McKenzie Xchanges20 mins 16.4K 20 mins 16.4K
Daniel McKenzie, Danny to all, was walking through his coffee estate, located in the green, verdant Nilgiris, in the south of India. It rained every day, was cold and the morning fog was just receding. Smoking his fifth cigarette of the day, as Penny, his wife wouldn’t let him smoke at home any more, he was pondering how he could get his hands on some cash to pay off his young mistress, Ambili. Poor girl, slender, and pretty, albeit dark, the tears in her big eyes melted his heart. But he had always been a sucker for sob stories.
His estate had a large number of migrant workers from both, Kerala and Karnataka.
Penny had given him a withering look when he had lit his first cigarette that morning, the tongue lashing that followed made him run outside. Thankfully the children were still sleeping. Only Samuel, his overseer had reached early, he had heard Penny losing her temper. Samuel was a sympathiser, his mother and wife too went hammer and tongs at him and at each other if Samuel was not around. “Woman troubles, Saheb.” said Samuel, “It’s a wonder we remain alive, if their words were bullets, we would have been sieves by now.”
Parukutty, the cook had poured Danny, his huge mug of black coffee, made from freshly roasted, ground beans of his estate. He nearly scalded his tongue gulping down the hot beverage, but he ran before Penny could reiterate his past misdemeanours, she began enumerating his misdeeds from the year 1966-they had married that year.
Danny felt that Penny, sweet Penny had changed in the last eight years -from a gentle, smiling goddess with a slight figure and face of the Madonna into a vicious name- calling witch, after the birth of the third child. Maybe it was the post-partum depression that was making her harangue at him all the time.
Samuel’s wife had had her third child a few months ago, maybe he could enlighten Danny in the mysterious ways of women and post-partum blues. Samuel was walking in front of him with a long staff that had a sharp blade at its end- trying to clear a path for his Saheb.
“Samuel… hey Samy, how long since your wife had her baby? Does she too get angry with you or has she become as good as she was, before she had the baby?” asked Danny.
Samuel said, “Danny sahib, what can I tell you, you have only Penny madam getting angry at you, I get yelled at, by both- my mother, bless her and my wife. At times I don’t feel like waking up to face these banshees at home. And this postpartum moods-that these bop-haired ladies are talking about, it’s another word for the devil I tell you, my wife gets angry if I snore or cough- she says I wake the baby up - now a man has to sleep and snore, coughing is a natural stimulus, I know the beedi makes me cough, but if there was no beedi Saheb, how would I bear up to all the difficulties in the world?”
Danny commiserated with Samy, he hoped this revealing conversation had put Samy in a receptive frame of mind. With a false grin and patting his shoulder in empathy, he asked, “Samy, do you know who can lend me 12000-15,000 rupees? I really need the money, I had promised to buy Penny a necklace after my elder son was born, but now it’s seven years and my third daughter is almost a year old and I have to still buy her the necklace, or she will never give me any peace or happiness.”
Danny tried to pump information from Samy, in what he hoped was a man-to-man talk and discussion of manly needs.
Samy replied with a question of his own, “Danny Saheb, but you recently got the proceeds of the coffee seeds from this year’s harvest, didn’t you?”
Danny said, “Samy, my home life is in utter doldrums, Penny Madam keeps throwing me out of her bedroom, from the time little one was born. You know I sleep on the sofa in the living room. My aunt, Ceana - bless her, was ridiculing me the other day- even though she is my only sympathiser. Now you, Samy, please understand how lonely and miserable I have been. I found a friend to console me- it’s the sweet little girl-Ambili in the other end of the estate. Her father leaves the poor girl alone when he goes to buy supplies for the estate. She too has been lonely. Her mother passed away a few years back while giving birth to her sister. Now she looks after the little sister. I had carried some baby clothes for her little sister…and one thing led to another and soon we became …what shall I say… friendly and real friendly Ok .Ok –intimate is the word. I wanted to be friends with her and give her respite from her loneliness for a few more months till my Penny allows me back into her bed.
