Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Short Story: DANIEL OF THE MANMALAI CLUB

         A reason why the Manmalai Club was different from the other planters’ clubs in the High Ranges of the Southwest corner of India was Daniel. When the Club opened in 1921he was asked to serve drinks. The man continued doing that for a little over five decades. He was lean and of medium height. His left shoulder was, at least when I started going to the Club, noticeably lower than the right. He attributed that abnormality to years of pouring drinks from bottles into peg measures.


Daniel had many stories to tell, but never on a Saturday. That was   the day on which the planters, from top brass to ‘creepers’ (trainees) gathered at the Club to relax. The rubber estates at lower altitudes and tea plantations in the higher areas were extensive. The nearest neighbour with whom one could have a drink stayed probably five miles away. The evenings were long and lonely especially for the bachelors. They looked forward to the Club Nights on Saturdays.
To reach the Club one turned off the main road through Murugan Gate, drove up the steep road, took a U-turn named Dexter’s Folly and climbed further. Behind the tile-roofed club house was a sparkling stream with an eight feet waterfall. But no one seemed to even notice it.
Once I remarked casually to Daniel, “The Club should have been facing the brook.”
After some hesitation he responded, “Pearson sahib himself drew the plan. Spent nights.”
“I wasn’t blaming him.”
“I know, sir. Sahib was going home on four-month furlough. Wanted building completed before he came back. He gave instructions to the contractor and also offered a fifty rupee bonus.”
“I suppose it wasn’t ready on time.”
Daniel smiled and said, “On return, sahib went straight to the site. The building was finished. He asked the contractor to collect the balance due plus the bonus, and added, ‘Get the hell out of here. I don’t want to see your face again.’ ”
“But why?”
“In sahib’s own words, ‘Dumb idiot, you got it back to front.’ ”
I laughed and asked, “Wasn’t he blacklisted?” If that were done, no estate would give the man any work.
“Sahib considered that,” Daniel answered. “But he told us later that perhaps he hadn’t explained clearly enough to the contractor and made sure that the man had understood.”
Looking back I can see that the Daniel yarns offered a kind of orientation course. They gave the newcomers, mostly British, an insight into the history, ethos and élan of the planning community.
On Sundays too Daniel was busy till about 3 O’clock in the afternoon. That was the day Mark Hearth, an owner-planter (most were company employees), had lunch at the Club. Earlier, when his wife was alive, they used to have the meal together there. Even after the lady died he continued the practice.
The ritual started precisely at 11 O’clock when Daniel served the first gin and tonic after Hearth settled down on his favourite chair in the front hall. No one else used that piece of furniture while he was in the Club. The old man would leaf through copies of Illustrated London News, Punch and the Illustrated Weekly of India. He did not mind company till he moved to the dining room. There he would sit alone at the same table on the same chair that he had used for thirty-five years and more. He would top off the lunch with a large crème de menthe and walk steadily to his Bentley.
Once, as Hearth was leaving, the international chief of Indo-South Asia Petroleum Company and wife dropped in. They were on a private visit en route to the Periyar Game Sanctuary. Hearth instructed Daniel to attend to them, and before boarding the car said, “Your tankers don’t come on time.”
Two Sundays later, the Managing Director of the petroleum company’s Indian subsidiary and a colleague were at the Club to meet Hearth.
“Sir”, the visiting MD opened the conversation, “about your complaint to our world chief. We have checked our tanker movements here for one year. Last month supply was delayed twice, but that was due to landslips along the road.”
“I beg your pardon. What are you talking about?”
“When our Chairman came here two weeks back you mentioned to him that our tankers don’t come on time.”
“I don’t remember meeting your Chairman or making any complaint to him.”
Daniel cleared his throat.
“Yes Daniel,” Hearth asked. “What is it?”
“Sahib, it happened.”
Hearth thought for a moment. “I’m sorry gentlemen,” he apologised. “Must have been absolutely drunk.”
For the first time after his wife died, Hearth had guests for lunch at the Club. According to Daniel, the planter and the oil company chaps got on famously. After that, Hearth started attending Saturday Club Nights again.
