A. Sundaram on the trade union movement in the city and working conditions for employees in the good old days…

I ran away from my village Ilayarasanendhal, near Kovilpatti, in my teens. I’d just completed third form (Class VIII). I was scolded for something, and I was so upset, I took 13 rupees from home and headed to Coimbatore. I changed buses and trains and finally reached the railway station here at about 9 p.m. There was just one gate then, and not many people in the station.

I was tired and did not know what to do. I walked into Raja Theatre, which was playing an M.S. Subbulakshmi film, paid four annas for a tharai ticket and took my place amid the others. The next thing, the sweeper was waking me up. The hall was empty! I walked to Modern Tea Stall and paid half anna for a tea. People looked at me strangely. I’d not changed my clothes in three days. I slept in the railway station. Those days, Coimbatore used to be cold even in July. The next morning, I took a dip in the chill waters of Valankulam. I went to Sundaram Stores near Bombay Anand Bhavan and bought myself a mull shirt and a naalu mozha veshti. I was now presentable.

I stayed for the next two weeks with Gomathinayakam Pillai, a relative who worked in the Agricultural University. I was also looking out for a job. I walked up to Ranga Vilas Mills in Peelamedu to try my luck. The owner came up and said I could work at the construction site of Pioneer Mills. I did not know kattada velai and refused the job.

Soon, I found a peon’s job in Sangaiah Stores on Big Bazaar Street and worked there for five years. When I resigned, I was drawing a princely sum of Rs. 17 a month. But, since everything else was inexpensive, I could manage. Vadais and most tiffin items cost between half an anna and an anna. Bombay Ananda Bhavan was a huge favourite; the food was so good.

At eight p.m. the Municipality siren would ring out, a signal to close shop. The city would come to a grinding halt. Clad in a veshti, like many others, I would cycle down to the Avanashi Road branch of Sangaiah Stores, where I lived with many of my co-workers. We enjoyed a good life; Siruvani water tasted like kalkandu thanni.

New beginning

I joined Brooke Bond in 1945 at a salary of Rs. 150 a month. Even as you entered that road, you could smell the freshly-ground coffee. There were about 500 workers, most of them members of a communist union, which was yet to be recognised by the management. In 1946, I started a Congress union, Tamil Nadu Coffee Congress Thozhilaalar Sangam. R. Kuppusamy, MLA, came to inaugurate our union. Those days, there was a lot of bad blood between unions. The leaders were, however, friendly with each other.

Once, members of a rival union attacked me when I was walking with my colleagues to our union office near Rangai Konar street. I fell unconscious. Boopathy, their leader, rescued me and took me to the police station. The policemen, clad in half trousers those days, used to treat people well. They took me to the Government Hospital. It used to be really neat. There were about 100 beds. I went to sleep in a near-empty ward. When I woke up, the ward had about 150 patients, lying on the cots and on mats. The nurse told me that they were victims of a retaliatory attack! Finally, peace prevailed.

Despite all this acrimony, the management and unions worked in tandem to ensure that the company prospered. There was an intrinsic kindness. The management also considered fair demands. In Brooke Bond, they agreed to give an increment after two-and-a-half years of joining. In return, we had to increase production. Robinson, the factory manager, even got our union approved during a meeting in Kolkata.

Work at the factory involved blending tea and packing it. Coffee seeds would come in gunny bags and we roasted them in-house, powdered and packed them as well. We also made the Dilkhush coffee pellets. But, how could one increase output? We had 20 worktables in the tea packing section. I placed four members from our union at each table, along with four members of the opposite union. They competed with each other and helped us achieve our target!

Even though our bosses were foreigners and did not know Tamil well, we communicated with them through the assistant factory manager, Krishna Iyer. He would translate for both parties.

At the factory, breakfast, lunch and dinner cost just 10 paisa each. On Thursdays, they served non-vegetarian food and on Fridays, we had vadai-payasam. What I love most about my factory is that even when they closed down, they compensated everyone well. Even now when I drive past that road, I remember the hustle and bustle of the factory, and oh…that smell of coffee.

BIO

A. SUNDARAM: Born on July 15, 1923, the veteran trade union leader worked for 39 years in Brooke Bond, till 1984. He has five children. He arranged for houses under a cooperative scheme for many Brooke Bond workers.

His autobiography is titled, Naan Kadantha Paadhai.

He is a Congress functionary, a mentor for trade unions and a close associate of industrialist N. Mahalingam.

I REMEMBER

Soon after Robinson left, one Cox became the factory head. Once, he tried to bribe me with an offer for increasing production. I refused. He patted me on the back and said he was merely testing me and that we would work together to improve the factory.