Cardamom being a plantation crop which thrives under thick shade, requiring a minimal of any sunshine, our cardamom area was almost like a miniature Amazon rain forest. A dense stand of tall indigenous forest trees with a very high canopy. An area of sheer natural beauty which I simply loved to wander around in. So very different from our main crop and so lovely that one would end up forgetting that looking after and overseeing the cardamom area was part of one’s job as an assistant!
Before I dive into the main yarn, for those who’ve never had the pleasure of visiting a cardamom plantation just thought that I should throw in some background gyan (a Hindi word which really has no equivalent in English – a melodious amalgam of information & knowledge) :
The cardamom plant resembles a lush and giant fern with fronds which grow straight up from the base of the plant, attaining a height of as much as 10 feet from ground level. Ahead of the fruit of the cardamom (the pods) forming we would go through an aromatic three week flowering spell when not just our 70 acres, but also the many cardamom holdings around Panniar, would be rich with an aroma which was so sweet, fragrant and heady that a long spell of wandering around in the area could well end up making one faintly dizzy. Following the flowers shedding their petals, one would start seeing the small immature pods clumped together in clusters attached to the panicles (for those who are not botanists – strong tendrils) dozens of which originate at the base of the plant. Dependent on the genus of the plant, panicles are of three distinct varieties, the erect panicles which shoot straight up to as much as 3/4 feet, the semi erect ones which start off as the erect variety before their heads bend over to form a curve and then there are the prostrate panicles. The last are very long tendrils which end up running along the ground for almost 10/12 feet meandering their way just above the surface of the soil. The prostrates, mainly on account of the length which these panicles can attain, in comparison to the other two are the highest yielding. The laws of nature dictate that whatever be the highest yielding also always requires the maximum amount of attention, care and effort to hand over its bounty. Which leads me to this interesting aside ahead of me jumping into the main tale, so read on.
Amongst the local and tribal planters in the cardamom hills, the handsome cardamom plant is described as being a male which (as is the wont with all males of any species) loves the female touch for it to prosper. Since the pods on the prostrate panicle rest on the soft ground, rain run-off (the rain literally comes down in buckets) results in soil adhering to the pods which, if not shaken off, ends up with the pods developing a rot and dropping off the runner. To address this serious issue which can ruin the entire annual crop, at least 4 or 5 times during the period when the pods are maturing ahead of them being harvested, the panicles need to be cleaned. This work is done by women workers who go from one plant to the next, starting at the base of each, walk along the length of the panicle running their hands under the tendril, shaking off the soil which would have adhered to the clusters. Each round of fondling (no other word would come even close to describing what they do) and cleaning makes sure that the panicles remain healthy with each individual pod continuing to swell and grow larger till such time as it attains the desired size for it to be harvested. There you have it – the cardamom plant IS a male!
Having meandered off in a tangential direction, I’ll now wind my way back to the genteel giants.
What in days gone by used to be a miniature Amazon rain forest in Kerala has, over many decades been encroached upon by humans who, taking advantage of the terrain and the environment have converted the area into cardamom plantations by chipping away and eating into what was and still is the natural habitat of the elephant. Though the land has literally been snatched away from them, the pachyderms are not willing to let go of what is rightfully theirs and so, almost every day, herds of the gentle beasts led by their own Colonel Hathi (I assume everyone would have seen the Jungle Book) would parade through the many cardamom plantations, including our own 70 acres. Unmindful of anything underfoot they could regularly be seen lifting up their majestic trunks to their full heights to pluck off the fresh foliage from the overhead trees. With many herds of elephants constantly on the move, each passing parade would leave many cardamom plants in their path having taken a severe beating.
While the local small holding planters were known to take some very animal unfriendly steps to keep the herds away from their properties, Malayalam Plantations decided to adopt the more humane approach. The upshot was that while I was posted on Panniar, the agents obviously fed up of the annually dwindling harvest from the cardamom area, decided to splurge and gave Abid (The Superintend on Panniar – my Periya Dorai) permission and funds to have an elephant trench dug on three sides of the 70 acres. The fourth side of the land could not be trenched since that side, sloping down at an acute angle, ended up in a fast flowing stream skirting the boundary of our cardamom area. The elephant trench was a grand undertaking, for us almost similar to the building of the Great Wall of China, though in the other direction. Our enterprise went the other way down to a depth of 7 feet with the trench being seven feet in width at the top sloping down to three feet at the base. Doesn’t sound like much until one considers that back in the day we had no access to any excavators or suchlike and that this mammoth task had to be carried out by manual labour! Our captive estate work force being totally inadequate for the undertaking, the work had to be contracted out. With the contractor bringing in more than a hundred workers to do the digging, four months later we had our very own Rift valley duly ‘constructed’.
