Achakka describes the vast Skeffington Coffee Estate, which snakes through the Western Ghats’ landscape and is steeped in local rumor; “nobody knows how large it is or when it was founded,” but there are tales about both, and it has continued to grow for years as “more and more coolies” came to farm there, “till it touched all the hills around our village.” Decrepit, miserable, starving coolies were regularly marched through Kanthapura, past the Kenchamma Temple to the Estate, by the maistri who recruited them from their dried-up, foodless villages.
Achakka cuts to an entirely different setting in this chapter: the Skeffington Coffee Estate near Kanthapura, which exemplifies the exploitative economic relations that form the basis of British colonialism. She describes the Estate in much the same narrative mode as she described Kanthapura in the book’s opening lines: she adopts the viewpoint of an individual traversing the landscape, remarking on the Estate’s vastness and the unknowable nature of its limits.
At the estate, the maistri “banged the gate behind them” and brought them to the Sahib, “a tall, fat man with golden hair.” The Sahib touched seven-year-old Chenna “with the butt of his whip” and started laughing at the crying child, who cried harder and harder as the Sahib laughed harder and harder—until he suddenly brought Chenna a peppermint and explained that “everybody would get a beating when they deserved one and sweets when they worked well,” which the maistri repeated in their native language. The coolies begin worshipping the Sahib as a Maharaja, and the maistri spits in one worker’s face when she asks for pay. The maistri orders them to their huts and the Sahib offers the children candy. The women follow their children, and the maistri beats the men when they follow, too, instead driving them down to their huts at the bottom of the hill.
The Sahib embodies an archetype of British colonial cruelty: he laughs at a small child’s pain because his desire to profit off the coolies’ labor has made him heartless. The Indian maistri in turn represents the numerous Indians who collaborated with the colonial regime and turned against their countrymen for the sake of personal gain. Together, the maistri and sahib govern through terror, treating coolies who voluntarily chose to come to the Estate (albeit under misleading pretenses) as slaves. There is no concept of the coolies’ right to fair treatment, but only of the Sahib’s absolute right to treat them however he wishes because he has financial power over them.
The coolies spend the night repairing their huts and begin cleaning their environs in the morning, but the maistri runs down and shouts at them to work. One coolie named Papamma begins to read from the Ramayana but hears a “crunch of feet;” the coolies return to work and another coolie yells that there is a snake, and the rest rush to look. Pariah Siddayya says not to worry about cobras, who are harmless unless attacked, and sits to tell the story of a snake he calls the Maharaja, which hid in the Sahib’s drawer and slithered away when the Sahib fetched his pistol.
The coolies, like the Kanthapura villagers, congregate around traditional stories. Siddayya’s deep knowledge of the estate’s ways and snakes recalls Achakka’s deep knowledge of Kanthapura; both characters are elders where they live and sustain the history of their places through memory.
Water snakes are harmless, Pariah Siddayya explains, but green snakes often blend in with bamboo leaves. A coolie named Sankamma once reached out and grabbed one while collecting cow-dung, but luckily it slithered away and “left a palm’s-width of poison on the ground.” The flying snakes are “another monster,” although they prefer cardamom to coffee and have killed many a “cardamom-garden coolie.” Just the other day, coolie Ramayya was delivering the maistri’s bicycle via a mountain road and ran over a cobra by mistake—he fled, and so did the cobra. “Never,” Siddayya assures the coolies, “has a cobra bitten an innocent man.”
The snakes who only attack evildoers represent a certain kind of poetic justice enforced by the land and its animals. The fact that Ramayya is forced to walk rather than ride the maistri’s bicycle demonstrates how access to transportation across the land mirrors different characters’ social status in this book.
“Chennayya’s Dasappa” is the only one who has died by cobra bite—six months after he overconfidently “poked and poked” his stick into a cobra’s hole, one slithered into his hut and bit him, but spared his family. Siddayya continues telling stories and watching out for the maistri as the coolies chew tobacco and betel leaves. Suddenly, without a sound, “the maistri’s cane has touched” three of them. Everyone goes back to work until nightfall, and then again in the morning.
