Literary Review

Burra sahib, chotta sahib: Review of Office Chai, Planter’s Brew

Office Chai, Planter’s Brew — British & Indians Working Together in Mercantile offices and plantations between the 1930s and 1970s; S. Muthiah & Ranjitha Ashok, Westland, 2016, Rs. 799.  

The world of Indian business has been energised in the past few years by start-ups — young brilliant minds with ideas they hope will change the world. Having seen them from the inside, one wonders whether the CEO of a start-up will even be able to use the book for a problem she is facing — by the time she finishes half the book the problem would have morphed in a million different ways. However, if she did persist, she will learn a thing or two — eternal truths to run organisations.

In this context of a rapidly changing world, it is important to look at the past, as the fundamental needs a business seeks to serve have not changed. Nor have human relationships. The book is a fascinating account of the period of transition between the 1930s and the 1970s, when Indian businesses were changing hands from British to Indian owners. The changes were at many levels. Economic, in terms of financial ownership and monetary control; political, in terms of the world war and independence movements; and social in terms of how social relationships and generations were changing. The authors lead us through this complex period by dividing the book into anecdotes from the lives of the people who served in positions of senior leadership in the plantations and mercantile companies of that era. The book is thus a treasure house of leadership lessons, anecdotes and corporate history. Each account is short and can be read in any order.

The book can be read in different ways: anecdotes and stories for some, trips of nostalgia for those who worked in those times, leadership lessons for others, or as history for researchers. The easy style of writing, the wry wit (‘M.R. Sreedhar, a senior officer at Parry’s was considered one of the brightest stars in the Company in his times. Being a member of the Parry’s cricket team helped.’ ) and the interesting facts (‘The starting salary of Rs. 1,400 in 1951 and ending with Rs. 1,600 in 1966 as a Chairman.’) make the book eminently readable.

The book starts with Governor Munro reminding his directors in London that they can never turn India into another England or Scotland and in a way recognising that different regions will adopt different models of governance. Delegation, for instance, seems to have played a big role in the running of the companies here. In Binny Mills, we learn, that mill-related activities lay with the mills and not with the head office, which only controlled marketing, cotton, and engineering machines. The authors tell us of the genesis of the Binny labour union when a British supervisor refused permission to an ailing worker to take leave. .

Freedom for the day-to-day work came at a "price", in most companies, the first 3 years of posting was rigorous, it included cleaning machines so badly encrusted with sugar that the trainee had to shower with his clothes on to have it washed off, or regardless of education, one was assigned to a senior by age to learn the ropes from the basics. It wasn’t different in the tea gardens where one had to contend with 500 workers from different unions, you had to command respect, not demand it – and the first step for that was to know the basics of how to prune the bushes!

The private story of business is about different standards for Indian and British employees, and the authors give an honest account of this. The stark difference, for instance, in the way tea was served, poured out from common aluminium jugs for Indians, and daintily served in best china for the British. In accommodation too, differences persisted. The British got residences even when they were just a chokra, along with a bearer and other staff. Indians had to fend for themselves. There are also interesting reminiscences about the role of women who married Indian employees — how they had to change their lifestyles to suit the British and how in several companies, promotions beyond a point happened only if the wife was seen as socially supportive.

The 54 interview records are a fascinating read, and instructive too, – for they tell us what will work or not work won’t today in organisations today. Good books like these need a companion volume, perhaps a similar compilation of Indian companies, or even one on the lives of those times from ordinary people who did not ascend to such dizzying heights of corporate success. Forty years from now, the stories of today’s start-ups might be told, and one wonders how many strange practices will come to light then.

Office Chai, Planter’s Brew — British & Indians Working Together in Mercantile offices and plantations between the 1930s and 1970s; S. Muthiah & Ranjitha Ashok, Westland, 2016, Rs. 799.

Pradeep Chakravarthy is the author of Thanjavur — A Cultural History.



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Printable version | May 7, 2021 3:07:39 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/Burra-sahib-chotta-sahib-Review-of-Office-Chai-Planter%E2%80%99s-Brew/article16668313.ece

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