Coffee and Joy and Terror


I was at Nandi Thota last weekend.

It was a time for butterflies on the plantation. Small ones crossed my path: yellow and white lime-green and gray and other, rich-patterned types. They winged about at the speed of small birds, and covered comparable distances, even if they were unsteady and shook as they flew. The currents buffet the fragile things as they make their way with the breezes. Why the speed? I wondered. There wasn’t ever a predator chasing them.

Spiders. They had proliferated across the plantation, weaving a web every place where they’d found two supports with a gap between. Such opportunities abound in the place, of course. The spiders have grown fat from the bounty in the country. I wished them bon appetit, and I wished the same for all the creatures around, gorging and being gorged with gusto among the greens. There was joy and there was terror in the orgy of dining going on in that sylvan setting.

I took my pleasure gazing at the coffee. Their broad leaves had opened out to the balmy sun, and they shone like they’d been oiled, every single one of them. The grasses between coffee patches had paled in comparison, having received a ruthless marine cut.

Those were the sights on the plantation this weekend. The one thing I didn’t see, though I heard it all the time, was the peacock. The peacock feeds on the snake, and there’s a feast of them all about the plantation.

Now I’m back home for workweek. Here, too, we have the peacock calling during the day, from the sprawling CPRI campus before my house. At night a white owl that has long resided in my compound takes over with deep short metronomic hoots. The sound comes in when I’m in bed. I don’t know the owl’s diet, but there are snakes aplenty within this agglomeration of millions of humans.

This morning, at 5:30, when I was walking on 4th Cross a dog leapt at a man and settled its paws on his shoulder. The man shook off the legs and moved on, but when that same dog started running up to me I let out a shout so loud it stunned the four-legged thing and it froze.

“Zorro, Zorro, don’t do that,” a female voice rang out. It was still dark, and a lean figure emerged from a gate and went to the dog and led it away. After I’d gone a few steps I turned round. The lady, who I could see was in good shape but whose age I couldn’t tell, had taken the dog’s head between her knees, and was soothing the scolded thing’s hurt.

Three streets later, I asked myself if I’d been too harsh. Yes, perhaps. But I’m not such a great dog-lover, and I don’t fancy its bite. There’s no knowing which one is vaccinated, which not, and there are two or three such owners who walk their dogs unleashed mornings while I walk, and they put on a provocative air when I near them.

I’m disappointed with myself, though, for the volume of my outburst, and also because what I did is not good preparation for a book that I’ve just preordered on Amazon: The Inner Life of Animals, by Peter Wohlleben.

A Day in Malnad to Clear the Head


Depression in the Bay has brought a week of rain to Malnad, about five inches of it, taking the rainfall so far in the year to thirty-eight inches. Two-thirds of the monsoon season is now past. There will not be the historical average of ninety inches of rain this year, like last year and the year before. But the coffee plantations of Malnad have adjusted to the lack, it seems. All signs suggest a healthy crop at year’s end, provided nothing goes wrong in the time left, such as, for instance, rains from the Bay during cherry-picking.

So we didn’t worry for coffee, or for pepper, during this weekend's visit to the thota. We relaxed to the din of the birds that lasts through breakfast. (During which time the birds complete their morning-meal, and fly out to their different day jobs leaving behind an ocean of silence.) But by afternoon the cloudiness got me, boxing me in, in the vast, hilly sprawl of the place. In the evenings the cicada hemmed us in with their racket, though they were fewer this time than usual, as though their scouts had arrived ahead of the army of them, to test if the rain was for real.

And the elephants compacted the place even more. This was the first time the elephants had arrived on the plantation the same time as us, but they didn’t come over to the bungalow. They’ve been camping around our home lately, on the grassy clearing there, but this time they stayed out at their old lodging on a patch of jungle on the northeastern edge of our property.

“Don’t go out before 9:00. Don’t stay out after 6:00.” That was Basavanna’s caution to us as we were turning south at Ballupet en route our estate. That’s the precaution he takes himself, in his place next to ours.

So I sat and finished the novel I’d brought along. And, my wife and I took in the view and the feel of the place from within the bungalow, delighting in the pepper vines that are shooting up on the replanted coffee patch back of the house. A chill crept in from the crevices that the vermin use; the drizzle outside was constant, and the breeze with it; mist covered the distant hills and the tops of the areca palms along the stream which is our eastern boundary.

We did go out during the day, giving due respect to the northeast corner. I looked for the top of the elephant over the coffee and searched for its legs in the hollows below the high robusta plants. I sniffed at the clean air for the reputed stink of the wild elephant. All through, I maintained the bravest face I could and told my wife thrice or four times that we should foremost be calm if the beast should come up.

