall into the forest. The dog would vibrate with excitement, yearning to go for the ball. We would count to ten and then say, “Get!” And off he would go. A big Doberman would clear a six-foot wall without so much as touching it. A Labrador would scramble over it. And then a few minutes later, back it would come over the wall with the ball in its mouth, circle the handler, and sit on his right. Then on command it would drop the ball and take the piece of dry meat that the handler would give him as his reward. How can I describe the excitement of testing your skill in the performance of your animal? The lesson learnt – you stand or fall by how your trainee performs – as important a lesson in corporate leadership as in training animals. A good coach after all is not the one who has the greatest knowledge, but the one whose team wins.

The biggest learning for me in these early years was the realization that no matter what you do, it is only worth doing if you aim at being the best in the world at it. And to be the best, it is essential to be passionate about what you do. I sincerely believe that it is impossible to excel in something that you do only halfheartedly or because you are forced to. It is impossible to be the best in the world in anything that you are not passionate about because you will never put in the heroic effort that is needed for you to succeed. Another realization was that when you are doing something that you are passionate about, you never get tired or stressed out. You are always fresh and full of energy and those around you also feel this. Passion is essential because it is the only thing which makes the heroic effort seem worthy of the goal. Only the passionate never compromise because compromise is the cancer which kills from within. Passion is infectious; so is compromise.  Stress occurs when we do things we don’t really enjoy.

My learning is that if you are in a situation where you find yourself doing something that you have no passion for, then it is essential to do one of two things: Either kindle a passion for this activity by learning more about it and seeing how it is valuable, or leave and find something that you do feel passionate about. It makes no sense to do something that you have no love for. Happiness is the result of doing something that is worthwhile, and which adds value and not of how much money you make or what rank you have. Interestingly, it is when the work feels worthless that people get overly concerned about titles, money, and perquisites. That is why I tell my clients who talk about compensation as an issue in people retention, “Money problems are not money problems, even when they are money problems.”  Most people complain about the compensation when they are uninspired about their work. The biggest proof of this are the many people in missionary and charitable activities who work all hours for next to nothing and are very happy doing their jobs. Happiness is therefore more about intangible rewards than about the tangible ones. That’s why I say, ‘If it can’t make you cry, it can’t make you work.’

Training dogs was a huge learning in human psychology. I learnt the importance of taking a stand and then remaining firmly on it without giving in to the pressure to change. I learnt that dogs and people will test your limits to see how firm you are. Once they test the boundaries and find that they can’t be pushed away, they accept them. Firmness and consistency are critical. There is nothing more debilitating than a leader who is ambivalent. I learnt the value of physical courage and how, if you stand with courage, you lend courage to those around you. I learnt the value of leading from the front and that there is only one leadership position – in the front – which is why those who follow are called ‘followers.’ What kind of a leader is it who has no followers? I learnt the value of quiet companionship – there is nothing more relaxing than sitting on a hillside with your dog beside you, watching the world go by. With Nawab Saab, you didn’t chatter. If you had something useful to say, you said it; if you had a question, you asked; otherwise you kept your mouth shut. The value of silence was appreciated. Without silence inside your head and heart and outside in terms of speaking, you can’t introspect or reflect. Silence has great value. We didn’t have intrusive gadgets to disturb our peace and so we valued silence. In the forest, silence also helps you to know who else is around. Knowledge that can be critical to survival and enjoyment of your experience.

