I used to go to Grass Hills as often as I could with my two companions, the Raman brothers. They were cousins and had the same name. We would leave my motorcycle in the garage of the Assistant Manager of Akkamalai Estate – it didn’t matter if you knew the person or not. It was our code of hospitality that at such places your house was open to anyone who needed help. If someone wanted to park a car or motorcycle or needed some petrol or a cup of tea, he only had to ask, and it was all provided with a smile. The Raman brothers and I would start walking up. The distance to the APA Hut is about fourteen kilometers. If you don’t take the road and instead walk up the hillside it is a couple of kilometers shorter, but you need a lot of stamina for the climb. The climb is steep, the elevation (six thousand feet) takes its toll especially if you are not used to it – as I discovered when I went to the Grass Hills in 2007 after a gap of twenty years. The footing is very rough and uncertain as the tough tussocky grass grows in clumps and you must find your way between clumps. If it has been raining, then almost every single blade of grass will have a leech or two on it and you are more than likely to be viewed as manna from heaven by them. But if you can overcome the effort and the bloodshed then you are rewarded with some of the most spectacular views that you could ever imagine. The road is simpler and easier but like all simpler and easier tasks, less rewarding.
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 stay in the harbor.’ To live is not simply to draw breath. 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.
Guests were very special in the gardens. There were no guest houses or hotels, so whoever came, stayed with you. Official guests stayed with the General or Group Manager, Manager or Assistant Manager, depending on who they were in terms of their rank or significance for the Company. Your guests stayed with you or sometimes with your friends, depending on what was happening in your life at the time. We played host to a friend’s grandmother, another friend’s heavily pregnant wife as he had to travel urgently and to several others. In the plantations we treated each other as members of our family. We stood behind each other, no question about it. I have written here about a few of the guests. We had many more. Too many to name here. So, if you visited us and are not mentioned in this article, please know that you are remembered though I have not mentioned you here.
The root of all motivation is to know what one can expect from one’s efforts. WiiFM is a station that everyone listens to. What’s in it for Me? People don’t always ask you that in so many words. But you can be certain that is what is in their minds all the time. If you can translate whatever you want them to do in language that will show them what they stand to gain, you won’t need to do any convincing. For this you need language. Speak the language and you are three-quarters of the way there. One of the things I was very proud of was my knowledge of and relationship with my workers. I knew them all by sight, most by name and of many, I knew their family connections as well. They, in turn, treated me more like a tribal chief cum family elder rather than the Manager of the estate.
Truly it is said that tea planting is not a job. It is a lifestyle and a way of life with its own norms, culture, taboos, ways, and manners. We in the hills, were a community, comprised of people from a huge diversity of backgrounds, who in the normal scheme of things would never have even known one another, let alone be friends. But in the plantations, we were not only friends but in the case of some of us, closer than family. I can say with total certainty about not one but many of my friends from tea – ranging from workers, to supervisors, staff and fellow managers – that we would have gladly given our lives for each other and feel privileged for the opportunity. We didn’t need to, but on a couple of occasions, it came close to that.
The plantation years were not all about work and unions. They were a time of great fun and fulfillment; of wonderful friendships and personal growth. During these years I was able to be in the rain forests of the Western Ghats and see in their natural habitat, animals that it had always been my desire to see. I have always had an abiding interest in ecology with specific reference to mammals and their habitat. What better place to indulge that than the Indira Gandhi National Park inside which I lived for the 7 years that I lived in the Anamallais.
Mango Range was an interlude in my career. I was marking time and waiting for some positive change to happen, and in the meanwhile I enjoyed myself. It has long been my philosophy to live one day at a time and to try to create as much happiness for myself and around me as possible. I have learnt that the two are the same. You can only be happy if those around you are happy. This is true whether you are an individual, an organization, or a country. Imagine what a wonderful world we would have if instead of competing, we collaborated and shared resources. We would all be wealthier, happier, and healthier. I have always held that the secret of happiness is to be thankful for and enjoy the small things in life. There are far many more of them than the big events. If we can enjoy the small things, then we can be happy all the time. The key to enjoyment is to appreciate them and be thankful for them. The key to contentment is not amassing material but being thankful for what one has. The happiest people are those who are content. Content people are those who are thankful. Material wealth has nothing to do with it.
The biggest learning for me in this entire incident was the difference between theory and practice. I knew from all my reading and talking to experts that even if you get to the stage where you are facing an elephant which snorts in warning, all you need to do is to start moving back slowly. Not run. Not make any noise. Just move back slowly. Continue to face the animal but keep moving away and increase the ‘trigger distance,’ which can precipitate the charge. Now, does this work in practice? Who knows? What I did and what you will also probably do if you are ever in such a situation, is to turn around and run like hell. Knowing fully well that a person has as much chance of outrunning a charging elephant as they have of outrunning an express train. And that unlike an express train, this one is not bound by the railway track. But then there is a force that protects that is more powerful than the elephant, which will pick you up by the scruff of your neck and put you high above harm’s way. So, theory is good. But practical life sometimes plays tricks with theory.
From Nawab Nazir Yar Jung, I learnt the importance of commitment to quality. He never once used the word, but he never accepted anything but the best. Be it in breeding dogs or in their training, or in training horses. Attention to detail and insisting on the best. He was an expert in Judo and that also added to the quality of what he taught us. He taught us many self-defense techniques using our bare hands or ordinary objects of everyday use that are always at hand and can be converted into weapons to defend yourself and make the attacker think twice about attacking you. Martial arts training is more about training the mind than about the body. Martial arts is about living with awareness, studying your opponent, discovering his weakness, and exploiting it to your advantage. It is also about building your opponent a bridge of gold to retreat over – as Sun-Tzu calls it. But to do that you have to conquer your ego before conquering your enemy. The worst enemy is an overindulged ego.
Raman and I would discuss the reasons for corruption in our system. Our people, the vast majority of them are good, simple, and have sincere hearts that have learned to become helpless. Every conversation ends with the same refrain, ‘Ah! But what can we do?’ The reality is that if anything can be done, it is only we who can do it. But this remains an elusive concept. Having put that to rest, we would watch the fire and simply sit in companionable silence, waiting for dawn. Raman proves that he is made of gold by pulling out a flask with piping hot tea and he and I share the tea and wait for the night to pass.
Gradually our talk runs out and we doze in spells. The fire starts to go down and every once in a while, either Raman or I put another log into it. Time passes. We see the owls that had left the previous evening, return to their perch and they have a long conversation recounting tales of the hunt. I have no idea whose story was more impressive, but both seem to have a lot to talk about. The sky is now starting to lighten. There is a strange blue light and I feel as if I am looking at the world from the bottom of the ocean. Then an orange tinge starts at the very bottom of the horizon and gradually grows upwards as if a fire has been started and is strengthening. And indeed, it has.