“We should turn around and walk away. But without haste. If we show agitation, the thing will think it should engage.”

My wife nodded as if to agree, but I could tell from thirty years with her that in the nooks of her mind she had plans of her own that she'd more likely follow, pulling me along as well.

I was happy to be returning to Bangalore, and I nearly said so in the car on the highway. But I checked myself when, in that very moment, my wife sank in her seat and sighed and said, “Just one day in the place and my head clears up completely.”

Malnad Diary, Week 08|2017

 Archive photo: Nandi Thota

Archive photo: Nandi Thota

We’d forgotten to pack some tea for the weekend. So when Hassan came up we let go the bypass and veered into town, and soon saw we were out of luck. Hassan was shuttered down along the entire length of the Bangalore–Mangalore Road as we could see, and also probably in the side streets that we couldn't see. Realising that a bundh was unfolding, and anticipating the riot that accompanies the bundh, we turned back at the town centre and sped out. Just before we hit the bypass we nodded to temptation and turned into another part of town, down the engineering college into a quieter street, and found a half-shuttered tea-shop — a ten-foot-square affair in a basement where a lady brewed tea, but was out of custom today. From on the pavement I inquired for tea bags, my ankles at her eye-level. She had no tea bags, what she could offer was ready-to-drink sweet white tea, but she had information. The town was protesting a water problem.

That knowledge sent us racing out again. Issues relating to water whip up the nastiest passions hereabouts, causing loss and injury and sometimes death. Even the liquor stores are shut, I thought as we drove, and seeing it was noon, I felt sorry for the hardy tipplers of Hassan, who down two pegs or more by this time, leaning on counters in liquor outlets that line the main street.

Hassan is headquarters of Hassan district, an agrarian place populated by serious and, as the government experts call them, “progressive” farmers. During last week, the state government in Bangalore has decided to drain the Hemavathi, which is the main river of Hassan district, into the far-off Krishnarajasagar reservoir, denying water to the farmlands of Hassan. The decision has thrown the district into panic. The savvy population of Bangalore first needs to be appeased by the government, because the IT folks there are loud and articulate and their voice reaches the corners of the world. The cry of Hassan won't travel beyond its plains, and in the meantime, the season’s incipient crop of potato, tomato, rice and sunflower and ragi and jowar will die with only so much noise as a dried plant crumbling.

We stopped at our factory on the outskirts of Hassan for some hours, so when we reached Nandi Thota it was late afternoon. The sun was blazing on the coffee plants, and the leaves were wrinkled and drooping, but the green lingered yet in them. In recent days the folks have been running sprinklers on the plants, but sparingly so, because of fear of draining the water tanks altogether. The coffee zone of Hassan runs along its western border, and here, too, the rains have failed, and this year’s crop would be poorer than last year’s.

Also, the plantation-hands are busy gathering the gleanings, berries that have fallen to ground. And they’re doing dhoolagathe. Which means it’s as busy as always on the plantation, whatever the intimations regarding the unfolding year.

There’s no 4G or 3G or even 2G at Nandi Thota. There’s only EDGE that hangs without accepting or delivering a byte, and there's a trembling voice connection. Some folks say that’s a good thing for the system, like occasional fasting is, but ‘m normal and I don’t fast, and I need my devices to be trading megabytes even as I sleep. This weekend, there was the added gift of no electricity, in favor of which, too, there’s strong argument, but I don’t care for this uplifting thing either, and asked for the generator to be turned on. It’s a diesel machine, and it ran like it was beating on its iron chest with heavy metal hands, very loudly but plaintively suggesting its age and its oncoming demise. My wife asked them to shut it down halfway through the evening, and we slept early and we woke up fresh and then we had to get the damn generator going again.

Such was the weekend. And now it’s the start of the next week, and after a quick day trip to Delhi, I’m en route to Singapore.

Coffee Past and Coffee Present and a Copper Moon

 Nandi Thota

Nandi Thota

We spent last weekend at Nandi Thota, in coffee country.

Before arriving there, we went first to a 150-year-old plantation north-east of Hassan. The plantation was owned by English planters until Independence, and at the time of British departure its white owner was a man who’d arrived very young in India and grown very old at the time of Independence. He died quite soon after his countrymen left, with imperial honors on an aged breast, spreading wealth in death just as he’d done while alive. He’d determined early that he’d live out his life in India. After him, the first Indian to own the place planted some redwoods in it, bringing them from faraway islands. I wished to see those trees. They’re tall and smooth and sport a handsome girth. I’ve seen their kin in their natural habitat, on the islands they’re from, where they’re even taller, and broader. Here in Malnad they’re diminished somewhat, no matter if they’re rooted in fertile soil of an once-dense tropical jungle.