Nawab Saab taught us to pay attention to the dogs and their highly developed faculties which warn of danger long before you would have been aware of it. This is where his storytelling really came into his own. Every lesson had a set of circumstances that it had been drawn from and that added value and meaning to it. This was not merely theory but hard-earned life experience that we were learning from. From my dogs, I learnt the value of unconditional love and complete trust in someone. When my dog got injured during training, I would order him to lie down and would then clean his wounds with hydrogen peroxide and stitch him up without anesthesia. The dog would lie there, sometimes whimpering in pain but never moving and never protesting or trying to harm me in any way. He trusted me completely and knew that what I was doing was for his good. There is nobody happier than a dog at seeing his master – no matter how ugly or dirty, poor or hungry, unfashionable or square his master may be. To the dog, his master is the best, most lovable, reliable, remarkable, and trustworthy human being in the world. And that has nothing to do with whether in fact this is true or not. The dog doesn’t care. Whatever the master may be to the rest of the world, to his dog he is the best in the world. And that is the secret of a great friendship and a great marriage. What you believe about someone and demonstrate in your dealing with them, is what they rise to embody. That is why they say, ‘Treat a man as if he is the best that he can be, and he becomes that.’ Many years later I dealt with some of the most intractable and obnoxious union leaders with great politeness, treating them as if they were heads of state and all their nastiness went away and I didn’t have to suffer any of it. People used to be surprised and asked me how I did it. I never let on the secret – that my dogs taught me this lesson. Some readers may not take kindly to being compared to dogs – but believe me, there is nothing more honorable in terms of friendship and loyalty. This is what Nawab Saab taught us and we learned these lessons well, very enjoyably and lived to realize their value throughout our lives.

As I mentioned earlier, Nawab Saab was requested to train a dog squad for Thengakal Estate in Vandiperiyar, Kerala. I don’t know if you have been inside a cardamom estate. Almost 30 years after this story, I raised and planted cardamom in the Anamallais and recalled those days when we were in that estate in Vandiperiyar. We trained the dogs in Vilayat Manzil and in the lands behind Yusuf Tekri in Towli Chowki. Today there isn’t an inch of vacant land in that place. In the early 70’s it was miles of barren land with scrub bushes, some Sitaphal (Custard Apple – Annona squamosa), some Lantana (Lantana camara), a sprinkling of Neem (Azadirachta indica), one or two Peepul (Ficus Religiosa) and an occasional Banyan (Ficus Benghalensis). We would load up the dogs in Khaja Nawab’s jeep and drive to Yusuf Tekri and then spend the day training the dogs. Since these dogs were being trained as trackers and guard dogs, the training was very intense. For tracking, we used Labradors whose sense of smell is more developed and keener than the other breeds we had. For guard/attack work, we used Dobermans and German Shepherds. But all dogs were taught everything as well, as a backup even though we used them, whenever possible, separately for these jobs.

It was fascinating to see how these different breeds worked. For a Doberman everything was a competition. The dog would get stressed out, angry and would bust his gut to do his best. A Labrador on the other hand took it all as a game and thoroughly enjoyed himself. He was playing and having fun, whether he was following a scent track or attacking an intruder and dragging him to the ground. Temperament has a big effect on the trainability and steadiness of dogs and humans under stressful conditions. Nawab Saab’s training technique was based on gaining the trust of the animal and persuading him to work. Nawab Saab never used force or punishment which was very commonly used by other trainers. The result was that Nawab Saab’s dogs worked much better than anyone else’s. The only catch was that training took longer than it would have taken if you simply beat the dog to a pulp and then forced him to obey. Our dogs were our friends and beating one was unthinkable. The other thing was the knowledge that success and failure was really ours, the trainer’s. Not the dog’s. If the dog didn’t perform, it was I who needed to look at my training technique, treatment of the dog, consistency of command and it was I who needed to work harder. ‘Failing’ the dog or punishing it was meaningless because the dog’s performance was a non-negotiable goal. Every dog was trainable and if it didn’t get trained, it was I who was at fault. Nobody needed to point that out to me. I knew it. I held myself accountable for it and I succeeded or failed by this standard.

Cut to our schooling technique today. Who passes or fails? Teacher or child? Who must really pass or fail? What would happen if we changed that to what really should happen and if teacher’s salaries were docked if children failed and they got a bonus if they excelled? Same thing for the corporate world. Companies succeed or fail because of what decision makers do. Not workers. But who gets laid off? Responsibility must lie where it belongs and those responsible must get the credit or pay the price. Not someone else, whose only fault was that they obeyed orders. Once again, sorry about the comparison, but it is precisely this ability to take learnings from one situation and apply them to a totally unrelated situation that distinguishes human learning from animal learning. That is what I learnt and that is how I learnt it. And that is why I say that I owe so much of my learning to the very unusual childhood and youth that I had and to mentors like Nawab Nazir Yar Jung, Uncle Rama and Aunty Mohini.

