The last time I saw Dharmam would have been about fifty years ago. I don’t think we ever exchanged a single word in conversation. And yet, the memory of who he was, and his professional contribution, have remained fresh in my mind.
In the late 1960s, Dharmam
worked on Prospect, one of the four estates of the Estates and Agency Company
(E&A, a company with its head office in London). It was one of the most
prestigious estates in the Nilgiri District, its tea among the highest priced
at the auctions. Thirty years later, when I visited Prospect to show my family
the beautiful home I had lived in as a child, it was in a state of utter
decline. I felt bemused by the changes, but gratified to learn that people
still remembered my father, Bob Savur. Hoping to find one of the old-timers
still around, scouring my memory for names, I asked after Dharmam. Sadly, nobody
knew where he had moved to.
In 2019, I began working with M Ravindran, a former colleague of my dad’s at Prospect, on a book about the good old days, An Elephant Kissed My Window. Memories began to surface, and prominent among them was Dharmam.
What was the reason
for my vivid recall? Why did his name and persona stand out so sharply,
unobscured by the many eventful years since then? I soon began to realise that Dharmam’s work
was essential not just to production but also to quality of life, since, along
with being in charge of maintaining the factory machinery, he was also
responsible for the estate vehicles, the civil and electrical upkeep of estate
properties, and the estate’s water supply. And, Dharmam was not someone who
restricted himself to maintenance. He embraced his work with the joy of inventive
genius, and those I interviewed spoke with respect of his creative recycling. He
is still remembered for the winch system at High Forest Estate, Mudis, which
sent bags of leaf using a wire rope-pulley system to the factory. At Prospect,
he created a pond on a hill and laid pipes that conveyed water around the
estate. When the estate hired a bulldozer from outside the Nilgiris to construct
India’s first green tea factory, Dharmam, always one to optimise the use of
resources, persuaded my dad that they could use it convert the meadow near the
staff club into a football ground, which they did. Dharmam’s contribution
extended far beyond estate functionalities: he had crafted baking trays,
piggybanks, even barstools, from scrap. My brother Ravi and I had a car he had
assembled from tin sheets and bicycle pedals which we could actually ride in.
It had an axle connected to a real steering wheel and a loud honking horn which
once belonged to a lorry.
|View of the High Forest Factory from his home
photo taken by Dharmam and provided by his son Rajappa
These memories and insights filled me with determination to somehow locate Dharmam’s children and send them copies of The Elephant Kissed My Window. No one at the Prospect office knew where he was, but continuous phone follow-ups resulted in a few leads. When my disgracefully inadequate Tamil became an obstacle, a kind classmate made the calls and eventually came back with the full names of Dharmam’s sons. This gave me hope, as the names are unusual, and it was a moment of delight to find Rajappa Charles on LinkedIn: he was Chief Engineer at St Stephen’s Hospital in Delhi. It took only a few eager phone calls to the hospital to get Rajappa’s number. And to learn from him that he had left Delhi and retired to Nagercoil – and that his father lived with him.
Dharmam grew up in Nagercoil, and studied at the Scott Christian High School (a college now). After his matriculation, he did a diploma in mechanical engineering and joined Pioneer Transports, the first company to start a bus service in South India. He was sent to Chennai for diesel engine training and was in the first batch of the prestigious Perkins Diesel Engine institute.
|PA Charles (left) with a colleague
After a break when he suffered a debilitating attack of typhoid, Dharmam joined E&A’s High Forest, where his father PA Charles was Tea Maker, as Mechanic. There he completed an electrical supervisory course, and was promoted to Electrical Supervisor. When my father, manager of High Forest at the time, was transferred to Prospect, he made sure that Dharmam was transferred there too. Dharmam’s wife, Helen, was a much-loved teacher on the estate schools. Their last posting was at Seaforth Estate, O Valley, during which Dharmam retired and stayed on for the few years she continued working.
Dharmam and his family was one of my greatest joys of An Elephant Kissed My
Window. In December 2019, I met his son Bimal and grandson Dharun in
Chennai. Bimal, who has a Masters’ in Public Health from London School of
Economics, was CEO of Christian Medical Association of India. After 35 years of
non-stop travel all over India and many other countries, he retired in 2020.
Sadly, I would never
make it to visit Dharmam in Nagercoil, as he passed away just three weeks short
of his ninety-second birthday.
RIP Charles Dharma
Sundara Raj (30 April 1929 – 9 April 2021)
This tribute was written for Planters' Chronicle April 2021 issue