A TREK AND A TEA STORY – PART 1

On Ponmudi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

On Ponmudi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

This article weaves two narratives – the one in normal text focuses on a trek; the other in italics, talks about tea estates.

It is an old story said in three parts. A lot may have changed since it was first written in 2009. A quick reality check was done through return to context in August 2014, which is appended as `Post Script.’ However, it is a limited update. Readers are requested to keep that in mind.

In the beginning of the nineteenth century, the plantation industry reached Kerala on India’s south western coast.

First in was coffee in Wayanad, the north Kerala district bordering Karnataka. This area used to belong to the erstwhile Madras Presidency. There were three potential sources of manpower for the estates. Of them, the tribal people flatly refused to work on the plantations seeing it as an invasion of their forests. The people from the Malabar region were averse to such work. Imported labor from Tamil Nadu provided the solution.

By 1866 more than 200 coffee estates were operating in Wayanad, two thirds of that owned by Europeans, the rest by investors from the coastal towns. Twenty two years later, news came of blight on the coffee plants in Kerala. It was believed to have arrived from plantations in Sri Lanka; in any case, much of the state’s coffee was destroyed by 1876. Experiments with other crops like cinchona, as replacement for coffee, proved discouraging. Eventually tea moved in; coffee continued to have a presence in Wayanad. Although the British East India Company’s first foray into tea in South India happened in the 1840s, large scale production of tea in Kerala commenced only after the coffee blight. Tea had to be necessarily large scale compared to coffee. As a crop it required regular human intervention. These interventions were affordable only if the scale of cultivation was large. The heart of the state’s tea country then was Peermedu. Later it was the undulating hills of Munnar.

The last major cash crop to reach Kerala and its hills was rubber at the turn of the twentieth century. With this, save the apex portion which was off limit by law, it was theoretically possible to clothe a Kerala hill in estates – rubber at low altitude, coffee at mid altitude and tea at high altitude. One definite casualty of this was the traditional forest aesthetic. From natural and heterogeneous, the idea of greenery became acceptable even if it was manmade and homogenous.

When my cousin Rajeev comes home on vacation from the US, we usually go on a hike. That’s how Agastyakoodam entered the frame.

At Neyyar Dam near Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala I got my first real look at Agastyakoodam peak. The face it presented to Neyyar Dam was beautiful, a perfect triangle. Agastyakoodam had always been there in the backdrop at Thiruvananthapuram, spoken of in hushed tones of respect. To see Agastyakoodam you had to be on the terrace of an ideally located house in the city and have a clear day. Slightly foggy or sky laden with rain clouds – you missed it. For the child in you, that added to the myth. I grew up in Thiruvananthapuram. So the myth was a big deal.

In the late 1980s, I remember listening in awe as a friend who was senior to me, prepared to join the annual pilgrimage up the 6237 ft high-peak. Nobody called it a trek; indeed there was no trekking in popular perception then. You went up a hill for pilgrimage. Then in January 2009, three of us – Rajeev, his nephew Gokul and I – decided to do the Agastyakoodam hike ahead of the annual pilgrimage. Booking the trek through the forest department turned out to be a small expedition. It was a whole day’s trip to Peppara and back; that was where we had to pay the fees and register our names.

Half way along the narrow forest road to the Peppara Dam and its warden’s office, Shahajad who was driving our hired three-wheeler stopped the vehicle to put some money in a box kept in front of a temple. It was one of the most beautiful sights. Besides the small box and a multi-tiered, soot-stained traditional lamp fixed to the ground, there was nothing to mark a temple there. But the atmosphere was exceptionally divine in a quaint, primeval way. It was set by four to five lovely trees called chempakam in Malayalam. They have a sprawling shape, the trunk acquires a silver color and in full bloom, has dainty white flowers. A week later at the botanical gardens adjacent to the Thiruvananthapuram zoo, I could gather the actual name for the tree – Eezhachempakam, Plumeria rubra Linn also called Temple Tree. In that small clearing filled with white sand, by the road in Peppara, the trees had woven a magnificent aura – if one’s gaze turned heavenward in the temples of the plains, then in the temples of the hills and forests, I felt a sensation of being embraced by nature.