But the problem now is, Ambili is with child. When she told me about this pregnancy, I was utterly shocke, though Penny has had three pregnancies in the last eight years. God is very kind to me. He wants to me have a big family, but Penny does not understand that. Penny had decided that we have had our last child, no more, she says. God has made me virile and my needs are a bit more than other men, Samy. Now I have promised that I will take care of Ambili and send her to the convent in Gudaloor, where she can have the baby. I shall look after the baby and its upkeep. I hope it’s a boy. I can even send him to my old boarding school.”
Samy stood transfixed, hearing Danny Saheb’s explanation. He had heard rumours for quite some time. But he was not sure if the rumours were based on truth. He had an inkling that the big, bumbling Danny was a playboy. Being tall, broad and handsome and not to mention the colour of this English forefathers, the pink complexion helped to sway the hearts of many a damsel in the cities and so what could a poor estate worker’s daughter do, she would have thought that Danny was a swashbuckling film star- like MGR. He paused and turned around and looked at Danny Saheb. Danny had removed his planter’s red hat and was worriedly fingering its edges and trying to fan himself.
Samy asked, “Danny Saheb…… what will Penny madam say when she hears of this? Saheb, you do know the coffee prices have crashed world over, last year‘s crops fetched a mere pittance, you had to sell off the southern quarter of your estate. We are left with twenty four and half acres and in that, fifteen acres are your aunt’s. Ceana auntie will have a fit if she hears about this …new issue… Saheb, why can’t you be like me and pray whenever you have amorous thoughts or better still have a cold water bath!”
Danny said, “Samy… don’t think I haven’t done all that…it’s the devil’s drink…On Sundays after a couple of beers, I really don’t know what comes over me. I blame Penny. She knows me too well. She should be making an exception for Sundays, on all her laid-down rules…she should lie down for me…hehehehehe... I am such a jovial and jolly good fellow, I pray in church, and it’s not my fault. It is God’s. He made me a giant of man…with a huge appetite…..the Sunday drink and the beef roast incites me to go forth and procreate as the pastor says in the pulpit of the church on Sundays.
Hearing the sermons eggs me on. You know… eggs. That God creates in women- are for populating the earth with more Christian brethren. If I didn’t do my duty to God I will not have obeyed His instructions. God said to man. It's in the Bible-Samy, you know the Genesis 9:7 chapter. Go forth and multiply. Samy- You too are Christian, don’t you know that …now you don’t start blaming me. You are a mere servant of the estate. How dare you question me?”
Hearing this, Samy was offended and astounded, he thought the Saheb had asked his views and his help as always. This wasn’t the first time Saheb got into troubles and pleaded help-from Samy. He had even taken the blame for several of Danny’s past sins, perhaps small ones, of course. Danny would repay the scolding and the trashing of his character by Penny and his wife, with small amounts of money and beer. Now it appeared, he seemed to be getting mad at him due to the desperation at his own situation.
“Sorry Saheb, if I have overstepped my position. I regret my words Saheb. Please forgive me.” Saying this, Samy started trimming the coffee bushes. With his head down, he looked suitably chastened. Danny was an egotistical humbug. At times his naivety bordered on foolishness. In most matters, he behaved like an innocent Christian, but when it came to wine, women and food, he was avaricious.
His father, Connan McKenzie and grandfather, Major Duglas McKenzie, who had come from Scotland along with the British Army to colonize India. Connan had left him one hundred acres of land which he had denuded to a mere twenty-five acres by his proclivities and mismanagement. Danny looked upon the land as a bank, a land bank. He shaved off chunks of it to whoever gave him a little money for drinks, clothes, for partying and gambling. He was a party guy in the eyes of the local club members. They sniggered behind him and ridiculed him for his errant ways. But the natives, who he always thought as his friends, could coax him to throw parties on birthdays and anniversaries. And Danny would do so, without thinking for a moment where the funds would come from.
