14 July, 2020

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An Ode To Tea Garden Managers Old & Young! 

By Hemasiri Perera

Hemasiri Perera

Recent photographs and videos following each spell of rain – of waterfalls off loading tons of top soil and rivers running red with the lifeblood of the land is enough to make anyone with an iota of love for the motherland shudder with sadness and ill-boding and shed tears of utter despair!

The thundering giants of a few weeks ago are now murmuring their eternal song to lull mother Lanka as if after a massive postpartum hemorrhage. The red angry rivers are once again placid enough for the poor of the land to wade in, frolic and bathe and do their chores as done for centuries past. The flotsam and filth of a corrupt society are now in the bosom of our once mighty reservoirs slowly and surely choking their life giving succor after each and every storm, in recent decades.

We have heard from our ancestors about the first hemorrhage and how our land bled for several decades after the colonial land grab of over two centuries ago. Though none of us have seen such depressing rape of the land in living memory we know what a tragedy it was to open up hallowed land by the accounts left to us by colonial civil servants of the caliber of John Still and Thomas Farr. Past deeds whether perpetrated by invaders or politicians have to be treated like bygones and are best laid to rest. However, that does not imply lessons learnt should be ignored or forgotten.

The soil eroded then was a part of the topsoil, a deposit bequeathed to us over a period of many thousand millenniums. Irreplaceable as it was, the land recovered, albeit slowly, as new plantation crops replaced the gigantic forest cover that towered over the central hill country.

As time marched on the mamoty was replaced by the weeding scraper which in turn became smaller and smaller as the weed population decreased and in our time almost disappeared from the scene as chemical weed control took hold. Waterfalls and rivers reverted to their natural gin clear state as we all have seen. This state of affairs did not emerge overnight. Many young Assistant Managers and their staff and workers spent long hours in the field to perfect the art of herbicidal weed control. I recall with admiration Nimal Weerasinha who contributed much during the early days of Gramoxone spraying in the mid sixties in the Upper Hewaheta region.

We now have the misfortune to see the terrible hemorrhage which our ancestors were loath to see occurring again. Not only are we losing our invaluable topsoil but we are also silting up our reservoirs spanning back to over two thousand years past. If the right lessons had been learnt from the past the present fiasco need not have happened.

The political decadence the country suffers from is a dead horse that has been flogged time and again but that is not the only cause for the parlous state of affairs now prevailing in the precious plantations. While the politicians care the least, the plantation sahibs forget the unfolding calamity soonest. Bar a Tissera here and a Livera yonder and a kothalawela in between there seems to be few in the land to mourn for the life giving topsoil or for the wellbeing of the paddocks that grew and brewed the world’s finest tea, as wrack and ruin marches along unhindered. 

Are we so blind as to not see this lull is only a brief respite before the bleed starts afresh with the next deluge? The factories and other buildings are allowed to rot on their foundations, fields neglected as if nothing else matters except the dollars falling into executive pockets of the Regional Plantations Companies’ (RPC) hierarchy. Let it not be forgotten that these are lands snatched from our peasants via the infamous wasteland act of a bygone colonial era.

On the other hand hardly a day goes by where bungalows snatched away from managers and their assistants-thus demoralizing them, are converted in to gaudy opulent boutique hotels more akin to boudoirs of a hooker in a red light zone. Shorn of their character and furniture they howl out a message of depraved minds to say the least. This is a national shame to destroy these heritage properties where the giants of the plantation industry lived and died. The cacophony of the elite who sing hosannas for the defaced, degraded mutilated bungalows of historical value is deafening as is their paucity of values. Yet not a word do they utter on behalf of the workers who toil on these lands and have to creep into their hovels after hard days toil for a pittance of a wage, month after month, year after year. It is sickening to hear “Ï have been in this bungalow in year such and such “and “I have been manager here and superintendent there” as if the plight of the plantation depends on who was where and when. It is too well known now, who went where, on which politician’s backing, to ruin, (often within a single pruning cycle) a perfect
thriving plantation.

The writer was privileged to be trained by legendary management agencies and planters and officials of the mid fifties of the last century who produced an excellent generation of tea garden managers.

A young assistant when first given a division to manage was first taken to the bungalow which would be his residence – often accompanied by the wife of the manager- to be shown the premises and the first principals inculcated into our young minds was that from boundary to boundary ones division was to be treated as a garden and the impeccable care given to the bungalow garden was to be extended to the remotest tea plant in the in the most inaccessible fields. This was an instruction that was underscored with utmost emphasis and later supervised to the last letter by these managers.

Trained under such a credo, garden managers in all plantations protected every ravine and water reservation that criss-crossed the plantations with commendable enthusiasm. In later years these unwritten laws were taken away to enable unscrupulous and vote hungry politicians to plant squatters in water reservations! No one can deny that rank has its privileges in every society and in all organizations! The privilege of decent living quarters was extended appropriately and according to the status of the members concerned taking into consideration the pecking order of the hierarchy in which they lived and worked. Taking away a manager or assistant from his bungalow and installing him in accommodation not befitting his status is most demoralizing and this practice seems to have been practiced with impunity by the Top heavy RPCs. The first step on the ladder of descent to demoralization!

