by Rajesh Thomas
I'm so happy that the 'drought' is over and we have new stories coming in. This wonderful
thirst-quencher from Rajesh Thomas is about the bars in tea clubs and the good men who preside over them. Cheers, all of you!
To take the tale back to 1928: A boisterous farewell party is in progress at the High Range Club for a colleague departing in retirement to the isles. Probably ridden with emotion at the departure of a friend and senior whom they adored and respected, the partygoers hoist the planter in question, W.O.Milne, on their shoulders and on to the bar to a merry chorus of “for he's a jolly good fellow”, and prevail him to hang his bowler hat over the bar.
Beginning thus a unique tradition of having planters with an uninterrupted tenure of thirty years in the district hang their hat at the men's bar in recognition of their service. Over time, the hats symbolise the legacy of the men who shaped the destiny of these magnificent hills, the High Ranges, the jewel amongst all planting districts in South India.
Fast forward to the present and as one enters the men's bar of The High Range club, Munnar, it feels as if one has stepped into a distant world of planting history where time stands still. Wood-panelled walls, photographs of yesteryear, curios and artefacts donated by planters retiring to distant shores, animal trophies that stare at you from walls and glass cabinets of sporting trophies which tell tales of valour on the sporting field. But the thing that catches one’s eye is the magnificent arch over which is a collection of old planting hats and sola topees with names / initials and dates. W.O.Milne was the first, and now 52 hats adorn this arch. Curiously, two of Milne's sons, also High Range planters, hung their headgear over the bar and this was called Milne's hat trick.
When one closely observes the other side of the bar, there are also three turbans that adorn the walls of this bar, belonging to retired head bearers and barmen of this club, keeping in tune with tradition, as they also had the distinction of marking thirty years of continuous service with the club.
A sign of respect the planters of yore had for the staff, who served them and the pride of place the bartenders had in the clubs.
As the joke goes, the master of ceremonies at a wedding reception announced for everyone to stand next to the most important person in their life, and the barman nearly got stampeded in the resulting melee. Likewise, for planters, the barman was their go-to therapist, who administered them the weekly elixir of life.
|Thangaiah, the barman at the High Range Club|
Yohan’s contemporary at the Annamallai Club was Murugaya. Murgaya probably wielded more influence than anyone else in Valparai town did. A jack of all trades, Murugaya seamlessly slipped into administration and looked after the club accounts too later on.
Annamallai club had a second bar for the kids, the barrel bar. As the name suggests in the shape of a barrel, where all the cool older kids hung around sipping coca cola and fanta and eating finger chips.
A characteristic of these legendary bartenders was they knew the choice of all the regulars, and one just had to walk into the bar and instinctively they handed you the right drink.
In the smaller planting clubs, these wonderful men showed they are multi-talented and in a lot of clubs they doubled up as the billiards marker or could hold their own in a tennis foursome when short of a fourth player. A skill they achieved with no formal training.
Balan the barman at the Meppadi Club, Wayanad and Kunhu Mohamed at the nearby Devarshola club across the Tamilnadu border, were some who pulled up double duty on the court and off the bar. A unique feature about the tennis courts at the Meppadi club was the court surface was of bitumen or tar.
The Bartender in the remote Highwavys club Manikam was a one man institution. It was he who dispensed the booze, made up a foursome on the tennis court, played billiards and snooker and if one felt peckish, rustled up a sandwich and generally kept everyone in a good mood. Manikam joined the club as a ball boy on the tennis court in the 1920s and gradually graduated to the green baize and then the bar. He continued to work well into his eighties and even then was reputed to dispense liquor accurately without the aid of a peg measure.
The Vandiperiyar and Peermade clubs of Central Travancore were two of the most lively planting clubs in South India. The old timers who dished out the moonshine were Dasaiah at Vandiperiyar Club and James at the Peermade Club. Besides keeping the spirits high, they were also adept at wielding the cue. Many Assistant Managers learnt the nuances of the green baize from these two.
The Vandiperiyar and Peermade planting districts of Central Travancore were next to each other and were reputed to have tough labour and even tougher management. The Managers and Assistant Managers caught between the two carried a reputation of being a hard bunch that worked hard and partied harder. At a luncheon party over a monsoon Sunday, an argument broke out between two planters as to who was the better snooker player, Dasaiah or James.Soon others joined in with each faction vociferously, claiming their choice was the better player. To settle this, the famous battle of the barmen was scheduled over a Sunday in a fortnight’s time, giving enough time for the contestants to sharpen their skills. I cannot recall who won the match, but a significant amount of money was reputed to have changed hands.
When one talks about barmen, mention should also be made of a unique club bar, the Kundale Club located in a small patch of heaven in the High Ranges, Munnar. A bar without a barman. The club has a unique system where the members pour their own drinks, write out their own chits and drop them in a box. The manager of one of the nearby estates, normally Chitavurrai or Yellapatty come periodically to tally and top up the stocks. Ironically, seldom is a shortage found and more often there is a small excess, like the factory tea stocks.
|The Coonoor Club bar|
These fine men were not without their faults. During the days when getting imported booze was difficult, one planter had managed to get his hands on a bottle of imported vodka. He organised a golf foursome for the Sunday morning, with expectations of some good quality Vitamin V after eighteen holes. When they reached the nineteenth hole , the parched golfers found out the potato juice from Moscow had lost its potency. Apparently it had been watered down and Vodka had become Wadka, As the furious foursome turned to confront the suspect across the counter, our friendly neighborhood bar-man looked at the bottle and the owner and quizzically asked “was it raining in your estate?”
|The Gun Bar at the Wellington Gymkhana, The Nilgiris|
But these lovable rascals had a way of worming their way back into your heart. Thumba the veteran gin slinger who presided over the magnificent Gun Bar at the Wellington Gymkhana in the Nilgiris was one. A tale often related by my father’s colleague and friend Babu Jayaram. Babu Jayaram’s father Mr.K.K.R.Menon was the first Indian planter in South India and the Wellington Gymkhana was one of his familiar haunts. Hence Thumba knew Babu from his growing up days. As newlyweds, they were passing through the Nilgiris and were taken to Wellington Gymkhana for dinner by their friends. He introduced Thumba to his bride at the bar and later proceeded to their dinner. When they asked for the chit to sign, the bearer replied there was no chit for the drinks and dinner as Thumba had already paid for it. When Thumba was confronted on the way out, he just shrugged and said, “After all the years I have known you, the least I could do is buy you dinner when you get married.”
Rajesh Thomas introduces himself:
"A second generation planter. Born and grew up in the planting districts of Southern India. Started my career in the High Ranges and Annamallais Planting Districts for twelve years. Had a stint in Africa for two years. Since 2009 been planting in the Nilgiris.
Read all of Rajesh's stories at this link: https://teastorytellers.blogspot.com/search/label/J.Rajesh%20Thomas
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My name is Gowri Mohanakrishnan and I'm a tea planter's wife. I started this blog because one of the things that I wouldn't want us to lose in a fast changing world is the tea story - a story always told with great seriousness, no matter how funny - always true (always), maybe a tall tale, maybe long, short, impossible, scary, funny or exciting but never dull. You will find yourself transported to another world!
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