Ratan was the Head Sirdar of Nagrakata when I started my life in ‘tea’ from this estate. He was a tall, lean and slightly stooping man with wavy salt and pepper hair. With his advancing years and mild manners he was no longer very effective with the boisterous workers of the estate but with a track record of honesty and loyalty at work, he was still retained in the company rolls.
Ratan’s father, Lal Mohon, had brought in a large number of workers from the Chota Nagpur plateau when the plantation first opened up. He was accordingly promoted to the position of a Sirdar. Years later, on Lal Mohon’s death Ratan inherited his father’s position. Now at the stage of semi-retirement, Ratan Munshi bred ducks and geese in the compound of his company quarters for the extra income their sales provided.
A couple of weeks before Christmas, during my first cold weather season of plantation work, Ratan appeared in the office veranda one afternoon. As he stood before me in silence after the customary greeting, I wanted to know the purpose of his appearance. He politely stated that with the ‘Burra Din’ approaching I would most certainly need a ‘burra battak’. All ‘saabs’, he added, purchased at least one ‘battak’ from him during this period and he had a goose fattened and ready that would be just right for me as a young bachelor.
Decidedly disappointed at the diminishing sales, Ratan departed as quietly as he had arrived but not before I spied a rueful look on his weathered face. Quite clearly, times were changing for the old Munshi what with dwindling numbers of the magnanimous ‘gora saabs’ shrinking his much anticipated seasonal fortune.
Both Christmas and the first of January were working days according to the government gazette. Expatriate managers were still a plenty. Indians, however, were now replacing the expatriate assistant managers in larger numbers. It, thus, became the norm for Indian assistants to work on Christmas day when the ‘burra saabs’ (along with the ‘left over’ expatriate Assistants) indulged in their special lunch of roast goose, mince pies and plum pudding. To balance out this apparent ‘discrimination’, the Indian Assistants were given the day off from work on the first day of January while the burra saabs
ostensibly remained on duty. Our ‘31st night’ was thus one of merriment and revelry without the despairing thought of work the following day. The widespread presence of Scotsmen in the plantations impacted our lives in several ways through traditions established over time. One such was ‘Hogmanay’; a word of Scottish origin that had become our normal term of reference to the celebrations of the last night of December.
The Hogmanay dinner and dance at the club was an organized event with a live band from Calcutta in attendance. Ladies arrived in their finery for this special night while the men turned up in their dinner suits complete with stiff fronted shirts, black ties and cummerbund. Those not possessing the formal ‘DJ’ wore their best dark lounge suits while the die-hard Scotsmen turned out in their kilts of tartan checks with the indispensable sporran dangling in front displaying their fierce Scots loyalty.
Close to midnight, all the members would begin to gather in the main hall of the club, to form a circle and with their hands crossed link up with the persons on either side. Exactly at the midnight hour, the band would strike up to ring in the New Year with Robert Burns’s ‘Auld Lang Syne’. Of Scottish origin, this song was known to many of us. We would, thus, join the band for a traditional farewell to the old and spent year while welcoming the new.
Very foreign and colonial perhaps but it was as much an emotional and joyous moment for us Indians as it was for the expatriates. All communities present, the Indians, Anglo Indians, Englishmen, Irishmen, Welshmen and Scotsmen mixed and mingled with genuine happiness and good will in that first dawn of the bright new year.
Meanwhile, back in the estate, ill health abruptly cut short old Ratan Munshi’s work. He never really recovered and quietly disappeared from our lives. In his absence, curtains finally fell on the glorious seasons of ‘Burra Battaks’ to a sad and silent end.
To me, the old munshi’s departure appeared as the harbinger of an era that was fast fading with the last bastion of the Brits beginning to yield to the inexorable force of the new inheritors.
Video: 'Auld Lang Syne'- performance by Indian Army Madras Regiment Symphony Band
Sirdar/Sardaar - supervisor, one who oversees workers in the garden ( please note, 'garden' and 'estate' are interchangeable terms)
Munshi - head supervisor
Burra Din - Christmas
Battak - Duck
Burra Battak - Goose
Gora - White, British
Meet the writer:
Here's what Aloke has to say about himself : 'Long retired from tea, but still active in business. Even after all these years, tea remains to live strongly in my thoughts; they were the best years of my life. Other interests? Always loved Jazz music - still do and have written about this incredible genre. Love vintage airplanes (thus my love for Dakotas!) and cars, and intend to make this my next focus.' Aloke's also written The Eager Beaver , A Spiritual Encounter, Gillanders and the Greenhorn and Unto the Unknown for Indian Chai Stories. Here is the link to all posts by Aloke - https://teastorytellers.blogspot.com/search?q=aloke
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