The road to Ponmudi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The road to Ponmudi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Early next morning, all geared up for the multi-day hike, we met our guides – Binu and Raju; both from the Kani community. They were adivasis; tribal people, initially stiff and quiet but soon warming up to conversation after a round of hot tea at a smoky restaurant opposite the Bonaccord bus stop. That was in fact the end of the winding road. Nearby were tea estates. I knew at least one another similar road, leading to Ponmudi (3609ft), which highlighted a little known dimension of Thiruvananthapuram – you could land in tea country, less than two hours from Kerala’s capital city.

By 2009 (actually earlier), Thiruvananthapuram’s tea estates, likely the southern-most in India, were in trouble. It was a picture of neglect. Bonaccord epitomized it. The resident tea factory was in a state of disrepair and the tea bushes in their neglected condition had reverted to being an extension of jungle.

Bonaccord appeared trapped in a time warp on the peripheries of Thiruvananthapuram. It had sat there while the lands way below went through political upheavals rendering the area likely unviable for commercially successful tea cultivation. Now the tea factory was a ghost of its former self. Three floors high and the length of three tennis courts, it sported shattered glass panes and rusting metal; at one end was a room full of silent machinery that had ground to a standstill long ago. The day I was there, four to five officers sat settling accounts in a sun-lit room on the ground floor. The floor of the adjacent hall featured a spread of freshly plucked tea leaves. The company owning the estate no more worked the processing factory; it simply transported the leaves to distant Vandiperiyar and sold it.

For quite a while on the well marked trail, the plantation culture from the foothills of Agastyakoodam lingered. There were minor trails once used by Englishmen to move around, places where they used to rest and long forgotten horse trails with water halts for the animal. Raju and Binu proceeded at a brisk pace; like a pair of men out on work or going to the market. They had appeared clad in shirt and lungi, rubber slippers on the feet and crucially no rucksack for either. For guides everything else was forgivable but unprotected feet and no rucksack was questionable. So I had taken most of our provisions away from them and put it in my rucksack. In due course the duo laundered my lack of protest at the additional labor into a desire for carrying load. “ Sir likes to carry all the weight,’’ Raju said. Binu nodded his head approvingly. Ever heard that – a paying client who loves to haul load?

This was typical Kerala and the contrast the situation posed with treks up north where clients walked swinging their hands while porters lugged massive loads, was rather stark. But then on the other hand I reasoned, just as cuisine is different from state to state, so had to be the people and their mentality. There was nothing in this duo that betrayed a willingness to genuflect or be servile. Lungi tucked high to keep it out of the way they conversed about the world and set an impatient pace that soon had me, my rice and my vegetables frying in the heat and sweat. The trail, pounded by several years of pilgrims’ passage, was firmly etched into the hill slope. We passed a prominent stream en route – it was the beginning portions of the Karamana River which flowed downstream through the heart of Thiruvananthapuram city. A sole leech made its presence felt on Rajeev’s leg; the blood sucker had quenched its thirst long ago, bloated and fallen off, leaving behind a tiny bleeding wound. In days to come, that wound would itch. A leech bite is like a love affair. It can take a few days to get over the visitation – you bleed, you scratch, you reopen the wound, you scratch, till all that imprints the leech into your memory.

…..to be continued

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai)

A TREK AND A TEA STORY – PART 2

On Ponmudi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

On Ponmudi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The story of these southern Kerala tea estates go back several decades. It showed up on the Internet in a 1914 edition of Southern India: Its History, People, Commerce and Industry; a book compiled by Somerset Playne, J.W. Bond and edited by Arnold Wright. As I found out later the book which details the initial phase of South Indian estates had become essential reference for plantation companies in the Ponmudi region to establish their origin.

According to it, The Ponmudi Tea and Rubber Company Ltd was formed in 1900. The property consisted of three estates – Ponmudi, Bon-Accord and Braemore, all of which were in the district of Ponmudi in the native state of Travancore. The estates spanned an area of 3276 acres with the cultivated portion totaling 1710 acres, featuring tea and rubber. Mr J.S. Valentine, the managing director, had arrived in India in 1875. At that time, the area was planted with coffee but all that coffee was lost in the blight that hit Kerala’s coffee. Subsequently in 1884, tea was planted in Ponmudi and in portions of the other properties. The climate was good for tea; the rainfall of almost 160 inches experienced annually was heaviest in June, July, August, October and November. The yield of tea was highest in Ponmudi followed by Bon-Accord and Braemore in that order. In January 1915, when these observations about the estates were penned, the region had about 1510 acres under tea and 200 acres under rubber at the three estates. There were tea factories at all three properties and the produce was shipped under the company’s brand through the ports of Kochi and Tuticorin for sale in London. Two thousand laborers worked in the plantations; they were drawn equally from Malabar, south Travancore and Tinnevely, the Tirunelveli district of present day Tamil Nadu. Mr Valentine lived in Ponmudi, Mr R. Ross with Mr David Welsh, assistant, was in charge at Bon-Accord and Mr I.R.N. Pryde looked after Braemore. The company’s registered office was at 4 Lloyd’s Avenue, London.