A popular Daniel story was about a Swedish lady.
“This memsahib was wearing white dress. Very beautiful.”
Pause.
“She was the guest of a sahib from Madras. He was very angry later. And the other memsahibs wouldn’t talk to her.”
“Why? What happened?”
“She climbed on the bar counter and moved from one end to the other and back. All the sahibs jammed into the bar.”
“What did she do?” I asked. “Sing or tap dance or what?”
“No sir, nothing of the sort. She actually walked on her hands.”
One visualised the scene and laughed. But not Daniel. He was the type who would watch your face anxiously as you took the first sip of the drink he had served and wait for your nod. Once that came, he would break into a grin.
An academic type of creeper from U.K. who had befriended me from the first time we met, asked Daniel while we were having beer, “Isn’t Murugan a Hindu god?”
“Yes, sahib.”
“Then why is our gate named after him?”
“The locals,” Daniel replied, “gave that name because of Amelia memsahib.”
“Why? Did she become a Hindu?”
“No sahib, this Murugan was driver. Memsahib was very upset after that.  Then Pritchard sahib got a job in Assam and took her away.”  
There was a pause before the rest of the story unveiled. Pritchard had bought a dual control car to teach his wife driving. One day they were going up the steep incline by the gate on the main road. Murugan who was coming down with his lorry lost control at the sight of two people driving the same car. His vehicle crashed into the granite wall of the gate. He was badly injured and died later in the hospital. The owner of an arrack shop a mile up said afterwards that Murugan had drank heavily.
One tale led to another. “What about Dexter’s Folly?” my friend asked.
Daniel laughed, covering his mouth with his right hand and narrated the story. After a stag party on a misty night, Tom Dexter, General Manager of Manmalai Plantations started back for his bungalow. His deputy, Harry Barton was right behind. In the poor visibility, Dexter steered his Vauxhall just a little before reaching the hairpin bend. The car went into the six feet deep cutting. Following his tail lights, Barton landed his Morris on top of his GM’s car. Because of the retaining walls of the road, the vehicles were hemmed in. Daniel told us that later the DGM narrated what happened immediately after the accident.
Dexter shouted out, “Is that you, Harry?”
“Yes, Tom.”
“Don’t have to knock that hard. You’re always welcome.”
The coolies rushing for muster early next morning found their big sahibs sound asleep in their respective cars.
The story didn’t end there. Though personal hosting of Club Nights was uncommon, the next one was on Dexter. When the party was in full swing he addressed the crowd, “Ladies and gentlemen, I would like you to listen to a limerick I wrote.” There were groans all around, but Dexter went ahead anyway.
At that point Daniel said “Excuse me”, went inside and returned with a framed paper. It had been hanging in the bar but I hadn’t bothered to read. Now I did, aloud:
‘Driving down from club
Loaded, on wintry night
Dexter took the turn
Ahead of the curve.’
“After the applause died down,” Daniel went on, “Dexter sahib said that he would like to have the U-turn named Dexter’s Folly”.
“I suppose,” my companion said, “the proposal was carried unanimously.”
“No sahib,” Daniel answered. “Barton sahib protested saying ‘Tom that’s not fair. I was there as well’. Dexter sahib answered, ‘Harry, DGMs do all the hard work. GMs take the credit.’ ”
Many yarns went around about a character named Croft but Daniel avoided them. There were two versions on how that man got the nickname ‘Cross’. One said it was because he always carried a crossword puzzle and pencil. The other view was that he was real cross for the others to bear. He had, according to rumour, the dubious distinction of being the only white man blacklisted by Paru and Devu, two beautiful sisters who were available to interested sahibs.
A pencil sketch of Daniel adorns the bar along with various trophies. It was done by a Richmond who was the South India manager of Imperial Fertilizer Company. He was a well-liked man who made a business trip to the area once a year.
Daniel was very proud of the picture. He would say, “Sahib wanted me to stand with my hands on the bar counter. But I said, ‘Sahib, then it won’t be me.’ He scratched his head for a moment and said, ‘Oh, yes, the trademark – your shoulders.’ “ After a pause Daniel would add, “Fine gentleman. Once somebody asked him why his fertilizer prices were higher than that of the competition. Richmond sahib tapped his chest and answered, ‘my salary’. But almost all planters bought from him.”
