Published in Mar-Apr 2023
In 1952, Lever Brothers shifted their headquarters to remote Rahim Yar Khan, the site of their newly constructed Dalda factory. An eyewitness recalls the heady atmosphere of those early days.
The story of how Lever came to Rahim Yar Khan is fascinating. It contains all the elements of a pot-boiler, set in the twilight years of the Raj. The cast of characters includes a nawab, a powerful expatriate member of the landed gentry and a local contractor. On the other side is a group of negotiators representing Lever’s interests in India. Set in a princely state, the backdrop is the build-up to Indian independence and the Partition of the subcontinent.
Since the early forties, Lever had been looking for a site that could manufacture and supply vanaspati to the northwest. Two local players appeared on the scene, equipped with political clout. Sir Maratab Ali, the force behind the Ali Group and William Roberts, a locally-based British landlord with vast cotton holdings. The two gentlemen were offered generous concessions by the Nawab of Bahawalpur, including the grant of a large tract of land in Rahim Yar Khan, access to canal water, attractive tax holidays and other perks. The men were equipped to go ahead with the textile mill as they had experience with cotton spinning processes. What they lacked was technical expertise in the manufacture of edible oils or soap. This is where Lever Brothers stepped in.
After prolonged negotiations, a deal was struck. Although Rahim Yar Khan was remote and infrastructure and skilled labour were in short supply, there were advantages. It was located halfway between Karachi and Lahore and situated along the North-South railway line. Rahim Yar Khan was also located in the heart of an important cotton-growing area. As a result, there was an abundance of cotton seed from which the oil could be extracted.
Construction began in 1949. The Sadiq Oil and Allied Mills was inaugurated in 1952 and presided over by Khwaja Nazimuddin, the prime minister of Pakistan. The mill initially processed cotton-seed with the aim of providing crude cotton-seed oil. The oil was then processed in a refinery. In parallel, the factory began to make vegetable ghee (vanaspati) and in 1952, the first tin of Dalda banaspati rolled off the production line.
Life in Rahim Yar Khan in those days was not easy. During the construction, the chief engineer, H.A. Snowdon lived in a tent. His wife was extremely supportive and would join him for extended periods before returning exhausted to England.
In 1952, Lever Brothers decided to shift their headquarters to Rahim Yar Khan. Given that there was no accommodation available in town, a huge estate had to be constructed. The first building was a bungalow housing the offices and three massive hangars brought in from Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka). Gradually, a handful of bungalows began to appear.
There was only one phone in the town. The only entertainment was in the shape of a dingy cinema hall. The factory was surrounded by agricultural fields and people were afraid to venture out at night for fear of jackals. There were no shops and acquiring a loaf of bread was something of an ordeal. The bread would arrive from Karachi on the Khyber Mail and cooks would rush to fetch it every morning. In the initial days,the expatriate community comprised only men, but as new bungalows were built, families began to arrive.
Gradually, social life emerged. Ken Chambers, the chairman in the fifties, recalls how in the midst of a tea party held to celebrate the completion of the estate, a fire broke out and engulfed the shamiana. Chambers describes the scene: “What a panic; cups of tea were thrown up to the roof which was on fire, but did not make too much of an impact on the flames. Finally, the fire came under control, not due to the teacup throwers, but by our own fire brigade.”
T.A. Shah describes how he used to organise hunting trips. He would gather guns from a local dealer, and ask shikaris who knew the terrain to accompany hunting parties as guides. Deer and partridge hunting were the favourite pastimes and anglers too managed to come home with a fairly healthy supply of fish. Riding was quite the rage, particularly among expatriates. Eventually, a club was built and a high-spirited social life emerged around it. Everything from riding to cricket, hockey, swimming, tennis, volleyball and table tennis was organised.
Another important task was keeping the housewives well-stocked with favourite food items. Fish, such as pomfret, would arrive from Karachi, as would fresh fruit and vegetables. A highlight of life in Rahim Yar Khan was the arrival of food parcels from England containing everything a nostalgic expatriate community could possibly want; from marmalade and cheese to Bovril. This quaint custom began when John Hansard, a senior Lever Brothers official and his wife visited Rahim Yar Khan. They were upset by the lack of availability of certain items of their daily diet.
“Mrs Hansard must have convinced her husband that something had to be done, and from then on, every month, managers sent a list detailing foodstuffs to the value of three pounds to Leslie Smith of OSC, who forwarded them to Harrods,” says a former chairman.
Shopping trips to Lahore and Karachi were organised for managers and their wives. Holidays in Nathiagali also broke the monotony. The legendary parties thrown by the chairman were only for managers. The problem was that these were ‘dinner jacket and bow tie’ affairs and gentlemen’s bespoke tailoring was not exactly Rahim Yar Khan’s forte.
In this world within a world, there were unexpected shortages which needed improvisation. When Alan Jones, a manager, decided to get married at Karachi’s Trinity Church, he needed a supply of confetti. Bashir Ahmed, puzzled by the request, decided to find a solution in the office. He emptied out all the punching machines and the wedding ceremony proceeded along traditional lines. The gentleman’s fiancée was willing to tie the knot with Jones but was wary about the prospects of marital bliss in Rahim Yar Khan. To alleviate her fears, she was flown in from England and lodged at the bungalow of an expatriate family. Chambers, keen not to lose Jones, decided to give the young woman the time of her life. Parties were organised, trips laid on and every attempt was made to convince her that Rahim Yar Khan was Shangri La. The efforts were not in vain. The punching machine wedding in Karachi soon ensued and Mrs Jones became part of the Rahim Yar Khan scene. It was, however, not all fun and games. Life was hard, and the officers worked tirelessly from seven in the morning often until late into the evening.
Looking back, it is hard to believe how difficult it was to market some of today’s household names. This was perhaps the inevitable downside of being a pioneering company. Dalda, in its early days, was fraught with controversies and suspicions. Clarified butter (ghee) had been the favoured cooking medium across the Subcontinent. However, in certain urban centres in India, given shortages and adulteration, banaspati had gradually emerged as a favoured cooking medium. This was not the case in the area that now constituted Pakistan.
The early salesmen of Dalda had a tough time. People believed that the product was synthetic and viewed it with suspicion. In this hostile environment, Lever launched a counterattack. First, it stressed the health factor by pointing to the vitamins Dalda contained. It sent off salesmen with large frying pans to cook pakoras at makeshift stalls across the country. A massive advertising campaign was launched to counter the false allegations about Dalda, which ranged from making you weak and bald to impotent.
In all this, Lever Brothers had the support of Lintas, now R-Lintas*, originally the advertising arm of Lever Brothers in countries where advertising was not developed. Over the years, Unilever began to dispose of these agencies. R-Lintas was bought by C.A. Rauf, a former Lever man. He was licensed to use the name, subject to Unilever conditions.
In 2002, Lintas globally became Lowe & Partners and R-Lintas became Lowe & Rauf. In 2016, after a global merger, Lowe & Partners became the MullenLowe Group, and Lowe & Rauf became the MullenLowe Rauf Group.
Excerpted from Fifty Great Years in Pakistan, published by Unilever Pakistan and published in The Dawn of Advertising in Pakistan (1947-2017) on March 31, 2018.