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Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Lychee Tale from Cha Bagaan

by Madhu Nair 

Hello again, dear readers! Time to welcome another new writer/storyteller here. I'm delighted to bring you a story from a 'tea garden visitor' once again. We have had a few of them telling their stories and  I love the visitors' perspective - they see tea life in a way that's different from those who've spent a lifetime in the gardens! You will love Madhu's humorous and engaging story, so read on!

In the early 90s, fresh out of college, I had joined a consulting firm which used to handle the internal audits of a number of tea companies. As part of their routine assignments, the senior chartered accountants used to visit the tea gardens located in Dooars , Darjeeling or Assam to conduct audit of the stores and the factory accounts. Normally the work in a single garden would take three to four days, but as was the practice- multiple garden visits would be scheduled one after the other , resulting in each trip stretching for about 12 to 15 days, covering three to four gardens. The CAs would be put up in any of the estate manager’s or assistant managers' bungalows during the duration of their stay at these gardens. To assist them in their work, these CAs would sometimes take young assistants along with them. The assistants would be paid some stipend for their efforts.

One such CA in our firm was Mr Banerjee ,a middle aged Bengali gentleman, shy and reticent, a quiet number cruncher who was extremely thorough with his work , but when it came to interacting with the garden managers during the evening drinking sessions, he was distinctly uncomfortable. 

Moreover, being a teetotaller didn’t make matters any easier for him. I first got to meet him at Jardines, a company which had multiple tea estates across NE India. Sitting at their office, he taught me some of the nuances of tallying various reports and conducting audits. However, during lunch breaks , he would enquire about my hobbies, my family, and about my home state which was Kerala. Since I was fluent in multiple languages and was good in GK, he would listen intently to my “discourses” on various topics under the sun. Once on the topic of Scotch, I mentioned that I do drink whiskey once in a while – a statement which instantly brought an appreciative smile on his face. 

Needless to add, I seem to have won him over in his decision to choose an apt assistant to accompany him on his garden visits. Very soon he scheduled one such visit and recommended my name to the partner to accompany him. The approvals and the air tickets came within a week and on a hot July morning, Mr Banerjee and I embarked upon on what would be our first amongst numerous sojourns in the tea gardens together.

I had been to several places in India, but never to the North East. I was never aware of the culture or the history of these tea estates, and so when I first set my eyes on the vast acres of neatly trimmed tea bushes carpeting both sides of the road, I was completely mesmerized. It was on that long journey from Bagdogra Airport to a tea estate named Rydak TE , that I fell in love with Tea and everything that tea encompassed; Right from its beginnings , to the Bungalows, the British legacy, the planters' way of life, the process of tea manufacture, the tea tasting process , the different varieties, in fact every single aspect of tea. An enduring love affair that has remained with me to this day.

We spent an eventful ten day trip to these estates and completed our assignments on time. Daytime would be spent in the factory or stores area and once work got wrapped up at 6pm, we would return to the bungalow, freshen up and sit with the Manager on the verandah over drinks and listen to his endless tales. Mr Banerjee would let me handle the conversations and occasionally make a point or two in between his sips of lime juice. The same pattern went on in all the gardens. 

On a weekend we were invited to the club, where after a drink or two, I was able to show off my dancing skills in the company of the estate manager’s daughter. Mr Banerjee forbade me a third drink, worried I might go overboard and create a scene.

“Remember we are on official duty, and they are our clients”, he whispered in my ears as I was heading for a refill. However at the last garden that we visited named Baradighi TE, we were put up at a young Assistant Manager’s bungalow and as it so happened ,our host was a Malayalee and he was absolutely thrilled to have one of his brethren put up as his guest for couple of days. His name was Mr Alex and he happened to be from the Northern part of Kerala, where I too had my ancestral home, and moreover his brother was a lecturer at the same College in Kolkata, where I had passed out from. 

Our drinking sessions stretched right upto midnight, and the second night Mr Banerjee could take it no more and retired by nine pm. Before going to his room, he again whispered in my ears to stop at two pegs. I literally lost count that night as Mr Alex kept on pouring one after another. Anyway, he was so happy to have met me and able to converse in his native language that the next day being a Sunday, he proposed a day trip to the adjoining forest reserve of Gorumara. Mr Banerjee excused himself citing some wrap up work and so myself and Mr Alex went out on a jungle safari , spotting wild elephants, bisons and rhinos.

Post every garden visit , we would be given a small packet of tea of that particular garden as a token, which was much appreciated. Mr Banerjee had been visiting these gardens for many many years and hence it was routine for him. But for me, it was quite overwhelming.

On that trip we visited a total of four gardens and Mr Alex was our last host. While departing from his bungalow, along with our customary tea packets, Mr Alex handed over a cardboard box full of fresh lychees, requesting us to hand it over to his brother Paul at Calcutta. Since we were not carrying too much luggage, we said fine. Mr Banerjee promptly put the onus on me to take care of the box and its contents, and ensure proper handover to Paul the next day.

We reached Bagdogra in about 3 hours and checked in due time. Back in 90s , Bagdogra Airport was as chaotic as it is now, and the whole process of issuing boarding pass and check in of baggage was pretty remote. We were booked on a Vayudoot Dornier aircraft which was coming from Aizawl. In those days there was a system of verifying our luggage on the tarmac itself, before physically boarding the aircraft. Post verification, the luggage would be heaved manually onto the Dornier’s hold. While verifying our luggage on the tarmac, I noticed that the strings on the lychee box had snapped open. I somehow managed to re-tie the same, and told the attendant to keep this particular box on top of the luggage pile. Unknown to me, he hadn’t heard me properly and he stashed the box in some corner, with disastrous results.

Upon landing at Calcutta, Mr Banerjee and I waited at the baggage carousel for our luggage to arrive. The first few suitcases which landed on the carousel had running stains on them. Passengers started grumbling at the sticky mess and straightaway started heading towards the washrooms, tugging their luggage along. To our horror, Mr Alex’s lychee box came out, completely smashed and leaking juices all over. The strings had all come loose.

We collected our individual luggage, but neither of us had the courage to pick that box up. It went on for several rounds. We could hear our co-passengers cursing the owner of the box, whoever he was, for the sticky juices hadn’t spared any of the flight’s luggage. We waited patiently for the all the other passengers to disperse. By this time the lychee juices were staining the entire conveyor belt too . For a moment we thought of dumping the box and maybe buying couple of kilos of lychees at Calcutta’s local markets to hand over to Paul. But we had to rule out the thought, since Mr Banerjee had a doubt that maybe Mr Alex had inserted a personal letter for his brother inside the box. Hence we decided to wait.

Once everyone else had left, I gingerly picked up the box of lychees and kept it on a trolley to be rolled out of the Airport. The moment I came out, I literally bumped onto a big group of co-passengers who were waiting outside for their vehicles to arrive. Upon seeing the lychee box on my trolley, each one of them literally rained the choicest abuses on me. 

Looking around, Mr Banerjee was nowhere to be seen; clever guy had ran towards the parking lot, leaving me in the lurch. After conveying a thousand apologies, I decided then and there that this box full of smashed lychees had to be delivered right away. No way was I going to carry it home and deliver it the next day. 

Getting into the car, I gave the driver Paul’s address and in an hour I was at his door. Instead of my apologizing for the state of his lychees, it was the other way around. Paul was extremely apologetic at the trouble I had to endure to bring a box full of lychees all the way from Dooars to Calcutta. However Mr Banerjee’s hunch was proved right. There was indeed an envelope inside the box. Enclosed were several photographs and a letter, relatively undamaged by the juices all round. A dozen lychees too had survived and I had the privilege of eating couple of them. Needless to add, they tasted heavenly !!

This picture from   

Meet the writer:

I was born in Kerala, a small town named Ottapalam in Palakkad district. But post my birth I got shifted to Kolkata and have been here ever since. After my graduation from St.Xaviers , I joined a consulting firm, which primarily handled the Internal Audits of major Tea companies like Goodricke, Jardines, Jorehat group, Williamson Magor etc. I spent about 5 years , travelling to various gardens across North Bengal and Assam. I have had the good fortune of spending lot of time with Tea luminaries like Prem Singh, Roger Nyss, VK Mehra, Rajah Banerjee, JP Alex, Robin Singh amongst others. In 1996 I moved out to Financial Markets and thereafter to Real Estate. Currently I am with Tata Realty posted in Kolkata. But the time spent in tea , remain the best years of my life.

Is this your first visit here? Welcome to Indian Chai Stories! 
Do you have a chai story of your own to share? Send it to me here, please : 
My name is Gowri Mohanakrishnan and I'm a tea planter's wife. I started this blog because one of the things that I wouldn't want us to lose in a fast changing world is the tea story - a story always told with great seriousness, no matter how funny - always true (always), maybe a tall tale, maybe long, short, impossible, scary, funny or exciting but never dull. You will find yourself transported to another world! 
Happy reading! Cheers to the spirit of Indian Tea!


