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 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).  

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 emotions possible.

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 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 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 rejected.

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?”

‘One-hour Sir.”

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?”

“Here Sir.”

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 over.

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.

Parambikulam Dam, backwaters, seen from Murugalli Estate, Anamallais

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.