Ramdeen, the Apprentice

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Ramdeen’s formal education was cut short when his father passed away. He was twelve then and was on the verge of attending a   high school as a paying student. The family had no income, and caring for the home fell on him. He sensed, as the next male, that he was in charge.  No one told him that, but quite a few people were trying to get him a job. And he knew, like his friend, Arjoon, he would never attend high school once he began working. That was a shattered dream.

Ramdeen took all that in stride. Soon he forgot about his education and secured a non-paying job.

‘Don’t worry,’ the garage owner told his uncle.’ Let a few months pass, and he’ll get something.’

‘But he has to live,’ the uncle said.’ How he’ll live without money?’

‘He’ll live,’ the owner said.

‘But how….’

The owner cut short their exchange. ‘Karma will work for him. Look at his face. He has good karma.’

Ramdeen spent several months at the garage learning the ins and outs of a motor mechanic. He quickly acquired the basics of repairing a car, but no money ever came. As the days passed, he was forced to collect discarded beer bottles from the drains. He sold these to the wholesaler, giving him a little money. He did not leave his job but hoped one day, one Friday, the owner would hand him a brown envelope with a few dollars.

Ramdeen waited patiently, but his day for receiving never came.

Ramdeen’s father did work in a sugar factory as a machinist. He heard that the same company was recruiting your men as apprentices. He thought his chances would be good, so he applied for a position. And like magic, the company offered him one.

Ramdeen spent about thirty years with the sugar factory. On his apprentice days, he reported for work as usual but left the job at about three o’clock and hustled to the technical school at San Fernando to attend classes. He found attending school three days a week very challenging, but Ramdeen persevered. While four of the twelve apprentices did not complete their training program, Ramdeen did. He learnt the rudiments of engineering and did much more than was generally expected of him. He did an I.C.S. course privately and succeeded after three years.

Usually, older men never liked young and ambitious boys to be their bosses. With Ramdeen, it seemed different. The workers loved Ramdeen’s father for his cool and easy ways. Now they transferred that love and admiration to his son.  It was common to hear the remark, ‘You ent see he is looking like his father. Watch how he does walk. Just like the old man.’

And that was the reception Ramdeen received, and it made life easy for him. Ramdeen never knew much about his father’s behaviour at work or outside the house, but the workers narrated stories of his father, and Ramdeen was impressed. Ramdeen was highly delighted to be among the apprentices. He quickly learnt the ins and outs and the ups and downs of the factory. So after a few years of post-apprenticeship work, Ramdeen was promoted to assistant foreman. No one objected. The position was temporary because the assistant foreman fell ill.  Perhaps that added to less pressure on the workers’ accepting him. The workers gladly welcomed him. He continued his simplicity despite his elevation at this young age.

Ramdeen performed well during his short acting appointment, and the senior engineers were loud in their approval.

‘You’ve got a solid one there, ‘one said.

‘Pretty good at carrying out instructions,’ another added.

‘I wish the system allows him to stay there,’ a third said. ‘A very good deputy.’

Many of his former co-apprentices thought that everything could not work in Ramdeen’s favour for long. A few thought he rose too quickly to a particular rank while they were considered mediocre, mainly because they had not given themselves an extra push as Ramdeen did. When the new engineer assumed the responsibility and Ramdeen was asked to provide him with a first-hand account of running the factory, many thought Ramdeen’s weakness would be exposed, for all knew  Bob was an English-trained engineer who carried the credentials O.N.C. and H. N. C. Ramdeen was the least concerned. He was asked to show Bob the running of the factory, and that was what he did. He was asked to work with  Bob for one month, but after two weeks, Bob told his general manager,’ I am okay. Ramdeen has done a great job but I’ll consult him as I need to.’

‘What! In two weeks?’

‘Yes. In just two weeks.’

‘Are you more confident now about the running of the factory?’

Bob said, ‘Let me tell you something. And trust me in this one. He may not know much technical language, but trust me the bloke knows the place at his finger-tips.’

