In 1975 at a young 22 almost straight out of University and a Masters in English, I found myself up on Panniar Estate in Kerala in the High Ranges as an SD (Sina Dorai = Assistant Superintendent) having been despatched there by the Malayalam Plantations Agents in Cochin. Born and bred with my entire formative years having been in Simla where the only agricultural produce was apples, tea planting as a career had never ever crossed my mind. It was providence and a rather long story (one for another day) of how I found myself down in South India and in Tea. Having had my an extension interview on a rubber estate (Mooply) near Trishur, the first Tea bush I ever saw and touched was when I actually arrived on Panniar Estate, never for a moment realising that this innocuous plant would become the love of my life, one which my entire life would revolve around. 45 since those first baby steps, that love affair is not just ongoing, it continues to grow and flourish. Thankfully so!
The next morning, on my first day at work, my PD (Periya Dorai = the Estate Superintendent) Mr Abid Khan who over the two years I worked under him became a father figure for me, told me that for the first couple of months I was not to be given a motorcycle and that to get a proper feel of the estate and to get a better understanding of what the job really entailed, I should walk the estate with the Conductor. Following which pronouncement I was duly ‘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, I would fall in step with Mr Balia. We walked and we walked and we walked and then we walked some more covering as much of the 320 hectares of the estate as was physically possible to do in a day.
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 (the gentle Mrs Khan) who very kindly, every time they headed to the club, would take me along for the evening. On other days, when I would be winding down for the day in the muster shed (which passed off as an office) Abid would come past the muster astride his bike and ask (this was an almost daily ritual) ‘what are you doing this evening?‘ Bereft of any kind of transport, there being not much else that I could do, 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 head up to the bungalow playing scrabble while listening to BBC plays on Abid’s transistor. Despite the fact that Abid himself was a rather infrequent drinker we would, every once in a while offer me a beer. Shamim however always made sure that I never went back to my bungalow hungry. We followed this lovely ‘habit’ for all of four months during which time I had worn away a couple of pairs of ‘Bata Hunter shoes’ (which were the only appropriate ones for the job available back then) trudging along behind Mr Balia, I was finally made mobile with my first Bullet motorcycle. Besides the fact that I could now cover more of the estate, this also meant that I was no longer dependent the boss to get to the High Range club for club evenings.
Ahead of me being made mobile, about three months into my daily walking behind Mr Balia routine, having gone to the Club with Abid & Shamim, sitting around with two of my senior colleagues who were on Surianalle Estate (one of Malayalam Plantations three estates in the High Ranges) casually asked me that in the absence of a bike, what was it that I did in the evenings. Sharing my badminton / scrabble/ dinner with the PD routine with them, Raghu and Appu wanted to know when I was planning to reciprocate and have Abid and Shamim over for a meal. A casual remark which set the wheels in motion and led to my acquiring a dinner set, curtsey the Company’s soft furnishing allowance and our Group Doctor who was heading down to Cochin for a weekend and had been requested to help out. And so, now the proud owner of a spanking new Hitkari dinner set which was adorned with tiny pink flowers, when he came past my morning muster, now that I was well equipped, I took great pleasure in asking Abid ‘Are you and Ma’am busy this evening?‘ The invitation having been accepted the wheels were set in motion for my first dinner in my bungalow, with not just me at the table!
I arranged for our local Kadai (which was ‘go to for everything’ shop on the estate) 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, one vegetable dish, 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’ of the day. Walking back from my evening muster, on the road leading up to my bungalow, I kept hearing a strange repetitive sound of ‘baak, baak, bakka…..’ which appeared to be emanating from under the bushes. Bending down and peering through the bush frames I saw my friend Kaliappan sitting on his haunches with his upturned palm full of rice and intently ‘baaking‘. Having been unceremoniously hauled out from under the bushes Kaliappan very sheepishly and with all 32 teeth being flashed in a wide grin, 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 and that he was now trying to lure it back.
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 the fact that my first dinner was going to be a disaster, having been downgraded to a likely almost inedible veggie affair.
Crestfallen and having showered, waiting for Shamim and Abid in my sitting room thumbing through my weekly supply of newspapers (we received our ‘daily’ newspaper in one bunch, once a week) when I felt a ‘presence’. Peering over the top of my newspaper I saw what was supposed to be our winged dinner, likely drawn in by the bungalow light, very proudly strutting across the red oxide floor. Ducking my head behind the newspaper, in a rather loud stage whisper I called out to Kaliappan who, peeping out from the dining room and seeing the fellow casually ambling across, was out like a flash of lightening. Before one could even utter the word “Koli” (= chicken) Kaliappan had grabbed the hapless fellow by it’s neck. Should you have seen that brilliant film, in his deft movement and sheer speed, Kaliappan who actually resembled the character both in looks and stature, was the embodiment of Xau, the Bushman in ‘The God’s Must be Crazy‘. The next thing I heard was a squawk followed by total silence. The guests having arrived, by the time Shamim, Abid and I had done with our chit-chat and the PD and I had been through our two drinks of brandy, when we got to the dining table our ill-fated escapee was right there, as the main attraction bang in the centre of the other dishes, leg up floating in a generous pool of spicy curry in my newly acquired Hitkari serving dish!