Pragmatic he was not, he had purchased his last car by selling of a portion of his estate.
Now for his latest issue; the gossip was that he had fathered many children around the estate. Some born to utterly dark, small women, but startlingly fair and with auburn hair and grey eyes and growing swiftly to great heights. The parentage would be apparent within a few years.
When Danny was five, his mother, Nandini had abandoned the family with its boorish and snooty members and left for Australia with another man. So Danny was brought up by his aunt. When he was in his twenties, to curb his wilful and womanising tendencies, Aunt Ceana and Danny’s father, Connan had gone to Bangalore. There they had spotted Penelope, working as a teacher, in a kindergarten. She, too belonged to the Anglo-Indian community, was tall and fair, with a good figure too. Even though she was from a poor family, she seemed a good match for Danny. Danny was sent on his next errant to charm Penny which he proceeded to do like a virtuoso that he was. Penny was only 21 to Danny’s 29. But when Danny set his mind on someone, he left no stones unturned to secure his prize.
Penny’s family was large, with umpteen number of sisters and brothers. Penny had quickly accepted Danny’s proposal, hoping for a luxurious lifestyle in the estate high up the hills with many servants.
Danny’s father, Connan had asked him to get involved in the running of the coffee estate. Not cut out for hard work, brought up a single child by a doting aunt, Danny enjoyed walking around the estate, pretending to work.
A year after his marriage to Penny when Danny’s first born was a few months old, his father had collapsed and died after a massive heart attack. The old man had expected to live long, to ensure that the estate was in good financial condition. But before he could turn it around and teach Danny the ropes, he had died. Involved in the church, Aunt Ceana was generous in her donations in cash and kind to her brethren.
Danny inherited the massive estate. But unlettered, unaware of the economics of running the estate, clueless of purchase of raw materials, maintenance of stock, management of workers had made him run down the estate within four years to a mere twenty five acres.
Danny had never finished schooling, he went to the big cities rarely, and he had few friends. His world was limited to the local town and the estate. It made most things, easy and people, pliant. His source of steady income was his land, he took loans by selling of portions of it.
Samy, mindful of Saheb’s annoyance, worked silently trimming bushes and raking dead leaves to one side. This latest conundrum had to be resolved. Danny thought he could approach the local traders for an advance for his coffee crop. But that would yield about four-five thousand rupees and he needed much more than that.
He went to Samuel and placed his hand on his shoulder and said, in a conciliatory tone, “It’s alright Samy; you are my oldest servant and we have played together since childhood. I guess you meant the right thing. Maybe if we two, you and me think about it, we can resolve this issue in a way that no one will come to know or get hurt. Come on, don’t look at me like that. I am sorry. You have got to help me.”
“Fine”, said Samy, he sighed in frustration, acknowledging in his mind that he had had no choice, as he had never ever worked for anyone else all his life. Danny was the only boss he knew. His small world was his own home and Danny’s estate.
“I heard that Ranjith of the Das chai kadda (tea shop) had recently won a lottery. Let me see if he has any spare money.”
He threw the long staff in a corner and walked up to Danny and said, “But you will have to give me a few rupees, I shall have to take Ranjith to the toddy shop for a drink or two to make him more pliable for pitching the request for money.” He extended his hand towards Danny, who grimaced before parting with a hundred rupee note, while saying, “Make sure that he is ready to give me at least fifteen or twenty thousand rupees.”
A little shocked on hearing that Danny wanted fifteen or twenty thousand, Samy had considered asking Ranjith ten thousand rupees only.
Samy kept his head down and walked slowly behind Danny towards the Bungalow, it was lunch time and he had always had his noon meal from the kitchen of Danny Saheb. He slipped behind while Danny grimaced and headed for the living room.