The three estates are now separate. They draw their lineage from the Ponmudi Tea and Rubber Company. When I was a school student in Thiruvananthapuram, the Ponmudi area was identified with tea and as I understood in retrospect from my inquiries, foreign managers were still there. They were present in Ponmudi till the late 1970s. It was also from these parts that I first heard the name Birla. Jayasree Tea, a company belonging to the B.K. Birla group and a leading tea company in India, had come to own a plantation called Merchiston in Ponmudi. But there was trouble brewing, scripted possibly by paradigm problems visiting the tea business in the state. In fact, while I was still living in Thiruvananthapuram and yet to be journalist, reports had commenced of labor problem and slow decay at the tea estates.

Gangs of forest workers were preparing the trail for the upcoming season. Here and there, they had set fire to dry grass in a controlled fashion. Our guides stopped to talk to their colleagues. On one such occasion, we had walked ahead and paused to pick up a hollow plant stem, hacked and lying on the ground. It was a fascinating object, like a green telescope tube. Just then the guides appeared. “ Did you cut it?’’ Raju asked a tad belligerent in tone.

Neither the query nor the tone should have surprised us. The forests around Agastyakoodam have been known for long as a treasure trove of medicinal plants. Years ago, it used to be casually explained; people would link the incidence of medicinal plants in the region to the apothecary traits of sage Agastya himself. But the present day global pharmaceutical industry has no appetite for either myth or nature. For it, the undiscovered potential of the plant wealth of Agastyakoodam posed clear commercial value. Its exploitation could be restrained or properly administered only by the rule of relevant laws, something quite distant to the tribal world of the Kani community. Rumors abounded of plants smuggled out for analysis.

Even the comparatively successful story of the endurance drug Jeevani was not spared controversy. The discovery of its existence or rather that suspicion of something like it which precedes all real discovery, had been in circumstances very similar to what we found ourselves in. A group of scientists were out in the Agastyakoodam forests, their guides like ours, walking briskly ahead mile after mile. The guides were hardly tired while the team behind was getting progressively exhausted. They noticed that the Kani men were chewing something, which on inquiry turned out to be the leaf of a plant locally known as Aarogyappachcha. From it, scientists of the Tropical Botanical Garden and Research Institute near Thiruvananthapuram created the medicine, Jeevani. Although the Jeevani business model was eventually recognized internationally as a role model in its category, sharing the profits from manufacturing the drug with the Kani community, whose natural home land the Agastyakoodam forests were, there was controversy later when a US company patented the drug in that country. The tribal community – as evidenced by the attitude of our two guides – appeared to have learnt the value of cautious dealings with the outside world. “ We were ignorant,’’ Binu said.

The office of the old tea factory at Ponmudi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The office of the old tea factory at Ponmudi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The Merchiston factory near Ponmudi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The Merchiston factory near Ponmudi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The Bonaccord factory (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The Bonaccord factory (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

At the root of the tea estates’ problems was Kerala’s entry, some seventy five years after tea plantations reached the state, into an era of turbulent politics and social upheavals. One of the lasting legacies of this trend, ironically a byproduct of increased awareness, has been a level of politicization often deemed excessive for the common good. In this atmosphere, the plantation industry was one of the state’s largest tax payers and also one of its biggest employers. Political parties with their compulsion to cultivate vote banks rarely saw beyond these two obvious attributes – one of the largest tax payers and one of the biggest employers.

The mood in January 2009 at the plantation offices I visited in Thiruvananthapuram was hardly upbeat. Tea prices were down; input costs – a chunk of that labor cost – had gone up and labor productivity was low. Within labor cost, the argument from the planters was that the fixed components had risen handsomely while the variable parts, linked to productivity, moved up sluggishly. Also traceable in the economics was a logic rooted in the very nature of tea and mentioned at the time of its arrival in Kerala – the regular human intervention warranted for its cultivation demanded economies of scale alongside for affordability. The south Kerala plantations were neither very big nor was their produce high on the pecking scale at tea auctions. A cursory inquiry with tea brokers in Kochi in 2009 revealed that in general the teas from Munnar ruled the top in local auctions while the south Kerala estates stayed at the bottom in terms of price and quality. It was not hard to comprehend why the pincer bit hard at Ponmudi.

