Lower Sheikalmudi like most estates had fallen
victim to a custom that had been set up by the British planters; that of
worker’s vegetable gardens. The original idea was to informally give some land
to estate workers so that they could grow some vegetables to supplement their
diet. In those days, transporting fresh vegetables from the plains was not a
feasible option and so these vegetable gardens had been cultivated for decades.
As time passed these gardens gradually grew in
size and encroached on the tea. The people who grew the gardens were few and
what they grew started becoming more for sale than for personal consumption.
Also, since vegetables also need fertilizer and pesticides, these started to be
pinched from the estate supplies. When I became the manager of Lower
Sheikalmudi Estate, I made a quick survey of the vegetable gardens and
discovered that there were close to fifty acres of gardens, give or take a few.
I decided that the time had come to start reclaiming the gardens and planting
them up with tea.
I chose the lean season for this and called
meetings with the unions and the garden owners. I told the unions that I was
not claiming the gardens for my personal use. I was claiming them to plant tea,
which when it came into bearing would mean additional employment for their
members. At present the garden was providing an income to a few individuals.
The tea, when it was mature in four years, would provide employment to more
than a hundred people. I asked the unions to support my effort and to persuade
the owners of the gardens to return the land to the estate. I told the garden
owners that they had enjoyed the fruits of the gardens for so many years, rent
free. Now I was asking them to return the gardens to the real owner, which was
the estate. Consequently, they would be creating employment for their own
By sheer hands-on practice in this and other
similar events in my life, I learnt some very valuable lessons in negotiation
and influencing without formal authority. The key learning was that in order to
get anyone to do anything, or change their ways, especially where it involved
them contributing something, be it time, money or anything else, it was
essential to be able to show them how they would personally benefit from this
change. It is not a matter of some clever talk or pulling the wool over their
eyes. Firstly, people see through all such subterfuges quite easily, and even
if they don’t in the beginning, they quickly wise up to it as events unfold and
then you lose all credibility and moral authority. You need to really be able
to see the value in your own proposition and to be able to show it to the
people whose cooperation you need. In the vegetable gardens case, the issue was
important to me as it would give me positive points with the company
management, but it was not a serious enough issue from the management’s point
of view (after all it had been going on for more than sixty years without
anyone bothering too much about it) to make it worth a fight. So if the workers
decided to seriously protest, and especially if it resulted in any work
stoppage or labor unrest, it was highly doubtful that I would get top
management support or thanks for raising up an issue which they did not see as
important enough. It was a tricky situation for me – I needed the workers to
give up their gardens and to support me in taking them over without much of a
company backing. Seemed like a crazy proposition and some of my friends warned
me that it was crazy and that I was unnecessarily putting my job on the line. I
have always taken high risks and it was the excitement of challenge that
The challenge was to get them to see how they
would all benefit in the long term as a collective if a few of them agreed to
give up the gardens to the estate to be planted with tea. Once again, my
knowledge of the local language (Tamil) and culture (which one can never
understand unless one learns the language) came to my aid. Also, the psychology
of involving people in their own decision making. I needed not only to persuade
the garden owners but the rest of the population that this was good for
everyone. That way, there would be moral pressure on the garden owners from
their own people, which would be very hard for them to resist. The benefit of
additional employment was real, and they all understood it. The issue was to persuade
them to do something today to get the benefit four to five years later.
I called a meeting of the Works Committee (Union
Leaders) and some of the elders among the workers who were not WC members, but
were respected in the community. I spoke to them about what I was planning to
do and why. I showed them how by a few of them giving up the vegetable gardens
they would enable the perennial employment of future generations. I showed them
how by doing this, their names would be immortalized as those who sacrificed
their own personal gain for the benefit of the community of workers. I also
gently pointed out that over all the years that they had been using the produce
of the gardens, the company had not charged them any rent nor interfered with
them in any way (actually, these were our legal weaknesses, but I projected
them as favors on them by previous managers). Now was the time when they must
pay their dues, not to me or to the company, but to their own brethren, by
cooperating with us and planting tea instead of vegetables. It took a few
meetings over about two weeks or so, but in the end they all agreed, and we
took over the gardens and started planting tea.
The exception was one garden which was about five
acres in size and was cultivated by a man called Doraisamy, who was not on the
estate rolls. The man was an ex-employee of the estate and an ex-serviceman. He
was about my height, heavier, and extremely muscular, the result of working
hard in the garden. The garden was beautifully terraced and cultivated and
planted with pineapple. It had a thick thorn fence all around to keep out Wild
Boar that would have destroyed the entire garden in one night if they could get
access to it. Doraisamy had a small hut in the middle of the garden where he
lived by himself.
When we decided to take back the garden, I called
Doraisamy and asked him to hand over the garden to the estate, he refused. I
told him that we would have to evict him if he did not give up the land
voluntarily. He challenged us to try. There was much whispering going on in the
estate bazar in the evening, which was regularly reported to me. I sent some
people to talk to Doraisamy privately, but the man refused to budge. I offered
him a job as a forest watcher, which would have suited him ideally and given
him a steady income. No change. He insisted that he would cultivate the garden
and that nobody could move him. Prestige issues become symbolic and then morph
into more complex challenges to authority. I was aware of this and decided that
there was no alternative but to call his bluff. So, one morning I took twenty
workers to the site and ordered them to remove the fence. As the workers
started to take out some of the thorny branches, Doraisamy rushed out of his
hut with a loud yell and came at the workers. He had a huge chopping knife in
his hand. The workers all ran back as a body. Doraisamy came to the gate of the
garden and after describing the ancestry of the people who had come to take
down his garden fence in very imaginative language, said, “Let me see who
is man enough to step inside here. I will chop off his leg.”
There are critical incidents when as a leader you must
take a call. At that moment you are alone. You believe in the depths of your
heart that you can succeed. You know in your gut the real challenge that you
must face. You are afraid, but you don’t show it. You take the first step
forward and then you stand aside and watch yourself. For the rest is already
written. And it is waiting for you to take the first step, so that the script
for the right scene can be played out. Once you take the first step, doors open
from undiscovered places. Once you take the first step, angels descend and walk
with you and turn aside the hand that rises to strike you. And AllahY puts love and respect in hearts where once resided
fear, anger, and hatred. All this, however, depends on the first step. For that
one instance, you are alone and all of creation is waiting to see what you will
do. It is the choice you make that decides what the consequences will be. We
are free to choose. But no choice is free. Every choice has a price tag.
It takes far longer to narrate this tale than the
time it took for it to happen. All that I am telling you probably happened in
less than five minutes. And of that, the first part during which I took the
crucial steps, took not more than a few seconds. The ‘decision’ was not as
cognitive as it may sound as you read this. It was instinctive and inspired,
more than thought-out. Who knows, but maybe in such situations, the only way to
act right is to simply act; not think too long. It is when one thinks too long
that logic takes the place of passion. Then the brain rules the heart. And the
moment is lost to false concerns of safe harbor. This is where the rubber meets
the road and you either walk your talk or fail.
