Coffee

Coffee and Joy and Terror

Thotadakere

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

IMG_8675-instagram.jpg

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…