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Saturday, December 15, 2018

Ratan Munshi the Duck Breeder

by Aloke Mookerjee
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.

Much as I was tempted by the thought of a well fattened goose roasted to perfection, I was not quite sure of my cook’s ability to do full justice to the ‘bird in hand’. I explained to Ratan, perhaps a little too tersely, that a goose would not be necessary for my Christmas lunch as I was not a ‘gora’ saab!
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

Editor's Note:

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 -

Is this your first visit here? Welcome to Indian Chai Stories! 

You will meet many storytellers here at Indian Chai Stories, and they are almost all from the world of tea gardens: planters, memsaabs, baby and baba log. Each of our contributors has a really good story to tell - don't lose any time before you start reading them!

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, or 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! 


Monday, December 10, 2018

A Cup of Tea and a Slice of History

Venk has written an informative and interesting account of the beginnings and development of the tea plantations in India. Some of our readers may like to go on to read the books he mentions here.

by Venk Shenoi
History has shaped the world we live in. The East India Co (EIC), founded December 1600 during the reigns of Queen Elizabeth I in England and Emperor Akbar in Hindustan, started trading from its factory at Surat following grants from Emperor Jahangir (1615/17). The Company’s activities centred on trade in cotton, silk, indigo, saltpetre, and spices, initially from Surat and later from Madras (1644), Calcutta and Bombay (1661) which was ceded to England by the Portuguese. Following Emperor Aurangzeb’s death in 1707 and breakup of the Mughal Empire the EIC was drawn into the chaotic politics of the times mainly to safeguard its trade. The Company was not interested in acquiring and administering territory but following Clive’s victory at Plassey (1757) over the Nawab of Bengal, became Jagirdars under the Mughals that were the paramount power of Hindustan.

By the early 1800s the Company was the supreme power in India and controlled its own territory within the Presidencies of Bengal, Madras and Bombay and also the many Rajas and Nawabs on the sub-continent who --- although given internal autonomy--- were under the watchful eye of the English Residents. The EIC, initially as traders and later as Empire builders, moulded Indian history as much as the Mughals, Marathas and all the others that ruled over the subcontinent from the beginning of time. Tea was already known in Europe including Britain from the 1600s and imported from China via the Dutch East India trade. The late 18th Century saw the likes of botanist Joseph Banks proposing to grow tea in India. Trials with Chinese varieties (Robert Kydd, 1780) were not successful under Indian conditions. The EIC lost interest in growing tea as China provided a profitable source and Chinese tea could be bartered for Indian opium.
          Wild tea was discovered growing in Assam in the early 19th century (1823), reportedly by a Major Robert Bruce, who had a keen interest in botany and in exploring the territory of the Ahom Kings (then within the Burmese Empire). Bruce was helped by Maniram Diwan a local noble, to meet Beesa Gaum, the Chief of the local Singpho hill tribe who were known to brew tea from leaves of wild bushes. Bruce planned to grow the tea from seeds provided by the tribal chief but died soon after.

Assam and Manipur, then part of the Burmese Empire, came under EIC control following the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824 – 26) and the treaty of Yandbo. Robert’s brother Charles Bruce later (1835) obtained seeds and plants and the Calcutta Botanical Gardens studied these to ascertain prospects. The plants were found to be different from the Chinese varieties but more suited to growing in Assam. The EIC experts examined commercial potential for growing tea in the newly acquired lands of Eastern India. Initial trials with the Chinese varieties and Chinese methods of manufacture failed and a hybrid version developed from Chinese/Assam plants proved successful in the local climate.

Politics came into managing the new wilderness, new laws brought in by the EIC (the infamous ‘Wastelands Acts’) dispossessed local land owners and tribals renting the newly acquired lands to venture capitalists. A system of indentured labour put local tribesmen and others brought later from the tribal lands of Central India to work in the new plantations along the river valleys of Assam, later in Bengal (1860 onwards).

1837 saw the first consignment of Bruce’s tea being sold in London and attracted venture capital. Although it owned land the EIC did not have monopoly of the Indian trade in the early 19th century. The Bengal Tea Company was formed in Calcutta in 1939, and a joint stock company formed in London to purchase the EIC’s plantations and establish tea estates in Assam. The two companies merged to form the Assam Company (1839). The market for Assam tea developed in London through the 1840s and 50s. Private capital saw new opportunities and the Indian Tea Industry was born. Indigenous tea was also discovered in Cachar and cultivation spread (1859) to Tripura, Sylhet, and Chittagong, Jorehaut Tea Company was set up in 1859. The number of tea gardens expanded from 50 in 1859 to 160 in 1862.