To return to our story, we finished our training and took the train with our dogs, to Cochin. The dogs were in the Brake Van at the end of the train. Every few stations, we would run to the back, unleash the dogs and take them out on the platform to stretch their legs and greet telephone poles. Then give them some water and back inside the Brake Van and we would run back to our compartment. Eventually we reached Cochin where the estate transport met us and we drove for another six hours to get to the estate to meet the Manager, Mr. Rudy Bosen.

Mr. Bosen very kindly invited Nawab Saab, me and Khaja Nawab to stay with him, and his wife, Dorothy made some wonderful chocolate ice cream for us for dessert after a lovely dinner. The estate had a big problem with theft as cardamom is a very valuable spice and easy to steal. A cardamom plantation is extremely dense and very easy to hide in. Thieves would come into the estate across the boundary at night, with sickles and jute bags and simply cut the ripe bunches of cardamom and take them away. To catch them in the dark was completely impossible. That is why Rudy Bosen thought of using dogs and contacted Nawab Saab for help. The dilemma was, how do you publicize the fact that now there are guard dogs which can catch thieves. The challenge was to have the dogs merely as an effective deterrent. Rudy Bosen didn’t really want anyone getting chewed up by a dog because in Kerala that would likely cause a bigger problem than the theft.

Nawab Saab had a unique idea. He asked Mr. Bosen to invite all union leaders and whoever wanted to come from the village to the estate to a dog show and competition at the end of which they would be given a sumptuous meal and could win cash prizes. People came in large numbers with great enthusiasm because there is nothing much to do in the plantations and any kind of entertainment draws big crowds. When everyone had settled down on the Muster ground under the marquee Nawab Saab, through an interpreter asked for volunteers to take part in the competition. He then picked six of the likeliest looking men. He told them to go and hide anywhere they wanted to, in the plantation. But before they went off, he took some item of clothing from each of them. He told them that he would give them half an hour to go and hide and then the dogs would find them. Meanwhile we put on a show of attack training which looks very ferocious indeed. For that also we took volunteers, dressed them up in protective clothing and then the dogs took them down. For a grown man, who thinks that he is strong, armed with a knife or stick, to have a dog taking him down in one smooth lethal attack, is very unnerving. That is what our objective was; to put the fear of the dogs in the minds of the people and any potential thieves.

Once this demo was over, we got the tracking dogs out and gave them the clothing to get a good sniff of and sent them into the plantation. The dogs disappeared in a jiffy. There was initially some rustling of leaves. Then total silence. We waited with bated breath as this was the final test of the pudding. If the dogs missed even one man, our reputation would be shot. We were literally putting our honor on the line. Then suddenly there was a scream. We ran into the plantation following the calling of the dog. The tracking dogs had been trained to ‘speak’. They would bark at regular intervals of a couple of seconds and would continue for as long as it took for the handler to get to it. Bow-wow-wow-wow and on, it would go. That told us that the dog had ‘treed’ the quarry or had pinned him down and the sound would guide us to the animal. The long and short of it was that we caught every single one of the men. Then we all came out of the jungle to where everyone was waiting to see what had happened. The men looked very sheepish and down in the mouth that they had not won the Rs. 1000 reward for the one who could escape the dog. In the 1970’s Rs. 1000 was big money. Mr. Bosen was a smart man. He still gave them consolation prizes for participating and then we all had lunch with the union leaders and all competitors. The result of this was that theft stopped on this estate as if someone had shut off a switch. The dogs had such an effect on the psyche of the people that nobody wanted to take a chance of meeting a dog in the dark of the night. As Sun Tzu says, ‘The wise general never fights a battle. He wins without fighting.’ I have yet to see a ‘general’ as wise as Nawab Nazir Yar Jung.

