A Reverie on the Rewards of the Raj

Some came for king and country, some for fame and fortune, first in a trickle and then in a flood, from Europe to India, and many among them came young to a place that was part welcoming, part hostile, riven all over, and tempting to take and possess. Fame and fortune favored a few, and king and country honored a good number, but what is the story of the larger remainder? The story of solid men like William Baillie, for instance?

I heard his story and saw his after-story in Srirangapattana, 125 kilometers southwest of Bangalore, a shout away from expanding Mysore. In that battle for Srirangapattana, young Arthur Wellesley found form and foundational confidence that helped him defeat Napoleon sixteen years later, at Waterloo. After Srirangapattana, the colonizer’s push for the entire subcontinent was over—with some mopping up left. On my part, I’d gone there to experience the story of Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan, father and son, our heroes, implacable foes of the British for 38 years. But I’ve come back with thoughts for the Baillies of Britain.

Col. Baillie’s Dungeon in Srirangapattana is clean and white-coated on the inside and well swept. Fresh air blows about the place, the breeze coming across the waters to this river-island, beating and rising up the fort wall, and playing over the flat-topped dungeon there. This is not a dungeon in the deep; it is a squat building in a dugout on a rise. I’ve been there thrice over ten years, and it has always been kept up for tourists, to whom tour guides tell with pride about the rout of Col. Baillie in the Battle of Pollilur, near Kanchipuram, in Tamil Nadu. Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan led that battle together, and, whereas it was for them their most cherished victory, for the British no defeat in India caused so much anguish as this one.

Col. Baillie commanded the British detachment in that battle, and, having surrendered, he was brought drained and bloodied into the dungeon at Srirangapattana, capital city of Haidar and Tipu.

The dungeon fronts the south, with arches running end to end. A yard runs the full length before it. It is a low-roof structure, held up by obese columns whose girth seems overdone, but, perhaps, the breadth served to secure a man on each face of them. If fifty prisoners were held in that hall they’d be stifled in the heat of Srirangapattana; if a hundred, they’d be choking. It seems small for an expanding kingdom forever in battle, which would’ve taken thousands of prisoners from its victories, but of course this one was in the capital, a mere five minutes by foot from Lal Mahal, the principal palace of Tipu, and so it was a special possession of his, where he kept very special prisoners.

A prison for prize catch. And Baillie was a shining trophy, even if ill and dying. He was held there together with David Baird, who had fought the battle with him and was captain at the time, along with other officers. Baird would be freed by treaty in 1784, and would return to Srirangapattana fifteen years afterward as second-in-command, and avenge his incarceration.

Baillie wasn’t so fortunate.

Everything had worked for the Mysore forces at Pollilur. Their numbers were superior, whereas Baillie was bringing back a mere detachment to merge with the main, which was in Sir Hector Munro’s charge in Kanchipuram. Haidar dispatched Tipu with 10,000 troops to intercept Baillie’s 2,800. Pollilur was close enough for Munro to know how the battle was going, but he chose to hold back and secure his provisions. Mysore had been joined by a French unit, fit and in form under the command of M. Lally. Never giving up conviction that reinforcements would come, Baillie gave dogged resistance that his surviving comrades praised afterward. But the odds turned against him altogether when a Mysore rocket found his ordnance pile. The explosion threw the sepoys into panic, and they couldn’t be rallied by the Europeans, and it fell upon them to rally round their compatriot, which they did, holding out against Tipu’s horses which came upon them in waves. Baillie soldiered on until all but sixteen of his men and officers had been killed or wounded.

“Your son will inform you that you owe the victory to our disaster rather than to our defeat,” Baillie is reported to have told Haidar.

That was in September, 1780. Baillie survived a mere two years in captivity; he died in the dungeon in November 1782. In the following month Haidar Ali died also, from a carbuncular growth on his back. Tipu ascended the throne and declared himself Sultan. He was thirty-two.

Seventeen years later, the British, having halved Tipu’s realm over the time, having negotiated with Tipu’s neighbors and arrayed every one of them against his landlocked kingdom, and having gotten their alliance to buy up some of Tipu’s top commanders, they laid siege to Srirangapattana. The siege lasted two months, but after they’d breached the fort they took the capital, and Tipu’s life with it, all in one hour. Within 48 hours after that, they’d given Tipu’s bier a gun salute and interred his body in the same Gumbaz the Sultan had built for his father Haidar. Both British and local historians acknowledge that a good number of Tipu’s subjects lined the passage of the carriage and bowed for their fallen ruler. Both acknowledge that the heavens wept and a mighty storm broke upon the blood-drenched island.