When we reached Nandi Thota the sun was setting. The light was fading but we could see how neat our place had gotten with fresh de-weeding, and the pruning of the coffee plants and shade trees over the last couple of months. I felt good, but as I gazed at our trees which are younger than in the Englishman’s plantation, with its old trees and redwoods, I felt some envy. When our home came up, again I thought of the plantation we’d just been in.


The Englishman’s old bungalow with its metre-thick walls stands there even now, home to its current owners. During his time the Englishman would’ve gone riding his horse to Sakleshpur, to spend evenings at the whites-only Munzerabad Club. His path would’ve been through jungle and through plantations of peers, and in those times it was a pukka jungle with tiger and leopard and bison and bear—and plenty more snakes than now, of course.


On our own plantation, it was peaceful. Small birds hopped on broad sills and sang out for mates to come join them. A peacock flew into view from somewhere and we lost sight of it in foliage—I marveled at the distance that big bird covers in one go. A mongoose sensed us a hundred yards out and fled along the electrified eastern fence. Fireflies abounded in response to a deceiving appearance of precipitation. (Can’t they tell?) Basavanna, our next-door planter who tends our plantation updated us on works in progress, specially regarding planting new pepper. There’s frenetic planting of pepper across the coffee belt this year. Basavanna has done well and, even better, for the first time since we acquired this plantation he has enough hands on the ready for picking commencing November.


We left for Bangalore Sunday evening with cleaned lungs and in good spirits. On the highway the breath was taken clean out of our chests. Hordes of cars were beating it for Bangalore, tailgating and cutting in and throwing us off—again and quickly again. The Dasara holidays had ended on the weekend and all who’d gone out to the coffee country were coming back in one mass. Anticipating the traffic we’d soon suffer in Bangalore, I closed my eyes. When I opened them next we’d passed Hassan and I noticed for the first time, after an International School that’s come up there, signs by the road alerting motorists to leopards.

The sun was setting back of us, and ahead of us there was a swollen copper moon climbing the sky. Thoughts of leopard turned deep and complex and melancholy in that light in that setting. I indulged myself until, suddenly, it occurred to me that leopards needed signs too, to alert them to humans riding Japanese-made, German-made, US-made, and even Indian-made beasts with all the speed they could eke out on the crowded highway, with burning focus on reaching the city on the instant, if possible.

I shut my eyes again, and when I opened them we’d reached the fringe of Bangalore, speeding over the flyovers at Nelamangala. The copper moon of dusk was high now in the night-sky, and though the moon was still round it had shrunk and turned a bright white, except in the parts where the rabbit showed. Next to me, my wife clucked her tongue to mourn the moon’s loss of colour.

Thou shalt not…

“No, listen. It’s not like that. Let’s not fight.”

I looked up from my Kindle. The girl at the next table was saying that to the young man with her. He’d risen. She got up after him, and they went to the door and out, and when they stopped on the third step on the stairs outside I relaxed, seeing they’d returned to calm conversation.

 Starbucks Sadashivanagar

Starbucks Sadashivanagar

It’s Christmas, a time to settle quarrels. I’ve been long assured that. I’m glad for that concept, having given offence to so many people through my life. I imagine them forgiving me, and I relax, and look to the year ahead with the best intentions. This Christmas I’m reading Ramana, and I was at 29% of the book at Starbucks when the young couple broke my concentration. I have picked up Ramana after finishing Eckhart Tolle, after responding to his insistent prodding toward the Timeless Now. Tolle has my gratitude. Only, why did it take me so long to get around to the Power of Now? I’ve had to grow so much to get to the concept. But that’s all right. The past is not real, as Tolle argues. Only the moment on hand is real. At any rate, that American writer has brought me round to our own Ramana Maharshi, whose like message precedes Tolle’s.

There at Starbucks, in pauses from reading, I noted that decorations for Christmas were muted. In a basket by me where I sat, there was a short bunch dry green grass, only so thick as my wrist, and tied to it were globules finished with shiny red paper. There was another basket of the kind by the bar counter. On the merchandize shelves six feet from me, two small cartons with mugs in them were tied one with a red ribbon and the other with a blue one. On the door was the customary wreath, made of the same grass, the same red balls. That’s it. I looked outside for the red Christmas lantern. They didn’t have one. But they hand a stand-up banner on the steps, in Xmas-red and white, with an exhortation on top: Unite in Good Cheer.

