That first trip to Gravel Banks with Clyde and Appu, were followed by many more interesting ones spread out during the two years I was at Surianalle, ahead of relocating to Assam. There obviously being no way for me to verify this, I’m pretty much certain that Clyde must have treated that first one as my initiation fishing trip to establish for himself whether I was well and truly hooked to his passion or whether all that enthusiasm was just a bit of play acting to get into the good books of the boss. With me, apparently, having passed the test the first time around and with Gravel Banks being the spot with the best fish which was more accessible when compared to the other fishing spots in the High Ranges, whenever Clyde headed that way he’d very kindly have me drag along.
I hasten to add that the kindness was confined only to angling trips away from the estate because the water catchment ‘lake’ created by the small dam which was there in Surianalle, which Clyde had organized to be stocked with trout fingerlings obtained from the hatchery which KDHP maintained on Rajamallai Estate (an absolutely amazing operation I may add), had been declared as being out of bounds to all but himself. On Sundays or weekdays late in the evening one could find Clyde in seventh heaven casting his spinners into that overgrown pond to pull in a couple of poor little blighters which, in terms of size or rather the lack of it, would have been in close competition to sardines out of a can! His full catch for the evening likely ending up as a minor starter on one toast. Regardless of the fact that the Surianalle water had been declared as being the private fiefdom of the boss, every once in a while when I assumed the coast to be clear, I’d take the risk of a dressing down in case Clyde somehow got wind of it and would happily sneak in to also pull in a couple of minnows, which compared to the big man’s voracious appetite, would be a full meal for me.
It being the expected norm that for the first couple of months the pudian (youngster) would be required to wear out at least a couple of pairs of Bata Hunter boots (which back in the day were the only readily available and practical footwear for planters) walking the estate, the system in Malayalam Plantations was that a couple of months after one had jumped on to the bandwagon and thrown in ones lot with the company, Chinna Dorais were provided a Bullet motorcycle of somewhat dubious vintage. For the first four years after appointment as an Assistant Superintendent, that was the only form of transportation we were given which was used for both, estate work as well as personal use. On successfully completing the first four year employment contract with the company, one of the terms of the second four year contract was that one could apply to the Agents for a car loan. Post purchase of a car after the loan had been disbursed, one received a monthly car maintenance allowance and an annual tyre replacement allowance. The upshot being that with the car being one’s personal property, everyone took good care of it and would try to treat the vehicle with a lot of respect.
The exalted Superintendents however were on a different plane. In parallel to being equipped with a bike somewhat similar to what the SDs had, though in most cases one that wasn’t quite on its last legs, which they would be astride for all estate work, they were also blessed with a company owned and company maintained Ambassador car. While most of the PDs treated this vehicle with more care and attention than they’d bestow upon their kids, Clyde was an altogether different kettle of fish. He had this warped sense of logic that if one drove fast over bumps and potholes (and there was never any dearth of either of those on any of the roads we used) that the car would fly over the obstacle without any adverse effects on the vehicle. The fact that Clyde’s horseless chariot was in the estate garage ever so often, almost always up on four jacks for maintenance work on the car’s suspension, didn’t quite support his outlandish belief. Regardless of which the boss was not to be deterred nor willing to change his driving habits nor his view. In fact, so as to keep Mr and Mrs Lawrence, the estate stores had been instructed to ensure that they always had an ample stock of Ambassador rubber bushings (anyone my age would remember those as being as fundamental to the Ambassador as was petrol in the tank) which were required as replacements at VERY regular intervals for the parts crying out for mercy from Clyde’s mistaken belief that his transport mode was actually a hovercraft!
It was in this utterly exhausted erroneously assumed to be a hovercraft, with the boss at the wheel and me riding shotgun that found Clyde and me enroute to Gravel Banks early on a Sunday morning. The terrain in the High Ranges for those who have not had the pleasure of serving or visiting the High Ranges, in one word for lack of a better way to describe this is – rough! The road from Surianalle to Munnar (Rajamallai being on the other side of the town) is for the better part hewn out on one side of a sheer and massive rock face which, below the road, ends almost 500 meters down in the valley. Till such time as one is winding ones way through this portion, the road while snaking its way through the rock has no incline and is almost a level run till such time as one enters what is more or less a ‘corridor’ which cuts through the cliff before opening up into the next valley. That ‘corridor’, the Lockhart Gap is the apex. On the other side of the Gap the road practically rushes down till it reaches bottom of the valley where it goes across a rather tiny concrete culvert after which it immediately starts ascending the opposite side of the “V” at a rather steep angle.
