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The Letter



The post office in Pallavur never had its own building. I have not figured out why, perhaps nobody would sell land to the postal department. Anyway, right from my childhood, I have seen it as a transient affair, first it was somewhere near the lower primary school, then it moved to houses across the temple and later to the larger home near Company Babu’s homestead. These homes did not afford the post office a sense of formality and the officers operated through modified windows and from behind closed doors. As soon as its door opened, there would be people trooping in, and the meeting of these souls in waiting increased the clamor in the small anteroom of that ad-hoc post office.

As you can imagine, the PO dealt with monetary objects such as money orders and stamps, postal orders and hundis. Well, the last word would not be understood by many and I may even be accused of talking about one’s posterior, but let me hasten and explain – the hundi has nothing to do with any posterior, it was a monetary instrument, like an IOU, payable on a certain date. The kitchen counter was where the post man stamped the letters (again stamping is affixing the letter with a black circular ink seal over the stamp, showing the origin location and date) with loud thumps. They were originally muffled when he had the cloth pad underneath, but the cloth pad had become ragged and the jute inside had become muslin thin, so the muffling effect was long lost. The ink was still jet black and solid, at least in the beginning of the month and then got dimmer as the days passed by and the stocks declined. The post man explained to me once that some months had so much letter traffic, especially during the wedding months when many cards were mailed, that the erratic ink supply from the head post office made life difficult for him, he added ‘you people have no idea about the difficulties we have in the post office, once I had to steal my wife’s kanmashi to tide over a period of crisis’ (kanmashi is kajal).

Ah! I am drifting, as most old timers do, so let me cut to the chase and get to the story I have to tell you today, of course it has something to do with letters in post. Most of the villagers know it, but since many of you are not, you may find it original and amusing. This took place many years ago and both the protagonist and the antagonist of the story are no more, so you have no choice but to believe what I have to say.

Madhavan Nair, the big burly man with a lot of hair all over, the ex-military man is the protagonist. He was some character, and even I who have travelled long and far have found his stories fascinating. His stories, or shall I say exploits during the 2nd World war, the Indo China war and the Pakistan wars are stuff for the legends. Most people would agree that he was prone to exaggerating a lot, even though they did not have the guts to question him or disprove his words, they just agreed if only to provide salubrious company, for he did dole out small quantities of military ration issue Hercules rum to his favored and regular listeners, while his wife Deviamma provided freshly fried ‘touchings’, to enliven the occasion.

Temple pond
His morning bath at the temple pond (when he was on a furlough – that is) was an occasion, my cousin Mani told me, many a young woman of the village did not miss! He explained to me that the sight of him applying copious amounts of gingelly oil on his body excited some of them. I did not believe Mani though, he was probably envious, though Madhavan Nair was rumored to have many ‘affairs’ of the physical kind all over the countryside.

Nair, I will call him so from now on, did have about him this inspiring aura, perhaps due to his military airs and absolute confidence. He was always at the forefront when some kind of leadership was needed in the region, be it a temple matter or some dispute which needed resolution. He was around to take care of snakes and wild animals, he would come rushing if a fire had to be put out. A popular man indeed. He retired after the 71 war and was a regular at Pallavur where Deviamma had her home. His booming voice was as always optimistic and sure, his bearing ramrod straight. But his hair had become snow white and if you observed carefully, you could see him drop the pose and start to slouch in relaxation, perhaps which is age catching up.

I would always meet him at the post office where I went to pick up the letters as it was an occasion to meet many of my village friends. Now you may ask me why went to the PO, well, it had always been a custom since my uncle set it, to get the letters fresh from the post, since he had little faith in the post man who would start his rounds, traverse all the distance to Kumaramputtur, Thaloor and then finally come to our house to drop off the mail there. By the time he reached it was well past 3PM and it would be bang in the middle of my uncle’s siesta, something he did not want to be disturbed. So we, when we were kids, had to make the trip and pick it up from the window as soon as they were stamped. And as I said before, half the village had representation at the PO with just the same intent. And, as the waiting kids played around, the elders in waiting gossiped.

Nair got a good amount of mail, which some onlookers muttered were from his many paramours, some from remote places. He said he had a number of dealings all over the country, he got letters from the military offices, insurance agencies, book dealers, solicitors, temple committees and what not. Not a day passed without him picking up at least two postal objects from the counter.

It is time to introduce our antagonist, Chettiar - a Tamilian with a pleasant countenance. Now Kuppuswamy Chettiar is a rarity in our Nair village, for he does not stay at the thara (You see, the Chakkathara is the quarter in a Nair desam where the Tamil chakkans or vanaiyars lived), he has his large home close to the temple. I don’t really know how he managed to do that, but Mani tells me there is a long story behind it and has promised to give me the details if I get him a carton of Dunhill cigarettes the next time. His Malayalam was laced with Tamil, and this genial person was well respected in our village. Though he and his family came for all occasions and happenings in Pallavur, they were mostly reserved. Perhaps Chettiar and the generation which followed him were a wee bit self-conscious due to their lack of formal education unlike others who had college going children.

This happened a few years ago, and if I remember right, it was the year when Mohanettan, the fellow who fell in love with that Aravancheri girl was getting picked up by the police. I was at the post office, having arrived there at 945AM, soon to be joined by Nair. We were talking about Indira Gandhi and the way she handled the Pakistanis and Americans during the war. Oh! I forgot to mention, Nair has a cousin working in some top department close to the PM’s office in Delhi, so he is privy to all kinds of information and I also forgot to mention, Nair retired as a Lieutenant Colonel, so he was much more than a simple soldier in the ranks. I was flabbergasted when Nair told me about the exchanges between Nixon, Kissinger and Indira Gandhi and was ruminating on the temerity of Nixon when we saw Chettiar coming up the staircase (the post office was upstairs, the Brahmin home owners lived below – I don’t know how they lived through the thumping stamping sessions!).

Both Nair and I were taken aback, we had never seen Chettiar at the post office. But well, he was there, so as I expected Nair popped the question if Chettiar was expecting a letter. The glum looking Chettiar said that he was hoping to get a letter from his son who had drifted to Madras looking for a job (I remembered the discussion between my uncle and Chettiar the other day, Chettiar’s son was planning to go to some relative’s outfit at the Thambu Chetty street making some spice powers, and ask for a job). That was a fortnight ago and Chettiar’s son Alagappan had gone silent, not a peep since he left and the poor man was worried. I imagined how it would have been exacerbated by his wife Komathi, who doted on Alagappan. But well, the postman loudly announced that there was nothing for Chettiar and the forlorn old man slunk away each time, bent and tired.

For some weeks we saw the same scene, a disappointed Chettiar. The troubled family had not received any information from his son. Eventually we heard that Chettiar’s son was safe, the information reached Chettiar through my aunt in Madras who came for the Vilakku. The boy had not written because he knew his parents could not read.  He located my aunt at Washermanpet (mint) after a month and sent word through her that all was well and that he did find a job paying Rs350 p.m.

So much so on that, I thought, but the matter never ended there. A week later, we saw Chettiar making a laborious climb up the post office stairs again. This time he did not go to the post office counter or mention about expecting any letter.

I still cannot believe the conversation that ensued.

He came up to Nair and said in his sing song Tamil Malayalam – ‘Nair, You get so many letters every day. I have a proposition, give me one of those letters and I will pay you Rs 5/- for it’. Nair was taken aback, not knowing how to reply. After some thought he finally said ‘yes, take any one of my letters’.

The post man who was furiously stamping the letters did not hear all this, not did the post master. Nobody offered any additional suggestions, and I was bemused about the whole thing to say the least, for I had a brain freeze at that very instant.

The post man called out for Nair and gave him a sheaf of letters, perhaps five or six.  Chettiar stretched his hand out and picked one of them, an unmarked envelope without any senders details – just a cream colored postal cover as you know it ,and gave Nair Rs 5/-. Chettiar walked away with the letter, not turning back even once.

Nair was at a loss for words, not believing what he had done. He looked at the letters in his hand and then at me, back and forth a few times, then he shrugged his shoulders and went home, the letter matter forgotten, maybe he had more pressing things to do. I was also busy with other matters. The Mohanettan mystery was just heating up and turning out to be an amazing story. You the reader, should read it as well, if you have not, after you have finished this one.