Saturday, September 11, 2021

Four Shots

by Dilip Syam

Hello again, dear friends! Please welcome Dilip Syam, who has written four very entertaining "chotta" stories for all of us. Dilip writes that he "has decided to pen down his adventures, stories and learning ...for people to laugh with him. His Chai Bagan stories ..attempt to make people enjoy the lighter side of life and experiences, especially for the new generation of tea planters and his granddaughters."  

My first day in tea!

Before joining tea, I had had some exposure to the Hindi language. When I heard prior to joining the tea industry in 1962 that Hindi is generally spoken as a medium of communication in the tea gardens* between the staff and workers and the tea management, I felt confident that at least I knew and could speak the language even though I might not be extremely fluent. However, I had a rude awakening and dent to my confidence in Hindi very soon.

On my first day at work as a Trainee Assistant Manager, under a British manager, Mr. Macgeah, I reported sharp at 8am to the Garden Office & was waiting patiently at the assistants' room to meet my new boss and report to duty. After a while, the office peon of Burra Sahib(manager) came to me and said- “Burra Sahib Nuton Sahib ko salaam diya”.

Well, in my head, Hindi translation meant–‘Burra Sahib is saying hello to new sahib (me)’& I immediately replied to him “Burra Sahib ko hamara salaam doh”. The office boy was shocked. He repeated himself again and I again responded in the same manner. I told him to tell this to Burra Sahib. He kept on coming back and forth with the same message-“Burra Sahib Nuton Sahib ko salaam diya.”This went on two-three times &I noticed both peon & other assistant managers were watching me and listening to the conversation and mysteriously smiling to themselves.

After the fifth time, a six foot tall English gentleman stormed into the room and said, “Who the hell has come & has the audacity to ask for me”.

 I stood up trembling with fear & said “Sir I am not from hell but from India only”. 

At this moment the assistant manager interjected and took charge of the situation and explained the comical situation & told the manager that the new assistant(me) did not know the meaning of “Salam daw” which I should have learnt. 

He then explained to me that “Salam daw” in garden Hindi means “you have been summoned/called”. The manager had a hearty laugh. I sheepishly joined in but was mortified and still trembling from my own experience. I did not know if I still had a job or would be sacked even prior to joining.

I was still trembling, and Burra Sahib literally pulled me to his room. He was still laughing and took it in the right spirit and thankfully I still had a job at the end of our meeting. Since then,I earned the nickname of being called by my colleagues as “Salam daw sahib” during my initial training days!!! Well, I don’t mind the nickname, at least I still had a job.

*This tradition of speaking Hindi still continues to date. 

Dilip and Mrs Syam at the Lawrie Plantations PLC Office in Kent

Time - GMT - Have you heard of it?

If anyone asked you what GMT means, well like most people you would automatically think about the 'Greenwich Mean Time,isn’t it? Well let me tell you a story where you will come to see another meaning to it!! And I must take you with me travelling over time to the period where I had just joined my first job in the tea gardens as a fresh graduate just out of university, happy to get a job as an assistant manager. I thought this was the best thing in the world,my life of financial independence begins here. I was excited as well as nervous about the new way of life,language,lifestyle and there was me as an eager freshman.

Within a month of joining,I had my first shocking exposure to the garden lingo(bhasha). My manager in Urrunaband TE* told me that every Saturday,we must go to the club day at Happy Valley Club in Koomber TE which was about 15 kms away. He told me he would give me a lift and to be ready at three pm. I had just finished my lunch at 1:30 pm and with ample time, planned on a quick afternoon siesta (I had so much time so why not). 

Suddenly at 1:50 pm,I was woken up abruptly with a blaring car horn blowing at the gate of my bungalow. I looked at my watch, saw it was not yet three pm and went up to the gate to check out the commotion. Well, it was my manager, and he wasn’t happy to see me not ready. Without speaking a word, he glared at me and turned around and went away. I thought well he will come back again at three pm.I really couldn’t understand what had happened and/or what I had done wrong. I changed and waited and waited. Three pm came and went and still my manager did not come.

The next day when I reached office,I had a message from my manager to come and see him immediately. I had all my nerves telling me, I shouldn’t be worried, I had done nothing wrong. In fact,he had stood me up, not coming at three pm as agreed.

When I went to his office, he gave me a stern look and asked me for my watch. I gave him my watch and he took it and changed the time and moved it forward an hour! He then told me, that while I was working in the tea gardens, I needed to learn and work by GMT (Garden Manager’s Time) and not IST (Indian Standard Time). I needed to accept it now as my new way of life and adapt to it if I wanted to have a job in the garden. I came to know that most of the tea gardens in Assam maintained GMT -one hour ahead of IST, and that was it!

This GMT episode (45 years of tea life later) and my watch has shown me a lot of embarrassing situations throughout my tea life. People often stared at my watch if ever in view and often get confused and recheck their own watches too, just to ensure that their watch was still working. Sometimes I enjoyed the laugh and at other times, feeling guilty- I reassured them that their watches were working fine- just not mine!

 By the way, I hope I mentioned that my first episode with GMT got me penalised by my manager with a month-long night duty in the tea factory for not being ready on time for my boss ontop of regular normal field duty. Double whammy and thus I dare not forget the significance of GMT.

*in Cachar

 Three golden tips for success in tea

So thus begins my 45 years career in the tea industry.I learned to live, breathe and drink tea and today I can say proudly that I had a great life as a tea planter and built my expertise in it.

When I joined the tea garden, many seniors advised me and shared their worldly advice and tips - they advised me to learn three things at the earliest to be a successful planter. Today I am sharing those three tips with you which I was given almost like a mantra for success.

Learn to play bridge (card game for foursome) which can take up most of your day, mind and concentration and believe me when I say they can get very competitive even though it is the least physical game).

I was fresh out of college, no knowledge of cards or the world of bridge. I did try my utmost, bought books, asked my colleagues to teach me but poor me failed miserably. Everyone I played with was kind but at the end, it was more to save themselves a sad loss in the game, my seniors decided to spare me my misery of trying hard. I just did not have the concentration for bridge and almost after a couple of years of trying hard still could not progress further than a beginner. I retired from the game without the slightest regret.

Play tennis and golf- There was me, having had no exposure to either of the games before this new life I had joined,and eager to learn and be accepted in my tea fraternity, gave it my best shot. I picked up tennis quickly and learned to play the game fairly well, even to the extent of representing my club and fraternity in many events over the years. I even played against Bangladesh tea fraternity in Dhaka. There ends my success story with games. Golf was another extreme for me. I tried several times to learn and understand the game. I was lucky enough to spend quite a few years living a stone’s throw from Happy Valley Golf club in Koomber Burra Bungalow, but there ended my stint and experience with golf. 

My boss had even gifted me a golf set, but it never saw the light of the day unfortunately at least not with me. He made me shadow him often during his own games to inspire me, but it just didn’t motivate me. I was happy to encourage others to play the game. My sons picked up the game like fish in water and Subro, my eldest, even played and won several tournaments at Tollygunge Golf Club in Kolkata in years to come and made me proud becoming Junior Golfer of the Year in 1996/1997. My youngest son, Devjeet, and son-in-law Rahul are keen golfers too and still make me proud with their prowess and interest in the game,but I cannot say with any certainty if tea life had any part to play here.

The final mantra was ‘drink without getting drunk’. If one can command this aspect, they would be a true planter (as per the golden advice). I saw many of my burra sahibs and colleagues attain mastery in this art and believe me, it is an art and takes years and years of practice. When I started in the tea industry and tried to keep up pace with my colleagues, many times, I found myself more in the toilet throwing up rather than at the bar enjoying myself. I have had many headaches and hangovers trying hard practising the art of drinking and my wife and family have been embarrassed spectators but unfortunately, I could never become more than a social drinker without embarrassing myself and others around me. That’s my confession here, I decided after a few years of trying that dignity lies in a quiet dignified withdrawal from the race of becoming a great tea planter who can ‘drink like a fish’ and not ‘get drunk.’

So that is the story of my tea life-had all the mantras but never could be master of all the three. Did I ever become a true tea planter without these mantras? Well, that for you to judge and me to ponder - so late in life with 45 long tea years under my belt. Your guess maybe as good as mine!

Koomber T.E. Burra Bungalow in Cachar

 Hindi Rui

Well, I confess today that even if I have survived 45 years of garden Hindi and being a Bengali, feel I can understand a good level of Hindi fluency, if my children are to be believed, my Hindi is incredibly atrocious and embarrassing to them. My Hindi, they say, can make people turn in their graves! 

