Manners make the man & woman

When Mayura was finally built and was to be inaugurated, Mr. AMM Arunachalam sent priests to do a puja – Ganapathy Homam (Havan), which starts at 2:00 am and goes on for several hours as the Iyer priests recite sloka after sloka ending with “Namaha”, throwing ghee and grains into a fire that is lit for the purpose. Once the puja was complete, we got ready for the formal inauguration to which the entire Board of Directors was invited including the Chairman Mr. AMM Arunachalam. This was followed by a lunch at the Group Manager, Mr. AVG Menon’s bungalow in Sheikalmudi. The building of Mayura Factory was a truly historic occurrence because tea factories are not built every day. Most in the Anamallais were over a century old at the time Mayura was built and commissioned (1985). On top of that it was the most modern factory in India with computer-controlled systems and all kinds of bells and whistles. Since I was the man on the spot, so to speak, I had to be in many places at once and managed to do it. Everything went off well. Lunch finished late and we returned home close to 5:00 p.m. I had been awake and working for 48 hours straight with perhaps a short nap on my feet.

Among the customs of plantation life was that of ‘calling on’ the seniors of the district. When you came in new or got married and your wife came to the estates, you called on the seniors of the district to introduce yourself and her. You telephoned or sent a letter saying that you would like to call on them and asked when would be convenient. These were formal social meetings and you were treated with great dignity and grace. This ‘calling on’ was usually for tea unless it was somebody you knew already; in which case you would be invited to dinner.

I had just got married (21, March 1985) and had returned with my wife, post haste to the estate because Mayura Factory opening was due. We took the train to Chennai and to our utter surprise and great honor, we were welcomed on the platform by my great-uncle Nawab Ruknuddin Ahmed, who was staying at the time with his daughter, my aunt Jahanara, and her husband Mohammed Hussain Uncle. Jahanara Aunty and Mohammed Uncle were very special people. Jahanara Aunty was my mother’s first cousin and almost the same age and treated me like her own son and was a great support for me as long as she lived. She took my wife to heart like her own daughter and treated her with great affection. Such a nice beginning to our marriage. We went to their home and Jahanara Aunty hosted a dinner in our honor. We spent two lovely days with them listening to stories of our family history from my great uncle and my great aunt who we called Mumanijaan, Jahanara aunty’s mother. Two days later we boarded the train for Coimbatore from where we drove up the Aliyar Ghat of forty hairpin bends. My wife was violently sick all the way up the Ghat. Being prone to motion sickness anyway, the Ghat road was not doing her any good at all. I was very concerned because this Ghat road was a given if we lived in the Anamallais and with my wife being so sick on it, it didn’t seem to portend well for us. The prospect of a repeat performance every time we traveled was definitely not something to look forward to. But as it happened after a couple of trips my wife got over her motion sickness altogether. Maybe the Ghat road shocked it out of her system.

As was the custom of the plantations when anyone got married and returned with his wife, there was a round of parties to meet the couple. So also, in our case and since I was the Secretary of the Anamallai Club, I had more than my fair share of friends and so we had a party to go to every night.  The parties were formal suit and tie affairs and the hostess would go to great lengths to cook special dishes in honor of the guests and at the end the couple would be given a gift. In a place where social relationships were very important, these parties were not simply for entertainment. They were rites of passage and thresholds of entry from bachelorhood to marriage, which gave you a higher level of status and respect. They also had a ‘snob value’ associated with who invited you and who didn’t. I didn’t bother with that at all, but then again, I was invited by everyone, so for me it didn’t matter. The parties were also a good way to introduce the new bride to a way of life that was foreign to her and helped her to make contacts with senior ladies and others more experienced in this lifestyle, which could be challenging for someone born and brought up in the city. Most people who go to tea gardens for a holiday in good weather don’t realize the difficulty of that environment for those who have to live there all year round.