Why are Starbucks skimping on Christmas? Are they reflecting a general mood? Are they speaking the sign of the times here at home? In these ghar vapsi days?

A group of four took the table the boy and girl had vacated. There was a woman in black among them, who was blessed with a generous volume of voice and a matching disposition, and she laughed and spoke both at once, and all the time. I couldn’t hear the men in the group. The lady spoke of food. She laughed on the subject of food. Punjabi food. I haven’t seen many people who speak of food with love and laughter in such large and equal measure. I commend the lady for her disposition, but I was having trouble reading on account of her. She was loud in her laughter which when it peaked rivaled a star soprano’s highest. I remembered Tolle just when I thought I’d had enough—an approach he teaches. In a situation like I was in, you surrender to the present moment and allow your consciousness to fall on the irritant and the effect it is having on you. Consciousness will flush the pain clean off you.

I went back to reading Ramana. In short periods I looked up and attempted self enquiry, just as Ramana advocates it.

The long celebrations of Christmas have always bored me. If traveling in the West during the time, the boredom has been intense. For, in Europe and the US corporations invoke Christmas from November on, and feed you myriad gift ideas and shove the celebrations in your face at every turn. Christmas trees reach the heights of the atriums where they’re installed. Colored lights and streamers and other Christmas paraphernalia cover commercial streets and shopping malls. Being of another faith, their public fuss takes my mind straight through to the spreadsheets and powerpoint presentations that have worked out strategies to wring greater sales during this Christmas over last year’s. Being an outsider to the scheme, I cannot see Christ in the Christmas of the corporations. The celebrations on the street follow me through to the hotel lobby, and they take the solitude out of my room. I wonder at the stamina of the Europeans and the Americans who can take a two-month long celebration of a festival on this scale. But of course, they are in the warm, tight, loving embrace of the corporations.

There at Starbucks, how the lady at the next table was giggling! And the pace of her speech—it was so fast. She was speaking in English, but she delivered it with inflection and accentuation that followed her native Hindi. Tolle recommends a technique that dissolves irritation and returns you to the present moment. You observe the silence beneath the sounds assaulting you. You seek out the silence that envelops and subsumes all things round you, which silence extends outward as well, all the way to the skies. I looked out the cafe window. Up above, it was blue and bright in the December sun of Bangalore, and rightward of me the sky was covered in a film of very white cloud. It was all very good. I did discern the silence. I was on my second cappuccino that moment, and at the end of the bottle of water that always accompanies my coffee.

 St. Mark's Cathedral, Bangalore

St. Mark's Cathedral, Bangalore

It struck me that Starbucks were going easy on Christmas in more than their decorations. The music coming down from above was jazz. Herbie Hancock. Not Jingle Bells. When Herbie Hancock was done and John Patton came on, I heard him out and changed my mind about Christmas 2014. I decided I must go to a Church somewhere, and listen to hymns and carols. And say “Merry Christmas” to someone, anyone. So I went out and drove to St. Mark’s Cathedral, which is a nice presence on the corner of MG Road and Lavelle Road. I see it daily on my way to work, but I’ve never gone into it before. They had plenty of parking in their compound when I drove in. They weren’t singing when I walked in, but the nave was most becoming, there was a differently done manger out front, and a large black turkey was on the lawns, flashing the fan on its rear to a large white goose. I took pictures. I shot the building, the aisle, the altar, the doors and the windows and the painted glass in them. Done shooting, I sat in the pews, and picked up a little book: The Book of Common Worship: The Lord’s Supper. It opened at page 4, where the First Commandment jumped at me.

I closed my eyes. I’m game for any command on a good day…

A lot happens over coffee

Last week, I enjoyed watching Kangana Raut's performance in Queen. The movie begins with a knockout punch to her character, delivered by the character's fiancé. He cancels their wedding, due the following day, and he is unfeeling as he does so, not even noting the mehendi drying on her hands. He checks her as she begins to weep and plead, telling her they're in a public place. At the Cafe Coffee Day. "Calm down, yar," he says. "It happens."

Though they began to arrive fifteen years ago, cafes are new in the Indian psyche, and we'd not imagined we'd consume coffee in this accelerating scale.