I often had important company guests visit me from Head office and often at short notice. My Managing Director, once decided to come at short notice. He had a particular liking for Barak River Rohu fish which was famous as a culinary delight. Due to the short notice ,my wife could not buy the Rui (Bengali for Rohu) fish. 

I tried hard to source it for my guest. I contacted the garden agent and requested him on the phone to send me good quality of 5 kgs of ‘Rui’ to the garden at the earliest for the MD. I advised my wife to expect the fish shortly. When I came back from work in the afternoon, she told me that no fish had come but there were two jute bags of cotton wool which had been delivered earlier. She asked me what I had told the agent and on questioning me further, I discovered that my Hindi (or lack of Hindi) had let me down(again)! 

The agent was a vegetarian North Indian gentleman and he literally translated ‘Rui’ to Hindi ‘cotton’ and sent 5 kgs of cotton in two bags in the next vehicle into garden. I was highly embarrassed, and my wife and kids just could not stop laughing. I asked my wife to send the cotton wool to the hospital.

On his  visit to the hospital, my MD enquired about such a huge sudden purchase of so much of cotton. I was embarrassed, confused and was still thinking about the appropriate response when the Medical Officer told me that the price of cotton was going up as such I might have ordered and stocked up. I  nodded sheepishly.While driving back in the car, I shared my story with my guest. He cracked up laughing at the story - the fact was my Hindi word of ‘Rui’ to my local agent was misinterpreted & misunderstood. ‘Rui’(cotton) was sent to the garden but not ‘Rui’(Rohu fish). 

I attempt very hard to think before I speak Hindi, but I still make silly mistakes with the language. I am a true Bengali who can speak Bengali-Hindi (if that could be a language). I am sure you have seen and heard many other Bengalis trying their hand at the delicate language of Hindi, well I am not proud to say, I belong to that group who is still trying to learn.

Meet the writer:  

Dilip at the Koomber office

Dilip Syam is a seasoned tea planter with over 40 years experience in the lush tea gardens of Assam and North Bengal and across borders too. Eldest of 3 siblings, Dilip and his sisters were raised by his mother singlehandedly after the loss of their father at the tender age of 7years. His maternal uncle played a significant role as a father-figure guardian of the young family. Dilip was a keen sportsman since youth and even had dreams of serving the nation in the defense services. He was honored to represent his state as a NCC cadet during the Republic Day Parade in Delhi on 26th Jan’1960. Unfortunately, family responsibilities took precedence and Dilip started his career in Tea in 1962 (4th generation in Tea following in his father’s footsteps).

Dilip started his journey in tea as a Trainee / Executive Asst. Manager with M/s. PC Chatterjee Group and grew slowly and steadily in his career. He joined Koomber Tea Estate in 1967 then a part of M/S Jatinga Valley Tea Co. (London) & in 1975 it came under Koomber Tea Co. Ltd. (part of Goodricke Group of Companies, incorporated in India). He covered multiple roles in India and Bangladesh with Goodricke Group of Companies. He finally retired as the Managing Director of Koomber Tea Co. Ltd. in 2004.

During his professional stint, he received many recognitions & awards – most notable ones being ‘The World Aware Award for Social Progress -1995’ from Her Royal Highness Princess Anne in London for his role in Goodricke Group, ‘Bharatiya Udyog Ratan Award’ under IEDRA (Indian Economic Development & Research Association) from Govt. of India in 2001. 

Dilip has decided to pen down his adventures, stories and learning spanning his life as a tea planter for people to laugh with him. Every one of us has a story to share and his Chai Bagan stories are an attempt to make people enjoy the lighter side of life and experiences, especially the new generation of tea planters and his granddaughters. Dilip believes that without the support and patience of his wife, Shipra and family, his stories may not have seen the light of the day. 

Is this your first visit here? Welcome to Indian Chai Stories! 
Do you have a chai story of your own to share? Send it to me here, please : 
My name is Gowri Mohanakrishnan and I'm a tea planter's wife. I started this blog because one of the things that I wouldn't want us to lose in a fast changing world is the tea story - a story always told with great seriousness, no matter how funny - always true (always), maybe a tall tale, maybe long, short, impossible, scary, funny or exciting but never dull. You will find yourself transported to another world! 
Happy reading! Cheers to the spirit of Indian Tea!



Saturday, August 28, 2021

The Great Flood of '54

by Aloke Mookerjee and Bill Hudson 

Dear friends, I am most happy to publish post #200 today! Thanks to Aloke for sharing Bill Hudson's fascinating story with all of us. Over to Aloke. - Gowri

Aloke Mookerjee writes:

I had worked under Indrajit Singh in Nagrakata many years ago. He mentioned an article written by Bill Hudson, who was then the Manager of Ghatia T.E. It relates to a very special time of the heavy monsoon rains of the Dooars. Inder very kindly mailed the article to me and with his permission, I have reproduced it here exactly as it was written by Bill Hudson. I have also attached Bill’s hand drawn map of the Nagrakata region and beyond. Evidently little had changed in that area when I joined nine years later!

What makes Bill Hudson’s article immensely readable is that it vividly describes the devastation caused by the heavy monsoon rains through a destructive flood in the Nagrakata and Jaldhaka regions at a time long before I had even imagined being a tea planter. The familiarity of the Jamair flights and our own Grassmore airfield which he describes made me relive the scene with some nostalgia. 

Bill Hudson's story:


In Tea, we were pretty used to floods, almost every Monsoon – bridges washed away; roads breached; landslides, for which the Foothills of the Himalayas are notorious – and bad as they seemed, they were all minor, compared to the Great Flood, which happened in August 1954.

All day Sunday the Hills had been lost in black rain-clouds, and when we left the Club, after the Sunday -night Cinema, the talk was of rivers rising, and who was going to lose a bridge this time. Andy and Kitty Munro, who lived at Carron T.E., left early, knowing they had two small un-bridged rivers to cross, with children at home, in charge of the Ayah.

On Monday afternoon word reached me, on Ghatia, that they had not, in fact reached home, but were still stranded, on a small island between the rivers, having had to spend the night there, in their (small) car! It transpired, later, that they had crossed the first river, with some difficulty, but the next – only a few yards on – had risen FAR too much to attempt a crossing. And when they tried to turn back, even the first river had become quite impossible. So they had no alternative but to sleep the night in the car, as best they could.

Word spread quickly, and very soon all the planters of the District were assembled on the river bank, trying to devise ways and means of rescuing them. Both the normally-small rivers by now were raging torrents, at least 150 yards wide, and their island seemed to be getting smaller as we watched, helpless! We could see them and they us, so we could signal, but that was all. Many were the ideas tried, to get a rope to them – there was no way they could have got off their island, but we hoped we might be able to get some food to them – a Bow-and-Arrow was tried; then we tried driving a golf ball – anyone could drive a golf ball 150 yards, but not with a string attached, it transpired. One very brave coolie Carter even tried to gey his buffalo cart through (the theory being that the beasts can swim ANYTHING, while a wooden cart would float) but after only a few yards he, cart, and beasts, had to be rescued.

Come seven o’clock, and darkness, and the river getting no higher, and the river getting no higher, there was nothing we could do but – leave them! For a second night, with NO food, and (as we gathered from signals) NO CIGARETTES, or even matches! At least the river had stopped rising, and their car was perched on quite a high stoney bank, well above the water. And still it rained – but of course, it’s rain in the hills that create floods, not local rain.

At day break we were all on the river-bank again – thankful to see they were well, and cheery! And the river had dropped considerably, and was still dropping. But still there seemed no way of getting a rope to them.

By about ten o’clock the river had fallen considerably, so our brave Carter volunteered to have another shot at crossing with a long stout rope attached to his cart. And he succeeded!!! He remains one of my ‘unsung heroes’. He deserved a medal – but no doubt much happier with the few Rupees he received.

There still remined the job of getting them off! Neither of them fancied riding back over a rocky riverbed in a raging torrent, on a flimsy Buffalo Cart (I wouldn’t have done it!) so Richard Wilson and I, two of the stronger, and most regular swimmers, walked (?) over, hanging onto the rope, by now secured to trees on either side, taking with us flasks of coffee. As both Andy and Kitty were feeling more-than-a-little weak, but determined to get off their island some how, back we came, Richard (much bigger than me) hanging onto Andy, and me onto Kitty – all accomplished without much difficulty – to where the C.M.O. and many others were waiting with more coffee and what Andy at least wanted most – cigarettes. Off they went with the Doc. To hospital for a check-up – they were both ‘right-as-rain’ within two days, by which time they were able to be taken back to their own garden, AND THEIR CHILDREN. At least the coolies on the ‘wrong’ bank of the river were able to pass on word to the children and servants that all was well.