The objective of life is to achieve that which you
did not know you could. To scale heights that leave you breathless with fear
until you realize that it is excitement and not fear at all. Excitement is fear
that anticipates a happy ending. Short breath, dry mouth, alive senses, and
joy. The objective is to see how much more you can achieve. And you never can
tell that unless you try to do that which you have never done before. Safety is
only one of the considerations in the strategy to achieve that. Never the
objective. As they say, ‘Ships are safest in the harbor. But ships are not made
to remain in the harbor.’ To live is not simply to draw breath.
I saw myself looking at the people around me. They
were all standing in a bunch, crowded together, watching to see what I would
do. My Field Officer, Mr. Govindraj was standing a little behind me, also
watching to see what I would do. Mr. Jeyapaul, the Field Officer of Lower
Division, was also there, as was Suresh Menon, my Assistant Manager. I was
standing on top of a small rock. I looked straight ahead and saw Doraisamy
standing in the doorway of his garden with the chopper in his hand. Strangely,
my heart was with the man. I was amazed at myself. Here I was facing a man who
was threatening to chop off my leg and I felt what he was feeling. He saw me as
someone who was bent on destroying his life’s work. He had put untold hours
into this garden. He had cleared the land, fenced it cutting thorn bush from
the forest, in the process donating his blood to the millions of leeches and
the thorns themselves. He had then cut terraces to hold the plants. He had
planted pineapples and tapioca and tended them. He had guarded them in the
bitterly cold, dark nights against the depredations of gaur, elephant and wild
boar, sitting awake sometimes all night, shouting and beating an empty tin can
to chase them away. He had seen his plants grow and as a planter, I knew
exactly what the emotional attachment is to something that you plant with your
own hands and nurture with your sweat and love. Anyone who has never planted a
garden can never understand what was going on in the mind and heart of that
man. He could and would have killed, if he needed to, to save his garden. And I
was the man who was his principal target.
With hindsight, I know that if I did not
understand him and feel for him, I would never have taken that fateful step and
would have probably left the place, never to return. For such incidents are
never repeated. They happen once and they set the boundary. It is only with
love that one can deal with the worst conflicts. In order to resolve a conflict
in your favor and be able to show the opponent the benefit that he will get by
accepting your position, paradoxically, you must love your enemy. You must love
him, feel for him, and understand him.
It is very much like hunting. The best hunter is
the one who loves his quarry. You kill the animal, but not because you hate
him. You kill him in a test of skill where you come out on top. It is true that
you have a sophisticated weapon. But he has instincts honed over centuries of
selective breeding and developed to an extent where they are almost magical in
their power to keep him safe from harm. He has endurance and knowledge of his
surroundings that the hunter can never match. And most of all, he has the
supreme motivation of saving his own life. Yet you as the hunter must beat him
at his own game. And that takes some doing. But the central theme in it all is
to love the quarry. On occasion, after tracking down the quarry and seeing it
fully in the sights of my rifle, I have lowered the weapon and watched it go
away. The satisfaction far more than in squeezing the trigger. For in giving
life there is always more joy than in taking it.
To come back to my story, I understood and
empathized with Doraisamy. Yet I had my goal to achieve and I knew that there
would be no second chance. This was no longer about Doraisamy or his garden.
This had escalated into a trial of strength, which would define me and my power
as a Manager. If I lost this, I may as well leave my job for it would destroy
my authority in a place where moral authority and the aura that went with the
position was the main resource in making you effective. Without that you were
another person like anyone else and that spelt doom. People obeyed you because
disobedience was not an option. If it ever did become an option, then you may
as well leave because there was no way that you could govern hundreds of people
by force. You governed them because they considered you worthy of obedience and
loved and respected you enough not to think of rebelling. You needed to be
fair, compassionate and kind, but above all, strong. Kindness coming from a
position of strength is respected; from a position of weakness it is not seen
as kindness at all but helplessness to be taken advantage of.
I stepped off the rock.
I walked straight towards Doraisamy. Behind me, I
heard the voice of Mr. Govindraj telling me to stop and not to go near him.
Suresh made to accompany me. I signaled them to stay where they were. This was
about me, personally. Not about anyone else. I heard all the men standing
around Govindraj murmuring. I noticed nobody. My eyes were fixed on Doraisamy
in the doorway. I walked straight towards him. I was unarmed. I was smaller
than he was and much younger. I stepped inside the doorway and stopped
literally a few centimeters from him. I looked straight into his eyes and said,
“Okay, chop off my leg.” For a few moments he held my gaze. Then his eyes
dropped. I knew in that instant that I had won. The critical incident was past.
The danger was no more.
“I did not mean to say that to you,” he said. I
extended my hand and said, “Doraisamy, give me that chopper.” He handed it to
me without a murmur. I said to him, “Were you really going to kill me?” He
looked down and said, “No Dorai. I was not going to kill you or anyone.”
I then looked at his hut and said, “So Doraisamy
are you not going to invite me into your house?” Immediately the rural spirit of
hospitality kicked in and he said, “Of course. It is your home. Please come
in.” I bent down and went in through the low doorway, having first handed him
his chopper. Also deliberately putting yourself in his power and turning your
back to him only demonstrates your own psychological superiority. If you have
judged the situation right, you are not in the slightest danger. But by handing
the weapon to the man, you are asserting the fact that you trust him. He then
becomes honor bound not to harm you, even though you are now physically in his
power. It is very essential to ensure that you allow a person in such a
situation to save face. That enables him to back off with honor and defuses
tension. Only a fool shuts all escape routes for the opponent because when
cornered even a rat will fight to the death. Only a fool looks for a fight. In
the words of Sun Tzu, ‘Build for your enemy a bridge of gold to retreat over.’
My purpose was not to humiliate Doraisamy. It was to get him to give up the
land he had been illegally occupying with the least amount of fuss. To enable
him to do that honorably without feeling insulted or losing face in the
community, was the best way.
The inside of the hut was very neat and clean. The
floor had been sprinkled with a mixture of cow urine and dung and then swept
clean and tamped down. That makes it hard and dust free and completely
odorless. A traditional method of maintaining floors in the villages. There was
a cot with a rope mesh with a blanket on it. There were some pots and pans
neatly placed in one corner with a small stove near them. He asked me, “Will
Dorai have some tea?” I said, “Of course.” Then as he made the tea, I told him,
“Doraisamy, look, you have a beautiful garden here. You are a very skillful
gardener and a very hard-working man. I appreciate your work and hate to take
it away from you, but what can I do? Your land is the only one left. You took
the fruit from this for so many years. Now with this land going back to the
estate, you will lose that income. I will employ you as a forest guard, which
is a position I need to fill. That will give you a regular income and the work
is far easier than this. And when we finish planting the tea your children will
pluck it. What do you say?”
He said, “Dorai, you are the owner. Do whatever
you like.” I felt sad that I was taking away this land but was very happy that
it ended as easily and smoothly as it did. We removed the fence and then
eventually we planted tea in all the lands that we had reclaimed, adding almost
fifty acres of planted area to the estate. I look on these areas with great
pride and satisfaction because it is not everyone who has a chance to plant
large acreages of tea in today’s times in South India.