Anyway I had to go back after my annual holiday and so I picked up the threads of the story again only after I returned to Pallavur the following year. I met Nair at the post office and he looked disturbed. I asked him what the matter was. He explained that after a few days following his giving that letter to Chettiar, he had met Chettiar for a wedding at the temple.

He casually asked Chettiar about the letter. He asked who it was from and Chettiar politely told him that he would not answer him as the letter belonged to him. He asked Chettiar if it was something important and Chettiar gave him the same answer and left. Nair was perplexed at first, troubled with doubt and later quite infuriated. Now remember that there was absolutely no bad feelings between these two blokes, no reason for any kind of antagonism, no history of any issues between them or their families, it was just the letter.

A week later he went to Chettiar’s house, since the matter had stirred up all kinds of emotions in his mind and he could not simply let it rest. He demanded that Chettiar tell him about the contents of his, i.e. Madhavan Nair’s letter at the very least or better still, hand over the letter. Chettiar was polite and calm, he said he would not as the letter was well and truly his and he had paid for it in front of witnesses. It was a deal and executed as contracted. He would not waver - a deal is a deal, it had been done and dusted.

Nair was livid by now, all red and trembling, he stood up tall and ramrod straight as though he was in front of his troops at a parade ground and growled – Here is your Rs5/- take it back and give me my letter. But then, my friends, you don’t know Chettiar, he would not be cowed, the old man looked away and asked Nair to leave. Nair tried to offer more money, but Chettiar was adamant.

Nair could not, try as he may, understand the terrible predicament he had got himself into. He could not eat, sleep or drink with any amount of joy. In fact he could spend any wakeful moment without the thought of that letter flitting past. He finally asked my uncle, who as well respected in the village, to intervene. My uncle called Chettiar home and asked him why he could not divulge the contents to Nair.

Chettiar said that the contents were not necessarily important to him personally, and that he had not opened it yet or checked what it was, for he could not read. But he was not going to get into any discussions on his lack of education or whatever, the letter was his. My uncle tried to reason over and again, but Chettiar would not budge and my uncle understood that Chettiar was well within his rights in his stand.

Even after knowing from my uncle that Chettiar had not opened his letter, Nair could not find peace. Whether it was due to this or a lifestyle full of excesses, Nair fell ill and was under the weather for a while.

A year had passed and I was back home. I heard that Nair was quite ill and dropped in at his home to check if there was something I could do. Nair had some lung infection from which he was taking a long time to recover and looked very weak. No longer could I see the military bearing, it was a shell of the man I knew all these years. He talked little, and even my nudges at getting him to talk about his war years had no effect. He would not even tell me about the letter when asked, he said forget it, I don’t care about that letter or that idiot Chettiar.

Down the road, Chettiar, I heard, was on his death bed. Komathi was understandably distraught and Alagappan had come rushing from Madras. When I went to the Chettiar home, they were hospitable as always, Komathiamma gave me a tumbler of coffee and some thengapal thenguzhal, while his son Alagappan gave me a tin of rasam powder, a product of the firm he was working for. Chettiar looked like one on his deathbed would, weary and bone tired, eyes closed and face gaunt. A couple of days later, he passed away, peacefully.

The next day, after the cremation ceremonies, Mani and I were sitting on the front steps and chatting away, trying to make some sense of the Mohanettan affair, when Alagappan came. He said ‘I heard that this letter had been a problem matter between Appa and Nair, can you please return this to Nair’?

The letter was unopened, just as it was when Chettiar plucked it from the sheaf of letters Nair once held in his hand.

I rushed to Nair’s house and told him the news of Chettiar’s passing and Alagappan’s gesture. Then I reached into my pocket, pulled out the letter and gave it to Nair. Nair’s eyes and mouth quivered, he looked at the cover, flipped it and looked at the smudged postal stamp, but could not make out where it had come from. He ripped open the corner and pulled out the content, a single sheet of cyclostyled paper.

It was a solicitation from a temple in Trichur. They had wanted a generous donation from interested patrons for the upcoming festival.I will never forget the emotions that flitted past Nair’s face. It showed incredulousness, amazement, shame and finally a lot of sadness. He rolled the letter into a ball and flung it into the far recesses of his bedroom, and muttered – of all things, a temple solicitation!

I did not remain there, and I left. Other matters kept me busy and soon it was time to leave abroad and the mystery concerning Mohanettan had been solved, finally.

Glad tidings could be observed when I came next. Nair had recovered and had become his usual self, in fact he had become a benefactor for the Chettiar family. He had using his army connections found a good job for Alagappan at the Army canteen in Bangalore, but with a condition, that he would bring him a case of rum each time he came on vacation.

Nair caught up with me though, at the temple and asked me “I still don’t understand one thing, why did Chettiar hold on to that letter, why did he not give it back to me, in fact why did he buy that letter from me in the first place and why did I, like an idiot ever sell it to him”?

I looked at Nair and shrugged – ‘beats me’ I said.

What do you think??

Notes
Some things happen for no particular reason. I was trying to figure out what to write and I was researching Somerset Maugham for another article. In his diary (A writer’s Notebook) I found the following passage which is the reason why I wrote this story.

Did I do any justice? You tell me.

Quote
A week or two ago someone related an incident to me with the suggestion that I should write a story on it, and since then I have been thinking it over. I don't see what to do. The incident is as follows. Two young fellows were working on a tea plantation in the hills and the mail had to be fetched from a good way off so that they only got it at rather long intervals. One of the young fellows, let us call him A., used to get a lot of letters by every mail, ten or twelve and sometimes more, but the other, B., never got one. He used to watch A. enviously as he took his bundle and started to read, he hankered to have a letter, just one letter, and one day, when they were expecting the mail, he said to A.: "Look here, you always have a packet of letters and I never get any. I'll give you five pounds if you'll let me have one of yours." "Right-ho," said A. and when the mail came in he handed B. his letters and said to him: "Take whichever you like." B. gave him a five-pound note, looked over the letters, chose one and returned the rest. In the evening, when they were having a whisky and soda after dinner, A. asked casually: "By the way, what was that letter about?" "I'm not going to tell you," said B. A., somewhat taken aback said: "Well, who was it from?" "That's my business," answered B. They had a bit of an argument, but B. stood on his rights and refused to say anything about the letter that he had bought. A. began to fret, and as the weeks went by he did all he could to persuade B. to let him see the letter. B. continued to refuse.
At length A., anxious, worried, curious, felt he couldn't bear it any longer, so he went to B. and said: "Look here, here's your five pounds, let me have my letter back again." "Not on your life," said B. "I bought and paid for it, it's my letter and I'm not going to give it up."
That's all. I suppose if I belonged to the modern school of story writers, I should write it just as it is and leave it. It goes against the grain with me. I want a story to have form, and I don't see how you can give it that unless you can bring it to a conclusion that leaves no legitimate room for questioning. But even if you could bring yourself to leave the reader up in the air you don't want to leave yourself up in the air with him. ...
Unquote

It is not that I do not have a hypothesis – When Chettiar came to the post office every day for two weeks, looking desperately for a token of communication from his son, he developed a deep appreciation for the medium of communication, the letter, knowing how much the receipt of one could effect a person. If he had received a simple post card from his son, he and Komathi would have been at peace. At the same time, he was seeing a person who got so many and did not seem to appreciate their value. So it could have been his simple way of teaching a Nair a lesson!

But then why did I not add this conclusion to the story? Human behavior is incredibly complex and whatever people may say, you cannot box a person into a situation and decide how he would react in a given situation. For me Chettiar and Nair were equals, perhaps Chettiar was one up…

For those who want to check out the Mohanettan story click this link


Horse trading and Politics



This brief study started as I was reviewing Portuguese interventions into horse trading during the 16th to 18th Century in South India. While it was somewhat slow going, I noticed that horse trading was starting to get a bad rap. We all know that over time it got linked to politics and voting, so I thought, why not check back see how that reputation came about and how politicians got likened to horse traders?

Some years ago, we studied the introduction of camels in long distance trade and how they became ships of the desert. Then we saw how ships took over from the camels, plying across watery seas.  But for personal conveyance, the horse held its place as numero uno until the second decade of the 20th century, which as you can see, gave it a steady run of some 4000-5000 years at the top!