Plantations in the Dooars, previously part of Bhutan, were started after the Anglo-Bhutan War of 1864/65 when the territory was annexed later to become Jalpaiguri District of Bengal. Books like the ‘Planter Raj to Swaraj’ by Amalendu Guha provide a historical narrative of the development of British control over Assam during the 19th century and its political undertones.
‘Assam - yes beastly unhealthy hole; better not go there’, appears to have been the prevailing sentiment in the 19th century. Experiences of an early Planter George Barker are given in ‘A Tea Planter’s life in Assam’ published by Thacker Spink & Co Calcutta in 1884. The book is a guide for aspiring Planters intending to work in the jungles of Assam. Barker’s story starts in an overcrowded England short of economic opportunities prompting the young to seek their fortunes in the colonies. By 1869 the Suez Canal was completed and sailing ships from England which previously took over a hundred days around the Cape of Good Hope now took about a month under steam. 150 rupees a month (£150 a year) and an increase of 500 rupees a year for the first three years appear attractive compared with wages then prevailing in England for junior grades.

The sketches on these pages are copied from Barker’s book. To the best of my knowledge there are no copyright restrictions. Railways and steam powered industries were opening up in India. Coal was being mined at many locations; Post and Telegraph were established in the 1850s with Railways connecting the main cities by the 1860s. By the time the young George Barker arrived in Calcutta in the early 1880s, river steamers were plying on the Ganges and the Brahmaputra connecting Goalundo (present day Bangladesh) with Dhubri, Goalpara, Gauhati, Tezpur and Dibrugarh in Assam.

Attracting workers to the the eastern jungle infested with wild animals, snakes and insects was problematic and expensive. The capital needed to clear the jungle and open up plantations needed long term finance. Clearing jungle and planting tea took time. Tea bushes took time to mature before sufficient leaf could be harvested, processed and transported to the markets of Calcutta or London. Trusted workers were sent to their homelands of Central India to recruit labour; some absconded with the allowances they were given for travel. Others returned with family groups to work in the plantations. Barker’s observations on the native people and their diverse ways make interesting reading. He describes Calcutta and was impressed by its fine parks and buildings a reflection of his native London. His dread of animal and insect life of the jungle particularly the mosquito, and other creeping, crawling and flying life forms would be familiar to those living in rural Assam and Bengal today.

Barker’s book covers advice to newly arrived planters on managing the coolies described as a troublesome lot. Imported canned products were exorbitantly priced by the Calcutta merchants and making do with local produce was essential to survive. Labour contractors in Calcutta charged a premium and interest on loans was punitive; many were bankrupted in the process. Diseases were rife and many succumbed. The book provides advice on medicines to take and also basic sanitary advice regarding drinking water, sunstrokes and things to avoid.

Barker describes operations in growing and processing tea before steam or oil engines and mechanical process equipment were introduced in the early 20th Century. It is interesting to note that planters had to adapt local techniques and construct process equipment such as screens and firing kilns. Locally available materials such as ‘bet’ (reed) was used for construction and charcoal for firing tea was made on site from jungle wood. Rolling, etc, involved manual processes. Early bungalows are described as of kutcha-construction over a raised floor and constructed of timber and reed materials and thatched roofs. The monsoons brought heavy rains and leaky roofs and a profusion of insect life.

Elephants and bullock carts were used for land transport, also horses and gharries. Transport of tea chests to Calcutta utilised steam boats. The ever changing river beds and seasonal flooding required temporary depots to be created in the dry season on the sand banks, a risky business.

In contrast to George Barker and his 19th century Planters’ Guide, Rod Brown in his ‘Tea and Me’ (2014) gives his personal experience of post-Independence 1950’s life in Tea. Brown, who worked for Lister Engines in Dursley as a young apprentice was recruited by Goodricke (then Duncan Brothers) in 1951 and worked in Zurrantee, Satkya and Bagracote. He sailed first class from Tilbury on the P&O 'Strathaird' to Bombay via the Suez Canal and thence by rail to Calcutta. He also flew by Jamair from Dum Dum to the Dooars an experience many of us went through in the 1950s and 60s.

