Lower Sheikalmudi like most estates had fallen victim to a custom that had been set up by the British planters; that of worker’s vegetable gardens. The original idea was to informally give some land to estate workers so that they could grow some vegetables to supplement their diet. In those days, transporting fresh vegetables from the plains was not a feasible option and so these vegetable gardens had been cultivated for decades.
As time passed these gardens gradually grew in size and encroached on the tea. The people who grew the gardens were few and what they grew started becoming more for sale than for personal consumption. Also, since vegetables also need fertilizer and pesticides, these started to be pinched from the estate supplies. When I became the manager of Lower Sheikalmudi Estate, I made a quick survey of the vegetable gardens and discovered that there were close to fifty acres of gardens, give or take a few. I decided that the time had come to start reclaiming the gardens and planting them up with tea.
I chose the lean season for this and called meetings with the unions and the garden owners. I told the unions that I was not claiming the gardens for my personal use. I was claiming them to plant tea, which when it came into bearing would mean additional employment for their members. At present the garden was providing an income to a few individuals. The tea, when it was mature in four years, would provide employment to more than a hundred people. I asked the unions to support my effort and to persuade the owners of the gardens to return the land to the estate. I told the garden owners that they had enjoyed the fruits of the gardens for so many years, rent free. Now I was asking them to return the gardens to the real owner, which was the estate. Consequently, they would be creating employment for their own children.
By sheer hands-on practice in this and other similar events in my life, I learnt some very valuable lessons in negotiation and influencing without formal authority. The key learning was that in order to get anyone to do anything, or change their ways, especially where it involved them contributing something, be it time, money or anything else, it was essential to be able to show them how they would personally benefit from this change. It is not a matter of some clever talk or pulling the wool over their eyes. Firstly, people see through all such subterfuges quite easily, and even if they don’t in the beginning, they quickly wise up to it as events unfold and then you lose all credibility and moral authority. You need to really be able to see the value in your own proposition and to be able to show it to the people whose cooperation you need. In the vegetable gardens case, the issue was important to me as it would give me positive points with the company management, but it was not a serious enough issue from the management’s point of view (after all it had been going on for more than sixty years without anyone bothering too much about it) to make it worth a fight. So if the workers decided to seriously protest, and especially if it resulted in any work stoppage or labor unrest, it was highly doubtful that I would get top management support or thanks for raising up an issue which they did not see as important enough. It was a tricky situation for me – I needed the workers to give up their gardens and to support me in taking them over without much of a company backing. Seemed like a crazy proposition and some of my friends warned me that it was crazy and that I was unnecessarily putting my job on the line. I have always taken high risks and it was the excitement of challenge that motivated me.
The challenge was to get them to see how they would all benefit in the long term as a collective if a few of them agreed to give up the gardens to the estate to be planted with tea. Once again, my knowledge of the local language (Tamil) and culture (which one can never understand unless one learns the language) came to my aid. Also, the psychology of involving people in their own decision making. I needed not only to persuade the garden owners but the rest of the population that this was good for everyone. That way, there would be moral pressure on the garden owners from their own people, which would be very hard for them to resist. The benefit of additional employment was real, and they all understood it. The issue was to persuade them to do something today to get the benefit four to five years later.
I called a meeting of the Works Committee (Union Leaders) and some of the elders among the workers who were not WC members, but were respected in the community. I spoke to them about what I was planning to do and why. I showed them how by a few of them giving up the vegetable gardens they would enable the perennial employment of future generations. I showed them how by doing this, their names would be immortalized as those who sacrificed their own personal gain for the benefit of the community of workers. I also gently pointed out that over all the years that they had been using the produce of the gardens, the company had not charged them any rent nor interfered with them in any way (actually, these were our legal weaknesses, but I projected them as favors on them by previous managers). Now was the time when they must pay their dues, not to me or to the company, but to their own brethren, by cooperating with us and planting tea instead of vegetables. It took a few meetings over about two weeks or so, but in the end they all agreed, and we took over the gardens and started planting tea.
