N.S. SANKAR was a sturdy figure. Having lived on the Pamol estate near Kluang for many years as a senior divisional manager, he was a familiar presence when I joined the organisation as I had met him at meetings and parties for visitors and directors.
He lived in a spacious bungalow, which stood at the end of a laterite road, surrounded by towering Ashoka trees.
During a buffet lunch for visitors from Unilever’s head office in London, I had the pleasure of meeting Sankar’s family. His wife, Radha, was present along with their two young daughters, Jalaja and Vanaja, and their five-year-old son, Raj.
Like other families, the children also played a role at parties, helping with the serving of groundnuts and cashew nuts, offering drinks, and undoubtedly, absorbing the conversations in the room that was bathed in sunlight and touched by the breeze, with the open doors and windows creating a warm and inviting atmosphere.
The conversation revolved around topics such as rainfall, crop trends and the cost of goods in the shops. Raj, with his bright eyes and a figure like his father’s, was especially cheeky. His ready smile often prompted visitors to engage him with questions. Like his sisters, Raj was highly intelligent.
Sankar was proud of his son, often expressing it by patting him on the shoulder as he passed by, evoking a smile from the boy. It was clear that Raj was his father’s son.
It was evident that Sankar was on the way up in his career. He held the confidence and trust of the directors, and recognising this, I treaded carefully.
Occasionally, we would pass each other along the road. One day Sankar stopped his car and said: “I hear the union leader wants to see you. He will make some demands. You may like to check with me first.”
He did not elaborate, and I contemplated his words as it would take time to ascertain if he was indeed a friend.
Two days later, in my office at Tai Nee Ai Division, I was informed that the union leader, Amran, wished to meet me. Amran, a thin middle-aged man, exuded confidence as he walked in. He wanted a higher rate for harvesting the tall palms. When I saw Sankar again, I relayed the information to him.
“He is testing the waters because you are new. Any alteration in rates requires approval from the estate manager,” Sankar explained.
Shortly thereafter, with the retirement of the estate manager, the company promoted Sankar. Amran, the union leader, now had to meet him on all issues. I could see that Amran had lost some of his swagger.
Sankar rarely smiled, and when he did, it signalled trouble. During the meeting, in a hushed tone, he elongated the name of the union leader to Amaran, which meant a “warning” in Malay. This subtle but barely concealed tactic aimed to instil fear, and this sense of fear was beginning to affect me.
I soon realised that Sankar worked harder than I did. He was up before dawn to check if any oil palm fruit bunches had been left by the road, including in my area.
During his field visits, he walked without breaking a sweat, and if the answers were unsatisfactory, the questioning persisted.
His acumen with figures was so sharp that any oversight would find him back in the Tai Nee Ai Division.
I grew uncomfortable with the way he made me work harder and pay meticulous attention to details, more than I cared to do. I began to think that he was deliberately targeting me.
He went to the extent of calling my house. At that time, my son Fazal, who was almost two years old, loved to answer the phone. His favourite phrase, “Daddy sleep”, led me into trouble.
Despite the challenges, Sankar promoted me to Home Division, which came with more responsibilities. I also moved into the bungalow where he lived. Meanwhile, Sankar had moved to the main bungalow, a grand white mansion situated atop a hill.
I occasionally found myself in trouble for I had a problem with waking up early. My body clock made me sleep late. Cold winds made me sneeze, and getting caught in a drizzle often resulted in a lingering cough. Sankar seemed to know my weaknesses.
One day, he called to inquire about my whereabouts and, sensing my reluctance to answer, clarified whether I was at my house or in the Home Division.
I told him I was in my house. He seemed to have eyes and ears everywhere, instilling a sense of fear whenever he called. However, late one night, the phone rang and Sankar’s tone of voice conveyed an urgency.
He asked if I could drive him to the hospital in Kluang, revealing that Raj was unwell. He said he tried calling others but was not able to reach anyone.
As I reached Sankar’s house in the company Volkswagen, he emerged from the house carrying the limp form of Raj.
As we drove to the hospital, Sankar explained that Raj had ingested the wrong medicine, making him unconscious.
It was a Saturday night, and I could not help think that I could have been away taking Fazal for a drive.
At the hospital, an antidote was administered to empty his stomach. As I waited outside, I pondered the fortuity of being in the right place at the right time. Sankar, shaken but grateful, needed my assistance.
After a couple of hours, Raj recovered, preventing what could have escalated into a more severe situation. Days later, I learned that the family had experienced a previous loss – a son – and it took many years before Raj arrived. He became the cherished pet of the entire household, especially adored by Sankar.
Raj’s swift recovery restored his witty self, and the incident soon became a thing of the past, albeit not entirely forgotten.
Now I could move about freely, occasionally going to my division later in the morning without drawing a word from Sankar.
During his visits, explaining the details of my crop and costs became easier, with no unkind remarks.
In management staff meetings at his office, I could sit back, assured that no questions would be blazing my way. The interrogative bullets instead flew over my head, targeting other management staff, and I observed them with pity.
At times, Sankar would attempt to raise his voice in my presence, but restrained himself when our eyes met.
He knew I did him a favour that could not easily be repaid.
The writer has extensive experience in the management of oil palm plantations. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org