In honour of International Tea Day which falls on 15 December, Boh Tea whisked me off to the highlands to get to know their celebrated employees in the plantation. I talked to Sheela Arumugam, who grew up in the beautiful tea plantation – she’s seen and experienced it all as a tea plantation worker.
“I was born here in 1983,” Sheela tells me. We’re sitting high above at Boh’s Tea Centre, the telltale sign that we’re in Cameron Highlands is the cooling breeze, and the green rolling hills of tea bushes. “Not [born] in the plantation,” she quickly corrects with a laugh, in case I take her meaning literally.
She may hold the title of F&B supervisor at Boh Tea Centre now, but she her tertiary education tells a different story. Sheela graduated Teluk Intan Community College with a diploma in multimedia animation. After her studies, she returned to the plantation to live with her family – her father being chief clerk of Fairlie estate, she found no reason to leave the nest. Her mother, Rani, started working at Boh as a general worker, then transitioned into a tea plucker (“using her own hands!”). Sheela worked under her father in the accounting line doing data entry, until she married in 2007. “My husband is from Bentong. He also stayed with me, because I couldn’t get out of this environment,” Sheela says. It was not because she felt like she was being held back by family ties, far from it, but she loves the quaint, peaceful town of Cameron Highlands. “It’s free from pollution, it’s a free life, unlike the city life.”
When she speaks of childhood mischief, her eyes light up. “We joined the estate kids, we run here and there in the plantation grounds.” Her father specifically warned her against playing with the estate children – I sense a sort of class or hierarchy gap – but when asked what her favourite playtime past time was, she says kala jengking (scorpion). There was a pregnant pause, before she clarifies – “the traditional game, not the scorpion!” Sheela was eight at the time.
Seated across from me are Sheela’s own beautiful children, one a boy of nine, the other a girl of seven. Both looked as restless as they were curious with the interview. “How old are they?” I ask. “You can ask them, they can speak,” Sheela smiles at her children.
“I’m… five,” the boy blurts with a shy grin. A heartbeat later, he changes his mind. “Eight!”
Sheila laughs and says, “I think he’s panicking.” Her son, a bright young boy who seems to have a wealth of knowledge about many things, Lukkeshraao, is nine; and her daughter, decked out in a sweet pink saree with a sweeter smile in her eyes, Yuogeetha, is seven. Both of them attend SJKT Ladang Boh One, a primary school located in the Boh estate. I can see how appealing a life without the stress of the city is – furthermore, I can see how easy it is to not leave the comfort of the estate.
Yet, I can’t help but wonder about her children’s wishes, should they decide to leave the green rolling hills behind and step foot into the city. After all, millennials and travelling often go hand in hand. I ask Sheela if she expects her children to follow in her footsteps.
“No,” Sheela says. Anyway, it’s not a question to be asked early on, more like a deciding factor later in the future. “They have to continue their studies!”
Does she plan to come down to KL? “Maybe in the future? If there is a right opportunity.”
Sheela, her children, and her parents