Starbucks on Cunningham Road, Bangalore

At week's end, I watched another Hindi number: English Vinglish, in which Sridevi's character has no English and her daughter is ashamed of her for that reason. Her husband and their little boy tease and laugh at her accent when she attempts to mix some English with her Hindi. Their jibes hurt her, but she finds joy in the boy's constant bursts of affection, such as in moments when he breaks into sweet gigs with her and spills to her that his sister is out at Cafe Coffee Day, wearing a very short skirt. Seeing the news doesn't shake his mother, he tells her there are boys at his sister's table, but he cannot rouse his mother on this count.

My wife and I are going to the Coffee Day Lounge this evening. The Lounge stands up to Starbucks, whereas the same group's Cafe Coffee Day is a notch simpler and inexpensive and is more loved by youngsters. My architect, Vasuki, is joining us at the Lounge. We are carrying blueprints for a project in Hassan town. Vasuki will make fresh drawings to accommodate a change in plans. All that will be fine, I'm only worried regarding what I should drink. Cappuccino? Americano? The latter, I suppose, with warm milk added. What shall I do about the time, though? I don't drink coffee after 6:00, and the meeting commences right then.

I prefer the Coffee Day Lounge to Starbucks. The latter is cleaner, and it is in India decked up in pleasant ethnic decorations. B ut at Starbucks I've to go to the counter, whereas in the Coffee Day Lounge I'm served at the table. I spread my books and papers and my camera and its appurtenances about me at the Coffee Day Lounge, and spend two hours each visit. I rise once only, to go to the rest room.

Also yesterday, I was at the Coffee Day Lounge at Sadashivanagar. After my first cappuccino, I asked for kestha kabab, which they serve with salsa and mint chutney. As I dipped and ate those patties (the cafe calls them kabab to be nice to vegetarians) a large party came in. Four round tables were joined for them. The group was led by a short old man in whites. He was frail but from the gravitas on his sun-blackened face and his gait and his stance and from the distance everybody kept from him, I could see he was the patriarch. The rest were a mix of old, and not-so-old, and young men and women--some fifteen in all. After they'd ordered, a young couple detached themselves and came over and sat at a table before me.

I realized it was a party out to arrange a marriage for these two youngsters. The man must've asked for time with the woman, to check out more about her than her looks. Confident souls, I thought, because neither was dressed for the occasion. She wore daily-wear salwar-kameez; he wore unwashed blue jeans. She had a matching number of questions herself, it seemed to me. In twenty minutes they were done, and they returned to the main party where the others were themselves dressed for no more than a casual outing for coffee. Only the patriarch was impressive in his white shirt (pen and folded papers in the breast pocket) and a kachche-style dhoti. The groom joined two men at one end and shared with them his findings, and the lady sat at the other end and told the women there what she'd heard. The rest were immersed in other things, and ate varied fare. The patriarch walked about.

That's it. They left soon after. From where I sat it seemed to me that they parted with the mutual noncommittal assurance: "We'll get back."

Wishing them well in my mind, I dipped my last kebab in the salsa. I'd been dipping only into mint sauce until then. My stomach rose up in revulsion at the salsa, which was stale, but I chomped on, the hot spices in the kabab insulating my tongue from the foul tomato. I've not so far experienced stale food at Starbucks, whereas at Cafe Coffee Day they've been generous with it. That's all right. If people find Cafe Coffee Day and its cousin-outlets good for courtship, for making and breaking marriages, and for a scene for a film, they are swell enough for me, for the light reading I do there.

Chase coffee

Last evening at Barista's, Enlightenment hovered over me. "Come to me," I said. "Chase coffee," it said in answer, not coming, not going. "How? Where? Whence to whence? And why?" "Hush!" Enlightenment said, husky now. "Dive in, and we might meet somewhere when you're gone deep enough." Read More