The closing of this loop was when I returned to
Lower Sheikalmudi Estate in 2007, twenty years after this incident and was
delighted at how beautifully the tea that I had planted had come up. As I stood
there looking at the tea, Raman, my guide told me, “Dorai, they call this Baig
Dorai Thotam (Baig Dorai’s Garden). When the workers come here to pluck tea,
they first take your name. Till the day this tea is here, your name will not be
In this whole incident the one thing that is not
logically explainable but an essential part of leadership, is the willingness
to trust your inner voice. When you do that you enter a state of grace. It is a
state where you do things that you did not know were possible. You will find
yourself saying things that you were not aware that you knew. You will find
your mind working at a heightened state of awareness. You will feel more alive
and full of energy than you ever did before.
Another big learning for me was the importance of
actively participating in the action. I spoke to Mr. Jeyapaul on January 4,
2008, more than twenty years after the incident. I mentioned to him that I had
visited the Anamallais the previous month and was very happy to see that people
still remembered me. He said to me, “Sir, how can they forget? To this day they
talk of how you faced Doraisamy and then when he backed down, you did not
insult him, but went into his hut and drank tea with him.”
What struck me was the quality of my own memory of
this incident, which to this day is uplifting for me. For Mr. Jeyapaul, even
though it is an important enough memory for him to remember it twenty years
later, obviously the quality of it is different. So even though we were both
(and many others) present on the occasion, the impact of what happened to each
of us is in direct proportion to our own active participation in the events. To
give people like Mr. Jeyapaul and Suresh their due, they watched because I had
expressly forbidden them from coming with me when I went down to meet
Doraisamy. Knowing them as well as I do, they would have walked by my side
gladly. But in my assessment the issue was between me and Doraisamy. Man, to
man. If I allowed anyone else to accompany me, it would reduce my own moral
authority. If I did it alone, I would be the only one risking myself, but then
the result would also be proportional. In any case, I did not want the
additional responsibility of looking out for anyone else in case something went
wrong, having to deal with the thought that I had allowed them to risk their
lives. Another matter was that given the critical nature of the situation it
was entirely likely that Doraisamy would have attacked someone other than me,
who he saw as less powerful. So, I ordered them all to remain where they were
and went down alone.
The benefit of reflecting on your life in seeking
to learn from it is that even twenty years later, there are things you can
Leadership is not playacting. It is not pretension. It is not a game. It is authenticity, integrity, putting your money and yourself where your mouth is. We learned to walk our talk and the perils of not doing so, long before we knew that there was such a term. Credibility falls through the gap between walk and talk. We learned that there is only one way of living, and that is by our values. And that was a good way. It helped us to sleep soundly at night and to hold our heads high, during the day.
In the plantation world we had two cadres of staff: Covenanted and Non-covenanted. Covenanted Staff started at Assistant Manager (or Assistant Superintendent) and Non-covenanted staff ended at that level. There were very few exceptions to this ‘rule’ and where they existed, you could tell them a mile away. This system was an outcome of the fact that the British planters who ‘opened’ the plantations and for almost a century later, were all army-men, almost to the last one. They implemented the Army/Military system of Officer Staff and NCOs in the plantations also. The ‘glass ceiling’ was made of toughened, almost armored glass and was very rarely penetrated and never broken. Interestingly the same system exists in India, in the army and police (IPS Direct Recruits) to this day.
The pecking order of the servants in the bungalow
was that the butler was on the top, followed by the Chokra (a Hindustani word
with a derogatory tone which literally means ‘urchin’). This worthy was the
assistant of the butler who did all the cleaning, scrubbing, and polishing work
in the bungalow. Then there was the gardener who did all the work outside. If
you had a cow, there was the cow-keeper. There was the dhobi (washer man) who
washed and ironed your clothes. All these for you as the Assistant Manager in
South Indian gardens. I am informed that Managers in Assam and Bengal had more
servants and bigger bungalows.
When you got promoted and went to the Big
Bungalow, you got an additional servant inside the bungalow and a driver for
your car. The pecking order remained the same. The pecking order was very
strictly followed. Almost always the only person you spoke to or who spoke to
you was the butler. He was the one who handled the money. You would give it to
him, to give to the others or to the provision merchant from whom food for the
bungalow was bought on credit. Credit played a major role in life as most
assistants had no money. Many who liked high living had club bar bills that
took up most of their salaries and so they lived on credit. This was obviously
an evil because apart from the obvious reasons, many butlers set up their own
kickback systems as a result. It was a given that you would pay more for
provisions than other people but that was the burden of being the Chinna Dorai
(Small Boss). Some managers were very stingy and corrupt and set up systems of
gratuity and underhand payment in kind that they would write off to some estate
expense or the other. These systems were well learnt by their subordinates who
added to these systems of subterfuge and deception and ran a very corrupt
‘ship’ as it were.
One cardinal fact of plantation life always took
its toll – nothing in planting life was private. If you took a bribe, its exact
amount, who gave it, and for what, was the subject of much conversation in the
bazaar. If you refused to be corrupt and lived a life of honesty, that also
became common knowledge. The result was that the actual love and respect that
you received from the workers and staff was directly proportional to the kind
of life you lived. And in the end, it affected your own success, the loyalty
that people showed you, and the peace of mind you lived with. People spoke with
great respect about managers who were incorruptible and with disgust and
disdain about managers who were corrupt. And in a place where you were the
subject of most conversation, public opinion made a very big difference to your
success as a Manager.
Most people understood the responsibility and meaning of being ‘Covenanted Staff’ and that it was precisely the superior moral position that gave them the ‘command authority’ that neither any special educational qualifications nor social order bestowed on them. They understood the importance of these unwritten rules and respected them. But there were others who abused this position much to everyone’s disgust. They didn’t realize until too late that the resultant loss of respect was the most expensive loss they would ever suffer and something that was never redeemable. People spoke disparagingly about such managers who stole or womanized or got drunk and made fools of themselves and the resultant loss of respect plagued them in their administrative duties. In my decade in planting, I had the opportunity to see both kinds. People for whom I developed the highest respect and those for whom pity, and contempt were the only emotions possible. But the saddest was when some of those who I respected the most showed that their previously uncompromising principles were okay to compromise when it came to what they thought was good for their own careers.
It also strengthened me. I have been stubborn with my principles and have learnt from experience that the price you pay to live by your principles, no matter how painful it may seem, is always much less than what it costs to compromise them. Once you compromise your principles, you can never look those who you used to inspire, in the eye. Maybe some can live with that shame. I can’t. I am grateful that there were others who stood by me and that I never compromised my own principles and ethics. I paid the price by making enemies who did their best to hurt me in every way. That they didn’t succeed was the grace of Allah and not a measure of my own strength or the support of anyone else. I learnt the lesson that if you want to lead you must learn to like being alone. For the tiger walks alone while sheep have plenty of company. We define ourselves and world accepts that definition. Who am I to argue with how you define yourself?
