Editor’s note: This is an edited version of an article that first appeared here.
As a refugee in India after the partition of Punjab, I looked for any work when I got my Bachelor of Arts degree. Earlier, I had earned my F.Sc., a science degree, and then wanted to go to a medical college. But, there was no money. So, I ended up doing an Arts Degree, which was cheaper.
Since I was a good photographer, I started a Photographic Studio in Ludhiana. That did not work out. Then, I dabbled in the wholesale cloth business and became a broker. Then, I had an opportunity to go to Singapore. Here, I found an advertisement for Cadet Planters. I applied for it. I managed to get selected after passing British Civil tests and three interviews. The company was Guthrie and Co. I was the largest plantation group in the world with land mass more than Singapore at low tide.
This was the best thing that could happen to me. For me, it was akin to becoming an IAS Officer.
So it was that many long years ago, in April of 1957, I took a leisurely and unhurried night train out of Singapore. It arrived at an almost deserted railway station in Seremban in Malaysia in the wee hours of the morning.
I was to start a new career as a Cadet Planter at Guthrie's Siliau Estate, Siliau, Malaysia. A chartered taxi for RM 5.00 conveyed me to the Estate where I was expected. I was a novelty. I was to be the first Sikh to breach the tightly closed and controlled compartmental citadel as a professional planter.
My partner was to be Jana Menon, who had arrived a month earlier at the plantation. We were to be conjoined for the two-year stint while learning the ropes.
Within minutes of our shaking hands, Jana advised me rather condescendingly that he knew all that was to be known about rubber. He had spent some two years on the Central Paloh Estate in Johor under the tutelage of his brother-in-law, Vishwanathan Nair, then, an Assistant Manager. He was eventually to own a large estate himself with a private 9-hole golf course.
In my case, I was starting with a clean slate, and had to be shown, for example, what lallang - a noxious weed - looked like.
But, first, I had to equip myself with a couple of short pants - which was regulation attire. In the meantime, I earned the appendage of a "planter in Dacron trousers".
The estate manager was Rodney A. White. After a suitable gestation period, we were to be presented to him. He was a big, heavy man in crumpled drill trousers and short-sleeved shirt. He had a bush of disordered hair, an aggressive nose, and the eyes of an old man. He appeared easy to like - a good start, I would think.
We were to be the understudies of K. Krishnasamy, an assistant manager who had been promoted from the ranks. The first thing that struck me about Krishnasamy was his effortless and beautiful cursive handwriting. He usually hovered around the main office and was always within earshot of the manager.
Mr. Rodney White appeared to be a benign gentleman and was mostly found in the office, deeply engrossed in writing some sort of a journal. He always had, beside him, a liter bottle of foul looking black coffee to fuel him. It later transpired that the journal was actually a workbook to determine the paltry average daily wages of the workers, revised weekly. There was no labour union then and, the workers were largely at the mercy of the manager.
For transport, we were supplied with spanking new Norton 350 cc motorcycles. Mine was NA 798 and Jana's was NA 797. We were soon to hold the dubious honour as dare devil speedster menaces on the dusty ochre roads. On reflection, I've often wondered since how we managed stay alive.
Our education began in good earnest. The first lesson we learnt through osmosis was to develop a degree of gruffness of manner and speech. This was believed to reflect executive competence and authority. I was soon to learn that the 4-letter word used in different configurations, with suitable inflection, could be made to cover a lot of territory. For some planters it appeared to be the extent of their vocabulary and copiously applied for any and every situation.
Fieldwork started with muster at about 5 am. We had to walk around to check the tapping and weeding, which involved a lot of legwork. Apart from this, we were required to pass some professional examinations conducted by the Incorporated Society of Planters, or ISP for short. To become an Associate and have an AISP, the coveted badge for a planter, meaning that he could now also read and write, in addition to wield the aforementioned gruff speech, while maintaining a menacing look.
I started to study in earnest and cleared the examinations within 18 months. The last paper - on Estate Practice - could only be taken after 4 years of service. I cleared it on the dot, and had the respectable distinction of an AISP added to my name. I was told not to be cocky about it, as most of the ‘White' Planters hadn't passed the various examinations.
Drinking a case of beer was considered mandatory, a qualification which brought you to be known as a 'piss artist'. I told them at the very outset that drinking was against my religion. Then someone offered me a cigarette. I repeated that it too was against my religion. Then, I was asked, "What about women?" I replied rather cheekily, "They also don't smoke." So, I was spared for the next 40 years from these habits.
But, I still had to pass the Malay language examination for further promotions. That proved difficult for most of us. There was one particular Assistant Manager by the name of Bob Thomas who sat for the Malay exam eight times and happily failed in each attempt. When he failed for the ninth time and I mentioned the tragedy to another colleague, Eddie Rudge, that poor Bob had failed, Eddie replied that poor Bob would have failed the English examination too, if given the opportunity.
For social niceties, we were invited to the Manager's bungalow once in a while for some party. All had to be suitably attired and announced as they arrived. This was ceremoniously done by the manager himself who, with a flourish, would announce, for example, "Mr. & Mrs. Dunlop, Serkam Estate!" The ladies would invariably drift into small clutches, to suitably analyze and comment on each arrival, especially on the accompanying ladyships.
Once in a while an Indian planter would arrive and would be suitably announced.
"O dear, here comes Mr. Menon! One must put on a cheerful face, I suppose, but really, what a bore Indians can be! ... Oh, Mr. Menon ... how nice to see you and Leela. And how are those sweet children of yours?"
Having made the perfunctory remarks to each other, the bored 'ladies' would always revert to being nice and kind at heart. They were not arrogant by nature. The British Empire had made them so, so that they would remain loyal to the system, and stick to the guidelines and conform to its preferences.
After dinner, the men would get together to smoke their cigars, nurse snifters of Cognac, and swap bawdy tales in one corner. The ladies would caucus in another corner to swap the latest gossip, mostly of who had run away with whom.
In those days, there were some estate managers who had some special skills, apart from being a planter. One such particular manager, Frank Fullerton, had studied a great deal about penguins and was regaling the gathering about their peculiar traits. Just then a lady asked him to tell them more about the penguins. Frank hesitated and apologized for monopolizing the conversation with boring details. When the ladies left the table, his host said "Come now, what was it you funked telling the ladies?"
Frank proceeded to tell them of a peculiar habit that the male penguin has vis-a-vis the female of the species. When the male penguin wants her, he merely stands still, he explained, and makes a distinctive honking noise.
"Something like this," Frank said, and then proceeded to demonstrate with a loud honking noise.
At that moment, the door swung open and Mrs. Fullerton peeped in, saying, "Did you call me, Frank dear?"
I became a Radio Amateur and obtained an Amateur License with a call sign of 9M2SS in 1962. I started to track Satellites in the mid-1980s, among the few Space buffs. I have served as a Director of International Amateur Radio Union for nine years. I have also served as a member of the Malaysian Government's Space Committee under the aegis of Datuk Prof. Dr. Mazlan Othman. I continue to run the Satellite Ground Station and regularly makes radio contacts with International Space Station (ISS). I get school children talk to the Astronauts as part of the Amateur Radio aboard ISS programme.
I retired as a Senior Manager in 1988. Soon after that, I was re-employed as a Planting Adviser. Subsequently, I became a Consultant for the Asian Development Bank. I still continue to do so, as and when required.
© Sangat Singh 2017