His description of Bombay and Calcutta would be familiar to those that grew up in the 1950s and 60s. Brown even brought his 78RPM jazz records but had to wait awhile before he could afford a record player to listen to the music he loved. The starting salary of £33 a month was not a lot better in real terms than the 150Rs that George Barker got seven decades earlier in the 1880s but life was much easier and essentials of modern life such as refrigerators, radios and motor cycles and cars affordable. Rod loved the Dooars and had a more enlightened approach to dealing with his workers. Attitudes were changing and the Sahib was expected to be more sensitive to native cultures and ways of life. Shikar was his favourite pastime and boars, deer, leopards and even the occasional tiger were to be found in the jungle surrounding the Dooars Tea Estates. Relationships with the native (Indian) staff and workers also appear to have changed from that described by Barker in the 19th century.

I am still reading Rod Brown’s book and will post a review next time round.

 Meet the writer:

Over to Venk: 'Born in Chertala, Travancore (Kerala), grew up in Chertala, Calcutta and Bombay. Can read and write in Bengali (my best Indian language), Malayalam, Hindi and Marathi apart from English, smattering of spoken Czech, German, Mandarin Chinese, Tamil and Konkani (my mother tongue, which I have forgotten for all practical purposes). 

Was a Dooars Tea Company Assistant Manager from 1962 – 65, posted at Nagrakata and Grassmore T.E.s.

Went round India on a Tata Nano in 2013. 

Member of the Conservative Party, and served two terms as an elected District Councillor in the Forest of Dean Gloucestershire where I live. Apart from travel, visiting museums and archaeological sites, history, radio, photography, vintage fountain pens, concerned about world population explosion and resource limitation leading to extinction of man on earth soon.'

Is this your first visit here? Welcome to Indian Chai Stories!
You will meet many storytellers here at Indian Chai Stories, and they are almost all from the world of tea gardens: planters, memsaabs, baby and baba log. Each of our contributors has a really good story to tell - don't lose any time before you start reading them! 

 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, or 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, December 1, 2018


by Roma Circar
The slender mauve envelope stuck out like a sore thumb on his untidy office table. That it was scented as well was only discovered after its contents were read, remarked on, and ridiculed. The addressee himself did not find it risible enough to warrant the spasms of laughter that it evoked, but his colleagues had always appeared to lack good sense and sound judgement over things essentially classic – like deportment, height, complexion, six-packs, a Roman nose and a leonine head of hair. While a couple of them could indeed lay claim to some attributes, none of them possessed them all in the abundant measure that he did.

It was a love letter, and it was anonymous. Like most amorous epistles, especially introductory ones, it was flattering to its recipient. Written in rather battered English prose, it nonetheless got its message across. Harish (name changed) was thrilled beyond measure. He had been on this garden at the junction of Hasimara and Phuntsholing for almost a year, but nobody had quite appreciated him in the manner that he expected. This letter would change perceptions of him from a general garden dogsbody Assistant to a Don Juan!

After the initial euphoria subsided, Harish’s Roman nose busied itself with ascertaining who the letter writer was. Where had the letter originated– Hasimara? Phuntsholing? A neighbouring garden? His colleagues, my husband included, were only too happy to assist him in this endeavour. Who in their right mind would write a love letter to a dolt such as Harish, when there were so many handsome hunks among the management staff populating the Dalsingpara office? Even the Manager was a trifle curious – he was quite a titbit too, if memory serves! A tacit vote supported an investigation!

However, all investigative leads were at a dead end and attention refocused on loopers and helopeltis when the second billet-doux arrived. The first one had been dismissed as an aberration – the girl had evidently changed her mind after a second glance in Harish’s direction, but the second one put a clattering lid on that line of thought! Either the letter writer was a nitwit in the mould of the recipient, or they had overlooked something overwhelmingly dashing in their colleague. The management staff began to look at him with renewed interest and just a shade of envy.

There was no stopping the spate of mail after the arrival of billet doux 2, and the management crew was frustrated at being unable to identify the letter writer. The Gentle Reader has inferred correctly: Harish’s mail had descended to the level of garden property, and all were privy to its contents. What’s more, everyone was involved in unearthing the possible author of the purple prose in mauve envelopes. The list of suspects was long – even the name of the Fitter Babu’s daughter, who went to an English medium school in Hasimara town, was on it. Then, there was the retinue of Bhutanese princesses who often dined at the Druk hotel in Phuntsholing, and the daughters of army and air force officers, and GREF, based in and around the district. Why daughters alone? Caesar’s wife may have been above suspicion, but the same courtesy did not extend to the wives of the defence personnel in the area, and nor to, horror of horrors, the sorority of Dalsingpara wives and the lady members of Torsa Gymkhana Club!      

We, the estate wives, were kept in the loop. When Harish wanted a pat on his shoulder and time to soliloquise in peace, he came to one of us for a cup of tea and a slice of gingerbread with a drizzle of syrup or its equivalent. But after a three month deluge of scented mail, we were all growing a trifle weary of the entire affair.