In 2009, of the big names in the Thiruvananthapuram region, only one tea plantation company seemed to be working normally, free of controversy. Its focus was organic tea, something the others were yet to deem commercially viable although improving end product price through imaginative value addition seemed the only way out from prevailing predicament. But this company too had temporarily run into a glitch courtesy the Forest Department whose office was situated not far from that of the plantation company’s in the city. In rules produced some years ago to define forest lands, the department had drawn survey lines through estate tracts befuddling the owners. For the company it suddenly became questionable to weed its contested plantation for that could amount to deforestation. That was the dilemma in 2009 at what seemed the less troubled tea company of the lot.

About three hours into the hike, we broke free of dense forest into a patch of tall grasses with scattered trees. From here the Agastyakoodam peak towered in the distance; its long flanks made us wonder if the goal of reaching the top by evening was feasible. It was now noon and the sun was harsh. Just then the walk entered open terrain with nothing for shade. It was only after half an hour slogging through the heat and glare that the trail reentered shaded forest. When it did the going was suddenly steep. The combination of heat and steepness was rather dehydrating and it was a tired group that hit the forest rest house by late afternoon. We would be staying here for the night. Right in front of the building, the peak loomed big, that same perfect triangle as seen from Neyyar Dam. Now you could see it in detail and if you were given to climbing, read that rock face for vertical lines to the top.

Bags lightered, we decided to push on and reach the top by evening. Getting back through forest at night may be difficult but we had torches and our guides appeared confident of navigating. You could say that the real climb up Agastyakoodam is the hike beyond the rest house, whatever had been traversed till then was the stuff of foothills. Binu pointed to a distant streak of red on the peak’s rock face. He claimed that the ooze, locally called kanmadam, held medicinal properties. What he said next was hard to swallow – that the king cobra loved to taste it. It was a fantastic image – mysterious red ooze from rock as favored food for the world’s longest poisonous snake. Wasn’t it a bit too fantastic? I left it at that.

Tea gardens near Ponmudi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Tea gardens near Ponmudi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The trail was now getting steep and narrow featuring stray deposits of elephant dung. The watchman at the rest house had warned that a few elephants were present in the locality. An hour later, we were at the mountain’s shoulder, its rocky apex sat like a solid hump to the right; it was a sheer drop on the side facing the rest house below. The boundary line separating the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu ran along the mountain’s ridge. It was carved into the rocks, these separate loyalties – the sea shell emblem of Kerala and a sort of arrow mark for Tamil Nadu, which the two Kani men called “ kozhikkalu’’ or chicken leg. Back in Thiruvananthapuram, this arrow mark failed to convince learned people for they said the Tamil Nadu emblem had traditionally been the temple tower; unless the tower got simplified to an arrow mark. From the mountain’s shoulder you could comfortably gaze into Tamil Nadu, the nearest town that side being Ambasamudram. The path up from the shoulder was a mix of rock strewn gully and a steep, narrow path.

Half way up the path, we saw fresh elephant dung. The contrast it presented was hard to ignore. How could such a massive beast pick its way up so small a path? Elephants are capable of some gingerly done walking but this appeared to indicate a truly nimble specimen. Binu however treated it as normal. As we prepared to tackle the rock patches above, we heard some trumpeting in the distance. The rock patch was fun; it is bound to be so for anyone acquainted with climbing. There was a stout rope fixed to a thicket but if you are familiar with walking on angled rock and have a trekking pole for friend, then the rope is not required there or anywhere on the final ascent. On the other hand what you feel while walking up on two legs on that slab is a notion of poise and fresh air, a sense of freedom, a sense of having finally broken through dense vegetation and being able to see unhindered for miles.