So ended the MUNROE SAGA. BUT, little did we know, that was ONLY THE BEGINNING OF THE HISTORY OF THE BIG FLOOD!! While waiting at the river, from somewhere came a rumour that the Jaldacca Road and Rail Bridges had both been washed away during Monday night. This was serious, since these two bridges were our link with the outside world! I shall have to explain – and draw another of my Maps! 

Bill Hudson's map. Please click on the image to enlarge it.

The districts in tea are entirely geographical- area cut off. One from the other, by rivers flowing South from the Himalayas, or (in Assam) North from the Garo and Manipur Hills. These districts are closer to the Hills, the farther one goes west, so the rivers are very fast flowing, and flowing in rocky, boulder-strewn beds. To the East the ground is generally less steep; the rivers much slower and wider, flowing beds of shale, or sand, or (further east) just silt – stone is very scarce in Assam. The Bengal Dooars (which word means literally Doors) lies right under the foothills – right on the Northern Border of India, with the Native (and Independent) State of Bhutan. In fact, the border is nothing more than a barbed wire fence, erected AND MAINTAINED by the tea companies. Bhutan used to be covered in forest, but now there are vast area which have been de-forested, causing major erosion problems.

Nagrakata District is bounded on the West by quite a large, fast flowing river, the Jaldaka (Jaldacca in some maps), in a reasonably well defined bed, and so not too difficult to bridge. To the East it is bounded by the Dinah River, which is quite different – fast flowing, but in a huge one-mile-wide ‘bed’ of shale and sand, with no single defined ‘river’ as such; easy enough to ‘ford’ in the dry weather; impossible in the monsoon; very difficult to bridge. The Railway has made use of some rocky outcrops, and long embankments which give constant trouble. So! To travel WEST from Nagrakata presents few problems. But to travel to the East in wet weather, one must first go West; then South for about twenty miles to beyond where the Dinah joins the Jaldaka; and turn east over a large iron bridge, on the Assam Trunk Road. This means that if anything happens to the Jaldaka Bridges, Nagrakata is completely cut off by road and rail.

Following the ‘Munro Saga’, off I (and others) went to check up on the rumour we’d heard. The Station Master at Nagrakata was able to confirm that the Rail Bridge (a huge iron bridge) had, ideed, been badly damaged, and there would be no trains for some time. A two-mile drive showed us that the stone-built Road Bridge (quite a major affair) had indeed been utterly destroyed, and the country-side around it had been devasted. The river itself was certainly in spate – but gave little indication how this devastation could have come about. One thing was certain! Nagrakata was CUT OFF!! How were we going to get TEA out to the Markets? How were we going to get FOOD IN? – not just food for ourselves, but for our labour forces, AND for the many local inhabitants?? It was obvious we could do nothing till the rivers subsided, and the Government (the Commissioner at Jalpaiguri) could get in touch with us. So – back to our Gardens, and carry on as usual. Then came another thought – WHAT ABOUT BAMANDANGA and TONDOO, our (Dooars Tea Co) two Gardens 10 miles south in the forest, and on the BANK of the Jaldaka?? In this weather, there was no way we could get to them by car over a road which was which was little more than a soil embankment. Messengers were sent off on foot, – and returned many hours later, to say that they could not get beyond the Tani-Tani River (see Map 3), but that the damage near Tani-Tani crossing was very bad. By now it was night – I don’t think any of us slept very well that night.

The Dooars Tea Co. had laid out a small grass ‘Airstrip’ just South of Grassmore in 1949 (during a Rail Strike) to fly in ‘essentials’, and from that time a small private Air Company flew in thrice-weekly (Mon.Wed.Fri.) service, to and from Calcutta. Using D.C.3s (Dakotas) their main business was Freight – we used to send our BEST teas to Calcutta in this way, mainly to keep the service running. What a blessing that we did!! This service would also take a few paying passengers – leaving Calcutta at 4am, and getting back there about mid-day – sometimes! It just so happened that Gaye had been born, in Calcutta, on Tuesday – the day we got the Munros off – and I had planned to go down to see ‘Mother and Daughter’ on Wednesday, taking Michael (aged 4) with me. My friend Keith Turner (Manager of Kurti T.E) and Cynthia, his wife, came and met me at the Airstrip, and when the plane arrived, we asked the Pilot to take us (incl. Michael) on a quick low-level flight over Tondoo/Bamandanga to see how things looked, and this he did.

Both Keith and I knew that area well – Keith had ‘Acted’ there, while the Manager was on Home Leave, and I (and Nora) had done a lot of shikar all over the area, over the years. But to start with, we couldn’t make out where we were flying over, the Jaldaka had changed completely, and was a scene of utter devastation, with acres of forest utterly destroyed. Eventually we found Bamandanga Tondoo – OR WHAT WAS LEFT OF IT!!! The whole garden was under water, with great sand banks sticking up where there should have been Tea! The Pilot (wonderful chap!) took us round again, at what should have been tree top height – but there were only a few trees! The Labour Lines (i.e. ‘Camps’ of Labour houses) had GONE!! The Factory was standing on water. The Manager’s Bungalow, on a very slight rise, was above water – we could see the Manager (Laurie Ginger) and his wife, and servants in their compound (garden) waving to us – no doubt, very pleased indeed to know that someone knew of their plight! THEN we realised that every tree still standing had literally hundreds of coolies clinging to its branches!!! There was nothing we could do but – a final overfly, waggling wings, and back to the Airstrip.

I still don’t like to think about my feelings. Keith I remember was absolutely white. Cynthia sobbing quietly. Michael, who couldn’t of course appreciate what he’d seen, did, I think, react to our horror – and burst into bitter tears – a thing he was NOT prone to do. That at least provided a distraction till we got back to Grassmore.

At the Airstrip – a quick consultation – Michael and I flew off to Calcutta, where I was able to pass on my first-hand information to the authorities via our Calcutta Agents – you cant pick up much information flying over an area, but at least I could convince them that this really WAS A MAJOR DISASTER. Keith (and I didn’t envy him) had to return to the gardens, and try to organise -----WHAT can you organise in such a case?? Just what they did, I wasn’t there to see, but everyone agrees, they were BOTH magnificent, and what they could do, they did – then, and in the succeeding days and weeks. No! he did not get a medal. He should have done – though it would only have embarrassed him!

The authorities really did take the whole business seriously. Food was flown in – for the food stores were washed away – Bamandanga, which suffered relatively little, was able to help here. Collapsible boats from the Army were rushed in, (to be used to rescue the poor folk in the trees) and tents as temporary shelter. Fortunately, the river level fell, almost as quickly as it had risen. But I doubt if we will ever know how many lives were lost. Bodies were found along the river banks – and even travelled almost to Calcutta, 400 miles South. Yet an astonishing number were saved!! – three very small and very frightened children were found floating in an upturned table nearly 50 miles away!

So far as I am aware, only ONE medal was presented, and that must be the strangest – and most deserved – ever! Our company kept an Elephant at Tondoo, called Lizzie. Age I believe around 40. She was kept in order to transport staff and visitors across Tani-Tani River during the Monsoon – I should perhaps explain that during the dry weather, when the river was very low, temporary crossings were made, which allowed cars to cross, but during the Rains the current was to strong for a boat, and the only way to cross was sitting on a large padded ‘cushion’, about six feet square, strapped to Lizzie’s back. A very odd sensation. First you could feel her treading very carefully – and how carefully and elephant CAN tread , feeling any obstruction – and then, suddenly it felt as though one was floating – Lizzie was swimming! Elephants are Very strong swimmers, and don’t get at all flustered. In between times, she was also available for Shikar (hunting) in the Forest, and many a Sunday morning Nora and I have spent doing just that. But that’s another story.

During the Tondoo Disaster, for days on end, and for more hours per day than an elephant is supposed to work, Lizzie (and of course her Mahout) walked/struggled through debris/swam all over the devasted area, rescuing people stuck up trees, or marooned on rocks. Normally, four people sit on the ‘Pad’ – I’ve been assured that during this time, Lizzie’s record was 24, excluding her Mahout – who sits on her neck – and that over quite a long distance. She used to swim to a tree, and hold up her trunk for the poor souls to slide down on to her back. If they were too scared – and who would blame them – she would pick them up in her trunk, and deposit them on the Pad. Just how many Lizzie saved will never be known – Laurie Ginger puts it well up in the hundreds, and he should know better than anyone else. There is NO DOUBT that many of these people would have died had she not been there.

After the disaster, on the personal recommendation of the Commissioner of N. Bengal, Lizzie was awarded a medal – the ASHOKA CHAKRA Class III, by the Government of India! Not very long after that, Lizzie went into a decline, and despite all efforts, she died. Many of us believe she killed herself rescuing others. So! Tondoo is no more – lost under a blanket of sand. And Lizzie is no more, - Lizzie, the elephant that one a medal, roughly similar to an M.B.E. in Britain.