There’s nobody who doesn’t acknowledge the pillage in spite of the mighty monsoon that May in 1799. Writers for the British say Arthur Wellesley put an end to it in two days. Others aver the looting went on and on. At any rate, swords and precious stones and gold and even the amulet on Tipu went far west into private estates. Speaking of stones, and considering how the wars with the exotic Tipu had been painted by the East India Company at home, an imagination fired, and Wilkie Collins wrote Moonstone in 1868, a detective story (the first ever, it is said) on the mysterious disappearance of a diamond (not the semiprecious moonstone) obtained by plunder by an Englishman in Srirangapattana.

The Gumbaz is a ten minute drive from the eastern gate of the fort. It shines today as it must have shone in Tipu’s days. The garden around it cannot be as beautiful as in kingly times, but it is as good as it can get on a republican government’s budget. The green of the broad lawns glitters in blazing light, and there is shade from plentiful trees, but the long walk from the main gate to the Gumbaz is unshaded. The sight is pleasing, though, and so the heat is bearable. Inside, the walls and the dome and the rug that is draped over Tipu’s sarcophagus are all covered in tiger burris (stripes). That is not surprising. In his time tiger burris decorated every garment and seat and musket and pistol and cannon and wall and ceiling and cushion and sword and dagger and knife and flag and the howdah on the elephant of the Sultan. Every object upon which his eyes fell had to remind him of the tiger.

The story of Tipu touches everyone, for the fact that he fell fighting, and was found under a heap of corpses with his sword clutched tight in his hand. As I watched inside the Gumbaz, an occasional Hindu folded hands; many Muslim men and women kneeled and prayed as one would to a saint. Few failed to bend over and run a hand over the tiger-stripe rug on Tipu’s sarcophagus. My wife ran her fingers on it, and struggled with the perfume that lingered on her fingers all the way home to Bangalore. Attar is a new scent for her. Not so many paid that honor to Haidar, a man just as brave, and brilliant, and who fought the British with (perhaps) greater determination, and gave his son the conceit of a ruler and general.

The Gumbaz draws many tourists and almost none notice a modest structure right by the gate to the vast compound of the Gumbaz.

Seventeen years after Tipu’s fall, thirty-five years after William Baillie had been dead, a nephew of his, Lt. Col. John Baillie, who was resident at the Lucknow Court of the Nawab of Oudh, built a mausoleum for him a few yards off the entrance to the sprawl of the Gumbaz. He put a small, low enclosure round it. It is an austere structure, but pretty, and poignant, evoking in its desolation the misfortune of a man who’d been as brave and as resolute as Tipu. Col. Baillie died much too soon to know that two days before his countrymen stormed Srirangapattana, British fire fell on Tipu’s rocket pile, and caused an explosion inside the fort, a greater explosion than the one which had turned the Pollilur battle against the colonel. The fire and the smoke and the sound shook Mysore’s defenders, though they’d been on the ready for the din of battle, knowing the assault was coming any moment.

“Poor man,” I told my wife, taking time to take pictures of Baillie’s decrepit mausoleum, taking care not to step on dung and horse droppings and the turd of humans. The small gates to the wasting mausoleum were open, but no one was going in. The monument is not on the tour guide’s checklist. Grime caused by weather has dried on it, and though it has been painted sometimes, the paint has flaked.

“I don’t know,” my wife said. “Why did he come here in the first place?”

One feels for the fallen, in spite of the honest, and correct, question. I have always considered the colonizer as admirably intrepid and I have abhorred their avarice, but, looking for information on the times on the net, I came upon a letter from a young Englishman, twenty-year-old Archibald Hope, written home to his father from the dungeon in Srirangapattana. The prisoners knew ways to smuggle letters out.

………About the middle of December when we had recovered from our wounds we were sent up here (from Arni) which is the capital of Haidar’s country where I was so fortunate as to meet with my friends Captain Baird and Lieutenant Lindsay — here we were put upon a scanty allowance hardly sufficient to support nature dragging on a miserable existence loaded with irons and every hardship that a close imprisonment and infamous usage for 22 months could inflict upon a set of the most unfortunate men that ever existed. About a month ago I was attacked with flux billuus (sic) fever and the liver. Youth and a good constitution struggled along with these three complaints but they are now almost overpowered and I am attacked with the fatal symptom (a hickup) as I find my end approaching I request that you will never send a son of yours to this country unless you wish to make him miserable. I have empowered Captain Baird to settle all my affairs in this country. I will refer you to him for an account of them and everything else relating to me since my arrival in this country. My due love and affection to Lady Hope, sisters, brothers, the family of Castle Semple, my Uncle, Captain MacDowall, and all other friends.