a coffee-table story of Angadi

There isn’t an outlet that serves a decent cup of coffee in Malnad. The little shops that make it use instant-coffee powder; but if you are desperate for good coffee, knock on the door of the coffee-planter. His woman will serve it with a fluff of froth with a wee bit of powder on top, in a cup larger than for espresso, smaller than for cappuccino. Fine South Indian coffee, the very best cafe au lait in the world. The coffee planter is a friendly guy, and immensely hospitable. Go on, knock boldly. It is possible he’ll also treat you to some akki-rotti. The real problem is how to reciprocate on his scale in your turn. That is how you get good coffee in Malnad, where almost all Indian coffee is grown. Of course, the planter would rather spend the evening with you, to share with you some good whisky. But it has been a bad winter for him. It rained on consecutive days for a week in December and ruined a promising crop across the belt; weeds have sprung at the feet of coffee and the berries cannot be gleaned (on a decent scale) from the chaos on the ground; in the meantime the rain has confused the plants and they have sprouted white blossoms in odd patterns and on random patches of plants. The planters are woebegone in all the three coffee districts, Coorg and Hassan and Chikmagalur. Last week I went to Angadi from Sakleshpur, arriving where the narrow road splits into three, at which point you know you have arrived even if you miss the unmissable large sign: there is a stone tablet at the base of a large dried tree on the edge of the cross, rooting the place to antiquity. If you have come looking for Angadi, your turn is left, and you go a hundred meters up in the shade of the line of trees that flank you, and you come upon the mounds that you've come for, which hold the relics from the time of the founding of the Hoysala dynasty, from ten centuries ago. The first Hoysala with detailed records to his name was Nripakama. He ruled from Angadi. He began a mere hill chief, but he packed the audacity to attack the Chola, the Chalukya, and a powerful neighbor, all of whom defeated him. But he displayed such valor as to win respect in his region, and yet not ruffle the emperors of the north and the south. The defeats did not deter him. Soon he attacked Banavase, the capital of the Kadambas down south from him in the plains. He won. By 1047, the year of his death, he was lord of an area large enough to be called a kingdom and commanded an army of hardy people, and both fell to his son Vinayaditya to extend. Vinayaditya ruled a long time, so his son and grandsons were martially active with him while he ruled. Vinayaditya’s son Ereyanga, together with Ereyanga’s son Vishnuvardhana, went far north and torched the city of Dhara for the Chalukya, whose feudatory the Hoysala had become. Ereyanga would scourge three more cities, all before he himself became king. By the time Vinayaditya died, father and son and grandson had established a good sized kingdom, the nucleus of the major empire that the kingdom was to become within the next one-hundred years. Vinayaditya moved the capital away from Angadi on these ghats to Dorasamudra in the plains, a short distance away. Why did the Hoysala's sword—and the torch—travel only so far? His nemesis would arrive from such a distance. Did our peninsula, sealed by mountains, box our heroes within it? Were they denied the big bold dreams the grand terrain of Central Asia gave the Turkic men? In Angadi, the monuments are small, and attest that what happened here was only a beginning. There are rises all round, hemmed in by coffee plantations. On the first rise I saw a modern temple and turned back. In a short while I was before two rises on either side of me. The one on the right had three Hindu temples on it, on which men from Hampi are working to a plan to restore them in three years. The rise on the left had a Jain basdi on it, its restoration quite advanced, the thirthankaras already standing in its garbha. Perhaps there are big plans for this small temple, now in the charge of Dharmasthala: the plan for this temple also extends three years. If you’ve come searching for Angadi, you have the story of Sala in mind. The men on this site didn’t know where Sala performed his feat. A schoolboy who now tagged along with me didn’t know either. I drove back down the street and continued further, to the school, on another rise, broad like a short wide table. They were teaching on a Saturday, and in the classroom which I passed the teacher asked what happened in a substance (I didn’t hear the name) if four electrons fused with a single electron. His class gave him a rousing answer, all in chorus. In the next room I saw a dozen computers, of HCL, new under plastic hoods, and thought, maybe now, after ten centuries, the mind of even the commoner in Malnad is no more boxed, not by sea, nor by mountain, and who among these young—with the world open and inviting—might soar to the heights of a Chandrashekar or an Amartya Sen? The teachers didn’t know either, where Sala had performed his brave feat. But they were helpful. One went into the library and returned with the monumental Kannada Vishwakosha, and found for me the short entry on Angadi. We read it, but it didn’t tell where it happened. Where did Sala kill the tiger? They directed me back to the new temple, the one I’d first skipped. It is new only on the outside. The deities in it are female, with round, mother’s faces. They are of mud, and are ten centuries old. Sometime in their life someone has glazed their faces into a smooth-china finish, any woman’s envy. The rakshasa’s head is at the feet of Vasanthaparameshwari in the center; next to her, Varahi is on her haunches, and she has a sow’s sweet face—the only such face on a goddess that I've seen. They are vanadevate-yaru, goddesses of the forest. In their early life they sat in the open, with the jungle canopy their shelter, and this, when it was an open spot, according to the priest, was the gurukul of Sala, where his Jain guru threw him the staff, and the exhortation, Hoy! Sala! With that staff Sala killed the tiger that had come upon them, and gave birth to a name, and a dynasty.
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seeking a turn…


They were at the gate, by its post, taking shelter under umbrellas; how did they get there, and why? They had that disconnected look that has now grown permanent on them; and they were cold and shivering when I peered at them through the thin columns of rain in the dull misty morning. My Jeep was small but the whole village climbed into it and the Jeep grew wider and longer but it grew no seats and they squatted on its fluted metal-floor behind me. The boys watched me; I beckoned and they came in and a new level formed a foot below the soft top of the Jeep and they lay prone there with their chin on the edge, and stared straight ahead. They are quiet when they meet me at the factory to negotiate, and they were quiet now, speaking not even with each other, and even the others were silent, their smell strong and rising now, and I revved up and came out the gate and went deep down and then steep up and turned left and went some distance through a sudden darkness and opened my eyes. It was three. I lay awake for an hour more and rose and went into my study. Some birds had begun their serenade already.