By the early 1950s the Communist-led labour unions were becoming increasingly militant. Some of the British started selling their estates. A chap who bought one of them found the going tough. On his request the leading Indian planting family in the district sent him a protection group of four men. They were from Palai, an area in the foothills were youngsters grew up with six-inch knives tucked in at the waist and the belief that if the weapon were drawn in a fight, the enemy should fall dead from the blade.
They became the targets of the workers. Some trade union activists managed to kill one of them. The body was hung upside down from a large jungle-jack tree. The workers and their families sat around it in groups, lighting bonfires by nightfall. The dead man’s colleagues had vanished.
It was a matter of honour for the family which sent the watchmen and the planters in general to recover the body. Most of them gathered at the club. The District Magistrate and the Superintendent of Police joined in the front hall where drinks and snacks were kept on a table in a corner for self service. The officials explained that recovering the body was not a problem but intelligence reports indicated that the union was planning a confrontation forcing the police to open fire. What the Communists wanted were martyrs.
As the discussions dragged on I moved to the bar where Daniel was alone. After a while Manichan, an owner planter, came and stood near me. “It’s a waste of time,” he said. “They’ll keep on talking through the night.”
He asked Daniel fro a glass of water. That was surprising because he could polish off a bottle of Scotch on a long evening. He finished drinking, placed the glass on the counter and turned to go.
“Manichan sir,” Daniel who had been watching him keenly said in a tone of concern, “I hope you are not going there alone.”
“I am.”
Watching him go, Daniel tried to remove the empty glass from the bar counter. It rolled down and broke. That was an unusual slip for him and he apologised. I wondered whether it was a bad omen.
But Manichan returned about two hours later. His clothes were slightly stained. He told me, “Boy, go tell them to discuss about the funeral.”
I looked at him questioningly.
“The body is at the back of my Jeep. The arms have to be broken to fit it in a box. Rigor mortis.”
By then Daniel had placed a large whiskey before Manichan.
“But how did you manage?” I asked, rather stunned.
“Rather simple. Drove to the spot, climbed on the bonnet and cut the rope.”
“Didn’t they try to stop you?”
He shook his head and answered, “Taken by surprise. And they know me. May be they guessed that the police wouldn’t interfere immediately, and wanted to end the stand off somehow. What does it matter?”
Later that night Daniel told me that it would not be the end. True enough, the two murderers of the guard were found dead within a week. Everybody knew who did it but officially the police could not find any proof. The three missing watchmen returned and the area remained quiet for a long while.
 After that incident some planters had taken to carrying firearms. One evening two Asst. Managers were practicing billiards for the Inter-Club Meet at Cochin the next week. Suddenly there was a gunshot just outside.
They rushed to the front hall. A young man was standing at the entrance with a pistol. A carcass lay in a pool of blood at the other end.
“You killed Charlie,” the older among the two said in shock.
“That one?” the young man asked. “My book says when a jackal rushes at you shoot him. There may be a pack following.”
The animal had adopted the club a year earlier. He found a niche for himself in a hole on the side of the building. Soon he became a pet of some of the younger members who named him Charlie and fed him whenever they went to the club. The others did not mind because the jackal never bothered them.
“Charlie was,” the other billiards player who had a squeaky voice said, “part of the club. Who the hell are you anyway?”
 “I’m a member. Jacob Philipose. Hill View Estate. Was away in England for a few years completing my studies. I didn’t know that in the meantime we started admitting jackals.”
“That’s bloody well adding insult to injury.” Words flew and finally it was decided to have a fistfight to settle the score.
“Daniel,” the senior Asst. Manager ordered, “arrange the furniture on dance night mode.” That meant that everything should be pushed to the sides leaving the wood-floored hall open.
“Yes, sir,” Daniel responded promptly and went inside.
