Article Published in THE HINDUSTAN TIMES

Night of the planters

Navtej Sarna

THE incredibly green plain of Kerala begins to give gradual way to the rising Western Ghats. To an eye accustomed to the yellow-brown sunbaked plains of the North, the vernal variety of Kerala comes as a revelation. Shades of green interweave in magical jigsaws, enclosing backwaters in silent, shadowy lagoons.

The ubiquitous coconut which rules the coastal plain end pervades almost every aspect of life gets scarce and finally disappears. Teak and rubber begin to dot the hills. Coffee, cardamom and tea spread over the low rolling landscape. This is Maugham country, the land of planters and plantations.

Darkness falls, enforcing pensive silences and patience-we shall have to wait for tomorrow to see the splendour of a tea estate in the sun. Meanwhile, the generous hospitality of the planters beckons. Tonight we go calling.

We marvel at the ingenuity of our first host. His white, fairyland cottage stands prominently on a tremendous black rock. It is of nature and in nature. Sitting in the verandah, one can feel the tang of the forest in the night.

Long years of lonely life have forged strong bonds of distant companionship across the hills. Dinner, we are told is next door and next door is ten kilometers away. We walk into a stranger’s house and are not treated as strangers. It is open house and the music from his palatial drawing room forms a zone of throbbing life in the somber silences brooding low over the estates. The host is all smiles-even princely prosperity can do with a break in long days of virtual solitude.

The piece de resistance is served up in the form of a long drive through the estates. The headlights of the jeep pierce the night, tentatively lifting the dark veil from the face of nocturnal nature. Then suddenly scurrying away as if not meaning to sound like an unwelcome intruder.

Crickets call and the hibiscus growing along the path sways on to the windscreen, An animal crashes into the undergrowth, signaling in strong protest that the night is his by right. Unheeding we drive on into the early hours of the morning, doggedly pushing away the insistent heaviness of a scorned sleep. Then the ultimate return to the lone light on the hill and a welcome bed.

In the morning sun, the place holds no dark secrets. It is friendliness itself. The planters’ bungalows stand in imperial splendour amidst the inevitable green. Each tea bush can be seen- separate, firm and proud. The scene ensconced in its traditions and travels its loneliness and strange companionship is suspended in time and rolls away into space.