The good horses were from somewhat distant places and we had Turkic, Arabian and Persian horses, just to name a popular few. Originally they were brought into N India overland and sold in Bazars. But it was with the advent of ships that they started getting sold in large numbers in S India. The cost involved in breeding them and shipping them over large distances increased the risk of maiming, disease and rapid fall in profits. With no insurance, the horse trader had to figure out how best to cover his risks and get a maximum return on his investment. One way was to ensure that the selling price had ample margins, covering the prospect of some losses in numbers due the aforementioned factors. But you know how it is, human beings, at least many of them are avaricious and desire larger and larger profits. Selling pepper, silk, porcelain, produce and so on was based on volume, but the horse was at that time the priciest of them all. 

How would you attach a cost, a price or value to a product? If you went silk carpet shopping in Turkey, the crafty salesman, without your knowing it, will tug at your heartstrings skillfully. He will narrate Bollywood like sad stories of how 5 or 6 poor women and their destitute children spent over two years making that very special carpet for you, with their own hands, with skill, a lot of love and many a sweaty day (usually there is a picture on the wall he can point to, to illustrate his tale). He would tell this all with a forlorn expression and soon you (e.g. from US) calculate in your mind. Two years, four people working @5$ per hour meant $4,000 for the item and you wait with bated breath for the salesman to tell you the price. He has done the same, after determining where you were from (to determine the labor rate per hour) and says- My friend, we have spent over $3,000 in making it, but we want it to find a good home, a loving home, like yours and so, I have a special price $2,000. You know it is a relatively good deal but have to get the better of the third world salesman, after all, you are clever and educated, so you say, no chance! I will pay you not more than $1,000. Tea is brought in, the bargaining goes on for another half hour and hands are shaken at $1,500. The deal is made, the carpet is wrapped, delivered and you walk away smugly thinking about how you killed the deal! For the salesman, well, his cost was perhaps $100, his selling target perhaps $500, so he mutters after pocketing his commission – those stupid yabancis ( foreigners), they will believe anything!

Now what do you learn from this? That you are actually talking value and valuating the object to be purchased. The seller attaches value with a story, the buyer attaches value based on relative cost. What if money was not involved and it was a barter? You have come with a cartload of wheat. So just imagine the scene of you talking about the value of wheat with the person who is attaching a value scale to carpets. The scene must have been fascinating, surely! Today everything is pegged to common currency and relative value has little meaning. Barter, trade has given way to purchase and commodities have been created with fixed prices.

But then, we were discussing horses and trying to get to the origins of dishonesty. The first large scale horse exports from Arabia were made to 16th Century India. Both the Mughals in North India and the Vijayanagar kings in the South were large scale purchasers needing thousands of horses for their many wars and desires to conquer and hold on to large kingdoms. The supplies came from Arabia and Persia and the Arabs brought them in their sailing ships, returning home with spices and other produce. Were they the ones who brought dishonesty into the trade or was it the Portuguese?

Let us assume that in the beginning the valuation was somewhat honest and the buyer was satisfied with his purchases. We can see that risk was covered by the purchaser and the Vijayanagara king paid even for the dead, diseased or lost horses. Sources mention that the trader had to produce at least a tail to make his claim and this was made good (did some traders start delivering more tails and less horses? Perhaps!). As the Portuguese arrived and established their naval might, they saw the potential for quick profits and claimed a monopoly on the horse trade after conquering Goa and other Konkan ports, where these animals were landed. They unilaterally set the purchase and selling prices.  The Arab trader who brought in the horses was neither compensated for his risk nor was he able to achieve his earlier profits. And perhaps that is how dishonesty in the horse trade, started. The middle man, the lazy Portuguese who deserved nothing, had to be cheated, that was a revenge of sorts, I suppose. This developed into a highly skilled system over the next two hundred years.

The North Indian market on the other hand was dominated by Afghan and Turkic horses, delivered through overland routes and sold during fairs or large ‘mela’s’ in the Rajasthan area. It is said that the large volume medium quality horses went to various military units of the kings on pre-agreed prices, while the best and the worst were sold in fairs at negotiated prices. Prices fluctuated based on fodder prices and the situation on the routes of travel. If there was war on the way, prices and risk naturally increased.

So to summarize, prices varied wildly in the medieval times and every tom dick and harry, or their Hindu/Muslim/Arab name equivalents wanted to profit off the poor mute horse. The perceived value of the quadruped in each region swung wildly (400 to a 1000 Rs per horse) depending on the horse trader’s wile and so a mobile experienced horse-trader was in a powerful position vis-a-vis the local consumer. As a result, horse-traders had a particularly bad reputation, augmented by their fast and loose wandering life. Their mere presence could constitute a serious threat to law and order, as is evidenced in many recorded cases in India. We also note that the itinerant horse trader developed his own culture. They had their own esoteric language, a mixture of various local dialects combined with special jargon and an extensive code of manual signs, exchanged during the actual bargaining at the fair, mostly concealed beneath a handkerchief. Tricky business, for sure, while it lasted. After World War I the advent of mechanized vehicles shifted the focus of the trade, Arabian mares and stallions became the fancy of sportsmen and breeders, and were no longer transported in great numbers to India.

At the end of it all, the horse trader ended up as a shady character, having cohorts, speaking strange languages and being generally of an unsavory nature. This reputation spread to Europe, perhaps as the banjaras or iterant traders of Rajasthan drifted to become the Romas or Gypsies. The guile in their practice was exhilarating perhaps, for horse traders everywhere stared adopting such tricks, soon there was no honest horse trader. This quote explains it all - I am neither a horse-dealer nor an Arab. He was old Aaron, the horse-trader, who had been so dishonest that thieves, even, were reluctant to deal with him (By the way, did you know that the word ‘gyp’ or cheat came from the word Gypsy? ).

While horses were owned and used only by real high society in decan and up North, it became very common in Europe and America as an individual’s means of travel. So the skillful and tricky horse trader was one you had to deal with, if you wanted to buy a horse which had by now become a commodity. Over time, he not only became a master bargainer, hard to beat, but also a cheat. He could palm off a sick and dying animal to you as a healthy prancing mare waiting for your care. The horse unlike the dog, was one which was bought and sold several times during its lifetime and thus became an animal whose physical power and appearance carried economic value.

19th century America for example was a period when a man was judged by his horse and his wife, they had to be fine creatures for a man to project his power. You were an idiot if you didn’t know a thing about horses and conversely, the more you knew of horses, the better knowledge you had of women! And thus started the competitions between the man who wanted the horse and the man who sold the horse. It even turned out to be a game, if you could be the better of the other. Because the buyer and seller needed to know the animal and its care, it had great importance in the male domain. Nevertheless, the situation resulted in the horse trade becoming more skilled, and involved doctoring a horse and its defects, all aspects which naturally affected its value. I am not going to bore you with statistics or long-winded theories and studies, but I will tell you of some of those astounding malpractices they had in Europe and America.


A horse for sale would be underfed before the sale so that they breathe easier and look healthy, their nostrils may be plugged to stop whistles (sign of a winded horse), their muscles may be pumped up (with air under the skin, not with stuff like botox), their oft switching tails may be paralyzed (by hanging weights for many hours before the sale), their tail may be lifted up (a good young horse has a perky tail) by shoving a piece of ginger or other irritants up their arse, or cocaine injected into a lame leg to remove lameness. Some had sawed gums sore to stop its cribbing, or others had teeth done (bishoping or dental forgery) to reduce age. Then there was the practice of taking a weeping widow along to impress on the neediness of the sale and they even saw the practice of selling a moon-blind horse at dusk. Ah! Well, the tricks of the trade are many and you, the buyer would never know till you brought the horse home and a day or two had passed. The iterant horse trader would be long gone and you, poorer by many a hundred dollars!

It is not surprising that this very same practices spread to the selling of cars and thus car salesmen also got a bap rap. Afterall, the car did take over from the horse and until some 15 years ago, a car was also sold and repurchased many times before its condemnation and final disposal in a junkyard. And as time went by, what was once dishonest now became in common parlance ‘sales talk’.

I still recall, in the 70’s and 80’s in India, joining the sales department of a firm was kind of unsavory and parents did not encourage it. They suggested you join R&D or engineering departments and sales was meant for the loose talking and untrustworthy smarties (What if I said I started with a sales job?). But if you look today, things have changed and everybody wants to join the M&S department because that is where you get exposure, you get better rewarded for your work, where you get to see the world, enjoy life and where you can quickly rise through the ranks! Do salesman today use any tricks akin to horse trading? Well, you decide.

Getting back to hose trading, America started to accept such practices in the late 19th century in a more positive light, even though they had a lower ethical standard. Perhaps after all, profit is what you need. And thus such techniques crept into days to day activities, including politics as the ever valuable vote became a commodity.

