Malnad Diary

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.

The Writer's Sharp Tool

I’m not writing about the writer who writes. This post is about the supervisors on our coffee plantation. The British in their time in India called the plantation supervisor a writer, because besides his duties among the coffee plants and the shade trees, he kept petty accounts and the muster roll. Native planters have stayed with the practice.

After eight years, Ravi is no more our writer. He left us in April, a friendly separation prompted by the completion of construction of his own home north of Sakleshpur — we’re at four o’clock from it. His departure was quiet, and although there was a little drama (he touched my feet for blessings, and wept and embarrassed me and himself) the theatrics were no match for the near-weekly crises at the start of his tenure with us.

For instance, I’ve recorded in this journal the incident when Ravi chased a neighbour’s cow out our eastern gate. With complete disregard to who owned the deeds, the cow had trespassed into our coffee patches through our western gate. Tracing the cow after dark, mad as hell that a mere writer had affronted him thus, that planter quarrelled with Ravi and in the altercation planted his foot on Ravi’s chest. It took some time to set minds straight in this case. Another time, Ravi called us in Bangalore in the night, saying four gunmen had been sighted on our plantation, by an old lady from another plantation's labour line, and nobody had seen them leave, and the old lady had overheard that their purpose was to finish off Ravi. We had to commandeer security for him from Bangalore that night, from some two-hundred kilometres out east. The gunmen have remained a mystery, and he and we and the reclusive local police and all others whom we had involved in the affair have never once mentioned the matter after the incident.

These excitements ceased after we appointed a respected planter, Basavanna, to manage our property. We visit there once monthly, and we skip when our real business, that which puts bread on our table, gets thick in the city or when it pushes us to travel. The plantation is now a sober, dull place, save for the elephants that have been felling our fences and stamping down the coffee plants. We’ve not had the luck to see the herds that come. When we arrive, we are only treated to the sight of their fibrous football-size droppings, barbed wire broken north, east, and west, and violated coffee patches.

The new writer is Nataraj, who is much older than Ravi. When he came asking for the job, the picking of Arabica and Robusta had all been done, the borer-infected coffee stems had been pulled out and burned, and fertilising and pruning works were in progress. There isn't a free month in the year that it takes for coffee to blossom and ripen and become good-to-pick beans. Over the month that has passed since Nataraj joined we’re worrying if he is too laid back to be able to manage the plantation. Ravi wouldn’t be still for a second. Not that he used all his energy for the allotted job, Basavanna always used to say, but that matter is for another post.

"Why did you leave?" I asked Natarj. He was a senior writer on a 500-acre plantation owned by a big builder in Bangalore.

"When I joined them there weren't two coffee plants in their place. Everything on it I planted," he said.

I nodded. "Right. Why did you leave?"

"My son is working with the owner's company in Bangalore. The owner trusted me fully. He'd come once a month. Then he was coming at all. He'd left everything to me.”

I nodded again, allowing him to forget his superiors in that place. We were on the verandah. Out in the yard the bougainvillea were flourishing on the coconut palms they’d been trained on. They were blazing, flashing colour that they’d gained in excess heat and light, whereas the coffee leaves out in their patches were wrinkled and drooping and altogether disillusioned with the promised rains that were just not coming. Before me, Nagaraj was sweating.

"Now he's appointed a new manager. He trusts that man more nowadays."

I kept on nodding. Only, I slowed it, like folks do when they turn contemplative.

“That man doesn't know anything. He has brought along a young writer. About me, he complained to the owner that I threatened him with a machchu. “

I raised my brow. And tried to imagine this middle-aged man raising a machete.

"The writer goes about with a machchu like how other people go about with a pen. When the manager stopped me to speak with me I had the machchu in hand. The hand moves when you talk. The machchu moves with the hand. The manager took a video of me and my machchu on his phone and showed it to the owner. I didn't realise that the voppa was taking my video."

"Didn't you explain all this to the owner?"

Nataraj paused a long time. I tried to read the truth from his face, from its liquid lines and its shiny saggy pouches. A grandfather’s face. A face capable of anger, it seemed. Rage, even.

“The owner hasn't come here. Anyway, he trusts his manager more. After so many years. There were no more than two plants in the place when I joined.“

He didn't tell if he quit or if he was asked to go. I didn’t press to know. Rather, I asked him to report the following month. He's been all right the weeks since he joined, but I'm thinking that he is a perhaps a little slow.

"Let's give him time," Basavanna said when we discussed him last week in the wet world that’s now upon us, the monsoons having finally arrived.