Last but not least the manner in which the workers were to be treated was heavily underscored in the list of a young assistants “training schedule”. Their customs and religious beliefs were declared inviolate at all times.

As the years rolled by the Tea or Plantation Garden, concept fell away as the threat of land reform (which was inevitable) set in and the gloom of clickism set in with the impending change in the political scene. The credo which spawned a generation of excellent plantation managers gradually morphed into a system of rewarding political sycophants and boot lickers! The men of stature were silenced and withdrew into the back burner as they were gradually and surreptitiously rendered voiceless.

However, it must be said that in the first few years of post land reform change, the plantations continued to be even better managed by competent proven superintendents under the excellent Minister in charge of the industry. But the bell had begun to toll the creeping death knell of an industry (with the handing over of the management of these national assets to RPCs) which had brought in valuable foreign exchange worth millions of dollars for well over a century.

In a moment of midsummer folly we ushered in an era of decadence. We continue to harvest in abundance the fallout from misrule and corruption, all of which is due to reckless changes made to a proven system of Westminster type of democracy forced on us sans a mandate for such change.

Be that as it may, the plantation Raj regrettably fell into the clutches of the so called President’s Men. It was mayhem from there on, to the extent that even scoundrels who stooped to such reprehensible behavior as to heckle and jeer in filthy fowl language the first woman Prime Minister of the world, was considered a fitting qualification for those to be given jobs that decided the fate of our senior managers but also the fate of vast extents of land and blocks of real estate worth millions of dollars, which were later disposed at their whim and fancy. Though this TREASON is now history, the after effects on the plantation industry continues to reverberate and has had dire consequences on the well being of the prime land of the plantations and those who toil day after day with little or no hope of bettering their lot! The tragedy is that on top of all this misery comes the loss of the topsoil that nurtures these helpless people.

I crave the reader’s indulgence and ask you to permit me to pay tribute to some giants of yesteryear going back to almost six decades. Men and their spouses of stature and character now seldom seen in this era of corruption and degradation! It has been my privilege to have known, learned and worked with plantation industry colossi such as Albert Imray Allen, L. S. Perera, M.C.Bostock, Allen Cameron, R.A.Lushington, Dick Hazell, Roy Cameron, Barry Cameron, Selwyn Prior, Vivian Blaze, Wimal Wickramasinha, Ralston Tissera, Tiger Thyiagaraja, Maithree Gunawardena, Boyd-Moss clan, Tusker Ted Norris, Peter Baxter, Ana Jayasekera, Cecille de Silva, Maurice Herman,W. T. Williams, Jack Van Twest, A. Kunanayagam, J. K. C. Gunasekara, and many others  who are no more. The clan of Tisseras deserves special mention for their unique approach and success. Lastly as an octogenarian I bow with reverence and salute the “Last of the Mohicans” who are still with us namely Sam Rajiah, Jim Amarasinghe, Bhathiya Jayaratne, Ben Anandaappa,Vernon Tissera, Tissa Bandaranayake, Ken Murray  and a host of others we are fortunate enough to have with us. The list is too numerous to mention here. May they be given an opportunity to resurrect the bleeding corpse which was once the biggest money spinner of the nation!

I exhort the young men of today to turn the pages back to harvest from the wealth of experience of these charismatic men of yesteryear because with availability of modern technological knowhow the sky is the limit for the industry and they must fight with all the strength they can summon, to stop the imminent fragmentation of the plantations for the benefit of politicians and their cronies. The fate of the Hantane Tea garden is a glaring fiasco of recent decades! Let this not be the fate that hovers over the plantation Industry of Mother Lanka!

The rot set in when factories in little plantations centered in microclimatic valleys were closed down, vandalized and sold for scrap to pander to the egos of those who wanted to lord over empires thus destroying the variety of the tea industry where a thousand flowers bloomed as in the vine industry in other countries. I repeat let the microclimatic niches of which there are hundreds in Lanka, bloom into a myriad blossoms to cater to every tea drinking palate on the globe.

Usher in the age old art of picking tea leaves and ditch the stripping that is the scourge that nurtures the refuse tea mafia. Move away from the tar like decoction laced with chemicals that is touted as Tea. Cultivation of tea is a culture to be nurtured and achieved. Manufacture is an art and brewing is a finesse as is drinking the golden brew – a ritual!

To produce the ambrosia of the gods as in days gone by, decide to ask for leadership in politics and not POLITICAL INTERFERENCE. A phoenix will arise from the wreckage we see today. That is the only hope.

We have to turn the pages back to harvest from the wealth of experience of these charismatic men of yesteryear because with availability of modern technological knowhow the sky is the limit for the industry and the new generation of planters must fight with all the strength they can summon, to stop the imminent fragmentation of the plantations for the benefit of politicians and their cronies. The fate of the Hantane Tea garden is a glaring fiasco of recent decades! Let this not be the fate that hovers over the plantation Industry of Mother Lanka!

*Hemasiri (kalu) Perera is a retired tea planter and a manufacturing advisor

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