So how did politicians get compared to horse traders, was it because they never delivered what they promised? Perhaps! As you know, the term horse trading actually came from the practice of people buying, selling and trading horses. In such a transaction, the seller would try to hide as many of the horses faults, make many a false claim in order to drive the price of the horse up to maximize his profit. The buyer, on the other hand, would be busy trying to drive the price of the horse down by trying to find all its faults, real or not. So much so that in those time, if you saw something unbelievable and somewhat dishonest you would equate it to the well-known horse trade! Thus it was actually in the 19th century that the association of these two occurred. Let’s now see how horse trading in politics is defined.

Per the Macmillan English Dictionary, it means difficult and sometimes dishonest discussions between people who are trying to reach an agreement. In political parlance, it implies any long-drawn-out negotiation characterized by hard bargaining and compromises. It frequently takes place in democratic institutions like legislative bodies when a parliamentarian or legislator supports some Bill or trust vote in exchange for support for one of his initiatives for another Bill or legislation. But Collins states - When negotiation or bargaining is forceful and shows clever and careful judgment, you can describe it as horse-trading. Cambridge puts it as - unofficial discussion in which people make agreements that provide both sides with advantages. So it all boils down to a lot of discussion, promises and bargaining to reach a political result. As defined today, a lot of horse-trading is usually required to reach compromise in the political arena, and it is considered a zero-sum game where the parties usually extract a gain at the expense of the taxpayer.

As it came to stay in politics, Theodore Roosevelt, so rightly remarked: “In politics, we have to do a great many things that we ought not to do” and Lyndon Johnson who was so adept at political deal-making had his machinations named irreverently as “the Johnson Treatments”.

It differs in India though where it is mostly a quid pro quo in material terms and like a bribe to get votes/representatives for majority, even enticing people of other parties to join you in exchange for financial compensation or perks, that is horse trading. Horse-trading is usually done when the assembly is hung after an election. In order to gain the majority required to form a government, political parties try to pull in members from other parties. The luring game turns lurid at times as we saw recently in Maharashtra. Thus, this method is mostly disapproved. As they explain, horse trading is not illegal constitutionally, but well the practice is looked down upon as it involves rewarding members who switch parties with benefits. In 2002 a Hindu article said - In our country this word (horse-trading) is normally associated with politics. Whenever a government falls, a lot of horse-trading goes on before another government is formed. If you think this is because some of our politicians look like horses, then you are being terribly unfair, especially to the horses!

Nowadays horse trading has evolved to what is known as resort politics – Whatever could that be?
Well, parties quarantine or lock up their representatives in resorts, protecting them from the opposing party who tries to contact them and lure them with incentives, as a senior politician explained “You build a wall around your legislators so that the other party doesn’t encroach on them.” We can also see that within no time, today’s Indian politician, who is now a valuable commodity ends up as incredibly wealthy individuals. These are the potential ‘aaya ram gaya ram’ potentials, and if you did not know what that term means, go back to 1967 political defections where one Gaya Ram changed political parties cyclically three times in a fortnight, demonstrating his opportune flexibility! An anti-defection law was passed, but a counter method called Operation Kamala was quickly discovered and put into effect, and now has been superseded by Kamala 2.0! Bluff and chicane (cheat) once the indispensable tricks of trade with horse-dealers are these days the exact skills sets needed in the arena of politics where as you will all agree, honesty is no longer a requirement to become a great statesman.

And so, Politics, as politicians put it has become an art involving shrewd bargaining, horse trading, appeasement, back scratching, quid pro quo, patronage and lobbying, just to name a mere few. But then again, as Gustav Von Hertzen mentions succinctly in his book ‘The challenge of democracy’ one may despise politicians, but the parliament and the politicians reflect the moral level of the electorate.

Maybe we should get our esteemed Shashi Tharoor (Note: I like him, he is a jolly chap actually and would make a good PM!) to comment on all this. He would perhaps tighten his upper lip and mutter that that this is all just a proclivity to dickering around and tending towards a moral reprobate.


Pic - Horse trader picture – courtesy Alex Snyder, political horse trading - bolanvoice

A Chikmagaluru Sojourn



And a little tribute to VG Siddhartha Hegde CCD

The idea of spending a few days at Chikmagaluru at a resort in the middle of a coffee estate sounded alluring, and my partiality to estates, considering my birth in one, perhaps nailed it. Some asked why I was going to a place which is quite similar in terrain and foliage, mention not the scenery, to Kerala. In any case, we had decided and so wedged the trip into the tail end of our short vacation to Kerala.

The resort we were headed to, resplendent as it was, had been owned by Siddharth Hegde of CCD, the very man who had recently jumped off a bridge to his death. I banished all negative thoughts, not that there was any time for them in the hustle and bustle of the travel plans, the flights in, the initial days of buzzing through Kerala and meeting many relatives and some friends, a part which I need not narrate here.

We spent a couple of days at Bangalore, only to see the city we had grown to love in the 80’s had changed so much, most of it was unrecognizable and enveloped in a cocoon of developmental misery with traffic snarls, noise, smoke and teeming masses scurrying about. The IT capital, a metropolis now caring for and handling the back offices of much of the developed world was in my mind, uncaring about its own self.

Gone were the misty mornings, muffler clad pensioners, empty roads and much of the green foliage. Buildings had sprouted up all over like weeds, while scores of vehicles had found their way into a road system not really designed or built to handle them all. We were curtly told that our usual shopping (nostalgia driven) trips to MG road, Brigade road and so on were out of the question due to the limited time at our disposal and that we had to curtail our shopping jaunts to the Jayanagar 4th block (we stayed with our aunt in the 1st block). The trip planned to the old Anglo-Indian hamlet of Whitfield to check out my brother’s pad was going to take a whole day, as I learnt in dismay. My ideas of investigating Winston Churchill’s rumored trysts with Rose Hamilton, the daughter of the owner of the Waverly Inn at Whitefield, was postponed to a distant day in the future. All we got to see instead were the many high-rise buildings put together to house the new middle class and not so Anglo Indian crowd (The hamlet of Whitefield had once been earmarked in the 1800’s fro Anglo Indians). Perhaps Whitefield’s history is meant to be for another day, for another article, so I will not digress and get on with the Chikmagalur jaunt.

Coffee and tea are both favorite topics of mine and you may recall a previous article where I had covered the origins of coffee drinking in India, thanks of course to some fine pointers from Chalapathy’s fascinating study. Tea was another subject which I covered on a couple of occasions, including the Chinese and Nilgiris and I was hoping to get back to working on the origins of the Samovar to assist my pal Nikhil, but for now it was Coffee. Why so, would be the question from a tea lover, and the answer would then be, because Chikmagalur was where Indian coffee plantations were born, according to lore and legend.

And that would have me retell the story of Baba Budan once again. Many centuries ago, the 16th to be vaguely precise, Baba Buda, a Sufi preacher from Chikmagalur went to Mecca for his Hajj pilgrimage and drank coffee. He liked it so much that he wanted to bring some beans back and plant them in his backyard. But there was a moratorium on seeds and only baked or ground coffee could be taken out of Arabia. So our pious man decided to do an impious act, he smuggled 7 beans out (don’t ask me why he took seven and not six or ten! But if you did, I would then reply that seven is a sacred number in Islam, 7 heavens, 7 earths, 7 days, 7 colors etc…!) in a walking stick, strapped to his tummy belt or tucked in his beard (depending on the story teller or his mood) and planted them on the slopes of the Chandragiri hills. And thus Baba Budan who lived as a hermit in a cave in Chikmagalur, lend his name to the hills and to the history of the coffee plants which germinated form the seeds he planted outside his cave.

But how did the coffee bean become popular in Yemen? For that you must get to know a bloke named Mullah Chadly who had, perhaps due to his advanced age, the habit of nodding off to sleep while he was reciting the Koran. What he did not fail to see, was how energetic his goats were, prancing about here and there and this led him to the secret of caffeine. The goats had eaten the fruit off some wild shrubs nearby and gotten hyper. Chadly (I doubt if there is a brand named after him, Baba Budan certainly is well known!) had soon found something which would keep him awake and sprightly, and thus was coffee introduced, grandly termed as a gift of Mohammed. Now Chalapaty who declares that the Iyers of Madras opted for coffee since tea was mostly a Muslim drink, may have missed this, but Iyers may perhaps be vociferous in dissent, reading this.