You can never relive the past

You can never relive the past

 “Dorai, we are all your children. May God bless you and keep you well, Dorai. Tomorrow I will show you the tea that you planted. Hundreds of people have a livelihood because of that tea. It is the rule in the estate that the pluckers take your name first before they start plucking that tea. It is called Baig Dorai Thotam (garden). Your name will never be forgotten as long as that tea remains, Dorai.”

I was in Lower Sheikalmudi Estate, in 2007, twenty years since I had been there last, as the Manager. Now I was visiting my old haunts, living my dream of enjoying the Anamallais without worrying about YPH (Yield per hectare) or tea prices. We arrived one evening and stayed in the Manager’s bungalow where we had lived, and which was now a guest house; of sorts. It still had the same curtains that we had installed twenty years ago, and you could tell. But nostalgia is a cure for many things and so we loved spending a couple of nights in our old home without worrying about how run down it looked.

View while climbing Manjaparai

The next day we took a picnic lunch (flat masala omlettes, rolled in rotis with some pickle on the side) and walked up the hill to Manjaparai. Once we climbed down the hill from the bungalow, the climb is about four to five kilometers; never very steep but always rising. As you continue upwards, it can get quite taxing on a body used to sitting in chairs more than anything else. As you climb up out of the tea, you enter first the scrub jungle, very thick with all kinds of shrubbery including some very potent stinging nettles called Anaimarti. All my old memories came flooding back. My two friends, Raman & Raman, who worked on the estate and were my companions on my hikes and built hides for me to watch wildlife, were thrilled that I could still recognize the plants. Raman the younger cut a stout stick for me which is something that I used to like to keep as a climbing aid. Today I needed it more than simply wanting it. We walked through a path that Raman cut in the undergrowth with his pruning knife. As I walked, I remembered that this was the habitat of the Hamadryad or King Cobra (Ophiophagus hannah) which is an endangered species. Interestingly though it has ‘cobra’ in its name, it is not a cobra and is the only member of its genus. It is the longest poisonous snake in the world and can grow to as long as 18-19 feet. This snake preys on other snakes, is extremely fast but shy and so you are unlikely to see it unless you stumble on its nest. King cobras are the only species of snake to build nests for their young, which they guard ferociously. Nesting females may attack without provocation. When it is angry it rears up one third of its body which makes it as tall as a man and so the snake can actually look you in the eye. That can be terrifying to say the least. The Hamadryad has an enormous amount of venom, enough to kill twenty people or one elephant. But as I said, it is shy and so you hardly ever have any instances of people being bitten by them. The venom is neurotoxic and depending on the quantity injected into you, can kill in minutes.

Raman & Raman and I

We came out of the brush eventually, having been bitten liberally by elephant ticks (the price to pay for climbing to Manjaparai) on to the base of the rock called Manjaparai (Yellow Rock) because of the color of a lichen that grows on this rock. There is a small stream that flows through a slight depression in it and at one point forms a shallow pool. This is the drinking pool that Sambhar and Gaur come to drink in. When we reached there that afternoon, we also found some old elephant dung strewn around the pool, but no fresh sign of any elephant. Walking up the hill, we surprised a basking cobra (Naga Naga) and then startled a Sambar doe that was resting in a thicket. She exploded out of the bush and galloped down a slope that was so steep that I would have hesitated to walk down it too fast. It was in the tree that grew out of the rock near the pool, that I’d had a platform (machan) constructed to watch animals from. I would pick a full-moon night with clear skies to sit in my machan. A clear night is much colder, but the full moon gives enough light to see without a torch. Nights on this platform were very cold but the sight of the sunset and its rising next morning was well worth the discomfort of the cold.

