Malnad Diary: Coffee, Pepper, Paan, and Liquor

Malnad Coffee

We were at the plantation this weekend.

There was a proliferation of plastic everywhere: packets of pickles, white plastic bags with coleslaw and other leftovers, sachets of whisky (Original Choice), and, mostly, emptied paan packets. And among them, the red cans of Kingfisher beer, marked Strong.

I picked up a can of the beer and a dried sachet of whisky.

With that load in my hand, we walked. We noted our neighbour had dammed with sand the stream along our eastern boundary and dropped a green tube in the water. The tube ran up to a pump. “Next time it rains, this dam will flood our coffee,” we said to ourselves. Resigning ourselves to inability to do anything about it, we walked back up the slope. Strings of pepper had fallen from their vines to the ground, some just-fallen and shining like black pearls, some charred. The price of pepper has slumped this year, and until a week ago nobody had been coming to buy it. A merchant from Kerala has purchased the crop now, and he has deployed Tamil labour for the picking. We came upon a young couple on a coffee patch who were picking the peppers. The woman, dark and pretty with even white teeth and black gums smiled as she identified herself with the merchant’s name. Her husband carried their child as he went about his work with his free hand.

As regards the coffee, only a day’s picking was left. A relief, because rain had been forecast for the week.

Along the way, the senior foreman came up. I asked about the plastic. “None of our people eats paan. sir,” he said.

“See,” I said, holding out the beer can and the whisky sachet. “Our labour comes in the morning and goes in the evening, sir,” he said. It was improbable that the drinking was happening during the day.

I let him go.

A few steps ahead, two guards came up, one about twenty-five, the other maybe forty. The older man was local, and the young man, fair of face, was from the Northeast. I showed them the can and sachet.

“Assamese,” the older guard said. “They roam about after nine.”

“Have they no fear of elephants?” my wife asked him.

“They drink and play cards,” the old guard said.

“Aren’t you telling them this sort of thing is not allowed on the plantation?” I said.

“We’re telling them, sir,” he said. And he said no more.

The guards oversee the packing and trucking of the coffee during the harvest. Basavanna, who owns a plantation some distance from us and who manages our estate, has complained that the guards themselves have a drinking problem.

“Call the Assamese supervisor,” I said to the guards.

The Assamese gangs work separately with their own supervisor. A contractor hires them for us. They stay a few months and move on, and return, coming and going in cycles. Their competence for plantation-work is average, but there’s been a severe shortage of hands these recent years.

The Assamese supervisor was coughing a dry cough. He hadn’t shaved, and his face was sick and oily. But he is otherwise strapping, nice-looking.

“We don’t drink,” he said, even before I asked. “We are Muslims.”

I had no answer to that. But I gave him the guidance that I always give him, and the other foremen: “Ask the folks not to throw paan packets everywhere. Ask them to keep them in their pockets and empty them in a pit.”

“I’ve done it already,” he said. We were approaching the labour line. He pointed a heap that was once perhaps a pit.

“Burn the stuff,” I said.

“I’ll burn it,” he said.

“Okay,” I said. “You see a doctor.”

There is not the custom of saying thanks in these parts. He left with what respect he could show. He hadn’t coughed after that first fit.


Back at the bungalow, a task waited, an enquiry with a foreman. Two weeks ago, in our absence, two policemen had come visiting. They’d called this foreman out. A plantation worker was with them. He’d lodged a complaint that the foreman had beaten him the week before. Before the foreman, they’d asked the workman why he’d been hit. “Because I came late,” he’d said. The policemen had then asked the foreman why he beat the workman. The foreman had said he hadn't touched him.

The foreman was waiting outside the bungalow.


“He’s one kind during the day. After dark he is something else,” the foreman said.

“With what did you hit him?” my wife said.

“I didn’t hit him. Pushed, maybe, but I didn’t hit him.”

“Why didn’t you call about all this? Why did you wait until after the police came?” my wife said.

The foreman fell silent, and then he said, “From when I joined here, these people hate me. They were stealing areca. I stopped them. I told them, ‘The areca has been given on contract. Some fellow has paid lakhs for it. What shall we tell him if he got less than he bought?’ They were stealing pepper. I stopped that.”

We asked the foreman to go and attend to the coffee picking.

“Send Satisha,” we told him as he went. Satisha is the workman who brought the police to the plantation, saying the writer had assaulted him.

“We heard you had a problem with the foreman,” I said to Satisha when he appeared.

“Yes,” he said.

“Tell,” I said.

“I was coming back in the evening. It was not so late. The foreman asked me, ‘Where’d you gone, maaraaya.’ I told him not to call me maaraaya. He hit me.”

“Where did he hit you?”

“Here,” he said, pointing to a whitish mark by his knuckles, a mark like it had been there since birth. “And here,” he said, pointing to his butt.

“What did he hit you with?”

“A stick.” He showed the length of his forearm to suggest the length of the stick. This was a strong man, supple, a little taller and a little bulkier than the foreman. A general resentment shone in his intense eyes.

“Do you drink?” I said.

“Evenings. In the village.”

“Daily?”

“With your kind of wages?” His head was up now, which had been bowed, and a smile came over his face which fear wiped off in an instant.

“It's up to you if you drink in the village. But you cannot create disturbances on the plantation,” I said.

“Okay,” he said.

“What happened with the police?” I said.

“There was an agreement.”

“What was agreed?”

“The foreman should mind his business. I should mind my business.”

“Go back to work,” I said. “Don’t cause any more trouble here.”


Going into the bungalow, I asked my wife for a glass of water, beating down a surging craving for coffee. I've sworn off caffeine for a long time now.