I remain My dear Sir Yours most affectionately A. Hope

The letter is dated July 5, 1782.

A Giant Theater

In this vast panorama only a fifth—maybe tenth—of the land is filled with trees. The rest is taken by thigh-high, chest-high upended cones of the shrub. The shrubs in a given patch are all trimmed to the same height and, seen level, seeing the height they have climbed and the depths they’ve plunged, they are a rollicking green ocean, choppy now in the monsoons. They're a flat-topped shrub, deep green, their stem and branches are twisted and smeared green by squishy moss. There are hundreds of acres of them, falling away before me, rising on the hills on my left, on the hills on the right, running up the hills ahead, and everywhere behind me. A few gaunt trees stand among the shrub, planted to a plan for just-so-much shade. They bring to mind lone strands on bald pates. In the very far distance, on the crests of hills, there there are many trees and they are lush and thick and in a line like a punk's spiky mane.

I have spent an hour and a half walking in the creases between tea patches and then I have climbed back up to the bungalow and am sitting on the ledge that frames the front steps. I am wet: my large sturdy umbrella was blown out several times while I worked my camera and I failed to stay dry while managing the two. Behind me the bungalow is in darkness: this awful wind has blown the power-supply line somewhere. The wind is whistling and hissing and whooshing in turns in and all round the bungalow, and on the hilltops it is taking the trees in every manner, pushing them, pulling them, ravishing them, and the trees grind, and heave, and after a time their awesome motion hits a crescendo and they let off a roar that shakes this world, and then the wind collapses, and the trees with it, and the two rest a while, and begin again.

With four-hundred inches of rain it is no more Agumbe, but this Kadamane Tea Estate here that receives the most rainfall in Karnataka.

In a cusp among the farthest hills a silver glow defines the ridges. From my right tall columns of ribbon-flat clouds advance toward those hills. Each column is as a diaphanous side-screen in a giant theater: they flutter as they move one behind the other in a long file in which the start and the end are merged with the hills ahead and the hills behind. They tread on the tea without being a weight on them. I expect that they will tear up when the next rain comes, but no, they are there, their line unbroken, walking on, but now they seem like a line of furtive ghosts.

When rain begins it is a patter on the roof, then a beating on it, and soon a lashing everywhere. The pouring is intense and blinding in the distance on the hills—the wind, the rain, and the roar that is always with them move with pressing urgency, curving round and away, traveling far and curling back to where they started, kneeing and elbowing the tea and the trees and the hills and everything between them, making up for all the time they’ve been away. The pouring ends abruptly and silence takes its place—now the tea sparkle, the trees lift, and the hills sizzle in steam-like mist. Now there is a new sound, which does not rob the silence, the sound of water gushing everywhere, in ditches and gutters, gurgling down the slopes, gaining volume, the sound growing as it goes. I think of the water-falls in the bends of the tracks, and the streams with their rolling muscles flowing into the swollen red river that I saw earlier in the day.

Darkness has begun to fall. I take a last look at the glowing mist that has filled the trees and capped the hills. It is as though a cold white heat has rimmed this world, this enormous bowl ringed by hills. I decide to rise and by the time I've taken ten steps it is a black night. There is no moon, there are no stars—there is only sound, but I haven’t heard a single bird all evening. In the meantime, lights have come on in the bungalow; I should go in.

Inside, a fire has been burning a long time. I read by it Kapuscinski’s brave account of staying on when all else have left during the civil war in Angola in 1975. A chapter remains where to know who won, and the reportage is terrific, and I finish the book and learn that everyone lost in the Angolan War even if the MPLA won it that November. While I read the play of rain and wind is unabated outside, but it settles in a quiet corner in my mind. Later in bed, when I pull the sheets over me, the sounds come to the fore: the continual whoosh outside, the roaring in the far woods that won’t stop. Thought comes to me that this building where I’m sleeping alone tonight might be blown away by morning, but in a few seconds deep sleep engulfs me and all my fears. I’ve inhaled so much fresh air, all day long, so no dreams come.

The View from Munzerabad Club

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Years ago, I often shuttled with my parents between Bangalore (and Mysore) and Mangalore, and crossed the coffee-belt midway. In all my memories I peer through the trees of the plantations from the rear window, always through mist or rain or the dark, looking for the fabled estate-mansions. I saw my first plantation-homes these last years, after acquiring a profession and having gone grey—the mist has thinned and their mystery has vaporised. But the magic of my imagining returns if I peer through time to beyond a hundred years ago, where the mists are thicker, and in their haze are brave men from six-thousand miles away, seeking fortune and adventure in the jungles of Malnad.