I would get up into the tree early so as not to disturb any game. One of the Ramans would sit up with me. The other one would see us to the place and leave and return early the following morning to collect us. It was not safe to stay on the ground during the night unless you had a fire. But the fire would drive all the game away and so we had this arrangement. Let me tell you about the sounds of the forest you would hear if you were to sit with me on the machan. The first call as the sun went down was always the jungle fowl going up to roost. First the cocks would crow – kak kaak, kaa kak?? – with a question mark at the end. Then the hens would sometimes cackle as they flew up to their roosts. There were no peacocks in the Anamallais in the 1980’s as it was too wet for them. But when I returned there in 2007, I saw peacocks. This shows that in the twenty years that I had been away, rainfall had reduced enough for peacocks to migrate up the mountain range from the plains and start living there. Not a good sign at all, the decline in rainfall. It will be interesting to check the meteorological data.

Once they settled in, the nightjars would start flitting on silent wings, catching nocturnal insects in flight as they came out of their hiding places. It is a fascinating sight to watch the nightjars as they took their interceptor flights. The nightjars sit in an open place (on a small rock or in the middle of the path) and make their characteristic call chut-chut-chut-churrrrrrrrrrrr. They repeat this call endlessly, sitting absolutely still but watching the world very closely. As soon as the nightjar sees a poor unsuspecting insect going about its business, it simply erupts into the air and the world insect population is reduced by one. 100% kill rate. Amazing birds.

Spotted Owlets

Then there would be silence for a while as the jungle settled for the night. As the first light of the moon started to strengthen, a pair of Spotted Owlets would come out of their roosting places, where they had been hiding both from the sun as well as from the crows who harass them mercilessly if they see them in the open. They hunt in pairs. They fly out onto the flat branch that was their take off perch, one followed by the other. They would sit there for a while and talk to each other, perhaps discussing strategy. They are the most demonstrative birds that I have seen and to see them cuddling up to and nuzzling each other is extremely endearing. Then he would glide away in one direction and she in another. You must see an owl in flight to understand the meaning of grace. Suddenly you hear the dhank-dhank of the Sambar. This is the alarm call telling the other tenants of the jungle that one of the two big cats that live in this forest, the tiger and the leopard, is around. The Sambar is the most reliable of the sentinels and call only when they see these predators. Chital (none in these forests) also call and so do Barking Deer (plenty in the Anamallais). But both tend to be very skittish and will call on seeing many other things including shadows. Being on everyone’s dinner menu, does something to your perspective.

Another one whose alarm call must be taken seriously is the Langur; in this case the Nilgiri Langur and not the Grey Langur of the plains. They always have a sentinel watching from the highest perch that he can find, always on the lookout for big cats. But at night, the Langur are among the first to go to the treetops where they spend the night, safely out of harm’s way. Langur are at the top of the leopard’s dietary preference and so no wonder they prefer to be where the leopard is not subjected to any temptation. The Sambhar has fallen silent. This means that he can no longer see the tiger or leopard.

Indian Gaur, Munnar in winter. See the frost on the grass.

Then as you look at the deep shadows, one of the shadows moves and comes out into the open which is illuminated brightly by the moon. You can see the shine of the black coat and the white socks. You hear the snort as the bull clears his nose. The Gaur are here. As he gives the all-clear the cows and calves come out and all of them move to the shallow pool to drink. There is not enough water for all of them to drink together so they will remain there for as long as it takes for the pool to keep filling as they keep emptying it.

The presence of one herbivore is a sign to the others that the situation is safe. It is essential of course for us to keep silent, breathing softly and staying completely still. It is amazing how highly developed the senses of animals are, whose life literally depends on this. Make the slightest movement or sound and they vanish as if they had never been there. Raman seems carved in stone. I recall all my early childhood training in jungle craft and silently thank Uncle Rama and Nawab Nazir Yar Jung for teaching me to take care of myself and to reconstruct the story of the forest from the signs. Nobody could have had or wished for better teachers. Nawabsab spent many years in the Anamallais as a tea planter and he was my inspiration to join planting. A decision that I have always been very pleased about. Thanks to my decade long career as a planter, I learnt many valuable skills and life lessons and had the privilege of collecting some of the most beautiful memories and friends of my life. Raman and I sit in complete silence and watch the animals which are less than twenty meters away.

