Two articles by Gurrinder [Indi] Khanna – enjoy!
Chicken on the Menu
In 1975 at a young 22 almost straight out of University and a Masters in English, I found myself up on Panniar Estate (High Ranges) having been despatched there by the Malayalam Plantations Agents in Cochin. Born and with my entire formative years having been in Simla where the only agricultural produce was apples, planting as a career had never ever crossed my mind. Providence and a long story (for another day) of how I found myself down south. Having been sent for an extension interview to a rubber estate near Trishur (Mooply), the first Tea bush I ever really saw and touched was when I arrived at Panniar, never for a moment realising that this innocuous plant is what my entire life would revolve around so that 45 years later that love affair continues. And thankfully so!
The next morning, on my first day at work, my P.D. Mr Abid Khan who over the two years I worked under him became a father figure for me, told me that for the first three/four months I was not to be given a motorcycle and that I should walk the estate with the conductor, following which words I was duly ‘handed over’ to Mr Balia. A most imposing figure replete with a pith helmet and a swagger stick, Mr Balia (never just Balia) could WALK! And so over the next four months after a very crisp ‘good morning sah’ and a tipping of the pith helmet, we walked and we walked and we walked and then we walked some more covering as much of the 320 hectares as we could.
Panniar being a good one and a half hour drive from Munnar and the High Range Club I was totally dependent upon Abid and Shamim who very kindly, every time they headed that way, would take me along for the evening. On other days, end of day, Abid would come past the muster on his bike and ask me (this was an almost daily ritual) ‘what are you doing this evening?‘ Bereft of any kind of transport there was not much that I could do and so evening after evening, straight from the muster we’d head up to Abid’s bungalow where the three of us would play badminton till it got dark after which it was scrabble while listening to BBC plays on Abid’s transistor. Abid being a rather infrequent drinker, while a drink was offered to me every now and then, Shamim always made sure that I never went back to my bungalow hungry. We followed this lovely ‘habit’ for all of four months till, having worn away three pairs of ‘Bata Hunter shoes’ (all that was available back then) trudging along behind Mr Balia, I was finally made mobile with my Bullet.
About three months into this routine in the Club, two of my senior colleagues from Surianalle Estate (the other Malalayalm’s Estate in the High Ranges) casually asked me that in the absence of a bike, what was it that I did in the evenings. Sharing my routine with them, Raghu and Appu asked me when I was planning to reciprocate and have Abid and Shamim over for a meal. Which casual remark led to my getting down to buying a dinner set, curtsey the Company’s soft furnishing allowance and our Group Doctor who was heading down to Cochin for a weekend. Finally the proud owner of a spanking new Hitkari dinner set adorned with tiny pink flowers, when Abid came past my morning muster it was my turn to ask ‘Are you and Ma’am busy this evening?‘ and so my first grand dinner party.
Arranged for our local Kadai to get me a bottle of brandy from Munnar and had my cook / bearer / gardener / man Friday – Kaliappan buy a chicken from the labour lines. The menu for the grand dinner being Chicken curry, a vegetable, daal and rice – which incidentally was the extent of Kaliappan’s culinary skills. The arrangements having been made, I headed off for the ‘Mr Balia march’ of the day. Walking back from my evening muster, just below my bungalow, I kept hearing a strange repetitive sound of ‘baak, baak, bakka…..’ which appeared to be emanating from under the bushes. Peering down through the bush frames I saw my friend Kaliappan sitting on his haunches with a palm full of rice and intently ‘baaking‘. Having been unceremoniously hauled out from under the bushes he very sheepishly and with all 32 teeth being flashed at me, informed me that just as he was about to knock off its head, our pièce de résistance had managed to wiggle out of his clutches and had disappeared through the pantry back door.
To say that I was upset would be an understatement. With no money to buy another chicken and with it, in any case, being unlikely that Kaliappan would be able to muster up a replacement at that time late in the evening I had to resign myself to that first dinner being a simple and fairly inedible veggie affair. Crestfallen and having showered, waiting for Shamim and Abid, I was thumbing through my weekly supply of Newspapers (we received our ‘daily’ newspaper in one lot, once a week) when I felt a ‘presence’. Peering over the top of my newspaper I saw our winged dinner, likely drawn in by the bungalow light, very proudly strutting across the red oxide floor. In a stage whisper I called out to Kaliappan who, peeping out from the dining room and seeing the fellow, was out like a flash of lightening. He grabbed the hapless fellow by his neck. Should anyone have seen that film, in his deft movement and sheer speed Kaliappan was the embodiment of the Bushman in ‘The God’s Must be Crazy‘. The next thing I heard was a squawk and by the time Shammim, Abid and I had done with our chit-chat, the poor escapee was in my new Hitkari serving dish on the centre of the dining table swimming in a curry!
The Periya Dorai’s (Big Boss) Angle to Angling
After two years on Panniar with my father figure P.D. (Abid), I was transferred to one of the other Malayalam’s properties in the High Ranges – Surianalle Estate. Despite us being directly on the other side of the valley from Panniar with a clear line of sight and just a couple of kilometres away as the crow flies, most times we never really ever got to see Surianalle. The reason for that estate being almost always invisible most times is explained by its very name – Surian (the sun) Illay (not there!). Which is exactly what it was – almost totally bereft of any sunshine. Every morning one went down to the muster in thick mist which hung over us heavy as a blanket, all the way through to well past noon at which time, as if by magic, the mist would dissipate to allow the sun to stream in (when the sky was clear, that is). Conditions which allowed all of us to get our daily fix of vitamin-D till about 1500 hours at which time we went back to being Surrian-alle!
