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.