“I was thinking the same,” I said.

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.

Much Salt Over a Little Pepper

An inconsequential episode regarding pepper at Nandi Thota, except that …


We thought it was foreman Mohan’s work when we first heard of it, which was through a call by Mohan himself, to Sujaya in Bangalore.

“Somebody is drying pepper on the bungalow terrace, madam.”

“But we’re not drying pepper. Hasn’t the dealer taken it yet?”

Only the coffee is picked by plantation labour. Pepper is leased out to a dealer, who brings his own men who settle on the plantation until the picking is over.

“Not our pepper, madam. Somebody is drying it for himself. I saw it when I went up with Nagesh-sir. We saw it together.”

Nagesh is our civil-works contractor. He’d gone to the plantation to see about a leak in the roof. He called Sujaya the same evening. He’d gone there in the morning, had been unable to tell Mohan when he was coming. By the time Mohan came to the bungalow from whichever coffee-patch he was working on, Nagesh had already climbed the terrace. About 4 kilograms of pepper was drying there, spread out on plastic sheets.

“Mohan looked surprised, madam. But he’s the one behind it, no doubt,” he said.

Mohan called next morning. “It’s Vadhi’s son, madam. I found out today. He’s not denying it.”

Old Vadhi has been caught laying ingenious traps for wild hare across the plantation. And I had to shout at him once to make him stop bringing visitors to the labour line for his wife. The lady claims god comes upon her when she wills it. Armed with the almighty, and for a fee, she’d been telling villagers their past and future. She’d been offering to patch their future for a little extra.

“Who allowed the boy to climb the roof?”

“He says the guard, madam.”

“What’s wrong in that guard’s head? He should be guarding the bungalow. What’s he saying?”

“He says the boy is lying, madam.”

She called the guard. “I don’t know anything. madam,” he swore. “I don’t know how he went up. I’m always going round and round the bungalow.”

It is allowed for labourers to gather the little pepper that has fallen to the ground after the pepper-dealer is done. What worried us was that a workman had gone up our bungalow. How much liberty were folks taking in our absence? How much was Mohan involved?

Two weeks passed, and in that time Mohan reported that the bungalow-guard had left the plantation. Health problems. Also, Vadhi’s son was getting married.

The two days of the wedding fell on the same weekend we managed to free ourselves in Bangalore to visit the plantation. The son’s home was decked up with a thorana arch, made of banana stems and marigolds and palm fronds and mango leaves. A vaadya hung about, on call to play hard-edged pipe music to the accompaniment of rustic drums each time a ceremonial event happened.

We asked for Vadhi’s son to see us the next day. It was absolutely the wrong time for it, but we told ourselves, “We really must find out what’s going on, and nip it now.”

The music from the vaadya could still be heard the following morning. The bride would enter the groom’s home today, and more colour had been commandeered for the event: flowers, and silks, and so on. Relatives on both sides had arrived by rickshaw and small trucks. When the bride arrived she was led to the groom with a shining, chinari-decorated umbrella over her. Squealing children got in the way of men and women performing important, adult tasks round the couple. With high head-decorations, the bride and groom were the tallest in the crowd, king and queen in the moment.

Afternoon, Vadhi brought his son the groom to the bungalow. He handed Sujaya a large, long invitation card for the just-concluded wedding. His face was plaintive, different than the insolent one of the last time, when I’d shouted at him.

“He’s just a boy,” he said, gesturing to his son who stood behind him to come up. “Made a mistake. Please let it go this once.”

His son had shed his ceremonial garments, was now wearing black jeans, and a blue-striped white shirt. He’d been a tall groom decked up, but now he seemed about four inches over five feet. He was lean and wiry and moved constantly, stepping up and back and side to side. He had vermilion and sandal paste on his brow. His curly long hair fell about as he moved his head.

“You go,” I told the young man’s father. “I want a chat with your son.”

I sat on the stone bench in the porch. The boy came up to me. Came up too close, and I had to bend back my neck to engage his eyes. I asked him to step back.

“You know why we’ve called you,” I said.

“About the pepper.” His voice was not yet a man’s.

“Tell me what happened.”

“I’d put 4 kg pepper to dry before my house. The guard saw it and said, ’It won’t dry there, the ground is moist.’ He asked me to put it on your roof.”

“How did you go there?”

He pointed to the grill that fronted the electrical panels. The grillwork went up to the deck. From there a gangway led to the terrace.

“Don’t you know it’s wrong to do that?”

“Yes. But the guard told me to do it. I needed to dry the pepper to sell it. To buy a shirt.”