I had put out blocks of rock salt (salt licks) and some of the animals move away towards the salt lick and eventually even sit down to chew the cud around the salt lick. I have seen Sambar pick their way between resting gaur to get to the salt, all in perfect harmony with each other. As the night passes, we can hear elephants feeding in the forest bordering Manjaparai but that night they decide not to come out into the open. The night is now almost completely silent. All the grazing and hunting has been done. Now the whole world is resting. The time is 3 am according to the glow of my watch dial. The night is very, very cold. A breeze has started which blows unhindered up the slope of Manjaparai. The bison (gaur) herd has moved off back into the forest. There is nothing in sight. Raman and I are both shivering with our teeth chattering. We silently decide to descend onto the rock and light a fire. The firewood has already been collected the previous evening and is at the foot of the tree. We get down to the rock and Raman sets about creating a very nice and bright bonfire. To enjoy a fire truly one must first be at freezing point. Then you light the fire and sit in front of it and toast yourself. That is bliss.

Of course it destroys your night vision and if you have to suddenly turn and look into the darkness you are completely blind, but then in our case there is nothing to see in the darkness and so we both sit before the fire, wrapped in our blankets and talk of various matters grave enough to be spoken of at 3 am. It is amazing how people who we may dismiss as illiterate and uneducated (not that I ever did that), make observations, reflect upon them, and form educated opinions. A favorite topic with most Indians is politics and the antics of politicians. We are a very politically savvy people. We understand our politicians like nobody else. But what beats me is how we always manage to elect such puerile ones. Like the joke goes, ‘What happens when a politician drowns in the river?’ ‘It is called pollution.’ ‘What happens when they all drown?’ ‘It is called a solution.’

Raman and I would discuss the reasons for corruption in our system. Our people, the vast majority of them are good, simple, and have sincere hearts that have learned to become helpless. Every conversation ends with the same refrain, ‘Ah! But what can we do?’ The reality is that if anything can be done, it is only we who can do it. But this remains an elusive concept. Having put that to rest, we would watch the fire and simply sit in companionable silence, waiting for dawn. Raman proves that he is made of gold by pulling out a flask with piping hot tea and he and I share the tea and wait for the night to pass.

Gradually our talk runs out and we doze in spells. The fire starts to go down and every once in a while, either Raman or I put another log into it. Time passes. We see the owls that had left the previous evening, return to their perch and they have a long conversation recounting tales of the hunt. I have no idea whose story was more impressive, but both seem to have a lot to talk about. The sky is now starting to lighten. There is a strange blue light and I feel as if I am looking at the world from the bottom of the ocean. Then an orange tinge starts at the very bottom of the horizon and gradually grows upwards as if a fire has been started and is strengthening. And indeed, it has.

The final payoff of our trip is at hand. The sun is starting to rise. The sky catches fire. The flames rise higher. And then the top curve of the ball of fire appears on the horizon and rises rapidly upwards. The light is now strong. A new day has been born and I am fortunate enough to witness it. What price can I place on this privilege? All it took is a little discomfort of sitting half the night on the top of a tree. I thank Allahﷻ for showing me His creation.

Lion-tailed Macaque – pronounced locally Yal-Tee-Yum

The new day starts with the Nilgiri Whistling Thrush (Whistling Schoolboy bird) and his liquid melody which he changes at will. We had a nesting pair in the Golden Showers creeper in our veranda. I used to whistle back, and he would respond. If I stopped, he would whistle and wait for me to reply. I have no idea what I was saying in his language, but whatever it was, he seemed to like it. I can’t describe the joy of beginning every day with that to start me off. On Manjaparai, I can hear the Yal-Tee-Yams (LTM – Lion-tailed Macaque – Macaca silenus) announcing that the new day is here. Then as the light strengthens, Jungle Fowl descend from the trees and the cocks call out their challenge; kak kaak, kaa kak?? – with a question mark at the end. You don’t normally hear the alarm calls of Sambar or Barking Deer at this time because the hunters have already hunted and are now resting after their meal. Langur call, just the communication calls.

