Crisis after crisis dogging the tea industry, tea planting and humour seldom go hand in hand these days. But they did in the halcyon 1960s and 70s when British planters manned most of Munnar’s tea gardens. Isolated in remote tea estates with little to look forward to by way of entertainment, many Brits found solace in their robust sense of humour, as I discovered from my long association with them.
When an Indo-Swiss dairy farm was set up near Munnar in the early 1960s, Swiss bulls were imported to improve the breed and milk yield of local cattle. One Scotsman noticed that a Swiss bull named Bruno evinced no interest whatsoever in his workers’ cows for several days, prompting him to wisecrack to the vet, “Bruno seems to think he’s here purely as an advisor!”
Once a Brit was “gheraoed” in his office by agitating estate workers with small mobs taking turns to ensure the siege was continuous. Drawing on all his resources of charm, the shrewd planter managed to persuade one group of sloganeers to get him a glass of tea and after several hours he talked another band of agitators into letting him use the toilet outside. Finally, after nearly 8 hours of confinement, he succeeded in sweet-talking the workers into freeing him. None the worse for his ordeal, he came up with a classic pun, bragging to his colleagues, “Every crowd has a silver lining!”
Near Munnar is a golf course – perhaps the only one of its kind in the country — that golfers share with a herd of wild gaur residing in the adjacent jungles. At the entrance stands a signboard reading “Beware of golf balls in flight.” After a British planter was unceremoniously chased off the course by an irate bull, a wag chalked in an addendum reading “And gaur bulls in heat.”
Talking of golf, a British planter, a golf addict, used to religiously head for the golf course every weekend, much to his better half’s dismay. One Saturday morning when a friend dropped by to meet him, his wife imaginatively explained away his absence. “I’m afraid,” she quipped, “John’s away on his weekly pilgrimage to the “Holey Land!”
Holidaying in Bengaluru, a workaholic British planter’s wife urged him to unwind for a few days and forget about his tea estate. “How on earth can I relax and take it easy,” grumbled the martinet, “when I know all too well that’s precisely what my assistants are doing right now?”
Showing a visitor around his tea estate, a Brit came across a worker, bareheaded and bare-bodied, toiling in the blazing sun. “Why doesn’t he cover himself?” asked the solicitous visitor, fearing the man might suffer sunstroke. “As a matter of fact, he is covered,” joked the planter, “by workmen’ s compensation!”
Another Brit, who was sending a small sample of strong-scented geranium oil to a perfumery in London through his wife, told her, “Don’t forget to declare it, Helen. Otherwise that stuff will declare itself!”
Some of Munnar’s British veterans had their own well-upholstered chairs in the local club, inscribed with their initials, and no assistant ever dared contemplate even the briefest occupation of these hallowed perches. A brash youngster who had the temerity to “check out” one was unfortunately caught in the act by the irate owner, who bellowed, “Go and enthrone yourself in your own damned ‘commode!” Several newcomers were once required to shin up a 12-foot pillar as part of their “initiation”. While all the others failed miserably, one accomplished the feat quite agilely. Yet the British referee “disqualified” him, explaining, “Shashi is from Kerala, where clambering up coconut palms comes naturally even to toddlers!”
There was also the retiring British planter who had to stay back in Munnar for several days after the usual series of farewell parties. One morning a colleague greeted him, “Hi, Bill! Forgotten, but not gone!” Truly, British wit spared none.