“Will you do anything anybody asks you to do, even when it’s wrong?”

“The guard cheated. Because of him I also became a cheat.”

“Did Mohan ask you to do it?”

“No, no. I shouldn’t bring him into this. He has nothing to do with this.”

“What else have you been doing here?”

“Nothing. I’m working all day. Evenings and holidays I play cricket in the village.”

He was too young for marriage. I couldn’t help thinking how much of a kid his bride would be. From the direction of the labour lines, a faint smell of jasmine was wafting in. I struggled for next words.

“It’s your wedding day,” I said. “Go.”

And he went.

“God bless you,” I called after him.

A Goat Sacrifice Turns Veggie

“Crazy guy!” I swore from the back seat.

A Renault Duster swerved ahead of us, going off-road and climbing back, steadying only as it passed us. Mahesh was silent, he is always silent, the best driver I've ever had. Then he spoke.

“Snake,” he said, dropping speed.

I looked back. It was a long one, the length of a rat snake. Non-venomous, a kere haavu. It was sleek and smooth and shining, a blue n’ white beauty, winding and unwinding and stuck on asphalt. A car behind had wised up to what had happened and had also slowed down to watch.

“It’s run over,” Mahesh said.

We were a half-hour away from our coffee plantation, where we visit twice a month from Bangalore. Being close to destination, we were more earnest on completing the journey than stopping to contemplate on how to end a creature’s suffering.

And anyway, I haven’t it in me to do a mercy killing. I’ve cut open anaesthetised frogs in school and seen their little hearts pumping while I’ve poked their other organs. But, being born vegetarian, I cannot kill for food, and I'm too squeamish to kill for sport, or in imitation of "Christian kindness".

This trip was for the annual prayer offered at the Devi’s shrine on the plantation.

~~~

Until this year, every year for eight years now, I’ve been pressing my fingers first on a goat’s brow, and pressing them next on my forehead. After that ritual, the plantation workers have led away the goat for slaughter in Devi’s name. “You mustn’t stop it. The villagers will blame you for misfortunes that might befall them,” the priest from the nearby temple told us when we bought the plantation eight years ago. Even the priest from the Shringeri temple, the temple to the goddess of wisdom, said the same thing.

~~~

A fresh young government officer near Tumkur was faced with such a problem some months ago. His townspeople killed a buffalo each year to appease the deity in the main temple. When the event came up this year, soon as he learnt about the imminent sacrifice, the officer gathered priests and devotees and asked them if they shouldn’t stop the practice in this time and age. He was met with silence.

He met them again. “If we don’t pour a paav of buffalo blood over the goddess we’ll all face doom in the year,” the men submitted. After hours of argument the officer struck a deal.

“Why kill a whole buffalo for a paav of blood? Why not ask a vet to draw only so much out?”

He won. I read the story in the papers. And I showed it to my wife, who has twice the normal woman’s will, and the same measure of pluck.

She called the plantation last week, and told the manager, and the foreman, that we’ll not have a sacrifice on our plantation this year. “Government orders,” she said. I know of no such order. The other side of the line returned silence.

“That’s good,” she said. “None of them protested.”

I sat back watched the wife in action.

She called an astrologer in Kerala, a state that stocks the best of them. He gave her permission, and a vegetarian solution: “Smash to the ground a water-gourd stuffed with kumkum. Smash two gourds, actually.”

My wife had the manager and the foreman buy two fat gourds, and one more. They did her bidding even if they didn’t break their silence.

“They don’t seem worried,” she said to me.

~~~

The same priest does the ceremony each year. He is head priest at the big temple nearby, so he’s much in demand, and should be booked two months ahead. He can’t help play prima donna, but he was a changed man this year. He smiled when I entered the hallowed ground. He decorated the deity better than all past years. He spoke kindly to the poor villagers who squatted about. When his cell phone rang, he ignored it.

When the finale comes there’s not even the sound of breathing, or the rustle of leaves among the press of coffee plants and shade trees. Even the birds are hushed. The breeze halts. With grave deliberation, the priest makes a hand-sized base of sand, presses a coconut into it, spreads a copper foil on the coconut, balances a block of hollowed-out vibhuti on the foil, inserts a lime in the hollow, and settles an egg on top of the lime. He takes a machete; he raises it over the assemblage before him, and closes his eyes, and meditates. Then, in the terrible silence he has caused, he brings down the machete, cleaves the assembly into equal halves, a sharp crack pierces the still and silent hearts gathered there, bringing gladness and relief with it.

The right hand of every man and woman rises to the breast and stays there. Eyes close. The goddess is happy. She will protect these her devotees; she will hand them the fortune that’s been prayed for; and a good crop; and she’ll keep out every disease from the old and the young.