Siddayya suggests that Dasappa deserved to be bitten after disturbing the cobra’s home; disrupting the natural order of things invites vengeance from the natural world. The maistri disrupts Siddayya’s speech to the others, which is dangerous to the estate’s owners not only because the coolies are not working but also because they are assembling to hear ideas that are different from their masters’.
The coolies perspire endlessly in the heavy afternoon sun, and suddenly “a gurgle and grunt” emanates from the trees, growing to “swallow up the whole sky” and startle animals throughout the valley. “The earth itself seems to heave up and cheep in the monsoon rains,” soaking the coolies and surprising those who are new to the mountains.
The monsoon rains offer a break in both the narrative’s structure and the coolies’ endless, backbreaking labor. They also demonstrate that natural forces can still overwhelm human ones.
“Three nights and four days” later, when the rain stops, everyone returns to work beside three children and two women who get a high fever that goes down the next morning, but they still feel dizzy and nauseated. Siddayya remarks that this fever is common, and people can even work with it—but they could not, and the Sahib gives them pills that Siddayya says not to take, for they work in the Sahib’s country “but he does not know our country, does he?”
The Sahib’s pills are intended to help the coolies recover, but only for the sake of getting them to return to work. The pills represent the intervention of colonial technology in India, and the coolies’ are accordingly reluctant to use them; “[their] country” is governed by nature and gods rather than rulers and technology.
One of the ill asks who the local goddess is and then makes a small charm to Kenchamma; she wakes up without fever, but one of the children gets worse and worse despite the offering. Madanna, the child’s father, worries that if he uses the pills then “Kenchamma would not forgive him.” The child becomes delirious, the coolies call the Sahib, and the child dies in the Sahib’s arms. The Sahib whips Madanna and makes everyone take six pills a day. Some agree, but others throw them away. The southwest rain goes and the northeast wind comes, “whilst the fevers still came and went” and many more coolies, including Madanna’s second child, pass away.
Kenchamma clearly protects all the land around Kanthapura, and not just the villagers whose families have lived there for generations. When the coolies are forced to choose between colonial technology and local traditions, they side with the people they trust: other Indians, rather than their employer. The pills then become a means of punishment, coming to symbolize the colonial coercion that the coolies initially feared they constituted.
Pariah Rangayya wants them to make off with their money and start their own farms down the valley, but Siddayya laughs him off, for “he knew that when one came to the Blue Mountain one never left it.” In part, this is because they drink much of their money away with the “white frothy toddy” and spend the rest on “marriages and deaths and festivals and caste-dinners” and finer food and fuel and livestock.
Siddayya reveals the Estate’s most sinister secret: everything is designed to keep the coolies indentured there for as long as possible. By making sure that the coolies only ever incur further debt, the Sahib effectively transforms them into slaves.
In ten years nobody has gone back; the old Sahib died and was been replaced by his nephew, the new Sahib, who has brought more coolies but treats them kindly—except that the women “know they have to go away” to spend their nights with him, and know that their husbands and fathers will lose their salaries if they refuse to send their female family members. As a brahmin, Seetharam refuses to send his daughter, and the new Sahib shoots him in the stomach. The court orders the Sahib to pay Seetharam’s family, which he never does, and then “the Red-Man’s Court forgave him.” But the coolies now know that “he’ll never touch a brahmin girl” and he barely uses violence to coerce any of them anymore.
Although Achakka suggests that the new Sahib is better to the coolies, he simply replaces physical violence against the men with sexual violence against the women. The fact that the colonial government never enforces its case against the new Sahib demonstrates that the legal system is deeply biased toward British elites and reluctant to take any action that interferes with the growing plantation system—it exists to protect the colonizers’ economic interests. Finally, caste remains a powerful force within the Skeffington Estate: after Seetharam’s murder, only brahmin women get protected.
When Badè Khan came to the Estate, the new Sahib figured he would be useful. In fact, the brahmin clerks Gangadhar and Vasudev ignore the policeman and the rest of the coolies follow suit—they decide to help the pariahs learn to read and write, and there is nothing Badè Khan can do about it, for “what is a policeman before a Gandhi’s man?”
The new Sahib sees Badè Khan as an enforcer to help him prevent the coolies from rebelling, but the Kanthapura villagers see the coolies as a great asset in the fight against colonialism. Achakka’s final line suggests that the ideology of nonviolence is likely to beat out physical strength in the fight for independence.