Some like me are half-settling in the Sakleshpur area. Some illustrious others are leaving. Like Shankar Shetru.
We telephoned him, and he offered to teach 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. Shankar Shetru, as we soon learnt, is seventy-six years old and has too much to tell. He spoke of pepper not at all but narrated his life story instead. We forgot about the pepper vine 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 estate was a white man. Everything worked to written-down systems, and not a step was missed in the works 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 an estate like the British did, nor delivers coffee of a quality that equals theirs.
Somewhere in this period, Shetru, lacking education, with only hard work to his credit, rose to become a writer — a foreman who also kept the books of accounts. He was tough, straight. His superior, a manager, was cheating and wanted Shetru to join in the scam. Shetru resisted and eventually caused the manager to be sacked.
After the white man left India, a new owner 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. 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 why 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 to divide his holding among his sons, 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 visits his father, he won't settle with him.
A few months ago, someone took Shetru to a Bangalore hospital for only a check, but the doctors began a procedure on him and detained him for days, weeks, and a month passed. You're doing this to build your revenues, he protested to them. They smiled 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, and the sixth. Shetru threw their books and their bottles at them and stormed out of the hospital. Sitting erect on a tall-backed wooden chair, he said he's worked sixty years with his hands, standing on his legs, and nothing is so 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 one holding. He asked us without salesmanship if we'd like to buy his property at Kerodi, by the picturesque Gorur backwaters.
His plan is to go away mid-July and settle in a town in South Kanara district.
Shankar Shetru had parting advice for us: "Every morning, the planter should walk everywhere in his plantation — the trees and the pepper 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 vines and the plants and the trees are as children to him.
They'll pine for his fragrance, I think.