Minutes later he returned with an unopened bottle of Dimple Scotch and the usual accompaniments. “While I rearrange the furniture,” he said, “the gentlemen may like to drink. Pearson sahib has entrusted me with some bottles to be served on the house at special occasions.”
“Good,” Philipose said. “I’m thirsty.” He sat down.
Daniel poured three large drinks. The Indian took a glass, said “Cheers” and had a sip. The others joined after some hesitation. A club boy came and screened off Charlie’s body.
Daniel disappeared again. It was quite some time before he came back with cocktail sausages and bully beef tossed with onions and spices according to the Club’s special recipe. He poured the second drink for the three members and started rearranging the furniture. The pace was slow.
He was called again. Then, after pouring the third round of drinks he said, “With your permission, may I suggest that I remove Charlie and have the place cleaned up?”
“Yes, go ahead,” the senior Asst. Manager said. “He must be given a decent burial.”
“He was dear to us,” the other one added.
“I’ll also help,” Philipose said. “I recall some of the Syriac liturgy.” To demonstrate his knowledge he started reciting the original Aramaic version of the Lord’s Prayer, “Abun da bashmaya…”
“Who wants Syriac,” the elder planter said. “It shall be Anglican service.”
At this point Daniel intervened saying, “Charlie was not a Christian. To the respected members he was a pet. To me he was a friend and companion. I have no family. I looked after him from the day he came to the club. Please allow me to bury him.”
The senior Asst. Manager said, “Right Daniel, we leave him to you.”
“Thank you sahibs.”
“Sorry, Daniel,” Philipose said. “I didn’t know he was your friend.” After a pause he added, “Anyway, get us some more whiskey.”
The second bottle was only half full. When it was nearly finished, Daniel told the members, “The chambers are ready.” Finally the men moved to the bedrooms arms on each others shoulders and singing, “Show me the way to go home.” Early morning Daniel woke up the Asst. Managers so that they could reach back in time for muster.
The send off party for Walter-Smith, a highly respected planter, was a memorable event. He gave a speech in his soft-spoken manner mainly about the forty years he had spent in the High Ranges. Before concluding he mentioned, “Some of you may know that during the War, I was Honorary Livestock Protection Officer for this division. Quite a few of the cows were dying. The blood sample of each dead animal had to be tested for anthrax and certified by the government veterinary doctor. Every report stated that there were no traces of any disease. I became suspicious. But one certificate was different. I would like to present it to the club.”
There was polite applause.
Walter-Smith continued, “I’ll read it out. Quote. This blood sample appears to be that of a senile old baboon of a species, which hither to was believed to be extinct. Unquote. I have added a signed Post Script that the blood sample was mine. I wanted to check the vet.” He raised his voice to be heard over the laughter and added, “The moral of the story is that there are no secrets in estate bungalows.”
Only once did Daniel get into trouble.
During the Second World War the club bought a Murphy radio that operated on car battery and installed it in the bar. Even on weekdays members went over to listen to BBC, and sometimes, Lili Marlene. One day during a break in the news, while ‘Cross’ Croft sat at a table with his crossword and others were discussing the War, someone asked, “Daniel, who do you think will win?”
The reply was prompt. “The King Emperor.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because Indian soldiers are fighting for His Majesty.”
Everybody laughed.
Croft walked over to the bar counter and asked Daniel, “What did you say?”
“Sahib, I said,” Daniel replied with some apprehension, “that King Emperor will win the war because Indian soldiers are fighting for him.”
Croft nodded and went back.
Next Saturday the members had a meeting at the club at 5 p.m. in response to an urgent notice from the Hon. Secretary. Pearson, the man who built the club, started the proceedings with the statement, “I wasn’t given a chance to see action in the First World War. But now I’m about to be involved with Second.”
There was suppressed laughter. Most of the members had heard about his attempt to enlist in 1914. The recruiting officer at Madras politely pointed out that the upper age limit for joining the army was forty years. Pearson who was forty-one then stared angrily at the man, said, “Don’t blame me if you lose the bloody War”, and walked out.