Mrs. Parvathy Menon and Mr. AVG Menon, after he retired

The wives of managers were extremely helpful and supportive of both, young bachelors as well as their wives when they got married. For example, Mrs. Parvathy Menon, the wife of my first manager Mr. AVG Menon, stocked my entire kitchen when I came to Sheikalmudi including giving me an entire set of crockery and cutlery from her kitchen. She would also supervise the provisions that were bought by Bastian for my kitchen and would tell him what to buy and keep an eye on the expenses to ensure that he was not taking a cut out of them for himself; a drawback of most butlers who believed in making hay while the sun shone. Also, the main reason why they preferred to work for bachelors and not married people. AVG and Parvathy would take me to the club with them as I didn’t have a car and though I could have gone on my motorcycle, their kindness was greatly appreciated as I went far more comfortably. The senior ladies also took the young wives under their wing and taught them the ropes. Most, if not all, didn’t come from backgrounds of bearers and butlers and big bungalows and were usually quite at sea when they first arrived. It was very thrilling to be living in a house much larger than what you had ever lived in until the whole issue of maintenance and gardening hit you. Then it became very intimidating for some; especially since how you maintained your bungalow was something your husband was assessed on and would be asked about. It was a matter of maintaining of standards and people took them very seriously. So, it was a good thing for someone to advise you and hold your hand until you got used to the local norms. For many people this included gentle and subtle lessons in table manners, laying tables, flower arrangements, gardening, what to feed the cow, towels and soaps in the bathrooms, who to invite for dinner, and when a party was due. Estate culture was very proper, and rule bound, much like a military cantonment and so the wives needed to know the proper etiquette as much as the men.

The estate workers also welcomed the Assistant Manager when he returned with his wife. In my case, the Candura workers were the first. As our car rounded the bend off the Sholayar Dam and came towards ‘Black Bridge,’ we were stopped and requested to alight. My wife and I came out of the car, glad for the chance to stretch our legs. The road was lined with girls who sang a welcome song and showered us with flower petals as we walked through this guard of honor. We were taken to a pavilion which I realized had been made by tying the best sarees of the women to the poles and decorated with lots of flowers. Tea garden workers can be the most loving people in the world and if you were good to them, they appreciated it and reciprocated. I saw many examples of that in my decade long career. We were garlanded and sat at a table on the two grandest chairs that they could find. Then we were served tea and biscuits and sweets. It was then that a depressed fly decided to end its meaningless life in my wife’s teacup. But my wife being the perfect lady that she is, merely fished out the fly and drank the tea without batting an eyelid. An amazing performance which saved us from a lot of embarrassment. Those poor workers had taken so much trouble to welcome us that it would have been very ungracious to complain, even about the suicide of a fly. Then speeches were made, and the women danced and sang another song in our honor in which we were mentioned repeatedly in sometimes a humorous way and sometimes with great respect. The amazing thing was that this song was made up then and there and they sang about various habits of mine, including singing while I rode my motorcycle. People observed you and remembered and mentioned what you did. All the more reason to ensure that whatever it was, remained good and honorable. At the end of this song and dance there were some speeches by the local union leaders and one supervisor and then I was asked to speak. It was permitted for the manager to speak in English and the speech would be translated. But I had learnt Tamil for occasions such as these and spoke it well, much to everyone’s delight. When I had finished and thanked them for all their trouble and expressed our gratitude for the honor that we had been granted, they gave my wife a gold ring as their gift as a mark of their love and honor for me. I was floored. These were poor people who had collected money for this, something which was not expected of them at all. What could I say? As I mentioned earlier, Managers and workers in the plantations form bonds that are more like family than anything else.

To return to the daily dinner parties in our honor, these daily night outings were so frequent that my wife could recognize a road only in the dark. The parties, enjoyable though they were and were a good way to meet friends who lived too far to visit frequently, could be very taxing as they tended to go on very late. We were expected to put in an appearance at the morning muster on the estate at 6:00 a.m. no matter when we returned. The night of Mayura Factory inauguration (the day that started at 2:00 a.m.), we had been invited to dinner at the home of our dear friends, Prema and Ricky Muthanna in Mudis. Ricky was the General Manager of BBTC and we were honored to be invited to their home. As it happened, there was no time even for a short snooze in the afternoon thanks to the inauguration and to top it all, my car was once again in hospital. I didn’t fancy the idea of going all the way to Mudis (about thirty kilometers on serpentine estate roads, decorated with potholes) on my motorcycle. When AVG heard about my invitation, he very typically and graciously, offered me his new car which had been delivered just couple of days earlier. I was very happy to drive a brand new car and gladly accepted his kind offer.