Traditionally, like in the army, there has always
been a social distance between the Managers and other staff. There is social
interaction, but in a very formalized and rule bound way. Most of it is
restricted to ceremonial occasions around festivals. The Manager was the
‘Headman’ of the estate and was expected to be completely secular to the extent
that he was supposed to preside at all festivals irrespective of his or the
celebrator’s religion. We had Hindu and Christian Managers presiding at Eid
celebrations and Muslim Managers flagging off the cart bearing the deity at
temple festivals. This tradition came out of the history of plantation labor
almost all of whom were Dalit and in their own homelands, were not allowed into
temples as they were considered ‘untouchable.’ But in the plantations, thanks
to the fact that they were all displaced and almost all from the same caste,
they created their own religious customs. So many temples in the plantation
districts have Dalit priests, an anomaly in itself. Later, some Brahmin priests
who were perhaps short of money in their hometowns started to come and preside
at the temple, but the shots were called by the Dalits who built the temple and
paid their salary. So, Dalits could not be prevented from entering the temple
and were treated respectfully by the Brahmin priest. That is why the religion
of the Manager didn’t matter; by definition, a Christian or a Muslim were
untouchable in the Hindu caste system anyway. But in a world comprised of
untouchables, everyone was touchable.
The Managers were initially all British, Christian,
and white and lived by their own traditions which were more British Military
than Christian. Many of them were only nominally practicing Christians for whom
the daily pilgrimage to the local Planter’s Club bar was more sacrosanct than
weekly attendance at the Church. Over the years, more out of necessity than
‘equal opportunity,’ the British planters started recruiting Indians to the
‘Covenanted Staff’ cadre because British youngsters were not willing to go out
to India. These people came from upper class families, sometimes local nobility
(which is how we had a number of Hyderabadis from the noble families of
erstwhile Hyderabad State). The key, non-negotiable requirement was social
acceptability. The logic was that everything else could be taught. But Covenanted
Staff needed to be people who held themselves apart and considered themselves
somewhat superior to others. To give this a positive spin, it was probably not
racism alone but the need for the Officer Cadre to have the moral authority to
command. However, there was a thin line which a lot of times got very faint
These people and their families automatically got
membership in the Planter’s Club and were strictly supposed to follow
tradition. Almost everyone did to the extent that many even spoke their own
languages with a British accent. I used to have a very hard time trying to keep
a straight face when I heard emanating from a black Tamilian face the words,
“Angamootoo yenge da irkain??” in a very British accent. Those of my readers
who know Tamil can probably imagine how funny this would sound. There is a very
funny story about one of these black-outside-white-inside managers driving to
visit another manager friend in an estate where he was not familiar with the
roads. He stops his car and calls out to a worker who was walking down the
road, “Dey, payyan inge wa da. Inda wali yenge pohudoo?” The man, obviously
irritated replied, “Dorai inda wali nayra Englandu ku pohudoo” (Sir this road
goes straight to England). Once again those who know Tamil will see how highly
disrespectful this entire conversation is towards the worker. There is nothing
more pathetic than someone who disrespects his own people and imagines himself
to be superior and different because of his pretensions.
This internalization of British tradition is
exemplified to this day in the fact that while the racist signs (Dogs and
Indians not allowed) have come down the ‘formal dress’ in most ex-British Clubs
is still lounge suit or dinner jacket and if you, Mr. Indian, make the mistake
of imagining that your country’s national dress is more holy and come dressed
in it, you will be stopped at the door of the Club lounge and told politely
that you will be able to sit on the veranda. But if you entertained any hope of
having dinner in the formal dining room you would have to go home and get
changed into ‘decent’ clothes. At last count, it has been over sixty years
since we became ‘independent’ from the British. As I always tell people, nobody
can enslave you. You enslave yourself. And you have nobody in the world to blame
for it. We Indians are particularly good at this voluntary enslavement. At the
time of this writing, we are very busy exchanging traditional British chains
for American ones. But seeing that the British have themselves done that
already, it is hardly surprising that their erstwhile colonials are following
suit, never having truly shed the colonial baggage themselves.
I remember with amusement my first job interview
in 1978 with the Kannan Devan Tea Company (now Tata Tea) in Munnar, Kerala. I
was asked to report one day prior to the date of the interview. An old friend,
who was an Assistant Manager and knew the ropes, told me that this was to see
if the candidates would fit the social scene. I was to wear a tie and lounge
suit, he said. We would start in the Men’s Bar and after the drinks were over,
we would be asked into the dining room to have dinner which we would have all
together. While we did this, different people would come and talk to us. And
all this would be observed and would count in our favor or against us in the
interview the next day.
Sure enough, that evening we were asked to present
ourselves at the High Range Club, sharp at 7.00 pm. About twelve of us in
various styles of suits and ties found ourselves in the Men’s Bar (women not
allowed). We were asked what we drank. When it came to my turn, I said that I
would like to have a soft drink. People looked at me with various expressions;
the barman with pity, fellow contestants with derisive smiles, and other
inhabitants of the bar with a variety of expressions related to whether they
thought I was a poor fool, uncultured, or just plainly idiotic. To put the
record straight, someone in the meanwhile gave me a fresh lime soda.
As I sat there (I was all of twenty-two years old)
wondering about the job that I had applied for and what drinking alcohol had to
do with it, I heard a loud, “Hello there!” I looked up to see a florid red face
in a body without a neck and a large smile looking at me. “So you don’t drink,
eh?” he asked. Seeing that I was drinking a fresh lime soda (what else can you
do with an FLS?) and that he could see what I was doing, I decided to keep
silent and simply smiled and nodded. Smiling and nodding is an excellent
strategy to allow people to interpret whatever they want.
“Tell me something young fellow,” he said, “Do you
I said that I did, but others who played with me
wished that I didn’t.
Then he asked me, “Are you a Mason?” At that time,
not being aware of the Free Masons Society I thought he wanted to know if I
could build walls. “No, I’m not,” I said.
He looked me up and down with a sad expression on
his face and said, “You don’t drink, you don’t play cricket, and you are not a
Mason. Boy! You don’t have a chance.” Then looking at my face once again, he
said, “Anyway, don’t worry, I am not on the recruitment panel.”
As it turned out, that did not make any difference
to the outcome since those who were on the panel had the same views. I was
asked a lot of questions about everything other than planting tea and given the
‘kiss of death’ – “Thank you very much, we will get back to you.” In plain
English this means, “We are very glad that we are seeing the back of you.”
Thinking back over this incident, what is clear to
me is the principle behind this method. In a place with a limited population
(you did not count the estate staff and God Forbid, the workers as people) that
you could socialize with, it was essential that you hired people who were
socially acceptable. So social values that matched those of the locals had
overwhelming importance. The skills of tea plantation management were all
trainable. On the other hand, eating at table using the right fork for the
right meat, drinking yet not getting drunk, making conversation that was inane
yet interesting, dancing with the manager’s wife and so on were all skills that
were either thought to be not trainable or too much trouble. So British
managers (including their acolytes, the Brown Sahibs) hired young people from
backgrounds that were socially acceptable to them and then trained them for job
related skills, on the job. I obviously didn’t match and so was rejected.
The Sahib’s prediction was right, even though he
was not on the panel. Brown Sahibs were always more conscious of snobbery; who
wanted a fellow who neither drank nor played cricket? The British indoctrinated
Indians so well in what was ‘decent, socially acceptable, and respectable’ that
Indians adopted their ways as their own. Take the issue of clothing for
example. Even though India has its own national and regional attire, the
official attire for all ‘business, formal, decent’ occasions is Western
clothes. Even today, nobody in their right mind would even dream of going for a
job interview in an Indian company, knowing full well that the hiring manager
is also Indian and that there is not a British person on the rolls of the
company, in anything but Western clothes. And if he did turn up in a
dhoti-kurta or a sherwani (the national attire of India), it is more than
likely that he would not be hired for that reason alone – over sixty years
after our official Independence from British colonial rule.