I digress, so let me wander back to the tale which needs to be told.
[click for larger view]
My P.D. (the big boss) in Surianalle was a short (all of 5′ 4″) stocky and tough as nails Scot from Aberdeen. Clyde Lawrence despite all his bluff and bluster (and he had oodles of that to toss around) was at heart a bit of a softy. All in all a rather delightful teddy bear package. After a couple of months of making me run around like a trained monkey and having established that maybe I was an ‘alright type’ one day while walking through the fields he casually asked me whether I had any interest in angling. Me – angling!! Having arrived in South India straight out of the dry hills of Simla followed by college and university in Chandigarh was like asking me whether I had ever visited the moon since in Punjab the only angling one had ever heard about was ‘marroing angle’ on anything in a skirt or a salwar-kameez.
Being told that I was a total blank on anything to do with fishing, Clyde asked whether I might be interested to get involved. Having heard through the grapevine that the P.D. was an avid angler (he was known to have actually said that getting a fish at the end of one’s line was much more pleasurable than having an o******) wild horses would not have held me back from grabbing the opportunity to get further into Clyde’s good books.
Having established my interest, that evening I was invited to the P.D.s bungalow for a drink and was presented with a hand-me-down rod, a spinning reel, some line and a couple of swivels and spinners. Having been explained the basics of how one was supposed to use the tackle I was told that every evening, post work, I should drop by at Clyde’s bungalow armed with the equipment. And so began an almost three month training session of converting ‘young Gurrinder’ into a well rounded planter by me learning how to cast a line, the way ‘it is done in Scotland’! The Surianalle P.D. bungalow has a huge lawn on which, armed with my ‘new’ rod, duly threaded and with a spinner at the end of the line, I was told to stand at one end of this ‘cricket field’ while a small coin was placed at the other end. And so began my training. Day after day, week after week, I had to keep casting to try and hit the coin. While the new angler-in-the-making toiled away, Clyde and Winne would sit in the verandah having their evening cuppa and scones and cakes and every now and then making appreciative ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ whenever my spinner spoon actually managed to land on target and we all heard a rather satisfying ‘ping’ from that end of lawn.
Three months later as a well trained angler, though one who had never been near any water with his rod, I was asked whether I might want to accompany Clyde and Appu to Gravel Banks on Rajamallai estate. Appu, a couple of years senior to me, had obviously already been through the grind and was accepted by the boss as being a fisherman.
Come Sunday Appu and I hopped into Clyde’s Ambassador to be driven to Rajamallai at breakneck speed totally unmindful of potholes, bumps or anything else on the road. Clyde’s Scotsman logic being that if one sped over impediments, one felt them less and that the cars suspension was less prone to wear and tear. The fact that his car was more often in the estate workshop for replacement of the dozens of rubber bushes (a typical feature of the Ambassador) rather than with Clyde, did not deter him from changing his mind on how that poor vehicle needed to be driven.
Two hours later, duly shaken and stirred, we arrived at Gravel Banks, on the way having been tutored by Clyde to watch out for the leeches which, in size in and around Rajamallai, were reputed to be in close competition to the trout in the stream. After we had assembled and threaded our respective rods, in good P.D. fashion Clyde told us that he was going to head upstream from the fishing hut and that Appu and I should head downstream. The P.D. logic being that with him being upstream from us he would be casting for fish which had not yet been spooked. And so downstream the two of us headed with huge leeches reaching out to us on both sides of the path and even dropping down our backs from the thick overhanging branches. The only way to avoid the leeches was to walk along in the water unmindful of the rocks and suddenly finding oneself waist deep in freezing water, all the while casting out at regular intervals and every once in a while pulling in the usual 12/13oz tiddlers which is the ‘Gravel Banks standard’. So as not to disturb each other Appu walked along one bank of the stream, me on the other.
About two hours into the pleasurable exercise, I saw Appu’s rod curved at a rather acute angle which could only mean one of two things, that either he had snagged his hook on to some rock/bush/whatever (a regular feature in Gravel Banks) and was yanking to release the hook OR that he had a big one on the end of his line. From where I was I could see that Appu had that fisherman’s look on his face when he knows he is on to a good thing. As well he should have because following a bit of a struggle, out came a goodish 1½ pounder which by Gravel Banks standards could only be described as a whopper. Almost as excited as he was, I waded through to his side of the bank to look jealously at the thrashing trout in his grip. While both of us were admiring the prize Appu casually pulls the hook out of the fellows mouth and then, horror of horrors, puts the poor sod back in the stream. It took me a minute to realize what he’d gone and done by which time the ‘catch’ was well on its way, probably counting its blessings!
When I found my voice to ask Appu the reason for this totally inexplicable behaviour, I was given a lesson in P.D. ‘management’ which stayed with me through my planting days both in the South as well as in Assam, that for a peaceful next working week one never went back home with a bigger fish than Clyde and never with a larger total catch and that, should one end up in that situation where nature has given you the larger bounty, just let it/them go!
By 1300 hrs when we met back at the fishing hut, asked by Clyde what we had in our respective bags and shown our rather meagre harvest and not a word about the ‘one that had got away’, the P.D. with a ear to ear grin opened his bag to reveal plenty more of the 12oz wonders than the two of us collectively had.
It worked! Like magic it did. Monday to Saturday while the other two assistants on Surianalle were at the receiving end of Clyde’s ‘weeds in xxx field’ and ‘signs of bad plucking in others’, messers Appaya and Khanna were only educated further on what the two of us should have been doing to ensure a bigger catch!