“She should stop this!” remarked a wife at one of our frequent hen-gatherings.

“She will!” squeaked another. “Or she’ll switch to envelopes of a different colour – that’s 23 letters in mauve already! Maybe one more, to finish the pack!”

“Tell him to toss the next one in the bin without opening it!” said wife no.3 in grim tones.

Even as we were speaking, the 24th letter had been delicately slit open with a paper cutter in the office. The men came home in a great state of excitement. Apparently, Emily Bronte had suggested a meeting the next evening at the level crossing in Hasimara town. Come alone, she had written, at 5pm. Harish was beside himself with glee. At last he was going to meet the girl whose dreams, over the last trimester, had been populated by one hero alone – himself!

In the plantations, the men rarely if ever call it a day at 5pm, but the Manager readily gave the young man permission to set off on his metallic steed to Hasimara town at 4.30. Fifteen minutes thereafter, he was followed out of the lofty estate gates by all his colleagues!

A telephone call from the office had ensured that the bevy of belles on the estate congregate at Beech Kothi with a dish each for the revelry to follow. It took roughly a drop of a hat for us to gather together for a chinwag as a rule, and this was a special occasion! We outdid ourselves in the culinary department and took up our positions on cane chairs in the large red Beech Kothi veranda. The children played happily at one end while we fortified ourselves with cups of ginger tea in view of the still chilly weather.

A shiny moon struggled all evening to ward off competition from the stately row of newly installed halogen lamps leading to the bungalow, and it was at a low slung position when the bikes roared in through its gates. The removal of crash helmets revealed grins as wide as Halloween pumpkins, but of our leading man there was no sign. We craned our necks to spot another headlight, and strained our ears to hear an engine roar.

“Where’s Harish?” asked a memsahib, perplexed.

“Chatting up the besotted lady?” suggested another.

But our men were too busy sputtering and quivering like their motorcycles to provide a coherent reply. What was tickling them so pink?

Harish had ridden to Phuntsholing, we were told eventually.

“For a drink!” added an Assistant.

“But who was the letter-writer?” we chorused inquisitively.

There was stone cold silence for a moment before a second round of sputtering and quivering began, but one among our men deigned to assuage our curiosity.

“It was the Hasimara teashop guy!” he said, before dissolving into helpless chuckles again!
Meet the writer: Roma Circar

Says Roma, "At a fairly tender age, in 1979, I traipsed into the magical wonderland of Camellia Sinensis and shade trees.It was in this exquisite space that I began to give vent to my feelings, albeit in miniscule doses. A number of my short stories found their way into Eve's Weekly, the Telegraph,and The Statesman.

My experience with work in the organized sector, once we moved to Kolkata after three decades out in the sticks, was with e-learning in the corporate sphere. However, the long hours of slavery were not exactly my cup of tea. I now work from home. In addition to books, I am now turning more and more to reading what is churned out in this blog. It transports me to a slice of life that is already on its way to becoming an anachronism. Let us endeavour to record it for posterity."

 Click here to read all Roma's stories on this blog

Is this your first visit here? Welcome to Indian Chai Stories!
You will meet many storytellers here at Indian Chai Stories, and they are almost all from the world of tea gardens: planters, memsaabs, baby and baba log. Each of our contributors has a really good story to tell - don't lose any time before you start reading them! 

 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, or 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! 


Monday, November 12, 2018

The Mudis Sports Day

by Rajesh Thomas
The author is highly indebted to Mr.M.L.Devassy, retired Personnel Manager, BBTC, & Mr. Prashant Aiyappa, Manager Dunsandle Estate, BBTC for the valuable information and photographs that they have shared. 
For an approaching visitor, the spectacle would have been novel. The sight of the road winding through the tea fields and suddenly sloping towards the sports ground, with milling masses vying for vantage spots. Towards one side of the ground stand eight ladies in a row in colorful saris hitched up with a pot of water on their head. At the sound of the starter’s gun the ladies, with the roar of the encouraging crowd spurring them on, sprint fifty meters and empty their mud pots on the two surprised young aspiring planters fresh out of college trying to judge the race.

