Most Peaceful Job
by Altaf Shaikh
After marriage my wife enjoyed sailing with me for some 8 years. For seafarers’ wives who sail as first class passengers sea life is best if they don’t get sea sick. As there are no schooling facilities for children on board ship, I left
sea life for shore job and joined Maritime Academy Malaysia, situated at
Malacca-a historical city and port. There were a dozen of other ship captains and
marine chief engineers like me, from different countries. Among them there was Mr. Zulkifli, a young local Malay marine chief engineer. He was very shy and soft-spoken. My observation for him was that he should have not left sea life for shore job so early – specially for teaching job like this in which the pace of life is very slow. For an active young man it is better to sail for some time and face the challenges of sea and ship machinery. One should try to gain as much experience as possible at sea before imparting knowledge as an instructor. And again at shore a young marine engineer like him should prefer practical job in some factory, shipyard or five star Hotel where one can work on ship like machineries such as boiler, generator, electricpower distribution, pumps, refrigeration plant etc and prove his worth. And of course the salary in those jobs is also much higher than in teaching. But our Malay friend Zulkifli preferred teaching profession as according to him; there is peace of mind in it while in other fields there are numerous problems of subordinate staff.
“They always grumble for more holidays, salary increments, house or car allowances, medical and children education facilities, better uniform and working conditions etc etc,” he tried to explain, “and even owners and the bosses create headaches when there is engine problem at high seas, a machine unit stops working at factory or some air condition system of hotel fails.”
Those were some of the reasons for which our Malay friend didn’t like to work on board ship, in factory or in a 5-Star hotel – who usually employ marine engineers. Mr. Zulkifli wanted calmness and tranquility in his life; hence he grounded himself and took shelter in this educational institute. But it was a matter of a few months only. The quiet and un-disturbing life he desired and expected here, was not achieved. One fine morning he came to inform me about his resignation.
“Why?” obviously I was surprised to ask him.
“I don’t like working here also. Everywhere there are problems and problems. On ship seamen and in port dock worker make life miserable.”
“And here?” I asked.
“Students create nuisance – everyday they bring unimaginable ship problems for extricating solutions… I can’t understand where to go … there seems to be no place for serene and harmonic life.”
I stared at him and said: “Yes Mr. Zulkifli, in a way you are right but in my opinion there is still one place.”
“Siapa Kerja?” (What Job?) he asked in Malay.
”How about agriculture..? I suggested.
Mr. Zulkifli made a grim face and said: “It is all the same. In this juncture of century even Zamindari is not an easy thing. It is like an industry. Besides pumping your investment in better seed and better chemicals you have to face crook farmers who have unending demands…” he stopped and became quite for a while and then all of a sudden some novel idea flashed to his mind, “.. Yes Mr. Altaf. In cultivation there is one sector in which there is a serenity and charm. And that is coconut plantation.”
‘How come?” Certainly he surprised me by saying so.
“Because monkeys neither demand higher salaries nor medical or other facilities.
“Saya tidak faham!” (I could not get you) I showed the blankness.
“You see,” he tried to explain me, “Malaysian soil and climate is ideal for the coconut plantation. In coconut plantation there is no need of farmers or daily–wageworkers. You have to buy the coconut seedlings and plant them only once. There is no need of wartering as rains meet the requirement. So you don’t need any body to look after it. After five or six years when the trees are mature and bear fruit just keep one or two monkeys for plucking purpose. You keep them busy for whole day and just two or three bananas are sufficient to keep the poor souls happy.”
On that day, I came to know that coconuts from these tall trees of Malaysia are plucked by monkeys.
Soon our friend Zulkifli left us and time passed on on its normal pace. Due to rains and greenery I liked the place and signed another 3 years contract of staying in Malacca. Soon I shifted from my 3rd floor apartment to a vacated house. It was a large bungalow house on sea beach with large number of fruit trees such as durian, rambutan, doku, custard apple, including half a dozen coconut trees.
On one Sunday morning, while I was sitting outside of my house on a cement bench, and reading newspaper a man came on bike with a monkey sitting on its handle. He parked his bike under durian tree and advanced towards me with monkey on his shoulder. He was holding a long rope in one hand and malayan dagger (parang) in other. I thought he came to perform some monkey tricks for children. I felt sorry that my children left for a picnic an hour earlier and that they missed the monkey show. On my informing him so, he told that he brings in our neighborhood for coconut plucking as it is not easy for human beings to climb such old and very tall trees.
There I learnt that it was a common practice throughout the Malaysia as one cannot afford to keep his monkey just for a few trees. The monkey-man keeps 7 percent of coconuts plucked or its price for the job – and this is the accepted rate throughout Malaysia and in southern Thailand.
On my consent, monkey–man loosened the long rope and signaled his boy (monkey) to climb the tree for plucking. On reaching top of the tree the monkey started examining coconuts one by one before plucking them. The monkey plucked only those which were fully ripe and brownish in colour, because according to monkey man, his ‘boy’ is trained only for those type of coconuts.
There are monkeys who can pluck the green ones called Kelapa Muda also (for drinking milk only) if their owner orders them so.
Later I came to know that Malacca has reputed ‘monkey-school’ for training monkeys in coconut plucking. People from other states of Malaysia come to Malacca to buy trained (rather graduated) monkeys or they leave their under graduates for training in plucking coconuts of various grades. And there are morning sessions as well as lodging and boarding arrangements so as the monkeys can stay in hostel during training period, with extra fees.
To pluck the coconut is not an easy thing. You cannot just pull the coconut from tree like a mango or an apple. You have to rotate and rotate the coconut till the jute like joining cord snaps. And that is what monkey was doing after searching for the correct pick. Besides that there are various poisonous insects on coconut trees and I had a very bitter experience of that during my early days in Malaysia while plucking ‘king coconuts’ – Which are grown on dwarfed trees. Monkeys on the contrary feel happy in that environment as they take it as feast and enjoy eating insects as well as large ants and wasps.
After completing one tree the monkey came down obeying his master’s order. On the nearer ones the monkey jumped like Tarzan from one tree top to another without coming down. Anyhow for this the ‘monkey–man’ has to decide for the safety factor. After finishing a few trees, the monkey-man called his ‘boy’ down instead of making a direct flight to another tree. The man took out a banana from his cloth bag and handed over to monkey to enjoy. Monkey became very happy to get it and after giving a low-pitched shrill he sat down in the feet of his master and started nibbling the banana. The monkey never bothered whether it was over–ripped or raw one, and whether it was ‘pisang emas’ (golden banana) a superior and export quality banana of Malaysia or it was simple ‘pisang tandok’ (‘horn of bull’ banana – the inferior variety – not eaten as fruit but cooked as a vegetable) .
After watching this drama I realized that my Malay friend Zulkifli was very much correct.
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(Altaf Shaikh is a famous scholar, a travelogue writer and a well known marine engineer.
Born in 1944, Altaf Shaikh got his early education from Hala, then from Cadet College Petaro. He studied Marine Engineering at Marine Academy Chittagong, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh ) and did post graduation from the World Maritime University , Malmo , Sweden .
After sailing as Chief Engineer on various types of ships for some 15 years, he served Malaysian and then Pakistan Marine Academy as Head of Marine Engineering Dept. for some 20 years. He is author of more than 70 books mostly travelogues in Sindhi and in Urdu. He is also a regular columnist of daily newspapers of Pakistan, Malaysia & Japan.)