As one would imagine, there is no dearth of stories purporting to the origins of this fascinating potion. There is the story of Kaldi the goatherd in Yemen and there is the story of the banished Sufi missionary Al Shadili (for philandering with a princes) who discovered that coffee berry juice was a good cure for itches. How it became a drink is not stated though, though it is mentioned that the Algerians use his name for coffee – Shadhiliye.

Nevertheless, the seeds planted by Budansaheb grew and grew all around the Malanad hills and created the so called ‘old chik’ variety! It was in I799 that the possibilities of coffee as a commercial crop attracted the attention of the East India Company. Between 1826 and 1830, British planters started plantations in Chikmagalur. By the 1840s, they were well entrenched.

So, here we were, headed to the land of Baba Budan, the birthplace of Indian coffee and I did intend to see the cave of Baba Budan, perhaps even get a look at some of the old Chik bushes. Serai, the resort established by the late Siddharth Hedge was to be our home for three days. The hallowed grounds where Arabica, a fine breed which needs shade and much care while Robusta, a breed that was well, robust and needed less care, could be seen all around our home.

The Serai Chikmagalur
Rumors swirled around us, on why the very successful and self-made Coffee king Siddharth, the erstwhile owner of the Serai resort, committed suicide. Even a group of tourists from Basel in distant Switzerland professed educated opinions, so also our driver, while we had not a clue. I was piqued and decided to delve a bit using Google mama. What I read was illuminating & distressing, to say the least.

Chikmagalur was hardly known to the world after the British planters left, though coffee buyers knew it as a source for their beans. It was only in 1978 that Chikmagalur or ‘little daughter’s village’ got huge media coverage when Indira Gandhi decided to contest elections from this high range (Much later, her grandson Rahul contested from another hill range, Wynad! Don’t ask me why they chose estate towns or hill ranges, all I can infer is that they were safe seats for Congress). Once Indira won her seat and continued to Delhi, the area went back to sleep until the son of the soil Siddharth rose to fame. A few words on him and the Hedge family, which threw the hamlet of Chikmagalur to the fore, would not therefore be amiss and would only be my feeble tribute to an admirable businessman.

I must have seen some similarities in his life story for we were of identical ages and we had both failed to clear the SSB exams, trying to join the NDA. After college Siddharth decided to venture out on his own, much against his father’s wishes. Ganesh, his father and Keshava, his uncle were themselves quite well off, owning Chocolate and Coffee plantations and living in a huge heritage property in the area (They said that many years ago, Girish Karnad had shot for the film Utsav with Rekha in the lead, at this homestead). For some 130-140 years they had been in the business, a planter family.

But Siddharth’s plans were to train under Kampani, a broker in Bombay and make it big in the stock market. Curiously he landed up in Bombay a year after I had, in 1983, and worked close to Mittal Court, the building I was at, he worked at Tulsiani chambers. Maybe I saw him on the street, maybe we both ate from the same sandwich vendor on the street at times or the same Udupi hotel nearby, who knows? Our paths never crossed and never will. In 1985, Siddharth went back home, asked seed money from his dad , spent a majority (5 lakhs) in buying a plot of land as security and used the remaining 2.5 lakhs to set up a security trading firm named Sivan Securities where he did well. With his gains, he kept buying more and more plantations, knowing that the coffee prices were controlled and undervalued. When the regulations changed in 1992 and Brazilian coffee plantations were hit by a frost in 1994, coffee prices soared, and Siddharth’s Amalgamated coffee bean company ready to fill the gap in demand, became a favored supplier world over. By 1995, they were the biggest Indian exporters of unroasted coffee. Along the way he got married to Malavika, Minister SM Krishna’s daughter and changed the name of Sivans to Way2wealth. Sivan Securities was, I understood, one of the companies which rescued Infosys’ IPO, by underwriting the float in 1993.

By then as an NRI, I had finished my initial runs in the Middle East. I think I was working at Turkey then and I still remember walking into a Coffee day retail outlet in Calicut the very first time. I had been to coffee day shops at the Forum mall in Bangalore earlier, but it was in Calicut that we had the first experience of a proper sit-down CD café or CCD as they termed it . Our driver accompanying us, exclaimed - Shambo Mahadeva! seeing the coffee prices on the menu card, and nearly fainted. Dressed in a dhoti, I must have looked odd among a group of youngsters lounging on low cushion sofas, cradling laptops. The stylish barista must have wondered if I had the money to foot the bill, for he did throw disconcerting glances at our table now and then. Coffee or cappuccino with patterned froth was served in style, savored and slurped by us and some minutes later, we left. The first impressions of Coffee day were not forgotten, it became a favorite tale often retold at our family meetings, especially the reactions of Mani our driver.

So that was Siddhartha’s plan, to open CCD’s across the country after his experience at a stylish coffee house in Singapore. It was all for the experience, the ambiance, they said, replete with free internet. It would be a beacon for youngsters with their lap tops (No smart phones yet, but he perhaps foresaw all that) and the Lavelle road CCD turned out to be India’s first hotspot. He opened several hundred CD outlets to sell coffee powder as well. Later, he dallied with all kinds of other ventures such as furniture and real estate, resorts and so on. Soon he was to get the label, India’s coffee king, the person who introduced fancy coffees such as the latte, cappuccino, Americano and espresso, to the masses.  He hobnobbed with the business elite of Bangalore, the Mallayas, the Infosys team and many others. Malavika took care of the resort business and his two sons, Amartya and Ishaan were engrossed with their studies.

So that was where we were at, the Serai resort at Chikmagalur. I believe he called it the Serai after the term Seray in Turkish (rest place). As we walked around the estate in which the resort was situated, learning about coffee and its cultivation from the in-house guide, the Swiss tourists were busy swatting away mosquitoes, who despite the deet sprays were trying to get a better taste of foreign blood (like us Indians, Indian mosquitoes also like foreign, perhaps!). The pool villa was splendidly appointed to say the least, but with the pelting evening rains, pool usage was kind of iffy. The timber inlays in the villa gave them a rich aura and I read somewhere that Siddhartha used much of the timber (perhaps the silver oaks, we saw a lot of, all around) from his estates, for the woodwork in his cafe's and resorts.

The evenings were rainy, with the NE monsoon in full swing and in general the terrain was akin to the Ghat areas of Kerala, with the same foliage and a similar scenery. We were told that we should delay our trips to the Mullayanagari peak due to heavy mists and fog and so we detoured to see the Hoysala temples nearby. As we moved past Doddamagalur (big sisters’ village), Srinivas mentioned that Srinath the cricketer hailed from nearby Javgal, turns out he is on the board of one of Siddhartha’s school ventures. The temples were simply put, beautiful. The sculptures were awesome, and the temple remains at Belevadi, Hallebedu and Belur magnificient. A simple Udupi taali lunch at Belur topped the day.


One tends to wonder though, about the rich and teeming Hassan area during the heydays of the Hoysala Empire, until Malik Kafur’s marauders destroyed most of the temple sculptures and rode away with the loot. According to chronicler Amir Khusrau, the looters got away with some 512 elephants, 5,000 horses and 500 manns of gold and precious stones by the end of its southern campaign! Veera Ballalla III who then moved to Tiruvannamalai lost his life eventually after another battle, getting slain and skinned; they write that his skin was stuffed with straw and hung from the walls from Madurai!

While the bar at the Serai was adequate, the restaurant was somewhat of a letdown.  The malanad food they served was not as good as the veg meal we had at the Hoysala resort enroute (we ate coconut dosa, Godi roti and guliappa) and the resort itself was not fully occupied, so it was a bit forlorn for our taste, in the evenings. The many Serai employees tending to the guests were an enthusiastic lot, though!
The lady at Siri
Getting back to Siddhartha, he was by now into a whole lot of things, perhaps more than he could handle. Maybe he micromanaged but working on a deal with Coco Cola to sell his CCD to them, spending sleepless nights with the potential competitor Starbucks planning its entry, political wrangling, tax issues and so on should have weighed heavily on his mind, he does mention that he was quite nervous about the whole situation. Not only did he have to handle the a few hundred acres of estates, the many companies, he did well with IT (Mindtree) and he got into the furniture business after leasing forests for timber.