The exception was one garden which was about five acres in size and was cultivated by a man called Doraisamy, who was not on the estate rolls. The man was an ex-employee of the estate and an ex-serviceman. He was about my height, heavier, and extremely muscular, the result of working hard in the garden. The garden was beautifully terraced and cultivated and planted with pineapple. It had a thick thorn fence all around to keep out Wild Boar that would have destroyed the entire garden in one night if they could get access to it. Doraisamy had a small hut in the middle of the garden where he lived by himself.
When we decided to take back the garden, I called Doraisamy and asked him to hand over the garden to the estate, he refused. I told him that we would have to evict him if he did not give up the land voluntarily. He challenged us to try. There was much whispering going on in the estate bazar in the evening, which was regularly reported to me. I sent some people to talk to Doraisamy privately, but the man refused to budge. I offered him a job as a forest watcher, which would have suited him ideally and given him a steady income. No change. He insisted that he would cultivate the garden and that nobody could move him. Prestige issues become symbolic and then morph into more complex challenges to authority. I was aware of this and decided that there was no alternative but to call his bluff. So, one morning I took twenty workers to the site and ordered them to remove the fence. As the workers started to take out some of the thorny branches, Doraisamy rushed out of his hut with a loud yell and came at the workers. He had a huge chopping knife in his hand. The workers all ran back as a body. Doraisamy came to the gate of the garden and after describing the ancestry of the people who had come to take down his garden fence in very imaginative language, said, “Let me see who is man enough to step inside here. I will chop off his leg.”
There are critical incidents when as a leader you must take a call. At that moment you are alone. You believe in the depths of your heart that you can succeed. You know in your gut the real challenge that you must face. You are afraid, but you don’t show it. You take the first step forward and then you stand aside and watch yourself. For the rest is already written. And it is waiting for you to take the first step, so that the script for the right scene can be played out. Once you take the first step, doors open from undiscovered places. Once you take the first step, angels descend and walk with you and turn aside the hand that rises to strike you. And AllahY puts love and respect in hearts where once resided fear, anger, and hatred. All this, however, depends on the first step. For that one instance, you are alone and all of creation is waiting to see what you will do. It is the choice you make that decides what the consequences will be. We are free to choose. But no choice is free. Every choice has a price tag.
It takes far longer to narrate this tale than the time it took for it to happen. All that I am telling you probably happened in less than five minutes. And of that, the first part during which I took the crucial steps, took not more than a few seconds. The ‘decision’ was not as cognitive as it may sound as you read this. It was instinctive and inspired, more than thought-out. Who knows, but maybe in such situations, the only way to act right is to simply act; not think too long. It is when one thinks too long that logic takes the place of passion. Then the brain rules the heart. And the moment is lost to false concerns of safe harbor. This is where the rubber meets the road and you either walk your talk or fail.
The objective of life is to achieve that which you did not know you could. To scale heights that leave you breathless with fear until you realize that it is excitement and not fear at all. Excitement is fear that anticipates a happy ending. Short breath, dry mouth, alive senses, and joy. The objective is to see how much more you can achieve. And you never can tell that unless you try to do that which you have never done before. Safety is only one of the considerations in the strategy to achieve that. Never the objective. As they say, ‘Ships are safest in the harbor. But ships are not made to remain in the harbor.’ To live is not simply to draw breath.
I saw myself looking at the people around me. They were all standing in a bunch, crowded together, watching to see what I would do. My Field Officer, Mr. Govindraj was standing a little behind me, also watching to see what I would do. Mr. Jeyapaul, the Field Officer of Lower Division, was also there, as was Suresh Menon, my Assistant Manager. I was standing on top of a small rock. I looked straight ahead and saw Doraisamy standing in the doorway of his garden with the chopper in his hand. Strangely, my heart was with the man. I was amazed at myself. Here I was facing a man who was threatening to chop off my leg and I felt what he was feeling. He saw me as someone who was bent on destroying his life’s work. He had put untold hours into this garden. He had cleared the land, fenced it cutting thorn bush from the forest, in the process donating his blood to the millions of leeches and the thorns themselves. He had then cut terraces to hold the plants. He had planted pineapples and tapioca and tended them. He had guarded them in the bitterly cold, dark nights against the depredations of gaur, elephant and wild boar, sitting awake sometimes all night, shouting and beating an empty tin can to chase them away. He had seen his plants grow and as a planter, I knew exactly what the emotional attachment is to something that you plant with your own hands and nurture with your sweat and love. Anyone who has never planted a garden can never understand what was going on in the mind and heart of that man. He could and would have killed, if he needed to, to save his garden. And I was the man who was his principal target.