We set off at about 7:00 p.m. as the dinner was for 8:00 p.m. I was exhausted as I had been awake for 48 hours with about 2 hours of sleep, but we set off, my wife and I, on this long drive. We arrived at Prema and Ricky’s house to a very warm welcome. My wife and Prema became friends instantly and have remained friends all these years. Ricky and Prema’s home was a delight, very tastefully decorated and one of the iconic bungalows in the Anamallais. It was the only bungalow to my knowledge which had a central courtyard with a veranda all around it and so it had a garden inside and outside. Prema had called a lot of people in our honor and the house was full of our friends and some others who I knew by name but was meeting for the first time.

All plantation parties (except in my house) started with drinks, which the men consumed in large quantities while the women sipped soft drinks and discussed matters of great import. As I was not one for the spiritual experience, I would take my orange juice or fresh lime soda and chat with whoever was still on mother earth. But as many left for higher altitudes in proportion to the fuel inside them, I would usually take myself off into a corner and contemplate the world. That day I was so sleepy and tired that my eyes were self-shutting unable to withstand the weight of my eyelids, while the party was in full swing. I was clearly out of it. Prema saw me in that state and said to my wife and me, ‘Yawar looks like he is going to drop. Let me give you dinner so that you can eat and leave. I have no idea when these men will eat, and you look like you won’t last too long.’ I agreed wholeheartedly and we ate, said our farewells quietly and left.

Even up to that point I had my faculties still intact. You had to be alert when driving in the Anamallais, both on account of the road conditions as well as the possibility of coming upon a herd of elephants or Gaur around a bend. That night was mercifully elephant free and we reached Lower Sheikalmudi Estate without incident. As I took the final turn on the road leading up to our bungalow (the ‘Tennis Court Bungalow’), I relaxed and that was my undoing. The next thing I knew, there was a crash and the car came to an abrupt halt. I was shocked back into awareness and realized that I had driven off the road. The left front wheel of the car was hanging off the side of the road in midair with the front fender resting against a tea bush, which was the reason we hadn’t gone all the way down into the ravine. The chassis was resting on the roadbed. We were shocked. It was 2:00 a.m. and there we were.

I realized that this was not a good situation because the car did not belong to me. It was Mr. Menon’s car and a new one to boot. It was therefore my responsibility to get out of this situation. It didn’t even occur to me that I could leave the car where it was until morning and then get assistance to take it out of its predicament. I had crashed it and it was up to me to get it out. And I had to do it right away; it was not even a matter to think about. As it was, the car was directly below a staircase that led up to our house. I told my wife to walk up to the house so that she would safely be home. Then I went in search of a tractor to pull the car out. I knew that the leaf transport tractors – Massey Ferguson – used to be parked near Mayura Factory, about two kilometers from where I was. Our roads had no streetlights and it was a dark night. The tea fields were home to wild boar and other friendly species, not to mention several species of snakes, but none of them was my boss while AVG Menon was. So, I hiked off in search of a tractor. On the way I called my good friend, mechanic Thangavelu, because there was no way that I could pull the car out alone. Both of us got to where the tractors were parked and selected the one, we wanted.

None of the tractors had self-starters and used to be parked on an incline so that you could roll down and start the engine. And they had no lights; I never understood why. Working in starlight, I got into the driver’s seat, rolled down, and started the tractor. Now we needed a tow rope. Thangavelu recalled that the telephone company people had been working on a line passing through one of our fields and had left a coil of telephone wire there. So off we went, with Thangavelu standing on a plank behind me, holding the seat as I drove the tractor. We picked up the coil of wire and drove back to where the car was; hooked up the wire to the chassis at the back and pulled the car back on the road. When I examined the damage, I saw that the tea bush had taken the shock and except for a small side indicator light, nothing was broken. That was a big relief to put it mildly. Thangavelu then took the tractor back to its parking spot and I drove home at 3:30 a.m. I still recall the first thing that AVG asked me when I told him the next morning that we’d had an accident in his new car. He said, ‘I hope both are alright?’ I told him that we were fine but that his new car had been inaugurated with a broken indicator light. He was amused and laughed it off and said, ‘That can be fixed. I am happy that nothing happened to you both.’ That is why we used to call him AVG Menon = A Very Good Menon.

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