~~~

Post-finale, for a touch down, the sacrifice. A vegetarian one this year. Into a narrow incision in the gourds the priest asked an assistant to pour red kumkum powder, and seal the incision. On either side of him he had two young men raise the gourds as high as they could. At his command they brought down the gourds with the full strength of their arms. From the smashed gourds red juice flowed, redder than blood.

~~~

In peace I write this, at my table in Bangalore.

A Midnight Story From Malnad

Basavanna told me the story of what happened at the spot, which is a few minutes out of Jummanahalli, midway on the southward journey from Ballupet to my coffee plantation. Passing by it the last time I went there, I tried to imagine the fear that came visiting the planter’s home that sits right by the road on that spot in our coffee country. Basavanna, who owns a terrific plantation near mine, knows everything that happens in coffee-towns Ballupet and Sakleshpur and all round.

When I bought my plantation some years ago I’d asked Lokesh, the agent who found it for me, “Aren't there break-ins hereabouts? People live such long distances from one another.”

“Such things happen only in Bangalore sir,” he'd said, showing hurt in his eyes. “Nothing like that happens here in Malnad."

I live in Bangalore. Some weeks after I’d taken possession of the place, a planter’s son from nearby asked if I could drop him off at Ballupet. It was evening, and raining. My wife and I were in front, the neighbour’s son sat in the back.

“You’re lucky,” I told him, “to live in this beautiful place at your age.”

“No, uncle,” he said. (All older men are uncles in this part of the world.) “It’s really boring here.”

“Oh,” I said, feeling stupid.

“I prefer Bangalore, uncle. When it rains here I really hate it.”

We fell silent. The shrill incessant hum of the jeerunde had begun in the dusk that was upon us. The rain stoked their pitch even higher, and the body of the collective shrieking shook with its intensity. The world had become more sound than sight. All we could see were hedges and solar fences—and rain, and the wiper that fought it over the windshield.

“Last month, uncle,” the boy said after a while, “some people broke in, dragged me and mom and dad to the basement. They tied us up there. They took the TV, stereo, cash. All they could carry, actually.”

“God,” my wife said, “that must’ve been scary.”

“Don’t you keep a gun at home?” I asked.

They own a double barrel. But father and son had been scared to go for it. The men were armed with knife, sickle, and machete. Their faces were hid behind mufflers. The family has an Alsatian in the yard, but they keep him caged because he bites owners and visitors both. And he barks 24 hours.

I asked people about it on my next visit. They acknowledged the fact of the robbery. But several of them said the boy’s father had himself organised it. “Why?" I asked. Different folks had different answers.

Another time, in the chill of January, during picking season, there was a break-in on the plantation next to mine. This time, armed men had broken into the supervisor’s quarters, tied him up, gone to the store, and made off with sacks of fresh-picked coffee. The planter there lives in Bangalore, like I do. When I asked people on my plantation about it, they were positive it was an inside job. "How can you cart out a load like that otherwise?”

Lokesh has laid it into me that lies are told only in Bangalore. In Malnad, truth is sovereign.

There's not a whisper of any hanky-panky regarding what happened at the spot I’ve mentioned above. Basavanna told me the details. At midnight, a gang arrived in a van at the bungalow by the road, broke open the gate, and drove up to the main door of the plantation-home. The home is occupied by a mid-aged couple. The gang carried a simple tool to ram the door with: a sack filled with large stones, twisted tight for grip. After a few rounds, any door gives.

The couple woke to the thudding. After the first moments in which realisation came, and fear with it, the planter took courage and went and pulled his never-used gun from where he’d stored it, loaded it, and just when the door sounded like it was yielding, he fired through a window into the yard outside.

The terrible sound stopped and silence took its place. Then the men began to speak, rallying, gathering courage. As much fear as they’d caused inside, so much fear was now upon them. There was enough time for the planter’s shaking hands to reload and fire again.

Talking ceased. A few feet in the dark behind the planter, his wife was working the handphone. Outside, there was only repeated rustling, followed by urgent voices, speaking fast. Fear flowed freely, from inside to outside, and even as the planter loaded another round into his gun, hands still trembling, he heard the shutting of van doors, ignition, tires working on mud and concrete. In a moment the fleeing van was visible through his window, and the planter fired, but into empty space.

“Get yourself a gun too,” Basavanna told me, after he was finished with the story.