Men like Middleton. He came to Munzerabad (Tipu's Sakleshpur) from Ceylon, after three years of growing coffee there. An officer took him to the virgin ghats and told him to take the jungle from this hill to that, and from that hill there to this hill here for no tax at all, but to remit quarter of the earnings to the government. Middleton founded the Kaadumane Estate there. When he had succeeded to his satisfaction, it was time to take a wife, and he went to England to fetch one, and brought her to Kaadumane on an ox-cart, arriving at night. In the morning, her first day at her Indian home, his bride went out and saw yesterday's oxen were today two bloody carcasses, devoured by a tiger before dawn!

To sense that past, I went with Nagegowda's Bettadinda Battalige to the Munzerabad Club, established in 1893 by white planters, for white people. Ramachandra, its president today, is a lean, fit, reticent, classical planter with modern problems, worrying what to do with the horn-bearing skulls of wild game that gazed upon us while we chatted about the times when they were hunted down. He brought Subbanna, past-president, member since 1951, seventy-nine years of age but alert through every peg, and brimming with memories of drinks shared and graces experienced with English gentlemen in the years immediately after Independence.

Morning, I sat on the raised verandah with a breeze pleasant on the skin but pungent in the nostrils, the air spiked with mine-dust from the lorries of Bellary which run all day through the main street of Sakleshpur. The rains had brought down the temperatures.

The sun was easy on the eye and his light danced off the leaves. Ramachandra had arranged for Basanna (past president), and Karthik, the young honorary secretary-successful planters-to show me the minutes of meetings from the 1900s.

Extraordinary men-Crawford, Radcliffe, Young, Middleton (junior)-have signed notes on ordinary affairs: missing cutlery, the minimum whiskey that should be stocked, other such matters. In profession, and in causes espoused, each man's story is a potential bestseller. Lt. Col. Crawford came to India when he was eighteen with his brother, seventeen. They arrived in Madras, boarded a train to Bangalore, then to Mysore, and travelled by ox-cart to Hassan. The eighty-mile journey to Hassan took five days, and Crawford has narrated remembrances not of hardship suffered but of kindness received from the two gowdas who drove their ox-cart.

Moving on to Munzerabad, the Crawfords established themselves as major planters, and built a reputation as benevolent masters: when clearing the jungles for coffee, they first cleared areas for workmen's quarters; they brought clean water down from the hilltop through pipes for their workmen; the nearest hospital being miles away, they arranged a minimal dispensary on the plantation. Crawford has claimed he has no recollection of ever having quarreled with a workman.

Their business expanded and their largesse grew. East of Munzerabad Club, the Crawford Hospital is even today Sakleshpur's largest. Similarly, Crawford donated land for the Central Coffee Research Institute in Balehonnur in Chikmaglur. In Mysore, the University Offices have for decades been housed in stately Crawford Hall. The old school west-side of Munzerabad Club bears the name of its patron, E H Young.

What did the club mean to them? I asked in Bangalore: Ms Shelagh Foster, as sprightly today as one seven-decades younger, who has reared horses in Malnad and Bangalore, whose late husband came after his education to join his father in the plantation business in Munzerabad, remembers the parties, such as the racing party when they took the horses up to the Munzerabad Fort and raced them on the downs.

It rained and everyone was soaked. They descended to the club and changed and distributed prizes there, and the men retired to the bar and the women went into the lounge, as was their routine.

There were movie nights. Lots of tennis. And rarely, there were drunken nights.

Subbanna has heard of one such night from before his time: Three English bachelors rode into the club one day and were drunk by evening. To go higher, they climbed the the billiards table and began a game from on high: more drinks were downed, and after each round they hurled the glasses to the walls; some rounds, they emptied the drink on the butler's head, asking while pouring, "do you like it?" When they finished their drunken sport and rode out, dawn was already upon them.

A note in the minutes is probably related to this incident: it refers to "senseless damage" which the committee "deprecated," and for punishment all those present were asked to pay a fine. While determining the penalty, the committee noted that the billiards table was in need of repair even before the incident.

Subbanna also offered a respectful remembrance of an Englishman's Sundays at the club. He'd come in the morning, check into one of the four rooms the club had then. He'd order a high-breakfast to the room. And a double brandy. "Don't disturb me hereon, I'm reading," he'd instruct the butler. No lunch was arranged for him, only high tea. When the butler went up with high tea, the double brandy would be sipped only just. At dinner, he'd ask the butler to pour out the brandy. Subbanna is struck by the elegance of all this.

