Me with my staff in Lower Sheikalmudi Estate, Anamallais

In the plantation world we had two cadres of staff: Covenanted and Non-covenanted. Covenanted Staff started at Assistant Manager (or Assistant Superintendent) and Non-covenanted staff ended at that level. There were very few exceptions to this ‘rule’ and where they existed, you could tell them a mile away. This system was an outcome of the fact that the British planters who ‘opened’ the plantations and for almost a century later, were all army-men, almost to the last one. They implemented the Army/Military system of Officer Staff and NCOs in the plantations also. The ‘glass ceiling’ was made of toughened, almost armored glass and was very rarely penetrated and never broken. Interestingly the same system exists in India, in the army and police (IPS Direct Recruits) to this day.

The pecking order of the servants in the bungalow was that the butler was on the top, followed by the Chokra (a Hindustani word with a derogatory tone which literally means ‘urchin’). This worthy was the assistant of the butler who did all the cleaning, scrubbing, and polishing work in the bungalow. Then there was the gardener who did all the work outside. If you had a cow, there was the cow-keeper. There was the dhobi (washer man) who washed and ironed your clothes. All these for you as the Assistant Manager in South Indian gardens. I am informed that Managers in Assam and Bengal had more servants and bigger bungalows.

When you got promoted and went to the Big Bungalow, you got an additional servant inside the bungalow and a driver for your car. The pecking order remained the same. The pecking order was very strictly followed. Almost always the only person you spoke to or who spoke to you was the butler. He was the one who handled the money. You would give it to him, to give to the others or to the provision merchant from whom food for the bungalow was bought on credit. Credit played a major role in life as most assistants had no money. Many who liked high living had club bar bills that took up most of their salaries and so they lived on credit. This was obviously an evil because apart from the obvious reasons, many butlers set up their own kickback systems as a result. It was a given that you would pay more for provisions than other people but that was the burden of being the Chinna Dorai (Small Boss). Some managers were very stingy and corrupt and set up systems of gratuity and underhand payment in kind that they would write off to some estate expense or the other. These systems were well learnt by their subordinates who added to these systems of subterfuge and deception and ran a very corrupt ‘ship’ as it were.

One cardinal fact of plantation life always took its toll – nothing in planting life was private. If you took a bribe, its exact amount, who gave it, and for what, was the subject of much conversation in the bazaar. If you refused to be corrupt and lived a life of honesty, that also became common knowledge. The result was that the actual love and respect that you received from the workers and staff was directly proportional to the kind of life you lived. And in the end, it affected your own success, the loyalty that people showed you, and the peace of mind you lived with. People spoke with great respect about managers who were incorruptible and with disgust and disdain about managers who were corrupt. And in a place where you were the subject of most conversation, public opinion made a very big difference to your success as a Manager.

Most people understood the responsibility and meaning of being ‘Covenanted Staff’ and that it was precisely the superior moral position that gave them the ‘command authority’ that neither any special educational qualifications nor social order bestowed on them. They understood the importance of these unwritten rules and respected them. But there were others who abused this position much to everyone’s disgust. They didn’t realize until too late that the resultant loss of respect was the most expensive loss they would ever suffer and something that was never redeemable. People spoke disparagingly about such managers who stole or womanized or got drunk and made fools of themselves and the resultant loss of respect plagued them in their administrative duties. In my decade in planting, I had the opportunity to see both kinds. People for whom I developed the highest respect and those for whom pity, and contempt were the only emotions possible. But the saddest was when some of those who I respected the most showed that their previously uncompromising principles were okay to compromise when it came to what they thought was good for their own careers. They supported someone who was clearly corrupt on the plea that he was able to ‘get results’. I went through a lot of anguish trying to convince them that to get business results you don’t need to be corrupt, but to no avail. What hurt was that these very same people were the ones who spoke about integrity and the importance of never compromising values. So, what happened to that? I guess this was a part of my own growing up to accept that my idols had feet of clay which stank.

To be disillusioned is never easy. To see that your leaders who spoke very strongly about values buckled under when it came to stand by them and sided with the corrupt instead of standing up against corruption, only made me pity them and accept their weakness. It also strengthened me. I have been stubborn with my principles and have learnt from experience that the price you pay to live by your principles, no matter how painful it may seem, is always much less than what it costs to compromise them. Once you compromise your principles, you can never look those who you used to inspire, in the eye. Maybe some can live with that shame. I can’t. I am grateful that there were others who stood by me and that I never compromised my own principles and ethics. I paid the price by making enemies who did their best to hurt me in every way. That they didn’t succeed was the grace of Allah and not a measure of my own strength or the support of anyone else. I learnt the lesson that if you want to lead you must learn to like being alone. For the tiger walks alone while sheep have plenty of company. We define ourselves and world accepts that definition. Who am I to argue with how you define yourself?