I have fine feints for problems, but I do not enjoy the suspicion and the mind-games that the union has spawned, even if I have learned to live very well with it. This week, for the first time, it has followed me into my dreams.

On Friday, another dream: Dada and Sujaya and I mixed something into Yashas’ meal and Dada offered it to him. I thought it wrong that we should be doing it but I told myself he was going to be safe. Dada was expressionless. Nothing happened to Yashas. What was it we fed him? Was the dream a warning sent by the greens? 

A new elderly acquaintance called to say he’s read me in print. His praise was more than I deserved, profusely delivered on account of his age. He said I could’ve been a Sainath. Who? I forgot to find out, but on Thursday I checked on wiki and immediately ordered for Everybody Loves a Good Drought. The same evening I sat for drinks with Shyam, my friend from college. He is a senior executive in a multinational company, in charge of technology for medical electronics. “Everybody concentrates on technology for the top 8%, Shashi, but who is taking care of the bottom 8 per cent?” He told me of his own efforts—one story has stayed with me, of a student from Bangalore who has invented a cheaper technology for a critical medical procedure and a European multinational offered him €5 million for the rights and the young man refused it. Shyam helped him find the money to file the patents, and arranged for a partner to manufacture the product.

It has begun to rain finally in Malnad. The weeds we cut last fortnight, and the small branches that we piled together with them, have all rotted to a soggy pretty black at the base of the coffee. Above that compost, wherever we turned, and also up above, it was a stunning green. More rain has to fall to fill the lake that we dug ten feet deeper in summer. But Basavanna is waiting for the rain to stop a little so he can put coffee into another fifteen acres.

So much changes in a single place. So much change you experience when you go to far places. There is pain, and there is joy. There are people succeeding so well they’re leaving a green wake behind them, and there are the despairing who are even now consuming pesticide or hanging from trees.

I want to write because I like to tell things to people. Where shall I go to find the things that are good to tell?

the view from Munzerabad club

 Munzerabad Club at birth

Munzerabad Club at birth

Years ago, I often shuttled with my parents between Bangalore (and Mysore) and Mangalore, and crossed the coffee-belt midway. In all my memories I peer through the trees of the plantations from the rear window, always through mist or rain or the dark, looking for the fabled estate-mansions. I saw my first plantation-homes these last years, after acquiring a profession and having gone grey—the mist has thinned and their mystery has vaporised. But the magic of my imagining returns if I peer through time to beyond a hundred years ago, where the mists are thicker, and in their haze are brave men from six-thousand miles away, seeking fortune and adventure in the jungles of Malnad.

Men like Middleton. He came to Munzerabad (Tipu's Sakleshpur) from Ceylon, after three years of growing coffee there. An officer took him to the virgin ghats and told him to take the jungle from this hill to that, and from that hill there to this hill here for no tax at all, but to remit quarter of the earnings to the government. Middleton founded the Kaadumane Estate there. When he had succeeded to his satisfaction, it was time to take a wife, and he went to England to fetch one, and brought her to Kaadumane on an ox-cart, arriving at night. In the morning, her first day at her Indian home, his bride went out and saw yesterday's oxen were today two bloody carcasses, devoured by a tiger before dawn!

To sense that past, I went with Nagegowda's Bettadinda Battalige to the Munzerabad Club, established in 1893 by white planters, for white people. Ramachandra, its president today, is a lean, fit, reticent, classical planter with modern problems, worrying what to do with the horn-bearing skulls of wild game that gazed upon us while we chatted about the times when they were hunted down. He brought Subbanna, past-president, member since 1951, seventy-nine years of age but alert through every peg, and brimming with memories of drinks shared and graces experienced with English gentlemen in the years immediately after Independence.

Morning, I sat on the raised verandah with a breeze pleasant on the skin but pungent in the nostrils, the air spiked with mine-dust from the lorries of Bellary which run all day through the main street of Sakleshpur. The rains had brought down the temperatures.