“Obviously,” Pearson went on, “some of you have heard the story. “Let me delve on it briefly because it is relevant in the present context. I felt miserable about the rejection. Then I realized that they also serve who stay back and keep the supplies flowing. Rubber, tea, whatever.”
The members cheered.
“Now,” Pearson continued, “let’s come to the matter on hand. We have received a written complaint from Mr. Croft against Daniel.”
There were surprised looks and murmurs among the members.
“There is,” Pearson went on, “a procedural problem however. Daniel is the son of my former butler. I gave him the job here. His address in the club records is still ‘c/o R.J. Pearson’. Therefore it may not be proper for me to chair this meeting.”
A senior member stood up and said, “You are the President of the club for life. There is no impropriety. Let’s get on with it.”
The crowd clapped in approval.
“Mr. Croft,” Pearson asked, “is that agreeable to you?”
The complainant replied with a slight hesitation, “I’m not objecting.”
After the petition was read out, Pearson said, “Let’s take the last of the accusations first. Mr. Croft, why do you say that Daniel’s loyalty is with Gandhi and company?”
“Because he always wears a Gandhi cap.”
“If that’s an offence, the blame is with the club management for permitting it. But when I placed him in the bar he donned the same type of attire that is wearing today. Mr. Gandhi has nothing to do with it. Shall we drop it?”
The complainant nodded in the affirmative.
“The next point is that Daniel is unpatriotic. Why do you say that?”
“Most Indians are.”
“That,” Pearson responded, “is a generalization. The word patriotism has several meanings. Loyalty, devotion, nationalism and so on. Talking about the Indians, many believe that we won the First World Was because of them. It was not all quiet for them on the Western Front. An estimate is that 65,000 sepoys died there.”
Many of the members gasped.
“I’m not,” Croft said, “belittling whatever contribution the natives made. But they can’t insult the white soldiers.”
“But why do you say white soldiers? There are colored men from many parts of the Empire fighting for us. Even our Americans allies have Negro soldiers.”
The witnesses, altogether five, were called. All of them testified that they had felt no offense at what Daniel had said. Then it was the turn of the accused. His statement was brief: “I meant no disrespect to soldiers of any country. May be I should have said, ‘Because my son is fighting under Montgomery sahib in Africa.’ “
The members were taken aback. Most of them did not know about it.
“4th Indian Division,” Pearson explained.
After a short discussion with the Hon. Secretary he announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, here’s the verdict. Daniel shall open the bar at 6 O’clock as usual.” He looked at his pocket watch and added, “That’s precisely ten minutes from now.”
The members stood up and clapped as Daniel walked towards the bar with tears running down his cheeks.
His son died on February 17, 1944 in Italy during the bitter fighting for control of the Benedictine monastery near Monte Cassino. Nobody in the Club except Pearson knew about it. I heard it years later when he told my father over drinks at our bungalow.
Next morning I was the first one at the club. After Daniel finished pouring the beer I asked, “Your son was a hero. Why did you keep it a secret?”
He gave me a surprised look and answered, “Why make my patrons also sad with my personal tragedy?” He turned to the rack behind him, ostensibly to arrange the bottles and added with a slight quiver in his voice, “He was just twenty-two.”
I quietly got up with my beer mug and moved out to the front hall. I was twenty-two then.
These days I hardly go to the club. An era has ended and it is no longer the place it used to be. But every December 6th, the few of us old-timers still remaining gather there and go to the All Saints Church cemetery a mile away to spend some time where Daniel rests in peace.
Cross posted to
Also see:


6 comments:

Ajith G said...

Nice post

Nebu said...

Do you remember Gomez of Mundakayam Club?
Mundakayam club is celebrating its Centenary this year!

Abraham Tharakan said...

Thank you Ajith G.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Nebu, of course I remember Gomez very well. Is there going to be any function to celebrate the centenary of the Mundakayam Club?

Abraham Pottamkulam said...

Chetta, this is Avira Pottamkulam,

Just Read this interesting post. Can imagine the life these ShaHibs had those days.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Abraham Pottamkulam Thank you Avira. I am happy that you liked the story.