The general manager was not keen on Ramdeen and Bob and dismissed further discussion. Bod did not know he was sent to replace the general manager. The general manager left for England within a month, and Bob assumed responsibility for running the factory. Bob knew he was here for at least five years. He also knew the other engineers running the factory, but they did not have Ramdeen’s experience. So whenever an issue arose, Bob turned to Ramdeen.

At this same time, after gaining independence, the government mandated that all companies enroll a few student engineers from the local university to give them much-needed practical training and experience. The view was that local engineers would eventually run all the industries.

This sugar factory was mandated to take in at least six students and afford them training with the senior personnel in the company.

Would that be possible?  Bob asked himself.

Bob himself did not know and thought of his engineers, who all seemed young and recently out of university. Of the eight engineers in the company, no one was working there for more than two crop seasons. So no one was experienced enough to tutor these first-year engineering students.

Bob acknowledged that it was most difficult for him to manage the factory and, at the same time, tutor the young engineers. So he turned to Ramdeen.

‘Me, Mr. Bob? Me? I don’t know much….’

‘You’ll be a good teacher, Ramdeen.’

‘I mean I know a little and I read up some things but the words and them big big and they give me trouble….’

Ramdeen’s mild protest bought no change in Bob, mainly because Bob had no choice. Ramdeen was the only candidate. All the university student engineers were about his age, but Bob assured him that age would be no barrier.

At their first meeting, two students remarked, ‘But he is a little boy. He must be a handyman. He should still be at school.’

Another added,’ I wonder what he qualified in?’

‘I sure he has no degree,’ another chipped in.

The student engineers were allowed to roam the factory with an apprentice as their guide. During one of these tours, one student said, ‘And that fellow, Ramdeen, what ‘s he qualified in?’

‘Qualified?’ the former apprentice said.

‘Yes. Qualified. Mechanical? Electrical? Instrument? What?’

The apprentice said, ’Just like the others. All apprentices.’

And the group burst out into a loud peal of laughter and wondered how could an assistant foreman, perhaps aiming for the top position in the factory, did not possess even an ordinary degree.

‘Good grief?’

‘What on earth!’

‘This place will crash soon.’

‘Not even A-Levels in physics and I must take instructions from him? What the hell?’

The apprentice did add fuel to the fire when he whispered,’ And he sucks up to the big man, Bob. And Bob looks like the kind of person who like people to suck up to him?’

‘You mean he bribes, Bob?’

‘Definitely. Brings him a wrapped roti and chicken regularly.’

‘Take him out on weekends. That’s how he’s always in his company.’

‘And where’s Bob from?’

‘England.’

‘Then I expect him to like people to suck up to him. These fellas always like loafers around them.’

And the picture became so much clearer to the student engineers. And even though a few of Ramdeen’s former colleagues knew he had qualified himself with a reputable correspondence course, no one mentioned that to the visiting engineers.

Ramdeen assessed the student engineers as willing to increase their practical knowledge of factory running. And against this background, he always kept them in his mind. He taught them as best as possible, giving them useful, practical experience. So far, they have accomplished every task he assigned them though they took nearly always twice the time. At times he assigned each to an apprentice or a labourer. He wanted them to see things from a different point of view. Nothing worked out exactly as he envisaged, and it puzzled him that he was trying and they were not reaping the rewards.

Ramdeen was too pure and simple. He never thought that his former colleagues would work against him. No. He never thought that. His former colleagues poisoned the students’ minds against him. Instead of sticking to their jobs, they spent valuable time analyzing, actually bad-talking him,    pointing out that he was still an old apprentice,  unqualified to demonstrate precisely how things were done, adding that engineering was an exact science. He, by his lack of higher education, could indeed mislead them.

Ramdeen was unaware of these happenings and whisperings around his back, and things became a bit open one day when he confronted them having a tea break. In the middle of the reaping season, after he had assigned each student-engineer a simple task, he found them huddled in the office half an hour later.

‘I guess you fellas are finish with your little work,’ he said to them, a faint smile on his lips.  It was his way of indirectly saying, Could you tell me how far you have reached with your assignment? To his question, they offered various reasons, none pleasing to him, and these reasons brought out a bit of anger in him.