With hindsight, I know that if I did not understand him and feel for him, I would never have taken that fateful step and would have probably left the place, never to return. For such incidents are never repeated. They happen once and they set the boundary. It is only with love that one can deal with the worst conflicts. In order to resolve a conflict in your favor and be able to show the opponent the benefit that he will get by accepting your position, paradoxically, you must love your enemy. You must love him, feel for him, and understand him.
It is very much like hunting. The best hunter is the one who loves his quarry. You kill the animal, but not because you hate him. You kill him in a test of skill where you come out on top. It is true that you have a sophisticated weapon. But he has instincts honed over centuries of selective breeding and developed to an extent where they are almost magical in their power to keep him safe from harm. He has endurance and knowledge of his surroundings that the hunter can never match. And most of all, he has the supreme motivation of saving his own life. Yet you as the hunter must beat him at his own game. And that takes some doing. But the central theme in it all is to love the quarry. On occasion, after tracking down the quarry and seeing it fully in the sights of my rifle, I have lowered the weapon and watched it go away. The satisfaction far more than in squeezing the trigger. For in giving life there is always more joy than in taking it.
To come back to my story, I understood and empathized with Doraisamy. Yet I had my goal to achieve and I knew that there would be no second chance. This was no longer about Doraisamy or his garden. This had escalated into a trial of strength, which would define me and my power as a Manager. If I lost this, I may as well leave my job for it would destroy my authority in a place where moral authority and the aura that went with the position was the main resource in making you effective. Without that you were another person like anyone else and that spelt doom. People obeyed you because disobedience was not an option. If it ever did become an option, then you may as well leave because there was no way that you could govern hundreds of people by force. You governed them because they considered you worthy of obedience and loved and respected you enough not to think of rebelling. You needed to be fair, compassionate and kind, but above all, strong. Kindness coming from a position of strength is respected; from a position of weakness it is not seen as kindness at all but helplessness to be taken advantage of.
I stepped off the rock.
I walked straight towards Doraisamy. Behind me, I heard the voice of Mr. Govindraj telling me to stop and not to go near him. Suresh made to accompany me. I signaled them to stay where they were. This was about me, personally. Not about anyone else. I heard all the men standing around Govindraj murmuring. I noticed nobody. My eyes were fixed on Doraisamy in the doorway. I walked straight towards him. I was unarmed. I was smaller than he was and much younger. I stepped inside the doorway and stopped literally a few centimeters from him. I looked straight into his eyes and said, “Okay, chop off my leg.” For a few moments he held my gaze. Then his eyes dropped. I knew in that instant that I had won. The critical incident was past. The danger was no more.
“I did not mean to say that to you,” he said. I extended my hand and said, “Doraisamy, give me that chopper.” He handed it to me without a murmur. I said to him, “Were you really going to kill me?” He looked down and said, “No Dorai. I was not going to kill you or anyone.”