I realise I have mentioned two names only, Keith Turner and Laurie Ginger, the two who were, without doubt, most closely involved in this dreadful disaster. In fact EVERYBODY in Nagrakata District, Managers, Assistants, Wives, Staff, took a very active part. And other companies threw in their resources without hesitation. A very fine example of co-operation about which very little has ever been heard, “all in the days work in Tea” was the feeling.

This co-operation, and unstinted assistance, was appreciated by our Company. A few months after, the Chairman of the Dooars Tea Company and the Managing Director came out from London, and presented to the Members of Nagrakata Club a very fine antique clock, with an inscription commemorating the event, at a function at the Club.

What was the reason for this disaster? Bhutan is a very sparsely-populated country, so it was quite some time before we learnt what had happened. As we had seen, on the Sunday, rainfall in the Hills had been particularly heavy. In the case of the Munros, this had just caused the river to rise suddenly, and more than usual. The Jaldaka case was different. The heavy rain caused a major landslide, which dammed the river valley completely, high up in the Hills, forming quite a large size lake. After twenty-four hours the pressure became too great, and the dam burst. Nobody saw it happen, as it must have been during the night, but the ‘wall’ of water released must have been enormous. The effect looked very similar to the photos I’ve seen of the devastation after the DAMBUSTERS Raid, during the war. Complete and utter devastation over many miles. Because the damage was so very extensive, it was many years before the road and bridge, could be rebuilt – when I left Nagrakata in 1958 to become Visiting Agent in Assam, it had still not been rebuilt. A vast amount of money had to be spent, building great stone ‘Bunds’ or banks, to try to protect Bamandanga, but – it could happen again anytime! 

Editor's note: I have not made any changes/edits to Bill Husdon's story. 

And I 'd like thank Venk Shenoi for sending this photograph after he read the story.

Venk writes, 'I am attaching a photo of Lauri Ginger, who's mentioned in this write-up, with Anna Shenoi, taken at the Planters’ Meet in Stratford upon Avon in 2013. We both knew him in the early 1960s when he was Manager at Bhagatpore TE.

 Lauri was an interesting person to converse with despite his advancing years and had not changed much over the 50+ years since the early 1960s. His memory of events and people was fascinating. Lauri passed away in 2013, not long after this photo was taken.'

Meet the writers:

Bill Hudson - By Aloke Mookerjee

Before his transfer on promotion, in 1958, as the Visiting Agent of the King William House Group of Companies, Bill Hudson took care of Ghatia Tea Estate. He was an efficient and dedicated manager, much loved and admired by the workers and staff. I was told that on the day of his departure from Ghatia, the entire work force of the estate assembled and lined up on both sides of the main road to bid farewell to their own ‘Huttison Saab’.

Bill was a gentleman to the core with a good deal of presence and flair. He spoke with a distinctive lisp, which we, as young assistants, delighted in aping (behind his back of-course)! To me, the image of a quintessential Englishman came alive when I saw this distinguished gentleman of middle age, stepping out of a motor car at the Ghatia office front, clad in a herringbone patterned tweed coat, corduroy trousers and ‘Hush Puppy’ suede ankle boots, when this brand was held in awe by us all, as the most stylish out of reach footwear. A monocle, firmly attached to one eye with a dangling ribbon, completed the Englishman’s picture! 

Meet Aloke Mookerjee:

I am a planter long retired from the Dooars  as well as Assam and Papua New Guinea where I worked in tea and coffee for several years. I have been writing about my life in tea. These are really ...the early impressions received by a young 'greenhorn ' of those times upon his arrival at the plantations.
Even after all this time, tea remains alive in my thoughts; those were the best years of my life.  I have relocated to Goa recently and its hot and humid weather is taking me back to my 'tea days'. Alas, I cannot say that of the cold weather here. Nothing could beat the wonderful cold months of NE India!
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.'  

Is this your first visit here? Welcome to Indian Chai Stories! 
Do you have a chai story of your own to share? Send it to me here, please : 
My name is Gowri Mohanakrishnan and I'm a tea planter's wife. I started this blog because one of the things that I wouldn't want us to lose in a fast changing world is the tea story - a story always told with great seriousness, no matter how funny - always true (always), maybe a tall tale, maybe long, short, impossible, scary, funny or exciting but never dull. You will find yourself transported to another world! 
Happy reading! Cheers to the spirit of Indian Tea!



Saturday, August 14, 2021

Ghorajuli – No. 9 Bungalow

 by Vikramaditya Chaudhury

Dear friends, I am delighted to welcome our newest storyteller, Vikramaditya Chaudhury. He presents us with a rookie, a late night drive in dangerous ( leopard )country, a whiff of romance, the club Christmas party, and a 'presence' in the guest room...well, all these ingredients make for a brilliant chai story! Thank you, Vikramaditya. Happy reading, folks!! 

Guwahati – 24th. December, 1988

I reached office as usual at 8:30am and found the four other senior executives huddled in the Branch Manager’s chamber, deep in conversation. I was the juniormost officer and the others were all older than me by a decade or so. The moment the boss saw me, he waved me in without a smile. I entered the chamber and after the perfunctory round of ‘Good mornings’, he came straight to the point.

“VC what are your plans for this evening?”

The pragmatic tone of his voice betrayed the answer that he expected from me. Having spent a few years in the tea industry, I had learnt that such a question in such a tone merited only one answer and I didn’t disappoint him, “Nothing at all Sir. No plans.”

A collective sigh of relief washed over the group as they all beamed back at me.

The boss continued, “Right. Take the day off, go home and relax. You are to leave for Ghorajuli Tea Estate this afternoon, where you will represent the company at the Annual Christmas Party being held there. The party will be held at the Gohainbari Planters Club and arrangements have been made for you to stay the night at the Ghorajuli Manager’s bungalow. You will return to Guwahati tomorrow. Leave after breakfast at Ghorajuli and you should be back in town by lunch. Take the Ambassador and Dwijen driver. Any questions?”

Yet again, I didn’t disappoint him, “No Sir!”

“Leave by 2pm and you should be at Ghorajuli by 6pm. Remember that ‘Garden Time’ is ahead of IST by an hour, therefore, you should reach Ghorajuli by 7:00 pm Garden Time. Understood?”

“Yes Sir!”

“Do you drink?”

Pix by Gowri Mohanakrishnan

Before I could respond to that rather pointed inquiry, one of my other colleagues sniggered, “It takes him precisely two small pegs to fly. VC and alcohol are rather distantly acquainted!”

That was the shameful truth on those days. At the ripe age of 23, I was yet to be closely acquainted with Lord Bacchus. The boss wasn’t too happy to hear this and droned on, “That’s terrible old chap. First you are a vegetarian and now you don’t drink. Your future in the tea industry is not too bright VC. Anyway, when you are offered a drink, take it and hang on to it. Don’t overdo it and don’t fall flat on your face. You are representing the Company, don’t forget.”

“Very good Sir!”

“I’ll tell my wife to send across a company tie to you. Wear that for the party.”

“Very good Sir. Thank you Sir!”

It was an unexpected honour to wear the green tie emblazoned with the muted gold crest. That was the only occasion when I had the good fortune of wearing it. Though I served with the company for almost a decade, I didn’t receive a tie of my own. I believe they were manufactured, in sets of twelve, by some bespoke outlet at Mayfair, London. Since I was the only eligible executive who needed a tie, they just couldn’t procure one single piece for me. I had to wait till at least another 11 became requisite. By the time I left the organisation in 1993, the list of requisites had climbed to five and the order was never placed. 

At precisely 2pm chauffeured by Dwijen, I left Guwahati and embarked upon the 200 kilometre journey to Rangapara.

Assam sunset. Pix by Gowri Mohanakrishnan

The first part of the journey was smooth and we reached Nagaon by 4.30pm, it was dark by then. After a quick cuppa by the roadside, we started off again. Just out of the main town, there was a terrific metallic cacophony and suddenly the car engine note rose to a high pitched whine as the vehicle began to slow down. Dwijen quickly shut off the engine and the car rolled to a halt. Luckily there were people around and someone produced a torch.

The driver crawled beneath the car, inspected it and reported, “Popular sapt ka boltu capling toota.” What he was trying to tell me was that the nut and bolt binding the propeller shaft to the universal joint coupling had broken. Thus there was no power from the engine reaching the rear wheels.

By this time, a small crowd had gathered and some ingenious yokel offered street smart advice. Mate the shaft to the joint and insert a couple of bicycle spokes into the holes and tie them up. It will hold till you reach a garage and replace it with proper nuts and bolts. That was done and we were on our way again. As we had already lost about 45 minutes, Dwijen refused to stop at any garage for fear of the prowling militants who had sworn to carve out a ‘sovereign republic of Assam’.