One boldly said, ‘I need a pair of gloves to wear to put the grease.’

‘You need a what?’

‘Gloves to wear. There are no gloves around.’

‘The bearings need greasing and you telling me you want a pair of gloves?’

‘Yes. I can’t put my hand in grease.’

‘You want to be an engineer,’ he said, almost in a shout,’ and you can’t put your hand in grease. What happen when you go to the toilet, you carry …. ‘He stopped abruptly there because this statement would have gotten him into deep trouble.

‘What you were going to say, Ramdeen?’ And the student engineer looked at his friends as if to say, ‘Note his statement.’

‘I am saying this is madness,’ Ramdeen said. ‘I spend my apprentice days using my hand to grease everything and you want gloves? Use your fingers, man. Use your fingers.’

‘My fingers? Not mine, Ramdeen. Not mine at all.’

‘Then how to best grease the bearings? You tell me.’

‘Use gloves.’

‘Gloves, eh?’ He searched their faces. ‘Here things happen. Here is not the classroom. Here is the action classroom.’ A few of them sucked their teeth loudly. ‘Because if we don’t do it, the bearings will get hot and burn and the mill will shut down. No canes to cut to feed any mill.  No labourers to work. No carts or tractors to pull cane. No crane to weigh. No nothing to do anything because you want a pair of gloves to wear to grease bearing! Madness. Look. Just you fellas get up and do your assignments. That’s all I want from you.’

No one rose from his seat.

Ramdeen looked at them with hard eyes, but that did not evoke any response.

‘That is in your time. Times change.,’ the student engineer said.’ Now is time for gloves. Not fingers.’

Ramdeen ventured further. ‘And you fellas are having coffee while the mills ae rolling? I thought you’ll be out there watching the operation.’

They continued to sip their coffee.

Ramdeen persisted, ‘And you, why are you not by the carrier. The conveyor area?’

The answer came swiftly.’ I instructed the labourer to do it. And am sure he’s doing it.’

‘Oh. You are the boss now,’ Ramdeen said.

‘Senior to the labourer.’

‘I asked you,’ Ramdeen said. ‘I asked you for a particular reason. You’re here to learn. The labourer knows about it already.’

‘The main thing is to get the work done.’

‘No,’ Ramdeen said.’ If I did want, I would ah ask the labourer but I ask you.’

‘It seem you have plenty things to learn still, Ramdeen.’

The answer shocked Ramdeen. He uttered an obscenity under his breath before he said, ‘Yes. You are right. Plenty more things to learn.’ He shook his head sideways. ‘Anybody going to see about the assignment now.’

They all remained seated and continued to sip their tea and coffee.

Unable to reach the undergraduates, he left the office to attend the crying factory. He was worried that something would go amiss and he would be held responsible. The engineers were doing their jobs, but he must look after his assignments. As he walked out, he wondered how one felt when things were unattended. And the unfinished products go to waste? All previous efforts in the process went to waste. He could not reconcile himself to that. He had grown up in this factory and wanted to see it succeed. The workers had great confidence in him because they had great faith in his father.

If the crop season failed, the workers would get no bonus, which would not go well with him. He must do his duty and all other unfinished duties. This was the man, Ramdeen.

Ramdeen thought that the student engineers were willfully disobedient, and though he had been as straightforward as he could with them, it was to no avail. In his mind, he did have a responsibility and was carrying it out to the best of his ability.

He also recognised that the crop season would end soon, and the university students would return to their classes.

Bob said to them in his office, ‘Well. I wish you fellas well as you return to your classes. However, as part of your contractual agreement, you are required to state in writing how you felt about working here and what recommendation you would make to improve the place.’

‘How long it should be, sir?’

‘Oh. I didn’t think of that,’ Bob said. ‘I really didn’t think of that. ‘

‘About six pages, sir?’ one student said.

‘Or longer?’ another added.

‘Well.’  Bob pulled his nose.’ I prefer you give it to me in point form. Is that okay?’

‘Oh yes,’ one added. ‘Not a problem.’