After a point, miffed that I'd strayed too long, the future pulled me round, his hand hard on my shoulder.

What did the planters I met foresee for Malnad? Young labour has left for the city. Many planters' children have gone where the Crawfords and the Schofields came from, and are exercising there the enterprise that white men showed in Malnad. Schooling children are sent to Bangalore and Mysore with the wives so that eventually, these children will go westward too. So? With senior citizens as owners and workmen, is the coffee-belt set to buckle? Who are the innovators who possess the enterprise and the ambition of the pioneers?

Ramachandra and I went to Anand Pereira's plantation. Pereira begins and ends his workday zen-fashion, meditating by a high tank teeming with Japanese koi: the sprawl of his estate is on full display from the tank.

Through inventive irrigation and the use of his scholarship in microbiology, he has created one-hundred and twenty acres of springy soil that support a fine-looking coffee plantation: "Feel the soil, Shashi! Feel it!" And, worried about the warming, he is creating a canal system to prevent the earth from cracking, should famine strike. "No time, Shashi! No time!" He walks faster as he says this, as though to create time.

We finished the tour late-afternoon and sat with his wife and watched their children play cricket with the farm-hands on the kana. Suddenly Pereira asked me: "What can planters learn from manufacturing, Shashi?"

With trees looming round us, there was such silence in that womb in which we sat, except for children scoring and denying runs, and prayers welled up in me for his success, for success for all planters, prayers that were, in truth, utterly selfish.

Why is Shankar Shetru Leaving Sakleshpur?

Some like me are half-settling in Sakleshpur. Some illustrious ones are leaving. Like Shankar Shetru.

We telephoned him and he offered to tell us how to plant and maintain pepper and he asked us to meet him with a two-hundred page notebook, and with two hours on hand. But he is seventy-six years old and has too much to tell, and he spoke of pepper not at all, but narrated instead his life story. We forgot about the pepper and listened.

He came to Sakleshpur a teenager and enrolled as a plantation-hand. The plantations were owned by the British then, and the manager of the plantation was a white man. Everything worked to neatly written-down systems, and not a step was missed in the work of the plantation, and pilferage was impossible. Only in that time of discipline was Indian coffee good coffee. Not a planter exists today who runs a plantation like that, nor delivers coffee of a quality like theirs.

Somewhere in this period, Shetru, lacking education, with only hard work to his merit, rose to become a writer. He was tough, straight. His superior—a manager—was cheating and wanted Shetru to join in the scheming. Shetru resisted and eventually caused the manager to be sacked.

When all the English left India, a new chief came who was half-English and half-Malayalee but appeared very English. His sisters were very like full-white women too, and they ran the plantation together with him, and they were all terrific administrators. The women played bhayankara badminton. (Shetru paused at this moment, and wondered out loud where those unmarried women went, and so abruptly.) Soon the planters were all Indian, and Shetru began to dream of owning one himself. He put together his first plantation slowly, then another, and another. We’ve seen two of them, and they’re immaculate. He meant that each would go to a son, but the sons are not keen to come back. One son, for instance, has studied at the Indian Institute of Science, has worked in the USA, and has returned to Bangalore where he works for a US corporation. He’s a doctorate, and though he often comes home to see father, he won’t settle here.

A few months ago, someone took Shetru to a Bangalaore hospital for just a check, but the doctors began a long process on him and detained him for days, weeks, and a month passed. You’re doing this only to build your revenues, he protested to them. They smiled at him and asked him to stay a little longer, now that he had completed so many diagnostic tests and only a few remained. A fifth week passed. Shetru threw their books and their bottles at them and stormed out of the hospital at the end of the sixth week. Sitting erect on a tall-backed wooden chair he told us he's worked sixty years with his hands, standing on his legs, and nothing is wrong with him that he should lie in a hospital.

But he fell while walking in one of his plantations some weeks ago. He cannot go into them anymore, so he’s already signed a sale agreement for the plantation round his home. He asked us without salesmanship if we would buy his plantation at Kerodi, a piece that sits by a vast section of the picturesque Gorur backwaters.

In mid-July he’ll leave Sakleshpur and go away to settle in a town in South Kanara. Somewhere in this story he said the planter should walk everywhere in his plantation every morning—the trees and the coffee seek his smell. Shetru is a steely stern man, and only once (maybe I imagined it) I saw emotion steal through, when he said the plants and the trees are as children to him.

They’ll pine for his fragrance. Are the new owners of his plantation a worthy substitute?