Prefaced with an advance apology to Johnny.
Have taken some literary licence.
Absolutely no offence meant!
This was probably in 1978 while I was the SD (Sena Dorai = Assistant Superintendent) on Panniar. Abid had been transferred to Wallardie Estate in Vandiperiyar and had handed over the Estate to John Mathew, who had been moved to the High Ranges from Mooply, a low country rubber property.
Ahead of my job with Malayalam’s having been formalised and as a preamble to that, having been sent for my extension interview (Diving headfirst into my calling – a yarn which I have already spun) to Mooply where Johnny was the Superintendent, I had already ‘experienced’ the new PD first hand, albeit in a rather perfunctory way. Which experience, bearing in mind that at that point of time my interaction with Johnny was with me being an interviewee, is all it could have been. Post my appointment as an Assistant in Malayalam Plantations, whenever a couple of SDs got together, more often than not the conversation would veer towards the fault lines of each other’s PDs (not that this is in any way different from any other industry, it being a well established and universally accepted fact that regardless of who he/she may be, the boss simply can NEVER be right). And so, over many a drink, each of those 26 gentlemen who lorded over the tea and rubber properties of Malayalam Plantations as well as all of us underlings, would naturally end up under a microscope with their peculiarities magnified many times over and their personalities being rather gleefully shredded to bits. For whatever be the reasons, at every such session, my new PD always got very special treatment. The upshot being that long before he had moved to Panniar, Johnny’s reputation had preceded him.
Not just amongst the SDs, but across all sections of executive of Malayalam Plantations, it was a known and established fact that Mr Mathew was an extremely fastidious gentleman, his demeanour accepted as being an extreme and acute case of incurable OCD. On which one point, after Johnny had taken over the property, I was constantly being ribbed by my colleagues on the other Malalyam Estates in the High Ranges (Surianalle & Lockhart). Despite all the leg pulling I was subjected to, with me being the lone assistant on Panniar, regardless of his idiosyncrasies, the fact was that my PD and I shared a good relationship and got along rather well with each other.
While that has obviously and most unfortunately, as is happening all over in our country, changed on account of what is nowadays touted as being ‘development’, back in the day the High Range district had only two venerated institutions. One being the High Range Club which was the focal point of the social activity of every planter in the district, while the other was the Masonic Lodge (Lodge Heather) which was the preserve of the upper crust planting society and from which we hoi polloi were excluded. Freemasons being a VERY secretive lot and since Lodge Heather was totally bereft of any windows which one could peep in thorough, all that us lowly lot knew about that establishment was that this airtight, box-like building was the meeting place of the gentlemen who would gather in the Lodge at regular intervals all decked up in their bow ties, frills and dinner jackets – for a session of serious binge drinking. Need it be added that John Mathew Esq. was very much a member of that select and secretive society.
One day mid week at morning muster my Conductor, the formidable Mr. Balia who always had his ear to the ground and knew EVERYTHING that ever happened on Panniar, after looking this way and that to make sure no one else was within earshot, bends down and in a very conspiratorial manner whispers in my ear “Sir, last night PD came back very late, almost at 5 O’clock”. Not getting what he had expected to be the desired reaction he repeated the statement, this time stressing on the VERY. Waits a minute to let that headline news sink in and then tops it up with the icing on the cake, “he came back in a taxi”. Seeing that this last statement had made me prick up my ears he drops in the best one yet – “Sir, the taxi has not gone back to Munnar, it’s still standing at PDs bungalow.” That had me wondering.
While I was still analysing Mr Balia’s rather interesting breaking news, our tapal (mail) boy, breathless with not just the sprint down from the main office but also evidently in a state of extreme excitement, comes rushing down to the muster to tell me that the PD wants to see me. URGENTLY.
Walking into his office I was greeted with a rather jolly ‘Good morning’ and then am asked to have a seat. This came as a bit of a surprise because Johnny had never, till that day, asked me to pull up a chair in his office. With me seated across from him, there was some inconsequential chit-chat about some innocuous stuff following which I am told, “last evening there was a meeting at the Masonic Lodge”. There being no reaction from the assistant, this was followed up with “I’d gone for the Lodge meeting”. My “you had mentioned this to me yesterday” was responded to with words which sounded almost as though he was rather reluctantly letting the cat out of the bag “I came back in a taxi”. Which interesting statement, since I was not supposed to be aware of this, obviously had to be reacted to. My curiosity was dismissed in a cursory manner, leading to me being advised that the taxi was parked at his bungalow and had been held back because Johnny wanted me to go to Munnar to bring back his car which he said he had to leave behind since he’d had a “slight mishap”.
This pronouncement was followed by a string of instructions that:
- I should immediately head off to Munnar in the cab.
- I should take along 4 workers as they would be required to push start his car.
- The I’d find the car somewhere along the road to the High Range Club.
- And that I should now go up to his bungalow where Ramani (Mrs. Mathew) would give me a couple of old towels to take along. “Towels – what for?”
