Malnad Diary

Malnad Diary: Sound And Silence In Coffee Country

 Bangalore (Bengaluru) - Hassan  Highway (NH48)

Bangalore (Bengaluru) - Hassan  Highway (NH48)

The plains from Bangalore to Hassan are sporting fresh vegetation these days: There’s areca now; more wild-neem patches; the coconut groves have expanded with acres of fresh saplings beside older, flourishing crops of tall, mature palms. And I saw plentiful banana. The monsoons have been generous so far this year, and the terrain is glinting and oozing every shade of green.

So I enjoyed the drive to the plantation last weekend.

Beyond Hassan, the coffee belt of Malnad received 20-inches of rain in a single day. On that same day, upon Kadumane’s hills and cusps fell most of heaven’s largesse: 42-inches in 24 hours — a record for them — their tea is twice-blessed.

I mentioned in several posts last year how the rains were holding back, preferring the skies to lowly earth. “Sorry,” they appear to be saying this year.


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Having suffered errant rain ever since the first seven beans of coffee were planted in Malnad, the planter has finally an opportunity to discount the weather and move to other opportunities with which to profit from his land. The vagaries of weather might kill the coffee but they cannot take away the hills of Malnad and the trees on them and, most of all, the absence of the din of the city. So the planters have taken to the homestay hospitality business, and one such startup has sprung within earshot of us.


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Sound travels far and well in Malnad.

Waking at midnight, I thought it was a generator bothering me, perhaps powering a pump to draw water from a tank. But no planter draws water in the night. After sundown the plantation is handed in full to the night, for it to perform its miracles and mysteries with it. It was an unusual sound moreover, droning and grating, rising and falling in a very narrow band, a directionless sound, with no apparent rhythm, distant, and not so loud but enough to be a nuisance through the night. It was without doubt sound created and delivered by machine. I woke several times and it was always the same sound and it was still playing when I got off the bed at my usual time. I waited a courteous while and called the writer (supervisor).

“Where’s the noise from?” I asked.

“It’s coming from …” he told me the name of the plantation, not far, not near, two plantations between us.

“Why is he running a generator in the night?” The noise was still in the air.

“That thing is not a generator, sir,” he said, a trace of amusement coming into his voice, a voice heavy with morning-grog. “It’s music. I called them last night to tell them it’s disturbing us. They wouldn’t answer the phone.”


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A weekend getaway from Bangalore.

On a bare patch on his plantation he pitches tents; he sets up music in a corner, with room for dancing; and sends into the cool night hot chicken and warm roti from his home to the dozens of youngsters who come over Saturdays to dance all night and turn in at breakfast-time and wake for lunch and leave for Bangalore in the afternoon.

I know that planter. I’d gone to his house for some neighborly thing in the early days when I’d bought my plantation. When I left his place his son asked me if I could give him a ride to Ballupet.

He was taking a bus from Ballupet to Bangalore. It’s where he was working, in a rather lowly job for a planter’s son. “I hate it here, uncle,” he’d told me, speaking in Kannada. “Specially in the rainy season. There’s nothing to do here. All day all night the rain will be dripping and the cicada will be sawing.”

It’s the boy who is managing the weekend-party business, I learnt later in the day.


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In sum I’m saying I’m allergic to noise. But the birds showed a greater aversion to it: They were silent like there was an eclipse about them. They couldn’t have slept, of course, and were sulking in the concealments of the branches, and must’ve missed many a worm during the important morning-hunt that is so rich in proverbs.

I smiled for the lucky worms — but only for a moment. The party over, the tents would be free of Bangaloreans Sunday evening. With the night back in the hands of the elements, the usual quiet of Malnad would rule. The worms and other hapless prey like them would come under a vigorous attack at sunup on Monday.


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Meanwhile, In Malnad, The Bee And The Beast And To Bell The Elephant

 Photo by suriya007/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by suriya007/iStock / Getty Images

“Fire a tranquilizer,” Basavanna said. “Put a chain round the neck. Attach a bell, and weld. Like cow bell.”

