The first signs in this season of harvest are disappointing. Harsh rains have felled coffee beans, which were red and ready for picking. So earnings will be poor this year in the coffee belt. But the disappointment did not show at the Planters Club where three hundred people from the planter community assembled to celebrate its Silver Jubilee last week.
They’d asked me graciously (and earnestly) to arrive in time for the group photograph. I arrived in the nick but needed a bite of lunch. There were two others in the dining hall. The taller of them served himself a heap and went and sat erect at the only dining table in the hall, settling his plate by a tall glass full with lightened golden liquid—whisky at lunch? The other stayed parked at the buffet spread, plate in hand, and served himself small portions and ate standing right there, powdering the papads, taking the larger piece, letting the crumbs drop back into the dish-bowl. I sat on the line of plastic chairs that lined the wall opposite, and watched them, and though they were aware of me, they didn’t look at me. The man at the buffet coughed now and then and the two conversed without looking at each other. Then I saw what the man (blue shirt, thick grey mustache) sitting at the table was eating. Curds rice! It is not usual to drink whisky with curds rice here, where hard liquor is taken with meat and spice. It looked like whisky alright, and he took big swigs. He swayed when he rose, but only a little, and was soon steady—not bad for an old man drinking whisky at lunch.
The Silver Jubilee Lunch had officially ended and we were three latecomers scraping bottoms. Outside, they were gathering people for the group picture.
English was the stage language in this place where they speak unadulterated Kannada with ease and grace, and the surviving founders of the club reminisced in English about the days of creation of the Club. They were young men who had no place where to gather and enjoy snacks and drinks. Cars were rare. In a gathering in an uncomfortable place where they lacked even a bottle-opener for beer (and had to work their teeth) the germ of the idea popped up to have a club of their own.
Another senior finished his remembrances protesting the fate of the coffee grower: “In the thirties, in the United States, Roosevelt urged the farmer to stay on the farm.” Overcome by the sense of disparity between here and there, he thundered Roosevelt’s words: “I am with you!” Then he continued: “Our Indian government is ignoring our request for a mere seven-hundred and fifty crores for working capital.” He ended with: “These words aren’t for an evening like this. Let us enjoy!”
Each gent had been given three coupons with which to enjoy. Cheers! the coupons said. The coupon was currency for a large peg of the hard stuff. No coupons were handed to the women, who sat segregated, their section bright with their brilliant dresses. The fair skin of the women took the color of their dress and glowed. The segregation was misleading, because the sexes mingle freely in Malnad, and when I hear the women address the men (anna), or when the men call the women (akka), all with easy affection, my Kannadiga ears tingle with pleasure.
The women responded first to the Mangalorean master of ceremonies who worked hard to raise the spirit of his audience. The men managed their spirits on their own, leaving their seats and crowding the bar counters. Some men went further away, up the stairs to where the cars were parked, where they kept their glasses on tops of cars and talked. A cool breeze played about them and rustled the silver-oaks and the bottle-palms. I settled where the happenings on both levels could be experienced and savored the mood of the moment.
In the shamiana, men finally climbed on to the stage and began a game of clapping and saluting. I couldn’t comprehend the rules because my time was up and I was so sleepy, so I fumbled back through the maze of cars and went into my cottage and slept and woke up in the morning without having heard a single car leave in the night.
The cars left at two in the morning, Mahendra told me. Mahendra washes my car for me when I’m there. I thought of Nandeeshanna, whom I had to meet soon. Would he be awake after drinking and the dancing until two? Not possibly, I thought, but I called him. He was already in Ballupet and he asked me to go rightaway because he had to pick up his laborers for the day’s work and take them to his plantation on his own because his driver broke his leg some days ago. I’d forgotten that Nandeeshanna, like all serious planters, works all days of the year. I went immediately. There he was, clean and fresh and grinning, but a shade guilty. You retired very early, he complained in a nice way, attempting to absolve himself, for he was my host and my escort, and it was he who had persuaded me to attend the celebrations.
I told him I always retire early and that seemed to offer him some relief. All the ladies and all the men danced until two, he said. Come again for the New Year’s, you missed the best part yesterday!