We arrived at Ghorajuli Tea Estate an hour after schedule, to find that the Manager and his wife were all ready to leave for the club. They seemed rather relieved to see me and the Manager immediately instructed one of his executives to call up my boss and inform him of my tardy yet safe arrival. I was shown to the massive guest room and served a cup of tea with a request to change and get ready as soon as possible.

While I fiddled with the Windsor knot and tried to achieve the perfect cleft on the green and gold tie, I heard a car pulling away. A while later, after a final buff to my black brogues and a long Narcissistic inspection before the mirror, I was ready to rock and roll at the Gohainbari Club. Some combinations are truly classic and the blue blazer and powder grey trousers with black brogues (or Oxfords) are timeless.

As I admired myself there was a polite knock on the door and the orderly informed me that Sahib and Memsahib had already left for the club and that ‘Sunny Baba’ would be driving me. I wasn’t aware that Mr. and Mrs. Banerjee had a son staying with them. I stepped out to the car porch to find a Maruti 800 with the engine already running. The driver’s door of the car opened and the voice of the orderly, “Woh hai Sunny Baba, aap key liye wait kar rahin hain (That is Sunny baba, she is waiting for you)...” faded into oblivion. Sunny Baba aka Miss Sunita Banerjee was truly a sight for sore eyes! Even more so on that cold foggy Christmas eve when I was 23 years old.

“Hi Vikram, I’m Sunita. I thought I would wait for you and take you to Gohainbari. Ma and Dad had to leave early. Hope you don’t mind.”

Mind? Me? At that moment I just wished that the Gohainbari club had been 200 kilometres away! As I stepped into the car, my senses were overwhelmed by the perfume that she was wearing and even today the smell of Christian Dior’s Poison takes me back to that Christmas Eve of 1988. She wasn’t an accomplished driver, however, but her bubbly conversation more than made up for it.

“I’ve just graduated from LSR and am articled with a CA firm in New Delhi. Just got here last week and am already bored. You are the first guy that I’m meeting here that I can relate to. Call me Sunny, my friends do.”

As the estate roads meandered and the darkness gathered around us, her perfume numbed my senses. I was beginning to feel that fate had ordained this evening and it would prove to be an unforgettable Christmas Eve for me. I was right, albeit for all the wrong reasons!

After about a half hour or so, she grew decidedly under-confident and her chatter ceased as she peered through the windshield. The vehicle began to slow down and finally came to a halt in the darkness.

Uh oh! Was this vixen about to pull the ‘out of gas’ routine on poor old unsuspecting me?

“Vikram I’m lost. We should have reached Gohainbari by now. I thought this was the road but I must have taken a wrong turn at the last crossroads.”

Before I could react, she started to shiver and the pitch of her voice rose steadily.

“Oh my God we are at the fringe of the forest. This is where the leopard attack took place last week!”

A week ago, a worker had been mauled to death by a leopard at Ghorajuli Tea Estate and I remembered reading about it in the Assam Tribune.

She completely froze and seemed to pass out. Now this was a jolly good fix that I had gotten myself into. Pretty woman, scared, dark night, deserted road, static car, Christmas Eve! These situations occur once in a lifetime! Just that the prowling leopard was a bit of a damper.

By now she had taken her hands off the steering wheel and seemed incapable of driving anymore. I tried to calm her down and told her that I would drive us to the club. As I opened the door to get out, she lunged at me and grabbed me in a bear hug. “Please don’t go out. Don’t leave me alone.”

Though my resolve was about to melt, I gently extricated myself from the clutches of Miss Sunny Christian Dior Poison and managed to exchange places without stepping out of the vehicle. During this period we encountered some pleasant difficulties arising out of rather close physical proximities, but by the end of it I was behind the steering wheel.

She had begun to calm down by then and was coherent enough to guide us back to the club, where we arrived after a while and were greeted by a rather worried Mr. and Mrs. Banerjee. While Mrs. Banerjee intoned in her dulcet cultivated uppah class, “Dahling Sunny, we were so worried! We were just about to send out a search party! Ramu informed us that you left home an hour ago! Did you get lost? Is everything alright?”

At the end of the enquiry, without waiting for her daughter’s reply, she shot me a dirty inquisitive look. “No Mama, I got lost and landed up where the leopard attack took place and completely freaked out. If Vikram had not been there, I don’t know what would have happened.”

Mother Banerjee hissed, “Oh you poor thing! Thank you Vikram!” I knew sachcharine from sugar!

Father Banerjee, who had by then sidled up to me, grimaced and whispered, “Damn! You smell like my daughter. Come on, let’s get you a drink.”

I faintly recall the rest of the evening at Gohainbari club. Ms. Sunny expressed no interest in me for the remainder of my sojourn there. I remember her standing close to me as we all tunelessly belted out, “Silent night, holy night” at the stroke of midnight. I did catch her looking at me once or twice, it wasn’t anything amorous.

I also recall even more indistinctly (after two or three large pegs of Scotch) being driven back to Ghorajuli Tea Estate by who I don’t know and being shown into my spacious accommodations.

I had just divested myself of my blazer and brogues as the logs in the fireplace crackled happily, when the same orderly, now with a pronounced red tint in his eyes, arrived at the door and extended a rather exaggerated ‘Shaalaam Shaab’. The stressed ‘Sh’ is to be noted.

“Shalam Shaab! Aap aa gayaa? Aapka room mein shab kuch theek hai? Bathroom mein garam pani geyser on kar key rakha.” (Greetings Sir! You have returned? Hope all is well in your room. I have switched on the hot water geyser in the bathroom.)

Then he fished out a wooden box from the bookrack above the bed and uncoiled the long wire attached to it. It had an electric switch embedded in it. “Ish shwitch to dabaaney shey, kischen mein bell ring hoga. Hum pura raaat kischen mein rahega. Koi darkar padega, to aap ish switch ko dabayega aur hum aayega daurke do minute mein. Darne ka nahin.” (If you press this switch, a bell will ring in the kitchen. I will be in the kitchen the whole night. If you need something, press the switch and I will run and reach in two minutes. Don’t be scared.)

“Darne ka kya hai?” I asked diffidently. (What is there to be scared of?)

“Shaab woh sirf aapko dekhney ke liye aayega. Kush nahin karega. Aapko shirif dekhega aur chala jayega.” (Sir, he will only come to see you. He won’t do anything. He will just come to see you and then he will go away.)

“Kaun? Kaun aayega mujhe dekhene ke liye?” (Who? Who will come to see me?)

“Woh Shaab. Woh aayega. Lekin aap mat dariye, kush nahin karega. Meri Chrishmash Shaab! Good night Shaab!” (He, Sir. He will come to see you. But don’t get scared Sir, he won’t do anything. Merry Christmas Sir! Good night Sir!)

So saying, he produced another exaggerated ‘shalaam’ and backed away out of the room into the darkness.

The Scotch was playing tricks with my brain and the long drive and the experiences of the evening only served to muddle it further. I decided to call it a day and changed into my bed clothes.

Unaccustomed to sleeping in total darkness, I left the bathroom light on and also left the bathroom door ajar. It was a huge room and must have measured around 700 square feet or more. Enough space to construct a two bedroom flat in today’s world of architectural parsimony. I remember that there were two complete sofa sets with glass topped tables and a massive Emperor-sized bed. There was also an ancient Davenport desk and a quaint rocking chair with a vintage pendant reading light above it. The bed was very comfortable and the logs crackled in the fireplace, pretty soon I felt sleep overtake my senses. Merry Christmas!

I awoke around 3am with the feeling that there was somebody else in the room. My first instinct was to reach for the reassuring switch but I fought it and crawled out of bed. First I opened the bathroom door completely to let more light into the room and then switched on the light above the rocking chair. Now there was enough light in the room.

Sans me, the room was empty and I crawled back into bed. As I drew the blanket up to my chin, I saw a sight and froze. The rocking chair was rocking. Ever so slightly, but rocking back and forth all the same. I must have brushed against it on my way back to the bed. As I propped myself up on the pillows and continued to stare at the moving chair, it suddenly stopped in mid swing. As if an unseen hand had steadied it. The chair froze and so did I. I remember feeling the clichéd chill run down my spine.

After a while, I plucked up enough courage to throw away the blankets and approached the rocking chair. I pushed it and again it began to rock back and forth. I got bored of looking at it after a while and turned my attention to the antique Davenport desk in the corner of the room. Even though I continued to feel a presence in the room, surprisingly I wasn’t scared at all.

I don’t know why I did what I did next but I spoke aloud, "Whoever you are, show yourself to me. If you feel that I will be scared, show me yourself in some form that won’t scare me."