People adopt new standards because they like them
and see them as adding value to them. Even when it can be argued in some cases
that there is no real value addition, as long as people feel that there is,
they will take to the new standard. The British, in order to demean Indians,
made their doormen dress like Maharajas, in a Sherwani and turban. Sadly, to
this day, this is the dress of our doormen at most hotels.
The most common lament that I hear today has to do with the fast disappearing “Eastern/Indian values,” which are being replaced by Western Pop culture. We tend to blame various agents for this, the chief being TV. My question is, “Why is it that our ancient cultures and their values are so weak that they are so easily replaced by some silly trend popularized on TV?” Blaming is of no use to anyone. What we need to do is to ask these questions and find answers, no matter how painful the process. Why is it that we and the generation before ours have not been able to communicate and sell the values we talk about so nostalgically to our children? What have we done in our own lives to reinforce those values? To what extent are we responsible for creating the exposure to the values we criticize? For example, we complain that our children do nothing but watch TV serials, music videos with all their shamelessness, and play Nintendo and other video games. But we never ask ourselves, “Who bought the TV, the Nintendo Game Controller, and the cable connection?” Do we sit with the children after they have watched something to analyze that program and derive its learnings? Do we spend time to understand what it is that they like about programs that we disapprove of? In short, do we have a conversation with our children? Or are we seen as mobile ATM machines that can be manipulated to get money to do what the kids want to do and can then be ignored until the next urge surfaces?
For more please read my book, ‘It’s my Life’, available on Amazon worldwide
The plantation industry is perhaps the finest place in which
to learn leadership in a very hands-on manner. It is hugely exciting, sometimes
very painful and always beneficial; the lessons learnt of lasting benefit. It
is a treasure-trove of memories that last all life long; decades after most of
us left planting. It enriches us with friendships that transcend all boundaries
of religion, culture, region or language and with the cohesiveness of steel
rope. If I am asked to name three of my closest friends, two if not all three
would be planter friends. Of such a place and time, I speak.
The vast majority of workers in the estates were
Dalit (lower caste Hindus). In some estates there were some Christians
(converts from Dalits). In some estates, especially close to Kerala there were
Malayali (Kerala) Muslims. Anamallais, where I joined, had a majority of Dalit
workers. In the Hindu caste system, these Dalits are considered ‘unclean’ by
other high caste Hindus and so in their villages they have to live in a
separate area, are not allowed inside the temple, and have to even draw their
water from a well set apart from the common village well. These are some of the
facts about discrimination against Dalits, which is still prevalent in India.
When these people came to work in the plantations,
more than a century ago, they organized themselves according to the villages
they came from. Since they were the only Hindus on the estates, they built
temples in some of which they performed the rituals themselves. In other
temples, they hired a Brahmin priest from the plains to do the honors. By and
large, they were able to create their own society on the estates and so lived
with a great deal more honor and self-respect than their own relatives were
allowed to live in the plains in their native villages. However, some of the
sense of low self-esteem and awareness of their own low status in the so-called
real world remained. I got a taste of this very early in my planting career.
One of our workers in Sheikalmudi Estate died
while he was away on leave in his village. Several of his family asked me for 5
days leave to go to his funeral. I was not too happy giving so much leave to so
many people, but I agreed because in the words of my Manager Mr. A.V.G. Menon,
‘Nobody dies so that others can get leave.’ Imagine my amazement however, when
the next day I saw them all back in the estate. I asked them what had happened
and why they were back so soon. They all looked sheepish and refused to say
anything. Finally, after much persuasion, this is the story they told me.
“We reached our village late in the night. The
next morning, we went to the local tea shop to get have some tea. But to our
surprise (and embarrassment) we were not allowed inside the shop. We were told
that if we wanted to have tea, we could take the coconut half-shells that were
hanging on nails from one of the roof rafters and sit outside on the ground
outside the shop and drink the tea. Once we had drunk the tea, we had to wash
the ‘utensils’ and put them back on their nails.”
“But you know Dorai,” one of the younger ones told
me, “The price of the tea is the same for us and for the high caste Hindus who
are given proper cups. No discount price for drinking in coconut cups sitting
in the dust.”
“I guess we forgot who we were, Dorai,” said their
leader. “After all, we all came from the same village, but we have lived here
for so long that we started believing that we also are human beings. This visit
reminded us of what we are.”
I was speechless with anger and sadness. What
could I say to them? Thousands of years of oppression and apartheid, alive and
well in Tamilnadu, a state that claims to have 100% literacy. And a collective
helplessness that seems to be able to do nothing about it. One of my major
motivators in working with Dalits all my life is this incident. I can still
feel the anger and the shame of a society that allows this discrimination while
mouthing all kinds of platitudes about ‘children of god’ – Harijan – the name
that Gandhiji gave the Dalits. If they are children of god, then we must
question what kind of god it is who allows such discrimination.
When I joined Sheikalmudi Estate in 1983 as
Assistant Manager, Lower Division, the pruning season was going on at the end
of which, it was estate tradition to have a big lunch to which all the pruning
workers, supervisors and managers are invited. On the given day, I arrived at
the Muster (gathering place to allot work) and was ceremonially met by the
Union leaders, staff, and some workers, garlanded with flowers and taken in a
procession to the Crèche which was the site for the lunch. In South India we
eat off a grass mat spread on the floor on which plantain leaves are spread in
lieu of plates and so the seating was arranged accordingly for all the
gathering. I noticed that in the corner there was a table set aside with a
place setting; knife, fork, and porcelain plate. I realized what was going on.
The special seating was for me so that I would not be embarrassed at having to
eat with them and save them from the resultant embarrassment in case I refused
to eat with ‘low caste’ people. The diplomatic thing to do was to use social
status as the excuse and set up a separate eating place where both their honor
and mine would remain intact. At the time of this story I was new, and they did
not know what my values were, so they weren’t taking any chances.
to make a point and set the record straight right away in the context of my
relationship with them.
to the table and chair, I asked the organizers, “Who is that place for?”
Dorai!” he said.
mean you called me to this function, but I can’t eat with you and have to eat
separately?” I challenged him.
horrified at this turn of events. “Ayyo! Dorai, we thought you may not like to
eat with us. That is why we set this table for you. The fact that you are here
is an honor for us. You don’t have to sit and eat with us on the floor.”
I knew of course why he was saying what he was
saying. This was the Dalit speaking to someone who was socially higher than
himself. Even though the caste issue did not apply in my case as I am Muslim and
we have no caste system, all human beings being equal in Islam irrespective of
caste or race. However, the Dalits have learnt to play safe. So, they were
giving me the honor due to a high caste Hindu.
I wanted to make my point. I said to him, “In my
culture, the guest is only honored if the host eats with him. So, if you people
are not going to eat with me, then I will leave as I have no need to be
“Ayyo Dorai, please don’t misunderstand. If you
eat with us, it is we who will be honored,” he replied. There were now big
smiles on the faces of everyone. “Dorai said he will eat with us,” the whisper
flew through the crowd. A place was set for me at the head of the eating mat
and we sat down to a wonderful meal, something which they said was the first
experience of its kind in their lives. My point was made; here was a man who
did not differentiate on the basis of caste and who genuinely believed in
equality of people. I did not fully realize the power of what I had done, just
by following my own religion. Many years and many incidents later, some of the
workers who were with us at that banquet that day said to me, “That day we
decided that you were one of us.” I have seldom felt more honored in my life.