In a few minutes, Samy heard Penny shouting, “I haven’t seen such an irresponsible bugger all my life. I wonder what came over me …what are my sins that I have been blessed with such a loafer of a husband, unfeeling, callous and you brute…no time to think of others. Behaving like a spoilt brat that you are…all because your blessed father and aunt spoilt you thoroughly. You make my life miserable. To add to my troubles I have barely recovered from having your last child and there you go. I am pregnant, once again. We do not have the resources to look after these three and your aunt, I haven’t bought a decent dress since our elder son was born. And where is the necklace you promised me when our son---heir to the mighty estate of McKenzie was born? Another of your empty promises –I will die and you won’t have money for my funeral, the way you go spending all that comes from the estate”.
“Where from, in God’s name is the money going to come for this next baby? I had told you stay away from me. But you are such a randy man-forever trying to sneak into my bed, you never listened to me and look. I am three months gone. Dr. Anniekutty whom I went to see today in the morning for indigestion, does not even hear me out when I asked her for an abortion. And it’s a sin to even think of it……. How will I go to church?”
Samy heard the tirade clearly, he could picture Danny sitting with his head down, with his hand running over his lustrous, brown hair, nervously. And Penny Madam pregnant again. So it was true, what they said about the white men. They were very virile …it was proof that many kids in the estate had the same brown hair and white complexion of Danny. I bet Danny Saheb will not enjoy his lunch today, Samy thought.
The cook, Parukutty came to Samy with a plate, heaped with rice and placed it on the floor in front of Samy saying, in Malayalam, “I don’t know how many days we will be employed. You heard Penny Madam. She is really angry. She came here to tell me to cut costs and said not to feed you. There’s not enough money from the estate for their own family she says. Is that what she is telling Danny Saheb? That woman how she screams? It’s a wonder that Danny Saheb tolerates her…anybody else would have thrown her out.” Parukutty went into the kitchen and got a small bowl of fish curry and two small pieces of pickle. There,you are. Samy why can’t you tell what she was saying. Was she complaining about me or the expenses of this kitchen?”
Parukutty continued “I tell you no one will be able to run this kitchen and feed so many people with tiniest amount of money like me. I even tend to the vegetable patch and the hens myself. You, Samy understand their language, English. So tell me what she is saying, is she cursing me?
Parukutty was distraught and worried, she too knew no other place than the Bungalow and had spent her childhood hiding in her mother’s skirts, and her mother had been the one of the cooks in the grand old days when Major McKenzie had established the estate. Later when her mother had passed away, Paru had replaced her.
Samy rolled the balls of rice with the curry and swallowed them. Signalling Parukutty for silence and another piece of fish, he said, “Shhh, I will tell you, get me another piece of fish, with less bones and more flesh…why do you give me the tail ends and the bones…..why can’t you save a plump portion for me. I shall tell you what Penny madam is saying, but first get me a good piece, will you?
Parukutty hurried to the kitchen and returned with a piece of fish which she had saved for herself, to hear the account of Samy.
Within a few minutes, Danny Saheb called out, “Samy, where are you? Still eating-- come…come… enough of eating ...Such a glutton, servants will eat us out of home and hearth. Come…. you have to come with me. We have to clear the wild plants near the well.”
Samy quickly finished his meal, drank the black tea and ran with to his boss, saying, “Why are you getting angry at me, Saheb? I am your own, your very own Saheb. Let’s go to Ranjith. He has a teashop just outside your estate. You know that fellow he won a lottery recently his name and picture was in the newspapers. I heard that he got almost 5 lakhs of rupees in the Diwali bumper lottery. I can coax him to give you some money, Saheb. Why is Penny madam so angry at you?’
Even though Samy had understood their conversation, he pretended not to have eavesdropped. Danny did not realize that most of the servants in the estate understood their master’s language, a little bit if not a lot.
Striding with his red hat, Danny cut a dashing figure, the man of the world and the master of the estate. Running to keep up with him, Samy brought up the rear. This two-men army marched to the chai kadda. It was a tiny hut with glass windows and there were two benches outside and a couple of benches with table inside.