The next day we drove up the mountains to the highest peak at Mulleyanagari to take in some breathtaking views of the hills and valleys, the climb up was not difficult at all, though swirling mists made photography a bother. The 4x4 Mahindra jeep journey through virtually unmotorable rain drenched mud tracks to the Jhari buttermilk falls, was stomach churning. Only a trip to the last spot in our schedule was left, the Baba Budan cave, the place where the hermit who started this coffee story, once lived.

We were stopped and checked by the police thoroughly, they rummaged through the car trunk and ID’s were reviewed. Srinivas, our driver mentioned then that there was a lot of unrest here during the last few decades both Hindu’s and Muslims had started to claim ownership for the cave and the festivals attached to it. Even though for many centuries, Muslims and non-Muslims had venerated the saints at this shrine, the old communal harmony had vanished. Every year there would be protests, quarrels and fights over the festivities and so the area was heavily policed to avoid another Ayodhya event. Why so? While Muslims connect the cave to the Baba Budan or one Jamaluddin Maghrabi of Baghdad as well as the Sufi saint Hazrath Dada Hayath Meer Kalandar, the Hindus connect it to Dattatreya, believing it to be his hermitage and that he would one day appear at the cave mouth, to herald the final avatar of Vishnu. Dattatreya, incidentally, is the three-headed reincarnation of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.

When we got to Dattatrapit, it was quite desolate, and we were not allowed to take our cameras. The cave was just that, a Khanqah or dargah with a couple of tombs and a caretaker hanging around, enforcing the bare feet and the ‘no camera’ rule. There was no mention of coffee anywhere, and a few bored policemen and beggars chitchatted outside. But we had done it, we had reached the birthplace of Indian coffee, though we saw none of the remnants of the original chik bushes.

We drank a lot of good coffee everywhere and discovered another of Siddharth’s ideas (based on a  Japanese invention), Filta Fresh - the filter coffee sachet. No longer was a stainless-steel decoction apparatus needed, you just opened the sachet, draped it on a cup and poured boiling water into it, to get an instant decoction. I will admit it that it was nothing close to the original, but then I must add that in the room, we had to make do with Amul coffee creamer and not real creamy milk.

It was soon time to pack up and leave, after three fine days at the small daughter’s village. We did have a surprise, we located my wife’s schoolmate living in town, for her husband was a coffee planter. A high tea at their home and a trip to the coffee museum (as the English tourist described – Oh! it is ok, kind of quaint, actually) completed our trip. 

It was on July 29th, 2019, that Siddhartha went missing after having his driver take him to different places, stopping finally some distance away from the Ullal bridge on the Netravati river. He walked on to the bridge and never returned.

Was it the piling debts and creditor pressure, was it his father’s comatose situation, the fear of competition, the harassment from politicians and tax sleuths, shame of his own missteps or was it just loneliness and weariness that made him take his life? We will probably never know. For a person who did not balk at the losses during the stock market scams or the impossible situation when his 100M$ loan could not be realized due to a change of government regulations, handling a debt valued well below his assets should have been a no-brainier.

His body was recovered near Mangalore a couple of days later and the death ruled a suicide. Did he jump? I don’t know and I find it hard to accept, from a person who once said “As an Entrepreneur, you can't afford to lose hope". He wrote, in his last letter to his board - “My intention was never to cheat or mislead anyone, I have failed as an entrepreneur,” the letter reads. “This is my sincere submission, I hope someday you will understand, forgive and pardon me.”

Siddhartha, I read, was a person who found peace walking through his coffee plantations and spending days in his ancestral home, eating Malanad food made by his mother rather than basking in the cocoon of unlimited luxury he could have enjoyed. But then, for the 45,000 or so employees who adored him and his family, it will always be a tragic loss. I can only hope that his endeavors and employees never get orphaned. He was, as far as I could gather, a good man and his motto “A lot can happen over a coffee,” makes and made a lot of sense.

The drive back took us through Sharavan Belagola where we climbed up the 650 steps barefoot to see the magnificent Bahubali or Gomateswara statue. I could not help thinking, how this character atop the hill,  lording over the entire area, having seen an awful lot of change over the years, remained totally detached from it all, with a hint of a smile on his lips….

Back home now. The Trump impeachment hearings are heating up, fall is turning to winter, DST will end this week and hopefully the jetlag will disappear soon. Back to routine, and until the next trip…

References
Escoffier: The King of Chefs - By Kenneth James
Coffee Is Not Forever: A Global History of the Coffee Leaf Rust - By Stuart McCook
Secret diary of VS Siddhartha – N Mahalakshmi ( Outlook business )

Notes :
It is mentioned by some (wrongly though) that Monsooned Malabar coffee was popularized by Siddhartha. But what is it? In the past, wooden vessels loaded with raw coffee sailed from India to Europe through the monsoon for almost six months around the Cape of Good Hope. The coffee beans, exposed to constant humid conditions, underwent changes, the beans changed in size, texture, and appearance, and of course in taste. With faster transportation and the shorter route via the Suez Canal, these conditions vanished, and the Indian coffee flavor was no longer what it once was, one which Europeans had liked. Therefore, an alternative process was implemented to replicate these conditions. From June through September, selected beans are exposed to moisture-laden monsoon like atmospheres for many weeks. The beans absorb moisture and get significantly larger, turning a pale golden color. Aspinwall & Co were probably the ones who perfected it.

The original ‘old chik’ Baba Budan variety meanwhile lost its resistance to the rust disease and was mostly replaced by a Coorg variety of Arabica. Robusta on the other hand is hardy and resistant to the rust disease. There are connoisseurs vouching for both, though in my mind Arabica reigns supreme.


MacBook in the hamlet



This is an incident which amazes me each time I think about it, for it shows me how small the world has become these days; how small the distances can be and how opportune life can be. How a dream can so easily become a reality today, how the borders we once had, with haves and have nots, castes, creed and the such can so easily vanish, is exemplified in this little incident. To see how, you must join me on a sojourn to my little hamlet of Pallavur, nestling under the shadows of the mighty Western Ghats that form a tall border for much of Kerala.

For a long time, I believed that my village will always be frozen in time, but I guess it is now thawing out. Things have started to change in this remote corner of Palghat, and I was wrong to believe that  it would stay insulated from the vagaries of time. Nevertheless, there are no great signs of development, though homes have TV and cars, motorbikes and internet. The days of the bullock cart are long forgotten though you still see an odd one on the road, what with wizened bullocks straining at the yokes and looking forlornly hither and thither as it passes by. Cowsheds, gobar gas plants are all relics rotting away in neglected homesteads(the ancient nalukettu – built in traditional Malayali architecture) now locked up.

The homes are still there like ours, since ancestral spirits are believed to live there forever and dare not be disturbed. The many Sarpakkavu or snake temples still dot the periphery of our home, but we do not see so many serpents or pythons, they have all migrated elsewhere, like the inhabitants of the home, perhaps there is no waste, consequently not many rodents and thus no food for snakes. But well, once a year everybody troops in for the Navaratri festival at the temple and then things start to perk up with visitors arriving in droves.

And so it was on a Navaratri festival season not so long ago, that all this happened. The days of listening to cricket on the radio were all just memories, youngsters today were watching a limited over cricket match on TV and screaming their head off, exhorting Kohli to score more runs and roundly abusing Dhawan for having got out early. The home is busy and noisy again, Gopalan the cook who used to come often died some years ago, but his son Parthan is at it, and is busy making the sweets, savories and condiments for the many relatives who have landed up, so that they can consume some and pack the rest to be carted away past the pesky customs officer’s eyes, to America, Malaysia and Canada where they were all settled these days.

The 1st day of the festival is sponsored by our family, so there is a lot of participation and an urge to make sure it is well attended. Whatapp groups are created, everybody is persuaded to contribute to the finances mightily, and a couple of us are nominated to handle the accounts and contracts. Mani has become old, his eyesight is weak and is not the robust walker he once was, but he is still omnipresent and never short of comments. Every now and then his booming voce would castigate some wayward kid who after having suddenly started to feel an abundance of space, compared to his or her tiny flat in Toronto or Kuala Lumpur, would be running all over the place, clambering up on trees, and generally doing whatever they wanted, for once. They were enjoying it, Mani was not, and his stentorian yells and demeanor would remind you of Mr Wilson in Dennis the Menace comics. The kids don’t care anyway, they mumble ‘what an old fart that is’. But then again, Mani has been eclipsed, sort of. His younger brother has taken over the anchor role and is running the show, even though he is a bit incapacitated after a stroke.