The sun was easy on the eye and his light danced off the leaves. Ramachandra had arranged for Basanna (past president), and Karthik, the young honorary secretary-successful planters-to show me the minutes of meetings from the 1900s.

Extraordinary men-Crawford, Radcliffe, Young, Middleton (junior)-have signed notes on ordinary affairs: missing cutlery, the minimum whiskey that should be stocked, other such matters. In profession, and in causes espoused, each man's story is a potential bestseller. Lt. Col. Crawford came to India when he was eighteen with his brother, seventeen. They arrived in Madras, boarded a train to Bangalore, then to Mysore, and travelled by ox-cart to Hassan. The eighty-mile journey to Hassan took five days, and Crawford has narrated remembrances not of hardship suffered but of kindness received from the two gowdas who drove their ox-cart.

Moving on to Munzerabad, the Crawfords established themselves as major planters, and built a reputation as benevolent masters: when clearing the jungles for coffee, they first cleared areas for workmen's quarters; they brought clean water down from the hilltop through pipes for their workmen; the nearest hospital being miles away, they arranged a minimal dispensary on the plantation. Crawford has claimed he has no recollection of ever having quarreled with a workman.

Their business expanded and their largesse grew. East of Munzerabad Club, the Crawford Hospital is even today Sakleshpur's largest. Similarly, Crawford donated land for the Central Coffee Research Institute in Balehonnur in Chikmaglur. In Mysore, the University Offices have for decades been housed in stately Crawford Hall. The old school west-side of Munzerabad Club bears the name of its patron, E H Young.

What did the club mean to them? I asked in Bangalore: Ms Shelagh Foster, as sprightly today as one seven-decades younger, who has reared horses in Malnad and Bangalore, whose late husband came after his education to join his father in the plantation business in Munzerabad, remembers the parties, such as the racing party when they took the horses up to the Munzerabad Fort and raced them on the downs.

It rained and everyone was soaked. They descended to the club and changed and distributed prizes there, and the men retired to the bar and the women went into the lounge, as was their routine.

There were movie nights. Lots of tennis. And rarely, there were drunken nights.

Subbanna has heard of one such night from before his time: Three English bachelors rode into the club one day and were drunk by evening. To go higher, they climbed the the billiards table and began a game from on high: more drinks were downed, and after each round they hurled the glasses to the walls; some rounds, they emptied the drink on the butler's head, asking while pouring, "do you like it?" When they finished their drunken sport and rode out, dawn was already upon them.

A note in the minutes is probably related to this incident: it refers to "senseless damage" which the committee "deprecated," and for punishment all those present were asked to pay a fine. While determining the penalty, the committee noted that the billiards table was in need of repair even before the incident.

Subbanna also offered a respectful remembrance of an Englishman's Sundays at the club. He'd come in the morning, check into one of the four rooms the club had then. He'd order a high-breakfast to the room. And a double brandy. "Don't disturb me hereon, I'm reading," he'd instruct the butler. No lunch was arranged for him, only high tea. When the butler went up with high tea, the double brandy would be sipped only just. At dinner, he'd ask the butler to pour out the brandy. Subbanna is struck by the elegance of all this.

After a point, miffed that I'd strayed too long, the future pulled me round, his hand hard on my shoulder.

What did the planters I met foresee for Malnad? Young labour has left for the city. Many planters' children have gone where the Crawfords and the Schofields came from, and are exercising there the enterprise that white men showed in Malnad. Schooling children are sent to Bangalore and Mysore with the wives so that eventually, these children will go westward too. So? With senior citizens as owners and workmen, is the coffee-belt set to buckle? Who are the innovators who possess the enterprise and the ambition of the pioneers?

Ramachandra and I went to Anand Pereira's plantation. Pereira begins and ends his workday zen-fashion, meditating by a high tank teeming with Japanese koi: the sprawl of his estate is on full display from the tank.

Through inventive irrigation and the use of his scholarship in microbiology, he has created one-hundred and twenty acres of springy soil that support a fine-looking coffee plantation: "Feel the soil, Shashi! Feel it!" And, worried about the warming, he is creating a canal system to prevent the earth from cracking, should famine strike. "No time, Shashi! No time!" He walks faster as he says this, as though to create time.

We finished the tour late-afternoon and sat with his wife and watched their children play cricket with the farm-hands on the kana. Suddenly Pereira asked me: "What can planters learn from manufacturing, Shashi?"

With trees looming round us, there was such silence in that womb in which we sat, except for children scoring and denying runs, and prayers welled up in me for his success, for success for all planters, prayers that were, in truth, utterly selfish.