Monday, August 31, 2009

And with this I'll end...

When you say "Planter' the general reaction is to think of the apparently luxurious life they lead - bungalow, cooks, gardeners, watchers, drivers, a vehicle... Most people only see the green tea fields, the 'sallam's of the estate workers.

What most do not see is the work that goes on below the surface, or the risk that a Planter puts himself through in the process of doing his duty.

Planters have been killed - they were prime targets during the trouble times of '87 and '89, pulled out of their beds and mercilessly shot, sometimes in front of their families. Others injured or worse, robbed as they carried the estate payrolls back to their estates.

Being surrounded by an angry work force is no laughing matter, one man amongst hundreds, the situation a powder keg that could go off at any moment. Some have been held hostage for hours on end in their own offices or even their bungalows, others forced to march from one point of the estate to another.

My closest colleague Mr AT was a perfectionist, driving his workers and staff hard to achieve standards that were a bench mark for all of us - his claim to fame was that his 'Plucking Slopes" were so smooth, it was reputed possible to slide a plank all the way from the top of the field to the bottom along the top of the tea bushes! Sitting one day in the office another colleague came by to tell me that AT was being held in his division office by the work force. We both decided to pay a cautionary visit, choosing to do so from a distance, a cart road that ran above the building in which he was held. From the top of the hill, looking down, we could see the Muster Shed surround by the entire work force and our friend inside trying to talk his way out. We were eventually noticed and amidst a lot of cat calls and hooting about 50 of the workers started to climb up to where we were, all the time inviting us to come join our friend. It was time to go and we did, heading off to the Police Station to muster the cavalry.

A hour later we were back on the hill top to watch the Police come in and after further discussion extract AT and load him into the jeep. The workers however were not gonna give in so easily and they then positioned themselves across the road, some hugging the wheels of the police vehicle - stand off!

AT had to get down and come back in and it was almost fours later that the matter was resolved and he allowed to leave - in total almost 9 hours held against his will


On one particular estate I was on there were rising tensions between the 'High' and 'Low' caste's. Usually the "L's" out number the "H's" significantly as a result of which harmony prevails but on this particular property the ratio was a more even one. The point of contention was the Kovil, a particularly popular one which received homage not only from the workers themselves but even a number of influential businessmen from Colombo. The situation deteriorated to the extent that it became unsafe for members of one group to walk individually without getting set upon by member's of the second. One evening my watchman came running to tell me that a worker was being assaulted, and I, fool that I was, instructed him to stay behind and proceeded to where this was taking place. When I get there I find my watcher, lying on the ground, bleeding from a couple of wounds - he had ignored me and come ahead only to be set upon and beaten quite badly.

Having a Police presence was of no help, by the time we got to one site, the culprits were long gone and things were just spiraling down. The day I had a zero out turn at my morning muster was the point at which my Superintendent stepped in and dissolved the entire Kovil Committee which was the root of the problem. He then went on to appoint a new one consisting of representatives from both warring factions, the field officer, the divisional clerk and to head them, a Sinhalese Buddhist - me.

For the next one year my duties included participating at all the Kovil functions, presiding over meetings, getting called to the temple at all odd hours - which also meant I had to make sure that I wore socks with no holes. Too often do SD's get caught with holes in their socks, its tradition, the day you wore holey socks, that was the day you had to go to the kovil!

Tensions eased up there after, once control of the temple funds was gone the more interested parties lost interest and things returned to normal. I presided over the kovil and its functions participating at all the pooja's. It was on one such occasion, that I had a spiritual experience. The main statue was carved out of black rock, a standing figure of Shiva.For the annual festival the god was bathed in saffron water and was now completely yellow in color. As I stood there one night, listening to the chanting, the beating for the drums and the screeching of the pipes, breathing in the smell of burning lamps and joss sticks, the eyes of the statue opened looking straight at me as I stood there praying. What was a statue painted yellow now had two black eyes looking directly at me, my soul. It lasted for perhaps a few seconds, but I'll always believe that he opened his eyes and looked at me.


Sometimes of course, the reason that a Planter had to face such a situation was of his own doing and due to more personal reasons than work related. But such situations were the exception in spite of mythical tales to the contrary.

There was at one time some British engineers stationed at one of the dams in the Hatton area many of them with their wive's/ girl friends.