Basavanna was sitting with me at our plantation home, where my wife and I were spending the weekend. I’d just finished a walk around the plantation under the blazing sun. I’d had a good time. The coffee blossoms were in their last days, still white near the eve of their departure. Their fragrance hung in the warm air. I had paused in every patch and taken deep breaths, savoring air and the aroma of blossoms. I’m not drinking coffee these days, but I know I’ll pass a nice cafe someday and the aroma issuing from it will defeat my resolve. However, in this moment, the scent around me was more heady than any coffee from anywhere.

I stopped also among the tall robusta, to peer into the cavelike clearings at their feet. The soil was a fecund brown, and moist, belying the dry heat of early summer on top. I gazed into the shadows. Who had these places hosted last? Wild pig? Hyena? Fox? Each time I heard a rustle I started at the sound, but it wasn’t hyena or fox or boar I anticipated. Half my mind was taken by the elephant all through the walk. The elephants have not been sighted on the plantation recently, but a lone stray is rumored to be roaming in our zone. When visiting, the elephants stand concealed among the tallest robusta.

They stand brooding there. You may walk past them, or they may go down only a short distance from you, and you would not know the danger that has passed. But a month or so ago, the supervisor at Nataraj’s plantation, (Nataraj whose plantation shares a short boundary with ours) was killed by a lone elephant. The supervisor had dismissed his (Oriya) labour for the day, and they had all left together, the laborers on foot and he on motorcycle. A short distance from where they separated he crossed the elephant.

When I paused in the cool spots where the sprinklers were working I said to myself, “Here there would be no elephant, not with these sprinklers going and these men lounging by them.” When I passed the water-tanks I assured myself the tank was so low in water the elephant had no use for it. I focused on my breathing, and on the varied greens that surrounded me.

I was afraid. The elephants in these parts love no human, and if they should find me they would not be able to read my love for them. In fear I walked, and at some point, with dopamine rising, fear left me without bidding goodbye, and I reached the estate-home in fine spirits.

That’s the reason why Basavanna said we should somehow bell the elephant.

Fear had visited me and and my wife last night as well. We’d arrived a little before sunset, and my wife busied herself in the kitchen. Soon as it got dark she began to hear impatient tappings on the closed windows. She came out and fetched me: “Come. Come!”

Hejjenu — wild bees, suspended in their dwelling, a 2-feet-broad by 3-feet-high thing that they had created by the window of the the ante-room to the kitchen. A pale light shone upon them, and the bees seemed very cross. A low buzz coming from them signaled terrible latent danger. There was no way to signal back that we meant no harm, they were welcome.

Like the elephant, the bees love none of us. From the one we’ve taken land and ivory, from the other we take their honey like we’re doing them a favor. We package the spoils and sketch bees and elephants on them, smiling and looking silly.

“From the neck you should hang a bell,” Basavanna was repeating. “Then we’ll know when they’re near. I’ve told that to the forest guys, they won’t listen.

“Right,” I said. And brought the conversation to the bees. “If you kill even one,” Basavanna said, “they’ll chase you half a kilometer. Even if you plunge in water, they’ll hover over and wait.”

Sujaya shuddered. She’d killed one that had squeezed in last night, with a neat flick of a badminton raquet — she was a champ in school, captain of the team. With that stroke my own wife had sown one more seed of enmity between man and bee.

We settled down to discuss the affairs of the plantation: beans sold, monies due, permission to build a third water tank, decision to develop a free patch with robusta. Basavanna owns the plantation near ours. He helps manage our plantation for us.

Now I’m back in Bangalore, busy with traffic and commerce and many petty thoughts — and little time for fear.

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

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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.”