The tea drinkers sat outside reading newspapers and the men who wanted a bit of tiffin went inside. The men who were sitting outside were discussing how the Land Act 1960 passed by the government had decimated the estates of the land owners nearby.
On the other hand, Ranjith was hardworking man. He lived with his mother behind the tea shop. His wife had run away eight years ago. It was because they had had no children. Everybody said Ranjith was impotent, no one knew the truth. Ranjith had labored on in the hope that his wife would return one day.
But luck favoured him, he won five lakhs in the lottery. Now Danny Saheb was coming to his shop. His stature in society had increased indeed. On seeing Danny, the men on the benches got up quickly, bowed to the Saheb and left the place.
Danny walked up to Ranjith and held out his hand, in his accented Tamil, “What is this I hear? You lucky man! You have won the lottery. Congratulations, you are blessed indeed”. Ranjith wiped his hand on his towel that hung on his shoulder went ahead and took Danny’s hand with a smile on his face. He said, “Yes Danny Saheb, I am a winner. I came to know about it, a week ago. I had bought the lottery on my way to buy supplies for the tea shop from town. But Saheb, I went to tell my wife about the good news. My father-in-law told me to get lost His daughter it seems, has eloped with their neighbor. What is the use of the money, if I don’t have a wife to share it. My mother is old and dying. What will I do with all riches if no one can share and enjoy it? Saheb, God is unfair to me.”
With a dismal look, he sat on the bench outside the shop and cleaned the side of the bench with his towel and indicated to Danny Saheb to sit there. Samy stood behind Danny Saheb, quietly.
Samy said, “Why are you worried, Ranjith? Danny Saheb is here, he will help you out. He has been our benefactor for so many years. He is a very clever man I am sure he has already found a way to help you. Maybe he will go and talk to your wife himself. When he asks, no woman says no to him.”
Listening to the praises pleased Danny. But his mind was working overtime, trying to grasp all the information and wanting to use it to his advantage, a step ahead of Samy.
He placed his hand on Ranjith’s shoulder and said, “Wait a minute, you went to get your wife back home to find that she has run off with someone else. Oh my God! What this world has come to! She is certainly a bad character. And your father-in-law has chased you away. No…no…no… Ranjith, you need not go to them. You are a rich man, with a business of your own. We can get you a new wife. I will get you a wife, young and beautiful-don’t worry. You need not tolerate insults. I shall solve your problems.”
Saying this, he rose from the bench, “Give me a day or two, I will fix your marriage that quickly,.He snapped his fingers and got up to leave. Ranjith was astounded on hearing this. Many from the estate and the town had met him on hearing of his windfall. They had tried to borrow some money from his winnings. Some advised him to plead with his wife to come back, in lieu for gold bangles and a chain.
But what Danny Saheb proposed was the complete opposite. His words invoked the self-esteem and pride in Ranjith. While Danny marched away, Samy ran behind him, saying “Saheb Saheb – what are you doing? If you are around, Ranjith can’t refuse the money, why are you going away like this?”
“Shhh! said Danny, “You fool, I have a plan; I shall hit two birds with one shot.”
At a distance from the shop and making sure no one was around, Danny told Samy, “You go back to the tea shop and coax Ranjith to accepting my words. He’s desperate enough to accept my help. Assure him that I will get him a wife, a young and beautiful wife.”
Samy turned to Saheb, looking up at him asked, “But who Danny Saheb? Which girl would marry him? Everyone knows he cannot get it up…..he is the butt of all jokes in town, In fact they say his wife had to elope with the neighbour because she was pregnant with his child. That is why she is not coming back.”
Danny Saheb said, “You fool, ask him for thirty thousand rupees, I shall buy two necklaces with that. One will go to Penny and the other will go to Ambili. And Ambili will get a nice, loving and rich husband and the husband will get a ready-made child soon and the estate workers and the town will decide that Ranjith was not impotent at all”.
Samy walked back slowly to Ranjith’s shop, wondering why Danny did not use his ingenuity for better causes.