This being during my Panniar tenure, my guess is that this would likely have been during the winter of 1977. While memories fade, what I do recall is winding my way out of the High Range club all dolled up in my special occasion bandh gala jacket and while I don’t really remember what the occasion may have been, I wouldn’t be far off the mark with a guess that this episode was during one of Club meets.
The meets were annual events, planned well in advance with the calendar being finalised between all the Planters Clubs spread out through South India, with each club alternating between ‘home’ and ‘away’ with another, one year to the next. When it was the turn of the HRC to be hosting the event, planters of all seniorities from one of the other planting districts would converge to the High Ranges for three days of interclub sports competitions during the days, followed by serious binge drinking which would commence well before the sun had called it a day and would then stretch into the wee hours of the morning.
With the weather in the High Ranges, especially during the winter months and the monsoons, tending to be bitterly cold and since all SDs had only their bikes for transportation, we made sure that we was always well clad with layers of clothing to keep body and soul together, with the outermost layer being a knee length size canvas raincoat. This most essential piece of a young planters apparel, with the weather being unpredictable and since one never knew when one would be riding into some localised shower, was almost like a permanent fixture on the bikes of all SDs, to be donned at short notice over whatever else one may have been wearing. That this protective rain gear, always draped across the petrol tank of the Bullet, was a filthy and rather smelly bit of clothing would be an understatement. Liberally smudged with patches of grease, petrol and all manner of indescribable muck, each such raincoat was almost akin to being the young planters personalised calling card.
In the charming hierarchal society of the High Ranges, while the PDs and senior assistants (those who had ascended the ladder a couple of rungs to reach the ‘I possess a car’ level) had the privilege of parking their cars in the front side of the club, we junior SDs were confined to what was almost a metal cage tucked away besides the staff entrance at the rear. It was in this metal cage that we would pile in our respective bikes, to troop into the men’s to divest ourselves off all the outer coverings after which we’d march into the main club looking half decent.
Having meandered off on that rather long diversion, I’m now getting back to that day in 1977, which is where I started this story.
With sufficient liquid sustenance under by belt and having done well for myself at the bar, I sort of drifted out of the club togged in my party frock, to where my bike was parked. From the bike’s side box I pulled out my extra jacket which went over the bandh-gala, over which I struggled into my trusty canvas raincoat. Pulling on my gloves and switching on the bike’s ignition, apparently having forgotten to turn off the headlight switch when I parked my bike on arrival at the club earlier in the evening, the moment I kicked the engine into life, the headlight bulb shone very brightly for all of a split second before going dead. Headlight bulbs on these hardy bikes going on the blink in just this manner was not an uncommon occurrence and something which one took in one’s stride. Which happening now, bearing in mind that this was at 3 O’clock on a very dark night, was somewhat larger than that ‘stride’.
The cold wind howling through the bike ‘cage’ having somewhat taken care of my light headedness, it was obvious to me that there was no time to sit around twiddling my thumbs and crying over spilt milk. Morning muster on the estate being sacrosanct, there was no time to waste if one was to be back on Panniar in time to be able to grab a couple of hours of sleep ahead of heading out for the day’s work. Once again digging into the bike’s side box I pulled out the one other piece of a young planters ‘must have’ survival kit – an Eveready torch (probably the only brand of torches available to us back in the day) opened my mouth wide and clenched the rear bulbous end of this rather heavy (it housed three full sized dry batteries) metal tube between my jaws. With that somewhat feeble light keeping me from riding off the road, off I went for the bumpy one and a half hour ride back to Panniar from the club.
It was miserably cold all the way back to the estate, especially when I hit the Lockhart Gap which, by that time late at night, had a thin layer of frost covering the road surface so that I had to concentrate very hard to ensure that my bike did not ski down the slope with a mind of its own. Which, considering that the road was hewn out of a sheer cliff face and that if one flew off cliff, hitting terra firma almost 500 meters down in the valley would be far from being a soft landing, was not a very pleasant prospect.
And so with my jaw clenched tight and my eyes skewed half shut in concentration and on account of the freezing wind, an hour and a half after heading out from Munnar, I rode over the rickety wooden bridge across the elephant trench into my bungalow compound. Shivering with the cold I dislodged the trusty and very cold torch from between my teeth to find that I literally could not shut my trap! For a VERY long time!
Morning muster was duly attended to with the mother of a headache and a jaw which felt like it had seen better days! The latter, for many, many days!