The crowd roars in laughter as the young Sinnadorais (Assistant Managers in Tamil), drenched completely, return sheepishly to the pavilion. Welcome to the Mudis sports day and you have just witnessed the 'chatty' race (chatty means mud pot in Tamil). But not all Sinnadorais take it lying down: Kenny Sreshta was reputed to have taken one full round of the track trying to escape the speedy Mudis lasses - in vain. Sandy Gumoan, with presence of mind, ran straight to the refreshments tent grabbed a soft drink bottle and retaliated by spraying the contents at the surprised ladies. The dapper Roy Machia, dressed smartly in jacket /tie and aviators, was taken totally by surprise much to every one’s enjoyment. It was generally acknowledged that this as the initiation for the young SDs into the company.

Come January 26th every year the day the masses from the surrounding group estates throng the lush green grounds of the Mudis Staff club. A day eagerly anticipated by the crowds dressed in their Sunday best- a full day of fun and entertainment. It is also a day when the workers and staff from the group estates put on their running shoes to show off their athletic prowess: the day of the Annual Inter-Estate Athletics Meet for the Mudis group of Estates. A unique feature in the BBTC estates, rarely seen in any of the other plantation groups in South India.

It is also a tribute to the olden days' planters' love for sports and the encouragement they gave all employees for participation in sporting activities. As children growing up in Mudis, every year we looked forward eagerly to the sports day along with the inter estate football and volleyball matches, cheering for the estates where our fathers were posted.

Petty shops and hawkers mysteriously turned up on the magic day: fleecing the crowd, hoping to make a quick buck, with the odd arrack seller selling his moonshine discreetly in the tea bushes. As the afternoon wore on, the crowds, suitably encouraged, would begin to take a more vociferous interest in the proceedings, shouting encouragement interspersed with the choicest abuses at the competitors who failed to measure up to their standards.
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The Mudis Staff club the day before the Sports Day

Competitions were there for all, including the Managers, who invariably were given tasks generally unique; usually, it was the slow cycle race. One year, a table tennis ball throwing contest was organized for the Managers and Ray Steele (a favorite with the workers), a hulk of a man, without anyone knowing substituted a golf ball for the ping pong ball and threw it further than anyone who had thrown the ping pong ball much to the crowd's delight! The crowd of course was in the dark about the substitution..

As the afternoon wore on came the blue riband event of the day - the tug of war, when the heavyweights stepped on the turf to match strengths - followed by the Fancy dress competition.

The credit for starting the sports day in Singampatti belongs to D.D.Khanwilkar much later in 1983. The athletics took place at the Kakachi Golf course. The starting years in Singampatti, to put it mildly, were simply hilarious. The workforce, not exposed to the nuances of athletics,  took some years to settle. It was difficult to dissuade the crowd from running behind the competitors during the race, as it was common to have a whole bevy of supporters cheering and running behind the competitors for the entire race!

The sports day at Singampatti was held on May 1st and was preceded by the inter estate volley ball tournament. With the estates from the Singampatti group being more isolated and less exposed to the outside world the rivalry between the estates was much fiercer especially during the volleyball matches, leading to allegations of favoritism. This forced the company to bring a qualified referee from the Sports Authority of India, Tirunelveli, to officiate the matches.

Later on the same Ref, who was also a qualified coach, came to my school in Tirunelveli to conduct a volleyball coaching camp. When he found out my father was working in Singampatti he mentioned how tough he found it to umpire the volley ball matches due to the crowd fervor and involvement, which, according to him, he had not witnessed even when he was umpiring interstate matches. 
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Prize distribution at the Singampatti Sports Day

The final event of the sports day was the cross- country race, which invariably was won by the runners from the distant divisions. The sports meet saw some highly talented athletes who excelled year after year and became crowd favorites. From the staff, there were some champion athletes like John Philip, Thomas Joseph, Somasundaram, Arularaj and David Dhanaraj, who regularly won trophies every year and were crowd favorites.

At the end, there was an overall rolling trophy for the best estate. It was with a lot pride that the workers from the winning estate carried the trophy back, with a lot of sloganeering in Tamil.
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A more recent picture of the sports day at the Mudis Staff Club

Some of the athletes became so proficient that they began to flaunt their talent at state level athletic meets supported by the company. One of the most enduring stories was of Muniandy, a worker from Gajam Mudi Estate. His father was a bootlegger who had his operations inside the Eucalyptus Plantations of the company which bordered the Tea Fields, and young Muniandy used to sprint carrying the bottles on his head to sell them and on the return trip carry uphill the ingredients for the next brew.

This uphill/ downhill trip he did often every day. My father, at that time the manager of Gajam Mudi, happened to see this lad run. He persuaded him to take part in the cross country race in the coming sports meet, which he won with considerable ease. Then he was a made a permanent worker in Gajam Mudi and was often sent to participate in state-level meets across Tamil Nadu. Over a short period, Muniandy became a champion long distance runner and a force to reckon with at the state level. At one such meet, he was spotted by the officers from Tuticorin Port Trust, who recruited him on the spot, on their sports quota.