You may hear the elephant herd, if you are downwind of them. First you will smell them. Then the squeal of the youngsters, feeling their oats early in the morning, usually butting each other and testing their strength while the matriarch leads them to the river to drink and bathe. As they walk, you can hear branches breaking as they feed, stomach rumbles, the low frequency call of the matriarch (you feel the vibration more than hear it) as she gives some instruction to her family. Even a trumpet occasionally. Just a honk of the horn. Not the scream of rage as an elephant thunders down on you at fifty miles an hour with the intention of wiping you off the face of the earth. That happenedto me once, a week after I joined as a brand-new Assistant Manager, but I managed to escape.  The memory however is still fresh and lives with me. You can’t hear the hyper-low frequency calls which travel over a hundred miles, by which herds widely apart, communicate with one another. What do they say?

Then the wind shifts and their super sensitive sense, gets a whiff of you. Suddenly there is total silence. You hear nothing. No branches snapping, no squealing, no rumbles, no trumpeting. Not a dry twig will snap under a foot which has a sole like a truck tyre bearing a weight of four tons, but which can tread as softly as a feather when it wants to. If you could see them, you would see ears fanning for sounds, trunks raised, taking in sniffs of air and blowing them into the mouth to taste it. Their eyesight is not great but their hearing and smell more than makes up for that. Add to that a memory that is legendary and the fact that they are in familiar surroundings and know every patch of forest. Who knows what other senses they bring to bear to decide whether you present a threat or not? Before you realize it, the herd has gone, like the mist in the early morning. One minute they were there, and the next, there is only your memory of an encounter that will stay with you all your life.

Grey Hornbill feeding his mate who is sealed inside the nest in the tree hollow
Wilpattu National Park, Sri Lanka

As the daylight strengthens, birds come alive. They gather at their favorite trees to feed on berries, and on insects which get flushed by the berry eaters or to scratch in the dirt at the bottom of the tree for worms, beetles and caterpillars. Insects have a hard time in life, though they are so critical to everyone else’s survival. If you stand quietly and watch, you can see the tree divided into zones in which different species of birds operate. The most popular trees for birds, in this forest on the Western Ghats is the Banyan (Ficus Benghalensis), especially when it is in fruit. The tree itself is excellent nesting habitat for birds. Owls and Parakeets live in its hollows. Hornbills use those hollows to make their nests. Black Eagles, Changeable Hawk-eagles and other raptors make nests in the topmost branches. Imperial Pigeons, Green Pigeons, Ring-necked and other doves, crows, and many others, nest in the Banyan. This is a very productive tree to watch if you want to photograph birds. All this activity is accompanied by an absolute cacophony of sound with all the birds talking to one another at the top of their voices. No birdsong as such. This is feeding time and they are in a frenzy.

Changeable Hawk-eagle juvenile
Yala National Park, Sri Lanka

We often like to talk about the peace of the forest. That is a myth. The forest is a place of intense activity where to survive you need senses honed to perfection, total physical fitness, lightning reflexes and total awareness. The price of carelessness is hunger or death. And all this, every waking, living day and night of your life. No overweight animals in the forest and no pot bellies. The only exception are elephants, who thanks to their size and lifestyle of living together in family groups taking care of one another, can afford to relax. Life in the forest is all about survival. Whether you are a bird, reptile, mammal, amphibian or fish, it is all about survival. You must do one of two things and for some, you must do both; find food and prevent yourself from becoming food. Add to that finding mates, building nests, raising young and all the while protecting them and yourself from others who need to kill you to raise their own young and you have a very lethal and non-peaceful environment. But one in which you feel alive constantly. No time for depression, boredom or anxiety – all very human ailments.