My other butler who joined service with me when
Bastian left was Mohammed Khan, who I used to call Mahmood because he had the
name of the Prophet and I didn’t want to use it to call him as it sounded
disrespectful to yell out, ‘Mohammed’. So, I used to call him Mahmood. He was
perfectly happy with that as he knew that was a mark of respect on my part.
Mahmood was a great cook and intensely loyal. At that time, I was an Assistant
Manager working under a very corrupt Manager. I tried to keep my nose clean on
the principle that his doings didn’t concern me until one day he called me and
ordered me to certify the work of a civil contractor who was his man and gave
him a kickback in every contract. I agreed and asked the contractor to show me
the work so that I could measure it. The contractor looked very surprised and
asked me, ‘Did you speak to Peria Dorai (Big Manager)?’ I said to him, ‘Yes I
spoke to him. He told me to certify your work. So, show me your work and I will
certify it.’ The man went away and shortly, as expected, my manager called me.
‘Didn’t I tell you to certify his work?’
‘Yes, you did. I told him to show it to me so that
I can certify it.’
‘I have seen the work, so you can simply sign the
‘If you have seen the work, then why don’t you
sign the bills? I don’t sign anything until I see it myself.’
That was that. Obviously, the man was not pleased.
So, he started to try to make my life miserable. I worked much harder than him
and made no mistakes so there was nothing he could do to get at me. One day he
decided to ‘inspect’ my house. He had a reputation for entering the bungalows
of his assistants and opening drawers and outraging their privacy. He waited
until I had left home and gone to the field and drove up to my bungalow.
Mahmood greeted him at the door.
Mahmood had a signature greeting. He would bend
over at an angle of forty-five degrees and put his left hand behind his back
and bring his right hand in a wide sweeping gesture from his side up to his
forehead in a salute and say, ‘Salaam Sahib.’ The Manager said to him, ‘I have
come to inspect the bungalow.’
Mahmood, ‘But Sahib, Baig Dorai is not here.’
‘That doesn’t matter. This house belongs to the
company and I have the right to enter it at any time without his permission.’
Mahmood responded, ‘Dorai, until he returns, I
can’t allow you to enter.’
‘I told you the house belongs to the company,’ he
Mahmood said in a quiet voice, ‘Dorai, but I don’t
belong to the company. I will not allow you to enter until Dorai returns.
Please come back when he is here.’
The Manager was enraged but could do nothing short
of physically forcing his way in and Mahmood would have put him in a hospital
if he had tried. So, he left threatening to have him sacked. As soon as I went
to the office in the afternoon, he called me and said, ‘Sack that bloody butler
of yours right now.’
I asked him, ‘What happened?’ I knew exactly what
happened but wanted to hear it from him.
‘I went to inspect your bungalow, but he refused
to let me enter. Sack him right away.’
‘Why did you go to my bungalow when I was not
there? He was perfectly right in not allowing you. I will not sack him. If you
want to inspect the bungalow come when I am there.’ He never did and Mahmood
remained where he was until I moved to Ambadi when he left me and went back to
Ooty where he had his family.
It was in that year that I crashed my motorcycle
and went through one year of very difficult times. I had to have an operation
to replace the anterior cruciate ligament in my knee and then a very long
recovery followed by physiotherapy. All through that period Mahmood served me
faithfully and without complaint. He came with me to Hyderabad for my marriage
and the only decent marriage picture that I have has Mahmood peering over my
head through a curtain of flowers. My wedding photography was a complete
disaster and all that I have to show that I’d had a wedding is that one
picture. The best thing about both Bastian and Mahmood was that they were
completely trustworthy in every respect. They were faithful, their integrity
was beyond question, they maintained complete confidentiality, took pride in
their work, and cared for me and later when I got married, cared for both of us
like members of our own family. We also treated them as members of our own
family. I truly have wonderful memories of these two dear friends, both of whom
have passed away.
The tea plantations were an interesting place
where strange things happened as a matter of course. Over the years, I learned
never to be surprised at anything. In the Iyerpadi Hospital where Dr. John
Philip was the RMO as I’ve mentioned and his wife Maya was the Lady Doctor, a
man was brought in after having been bitten by a cobra on his face. How this
happened is a story in itself. This man had the reputation of knowing some sort
of magic spell that he claimed neutralized the effect of snake venom. He would catch
snakes and get them to bite him on his hand and then show people that nothing
happened to him. This naturally gave him a lot of ‘brand’ in a place as
superstitious as Anamallais was. The reality is that most snakes are
non-poisonous to begin with and those that are poisonous usually don’t inject a
full dose, either because they had hunted recently and have used up their
poison on their natural prey – rats – and have not regenerated a new supply, or
for some other reason. Never having been a snake, I can’t speak on their
behalf. The long and short of it is that most people who die of snake bite die
more out of fear than anything else.
In this case, however, our friend chased a cobra,
which tried to escape down a hole in the embankment by the side of the road but
he caught it by the tail and hauled it out and then caught it behind its head
and kissed it. He was himself sloshed out of his mind at the time and his
bravado far exceeded his intelligence. The result was that the snake
reciprocated the affection and he was bitten twice or thrice on the face. Given
that this snake did have some venom to donate and that he was bitten on the
face, he collapsed. Mercifully, some people saw him and brought him to the
hospital. At the hospital, there was no anti-venom and so Dr. John Philip gave
him some antihistamine and put him on the ventilator. Now, the interesting
thing was that the hospital didn’t have an electrical ventilator. What they had
was a mechanical device which was like a bellows and needed someone to sit
there and pump it constantly to ensure that the air supply continued
uninterrupted. It was amazing how everyone in the hospital, nurses, doctors, other
patients, their visitors, passersby who heard the tale, all came to the aid and
took turns to keep the air flowing into the lungs of the man who was completely
comatose. This continued day and night, hour on hour for 48 hours, and then we
beheld that the man’s eyes opened, and he sat up and a couple of hours later he
was as good as new. His love of kissing snakes though, had dampened a bit. I
asked Dr. John about this ‘miraculous’ event. He told me, ‘No miracle at all.
The poison is neurotoxic, but protein based. It affects the nerves and stops
the breathing. But being protein based, if you can keep the patient breathing
mechanically by forcing air into his lungs, when the poison naturally degenerates
within 48 hours the patient can breathe again’. However, miracles are far more
fun to believe in than science and so our friend’s stock went up even higher
after it was ‘proved’ that snake venom had no effect on him. The fact that he
was in a coma and had been kept alive mechanically for 48 hours was soon forgotten
because it came in the way of the belief in the nice miracle.
Shows how such beliefs thrive in all parts of the world, whereas the truth lies either in some straightforward physical reason or in less straightforward skullduggery and playacting.
For more, please read my book, ‘It’s my Life’. It is on Amazon worldwide
I started working in India in the Anamallai Hills,
part of the Western Ghats as they tapered down all the way into the tip of the
subcontinent. Before that I had worked for five years in bauxite mining in
Guyana, South America and lived on the bank of Rio Berbice, in the middle of
the Amazonian rain forest. But that is another story.