Well, who says dreams don’t come true!

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Stalwarts of the BBTC Group Mr.Angus Mcnaughtan addressing the gathering at Mudis Staff Club function. Seated from Left Mr.Nicholas Rawley ( partly hidden), Mr.A.K.Hirijee, Mr.James Gibbons and Dr.K.T.Mathew.
Author's Notes: The Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation has five estates in the Annamallais planting district in South India. They are popularly known as the "The Mudis Group of estates". The Singampatti Group of the Company is situated much further south, almost touching Cape Comorin. It is a unique planting district, in the sense that it is in the middle of the Kalakad / Mundanthorai Tiger Reserve and there are no other plantations in the vicinity.

An intro to the Mudis Staff Club: The club was formed in 1929 and operated out of the building where the present Mudis Police Station is. The present clubhouse was built in 1948 and has remained as a social and sporting hub for the staff of the BBTC estates. The clubhouse is an imposing building situated at a height giving the spectators a bird’s eye view of the action below. A set of triangular steps lead down to the manicured turf below and it creates an electrifying atmosphere when the footballers and cricketers walk down the steps.

Chatty Race is a fifty meter dash for women with mud pots filled with water on their head. Before the race the participants are told the winner is the first competitor to reach the finish line and empty their pots on the judges. The judges are some greenhorn Assistant Managers who have recently joined the group and are not aware that they are going to be drenched. This is a regular event every year and eagerly anticipated by everyone.

Slow cycle race is generally over a short distance of twenty to thirty meters, where the winner is the last to reach the finish line without their feet touching the ground.

Meet the writer: Rajesh Thomas

Rajesh is a second generation planter who was born and brought up in the tea districts of South India. Don't miss out on his earlier stories - Click on this link to read them: 

Is this your first visit here? Welcome to Indian Chai Stories!
You will meet many storytellers here at Indian Chai Stories, and they are almost all from the world of tea gardens: planters, memsaabs, baby and baba log. Each of our contributors has a really good story to tell - don't lose any time before you start reading them! 

 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, or 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, November 7, 2018

A Road ‘Beyond The Fringe’

'A nostalgic drive down the road to Nagrakata T.E. While memories blur, the vision of Nagrakata as it was fifty-five years ago still seems fresh'.
 writes Aloke Mookerjee

Prologue: Aloke arrived  at Grassmore on a Jamair flight, and he has described this journey in his story 'Unto the Unknown'  (please click on the name to read the whole story). 
He writes: 'The cabin door opened with a loud clang and I stepped out into a morning bathed in bright and clear sunshine. Ahead, a black and white windsock was fluttering gently in the cool early morning breeze. In a corner of the airfield, I could see a large tin shed that served as Jamair’s godown. A couple of tea garden ‘lorries’ were parked alongside, presumably, to collect their cargo brought in by the aircraft. A sporty ‘Standard Herald’ car was parked close to them, with what appeared to be a planter in shorts and an open necked shirt leaning against it. He turned out to be the other Assistant Manager of Nagrakata Tea Estate, waiting for me.' Read on...

Following introductions, my escort, Chand Kapoor, got me and my scant baggage into his new white Standard Herald motor car and we set off bumping along a narrow dirt track with tea bushes on either side. I was told we were driving through Grassmore Tea Estate, one of the five plantations owned by my employers, The Dooars Tea Company. The airfield land belonged to Grassmore, with the management responsible for its upkeep. Behind me, the roar of the old Dakota indicated the start of her onward journey to Telepara and then onto Newlands in the far east of the Dooars region.

It was not a long drive through the plantation and we were soon exiting the dirt track to turn onto a narrow tarmac road. Out from the confines of the plantation and its screen of shade trees, the view opened to reveal the wide expanse of an arrestingly attractive countryside at the foothills of the Himalayas. On its northern boundaries, the Kingdom of Bhutan, with the back drop of towering mountains, looked down majestically upon this lush green land. It appeared glorious; a startling contrast to the sterile city I had just left behind. The deep red colour of the ground all around seemed abundantly fertile even to an uninitiated novice. I was told that it was known to all as the 'red-bank' soil of the Dooars, rich in nutrients and organic matter and well suited to tea cultivation.

