"Top secret”, read the double-sealed envelope. Inside, there was a letter to the Madras Government from the CCA at the office of the Chief Secretary, asking politely for a promotion. To even the handful of top bureaucrats who had ever heard of it, the CCA was a figure shrouded in mystery — Chief Confidential Assistant — some believed, who engaged in things best for a smart bureaucrat not to make inquiries about. It wasn’t until the 1960s, when the letter arrived that an investigation into the inscrutable job began, and the smokescreen around one of the Second World War’s great mysteries was fanned away.
In the early 1940s, Nazi Germany’s submarine fleet began to savage convoys headed across the Atlantic Ocean, carrying weapons, ordnance, food and Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s beloved Havana cigars. Faced with the prospect of Great Britain’s wartime commander being lost to nicotine withdrawals, or so the story goes, the Madras Governor stepped in, using his special powers under the Defence of India Rules.
The CCA — Churchill’s Cigar Assistant, an English-speaking cigar taster — was tasked with discreetly obtaining the finest Trichinopoly cigars, and ensuring they made their way to 10 Downing Street.
Every great product is built with legends. The Tank de Cartier watch was inspired, so it’s claimed, by the Renault FT — the revolutionary French battle tank that helped the Allies slice through five German divisions at Amiens in 1918, and head on to the gates of victory. Moleskine may not have been around all that long, but the Italian company wants you to believe that every notebook you buy has a lineage dating back to Vincent van Gogh and Ernest Hemingway. For a certain kind of Cuban cigar aficionado, the myth that they are rolled on the thighs of virgin women has always been part of the allure.
Even though the rough-edged Trichy cigar has its critics — crime writer Dorothy Sayers’ detective Lord Wimsey sips on his port, while disparaging “a fellow who polluted it with a Trichinopoly” — there are few Indian products with the same mythic credentials. In 1887, Arthur Conan Doyle had Sherlock Holmes provide Scotland Yard with this description of a suspect: “He was more than six feet high, was in the prime of life, had small feet for his height, wore coarse, square-toed boots and smoked a Trichinopoly cigar.”
Fenn Thompson & Co — along with Hunter & Co, John Mayer and others with names similarly redolent with Trichy’s great British heritage — once supplied customers across the Empire. The company is now the only surviving producer of the Trichy.
Founded in 1900 by Solai Thevar, Fenn Thompson was one of several cigar manufacturers founded in present-day Tiruchirappalli by enterprising Indians who understood the power of branding. “All of them were run by Indians but since we catered to the British, we needed English names,” says V Vasudevan, Fenn Thompson’s proprietor.
Photographs and catalogues recording Fenn Thompson’s story give some insight into the Trichy’s glory decades. A pre-Independence brochure, yellowed with age but carefully laminated, shows the company once offered the Light of India — “a very mild smoke”— that was priced at a princely `0.50 per 1,000. There were the Havana-blend Major Coronas, the La Corona, and even Lady Love, at `0.8 per 100.
Vasudevan says the company was one of the few that would send cigars for Churchill, but there is no way of verifying this. “There was a time when every second household here had a cigar connection. Today, the families have shut shop, but still live well off the fortune they made,” he says, while grumbling about the GST.
The tobacco used in Fenn Thompson’s cigars, sourced from nearby Dindigul, is fermented for a couple of years in distilled juices of fruits like apple, orange pineapple and grape, mixed with jaggery and honey.
Cigar-making is a labour-intensive process with much of the work being done by hand. Finding labourers willing to put in the 16-hour days needed to produce the cigars is hard. Fenn Thompson has only three labourers making cigars today, down from more than twenty at its peak.
“Everyone aspires to a white-collar job today. There are hotels and malls where they prefer to work,” says R Amin of 222 Beedi Factory in Tiruchirappalli. His family was never in the cigar business, but he too faces the same issues, as far as labour is concerned. There are, understandably, fears about the long-term sustainability of the business. “I will continue this forward but I also like civil engineering. So I don’t really know,” says Vasudevan’s 20-year-old son V Rathnavel.
Vasudevan says Fenn Thompson is the only Indian cigar-making company — a claim that has some merit, but doesn’t necessarily add the kind of cachet the country’s small cigar-smoking community craves.
In 2010, ITC launched Armenteros, a premium ‘hand-rolled’ cigar brand. Armenteros’ advertising waxes eloquent about the crafting of the cigar with everything sourced from the best growing regions of the world, including tobaccos from Nicaragua, Brazil, Peru, etc. Suffice to say Vasudevan’s cigars are not quite in the same league. Today, Fenn Thompson has a variety of cigars on offer, though not as numerous as in the company’s heyday. There is, of course, the Churchill Special, as well as Black Tiger which enjoys a certain level of popularity in the country’s cigar circles. The cigars now come in a teakwood box with a seal of the company. Sale is on order only.
“We do not rely on the usage of fancy words to sell our product. We have customers who have been loyal to us for generations and now — thanks to the internet — a lot of orders are coming in, first out of curiosity and then because they like the flavour,” says Vasudevan.
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