Every choice has a price tag

Every choice has a price tag

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 children.

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 motivated me.

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.

Baig Dorai Thotam

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 forgotten.”

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.”

Suresh and I

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 learn.

For more stories please read my book: It’s my Life
Leadership is about living your values

Leadership is about living your values

Me with my staff in Lower Sheikalmudi Estate, Anamallais

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 indeed.

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 play cricket?”

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

People listen with their eyes

People listen with their eyes

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.

I decided to make a point and set the record straight right away in the context of my relationship with them.

Pointing to the table and chair, I asked the organizers, “Who is that place for?”

“For you Dorai!” he said.

“You mean you called me to this function, but I can’t eat with you and have to eat separately?” I challenged him.

He was 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 insulted.”

“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 bills.’

‘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 yelled.

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.

Mahmood, making sure that I got properly married

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

Those were the days

Those were the days

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.

Prambikulam view 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, 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 the days……………………

Fire and Tea

Sunset from Manjaparai- Lower Sheikalmudi

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.

So it all ended rather well.

For more please read my book, “It’s my Life”

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