Towards the latter half of the nineteenth century, twelve tea plantations were established here by adventurous entrepreneurs on land granted by the then British rulers. They came from various walks of life but had in common the grit and gumption to plant tea on virgin grounds and create wealth from this new lucrative crop. Setting up what are now thriving tea estates was a remarkable achievement considering the remote location, the primitive living conditions and the hostile environment where wild animals and tropical diseases struck – often with fatal consequences.

Their toil in such extreme conditions payed off and, in the decades that followed, the tea estates flourished to support a large and growing population of varied ethnicity. The plantation workers were mainly tribals who had been relocated here from their original abode at the Chota Nagpur plateau in what are now Jharkhand and Chattisgarh as also from the Koraput and Ganjam areas of Odisha. A sprinkling of Nepali workers from the Darjeeling/Kalimpong hills nearby completed the motley group of the labour force. The Bengalis occupied almost all the clerical positions in the plantation offices.

Before the national highway through the Dooars was built, the one lane tarmac track we were now driving on linked Nagrakata with Siliguri, the commercial hub of North Bengal, to its west and to Assam in its east. The road meandered through dense tropical forests opening up to large stretches of rice paddy and verdant valleys with narrow bridges across stony mountain streams and rivers. From the rivers Teesta in the west of the Dooars to Jainti, Sankos, Toorsa and Rydak in the vicinity of its eastern boundaries, the region was gloriously unspoilt. The forests abounded with free roaming animals and birds of many varieties and the rivers teeming with fish. It was not unusual to encounter wild elephants or sambhars and cheetals, leopards, leopard cats, wild pigs, and if luck favoured, a Royal Bengal Tiger in all its majesty. Occasionally, small clusters of thatched roof huts with mud plastered walls half concealed within luxuriant bamboo and banana groves, would come in view looking tranquil in the dappled sunlight. The population was not overpowering yet and life in the villages of North Bengal was still relatively easy.

The Club
 Soon after, we were driving over a narrow one-way wooden bridge across what I learnt was, the ‘Ghatia Nadi’ and a little later, a small ‘bungalow’ style structure with a green corrugated iron roof appeared on the right. I was told that this building in the midst of a well maintained nine-hole golf course was Nagrakata Club, the entertainment hub of the planters in its vicinity. The towering blue mountains of the lower Himalayas formed an imposing backdrop for this isolated structure conspicuous by its singular presence, seemingly, in the midst of ‘nowhere’. I would soon enough learn what this charming yet unpretentious little building meant to our lives in the far-out land of tea.

The planter members of Nagrakata Club, including wives, could not have exceeded sixty individuals yet the club maintained three lawn tennis courts, one hard court, a cricket field, a football/rugby field and a nine-hole golf course. Inside there was a library, a billiards table, a ping-pong table, card tables and finally the well-stocked bar, where the ‘meetha-pani walas’ were eyed with derision and disdain! The changing rooms were well equipped with hot and cold showers, easy chairs and benches. The ladies’ powder room with its comfortable upholstered sofas and tall mirrors was all luxury that pampered to the whims of the fastidious ‘memsaabs’. A hall with a projector room at one end and a small neat stage with a cinema screen at the other completed the available facilities. There were no air-conditioners. No one missed them despite the hot and humid weather of the summer and monsoon months.

Full membership with credit facilities was extended to the new planter immediately on his arrival. In addition, reciprocal membership facility allowed him free access to all the other planters’ clubs located in various tea districts across the entire tea region including the town clubs of the Dooars and Assam. The planting community consisted of a disparate crew comprising Englishmen, Scotsmen, Irishmen and Welshman from the UK along with a growing number of Indians and Anglo Indians, from across the country, who had begun to replace the expatriates.

Television was a distant dream. Home entertainment was limited to the wireless radio or music from vinyl records. Sound devices ranged from the ancient valve radio sets to the simple battery-operated record player. The new radios with their ‘piano key’ controls were considered a great advancement and high in aesthetics as compared to the decrepit old models with rotating knobs! Occasionally, the trendy ‘Ahuja’ radiogram with its lacquered lustrous coating would appear conspicuously in the ‘gol kamra’ of its proud owner. Its gleaming presence with the ‘hi-fi’ sounds, were impressive enough to attract the envious eyes of the deprived and reason enough for the demand of a celebratory drink or two. The promise of an impromptu party was now definitely hovering in the air!

