In 1978 I was transferred from Panniar to Upper Surianalle which was all of 2Kms away as the crow flies. Almost always swathed in a dense mantle of swirling mist, the estate had been most aptly named as Surianalle (Surian = the sun + Illay = not there).
Regardless of the season or month of the year, we started every single day groping our way through layers of condensation which hung over us as heavy as a thoroughly drenched blanket, resulting in a constant drip from the brim of one’s hat, one’s nose and one’s moustache which hung limply on either side of the mouth with the odd hair from the upper-lip fuzz sneaking its way into one’s mouth.
Having been waiting in the wings almost as though in ambush mode, sometime around mid-day the sun would manage to push its way through to win the immediate battle by despatching the mist to wherever it had arisen from. A rather short lived victory which the sun could never get to savour because within a couple of hours, while we would still be trying to get our daily fix of vitamin-D, General Mist and his swirling hordes would launch a full scale counter attack which always ended up with the sun losing the daily war and the estate reverting back to status quo – Surrian-Illay!
I was tasked with overseeing two of the four divisions on Surianalle. The main division being Gundumallai (the mountain of the rock) is where my bungalow was also perched. Perched is exactly what it was, since the building was seen to be almost constantly clawing to simply hang on to the very steep gradient. This being beyond any sane persons comprehension, it would have been an interesting case study in insanity to understand how and why some idiot way back in the past had chosen this spot to build himself a bungalow. What would have made that case study even more interesting was the fact that, besides the gradient, this idiot had also not taken into account the wind that this location was subjected to. Did I say wind! A howling gale would be the more apt words to describe the constant buffeting that this building had to withstand. Had it not been for the fact that the corrugated iron roof had stay wires criss-crossing over the top with the ends embedded in concrete blocks on all four sides of the building holding it down on terra firma, the bungalow would have ended up literally blowing its top long before I became the occupant! Thanks to that added protection, all day and all night long I was treated to watching and hearing a never ending ding-dong battle. The wind would make the first move, lifting the roof up a couple of millimetres, while the stay wires would fight back straining to get the roof to drop back to its pre “attempt-to-take-off” position. The bottom line being that whenever one was at home one would have to live with an irritatingly rasping hum which sounded almost as though the bungalow was taking deep “pre-kicking-the-bucket” last breaths.
While the bungalow held on to its hat, the poor unprotected bushes around the bungalow especially those along the driveway were just about the most sorry looking apologies for what should have been healthy tea bushes. Very often, while ploughing through the mist enroute to morning muster, one would find those miserable specimens, bereft as they would be of any green, looking more like upturned brooms than tea bushes. The leaf from the bushes having been stripped off the branches as a result of the constantly howling gale force winds would be seen all piled up in little heaps along the upper edge of the road.
While the peculiarities of Gundumallai could be accepted as being par for the course, the other division I had to manage was altogether another cup of tea. Papathishola. Just about the most beautiful name one could have given a tea division. Papathi = Butterfly + Shollai = Forest. Literally the forest of the butterflies. Around August/September when the caterpillars would go through their metamorphosis and emerge from their cocoons as winged wonders and whenever the wind would ease off a mite, we’d see an almost never ending parade of the bright orange and black streaked Tawny Emperor Butterflies wafting along on the breeze. A sight worth way more than a king’s ransom!
The division being more than 12Km from my bungalow, I simply always took the easy way out by attended morning muster in Gundumallai after which I’d head off towards Papathishola, meeting up with the tapal boy (the estate mail runner) somewhere along the way up, to park my bike so as to sign off on the division muster book which would then end up at the desk of the Superintendent, Clyde Walker Murdoch Lawrence. A larger than life character, short and very stout teddy bear ‘me too’. Clyde, reputed to be a bully by nature, was actually all bluff and bluster on the outside while inside at heart he was what I would call a real softy. While it took a lot of effort digging deep into his psyche, including never ever coming back home with a bigger catch than his, when one finally got under his skin and got to understand the human side of him, Clyde was actually a fun PD to work under, honesty being the main criteria by which he judged an assistant. Trying to wriggle out of a situation by bull shitting or lying to cover up some mistake in the field was the biggest mistake one could ever make with him. Regardless of howsoever serious the goof-up was, as long as one could look Clyde in the eye and tell him the truth, one earned his grudging admiration.
Papthishola was an out division of Surianalle, the tea being planted on the lower, very steep slopes of the Kolukkumalai, which at 2,200 mtr is amongst the tallest peaks inSouth India. While each one of the 26 estates which are located in the High Ranges face westward leaning towards Kerala, the odd one out was our very own special division which had the tea eastward facing, perched on a high bluff with a very steep drop which opened up to an awesome view of the plains, a long way down, stretching deep into Tamil Nadu as far as the eye could see. The result of this peculiar location was that the rainfall pattern on Papathishola was dramatically at variance to what was standard across the High Range district.
