They sit there, alone and lonely, knowing that there is nobody to carry the tradition forward to the next generation.
was a time when joint families were the norm in India, where the whole family
lived together in one big house. In many or most cases there was only one
kitchen, and everyone ate together. The head of the family was the oldest male.
In matrilineal systems (mostly in Kerala and coastal Karnataka) it was the
oldest woman. He/she controlled all the money, and everyone gave their earnings
to her. She/he ran the house and with great parsimony and responsibility and
ensured that everyone was taken care of. There was no question of one sibling
who earned well, flaunting his or her wealth over the others. Everyone had a
place, and everyone was useful until their dying day. The elders, as they got
older and no longer took an active part in running the household, became highly
respected and valued repositories of customs and traditions, storytellers, the
passers-on of family history and the arbiters in any disputes among the younger
generations. Nobody was useless or irrelevant or put out to grass. Everyone had
a place and an important role and felt wanted and needed.
as time passed and times changed, so did this structure. Families broke up as
children left the family home, city and country in search of jobs and in
pursuit of their careers. Many migrated to other countries, America being one
of the most preferred destinations. Even those who remained at ‘home’, usually
moved away from the family home, ostensibly to be closer to the workplace or
children’s school but really to get away from the control of elders. Cultural
values changed, tolerance levels changed, selfishness increased, putting self
before others took the place of putting the family ahead of the self. We in
India, tend to blame all this on the influence of the West in our society and
culture, forgetting of course that the West didn’t enforce their influence. We
chose to be influenced. Be that as it may, the fact remains that the first
people to feel this change were the elders. They lost significance. They
suddenly became powerless, almost an unwanted nuisance that others were putting
up with. And then as the younger generations moved away, they were left alone.
What added to this was that many of the younger generation migrated to the West
and their children were born and brought up there, often with little or no
contact with the ‘home country’. ‘Home country’ for them was America or
Australia or Canada; not India, Pakistan, Syria, Nigeria, Egypt or Bangladesh.
Most children didn’t even speak their ‘mother tongue’, since their parents
spoke English even at home and didn’t teach their children the language of
their ‘home country’ and people. Language is the substrate of the culture, so
when the language was lost, so was the culture, manners, poetry, history and
connection with the elders.
‘solution’ that many well-meaning children have found is to set their parents
up in their home country/city/town/village, often in the old family home, with
servants and a regular income. There they stay, with their memories, each
corner and wall with a tale to tell but with nobody to listen to those tales.
They are repositories of the history of the family, traditions of the community
and culture, teachers of customs and manners but with nobody to learn from
them. They sit there, alone and lonely, knowing that there is nobody to carry
the tradition forward to the next generation. And what’s more, knowing that the
next generation doesn’t even care about this. They sit there, alone and lonely,
knowing that they have become irrelevant. They don’t need material wealth. They
want for nothing materially. What they need is warmth, respect and the company
of those they love. What they need is to feel useful, needed and appreciated.
What they need is to feel that they still have a place and a reason to stay
alive. What they need can’t be bought with money, nor ordered on Amazon. I am
not blaming the youth. This is perhaps the price we pay for the material wealth
and wherewithal that we chased. A price that neither our parents, who
encouraged us to sail to foreign shores calculated, nor did we realize that we
would have to pay it one day. But life is relentless and extracts its pound of
was born into a joint family in a house, Aziz Bagh, which my great-grandfather,
Nawab Aziz Jung Bahadur built in 1899. His children, grandchildren and
great-grandchildren all lived in their own apartments, but all lived together
in every sense of the term. I recall my early childhood vividly today, more
than 55 years later. The house is on three acres of land and during my
childhood, had a formal rose garden, lawns, a tennis court, pigeon cotes, a
terrace where family functions would take place, a dhobi ghat (where our
resident washerman and his wife would wash clothes of our family and were paid
for the service) and lots of huge mango trees. Out of all these what I recall
most warmly is the love that I received. It was not only me but all of us
children growing up, it was as if we belonged to every adult in the house.
There was no feeling of strangeness. Any adult took care of you, corrected you,
even gave you a smack on your bottom if you needed it. We ate with the family
of whichever cousin we were playing with. Nobody told us to go ‘home’ to our
parents to eat and believe it or not, the food was always enough for the
unexpected guests that we were in that house.
elders taught us manners. Not in formal classes but through their own behavior.
They knew that children listen with their eyes. They don’t care what you say
until they see what you do. One of the informal rituals was that daily we,
especially the little ones went to the main house where the head of our family,
Nawab Deen Yar Jung lived, to greet him and his wife. One day when I must have
been about five-years old, I went there to greet my grandmother, Begum Deen Yar
Jung, with a rose which I had plucked from the garden. Normally this was
frowned upon. Flowers were to be enjoyed on the bushes, not to be plucked. But
I was five. As I went up to her, she said to me something which was so full of
love (even if it was a reminder not to pluck flowers) that I recall her memory
to this day.
Phool lay kar phool aya,
Phool kar main nay kaha,
Phool kyon laye ho sahab,
Tum khud hi tho phool ho
don’t claim to have remembered the exact words, but my mother was with me and I
recall hearing this story from her many times until I memorized these words. My
grandmother and her sisters, brothers and their children; my mother and her
siblings and cousins were all, each in themselves, examples of grace and
dignity. We loved them, respected them and tried to emulate them. Our current
success or failure in this respect is entirely our responsibility and not their
is not just sad but tragic to see the ‘interaction’ that happens sometimes between
grandparents and their grandchildren who were born and grew up in the West. You
can see both making a great effort but in vain. The older ones usually make much
more effort than the youngsters who like most of their generation are short on
patience, especially towards the elderly who they were never taught to respect
and don’t really have any bonds with. Distance and cost of travel had a big
part to play. Travel to America or Australia is neither quick nor inexpensive
and not what children or their parents could afford at the time when the
grandchildren were young and impressionable. By the time they have the money to
afford to travel with the family either way the children are already grown and
the only impact that the ‘home country’ has on them is, “O My God! Look at the
dirt, traffic, mosquitos, cows on the street, smoke, power outage, Wi-Fi is so
slow or God Forbid, No Wi-Fi.” Meeting grandparents, talking to them (about
what? Old stories about people they didn’t know, long dead, whose names even
they can’t pronounce?), eating food (It is so hot!) and then getting sick.
Well, all that means is that one visit is about all that those children will do
willingly. Then they are off to college and that is that. Believe me, I have
seen this story so many times, that it is not funny. Parents going to live in
the West is equally tragic. They don’t fit in; they have no friends and how
much TV can you watch especially when it doesn’t have your favorite programs?
For many it is almost like being in prison, albeit a gilded one. And for the
children who went to the trouble of bringing them to live with them in America
or Australia or Canada, it is a huge let down. Relationships sour and get
strained. Misery all around.
adds to the difficulty is that the grandchildren and grandparents don’t have a
common language (especially the grandmothers) and where the elders speak
English it is naturally with an accent, which for most Western youth is a
matter of either amusement or irritation. Since the youngsters grew up in the
Western culture, they are clueless about social taboos. Parents are either too
busy to teach or don’t see the point as they have broken off from their ‘home
country and culture’ permanently and have little respect for it. The youngsters
are therefore ignorant about things that their grandparents may well expect
them to know about. For example, I have seen innumerable times, grandchildren
sprawled on a couch with their sneakered feet on a table on which there are
also books and pointing towards the grandfather who is sitting across them.
Even worse, I have seen children putting their schoolbags on the floor of the
car or bus they are travelling in and sitting with their shod feet on them. I
won’t go into the details of how many social taboos are crossed and how this
behavior in our Eastern cultures amounts to gross disrespect. Those who
understand what I am saying, will see my point. Those who don’t, underline and
illustrate it. Gradually the gap between the older and younger generations
grows into a gaping gulf, too wide to bridge. Too many compromises are called
for; too much of new learning which there is neither the time for nor patience
and people related by blood and genes become strangers to one another. Each is
helpless in his own way. Each is lonely surrounded by his own family.
has now come full circle for our generation. Those who left their homes,
cultures, countries and families and lived and worked in alien environments. It
is now time to consider our own relevance to the next generation. Do they need
us? Can we communicate with them? Do they understand us, and do we understand
them? Are there any real connections between us apart from the fact that we
share genes? Genes have no feelings; we do. What will happen to us when we sit
in the chairs that our parents spent their last hours of life in, staring at
blank walls? I realize that perhaps I am being a bit dramatic but better to be
prepared than to be sorry.
is a solution and I am going to tell you about it in my next post.
This is a new initiative that I started this week. Leadership is a Personal Choice. It will be available on Google Podcasts (Android) also. Please listen to the introduction first which tells you what this is all about and what I am trying to persuade you to do. Then listen to the first episode, Differentiate. This and more to come, are the essence and extract of my own experience as a Leadership Development expert, gained over 35 years, on 3 continents, working with people of multiple races, religions, communities and nationalities.
This is my tribute to all those who contributed to my growth, all those who taught me life lessons and gave me opportunities to prove myself. All those who challenged me, stood by me, refused to accept anything but the best and who appreciated what I did. What I do today is because of what they did for me. Some of them have passed on. Others are still in my life and I thank Allahﷻ for both. They are too many for me to name and some wouldn’t like to be named. But I salute every one of them and they live in my heart.
I want to share this with you free and I hope you will benefit. Some people told me that I am giving away my capital (because for a Leadership Consultant ideas are billable capital). I said that I would rather give it away than take it to my grave. I don’t know anyone on the other side who needs this.
So, please listen and enjoy this. And if you like it, please share with others and please let us know. All the very best to you.
If you asked me to tell you in one word; only one
word, the secret of success, I would say, “Differentiate.”
Let me begin with a question; “What do you ask for
when you go to the corner store to buy toothpaste?” Do you say to the attendant,
“Please give me toothpaste?” If you did, what would happen? Maybe you should try
this out the next time you go shopping. What would happen is that the store attendant
would ask you, “Which brand would you like?” You will face the same situation
if you went to buy almost anything in the market, unless it was buying mangoes
from a street vendor. Products are known, recognized and bought by their brand.
I teach career management in global corporations
and have been doing that since 1994. You can see my presentation on career
management on my YouTube channel https://www.youtube.com/user/YawarBaigAssociates . The link to the presentation is Careers in Global Corporations http://bit.ly/2ZY3KW5 . I’ve taught this
course in GE, Motorola, IBM, Microsoft, National Semiconductor and many other corporations
in America, India and elsewhere. But more importantly this is what I practice
myself, in my lifelong effort to add value to others and thereby to myself. That
is how I define my career. That is my differentiation. Adding value to others.
What is differentiation?
Differentiation is to stand out. Not blend in.
Incidentally that is also how I define leadership. Let me give you another example;
how do you introduce yourself? More than likely you say, “I am an IT
professional or engineer, doctor, teacher, whatnot.” Well, so are a million other
people in the world. You are one in a million in the wrong sense. You need to become
one in a million in the sense of that proverb. That is differentiation.
Because Differentiation creates Brand
Brand inspires Loyalty
Loyalty enables Influence
Without differentiating you are one grain of rice in a sack. You are still rice, but one grain in a sack. Nobody knows you exist. Nobody cares. Nobody understands this better than Apple. Or Coke for that matter. And that is why these brands inspire loyalty that seems extreme and even absurd to others. But it is neither. It translates into a totally loyal customer base which is money in the bank and make Apple and Coke the most valuable brands in the world.
In the podcast that goes with this article, I will
tell you a story about brand that happened with me in 1996 and has stayed with
me all these years and is one of the most powerful illustrations of the power
of brand. Don’t miss that podcast. Please subscribe to our channel and you will
be alerted every week with a new episode.
How can I differentiate, you ask? Let me tell you
a story from my life. But first, the principle; you differentiate by doing what
the rest of the world is not doing and doing it in a way that is graceful, dignified
and beneficial to all concerned. Differentiation is not about being freaky. It
is about standing out in a way that inspires respect and the desire to emulate in
those who see you.
It was 1989 and I was a Manager in the tea
plantation industry in South India. I had been in the industry since 1983 and
had developed a reputation for high productivity and excellent labor relations.
A very big advantage in a highly labor-intensive industry with a militant
unionized workforce. I was ambitious, high-energy and looked forward to a fast-track
career. At that time, I was transferred to our company’s garden in Assam. The job
was at the same level as I was at but came with better perquisites and a slightly
bigger span of responsibility. What it also came with was the ‘opportunity’ to
be as far away from the company headquarters as is geographically possible,
when your company HQ is in Chennai. For some this may have looked like a good
thing. To me, it didn’t. In the corporate world, ‘out of sight is out of mind’.
So, I declined the transfer. This was not easy for me or my bosses. This was a
trying period because suddenly I had no specific job. I had to leave my job as
the Manager on Lower Sheikalmudi Estate because that job had already been
assigned to another colleague. That left me literally homeless as there were no
bungalows in the Anamallais where I could live. It is a measure of my reputation
with the company and the understanding of my superiors that I was not simply sent
home for refusing to accept the transfer. I was sent off to Mango Range until
the management could decide what to do with me. We stayed there for six months.
I was getting my salary, but I had no work. No office, no superiors to report to.
No assignment. Nothing to do.
I was assigned a bungalow in a forest thicket,
which was in a dilapidated condition. The location of the bungalow was lovely,
and it was a joy to wake up to bird calls every morning. However, the house
itself looked like it would collapse on our heads at any time. Of particular concern were the walls, which
were so waterlogged that they had fungus growing on them in huge patches. My
wife is an amazing homemaker and all her talents were put to test in this
place. Out of this dilapidated house she created a lovely home which we enjoyed
Now, this is where differentiation comes in.
Anyone else in my position would have done one of two things. Either they would
have resigned and tried to find another job. Or they would have considered this
period as a paid holiday and enjoyed it. I enjoyed it alright, but not as a
paid holiday and I didn’t leave or even try to find another job. I loved my job
in the plantations and had no intention of leaving until someone kicked me out.
So, I wanted to ensure that didn’t happen. Since I had no regular job, I
decided on doing two things:
For a long time, I had been talking about the need
for systematic training of new assistant managers. The current system in the
plantations was that a new assistant would be put under a manager and what he
learnt or didn’t depended on the capability, interest, and energy of himself
and his manager and field or factory officers. If the assistant was lucky and
got some people who were both knowledgeable and interested in teaching, then he
learnt a great deal. If not, he remained guessing. This is a highly undesirable
system, which is very time and energy intensive and does not give standard
results. I had been advocating for several years the need for a standard textbook
on tea plantation management, which could be used to provide standardized
training. Any additional inputs that the young man’s manager and staff could
give him would only add to this, but he would not be deficient in the basics.
During my stay in Mango Range, I decided to write this book and in 6 months, I produced a 200-page Manual of Tea Plantation Management. Remember, this was before we had access to computers. The best we could get was a 386 desktop and DOS-OS. So, I wrote the book on an ordinary typewriter and then re-entered it all on a 386 at the head office when it was done. No copy paste, no cut and paste, no auto-correct or spell check. Windows were in the wall and what sat in your lap couldn’t be typed upon. At the time of its publication there was no such book on the market, and it was a source of great satisfaction for me. My company published it as an internal training book and though it was never a commercial publication, it did get fairly wide publicity and was used by many new managers. The biggest lesson for me was about the power of the written word and its high credibility in making your customer base aware of what you have to offer. I never forgot that lesson and today, I have just published my 35th book. After that book there was no way that I could be ignored, not that I feared that. I had a lot of people who I had dealt with over the years rooting for me in the company.
The second thing I did was to spend a lot of time
in Mango Range factory and hone my expertise in CTC manufacture of tea. I was
very fortunate in that Mr. T.V. Verghese, who had retired as a General Manager
in Tata Tea and was consulting with our company on CTC manufacture, was a
regular visitor and we became good friends. He shared his knowledge freely and
I learnt a great deal. He was a practical teacher, which meant that I got to
spend a lot of time on my back on the floor meshing CTC rollers with grease
anywhere on my face and body that grease would stick. I learnt all aspects of
manufacture hands-on, further reinforcing my belief that learning comes from
doing – not from talking about doing. In Murugalli Estate, I’d had a lot of
experience in Orthodox manufacture, and even though I had built Mayura Factory,
the premier CTC factory in South India, I was moved as soon as the construction
was over – thanks to a motorcycle accident. Consequently, my knowledge of CTC
manufacture was weak. In Mango Range, as a student of Mr. T. V. Verghese and
thanks to his willingness to teach, I rectified that deficiency. It was ironic
that thereafter I went to Ambadi, which was a rubber plantation and never
really used this knowledge, but it did come in use for writing a paper
comparing Orthodox and CTC methods, which I presented at the UPASI Annual
Conference in 1989.
Mango Range was an interlude in my career. I was
marking time and waiting for some positive change to happen, and in the meanwhile,
I enjoyed myself. It has long been my philosophy to live one day at a time and
to try to create as much happiness for myself and around me as possible. I have
learnt that the two are the same. You can only be happy if those around you are
happy. This is true whether you are an individual, an organization, or a
country. Imagine what a wonderful world we would have if instead of competing,
we collaborated and shared resources. We would all be wealthier, happier, and
healthier. I have always held that the secret of happiness is to be thankful
for and enjoy the small things in life. There are far many more of them than
the big events. If we can enjoy the small things, then we can be happy all the
time. The key to enjoyment is to appreciate them and be thankful for them. An
attitude of gratitude. The key to contentment is not amassing material but in
being thankful for what one has. The happiest people are those who are content.
Content people are those who are thankful. Material wealth has nothing to do
One of the things that I was very appreciative of
and thankful for was the leisure that I had in Mango Range. I had no specific
work except what I decided to do for myself. And I was still getting my salary.
So, I decided to learn golf. I got a caddy from Ooty Golf Club to come and stay
with me in the estate for three weeks. His name was Frank Augustine (I used to
call him Frankenstein) and he looked like a dried prawn. When he swung the club
though, he always hit the ball with that sweet phut that all golfers love to
hear. And the ball would travel straight like a bullet down the freeway. Whereas
my club would come up with a good measure of earth and top the ball to boot. Shows
that technique and not strength of the arm is what works in golf. As it does in
many other things in life. Frankenstein believed in hard work – meaning, making
me work hard. He set up a practice net, produced a set of one hundred used golf
balls and we were good to go. I would hit the ball into the net until I felt my
arms would drop off. All the while, Frankenstein would sit on his haunches
under the Champa tree that was to one side and watch me and make clucking
noises. The effect of all this clucking and my swinging at the ball became
clear when one day about midway in our training Frankenstein suggested that we
should go and play a round at the club. So off we went on the three-hour drive
to Ooty. After a cup of tea and a sandwich, I teed off and that is where all
the practice paid off. Ooty Golf Club has very narrow freeways bordered by
spiky gorse. If you didn’t hit your ball straight, you would send it into the
gorse and then you may as well forget about it – or pay to get the ball back by leaving your
blood on the gorse and acquiring gorse thorn furrows in your hide. As
Frankenstein continued his mother hen act, I could see the distinct improvement
in my style and capability.
Differentiation creates Brand. I got noticed and appreciated
and was rewarded with one of the toughest jobs in the company. I was sent to
New Ambadi Estate as its Manager. Two estates, two factories in Kulasekharam, Kanyakumari
District of Tamilnadu, which is geographically in Tamilnadu and spiritually in
Kerala. Highly militant, unionized, communist unions with a history of violence.
And to top it all, I didn’t know the first thing about rubber estate
management. I had not even seen a rubber tree in my life until then. That is another
story of great friends, like Arun, who taught me all about rubber. I
successfully faced the tough unions and not only won but made lifelong friends
with the union leaders, so that when I was leaving Ambadi three years later, the
General Secretary of the CITU, came to my farewell party, unannounced and delivered
such a speech that he had us all in tears. But as I said, that is another story.
My motto is, “I will not allow what is not in my control to prevent me from doing what is, in my control.’
My mission is, “Opening the world, one mind at a time.”
Welcome to our channel, “Leadership is a Personal Choice.” Because it is.
I speak to audiences around the world and I can tell you that if I asked anyone from any country, of any race or religion, at any economic and educational level to tell me in one word, the biggest problem we face, they will say, “Leadership.”
So, what is the solution?
It is to understand and accept that “Leadership is a Personal Choice.”
Leadership is not about status, designation, salary, perquisites, rank or power. It is about accepting responsibility for action. It is about saying to yourself, “This is my job and I am going to do it.” And then to find ways to create impact, no matter how small or limited it may seem. It is really as simple as that.
It is my hope that over the coming weeks, months and years, as you listen to these podcasts and watch the videos, you will stop and ask yourself only one question and that is; “How can I make a difference?” And then that you will do what you can do, where you live, in your circle of influence, using your resources, to make a positive difference in your world.
Please note, I am not talking about you telling others what to do. I am talking about you doing what you can do.
I am doing what I can. I am inviting you to do what you can. And if you need my help, you only need to ask.
The thought that drives me is: If not now, then when? If not me, then who?
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’. 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
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
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. 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
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. I flagged off such carts on many occasions, then stayed for a
cup of tea and left, so that the workers could carry on their celebrations
unhindered by my presence. When to arrive and when to leave are very important
things to know.
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 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 it
necessary to behave by a higher moral code. 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.
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.
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, my
senior in school (Hyderabad Public School, Class of 1972, when Satya Nadela was
3 years old) Shahzad Abbas, 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
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 decorously 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
The Sahib’s prediction was right, even though he
was not on the panel.
I was determined to join planting and had applied
also to the other big company in South India, Harrisons & Crossfield (later
Harrisons Malayalam and then Malayalam Plantations). A few days after I returned
home to Hyderabad, I got an interview call from Harrisons. The letter read, ‘You
are invited to attend an interview at The Westend Hotel in Bangalore. You will
be paid second class train fare and Rs. 50 out of pocket expenses. It was clear
that Harrisons didn’t want their assistants to put on weight. I was delighted
to get the letter. The problem was that I had never been to Bangalore and didn’t
know the first thing about the place. So, I booked myself on Indian Airlines (no
other domestic airlines then) and booked myself into The Westend Hotel, the only
place in Bangalore that I even knew the name of. I arrived in Bangalore the
evening before the interview. The hotel picked me up from the airport and the
next morning, I presented myself for the interview. The Westend was a Spencer’s
hotel at that time, if I recall correctly and Taj had not taken it over. It was
and is still one of my favorite hotels for the magnificent old trees in its
grounds, it lovely old rooms (don’t like the new ones) and its excellent service.
I stayed there many times since then, but 1978 was the first time I stayed at the
Westend Hotel in Bangalore.
The interview was in the suite of the Visiting Agent of Harrisons, Mr. Mccririck(I learnt his name only later), one of the many Scotsmen who were in tea. Wonderful people who left behind great memories of hard work, hilarious eccentricity and great friendships. I waited my turn in the lounge. Precisely on the dot a tall white man in a suit walked in with his hand extended, saying, “Good morning Mr. Baig. How are you? Please come.” We went inside his suite into the internal lounge where he invited me to take a chair facing the window which put me with the light in my eyes while he was in the shade.
“So, how was your journey Mr. Baig?”
“Very comfortable, Sir.”
“How long does it take to get from Hyderabad to Bangalore?”
His eyebrows shot up. “How did you come?”
“I flew, Sir.” Technically that was not true because I only sat while
the pilot flew the plane, but there I was.
“Hmm! Where are you staying in Bangalore?”
I think he heard a question in my tone and not a statement, so he said,
a bit testily, “Of course, in Bangalore, where are you staying?”
“That is what I mean Sir. I am staying here, in this hotel.”
“Are you staying here at the Westend?” Now the eyebrows pretended to be
the hairline. “You read the interview letter, didn’t you?”
“Yes Sir, I did. I am staying here. But I am not asking you to pay for
it, Sir.” I thought that I had committed suicide and that the interview was
Mr. Mccririck asked me
a couple of other questions, which looked to me to be more time fillers than
anything else. I steeled myself for another kiss of death but then he said, “Well
Mr. Baig, I am happy to have met you. You will get a letter informing you about
the estate you need to go to for the extended interview. And please give us the
bills for your travel and hotel. We will be happy to reimburse you these
expenses. Thank you for coming.”
I was selected and posted
to Ambanad Estate, under Mr. Ansari, who had a fearsome reputation for being a
very hard taskmaster. However, before I could join, I had an offer to go to
Guyana and leapt at the opportunity to go abroad. I spent five years there and returned
to India, to join tea in the Anamallais in CWS (India) Limited, under a harder
taskmaster, Mr. K. Ahmedullah. The best thing in life is to start your career
under a hard taskmaster. For me, I had already been working for several years,
but in planting, which was my first love, as evidenced by my persistence in trying
to become a planter, I started under Mr. AVG Menon as my Manager and Mr. K.
Ahmedullah as the General Manager, Plantations. Anyone can teach you what to
do. But hard taskmasters teach you standards. That is the biggest favor that
anyone can do for you. That is what I owe to AVG and Ahmed. Both were the
kindest of people off the job, but on the job, it was a different matter. If
you did well, not only did they appreciate it, but they made sure that your
work was highlighted as yours and they didn’t take credit for it. But if you
were careless, or brainless, then you were in for a chewing. Mind you, if you
made a well-intentioned mistake in trying to achieve something new or introduce
an innovation, your ‘mistake’ was praised. But if the mistake was because you
had not applied your mind, were just being plain lazy or stupid, then you
learned about that pretty graphically.
Planting was more about life than about tea. I had many teachers, all of whom I honor in my memory. Mr. AVG Menon, Mr. K. Ahmedullah, Mr. N. K. Rawlley, Mr. Saleem Sharif, taught me Estate Management. Mr. O. T. Varughese, Mr. Poovaiah, Mr. K. V. Choodamani, taught me about field operations. Mr. Madhavan and Mr. Hamza taught me Orthodox manufacture. Mr. T. V. Varughese (ex-GM, Tata Tea), taught me CTC manufacture. And all of them taught me about life, culture, decision making, conflict resolution, standing up for yourself and those under you, and more than anything else, taking pride in your work. AVG, Mr. Ahmedullah and Mr. Rawlley would take the Assistant with them when they visited the estate or division. Mr. Ahmedullah and Mr. Rawlley both had a very disconcerting habit of turning up at the crack of dawn, when I would still be in my muster. One of our Field Watchers would come racing, out of breath, gasping, “Company Dorai wandirkiraar.” (General Manager has come).
“Yengay irkiraar?” (Where is he?) I would ask, with visions of Mr.
Ahmedullah walking into the Muster behind the man.
“Padanetta numberil boundary ley irukkiraar.” (He is on the boundary of
Field No. 18). Grab your hat, leap on the bike and race down the rough, narrow
field roads to the boundary where your fate awaits you.
“Good morning Sir.”
“Good morning. When was this field last plucked? How is your manuring going?”
If these were the kind of questions, you could start breathing.
Otherwise it could be, “All these blue flowers look lovely on the tea.”
Then you knew that your end was near. The blue flowers were the flowers of
Morning Glory (Ipomoea), a beautiful garden creeper for everyone in the world
and a noxious weed for tea planters. If allowed to grow it would cover the tea
and result in serious drop in crop. The reason Mr. Ahmedullah and his
generation started inspection from the boundaries was because those were usually
the most neglected parts of the estate. In planting there is an old saying,
which says it all. “The dust from the Manager’s boots is the best manure for the
tea bush.” Estate management is not rocket science. It is a lot of walking and
climbing hills. You need to love doing it or you won’t, and it will show. The
field boundary in South India, meant either the bottom of the slope ending in a
swamp or the top of the hill, sometimes 2-3000 feet above ending in the forest.
Not the most inviting places for most managers and assistants, except wildlife
crazy cracks like me. The reward was some of the most magnificent views that
you can ever hope to see. That is why in planting they looked for temperament
and extracurricular interests so rigorously.
I loved and love trekking up and down slopes. I would go down almost
daily as I normally didn’t take my bike to the Muster. I would start off earlier
than anyone and walk down to the bottom of the slope from my bungalow. In the swamp,
I would be greeted by a pair of Barking Deer that lived in that patch of tea. Then
I would walk along the bottom of the tea, cross the swamp, noting where Wild
Boar had been digging for wild yams, up the other side and walk along the road,
leading past the coffee area of Lower Sheikalmudi Estate. That was where many a
day, I would see the last of the bison herd (Indian Gaur) or Sambar, before they
went off into the forest for the day. Once in a while I would hear elephants as
they moved through the coffee area on the way to Candura where they rested in the
thick forest between the two parts of the estate. Then I would walk up that
road to UD Muster by the time the workers started to gather. Of course, my progress
would be monitored by the workers and their families who could see from their ‘lines’
(housing) any movement on the roads. Nothing is hidden in the hills. I could
imagine the grapevine, “Dorai warraar.” All good for the tea, for discipline
and to gain respect. All lessons learnt from my wonderful teachers, who
practiced the same things.
Tea planting was a way of life. It was not a job. You loved it and thrived. Or you didn’t and left. I loved every moment of it and still do. You can’t be a good planter if planting is merely a job for you. Planting is a lifestyle, which even to this day, I will be very happy to return to, if someone is ready to give me a job, mentoring youngsters who join planting. For me, just to live in the Anamallais is a privilege. Any takers?
For more please read my book, ‘It’s my Life’,
available on Amazon worldwide.