Much food is being consumed, many sweets have been eaten, and Parthan is a jolly sort, for he was having a gala time with all the kids around him, akin to pied piper, feeding them tidbits as he cooked. The kids had taken to the red jelebi’s (we call the large soft red one jelebis, while they are known as Jhangri in every other place!). They manage to converse with him through signs and heavily accented broken Malayalam but get along famously.

We had a little bit of a furor today. Three elephants had been ordered (can you imagine, there was one Canadian born kid who had the temerity to ask if we ordered them online on Amazon!) were brought in on trucks and one of them Kumaran, simply refused to get down. Eventually one of the mahouts sped towards Alathur to buy some sugarcane to entice Kumaran (we name our elephants you know, in Kerala they are like our brethren!) down. After much coaxing and screaming, and threats of using the ankus (elephant hook) on its ears, the elephant decided that terra firma, plus the sugarcane placed strategically on the road, was perhaps better than the truck bed, for his own good. Oh! How I enjoy watching their overwhelming majesty, those simple and gentle giants!

As short-term owners ( i.e. we had rented it for a day) we were entitled to go near the elephants and say hello. Well, one of the kids got a little swipe from the already irritated Kumaran’s trunk and fell down. The commotion was horrendous and the panic somewhat akin to a seeing a king cobra. It was all quickly sorted out by the mahout and the pachyderms ambled off in tandem to the temple, with large coconut leaves held over their tusks. But it did take a couple of hours for the child’s mother to calm down, she had threatened to take the next flight back top Bombay, to leave this uncultured place full of animals and insects! I did have half a mind to tell her that her Bombay had more troublesome animals and insects, greatly injurious to everybody’s health.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Ravi’s children come down the road from Kizhaklettara. They have 5-6 provision shops there and a couple of hotels (it has grown many-fold in the last decade) and the kids had gone there to pick up mineral water. Mani is aghast, why are they not drinking the well water, he asks, and the kids reply in broken Malayalam that it is full of mud, not fit for consumption. My wife has been telling me this for so many years and I would fob her off saying that it still tasted good, with the hard-working farmer’s good earth in it!

The parapet wall near the field in front of our house is about to collapse here and there, and I wistfully remembered the time when Mani and I used to sit there and shoot breeze. Sometimes i would look wistfully at where the Pathana Maimuna had lived and I remembered meeting her again in New York the other day! I was telling Mani that story and he just looked at me and sniggered. He is bitter these days, unfortunately life has not been too kind to him, or so he thinks, what with his physical issues, eye sight, memory decline and the such. I try to tell him that it is just aging, but he says he sees only himself suffering.

The fields are still there, as always, the Swami mala still dots the horizon, but none of the kids seem keen on climbing it. Oh! We used to enjoy running up the warm black rocks, and once at the summit, sit and gaze at the whole village in front of us, with a bird’s eye view. The blue hills, or the western Ghats to my right are hidden behind hazy clouds and to my extreme right are the Nelliyampathy ranges, where an American made B24 liberator, I once told you about, crashed after the second world war.

Sleek Hyundai and Toyota cars zip past the only road connecting Pallasena through Pallavur, Kunisseri and Alathur, though buses still roar past occasionally. Pandi (Tamil) lorries ply goods between Tamilnadu and Kerala, but this is not their usual route, so we are saved from those careening trucks driven often by drunk drivers. Nowadays many farmers opt to rent big cultivators coming in from Tamilnadu to till the soil and harvest paddy. Babu’s mill is still in business, though its motors don’t drop the voltage on the village power lines any more. Everybody has lightning fast internet, big screen televisions and nobody really bothers to bathe in the temple pond. Our own pond, once open only to specific families is heavily silted. In any case the kids and families teeming to the village for the festival want to bathe in a clean shower. The mosquitoes are however omnipresent and increasing in population.

But the temple is a solace, in this changing world, it remains exactly what it was, a majestic structure with 12 foot granite walls all around, built by god knows who and still sporting many a legend, such as the time when Tipu’s elephant (they say – not Kerala elephant, that was a Mysore variety!) tried to destroy the idols, but failing to do so, they just leaned a bit to the side, never toppled ( I checked, there is no tilt anywhere, it must have been a rumor, I suppose).

Krishnan Kutty, the priest has aged and looks  tired, but drummer Sreedharan, Appu Marar’s nephew is younger and going strong. He has a lot of bookings and classes in the USA and nowadays spends a while as a guest drummer at the Houston temple. He is at Pallavur for the festival, now regaling his fans with stories from his American trip. As he drums expertly on the Chenda or the Edakka, I am transported to the percussion world his three uncles (Appu, Manian and Kunjukuttan) introduced me to many decades ago. He has their genes, no doubt and loads of talent.

As before it is the place where youngsters come to chit chat, though with mobile phones and their apps, once does not need to go there to meet or ogle girls. The temple is festooned with lights and various generations from our extended family are busy lighting all the small oil lamps around the temple since one among us is sponsoring the Poornabhishekam. The elephants are munching juicy palm leaves and gobbling rice mixed with gingelly (sesame)oil,  while one well to do family or another passes by to feed them with whole ripe plantain clusters. As you know, the elephant does not even bat an eyelid, it just extends its trunk, twists it around the giant cluster and consigns it into his mouth. I have never seen a happy smile on an elephant’s face, unlike a dog which can look happy, why is the elephant perpetually sad?

By coincidence, I saw Sam at the temple, you remember her? I had mentioned her in my ‘Pack of cards’, Ramnath’s granddaughter. Well she is a big name in America these days, a top scientist at some government organization. She seemed to be at home in Pallavur, though speaking only American accented English.

As I got back and sat on the Kolayi (raised floor used for meetings) of the ancestral house, which has been cleaned up and spruced a bit, I saw a face peering at us from the gate. My cousin’s wife told me that it was Cheeru’s son. Cheeru had been in our employ since her birth, and she is doing well these days. Her husband was a party leader and she managed to get some education along the way. Her son however was a bright guy and was in high school, no, the lady across corrects me, he has finished his Pre-Degree and was getting ready to apply for college admission.

I called him in, and he introduced himself with a little nervousness. He was here to seek my help, having been told by his mother that I lived beyond the seas, in America. His name was Chandran, he spoke well, fluently in an educated voice and sounded decent with his English too. A very pleasant sort of guy, one who you took a liking to. He was dressed well, with a spotless dhoti and  a striped shirt.  He was wondering if he should apply to the engineering college in town or outside the state, he was confident he could win admission into the IIT, and money was not a problem. With his backward caste situation, he could easily get scholarships as he was very good in his studies.

I thought he was here to seek direction from me on his future and I was feeling a bit sheepish, for I had been away from India for so long and I no longer knew much about the education scene out here. But that was not why he was there for, he had another problem and wanted to know what he should do about it. You the reader have no idea on how matters transpired, and how this affected Chandran, but I know you are getting impatient, so let me cut to the chase.

A couple of months ago, Chandran found out that the YMCA was giving away computers to needy kids, you just had to prove your proficiency and your financial situation and the officer in charge gifted you a used computer (gifted by Americans). Chandran saw the opportunity and seized it with both hands and both legs, as they say, and came back, a proud owner of a 2006 model Apple MacBook. In fact, he impressed the manager so much that he gave him the best of the lot he had, which was this nifty notebook from Apple. Chandran did not have wireless at home but would visit friendly families and see the world through his computer. With his new machine he got to know the life outside the village, the many opportunities and news from the world over and many a thing one never saw on TV.  He also learned about the computer, drives, operating systems and so on. As it transpired, he was scanning through the hard drive of the computer and came across a folder nested deep inside it.

The folder had many files, very personal files. There were pictures, there were ID related files, bank statements and what not. There was a will as well. It was the personal related folder of the person who originally owned the notebook computer, hidden within some application folders, perhaps for security. When the owner decided to get rid of his machine, he wiped the rest of the hard drive but forgot all about his personal folder, for some reason. These things happen all the time, but the young fella Chandran was in a quandary. The will in the folder was the problem. It listed massive assets and pointed to the fact that the owner was easily a millionaire many times over. There were other papers of an extremely confidential nature, related to his many properties, accounts and investments, much of which was Greek and Latin for the young Chandran. The pictures were in the hundreds, going back to his childhood, all belonging to the lovely countenance and body of a lady, perhaps his wife.

Idly Chandran then googled the name of the man who had written the will, only to discover that it was none other than Oliver Bronson, the well-known New York millionaire, who was close to his death and presently hospitalized. Suffering from terminal pancreatic cancer, he was fighting for his life at the NYU Langone center according to a recent report from the New York Times. So Chandran’s question to me was, if he should do something and if so what! He could easily just delete the folder and be done with it, but his mind and innate honesty would not permit it, what with the previous owner of his PC now lying on his deathbed. He also felt that the financial and ID papers were just backup’s, but the photos were another thing altogether.

I was perplexed, to say the least,  perhaps this was the definition of ‘being in a quandary”. Obviously, I was going to get involved now and with the evening festivities at the temple looming near, I asked Chandran to come back the next day. It would also give me some time to think out a solution.

The festivities went without a hitch, the dance drama was much appreciated by the village folk, especially the men, and I am sure more than the story line, it was the buxom actress playing a goddess, with her ample and well-rounded assets about to pop out, who kept the audience spellbound and at the edge of their rickety seats. The Panchavadyam was also a resounding success and the beautifully decorated temple with all the oil lamps lit for the occasion, presented a glorious backdrop and a festive ambiance.

This time around, there were no reasons for family politics and so it was all good. Peace reigned at our homes and later some of the men slunk away to a corner of the house to imbibe a bit of ‘som ras’ , the elixir for good health or put in plain words, some black label JW scotch! Even though there were complaints that it would have been so much better, if accompanied with chicken fry from the ‘Light of Asia” restaurant in Kollengode, everybody ‘adjusted’ with spicy bajjis made by Koman, as touching’s.

While traversing through the heady fumes and a healthy kick generated by a sizeable portion of the 750 ml of waters brought in all the way by somebody from Scotland, I took a decision on what to do with the intriguing case brought in by Chandran.  I decided to take a copy of the files and get it to the dying millionaire. Easier said than done, for I myself was a Windows user, never having used a MacBook in my life. The next day Chandran came and I explained to him that I would copy the files to my USB drive and take it to New York, for we were to visit my son the followings week, after returning to the US. He worked as a doctor in NYU, so I can get to the guy Bronson and hand over the flash drive to him.

Chandran brought in his silver-grey MacBook and I fired it up, but I struggled to get the copying done. I was about to check out on google what to do when Chandran himself came to my rescue in explaining that the USB drive was formatted in NTFS, so it could be tough to copy to it from a mac. I had a fairly big capacity FAT32 flash drive, so we cleared it up, and after some effort and workarounds,  dropped the files into it. Phew! Was I worried for a moment, looking kind of silly and not knowing what to do, in front of a kid who was under the impression I knew all, by virtue of being in America and worked there! It was heartwarming not only to see this young fellow trudging around proudly with his MacBook, but also to see him adept in its ways. For him, unlike his parents who worked in the fields and tended to petty jobs, he was on par with the rest in the world.  He had seized whatever opportunity he got, and made something of himself, not allowing any negative thought to hinder him. And in the middle of it all, he spared a thought for the person who had helped him, the original owner of the computer, wanting to make sure that he returned to the owner what was his and only his.

That was not the end of the story, which as you imagined, had legs of its own. It ran on a direction I never thought it would.

The festival ran through its course of a week, all the relatives got ready for their return to their real worlds, and to say goodbye to the village they had grown up in, some with teary eyes (I imagined it perhaps, it was only me). The kitchens were closed and the hearths extinguished, the empty ‘mineral’ ( I don’t know who coined that stupid term or adapted it in India, blindly from the west, it is water devoid of all minerals actually, just cleaned up plain old battery or distilled water and not from any spring) water bottles were thrown into the backyard by the callous ones with the many plastic bags, to choke up and sully the ecosystem for years to come.  The freshly re-laundered clothes by the local dhobi were packed back into the suit cases and all return tickets reconfirmed. One by one, the families left in their rented cars back to Cochin airport or Olavakkot (nowadays Palghat Jn) railway station for their return journey with promises to meet up again the following year. For a couple of days, it was only me and my wife left with my brother and family, who of course live in Pallavur. We reminisced of the good times, our parents and grandparents and our childhood days, and sighed…

Two weeks later, I was at the Langone center, and my son, who knew the place like the back of his hand,  took the responsibility of guiding me through the corridors to where the rich man was spending his dying days. Strangely the man was alone and in good spirits, but alone, and I thought yeah! you always die alone.

I told him why I was there, I told him about our little hamlet in South India, Chandran and his MacBook,  and when I got to the crux of the story and mentioned the hidden folder in the MacBook, his eyes lit up. He exclaimed “Oh! That’s where it was, I searched all over for it, and now that you say it, I remember I had hidden it in the application folder, thinking it a wise thing to do in those days without any encryption tools , which are aplenty today”. Then he asked me, if there were some pictures in it. I knew we had guessed correctly, for that was all that mattered to him at this stage, not the other confidential papers, only the photos. I gave him the drive. He rang for his secretary who was lounging somewhere out of sight and asked her to get him his computer. As we waited, Bronson explained how important the pictures were to him., they belonged to his first wife.  He had an album, but that got damaged and he never could fin d the scans which he had made of them. She had died many years ago, Bronson had remarried many times, but all the new companions were just that, he loved none of them and likewise they married him only for his money and the alimony or settlement whichever came after. But his first wife was the love of his life and so her memory was so much more important to him than anything else. In fact, during his last years, that was the only thought in his mind.

Soon the secretary, her name was Suzannah, an elegant and efficient lady, arrived with his MacBook, and Bronson plugged in the drive and spent an hour wistfully looking at his departed wife’s pictures, perhaps telling himself and her that he would soon be reunited with her, perhaps not – or maybe just thinking about their good old days. Who knows, he certainly did not tell me. After some time, I could see that he was troubled, pained and weary and I told him I was leaving. He asked me for my cell number and turned over to sleep.

Two days later, I got a call from Bronson. He said that he wanted to do something for the young man Chandran who had brought him peace. He said that his secretary would contact me with details and thanked me for everything I had done and disconnected. Those were his last words to me. A few days later, he passed away and all that remained of him was a glowing obituary in the NY Times Bronson - a great man and a philanthropist. I heard that several of his estranged children and wives were clamoring for his millions, but well, it was of no interest to me, so I let matters lie.

It was a month later that Suzanna, his secretary contacted me. In a concise fashion she explained to me briefly that Bronson had left a sizable trust fund favoring Chandran, to help him through his education, but that it was given with strict conditions and would terminate if the boy misused it or failed to complete his courses with proficiency.

That my friends, was the culmination of a fascinating and inexplicable tale of a twist in fate, for Chandran, a boy who had never seen riches, whose family had been simple field workers through generations.

These is a reason why all this came to the fore and I wrote it all up, we have visitors coming in for dinner today and it is none other than Chandran and his girlfriend Stacey. He completed his education in America, lives in New Jersey, and is now looking for a job which he will have no difficulty in finding, for he was brilliant in his studies. The Bronson grant no doubt helped him get to the US and pay for it, but I think he is the type who would have done good nevertheless. Some people are like that, self-made and destined for greatness.

But what jolted his fate was as you now know, the MacBook in the hamlet.

Notes

Sorry to say this, but while the place and the events preceding the arrival of Chandran on the scene are real, the rest is just fiction, including the billionaire Bronson. Just fertile imagination.

There is an interesting connection between Steve Jobs of Apple and India. It is said that Jobs like many others, was entranced with the ISKON movement and eventually flew to India in 1974 seeking spiritual solace, participating in the Kumbh mela at Haridwar. From there he went to Kainchi in the Himalayan foothills of Uttarakhand and planned to hang around with the Karoli Bhaba at his ashram, only to hear that the baba has passed on from this world to the next. But he did hear from Jeffrey Kegel (a.k.a Krishna Das) that the baba was very fond of apples, during his 7 months stay in India. Some say that was the reason Jobs named his company Apple. Jobs moved on later to embrace Zen Buddhism. Later, celebrities such as Julia Roberts was influenced by the late Baba and Mark Zuckerberg even visited Kainchi after recommendations from Jobs. Many other equally well-known persons have conducted the pilgrimage to Kianchi but let me not digress.

But what none of them perhaps knew was that the Red delicious variety Simla apples which the baba favored, were brought in from Louisiana in America and planted by none other than Samuel Evans Stokes, an American missionary turned Hindu, and a Gandhian to boot, many decades ago.

Other Pallavur and related stories referred to, in this story


Photos - from the recent vilakku - Amrith Nair