This being integral to agriculture and more so to Tea, all estates maintain very meticulous rainfall records which go back decades. Besides anything else, the old records were also a most useful tool whenever an estate faced uncomfortable crop shortfall related questions by the Agents. Any such queries would find PDs digging into historical records which, liberally peppered and padded with dozens of other bits and pieces of mostly irrelevant information, would be the tools employed to wriggle out of any inconvenient situation. Methodology which was in no way ingenious or original since statisticians had long before perfected methods of twisting of facts to suit specific requirements into a virtual art form.
Every morning each division was required to measure the rainfall received over the preceding 24 hours this being an important bit of division related information which was entered in the muster book. Since I was signing off the muster records for two divisions I couldn’t help but notice that every single day the rainfall received on Papathishola was well in excess of the perception on Gundumallai. With it having been drummed into my head that the two areas were naturally and topographically subject to different weather patterns, one thought no more of it.
Months after my having moved to Surianalle, one day out of the blue Clyde while being fully aware that I always signed off the muster book enroute to that out division, asked whether I ever attended morning muster in Papathishola and before waiting for an answer to the question, followed up with a “suggestion” that maybe I should do so. His main concern, he offered by way of an explanation, was that the excessive rainfall being recorded on that division was not translating into equivalent crop intakes and that since we needed to understand why, over the next couple of weeks he’d prefer me personally checking the rain gauge reading. The so called “suggestion” having been made, next day onwards had Gurrinder Khanna heading out of the bungalow at the crack of dawn so as to get to Papathishola in time for muster there.
The Conductor on Papathishola was Mr Johnson, a most distinguished looking elderly gentleman. Fair skinned and ruddy faced as any blue blooded Scotsman from way up in the Highlands, with a full head of snow white hair which somewhere along both sides of his face linked up with a thick mutton chop moustache of the same colour. Johnson was not only accepted as one such but was also rather proud of himself as being the offspring of some liaison way back in the day. Other than his somewhat dubious lineage, had Johnson been togged up in a suit from Seville row, topped up with a bowler hat, the gentleman could have any day strolled into the chambers of the House of Lords, no questions asked.
On my first day at Papthishola morning muster, being told as to why I had to be in his division that early, Johnson swore on his mother’s grave that it was he himself who measured the rainfall each day and entered the data in the muster book. Regardless, since it had been ‘suggested’ that I do this personally, my instructions to him were that next day onwards he should await my arrival before emptying out the contents of the rain gauge into the measuring jar.
And so began the daily ritual of Johnson awaiting my arrival in the muster shed after which we’d both march across to the rain gauge which was embedded in a raised concrete block, following which he would rather dramatically (as if to prove a point) pull out a large bunch of keys from his pocket, fiddle around to locate the appropriate one, open the padlock on the outer casing of the gauge, lift out the container inside, pour the contents out into the glass measuring jar and then peer at it very closely before handing it over to me while loudly calling out the reading. We’d then march back to the muster shed for him to record the reading in the muster book which I would then countersign to let Clyde know that his “suggestion” was being duly respected.
A few days into the exercise I started wondering at the pale colour of the water in the measuring jar. Since there were no overhanging tree branches over the spot, I simply assumed that the slightly off colour would have to be on account of the rust which was quite thick and visible on the inside of the tin plate of the rain gauge rain. What set my antenna jangling was when on a couple of days, the roadsides and drains being completely dry and there obviously having been no rainfall in the preceding 24 hours, we still ended up recording some precipitation. A mystery which had to be solved.
That evening, armed with my sleeping bag, a torch and a flask of hot tea, I took it upon myself to spend the night in the rather cold and damp muster shed. Late into the night with only the howling wind to disturb the eerie silence, by the light of the moon, I could see our so called night watchman obviously punch drunk, weave his way to concrete block. The guy walks up to the block, staggers around a bit to stabilise his balance, lifts up his lungi which in any case is already way up his legs at the half mast position, makes a concerted effort to take aim at what he must, in his sloshed state, have considered to be a rather inviting opening at a very convenient height and ends up liberally spraying a broad swathe of the area around the block with some of his pee actually hitting the target and dribbling into the funnel. Job done, he drops his lungi back to half mast and totters back to his shed. The next thing I hear cutting through the silence are his loud, dead to the world snores.
Need it be said that next morning when informed that what we had been recording as precipitation on Papthishola was partly the outflow of the urinary bladder of the watchman and that his generosity was highly unlikely to translate into crop, Clyde was anything but amused.
The upshot of the episode being that the next day try as we might it became impissible to find Mr Sleeping Beauty, the bloke having been given a good shake up by Mr Johnson, likely faced with the prospect of having to meet Clyde, had simply upped and disappeared into thin air to be never heard from again.