‘Okay,’ Bob said. ‘So I’ll collect the report in two days’ time. Give it to me personally though.’

‘Yes, sir.’ All six looked at one another and smiled. Bob, too, smiled, for he was anxious to read their report. It followed that the student engineers were more anxious than he and handed in their reports in one day. And he wondered why the anxiety to submit. He spent more than an hour reading them. In the end, though, he smiled, and nodded his head, saying to himself Now I understand why the haste. That conclusion forced him to hatch a little idea.

It was against this background that he spoke to them in an even friendlier tone in his office.

‘Now, I want all of you to ask one simple question. Ask about one aspect of the factory’s operation you wanted to know about that was inadequately addressed for whatever reason. And you feel you’ll like to know more about it. You don’t have to explain the cause. Simply ask the question.

‘Please do not discuss the questions, but the answers you get must make you feel fulfilled in this place that you have not wasted time here.

‘I am stepping out of the office and will collect the questions when I return. Say in about half an hour’s time.’

‘Okay, sir.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Sure, sir.’

There was a liveliness in their voice, and Bob observed it. It was a sure sign of their intense interest, he said to himself. He smiled. He understood more than they thought he did.

‘Ask your hardest question and I’ll try to answer them. I am suppose to be an expert.’

The trainees all smiled. They would show their factory manager who they were and how incompetent he was. When he returned, they were all ready to deliver their questions. Bob was most pleased with their response that even on their last day of work, they were performing, and he sure thought it augurs well for engineers.

And then he addressed them all. ‘Oh. By the way, we’ll be having light refreshments and a little chit chat in the conference room. Say in fifteen minutes’ time.   ‘

‘Yes, sir,’ they said almost in chorus.

Half an hour later, everyone seemed to be in a chit-chatty mood in the conference room.

‘Now I am going to look at the questions before you leave,’ he said to all six. ‘Just in case I need to clarify anything.’

‘So I’ll order a bit of coffee while we chit-chat.’

No one objected, but Bob saw a little concern on their faces.

And the time arrived as the minutes ticked away.

And Bob was anxious to see the questions and to demonstrate a few other undiscovered facts. He had told them to ask questions, but now he was prepared to answer them.

But the trainees didn’t care. They were leaving that day, did not belong to this stupid, incompetently-run sugar factory and would surely embarrass their bosses. It was their goal, and Bob sensed that.

All sat smiling around the table.  Bob handed them a copy of their questions with these words, ‘I want you to ask me your question. So we can have a good discussion, and all can benefit and…..’ There was a light knock on the door, and the door was softly pushed in.  Two engineers walked in.

‘Sir, are you looking for us?’

‘No. Not really but since you are here, do enjoy some coffee.’

‘Thank you, sir.’ The two helped themselves to a cupful of coffee each.

‘My friends are leaving today so I ask them to ask me one question each about things not too clear in their minds.’ Bob looked at the trainees. ‘Is that true so far.’

‘We are happy to have a discussion,’ the group leader said. ‘We’ll enjoy it. I am sure.’

‘Thank you,’ Bob said. ‘Now, let’s get on to the questions. I have all the questions here but will ask ….’He searched their faces. ‘Who will go first?’

Before the speaker responded, there was a heavy knock on the door. ‘Now who could this be? I don’t like being disturbed. I hope it’s nothing trivial.’ He looked at the door with hard eyes.’ Come in.’

And the door was gently urged in. Ramdeen presented himself. ‘Sir, do you need to see me?’

‘’Me? No, Ramdeen. Not at all.’ He looked at the trainees and smiled. ’Actually, I am swamped at the moment.

‘Sorry, sir,’ Ramdeen turned around to walk away. ’Sorry for bothering you.’

Ramdeen was closing the door behind him when Bob arrested his attention. ‘Come. Sit with us, Ramdeen. Join the group.’

‘Me, sir? Me.’

‘Yes.  I may need your help.’

‘My help, sir?’ And when Bob repeated in the affirmative, Ramdeen said, ‘Okay, sir.’ Ramdeen sat behind the trainees.

