In 1975 at a young 22, I was despatched up to Panniar Estate (High Ranges) by the Agents in Cochin. Being born and with my entire formative years having been in Simla where the only crop was apples, planting as a career had never ever crossed my mind. Providence and a long story (for another day) of how I found myself down south. Having been sent for an extension interview to a rubber estate near Trishur (Mooply), the first Tea bush I ever really saw and touched was when I arrived at Panniar, never for a moment even realising that this innocuous plant is what my life would revolve around so that 45 years later that love affair continues, thankfully so.
The next morning, on my first day at work, my P.D. Mr Abid Khan who over the two years I worked under him became a father figure for me, told me that for the first three/four months I was not to be given a motorcycle and that I should walk the estate with the conductor and was handed over to Mr Balia. A most imposing figure replete with a pith helmet and a swagger stick, Mr Balia (never just Balia) could WALK! And so over the next four months after a very crisp ‘good morning sah’ and a tipping of the pith helmet, we walked and we walked and we walked covering as much of the 320 hectares as we could.
Panniar being a good one and a half hour drive from Munnar and the High Range Club I was totally dependent upon Abid and Shamim who very kindly, every time they headed that way, would take me along for the evening. On other days, end of day, Abid would come past the muster on his bike and ask me (this was an almost daily ritual) ‘what are you doing this evening?’ Bereft of any kind of transport there was not much that I could do and so evening after evening, straight from the muster we’d head up to Abid’s bungalow where the three of us would play badminton till it got dark after which we’d play scrabble while listening to BBC plays on Abid’s transistor. Abid being a very infrequent drinker, while a drink was offered to me every now and then, Shamim always made sure that I never went back to my bungalow hungary. We followed this lovely ‘habit’ for all of four months till I was made mobile with my Bullet.
About three months into this routine in the Club, two of my senior colleagues from Surianalle Estate (the other Malalayalm’s Estate in the High Ranges) casually asked me that in the absence of a bike, what I did in the evenings. Sharing my routine with them, Raghu and Appu asked me when I was planning to reciprocate and have Abid and Shamim over for a meal. Which casual remark led to my getting down to buying a dinner set, curtsey the Company’s soft furnishing allowance and our Group Doctor who was heading down to Cochin for a weekend. Finally the proud owner of a spanking new ‘pink flowered’ Hitkari dinner set, when Abid came past my morning muster I asked ‘What are you and Ma’am doing this evening?’ and so my first grand dinner party.
Arranged for our local Kadai to get me a bottle of brandy from Munnar and had my cook/bearer/gardener/man Friday – Kaliappan buy a chicken from the labour lines. The menu for the grand dinner being Chicken curry, a vegetable, daal and rice -which incidentally was the extent of Kaliappan’s culinary skills. The arrangements having been made, I headed off for the Mr Balia march for the day. Walking back from my evening muster, just below my bungalow, I kept hearing a strange repeated sound of ‘baak, baak, bakka…..’ which appeared to be emanating from under the bushes. Peering down through the bush frames I saw my friend Kaliappan sitting on his haunches with a palm full of rice and intently ‘baaking’. Having been unceremoniously hauled out from under the bushes he very sheepishly informed me that just as he was about to knock off its head, our pièce de résistance had managed to wiggle out of his clutches and had disappeared through the pantry back door.
To say that I was upset would be an understatement. With no money to buy another chicken and with it, in any case, being unlikely that Kaliappan would be able to muster up a replacement at that time late in the evening I had to resign myself to that first dinner being a simple and fairly inedible veggie affair. Crestfallen and having showered, waiting for Shamim and Abid, I was thumbing through my weekly supply of News paper when I felt a ‘presence’. Peering over the top of my newspaper I saw our dinner, likely drawn in by the bungalow light, strutting across the red oxide floor. In a stage whisper I called out to Kaliappan who, peeping out from the dining room and seeing the fellow, was out like a flash of lightening and had grabbed the hapless fellow by his neck. Should anyone have seen that film, in his deft movement and sheer speed Kaliappan was the embodiment of the Bushman in ‘The God’s must be crazy’.
The next thing I heard was a squawk and by the time Shammim, Abid and I had done with our chit-chat, the poor escapee was in a bowl on the centre of the dining table swimming in a curry!