Death by the Trunk of an Elephant

Photo by bugphai/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by bugphai/iStock / Getty Images

It happened last week. A planter died by the trunk of an elephant. Unconscious after he was flung by it, his body fought all night to live. Folks from the village and his kin took him first to the taluk hospital and then to the district hospital, but several of his internals had expired already, crushed when he’d smashed into the ground. There are witnesses and they have no differing accounts — and they’re unanimous in regard to who is to blame.

Such a death as this everybody had been anticipating for some time now, with the very human conviction that somebody would go like this, somebody but them. Everybody was proved right, all but one who was 40 years old, owner of the plantation right next to ours on our east with a stream for a boundary between his place and ours. He wouldn’t have been the one if he hadn’t stopped his car after he’d passed the elephants, if he hadn’t got out and walked back 100 meters in the dark of eleven to watch what they were up to.

The planation that neighbours ours on the west goes by the name of its previous owner, although she sold it some time ago, and a new, Bangalore-based owner tends it. Mala's Thota, people call the property, which means Mala's plantation. A state highway running down to Coorg marks Mala's Thota's western boundary. Across that highway there's the sprawl of the 500-acre IBC plantation, a smaller holding among many that IBC owns.

The night we're speaking of, some eight elephants came waddling through the IBC plantation, and when they reached the highway, paused before the sparse traffic before crossing over to Mala's Thota. While they waited for a safe moment a female in the herd went into labour. The herd circled her, the males looking outward and ready to defend. The female's heaving brought them onto the road a bit, causing vehicular traffic to coalesce, and move in a slow, respectful stream. The elephants slipped and slid on the roadside while making room for trucks and buses, not seeming to mind the inconvenience. In the meantime the female delivered, and the baby began to receive its first ministrations. Two hours later, the herd had still not moved, and villagers from the Hydur village a few minutes away had gathered to look, inhaling the drama, savoring the truce between man and untamed beast.

Folks in these parts have been experiencing the elephant every day: Water tanks whose embankments have collapsed under the weight of elephants bathing; fences and coffee plants trampled down; trees humbled and bent to the ground; trees uprooted and tossed about; whole coffee patches laid waste in a game conceived for the toddler elephant; heaps of fresh dung here and there with bright white mushrooms sprouting on them; deep round footmarks everywhere; and, of course, the stories.

Every day, the aged priest at the small Shiva temple on our plantation goes down the slope from the shrine and fetches a pitcher of water from a spring there. A few months ago, he heard a rustle among the mist-enveloped coffee and seeing what had caused it, he ran back to the temple with all the speed his bony legs could give him. He was still shaken two weeks later. "Just ten feet from me, anna!" Basavanna, who is a respected planter and who manages our property for us, was driving back after an evening at the Planters Club, and he saw elephant silhouettes at the far end among silver oaks. He halted to gauge the danger, but his wife hissed, "Drive, drive!" Puzzled, Basavanna looked about. A single elephant stood brooding some ten yards away, his outline showing in the foliage. His panicked heart and feet and his Pajero shot him out to safety. Then there was the incident of a girl who was chased down to Malegalale village. She ran fast enough to reach her home at the edge of the village. Perhaps the elephant was playing a chase. The elephant circled round a spot a few times, shaking his jowly body, and went back up the slope.

It has been a long time since the elephant lost its titles to these lands. But it has its memory and cannot help feeling ownership of these hills that were once jungle and are now human plantations and human playgrounds. It is making its last stand.

At eleven the herd was still at the roadside, allowing traffic to pass, nodding and swinging heads, jiggling bellies and backsides, waving trunks. The planter of this story drove past them and halted. He climbed out of his car and walked back to the spectacle of elephants in possession of a newborn. The planter admonished the villagers to stand back, warned them of the dangers in scaring a beast with baby. Then he pulled his phone from his pocket and began to shoot and, soon engrossed, crossed his own line. A male from the herd detached itself and came over to him in no great hurry, but full of fury.

Two days ago, on Friday, his family performed final rites for him.