Jungle Tavern

My father bought Magadi, his first coffee estate, putting together all his life's savings. I was natural for him to stray into planting - though late in life - after experimenting with coffee seed export, and then selling coffee powder, which for some hopeful reason he had named after his son.

I recall the colorful label with a beautiful eagle for a logo and the legend "Maxwell Coffee". Unlike the world famous company marketing coffee with the same brand name, dad's venture brought him losses, forced him to wind up and try his hand at coffee growing.

For us children, the coffee estates opened up vistas of unlimited adventure and fun. Of myths and legends that go with jungles and forests. And an open door into the forests. And an open door into the unknown, the chilly nights lit with fire-flies and disturbed by the screechings of the thousand crickets and other jungle noises.

Among the stories of valour and courage, jungle hunts and misadventures, dad's tales were the best. For he would relate them to the tiger skins adorning the walls, or the bison head high above the mantel-piece, and to the legends built around local myths or reality. The stories woven around our own estate caught our imagination, notwithstanding the fact that parts of it were then beyond our comprehension, at our age.

There was this one about Anderson, the Britisher, who started coffee in these parts a long time ago. The worthy soul had falled a prey to the wiles of Manju, the comely wench at the local gadang or tavern, beside the village waterhole. He was easily bowled over, to make her his companion, a temporary adjustment to ward off his loneliness.

Manju begot the Saheb his offspring Richard and Anthony, whom he packed off for schooling in the Blighty - as would behave the ones in whose veins his blood ran. We learned later that they were themselves doddering old planters, somewhere in the bushlands of Australia.

And Manju, who became the venerable Manjamma-- being the one favoured with the gora saheb's affections - commanded respect as a very special person, with the area around her father's tavern, named for perpetuity in local Kanarese as Manjammana Golla or Manjamma's cove. It was whispered that her ghost still haunted the place on dark nights, with the beckoning light from her chimney lamp summoning her long lost sons back to her waiting bosom.

And hence the golla itself was held in awe, even though the village of Magadi had disappeared, leaving behind the dilapidated ruins of its temple - a mujraiinstitution - and a string of legends to bear witness to its one-time existence. Forests had over-run its lands, sparing only the fertile stretches surrounding the perennial waterhole at the golla, planted with lush green coffee under the thick foliage of ancient trees.

But bordering so close to the forest on one side, this water hole also rewarded those of us who plucked courage to venture into the dark confines of the golla, with rich glimpses of wildlife - of deer, wild boar and even jungle cats, drawn to the place to quench their thirst. A veritable gold mine indeed for a youngster trying his hand at shikar..

And perched atop the branches overhanging the waters, waiting with my muzzle loader for game to carry home. I remember trying to conjure up the tavern on the sloping sides of the golla, of the comely Manju ministering to her fair-skinned lord, or at times, of the forelorn Manjamma in her twilight days waiting for the sons who were snatched form her side at a tender age. And wondering what really happened to her progeny.

Whether in their distant lands -- wherever that be-- they remembered their days in the Indian jungles, and the myths and legends surrounding Manjammana golla. To reminisce in the glow of fireplaces and narrate to their own grandchildren, of those dream days that they left behind.

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Copy Right © Maxwell Pereira: 3725 Sec-23, Gurgaon-122002. You can interact with the author at http:// www.maxwellperira.com and maxpk@vsnl.com

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