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?