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.