Immediately, a small red toy car (a Matchbox Mercedes Benz) buzzed its way out from below the Davenport and took me completely by surprise. As I stared at it, in its wake followed the most beautiful green frog that I’ve ever seen. It hopped out from under the writing desk and sat there on the polished wooden floor. I was relieved. So this amphibian had sought refuge from the cold and had been disturbed by me. It looked at me for a while and then hopped its way towards the bathroom, I followed. It was a sprightly creature and four leaps took it to the bathroom door. It hopped inside and though I was a split second behind it, it had vanished!

I looked all over the large bathroom but it was nowhere to be found. It had practically vanished into thin air. I crawled back into the comfortable bed, but not before I had found a large collection of Reader’s Digest magazines dating back to 1969 on the book rack. I took some of them down and decided to read into the night till sunrise.

I remember I was mid way through an article about airports and aeroplanes when I heard it. An innocuous sound, a steady tap-tap-tap of a stick on the wooden floor of the long corridor outside. Obviously a night watchman or a ‘chowkidar’. I heard the tap-tap-tap approach the room and then turn around and fade away. Then it came back. Growing louder as it approached the room, stopped and then grew fainter as he went away from the room.

The sound reassured me and proved to be somniferous. Soon I found myself yawning and I put the book aside. All thoughts of ‘a presence in the room’ seemed to vanish and I drifted into sleep listening to the continuous tap-tap-tap of the night watchman parading up and down the corridor of Bungalow No.9 of Ghorajuli Tea Estate.

I was jolted awake with repeated knocks on my door and as I opened my eyes I realised that the windows were bathed in sunlight. I opened the door and faced an impatient liveried orderly who said, “Sahab, aath baj gyaa. Madam aap ke liye lawn me breakfast ka order diya. Aap ready ho ke aa jaayo.” (Sir it is 8am. Madam is waiting for you to join her for breakfast on the front lawns. Please freshen up and be there.) My watch said 8:00am IST which translated to 9:00am GST. I had overslept!

In another thirty minutes I presented myself before the lady of the house on the front lawns of Bungalow No.9 Ghorajuli Tea Estate. As hot toasted bread and fried eggs, fluffy omelettes, steaming coffee, scones and dollops of fresh whipped cream were laid out on the wrought iron table under a garden parasol, she opened the conversation.

“Aloke left for the factory at 7 o’clock and Sunny went riding at 7.30. Both of them wanted to wake you up but I didn’t let them. I know you had a long day yesterday. Did you sleep well?”

“As a matter of fact, I didn’t. I kept imagining that there was somebody in the room. Woke up at around 3 am. Tried to read myself to sleep but then thank God your Chowkidar took over. Listening to the tapping of his stick, I went off to sleep.”

Mrs. Banerjee had bitten into her buttered toast when she seemed to freeze. The fork and knife that had sliced into the ‘sunny side up’ returned to the plate and she spluttered, “Chowkidar tapping his stick? You heard it? Are you sure?”

“Yes. Quite sure. I felt very reassured hearing that sound. As a matter of fact, one of your Nepali orderlies tried to scare me last night by saying that, “Woh aayega. Woh aayega aapko dekhney ke liye.” Thank God the night watchman was there to allay my fears.”

What I didn’t notice then but I do recall now is that she had turned a shade pale, abandoned her breakfast and quaffed down her coffee at this point. A moment later, Dwijen, my driver, appeared and saluted, “Ready Sahib, aapuni jab ready hoga, aahi jaabo!” (Ready to go Sir, whenever you are.)

My bag was packed and ensconced in the rear seat of the Ambassador and I was about to drive away when Miss Sunny made her entrance atop a chestnut stallion. It was a stunning sight to say the least.

As her trainer helped her dismount, her mother rushed to be beside her and the duo were soon engaged in a very animated conversation. I saw curious glances in my direction as I raised my hand to wave goodbye.

Dwijen had engaged the gears and the vehicle was moving when Sunny broke away from her Mom and ran towards the car. I told Dwijen to stop as we reached her and she stuck her head in through the window. I smelt that old perfume lingering on….

“You heard Ranbir Singh last night?”

“Who Ranbir?”

“You heard the night chowkidar go tap-tap-tap last night?”

“Yes I did.”

“Sure? You heard him?”

“Of course I did. Right through the night. Why? Where is the problem?”

“No problems. It is just that we don’t have night chowkidars with sticks any more. There are guards patrolling the border of the estate with automatic weapons.”

“But I heard him tapping away last night, I’m sure of that. I was wide awake and couldn’t have been dreaming.”

“No you weren’t dreaming. Ranbir Singh was a chowkidar here at Ghorajuli in 1917. There was an uprising in the labour camps and they massacred all the British officers of the estate. Ranbir died in his attempt to protect the Manager and his family. He was killed in the bathroom of the guest room that you slept in last night....” having said that, she turned around and walked away.

As I waved goodbye to Ghorajuli Tea Estate, these last words of Sunita Banerjee stuck to my ears and followed me back all the way to Guwahati.

***Based on an actual incident. Identities of the people and places have been changed to respect their privacy. 

 Meet the writer:

Vikramaditya Chaudhury is an author, whose books include Six to Gehenna , Rag, Tag and Bob Tales and Grey.

The author served with Carritt, Moran & Co.P.Ltd., for almost a decade, at the beginning of his career. Thereafter he worked with corporate entities like the Gujarat Ambuja Group, amongst others. Today he is an acclaimed Soft Skills Trainer and Motivational Speaker serving a plethora of sectors in the corporate world and educational institutions. His clientele comprises corporate blue chips, students of several IITs, NITs and IIMs and the Indian Army.

He is currently working on his latest novel ‘Banga Kiron - Footprints in the Sands of Time’ which is set in the holy city of Varanasi.

The author is married and stays in Guwahati, Assam with his family, comprising his wife Indrani, daughter Indrakshi, Sakura his feline son and Patchy his canine younger daughter.

His hobbies include scale and radio controlled models, aviation and air combat Research, vegetarian cooking and playing the harmonica.

Is this your first visit here? Welcome to Indian Chai Stories! 
Do you have a chai story of your own to share? Send it to me here, please: 
My name is Gowri Mohanakrishnan and I'm a tea planter's wife. I started this blog because one of the things that I wouldn't want us to lose in a fast changing world is the tea story - a story always told with great seriousness, no matter how funny - always true (always), maybe a tall tale, long, short, impossible, scary, funny or exciting but never dull. You will find yourself transported to another world! 
Happy reading! Cheers to the spirit of Indian Tea!


Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Exotic Wild Pets

by Kiran K Mehra 

Hello again, dear readers! Kiran K.Mehra is back with more stories for you, so sit back and enjoy your virtual trip to the Dooars.

Tea plantations in India were put out towards the last two decades of the 19th century; this activity continued well into the 20th century for close to three decades. A vast majority of plantations came up on land that had hitherto been dense tropical ‘jungle’. Human endeavour in these parts brought several species of wild creatures in direct contact with man. Having lived in the tea plantations of North Bengal for over 42 years one was fortunate to be witness to several incidents when colleagues took on unusual, exotic wild creatures as pets. 'Talking' mynahs, peacocks, colourful budgerigars, cockatoos, snakes, monkeys, and even a tortoise are some that I recall. I record some of these for the sheer love that is demonstrated and also for the companionship & pleasure that creatures in the wild are,in turn, capable of giving.

'Tourist' map of the Dooars from
(Just for fun - Editor)

The Python

Sometime in the decade of the nineteen fifties a young man named Mani served as an Assistant at Dumchipara TE in the Dooars. Residents of the estate going about their routine lives were prone to encounters with wild creatures; Dumchipara was close to a thick forest reserve.

The estate in those days, had not as yet planted out its entire plantable area; a large part of the estate was under bamboo and thatch; there was also a big “Sal barrie”.

Walking along the road separating the thatch and Sal “Barries” at dusk one evening Mani came upon what looked like a 4’-5’ long piece of wood. Someone has been cutting the ‘sal’ he thought, from a distance, as he approached. And absent-mindedly nudged ‘ the piece of wood’ with his foot. He was surprised - the ‘wood’ was soft to touch and moved ever so slowly.

Realisation dawned !! this was no piece of wood. Shocked, was Mani, to realise, that he had ‘toed’ a live baby python. Lazy and sluggish, most of the time, this creature was found in the act of crossing over from the ‘Sal barrie’ to the thatch ‘barrie’.

A wild life enthusiast, Mani decided to drag the creature upto his car and then carry it back to the bungalow in the boot.  Once home the bungalow staff took over; the creature was fed a diet of chicken that it sucked in live, once a day. And for the remainder of the time it either remained lazily stuck close to a bedroom wall or curled around the bed post.  ( Note : A fully grown python grows to around 17-18 feet long & can be 6”-8” in diameter ; it feeds on creatures of the forest; bats, frogs, mice, goats, monkeys etc.are all prey that is sucked in & swallowed live.