To survive in the forest, you must be able to read it like you read a book. Observe signs, know what they mean and know what to do when you see them. Some you will see, some you hear, some you smell and to all you pay attention very carefully. You must know that you are also generating signs, most of the time unconsciously. And while you are not the natural food for anyone, you can get yourself into trouble if by your behavior you are seen as a threat, especially to the young of someone else. This is almost the only reason that people get injured, bitten or even killed in the forest. The solution is to learn woodcraft. If you know how to behave in a forest, you can be safe and enjoy yourself in one that is inhabited by all the potentially dangerous species you can think of. I am speaking of Indian and Sri Lankan forests. African forests are somewhat different in this respect. I have walked, camped, even slept in riverbeds in forests in India, inhabited by tigers, leopards, gaur, wild dogs, elephants and of course snakes and here I am writing about it all. That is because I learnt what to do and have a lot of respect for those whose territory, I am in.

African forests are different primarily because of lions. African lions are very different from Indian tigers and leopards and are addicted to junk food. I believe, so also are African leopards and Spotted Hyenas. So, sleeping in riverbeds in Africa is not what I would advise. I wouldn’t advise that in India or Sri Lanka either as a matter of course, but as I said, if you needed to, you could do that here. But in Africa, if you find yourself in such a situation, where there is a possibility of lions in the vicinity, find yourself a tall tree and climb it as far up as you can get. Think of yourself as a bag of potato chips or a bar of chocolate if you like. You get the message? Having said that, there are unfenced resorts in wildlife parks where you can camp and as long as you are inside your tent or in your car, you are safe. But if you need to go in the night, because when you gotta go you gotta go, it presents interesting possibilities. Not my idea of a holiday for sure.

To return to our story, it was as if I was watching a flashback movie. As I sat on the rock, eating my egg roll I remembered all these things as vividly as if I were watching it happen all over again. Twenty years had passed. The gaur I saw are all gone. So are the Langur. Their offspring have taken their place. Raman is there with me, but his hair is now jet black with hair dye. My beard is a salt-pepper shade with far more salt than pepper. There is change, but the rock is timeless. So is the forest. Ever changing of course, but strangely, still the same. Not often is one privileged to go back in time. I finished my meal and lay down on the rock close to the stream to sleep for a while. Raman & Raman moved away to either ends of the open space to take up watch positions. We are old friends and companions. Nothing needs to be said. Each knows what he should do. I can hear the small stream gurgling as I drift off into the best sleep that I have had in a very long time.

Sunset in the Anamallais, Lower Sheikalmudi Estate

I woke up as the sun started its final journey to America. Only if it set here could the Americans have another day. So, we can’t delay it, can we? We gathered our things and started off back home, this time on a new track past the tea that I had planted 20 years ago. Today I was very eager to see what had become of it. Once again, we descended into the dark thickness of the undergrowth at the bottom of Manjaparai, now a little apprehensive as we can see fresh sign of elephant. We walk in single file with Raman in the lead and me at the rear with our friends who are new to this environment in the middle. We walk silently. Everyone has been given instructions about what to do if we come across elephants. But nothing as exciting as that happens and we emerge into what has become known as Baig Dorai Thotam (Baig Dorai’s Garden – the name that the pluckers gave it). I looked at it with tears in my eyes. It was the most beautiful sight that I had seen in a long time.

Baig Dorai Thotam – the tea I planted in Lower Sheikalmudi Estate in 1987, as seen in 2007

The tea has been extremely well looked after. They had done a height reduction prune to it and it is now back in plucking. Flat as a table, deep green maintenance foliage with light green plucking shoots standing proud and tall. Someone obviously has done an extremely fine job here. I was delighted that I had decided to come here and visit after so long.

We climbed up on another rock on the border of the tea overlooking the thick evergreen rain forest that the Anamallais are famous for. There is a single Spathodia in full bloom in the middle of the sea of green, the flame red color of the flowers standing out like a bonfire. I can see why it is called the Flame of the Forest. We sit in silence and watch the sun rise somewhere else. As the night descends, I thank Allahﷻ once again for giving me this opportunity to come back and see the result of my work and meet my old friends. I feel privileged and honored.

Blacksmiths, inheritors of Crossley

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.  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.