The area that contained the tea plantations was
part of the Indira Gandhi National Park. The park is home to an amazing variety
of wildlife which thanks to the difficult terrain, plethora of leeches, and shortage
of motorable roads is still safe from the depredations of ‘brave’ hunters buzzing
around in their Jeeps and shooting animals blinded and frozen in their searchlight
beams. In the Anamallais if you want to hunt (it is illegal to shoot anything
in the National Park, but there are those who are not bothered about what is
legal and what is not) you must be prepared to walk in the forest, up and down
some very steep hills, be bitten by leeches and have a very good chance at
becoming history at the feet of an elephant.
However, if you are not interested in hunting and
killing animals, you have all the same pleasures and thrills with the animal
healthy and alive at the end of it. I want to see and photograph animals, not
kill them. I was looking for an opportunity to just spend time in the
environment that I loved. My job as an Assistant Manager in Sheikalmudi Estate,
my first posting with a princely salary of ₹850 per month, gave me all that I
could have wished for.
Sheikalmudi borders the Parambikulam forest. This
extends from the shore of the Parambikulam Reservoir (created by damming the
Parambikulam River) up the steep mountainside all the way to the top.
Sheikalmudi is the crown on that mountain’s head, manicured tea planted after
cutting the rain forest, more than a century ago by British colonial planters.
Where the tea ends, starts the rain forest of the Western Ghats. Anamallais is
the second rainiest place on the planet. In the early part of the century it
used to get more than three-hundred centimeters of rain annually and
consequently it rained almost six months of the year. Even when I joined in
1983, we frequently saw spells of more than a week at a stretch, when it rained
continuously day and night without any easing of the volume of water. I was
horrified the first time I saw this. I was used to rain in Hyderabad, where we
get about thirty centimeters annually.
Now here was rain and more rain and more rain. Yet
in all this rain, we went to work at 6.00 am every morning. Heavy canvas
raincoat, waterproof jungle hat, shorts, stockings and wellingtons. We rode our
motorcycles down treacherous hill pathways, slippery in the rain and covered
with fog as sometimes a cloud decided to rest on its journey across the sky. It
was very cold because we were between 3500 to 4000 feet high and so in the
first ten minutes, you lost all feeling in your legs, below your knees.
Walls of the bungalow would have mildew growing on
them in damp patches. Small leaks would develop in the roof and their yield
would be received in sundry pots and pans placed under them. This would create
its own music. Little frogs would emerge from every crevice and would hop all
around the house. In the night, they would find some resting place and add
their voices to the night chorus of frogs and insects in the garden, that would
rise and fall like an animal breathing. But sometimes the rain would be so
heavy that all you could hear was the rain on the galvanized iron sheet roof.
This sound would drown out every other sound. Within the first week of the
beginning of the monsoon, all telephone lines would be down. Power supply would
become extremely erratic. And more often than not, landslides would block
roads. So being cut off from everyone for several days was a common phenomenon.
When there came the occasional storm – every year we used to have at least two
or three – all these problems would get magnified.
Candlelight dinners with a roaring fire in the
fireplace were the fringe benefit of this weather. That and in my case, a lot
of chess by the fire. The year I got married, 1985, there was a storm in which
twelve-hundred trees fell on my estate alone, taking down with them all power
and telephone lines. There were two major landslides and we were cut off from
the world for a total of fifteen days. It rained almost continuously for this
period and my poor wife had a wet introduction to the new life ahead of her.
But typical for us both, we enjoyed this time, playing chess by the fireside.
She started by not knowing chess at all and I taught her the game. By the end
of our enforced seclusion she was beating me. Now take it as her learning
ability or the quality of my game but being rained-in has its benefits.
1983-86 were boom years for tea in South India.
Anything that was produced would sell. The biggest buyers were the Russians who
bought on the rupee trade agreements between the governments of both countries.
Anything that could be manufactured in South India was bought by the Russians. Sadly,
quality went out the window. Some people, including myself, were able to see
the writing on the wall and tried to get manufacturers to focus on quality and
to get out of the commodity market and instead create brand. That, however,
meant investing in brand building and hard work in maintaining quality
standards. Since people were making money, nobody was interested in listening
to anything that meant more work or investment. Eventually, the inevitable
happened. Russia collapsed and so did their buying trend and it almost took the
South Indian tea industry down with it. Some companies shut down. Others were
more fortunate. But the whole industry faced some very hard times.
Life in the Anamallais passed like a dream. Berty
Suares was the Assistant Manager on the neighboring estate, Malakiparai. And
Sandy (Sundeep Singh) was on Uralikal. Both dear friends. They would come over
to my place and we would spend Sunday picnicking on the bank of the Sholayar
River where on a bend in the river that passed through our cardamom plantation,
I had built a natural swimming pool. I deepened the stream bed and deposited
the sand from there on the near bank, thereby creating a very neat ‘beach.’
Sitting on this beach under the deep shade of the trees after a swim in the
pool was a heavenly experience. Add to it, eating cardamom flavored honey
straight from the comb, taken from the many hives that I had set up in the
cardamom fields for pollination. The flavor comes from the pollen of the
flowers which the bees take to make the honey. Depending on where you set up
your hives or where the bees go to find pollen, honey can have as many flavors
as there are flowers. While we lazed
about at noon, our lunch would be brought down to us and we would all eat
together. The joys of being a planter in the days when we had people who knew
how to enjoy that life.
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, 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 heels, and vanished, crashing through the undergrowth. I
was very fortunate.
The more time I spent with myself, the clearer it
became that it is important to be ‘friends’ with yourself. The more you are
self-aware and comfortable internally, the more you can enjoy the world
outside. When you are not aware of what is happening to you inside or are
unhappy with decisions you have taken, or with your own internal processes, the
unhappier you are likely to be with your surroundings. The normal tendency is
to blame the outer world, but if one looks within, it is possible to find the
solution. One rider however, that you will find only if you seek and only if
you have the courage to recognize what you see. That is where sometimes the
matter remains unresolved. Not because there is no solution. But because we are
unwilling to accept the solution or to implement it.
Time for another dip, then climb into the hammock
and gently swing in the breeze that comes blowing over the water. Those were
One day we were at dinner in my bungalow in Lower Sheikalmudi when suddenly I noticed an orange glow in the sky. It looked like a brilliant sunset, but we were a long time past sunset. It was so marked that I got up and walked out on the veranda to see what it was. What I saw is a sight that I will never forget and which I hope I will never see again. It was like a picture out of a war movie. Sheikalmudi factory, which was probably about four km away as the crow flies, was enveloped in the brightest and biggest fire that I have ever seen. From where I stood on my veranda, I could see flames shooting high above its roof which was three stories above the ground. Tea factories that were built by the British planters were made primarily of wood, bolted over a steel structure. This wood was old and weathered and burnt with a vengeance. Fire was always a hazard and something that we took very seriously. Obviously something had gone very badly wrong and here was the grandmother of all fires, way beyond control.