To digest food the python wraps itself into a tight coil around  a convenient log/post or tree-trunk & breaks down the food. Fully grown pythons have been known to swallow live adult humans and deer).

Communication in a small community has a dynamism all its own; in next to no time the whole sub-district knew about Mani’s new exotic pet. Curiosity drove friends and acquaintances alike to arrive at Mani’s place to see his new pet.

And Mani in turn enjoyed the attention the python - and by default he - got. 

Image from Wikipedia

The snake would be brought out almost ceremoniously whenever there was a visitor ; displayed, touched, caressed, and admired, the creature became a celebrity. And Mani would bask in deflected glory.

A couple of months down the line, however, things quietened down. One evening two couples ( Mani’s friends ) from a neighbouring district visited. After tea the ladies expressed a desire to see the snake. Per routine the creature was brought out ; admired, petted etc. and forgotten. Conversation turned.

In the meantime, habituated, Mani carelessly slung the snake across his shoulders and continued entertaining his guests. Unnoticed, the snake coiled itself around the neck slowly began to squeeze tightening itself around. Mid-sentence,at first, Mani felt odd as if something was amiss, and was soon red in the face, arms flailing & gasping for breath.

Realising his predicament the guests yelled for help ; it was a struggle for two men at either end of the snake to uncoil it. Colour slowly came back to Mani’s face once regular breath was restored.

It had, indeed, been a narrow escape.

 On the day of occurrence the python had just been fed; and the staff forgot to warn Mani.

Tragedy averted!! The snake was released back in the wild .

A deer at Baintgoorie 

Pic sourced from internet

The Southern end of Baintgoorie estate merged into the Chel forest in the Mal sub-district of the Dooars.  During the late seventies/ early eighties Bipin Tandon was Manager of the estate . Bipin and Saneera had two young children Praneeta & Rohan ( aged 3 and 1 respectively ) in 1980 when I saw them . Our son Himanshu had yet to turn 2 when I was posted to the estate.

Being on the same estate, the three children were company to each other, and would spend play-time together regularly.  For the children’s amusement BIpin procured a fawn from the nearby forest ; it was kept in a large ( about 40’ x 40’ ) enclosure built behind the bungalow. The children had a great time playing inside the enclosure.

Two years later all three children had dispersed from Baintgoorie ; I wonder if they have memories of it. 

Baintgoorie was also prone to leopard trespass from the forest closeby. The restless-ness of the young fawn inside the enclosure , frantic running around and crashing into the wire-mesh was indicative of leopard presence near the bungalow every time . And a wily leopard aware of the fawn tried to enter the enclosure a few times but mercifully never succeeded.

The little fawn, I daresay, would’ve died a thousand times everytime it sensed the leopards presence. 

 “ MURGI CHOR” - the leopard at Lakhipara

Pix from

This incident occurred a a couple of years before I went to work in tea on an estate called Lakhipara.

The Manager there was John Grimmer, a much respected and loved Scotsman. John and his wife Sheila lived on the estate with their children Shona and Ian.

Lakhipara, located at a fair distance from most forests in the vicinity, is not an estate that sees much animal trespass on a regular basis ; the odd stray incursion does however take place.

The chowkidars in the Lakhipara manager’s bungalow had long complained of noises that emanate from the “Goali” ( cow-shed ) on some nights indicative of the cows getting restless. Fearing a leopard incursion they would ensure that the place was secured properly .

On the night that I am referring to there was noise from the cow shed ; and then quiet as usual . A few minutes later a huge cackling from the “ murgi khana “ ( hen pen-house).

( These were the days when estates were dependant on their own gen-sets for power; to save on oil engines were turned off after 11 at night .)

In the darkness Tul Bahadur, the chowkidar, fearfully crept out of the safety of the verandah where he was ensconced , torch in hand , to investigate . No sooner had he flashed the light he noticed the bright gold and black spots of a leopard ; the hens were all over the place; the leopard had killed a few .

Tul Bahadur darted back into the house to inform the master ; who in turn, marched out in his pyjamas, shot gun in hand. Alerted by the commotion the leopard tried to get out, only to realise that it couldn’t find the opening,in the wire-mesh, that it had come in through .

Aiming carefully, John shot at the leopards head and felled it in two shots. Tragic end to this fully grown handsome creature which had landed up in the murgi-khana driven by hunger & lack of prey in the forest.

The leopard skin & head, fully intact formed a beautiful trophy, that adorned the living room in the Grimmer household when I saw it.

The Grimmers left it to their successor on the estate, when they returned home to Aberdeen in 1975.

( Mrs Sheila Grimmer commented as under upon reading the story : > “ I loved all the stories ; and needless to say , the one about the leopard at Lakhipara brought back many fond memories . > I remember the night that it happened; we had a director from London visiting us and he heard the commotion and thought it was a soda bottle popping it’s cork and went back to sleep again. He got quite a surprise when he saw the leopard stretched out at the side of the bungalow , and so did the servants when they came through the garage to get back to the veranda. > I can’t remember how John managed to get the skin cured etc but I do know that Shona and Ian had great fun when their Dad went down on his haunches , donned the leopard skin and chased them round the dining table . So many thanks for that lovely story . )

The Tortoises

Image sourced from the internet by the author

The manager's bungalow at Dumchipara estate has a wonderfully lit, large verandah with the three open sides covered by wire-mesh. An endless variety of potted plants, beautifully tended, make the place cool and welcoming as one enters the house. My good friend the late Vijay Rawal ( may he rest in peace ) & his wife Suneeta had tastefully done the place up . Apart from the usual wall-hangings and greens, an aviary full of budgerigars, and two large dogs and a huge tortoise all co-existing, without fuss, on the verandah made for an interesting entry to the house every time I visited ( once a month during the course of visits to the estate as part of my job. )

The dogs would welcome the oncoming vehicle with a bark at the gate; then circle around it twice before it stopped at the porch ; & then be ready to escort you in, their excitement demonstrated by sniffing, licking a hand raised to pet and a desperate wagging of tails.

No sooner had one entered the verandah, the far corner would erupt into a crescendo of chirping birds compelling you to walk up to the aviary to admire its occupants. The riot of colour that one saw inside was amazing - bright yellow, sky blue, parrot green, and scarlet coloured birds flitting incessantly around mesmerised the visitor.

While still at it, attention would be drawn to the two large aquariums with shiny lights and several multi-coloured fish in various shapes and sizes that beckoned you . A minute or two spent admiring these loveliest of God’s creatures was mandatory . The black & orange big one with a pout, and White plumage like gills was my favourite ; I imagine that one would be able to spend hours, idly watching the goings-on,in the aquarium and the aviary without knowing how time went by. What a delight !!!  And as one settled down to a glass of nimbu/paani the big tortoise would emerge ever so shyly from its hiding place among the potted plants and waddle slowly across only to tell the master of the house “ I am there “.

It was a big fellow, this tortoise; the half-moon shaped shell on its back was about 12 inches across ; and underneath one saw a tiny black head with small bead-like eyes and four tiny feet . It would crawl right up to where one sat and look up almost as if to greet you .

 Tortoises - II

A couple of years later, after a change of management at Dumchipara when Mr. Vikram Malik was the Manager of the estate, I was once again priveleged to see a tortoise in the same bungalow. Only this creature was a much smaller species; barely 4- 5 inches across and a lot more nimble this creature behaved in much the same way as the earlier one. Only its size never failed to amaze the onlooker .

Image from

The Maliks also had a lovely aviary adorning the far corner of their Verandah; and likewise the cackle from the blue and yellow budgerigars reached a crescendo of excitement every time anyone entered the house .

On one of my visits I found a pair of lemon yellow & green colored parrots 🦜 coyly peeking out from behind the flower pots in the verandah - not yet capable of taking flight.

Curious about the new additions when I asked my host I was informed that the pair had been poached off a nest, high in the hollow, of a ‘sal’ tree in the estates Salbari .

Meet the writer: 

Retired planter living in Delhi ; interested in nature, travelling , gardening & golf . Dabble in poetry ; also write occasionally, narrating long forgotten incidents picked up/ experienced over a life-time in the plantations of North Bengal. 

Is this your first visit here? Welcome to Indian Chai Stories! 
Do you have a chai story of your own to share? Send it to me here, please: 
My name is Gowri Mohanakrishnan and I'm a tea planter's wife. I started this blog because one of the things that I wouldn't want us to lose in a fast changing world is the tea story - a story always told with great seriousness, no matter how funny - always true (always), maybe a tall tale, long, short, impossible, scary, funny or exciting but never dull. You will find yourself transported to another world! 
Happy reading! Cheers to the spirit of Indian Tea!