The peak here has two neighbors – Athirumala, located in line with the boundary dividing the two states and having a name derived from the Malayalam word athiru, meaning boundary. The other was a fierce mountain with five summits all of them sharp pinnacles. The entire formation stood like an arrogant upward thrust from the forest floor. The Kani men called it Anchilappothi and it reminded me of those spires in Patagonia and Karakorum that the world’s best rock climbers go to attempt. Perhaps a smoother version for these tall pinnacles didn’t seem as jagged or rugged. “ Nobody goes there,’’ Binu said, as we stood looking at those pointed peaks, from the top of Agastyakoodam. There was nothing on the summit of our peak save a couple of more rock engravings to denote the state boundary, a solitary idol of the sage Agastya and items of worship replete with left over offerings. The idol matched the description of the sage in Hindu mythology as a small, stout person. Agastya though, was a powerful sage, one of the most powerful in the list of Indian hermits. Two things characterize his story – a fantastic birth and continued mention across the ages, making him some sort of an eternal being. In between was the tale of him taming a fast growing mountain in central India, the Vindhya. When Vindhya threatened to exceed the Himalaya in height, the gods sought Agastya’s help – so goes the story. The sage who was proceeding south asked the mountain to reduce its height for him to cross and keep it that way till he returned. Agastya never returned; he stayed south. The belief is that he built his hermitage in the forests around the Agastyakoodam hill. As for Vindhya, it remains to date a set of hills, smaller than even the Western Ghats.

…..to be continued

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai)

A TREK AND A TEA STORY – PART 3

The road to Bonaccord (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The road to Bonaccord (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The Merchiston estate was sold off by the Birlas.

In 2009, its new owner was embroiled in controversy for agreeing to sell a portion of the estate to the Indian Space Research Organisation for the proposed Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology. Away from its newly acquired place in politics, the estate had other interesting angles to offer. If you search for the Merchiston name on the Internet, one of the links would take you to a historical castle in Edinburgh, Scotland, likely built in the 1450s and home to the Clan Napier. Of relevance to Kerala’s capital city, Lord Napier of Merchiston was a title in the peerage of Scotland. The Merchiston castle was the birthplace of John Napier, most famous Napier of the lot, Eighth Lord of Merchiston and famous Scottish mathematician with major contributions to the subject, including logarithm. He was also interested in theology, predicting an end for the world around 1700. The world and Merchiston survived that year. The Tenth Lord Napier was Francis Napier, a prominent diplomat who served as the Governor of Madras Presidency and was for a brief while, acting Viceroy to India. The beautiful museum building at Thiruvananthapuram was named after him. Does that angle matter anymore for anything Merchiston in Thiruvananthapuram? I don’t know; history and heritage rarely count these days.

The Bonaccord estate had been through trying times. According to a September 2007 news report in the local edition of The Hindu, “ the laborers said that the 450 employees of the estate were rendered jobless after the management abandoned the estate and left the state five years ago. ` Following a government sponsored settlement in April this year, the management agreed to resume operations. But they failed to honor the agreement. The leaders of some of the trade unions appropriated the returns from the estate, leaving the workers in the lurch,’ they said.’’ Some degree of activity had since returned to Bonaccord; it was there to see in the few people at work and the tea leaves gathered for transport to the market in Vandiperiyar. Binu who did all kind of casual jobs for a living had occasionally worked on the tea estates. He corroborated the story of unions at Bonaccord demanding a slice from a poor worker’s pay. Pasted on the walls, in a Bonaccord starved of work and income, was a poster demanding contributions for building a brand new trade union office in the nearby city. The starkness of its demand was vivid in that air pregnant with the silence of unemployment.

From the management of the Braemore estate, a more relevant and believable argument on the future of the southern plantations appeared. The young chief executive, having illustrated the ills ailing the industry, chose to work within them for a short term gaze at the future. When I met him in 2009, his tea operations at Braemore had been suspended since 2003 owing to lack of skilled hands and poor economics. With city nearby and educational facilities and better work opportunities to be had, people continuing in estate work, had dipped in that region. Tea, for sure in its non-mechanized form in Kerala, would remain labor intensive and costly. Rubber on the other hand, was easier to grow and required less attention. It can’t go to the altitudes inhabited by tea but certainly its acreage could increase, progressively replacing tea in lower belts. The south Kerala plantations are anyway at lower altitudes compared to Munnar.

