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Learning to Be the Colonised: The Experience of Indians Working Under Expats in the Mid-1900s

Representative image of British and Indian officials during colonial rule. Credit: Archival/Unknown

Representative image of British and Indian officials during colonial rule. Credit: Archival/Unknown

Office Chai, Planter’s Brew is a comprehensive collection of short anecdotes by a unique set of individuals – the Indians serving in foreign companies operating in India in the 1930s to the 1970s. This select cadre of Indians inherited the businesses of the Raj period, learning from their expatriate predecessors to take up the reins of business. Part of the learning was – of course – on the role of Indians vis-à-vis expatriate staff. As these two extracts, the first longer than the second, show, this was not always an easy learning.

From ‘An Only Visit to the Club’:

office-chai-planter-s-brew-400x400-imaegvnugzqzahheBarely a few weeks had passed since I joined the ICI when the General Manager sent for me. He told me that the management in England had decided to send the specially recruited Indian staff to the Imperial Chemical Industries factories and laboratories in England for a year’s training. Before I fully realised the totally unexpected stroke of luck that had befallen me, I was asked by the Travel Department to get ready to leave in two weeks’ time.

Travel to Europe, or for that matter any travel outside the country, had come to a halt during the War years. Hundreds of students, who had secured admissions in British and other foreign universities, could not proceed overseas to pursue their studies. I was intrigued when the travel section told me that I would travel on a troopship, but the shivers this gave rise to disappeared when I was told that the fare to England, which I had to bear would be the equivalent of three hundred rupees. The troop-carriers were huge vessels and it was in one of those — the Britannic of the White Star Lines, a sister ship of the famous Titanic — that I made my trip to England in the company of several thousands of British troops returning home after their duty in Japan and the Far East. There were also aboard some one hundred Indians, mostly senior students, on their long-awaited journey for advanced studies.

On landing in Liverpool, I was met by an Indian employee of ICI, who took me to Manchester and helped me to settle in as a lodger with an elderly lady, Mrs. Cooper, who had her home very close to the ICI laboratories in Blackley, a suburb of Manchester. I was the only lodger and Mrs. Cooper really went out of her way to make my stay as comfortable as possible. Life was very difficult in post-War England. I could not but admire the tenacity and the resolve of the English in coping with the very hard living conditions the War years had inflicted on them.

Conditions in the United Kingdom and Western Europe were so bad that hardly any Indian there at the time seriously considered the option of staying on there after completing his course. I was merely an onlooker as I knew that my future was linked, at least for the foreseeable future, with ICI.

When I returned to India, I was posted to the Madras branch of the ICI as a senior techno-commercial assistant. My work involved much travel and interaction with the company’s dealers. The work was very simple as with the exit of the more popular German dyes as a consequence of the war, there was no competition and it continued as a seller’s market for a long period. I was drawing a decent salary, the Company had given me a car, I spent much time with my old college friends and enjoyed my visits to different parts of what was then the Madras Presidency. But one totally unexpected incident ended my pleasant time with the ICI.

As an officer in the Company, I had membership of the Madras Gymkhana and I was expected to make use of it. I had never been to a club before, let alone an exclusive one like the Gymkhana. It was therefore with some trepidation that I paid my first visit to the Gymkhana one evening after work. I did not know anyone in the club and also did not know the rules and etiquette of the club. I was about to leave when I saw a British colleague of mine from ICI, a very close colleague at work, having drinks with some friends on the verandah of the Club. I walked up to him and greeted him only to be greeted in return with a blank look and the words “Are you talking to me? Do I know you?” I was very upset and moved to the tennis courts and watched ten-year old Ramanathan Krishnan play. That was my first and last visit to the Club. It also had a telling impact on my life as I realised that I could not work in such an environment and would have to look for another job.

From ‘Gentlemanly Seniors, Crude Juniors’:

The first line of Englishmen who came here as businessmen had many positive, professional qualities — open communication, appreciation of performance even to the extent of writing to a young executive’s guardian or parent, and courage of conviction. They adopted a friendly approach, and were both sociable and humane. All these qualities were absent in the second string of Englishmen who arrived here, some of whom were even crude, abrupt, lacked application of mind and humaneness. They never understood the value of motivation.

Every Indian, barring a few exceptions, having been trained by the expats, became accustomed to a conservative approach, a pessimistic attitude and stingy thinking. He would even restrict promotions or salary increases and not do proper appraisals.

One of the exceptions was HVR Iengar who came in from outside. An interesting case to be highlighted happened when Iengar became Chairman. He called on all staff at their tables, irrespective of their cadre. He shook hands with Ganapathy, and remarked: “Young man, I am happy you are doing well. When I started my career, I was like you, so do well.” To which Ganapathy replied: “Thank you, Sir, I expect to end up like you.” His expat manager did not appreciate this and told him later that his response to the Chairman was inappropriate.


Excerpted from Office Chai, Planter’s Brew, by S. Muthiah and Ranjitha Ashok. Published byWestland.