Traditionally, like in the army, there has always been a social distance between the Managers and other staff. There is social interaction, but in a very formalized and rule bound way. Most of it is restricted to ceremonial occasions around festivals. The Manager was the ‘Headman’ of the estate and was expected to be completely secular to the extent that he was supposed to preside at all festivals irrespective of his or the celebrator’s religion. We had Hindu and Christian Managers presiding at Eid celebrations and Muslim Managers flagging off the cart bearing the deity at temple festivals. This tradition came out of the history of plantation labor almost all of whom were Dalit and in their own homelands, were not allowed into temples as they were considered ‘untouchable.’ But in the plantations, thanks to the fact that they were all displaced and almost all from the same caste, they created their own religious customs. So many temples in the plantation districts have Dalit priests, an anomaly in itself. Later, some Brahmin priests who were perhaps short of money in their hometowns started to come and preside at the temple, but the shots were called by the Dalits who built the temple and paid their salary. So, Dalits could not be prevented from entering the temple and were treated respectfully by the Brahmin priest. That is why the religion of the Manager didn’t matter; by definition, a Christian or a Muslim were untouchable in the Hindu caste system anyway. But in a world comprised of untouchables, everyone was touchable.

The Managers were initially all British, Christian, and white and lived by their own traditions which were more British Military than Christian. Many of them were only nominally practicing Christians for whom the daily pilgrimage to the local Planter’s Club bar was more sacrosanct than weekly attendance at the Church. Over the years, more out of necessity than ‘equal opportunity,’ the British planters started recruiting Indians to the ‘Covenanted Staff’ cadre because British youngsters were not willing to go out to India. These people came from upper class families, sometimes local nobility (which is how we had a number of Hyderabadis from the noble families of erstwhile Hyderabad State). The key, non-negotiable requirement was social acceptability. The logic was that everything else could be taught. But Covenanted Staff needed to be people who held themselves apart and considered themselves somewhat superior to others. To give this a positive spin, it was probably not racism alone but the need for the Officer Cadre to have the moral authority to command. However, there was a thin line which a lot of times got very faint indeed.

These people and their families automatically got membership in the Planter’s Club and were strictly supposed to follow tradition. Almost everyone did to the extent that many even spoke their own languages with a British accent. I used to have a very hard time trying to keep a straight face when I heard emanating from a black Tamilian face the words, “Angamootoo yenge da irkain??” in a very British accent. Those of my readers who know Tamil can probably imagine how funny this would sound. There is a very funny story about one of these black-outside-white-inside managers driving to visit another manager friend in an estate where he was not familiar with the roads. He stops his car and calls out to a worker who was walking down the road, “Dey, payyan inge wa da. Inda wali yenge pohudoo?” The man, obviously irritated replied, “Dorai inda wali nayra Englandu ku pohudoo” (Sir this road goes straight to England). Once again those who know Tamil will see how highly disrespectful this entire conversation is towards the worker. There is nothing more pathetic than someone who disrespects his own people and imagines himself to be superior and different because of his pretensions.

This internalization of British tradition is exemplified to this day in the fact that while the racist signs (Dogs and Indians not allowed) have come down the ‘formal dress’ in most ex-British Clubs is still lounge suit or dinner jacket and if you, Mr. Indian, make the mistake of imagining that your country’s national dress is more holy and come dressed in it, you will be stopped at the door of the Club lounge and told politely that you will be able to sit on the veranda. But if you entertained any hope of having dinner in the formal dining room you would have to go home and get changed into ‘decent’ clothes. At last count, it has been over sixty years since we became ‘independent’ from the British. As I always tell people, nobody can enslave you. You enslave yourself. And you have nobody in the world to blame for it. We Indians are particularly good at this voluntary enslavement. At the time of this writing, we are very busy exchanging traditional British chains for American ones. But seeing that the British have themselves done that already, it is hardly surprising that their erstwhile colonials are following suit, never having truly shed the colonial baggage themselves.

I remember with amusement my first job interview in 1978 with the Kannan Devan Tea Company (now Tata Tea) in Munnar, Kerala. I was asked to report one day prior to the date of the interview. An old friend, who was an Assistant Manager and knew the ropes, told me that this was to see if the candidates would fit the social scene. I was to wear a tie and lounge suit, he said. We would start in the Men’s Bar and after the drinks were over, we would be asked into the dining room to have dinner which we would have all together. While we did this, different people would come and talk to us. And all this would be observed and would count in our favor or against us in the interview the next day.

Sure enough, that evening we were asked to present ourselves at the High Range Club, sharp at 7.00 pm. About twelve of us in various styles of suits and ties found ourselves in the Men’s Bar (women not allowed). We were asked what we drank. When it came to my turn, I said that I would like to have a soft drink. People looked at me with various expressions; the barman with pity, fellow contestants with derisive smiles, and other inhabitants of the bar with a variety of expressions related to whether they thought I was a poor fool, uncultured, or just plainly idiotic. To put the record straight, someone in the meanwhile gave me a fresh lime soda.

As I sat there (I was all of twenty-two years old) wondering about the job that I had applied for and what drinking alcohol had to do with it, I heard a loud, “Hello there!” I looked up to see a florid red face in a body without a neck and a large smile looking at me. “So you don’t drink, eh?” he asked. Seeing that I was drinking a fresh lime soda (what else can you do with an FLS?) and that he could see what I was doing, I decided to keep silent and simply smiled and nodded. Smiling and nodding is an excellent strategy to allow people to interpret whatever they want.

“Tell me something young fellow,” he said, “Do you play cricket?”

I said that I did, but others who played with me wished that I didn’t.

Then he asked me, “Are you a Mason?” At that time, not being aware of the Free Masons Society I thought he wanted to know if I could build walls. “No, I’m not,” I said.

He looked me up and down with a sad expression on his face and said, “You don’t drink, you don’t play cricket, and you are not a Mason. Boy! You don’t have a chance.” Then looking at my face once again, he said, “Anyway, don’t worry, I am not on the recruitment panel.”

As it turned out, that did not make any difference to the outcome since those who were on the panel had the same views. I was asked a lot of questions about everything other than planting tea and given the ‘kiss of death’ – “Thank you very much, we will get back to you.” In plain English this means, “We are very glad that we are seeing the back of you.”

Thinking back over this incident, what is clear to me is the principle behind this method. In a place with a limited population (you did not count the estate staff and God Forbid, the workers as people) that you could socialize with, it was essential that you hired people who were socially acceptable. So social values that matched those of the locals had overwhelming importance. The skills of tea plantation management were all trainable. On the other hand, eating at table using the right fork for the right meat, drinking yet not getting drunk, making conversation that was inane yet interesting, dancing with the manager’s wife and so on were all skills that were either thought to be not trainable or too much trouble. So British managers (including their acolytes, the Brown Sahibs) hired young people from backgrounds that were socially acceptable to them and then trained them for job related skills, on the job. I obviously didn’t match and so was rejected.

The Sahib’s prediction was right, even though he was not on the panel. Brown Sahibs were always more conscious of snobbery; who wanted a fellow who neither drank nor played cricket? The British indoctrinated Indians so well in what was ‘decent, socially acceptable, and respectable’ that Indians adopted their ways as their own. Take the issue of clothing for example. Even though India has its own national and regional attire, the official attire for all ‘business, formal, decent’ occasions is Western clothes. Even today, nobody in their right mind would even dream of going for a job interview in an Indian company, knowing full well that the hiring manager is also Indian and that there is not a British person on the rolls of the company, in anything but Western clothes. And if he did turn up in a dhoti-kurta or a sherwani (the national attire of India), it is more than likely that he would not be hired for that reason alone – over sixty years after our official Independence from British colonial rule.

People adopt new standards because they like them and see them as adding value to them. Even when it can be argued in some cases that there is no real value addition, as long as people feel that there is, they will take to the new standard. The British, in order to demean Indians, made their doormen dress like Maharajas, in a Sherwani and turban. Sadly, to this day, this is the dress of our doormen at most hotels.

The most common lament that I hear today has to do with the fast disappearing “Eastern/Indian values,” which are being replaced by Western Pop culture. We tend to blame various agents for this, the chief being TV. My question is, “Why is it that our ancient cultures and their values are so weak that they are so easily replaced by some silly trend popularized on TV?” Blaming is of no use to anyone. What we need to do is to ask these questions and find answers, no matter how painful the process. Why is it that we and the generation before ours have not been able to communicate and sell the values we talk about so nostalgically to our children? What have we done in our own lives to reinforce those values? To what extent are we responsible for creating the exposure to the values we criticize? For example, we complain that our children do nothing but watch TV serials, music videos with all their shamelessness, and play Nintendo and other video games. But we never ask ourselves, “Who bought the TV, the Nintendo Game Controller, and the cable connection?” Do we sit with the children after they have watched something to analyze that program and derive its learnings? Do we spend time to understand what it is that they like about programs that we disapprove of? In short, do we have a conversation with our children? Or are we seen as mobile ATM machines that can be manipulated to get money to do what the kids want to do and can then be ignored until the next urge surfaces?

For more please read my book, ‘It’s my Life’, available on Amazon worldwide