- In response, the cherry on top of the icing on the cake, “when the workers push the car, please have them keep a towel between their hands and the car so that the cars paintwork doesn’t get scratched!”
With me swallowing hard, keeping a straight face, having the most difficult time trying to control my emotions and holding back on blurting out what I would have really wanted to say, the final request (instruction) followed – That this entire episode was a highly confidential matter to be kept strictly between the two of us and that I obviously should not be discussing or sharing this with anyone else, especially not with any other Malayalam’s executive.
Arranged four workers, duly collected the towels from Ramani, hopped into the cab which had been kept back to transport me and the retrieval party and headed off to Munnar.
Since I had no idea where exactly the car had been abandoned, after crossing the bridge into Munnar and heading towards the High Range Club, all the members of the retrieval platoon kept looking left and right but none of us could see any sign of the abandoned vehicle. In the process having reached the club I asked the staff there whether anyone knew where the Panniar PDs car was. The only information I could glean from them was what had been passed on to the day staff by the night watchman which was that, late at night the car was driven out of the club premises at great speed and screeching of tyres. Nothing beyond that. So back we headed towards the exit towards Panniar from Munnar.
For those who know the lay of the land in Munnar you’d be aware that the road between the High Range Club and Lodge Heather has a very sharp bend, almost like a U-turn, with the lower side of the road dropping off sharply to end in a swamp. And there she was! Happily wallowing in the bog like a wild boar, with the slush having crept almost halfway up to the height of the doors of the car. It was beyond not just mine but anyone’s imagination or comprehension as to how one was supposed to have the vehicle pushed out from that muck with the joint effort of those four workers whom I had accompanying me, each one well armed with towels loaned to us to ensure ‘no scratch on the paintwork’ by Ramani. Having honed in one the target and having let go off the cab, I walked up to one of the staff houses on the non-swamp side of the road to seek help.
Having knocked on the door of the first house, I explained to the lady who answered the knock who I was and what it was that I needed to do, to which the response was for the lady wanting to know who was the owner of the car which had found its way into the swamp. Told that it was the Panniar PDs Ambassador, the lady in a most concerned voice says “first tell me please how badly injured is the gentleman?” On being told that the gentleman in question was alive and kicking and sans even so much as a scratch, rather disbelievingly and with her eyes becoming goggle eyed the lady informs me that late at night they had heard this car come hurtling down the road, had heard the tyres screeching and then had seen the vehicle literally fly off the road to plonk itself in the swamp! The flight of the Ambassador having taken place in the wee hours of the morning, it was obvious that neither she nor anyone could have actually witnessed the take-off and that what she was sharing with me had to be conjecture and had to be assumed as being the only possibility.
Borrowing a cycle from the lady I pedalled up to the Chokhonad Estate office (the High Range Club and the Lodge are both located on that KDHP property) where I requested the manager (Mr Asad Mohsin) for assistance. After he had absorbed what I must have simply blurted and taking the crazy situation in his stride (Planters had this uncanny knack and ability of ALWAYS being able to take any and everything in their stride) Asad explained to me, as he would to an idiot child, that the assistance I was seeking of a few more helping hands would simply not work. Following which advice I was sent back, seated on a tractor equipped with a towing cable. Accompanying me on the trailer behind the tractor was a whole gang of workers who were all, obviously, having a good laugh at my expense. I leave it to the readers imagination to try and figure out how we got that poor half submerged Ambassador back on to the road. And horror of horrors, not one of the gang of workers used those towels! In the process, with all of us having descended into the bog to lend a helping hand while the tractor did its job, that each one of us was generously splattered with stinking and cloying mud from from head to toe was another matter altogether.
The Ambassador having been hauled back on to terra firma (those vehicles while stodgy in looks were accepted and known to be very hardy and robust) and having been checked to make sure no bits or pieces of the vehicle had been left behind in the swamp to keep the resident boars company, the engine actually kicked into life with one turn of the self starter. Took the messed up vehicle across to the High Range Club where we hosed it down after which I got the mud splattered four retrieval party squad members to pile into the back seat for the drive drive back to Panniar. Arriving at the estate, I drove straight up to the PDs bungalow where, since it was by now lunch time, I had expected to find the PD. Having heard the car coming up the bungalow driveway, Johnny who had likely been waiting on edge, came rushing out, threw a rather perfunctory ‘Thank you’ my way and then got busy with a through 360 deg inspection of the vehicle, looking for damage and any scratches on the paintwork! I still vividly remember him as being rather upset (a literal and the colloquial translation of that would read as – he was pissed off as hell) by the fact that the white seat covers of his beloved Ambassador were caked with a thick layer of muck and mud and that the inside of the car was smelling about as pleasant as a well used pig-pen!.
The bottom line being that back in the day while planting was always loads of hard work. The balancing factor and compensation being provided by bucket loads of comic relief.
Loved every minute of it!