The moment we entered the Lockhart Gap Clyde moved the car into 4th gear and let the Ambassador roll down. With the car all the while gaining momentum at a rather alarming pace, to slow it down a mite, every minute or so the ‘pilot’ would very delicately caress the brake pedal before letting his hovercraft once again speed up and run as though it had a mind of its own. The upshot being that we came hurtling down all the way from the Gap at a speed of considerable knots which descent was abruptly halted when we ‘smacked’ into that rather small slab of concrete EXTREMELY hard. At which point, our very own Nigel Mansell with his ham fisted hands working almost as though totally independent of his brain, jerked the gear lever up into neutral before, in one not very deft movement, literally forced this down very hard into 2nd gear.
There being no better way to describe it, what we experienced was probably akin to an aircraft attempting to take-off and failing miserably in the endeavour. The aborted launch was followed almost instantly by our short lived airborne ‘rocket’ coming down very hard to smack into terra firma. In that short while we were treated to a cacophony, a horrible grinding metallic noise which had the Ambassador shuddering as though in its death throes, likely at any moment to split open scattering bits and pieces all over the road. While the body of the car, having been to hell and back many times over and by now probably well used to this abuse, held its nerves, it was the gear lever which threw in the towel leaving an incredulous Mr Lawrence holding the lever, now divorced from the steering column and hanging limply, in his white-knuckled ‘gentle’ grip. What was most surprising was that the car did not grind to a halt and instead, almost like it had a mind of its own, started the ascend up from the culvert with the laboured screech of the engine struggling to keep the vehicle moving ahead in the second gear in which the gearbox was now jammed. It was only after Clyde’s considerable weight was lifted off the pedal, which till that time he had been attempting to push through the floorboard, that the de-accelerated car stopped screaming in protest.
And then words from the mouth of the great man which should be inscribed in bold gold letters – “Poof! They just don’t make cars like they used to!” After which very wise statement, the useless gear lever was casually tossed on to the back seat and we merrily carried on in the only gear still functioning, to reach Gravel Banks at least a couple of hours later than what should have been our ETA. Sufficient numbers of little fellows having been reeled in from the water and tossed into his bag, with me having gone off downstream to try my luck, Clyde hollered out to me in his fog-horn gentle voice to hurry back because “It’s going to take us bloody hours to get back to the estate in this damn useless car.”
That it did! So that we eventually dragged ourselves into Clyde’s bungalow well after dark in a vehicle which, on its last legs was literally begging for mercy. Stepping out of the car, Clyde was met by Winnie Lawrence who, mincing no words, let her dear beloved husband know just what she thought of him! It being a universally well known fact that if there was one person the big man was shit scared off that was the missus, while Winnie’s glares and hauling him over the coals were absorbed with not so as a peep from her hapless spouse, I could see the big man’s face going beetroot red with the blush extending to the back of his neck which had by then taken on a rather unhealthy bright scarlet hue. The barrage becoming louder and building up to what appeared to be an explosion of sorts, without so much as a word of thank you to the boss or even a good evening to Winnie, I was quickly on my bike scooting off with my tail between my legs.
The next morning at the crack of dawn, Clyde’s hovercraft was hoisted on to a lorry to be driven down to TVS Motors in Madurai for them to see whether they could try resurrect and raise, what was almost a dead body, back to life! It was almost a month to the day before the car was eventually delivered back to Surianalle to be, as and when the mood overtook him, given another once over by our earthbound pilot.
Months later, in a moment of weakness the Estate Head Clerk, who being privy to almost everything which transpired in Clyde’s realm, let out a secret that after they had received that horrendous repair bill from TVS Motors for having restored his car back to some semblance of life, the boss had received a stinker from the Agents in Cochin demanding to know how and why a repair bill could be more than the cost of new Ambassador.
The response that apparently went to Cochin was that it had now been well established by the Surianalle PD that ‘they don’t make cars like they used to!’ So there!!