Their meal is a mess on the plate and a mess round the mouth—the kids seem to like what they are eating. For the smallest children the ayahs squeeze the morsels dry in their hands and push them into the mouths, a child at a time, patiently drawing them back from constant distraction. This creche is on a ledge on a slope; Ganesh (General Manager, Kadamane Estate) is attempting afforestation on the higher level, which is filled with young trees in tree-guards; down below a stream rolls lengthwise as it flows, being full from extra-heavy rain—it has fractured the small but sturdy wooden bridge which was upon it, whose planks now drift back and forth, loosely tethered and resigned to a new purposelessness. Some kids have not come to the creche today, not wanting to take the long route.
A couple of those children are from Assam, from where fifty workers have arrived with families this year. Ganesh says if they live without regret through this year’s rains, they’ll settle in Kadamane. Like the men I met before coming to this creche: Krishnan, 81, and Devaraj, 74, who both came from Kancheepuram to Kadamane, around 1955. Their eyes throw me a challenge when I ask them about the tasks they’ve performed on the plantation, as though they are equal to every task even now, and their bearing is of men who have never disdained work. I asked them if Kadamane had been a good career for them. “Anyone who speaks ill of Kadamane will starve to death,” Devaraj said. The two men found their wives here, put also their sons to work in Kadamane, and retired in Kadamane, and are living in the estate accommodation given their sons. I asked them about snakes, if they’ve heard of a tiger killing anyone in their years here, or if they’ve ever encountered a cheetah. Their faces were blank; they had no exciting story for me; or maybe they didn’t want to tell, and when their General Manager tried to help through asking questions in Tamil, that coaxed from them the mention of an old lady who went into the forest three years ago and never come back.
They go to Kancheepuram once a year and rush back, unable to bear its heat.
Their grandsons? They considered their General Manager before they answered this, but only briefly: “The estate cannot offer jobs equal to their education. They are employed in Bangalore.” I am surprised at the easy relationship between the top man and his workmen. (That afternoon, in Ganesh’s office, I watched a union representative argue with him for better blankets. While Ganesh heard him the muscles on his face went low and settled, giving him a nonplussed, vulnerable look, elderly, drawing trust. The union man left accepting the task to consider paying a portion of the cost of the blanket.)
In the morning, while waiting for Ganesh and the old men, I walked on a tea patch, where about fifty women were plucking tea. I came upon a well-dressed man: Thomas, Field Officer. I asked him that only a fraction of the vast spread of Kadamane was being developed, about the difficulty in attracting labor, and about the disincentives in plantation work. He asked the women to fetch some leeches, and they found a couple in seconds: leathery little things: one tiny, the second, bloated. He told how they spring to any height of you, and of places where they sometimes lodge—in the nostrils, in the eye! I shuddered, mindful now of every orifice than ever before. He spoke of cobras, which workmen never kill; and vipers, which are the color of the tea-leaf and which can strike you anywhere from ankle to chest depending on where they are when encountered. He showed how thick they are by forming a ring with his thumb and forefinger: about an inch and a half. How long? He stretched out his arm and held its elbow with the other hand : about a foot and a half. I looked hard into the masses of bush to discern the shape of the snake but saw only leaf. I rooted myself a safe number of feet from the moss-covered stem-branches.
He praised his management. They have a school on the plantation; a temple, a mosque (which I didn’t see), and two churches; a medical center. They offer scholarships to promising youngsters, even if the likelihood is that the beneficiaries will not return to work here. Who will work in these harsh conditions, when Bangalore beckons? I noticed then that the logo on his jacket was of a major private hospital in Bangalore. Thomas has been employed in Kadamane for twenty-eight years.
When I headed out from the creche, the head of the ayahs was washing out the toilet, flooding it. It was very wet and thoroughly clean. I took a last look at the kids, well fed, and well loved. And well located, among hills and woods and streams and in abundant clean air. I felt it wrong to think where they’d later go for jobs, but I couldn’t help the thought that they weren’t being raised for here. I could sense the snare that is already flung for them, from Bangalore and beyond.