Cultivated as it is in an extremely humid environment, the cardamom plant requires regular anti fungal treatment. Water for the spraying operation having to be hauled up from the stream by workers slipping and sliding on the soft soil as they struggled up the slope laden down with large water buckets, since we already had the contractors men at work in the area, I had got permission to also have this problem attended to by the contractor. My instructions to him were that he should get his men to cut steps in the slope leading from the top of the cardamom area all the way down to the stream. That gentleman having literally gone to town on this comparatively simple job ended up with us having a rather expansive and majestic seven foot wide staircase leading from the road access at the top all the way down to the stream.
The work having been completed, faced with this Marina Trench, the elephantine parade on its daily march took to bye-passing our cardamom, probably ending up in some other poor sods plantation. Patting ourselves on the back for a job well done, we actually enjoyed three months of damage free living. Lasted till that one day when our friend Colonel Hathi probably decided that the foliage in our rain forest which, since it had not been stripped clean in all that time, looked rather inviting and that he and his herd needed to initiate some direct action to get at all those juicy leaves. And so started the nightly assault on the trench. Every single night the elephants would converge on to the same spot and keep shoveling loose soil into one side, in effect converting the steep drop into a gentle slope. The next morning following the assault of the night before, I’d send workers in to repair the damage. The daily tug-o-war between the Colonel and me meant that the moat at the point of attack kept becoming wider by the day. The upshot being that the herd, determined to get at the succulent foliage, simply wore us down till we had to put up our hands and accept defeat.
The trench strategy having fallen flat on its face, since we did still need to safeguard our cardamom, Abid suggested that we build two machans on either side of the breach on which we station night watchmen who were instructed to beat empty drums as hard as they could whenever they saw the herd ambling towards our area. Short term success. Within a couple of days of them being scared off by the din, every time that the drums were brought into action, the elephants undeterred and beyond caring would simply trumpet back with full gusto, in the bargain creating a cacophony loud enough to wake up the dead.
Now that they again had free run of the plantation, ever so often walking through the area I’d come across an uprooted cardamom plant. Six years of labour down the tube simply because some idiot adolescent pachyderm needed to scratch his back. I had personally witnessed this many times, one of the youngsters in the heard nonchalantly ambling across to whichever plant took its fancy, coiling its trunk around the fronds, giving the plant a gentle tug and then, in utter bliss, dusting its back with the roots before dumping the ‘single use and discard’ back-scratcher and moving on.
And then that morning when I walked into my lovely cardamom area to find that our grand seven feet wide staircase from the top down to the stream, had been reduced down to a width of not more than two feet with a fairly deep drain on either side of the steps, all the way down to disappear in the water. Totally flummoxed I sent for the night watchman to get to the bottom of the mystery. Being told by him that if he were to share with how that transformation had actually taken place, that besides not believing him I would immediately assume that he had been drunk on the job (not that this was in any way an uncommon occurrence) the watchman suggested that I leave my comfortable bed in my bungalow and spend a night with him on the machan. Desperate to figure this one out, that night itself, duly armed with a powerful torch and my sleeping bag, I clambered on to the rickety machan to keep the watchman company.
Sometime around midnight we could hear the parade marching in, not by the sound of their feet but by the rustling of the foliage being stripped off the lower branches of the trees which came in their path. While the grown-ups in the herd were busy stuffing their faces, the calves and the adolescents were busy, obviously having a great time with their playful antics. Despite the havoc being created and knowing fully well that next day one would have to clean up the mess, the show was a treat to watch. Which is also when the mystery of the missing staircase was solved. One young calf walks across to a clear patch, bends down and literally folds its front legs at the elbows. The result being that for that youngster what was already a 60 deg natural slope it was looking down at, ends up becoming an even more acute almost 75 deg angle. The calf’s buddy ambles across to Mr Bent Over, turns around, shuffles backwards and arse to arse gives the bloke a hard bump on its behind. The slope being very soft mud, the arse bump sends the little fellow sliding down all the way into the stream at the bottom of that incline. One could almost imagine the youngster, in sheer ecstasy, going wheeee all the way down the slide till it hit the water with a loud splash!
For the sceptical and disbelieving reader (it being perfectly understandable that some of you would be thinking ‘what bull?!) while I don’t at all claim this to be a record of my first hand experience, I found this video on YouTube.
I will very readily accept any disbelief and obvious cynicism about this tale since I very vividly remember the reaction the next morning when I shared my experience of the night before with my PD. The only thing Abid wanted to know was what was it that I’d been smoking!
I know folk who’d happily pay thousands of dollars for one such experience. And here was I being paid a salary (albeit a rather meagre one bordering on close to keeping one on a starvation diet) giving me the opportunity to be witness to the antics of Colonel Hathi and his troop. Oh yes, this was work!