Tea bushes seen lost to weeds and undergrowth on the approach to Bonaccord (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Tea bushes seen lost to weeds and undergrowth on the approach to Bonaccord (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The old tea factory at Bonaccord (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The old tea factory at Bonaccord (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

According to Binu, elephants wandered right up to the windy top of Agastyakoodam. I looked astonished at him and then towards the rock slab we had come up by. Was it that king cobra talking again? “ Elephants have their routes for coming up. Reaching here is not beyond them,’’ he said. But there was a catch – it wasn’t the normal elephant; it was a smaller, more compact one. Back in Mumbai, I searched for information on the small, hill dwelling elephant Binu had talked about and was treated to a surprise. Pygmy elephants have been reported from both Africa and Asia. The sole claim in India, unsubstantiated yet, was from the forests around Peppara, exactly where Agastyakoodam stood. The claim had come from the Kani tribe and the animal in question was locally called Kallaana. In Mumbai, a visit to the Bombay Natural History Society [BNHS], which has its team of wildlife experts, served to merely underscore the unsubstantiated nature of the claim. The whole argument about pygmy elephants, an official at BNHS felt, may be a case of mistaken identity. Juvenile male elephants are often kicked out from herds. Seen during their wanderings they would be both smaller in size and seemingly of a different type given their isolated life. Was the nimble kallaana then just a juvenile aana or elephant on its way to being a regular, big pachyderm?

Late afternoon, the next day, we were back in the smoky teashop at Bonaccord. It was tea, bread and omelet for everyone for a three day hike completed in a day and a half. It was also a return with vengeance to urban ways. Raju, searching for his mobile number to give me, got confused with the numbers of three SIM cards that he owned. More than a week later, one quiet night in Kozhikode, over four hundred kilometers north of Thiruvananthapuram, my phone came alive with a triumphant voice from near Agastyakoodam, “ sir, this is my number!’’

Small temple near Bonaccord (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Small temple near Bonaccord (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Post Script: The above was written in 2009. In the months that followed I misplaced the photographs I took during the trek. I have no photo of Agastyakoodam with me. In August 2014, while on a visit home, I decided to revisit the story and the tea estates, mainly for pictures. I didn’t have the time to meet officials at tea companies in the city but one very rainy day in early August (not the ideal time for photography I concede) I did find myself back in the tea estate-foothills. No trek; just looking around. Ponmudi was enveloped by dense fog. In that ambience, the office of the old tea estate emerged like a vision from the misty past. Kutty, who worked at the Merchiston estate and who I met on the road, told me that a new factory was being built at Ponmudi. If so, I never reached that far for up until the old office all I saw was that office and attempted new construction so lost to vegetation that it seemed abandoned. According to Kutty, Merchiston was running well. We stood at a bend on the road and watched its factory. It had a fresh coat of paint and blue sheets for roof. It was easily the most visible building around. I didn’t go to Braemore. The only time I was there was many years ago, when a walk to a beautiful stream found me standing not far from its tea factory. Bonaccord in August 2014 was old story with new twists. Private vehicles on the road to the tea factory were being discouraged, probably due to the problem of revelers and drunken picnickers, the perennial headache of the Indian outdoors. We are a people with zero affection for solitude. At the old teashop, I met 62 year-old Soman who had commenced work at the estate as a temporary hand when he was 17. He said that years ago itself, some of the heavy machinery at the tea factory was removed and taken off. Work continued in fits and sputters, the whole area steadily sliding alongside to being museum piece. In one of those classical vignettes from colonial stories, Soman said that the daughter of a former European manager had come to visit the place of her childhood. She reached Bonaccord with old photos to locate names and faces. “ They met some of the old timers, took new photos and left,’’ he said. Right then in August 2014, the dispensation was – workers had assumed responsibility for small parcels of land. They plucked tea leaves and brought it to the factory, from where, as in 2009, it travelled to Vandiperiyar. That fetched some earnings. Not far from the teashop, tea bushes stood grossly neglected with thick intervening vegetation. The shop owner served me black tea. From worry over lack of work and entrapment in unemployment, Bonaccord seemed to have drifted to indifferent listlessness. Soman said that hearing of the workers’ condition people – including those from overseas – had offered assistance. Some came with food, others brought clothes. “ Why should we leave? Here we have good drinking water; there are no mosquitoes, somebody helps once in a while. We get by,’’ he said. Soman claimed he did not own a house. But he could stay at the workers’ quarters. Amazingly he said that he swallows his complaints before the tea factory owners for they seemed to him, a class apart. “ You don’t feel like saying anything,’’ he said.

Outside, the rain fell steadily on that hill side with forgotten tea bushes and equally forgotten buildings, its crowning glory being a tea factory with shattered windows and rusted machinery.

It was quiet, peaceful world.

Concluded

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai)