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…

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.