I then looked at his hut and said, “So Doraisamy are you not going to invite me into your house?” Immediately the rural spirit of hospitality kicked in and he said, “Of course. It is your home. Please come in.” I bent down and went in through the low doorway, having first handed him his chopper. Also deliberately putting yourself in his power and turning your back to him only demonstrates your own psychological superiority. If you have judged the situation right, you are not in the slightest danger. But by handing the weapon to the man, you are asserting the fact that you trust him. He then becomes honor bound not to harm you, even though you are now physically in his power. It is very essential to ensure that you allow a person in such a situation to save face. That enables him to back off with honor and defuses tension. Only a fool shuts all escape routes for the opponent because when cornered even a rat will fight to the death. Only a fool looks for a fight. In the words of Sun Tzu, ‘Build for your enemy a bridge of gold to retreat over.’ My purpose was not to humiliate Doraisamy. It was to get him to give up the land he had been illegally occupying with the least amount of fuss. To enable him to do that honorably without feeling insulted or losing face in the community, was the best way.
The inside of the hut was very neat and clean. The floor had been sprinkled with a mixture of cow urine and dung and then swept clean and tamped down. That makes it hard and dust free and completely odorless. A traditional method of maintaining floors in the villages. There was a cot with a rope mesh with a blanket on it. There were some pots and pans neatly placed in one corner with a small stove near them. He asked me, “Will Dorai have some tea?” I said, “Of course.” Then as he made the tea, I told him, “Doraisamy, look, you have a beautiful garden here. You are a very skillful gardener and a very hard-working man. I appreciate your work and hate to take it away from you, but what can I do? Your land is the only one left. You took the fruit from this for so many years. Now with this land going back to the estate, you will lose that income. I will employ you as a forest guard, which is a position I need to fill. That will give you a regular income and the work is far easier than this. And when we finish planting the tea your children will pluck it. What do you say?”
He said, “Dorai, you are the owner. Do whatever you like.” I felt sad that I was taking away this land but was very happy that it ended as easily and smoothly as it did. We removed the fence and then eventually we planted tea in all the lands that we had reclaimed, adding almost fifty acres of planted area to the estate. I look on these areas with great pride and satisfaction because it is not everyone who has a chance to plant large acreages of tea in today’s times in South India.
The closing of this loop was when I returned to Lower Sheikalmudi Estate in 2007, twenty years after this incident and was delighted at how beautifully the tea that I had planted had come up. As I stood there looking at the tea, Raman, my guide told me, “Dorai, they call this Baig Dorai Thotam (Baig Dorai’s Garden). When the workers come here to pluck tea, they first take your name. Till the day this tea is here, your name will not be forgotten.”
In this whole incident the one thing that is not logically explainable but an essential part of leadership, is the willingness to trust your inner voice. When you do that you enter a state of grace. It is a state where you do things that you did not know were possible. You will find yourself saying things that you were not aware that you knew. You will find your mind working at a heightened state of awareness. You will feel more alive and full of energy than you ever did before.
Another big learning for me was the importance of actively participating in the action. I spoke to Mr. Jeyapaul on January 4, 2008, more than twenty years after the incident. I mentioned to him that I had visited the Anamallais the previous month and was very happy to see that people still remembered me. He said to me, “Sir, how can they forget? To this day they talk of how you faced Doraisamy and then when he backed down, you did not insult him, but went into his hut and drank tea with him.”
What struck me was the quality of my own memory of this incident, which to this day is uplifting for me. For Mr. Jeyapaul, even though it is an important enough memory for him to remember it twenty years later, obviously the quality of it is different. So even though we were both (and many others) present on the occasion, the impact of what happened to each of us is in direct proportion to our own active participation in the events. To give people like Mr. Jeyapaul and Suresh their due, they watched because I had expressly forbidden them from coming with me when I went down to meet Doraisamy. Knowing them as well as I do, they would have walked by my side gladly. But in my assessment the issue was between me and Doraisamy. Man, to man. If I allowed anyone else to accompany me, it would reduce my own moral authority. If I did it alone, I would be the only one risking myself, but then the result would also be proportional. In any case, I did not want the additional responsibility of looking out for anyone else in case something went wrong, having to deal with the thought that I had allowed them to risk their lives. Another matter was that given the critical nature of the situation it was entirely likely that Doraisamy would have attacked someone other than me, who he saw as less powerful. So, I ordered them all to remain where they were and went down alone.
The benefit of reflecting on your life in seeking to learn from it is that even twenty years later, there are things you can learn.