Bob turned to the trainees. ‘Since Ramdeen is here, you may ask him the questions and where he falters, the two engineers here and I will assist.’ Bob smiled while searching the eyes of the trainees. ‘Is that okay with you?’

It was not what they expected, and only one answered,’ It’s okay, sir. It’s okay.’

After half an hour, Ramdeen was still on the floor and had answered only three questions. Each time he concluded an answer, Bob said, ‘Are you satisfied with that, Mr. Engineer? Does it make sense?’ And when the heads nodded in open approval, Ramdeen answered the other questions.

Bob sat on his chair and listened, more often looking at the young engineers’ faces to see the reaction, an amused smile fixed on his face.

‘Sir,’ one trainee said. ‘We have to leave at four and it’s now three o’ clock.’

‘Don’t bother with time,’ Bob said. ‘If we run late, I’ll pay you over times. Have no fear.’ Bob was smiling. ‘Are you all busy, engineers?’ This question was directed to the senior engineers, and when  the answer came up as no, he turned to Ramdeen, ‘ Ramdeen, are you in a hurry?’

‘No, sir,’ Ramdeen said. ‘I am trying to answer these questions.’

A few minutes after Ramdeen concluded, Bob said, ‘Well. Let’s get on with the show. I have with me six letters. I had asked the trainees to write a letter each documenting his stay here and what it meant to him. These are their responses.

‘Now I want each one to read his own letter telling those gathered, including their own friends, how they felt. That should be pretty interesting.’

‘Sir, but that was suppose to be in confidence.’ They near-shouted the words.

‘Sir, is it okay if we don’t read it,’ one trainee said

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Please, sir.’

At the end. Bob said, ‘You were brave and bold to tell us how to correct the factory. Now read it aloud for all to hear. We must do things face to face. Ramdeen answered all your questions without knowing what you were going to ask. Now you read what you wrote about him in particular.’ Bob sat in his chair. ‘One by one, you begin reading. And Ramdeen has no idea what you’re going to say.’

The spokesman for the group said, ‘Sir, we wish to withdraw the letters.’

‘Withdraw what? So are you telling me you told a pack of lies in these letters? That’s what you are saying?’

‘Well, sir….In a way .’

‘I am going to read them with the help of the engineers. Whether you like it or not.’

Despite their protests, Bob had all the letters read.

In the end, the spokesman said, ‘Sir, we are embarrassed. It was meant to be personal.’

‘Really? Truly? Personal? You destroy a man in your letters and you want to be personal? If I had acted on your letters, I could have disciplined or fired Ramdeen and you would have been at the university laughing in your classroom. What a shame! A man came up through the ranks, a million times better than you and your academic degree and you have no respect for him? You think a degree is everything? It’s just a piece of paper filled with theories. ‘Bob shook his head sideways. ‘If you wish to, you could apologize to Mr. Ramdeen.’

And as though they were waiting for that opportunity, they rushed over and shook his hands, saying, ‘Sorry, sir. Sorry. We misjudged you. Sorry, sir. Your answers show depth.’

Ramdeen shook his head and added a smile to his lips. Beyond that, he communicated nothing.

‘And you see how I addressed him as Mr. Ramdeen. And by the way, I have two Masters Degrees yet I needed an unqualified man to take me around. Ramdeen is really the factory manager. Not me. Because whatever I need to know, I ask him. I may know a lot of big phrases and concepts but those empty phrases need a skilled, experienced man to translate them. To translate things into real action, to make things go. And Ramdeen is that man.’

Shocked, the spokesman said, looking at Ramdeen, ‘Yes, sir. We now understand, sir, you cannot substitute anything for experience.’

And Ramdeen smiled.

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Vishnu Gosine
Vishnu Gosine

A retired teacher. His short fiction appeared in newspapers, magazines (The Caribbean Writer, BIM) and anthologies and broadcast on the local radio stations and on the BBC. He has authored three works of fiction, including The 'Twelve o’ Clock Man'. His latest novel, 'SONIA', will be published by JAV Publishing House in 2023.

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