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.
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!’’
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 spurts, 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 traveled 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.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai)