Some investments continue to give dividends long after they are made. So also ‘investments’ in human relationships. It was 1983, my first year in tea planting. Our company increased the pruning target from one-hundred-twenty-five to two-hundred bushes per worker, an increase of sixty percent The tea bush is not easy to prune, even with the razor sharp hooked knives (about 18” long). And to prune two hundred of them in a day’s work, climbing up and down steep hills where the tea is planted, is not a joke. In addition, the labor unions were all against the increase in task. As expected, there was a lot of unrest on the estates, with threats of strikes and possibly violence. I went to the Muster the next morning after the new task was announced and was met by my Field Officer with a very grave expression on his face.
“Sir, I don’t think they are going to do the task. There is a lot of grumbling and they are saying that the union has instructed them not to do the task as they don’t want a precedent to be set.”
“And that is exactly the reason why we want them to do the task, so that a precedent is set, which can be used in other estates to push the new task through,” I replied. “Anyway, let us go to the field and see what is happening.”
When we got to the pruning field, I saw the workers standing in clusters and not working. So, I took my own knife and started pruning and called out, “Alright everyone, get to work.” As they saw me pruning, some started to prune their own rows. Others remained standing. Then the head of the Works Committee came to me and said, “Dorai, we want to have a meeting to discuss the task issue, so please give us some time.” I agreed and he called all the workers together and they went to the edge of the field and started their meeting. As time passed, the discussion became heated and my Field Officer started to get more and more worried about our own safety.
“Sir, there is no saying what they will do. There have been many nasty incidents after such meetings. I think you should leave now and go to the Estate Office. I will inform you about any developments.”
I, of course, refused to leave the place because I felt it would appear as if I had left because I was afraid. I had no intention of creating such an impression and in any case, I was not afraid. Much to my Field Officer’s dismay, I remained where I was.
And then it happened. The meeting ended and the workers came towards us in a closely grouped crowd. They were coming downhill and so it appeared almost as if they were running. As this was the pruning field and they had all come to prune, each had a razor-sharp pruning knife in his hand. As they came to where I was standing, the group stopped and the leader who had asked for the meeting came forward and said to me, “Dorai, we are very unhappy about this new task. It is difficult to do and the union has also ordered us not to do it. But we spoke amongst ourselves and decided that we are going to do this task for you. You are still under probation and if we refuse to do the task, the company will blame you and will not confirm your employment. We do not want that. We want you here as our manager. So, we will do this task for you.” My Field Officer was flabbergasted. I had tears in my eyes. Personal loyalty was a big factor in manager-worker relationship in the plantations. That came out of your everyday conduct and communication. If you treated people with respect and helped them when they needed it, they stood by you when you needed them.
There is another incident that happened to me several years after this one with similar results. This was in Paralai Estate.
When I was in Paralai Estate, my bungalow was just off the main Valparai road, opposite the Iyerpadi Estate Hospital, the domain of Dr. John Phillip and his charming wife, Dr. Maya. John and Maya were very good friends of ours. Dr. John was one of the finest diagnosticians that I have ever had the pleasure of knowing, who could tell you what was wrong with your soul by looking at your toenails. Maya, in addition to being a physician, was a very creative artist and painted and made all kinds of beautiful things. One day, I had almost finished my morning rounds and had a nasty headache. So, on the way home for lunch, I dropped in at the hospital to meet Dr. John and get something for my headache.
As I drove into the hospital compound, I saw a lot of urgent activity with nurses and attenders running here and there. I asked Mr. Karunakaran, the Pharmacist, who I met as I stepped on the hospital veranda, what was going on. He said that there was a woman in labor who was terribly anemic and needed a blood transfusion. They were trying to find her family to donate blood. I said to him, “Take mine. I am O+ and a universal donor.” Karunakaran looked surprised. A nurse standing by him, looked shocked. “You will donate blood for a worker woman?” she asked. “We are trying to find her people (Dalits) to donate blood.” I said to her, “Look, I have no time for this. Take my blood and give it to her. You don’t want her dying with her baby while you hunt for her relatives.” While all this was going on, Dr. John came on the scene and on being informed that I was offering to donate blood and the reluctance of the staff to accept it, he said, “He wants to donate his blood. What is your problem? Just take it.”
I was duly laid down and bled to the extent of two bottles of blood. It was thick and almost black with hemoglobin and had my friend John smiling in satisfaction. They disappeared with the blood into the operation theatre. I was kept under observation for a while and given some tea, just to ensure that I didn’t croak. I realized that in all this, my headache had disappeared. Clearly donating blood cures headaches. I then went home and had lunch and went off for my siesta. A most civilized practice that I learned to do in the plantations and have adhered to ever since. I am told it is also very good for the heart. It is certainly very good to rejuvenate you for the rest of the day. After my siesta of about forty-five minutes, I got up for my cup of tea, when Bastian my butler announced, “Master, Golden Mountain and the entire Works Committee are here to meet Master.” I was surprised because it was my rule that I never met any union leaders at home, and everyone knew and respected it. What was so urgent today that they couldn’t meet me in the office?
Bastian had a habit of translating Tamil names into English and announcing anyone who came with his translation of the person’s name. He didn’t do that with the Doraimaar (Manager class) but did it with anyone else. Workers or union leaders didn’t come to the bungalow to meet the Manager. We met all workers, supervisors, staff and union leaders only at the morning Muster or in the Estate Office. This was a universal rule in all estates which was strictly adhered to. This has nothing to do with being snobbish or class conscious but with maintaining boundaries of work and personal time and space. We lived on the job, as it were and if we didn’t do this, we wouldn’t have had a single day’s peace. Having said that, there were some special people who had special privileges. In my case these were my tracker, who told me about the movement of wildlife in the forests adjoining our estates in the Anamallais, the supervisor who built the hides in trees or rocks for me to watch wildlife and the two Ramans who accompanied me on my hikes on Grass Hills. All of them came to the bungalow if they needed to meet me.
The norm was that they would first go to the back, to the kitchen and Bastian’s pantry and he would give them a cup of tea and they would chat. Then he would see what I was doing and if I was free, he would announce that so-and-so had come to see me. But the way he did it was to say the least, very funny. He would say, “Master, Seven Hills is here to meet Master.” Seven Hills being the literal translation of Yedhumalai. Or he would say, “Master, Golden Mountain is here and wants to meet Master.” Golden Mountain being, yes you guessed it, Thangamalai.
I walked out on to the veranda to see Thangamalai, who was the head of the union, Madasamy who was his Deputy and entire Works Committee with them. I was a little apprehensive also, because usually it is not good news when the whole committee wants to meet you urgently. We made our greetings. Then I asked them why they had come. They didn’t say a word. Thangamalai stepped forward and bent down to touch my feet. I stepped back in amazement and irritation because I never encouraged the touching of my feet. They knew this. I told them, “Why are you touching my feet? You know I don’t like this and don’t allow anyone to do it.” Thangamalai said in a grave tone, “Yes Dorai, we know. But today you will have to allow us to touch your feet. So, please don’t stop us.” He then bent down and touched my feet. And all the others followed suit. I stood there, totally amazed at all this. When they had all finished, I asked them, “So, tell me, what is all this for? What did I do?”
Thangamalai said, “Dorai, today you did something that has never happened in the more than one hundred years since this tea was planted. You gave your blood for one of us. No manager ever did this. So, we must thank you.”
I said, “What is so special about that? Wouldn’t you have done the same for me?”
“Yes Dorai, we would. But Doraimaar (Manager class) don’t do it for us. You are the first one and the only one who ever did it.” Then he said something which has stayed with me ever since. He said, “Dorai, this is our land. It is our land not because we were born here but because we will be buried here, if we die. It can never be the land of the Managers, because if you die, they will take you away to your hometown to bury you. They will not bury you here. The land you are born in is not your motherland. It is the land you die in and are buried in that belongs to you. But from today, this is also your land because your blood is now our blood.” I had tears in my eyes and to this day when I think of this whole event, it fills my heart with warmth and love for these simple, lovely people. I have never believed in caste and class divisions and never practiced them and that day, they accepted me as their own. I was a Dalit for them and for me that was the greatest honour.
“I am a human being like you, and I did what I consider my duty. How are the mother and child?”
“They are both well Dorai and they owe their lives to you.”
Having narrated that, let me hasten to say that I was by no means unique in what I did, notwithstanding what my workers said. I know of many instances where managers may not have donated blood (after all that depends on what was needed at the time) but made all sorts of heroic efforts to help their workers in their time of need. That’s the reason manager-worker relationship were always cordial in South Indian plantations, even during stressful times.
This incident passed. Then two months later came the issue of bonus where my company decided to pay 8.33% whereas all other employers were paying 20%. The General Manager, Mr. N. K. Rawlley, called me and said, “If you can get the workers to accept 8.33% we can pay that in all the estates. You have a very good relationship with them and if anyone can do it, you can.” I promised to try but knew that the annual bonus was a very touchy subject and accompanied with high emotion and driven primarily by the district-wide policy of the union. Estate Works Committee members were bound to follow their Union’s policy and did.
The custom in the estates was that the manager paid the bonus (as well as salaries) in cash to each worker personally. The worker (man or woman) would come when their name was called and take the money with great respect. This established the relationship between the employer and employee at a very personal level, which was unique to the plantations.
On a side-note, there was another custom of a similar nature, where on January 1 of each year, the tea pluckers would wait in the fields without starting work until the manager came to them and plucked a few leaves himself for their baskets (thaats in South India). The manager would give the plucker that handful of leaves, which she would receive with both hands cupped together and put them into her basket or thaat. Then the worker would touch the feet of the manager as a sign of high respect and would begin her work. The result of these customs was that we knew almost every worker personally and knew their families and had a pretty good idea of what their lives were like. Given that an average estate had about four to five hundred workers, this is no mean feat.
To come back to our story, I called a meeting of the Works Committee and said to them, “The Company has decided to pay 8.33% bonus. I want to know if you people will accept it.”
“Dorai, have we not worked to earn this bonus? Don’t you think we deserve what the others are getting? Are our results not better than those of other companies? You told us that yourself. So now why are we getting 8.33% when those who did worse than us are getting 20%?”
I said to them, “You know that we just finished building the biggest tea factory in South India. That is a matter of pride for us all. It provides employment to so many people. But as a result, there is a cash flow crunch due to which we can only pay this bonus. What I want to know from you is if you will take the bonus from me when I bring it. I don’t want to bring the money and have to take it back because you refuse to take it.”
As Nelson Mandela famously said, “Speak to their hearts.” At the time I was not aware of this wonderful advice but I had the experience of having worked for five years in Guyana with the GMWU (Guyana Mineworkers Union) a highly aggressive and powerful union, backed by the ruling party at the time, PNC (People’s National Congress). I was also totally fluent in Tamil (I still am). That gave me a big advantage and I could communicate with my people like one of their own. They appreciated that. As they say, “When you speak to people in a language they know, you speak to their minds. Speak to them in their own language and you speak to their hearts.” I did not mention the ‘loss of face’ that I would suffer if they refused to take the bonus, but I did not need to say that. We all knew the norms of the culture and did not need to speak of them. They listened to me and spoke amongst themselves a bit and asked for time till the next day to reply.
We all knew that the company was not trying to defraud the workers but we had a very severe cash crunch and simply couldn’t pay the 20% that other companies were paying. According to the law, no matter what the cash situation may be, we were bound to pay the minimum which was 8.33% and we were ready to do that. However, the workers had their own expectations and when they knew what their counterparts in other companies were getting, it created a very tricky situation for us.
Next morning at the Muster, the Works Committee came to me. Thangamalai, their President and spokesperson said to me, “Dorai, we consulted with the union about the bonus issue. The union has ordered us not to accept the bonus of 8.33%. But we debated this issue amongst ourselves and consulted with the general body. We have decided to accept the bonus from you because you are paying it. If you bring the bonus and we do not take it, you will lose face. We will not let that happen. We are very sad that the company is not paying us what we believe is due to us. But in contravention of the union’s orders, we have decided to accept the bonus if you pay it. So, you can bring the money and we will take it from you.”
There is a very happy ending to this story. More than twenty-five years later, in 2010, I returned to the Anamallais with my wife and some friends of ours from South Africa and my nephew Aly, to show them one of the most beautiful places on earth. We stayed for two nights in the bungalow we used to live in, the Manager’s bungalow on Lower Sheikalmudi Estate. We walked the trails that I used to walk and met all those workers and staff who were still there. Many had retired. Some had passed away. But those who were there, remembered me and left their work and came to meet me. They organised a welcome for me in the Muster and we had tea and snacks and talked about old times. Many people came and asked if I remembered them and when I looked blank one of them said, “Dorai, I was a little kid when you were here but you used to joke with me.” Another one said, “I would be walking to school and you would come by and always stop to give me a ride to school on your bike.” One woman said, “You would come to the plucking field and drink our Kapee (black tea sweetened with jaggery, called ‘Kapee’ i.e. coffee…don’t ask me why) with us. I was struck yet again by the small things that one does, most of the time, without conscious thought but which worked in one’s favour or against. That’s why it is so important to have the right values because only then can you be sure of doing the right thing naturally.
After two days in Lower Sheikalmudi, we went to Paralai and stayed in the chambers of the new Anamallai Club for another two days. The new club is a concrete building without the charm of the old one. It is just a building sitting in the middle of nothing. The old club in Valparai had tennis courts, a nine-hole golf course and a very charming colonial bungalow style building which we all loved. Sadly that became the victim of Indian politics and our elected representative from the district, a servant of the people, no less; came one day with a huge mob and ransacked the club and demolished most of it and tried to illegally occupy the land. The police came as usual conveniently after all the damage had been done to the relic of Colonial India and locked up the ruins. And that is how that has stayed and remains to this day, to the best of my knowledge. Meanwhile planters needed a club and so Parry Agro donated the land and all the other companies contributed the money to build the new club.
The day after we arrived, word got around to the workers of Paralai that Baig Dorai (that’s what they called me) had come after twenty-five years and many people came to meet me. In the course of that, came two women and a man. The man was an old servant of ours who had worked as Bastian’s assistant, Asaithambi. He greeted me, “Vanakkam Dorai.” Then he gestured to the two women to come forward and asked me, “Do you know who they are Dorai?” I had no clue. He said, “This one is the one you gave your blood to. And this is her daughter. Without that blood they would both have died that day. It is with your blood in their veins that they are living. And Dorai, this girl is studying medicine in Coimbatore.”
A better ending to my story I couldn’t have wished for.