I grabbed my coat and drove my bike like a racer and reached Sheikalmudi in record time, going hell for leather over dark unpaved field roads. Mercifully, the ride itself was uneventful. When I reached the factory, I parked my bike some distance away and ran to the fire. Lots of people had come to see a sight that thankfully most never see in their lifetimes. The manager of Sheikalmudi, Mr. S. M. Taher, a dear friend was standing by with tears in his eyes, watching his factory burn down. I stood by him. The heat was so intense that we were forced to stand at a distance. As the higher floors burned through, fan motors from the leaf withering lofts started to fall like meteors. The force of impact was so tremendous that in places it cracked the concrete floor. Steel girders got soft with the heat and twisted and bent under their own weight into strange snaky shapes. Every time the fire found something that burned more brightly there would be a huge flare and a lick of flame would reach for the sky.
There was no lighting and neither was there need for any. The fire lit up our whole world in its eerie orange glow. I dare not call it beautiful because it destroyed something that had stood for almost a century. But then, it was beautiful in its own way. A transitory beauty that belied its real destructive power. Among the first people to reach there after I did was Mr. Saleem Shareef who had seen the fire from his estate Uralikal, which was much farther away. He came as fast as he could to try to help in any way he could. This was the code of the planter. We all went to each other’s aid, no matter who it was and no matter how far we had to go and no matter that we may actually not be able to do anything concrete. To stand by the side of a friend is to fill an invaluable space.
In this case there were literally hundreds of people gathered but nothing that anyone could do to put the fire out. As I stood there, watching this sight, the thing that I was most conscious about was my own helplessness. The fire was so big and powerful that there was simply no way to put it out. We had tried everything already. All the fire extinguishers that we could reach had been used up. The ones inside the factory simply melted in the heat. There was no Fire Service to call. We were left to our own resources to fight the fire. And we had none other than a garden hose which was less than useless. All we could do was to stand by and watch. It was a sense of helplessly bearing witness to destruction that we had no power to halt. Today as I read about world events (2002-19 and still watching), I am reminded of that night. Standing by and watching something that was so valuable to us, burn to the ground, with no power to stop it.
But despite that we could not imagine leaving the place until the fire itself had gone cold and all that was left was a black pile of debris, soot, and ash. It was sacrilege to leave and not stand by to bear witness to the end of the life of Sheikalmudi factory. It was like being next to a dying friend. How could you possibly leave? Somehow just the standing by seemed to have some meaning in itself and gave us a sense of parting that those who had not been able to come by that night, did not have.
Fires and estates are companions. Not surprising given the combination of people who smoke and don’t always bother to put out their cigarettes, and forests with semi deciduous trees that regularly carpet the floor with their leaves every summer. We used to take a lot of preventive steps including clearing fire boundaries where we would clear a wide swathe of ground of all undergrowth and leaves and keep it swept clean so that even if a fire started it could be contained. We had also constructed water tanks and dammed streams to create small reservoirs, which would be useful if we needed water in a hurry to put out a fire. These reservoirs were also very useful as watering holes for wildlife in the summer and a source of endless delight for my dear friend, Berty and me to watch the animals as they came down to drink.
One day late in the afternoon someone came running to the office (days without mobile phones or walky-talky radios) and said that a fire had started in the Murugalli coffee area. In the plantations emergencies were everyone’s affair. News would go to all those who could be informed and they all rushed to the aid of the estate which had the problem. All who could go would go, regardless of whose estate it was.
As soon as the runner caught his breath, I put him on the back of my motorcycle to guide me and we were off. When I reached the place I realized that this was a fairly large forest fire. There were about thirty of our workers and two supervisors who had been working in the area. I marshaled them all and got them to clear a belt and start a counter fire. The idea was to burn an area across the direction of the fire and clear it of all inflammable material so that when the main fire reached this place it would simply starve to death. We started the counter fires and once the dry stuff was burnt we beat out the flames with green leafy branches that we had previously cut and kept at hand. The main fire was moving very fast as it was being pushed by a tail wind. As it came up to us it was our task to ensure that it did not jump the cleared boundary. Every time a flame jumped the fire boundary, we beat it to death. There was no water available where we were otherwise to wet as much area as possible as a preventive measure.
It is very interesting to reflect that not a single one of us there had been formally trained in firefighting. Yet we did all the right things. The result in my case of a lot of reading, some of it about forest fires. And in the case of the others, the result of listening to stories of fires of the past that others had fought. Story telling as a way of informal, but very powerful teaching is the mainstay in villages. This is how even great classics of literature are born; as stories to teach life lessons. Over the centuries they acquire a life of their own, get embellished with local color and imagination and are even believed to be real. Be that as it may, their teaching value remains until the story gets converted to mythology where it starts to be considered holy and read as a ritual instead of as a means of learning.
There was huge excitement. People shouting instructions to each other, cheers as a small fire was put out, curses at the main fire and so on. But in all this excitement, we did not pay attention to one small, but critical detail. The main fire had sent a tail around a small hump in the land and while we were busy fighting the main head, its tail had all but surrounded us. I can’t remember who it was who first noticed the smoke and glow because it had become dark by now. We had been fighting the fire for more than four hours when suddenly one of the workers shouted that we were getting surrounded by the fire. All activity stopped and people looked to me for direction.
This is the kind of leadership challenge that the plantation career faced you with. Not every day but certainly more than once in your career. And you had only one chance. I realized that the only way left for us was to actually go across the face of the main fire and down a very steep hillside which would take us down to the Parambikulam Lake. I called out the directions to the people and said to them, “Go ahead, I will follow you.” The reason for this was because the danger was behind us and so I wanted to be the last in the line. But the people of the estates form bonds that are hard to describe. The formal relationship is that of manager and subordinate with all its usual ways. The fact that we all lived together and shared in each other’s joys and sadness led to bonds that may not be visible in normal times, but which in time of crisis came to the fore.
The result of this was that the workers refused to obey me. They told me to go first. I refused. And we had a stalemate in the middle of the fire. Eventually one of them said to me, “Dorai, if something happens to you while we all get away, how will we face Madam?” To this I replied, “If the father gets away and leaves the children to die, what do you have to say about such a father?” That clinched the argument and we started out the way I had ordered in the first place with one small change. Two of the biggest guys flanked me as body guards while the others ran ahead. A knowledge of the culture, tradition and the local language all play a very strong role in leadership situations. As also does symbolism in a culture that is based on a very strong mythological foundation. I loved those people and they loved me. We fought when we had to, but the bond of love based on respect only became stronger.
The forests of the Anamallais are evergreen rain forests and so are not susceptible to burning down completely like temperate forests of coniferous trees which exude oil that is itself inflammable. So during a forest fire, there is no real danger to the trees apart from some temporary damage. The undergrowth burns down and leaf litter converts into potash-rich ash. Fallen dry logs burn partially in every fire. Once the fire cools the forest regenerates. New green grass, germinating seeds and the ash itself attracts all kinds of herbivores. If the fire burns in the day, Bee Eaters, Swallows, and other birds follow the fire and eat insects that the fire flushes. Snakes leave their holes and race to safety. At this time they are harmless as they are too busy trying to get away. Larger animals are in no danger at all as they have plenty of time to get away. The real danger is to the plantation crops that border the forests and that is why we planters are very concerned about fires. This time around, our tea wasn’t damaged apart from some damage to the bushes on the boundaries.
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