Mr B decide to have some fun and started plying Mr SM with tales of Anne, supposedly the GF of one of the engineers. Eventually SM picked up enough courage to go see her, enlisting B to take him on his bike. B takes him, parks near the gate and gives SM a bit of last minute advice, to go right ahead and ask for Anne if anyone else answered the door.

SM rings the bell, and its opened by the very ruddy, very large Englishman; who turns even redder when asked about Anne. Swearing blue murder the guy steps back in and SM takes to his heels. Good thing he does cos the guy comes out with a shot gun in his hand and fires it. Mr B by now is laughing so hard he can hardly keep the bike straight while SM is babbling on the pillion, now at least four shades lighter!


Workers were paid, cash twice a month, with the payment rounded off to 5 rupees. A typical payroll was anything between 550,000 to 1.2 million depending on the number of workers and the time of the year. And it had to be paid out individually. So, twice a month we would put on our best socks and go down to town with the Superintendent to the bank. There we would collect our packets, open them and count the money once. Once done, now with a Police escort we would return to the estate and from that point go on to each of our divisions, now with just one cop as a guard. On the division the Field Officer would read the name and amount due, in Tamil, and I'd count it out, 1000, 500, 100, 50, 20, 10 rupee notes and 5 rupee coins, pay, go on to the next. 200 workers, 200 payments... at the end if you were short, it came out of your pocket. So I guess we were really really careful. I did acquire a skill though as a result of this, I can now zip through a bundle of notes faster than lightening, sadly its been a long time since I've seen a bundle of notes!

Sometime around the Kovil incident I developed an interest in Colombo, one that required my frequent presence in the city. Since biking it down every weekend was no option - 250km and four hours takes its toll - I traveled by bus. Saturday night I would ride to Bandarawella, park the bike at a friends house and walk on to the bus stand to catch an Intercity to Colombo at 11pm. Reaching Colombo in the wee hours of Sunday, I'd spend the day with my interest to catch the 11pm bus back up that very night, reaching the estate in the wee hours of Monday morning in time for work. I must have been nuts!

And with this I think I'll end my Planting posts. Planters can be and are at times an obnoxious bunch, I know I've met a fair number of them in my time. But many of them are hard working dedicated men who sacrificed so much to do what they loved doing. Most had little if any family life, wife and children down in the city for schooling, the husband father on the estate. Its changed now I can see; no longer the kind of dedication, love for the job. Better roads have made getting to Colombo or Kandy easier, better opportunities in the city have reduced the talent that once were drawn to the life of a planter, with time things change. But I have my memories, and truth is, tea is all I really know, its all I've ever worked with all my working life. tea has taken me from the mountains of Darjeeling to the Eastern Cape of South Africa, from the Hunan Province of China to tea fields in Uganda and eventually here to Ouagadougou where I'm sitting typing this today.


  1. wow, I didn't know you were still in the tea industry... did know about Kenya and Tanzania having tea (and that they're proving to be tough competitors for Ceylon tea! hehe), but didn't know that Central/West Africa had tea... :)

    and about hostage crises, I've heard many a story about those. my best friend's father was a superintendent at an estate in Nuwara Eliya in the days he was growing up, and a small dispute had led to a riot which had forced his family to hide inside their Bungalow... luckily police reinforcements had arrived and rescued them, but he used to tell us all the time how they spent their days locked up inside the bathroom eating salmon! :D

  2. @ Delilah: Nice to see you bqck

    @ Chavie: Central and West Africa dont grow tea but they certainly drink a bit of it, and quite a bit of that comes from SL. We lost our UK markets to Kenya; no accounting for as little as 5% of UK imports, down from 80% 20 - 30 yeqrs ago

  3. Wow.. that's such a fabulously interesting post and sadly it had to end. I was waiting for more stories though! lol

    About the Shiva statue.. that's a very surreal situation but with my lil experience and knowledge, I could say such things do exist. Cuz.. one thing I strongly believe is that if there's a place where hundreds of people pay homage regularly with utmost respect and sincerity, the place naturally becomes holy.

    It's also distressing to hear about the tragic deaths and torments that planters and others had gone through. It reminded me the few memories I have of Black July.

    Also it's a surprise to hear that you're still in the same tea industry even out there. That's really good! =D