There were no cinema halls, restaurants or bars to speak of. The clubs were thus created by the pioneers as the centre of their entertainment and extra-curricular activities where they met on certain evenings of the week when its doors opened for sports and the weekly cinema show. A strictly enforced dress code ensured all male members wore a tie with full sleeved shirts and trousers for the Sunday night cinema shows. In the hot and humid months of summer and rains, it was all too common to see the male members attired in their well washed, starched and pressed white cotton trousers with an equally white full sleeved cotton shirt and neck tie. Blazers or jackets with trousers or lounge suits formed the cold weather wear. It would be many years before this dress code was relaxed sufficiently enough to allow for the more comfortable and practical open necked shirts in the summer and monsoon months.

To ensure a full turnout, the senior planters severely disapproved any form of private home entertainment on club days unless, of-course, all the members were invited! While, many, today, would consider such controls as rather ‘autocratic’, it did succeed in gathering individuals from diverse backgrounds and cultures, at one venue, and knit them together for a common purpose by making them integral to the many memorable events regularly organized by the key members. ‘Club life’ thus came to be ‘sacrosanct’ for all.

Other than the club, the precinct of Nagrakata boasted of a lone fuel filling station, a small post and telegraph office, one tiny provision store, a dated magneto telephone exchange and a catholic mission. There was also a small police-post with two lethargic constables of weedy visage in attendance. It would be some years before the importance of establishing an efficient police post here was realised.

Chhawachharia’s petrol station appeared soon after the Club on this seemingly insignificant road. Owing to its location at a junction, where roads from three directions converged, this station became a prominent landmark for motorists passing by. Its one and only petrol dispensing machine was a rare antiquity with its pair of the one-gallon glass bottles, prominently in view, wherein petrol was manually pumped up with a lever, alternately filling one bottle whilst the other emptied its swirling amber contents into the tank of the vehicle!

Chawachharia, the Marwari owner of the station, met all the fuel requirements of the plantations within Nagrakata area. A wobbly two storey wooden bungalow standing isolated on stilts, in the midst of tall trees and greenery, acted as his office and residence. One could not but admire the Marwari’s sense of enterprise and pioneering spirit for creating a thriving business activity in such a primitive location. Chawachharia was a tall, lanky and bespectacled person with affable ways cloaking a shrewd nature. By allowing easy credit to the planters, the reckless and the wild would often build up huge unpaid bills with scant regard to the consequences.

Eventually unable to clear the accumulated dues, some would, as a last resort, relinquish their only means of mobility to this wily individual who would accept the reimbursement with a well rehearsed doleful look and sorrowful eyes. On having acquired his new asset, the canny Marwari moved swiftly to dispose it off for a hefty sum leaving the erstwhile owner quietly cursing and kicking himself. The ‘hefty’ sum would be amusing by our current standards as one could acquire an used Austin, Morris, Hillman or Ford in decent condition at the price of a pair of shoes today! The cost of mobility, whether by foot or wheels, seems to have gone a long way!

Tigers of the Teesta
The road forked at the petrol station with one that went west to Siliguri across the river Teesta over the iconic ‘Coronation Bridge’. Another small road, not far from the petrol station, branched out and went south towards Jalpaiguri, the administrative headquarters of North Bengal, also located across the River Teesta. The Coronation Bridge remained the sole link between the Dooars and Jalpaiguri through a long circuitous route via Siliguri. However, when necessary, we preferred the much shorter route by taking the road near Chawachharia’s petrol pump. This track wound its way southwards through the countryside past the tiny towns of Lataguri and Moynaguri to reach the banks of the Teesta across which was the quaint North Bengal district headquarters. On arrival at the riverside, we would drive across its stony bed but only in the dry cold weather months when the turbulent waters of this temperamental and sometimes devastatingly life threatening river roaring down from the Himalayas, had receded sufficiently to enable ‘fair weather’ crossings in a motor car.

Many taxies were available at the riverside to ferry those arriving without their own transport. Endearingly dubbed as ‘The Tigers of the Teesta’, these taxies of the ‘nineteen thirties’ vintage formed an enchanting fleet comprising Fords, Chevrolets and Buicks, complete with wire wheels, canvas tops and klaxon horns! The bevy of the fading beauties would be seen clipping happily along across the river bed carrying their load of passengers all day long with a jaunty confidence that put many younger vehicles to shame.

Along with these narrow bumpy tarmac tracks, a metre gauge railway line through the Dooars, formed its life supporting arteries by connecting this pristine expanse to the rest of the country. Without them this bountiful land would have remained out of reach and sight to many.
Teesta River at Japaiguri. Image: Wikivisually

AG Division & The Tea Research Centre
 Back at Chhawachharia’s, a road also turned right to climb gently past the Dooars Branch of ITA’s (Indian Tea Association) Tea Research Centre (as the Nagrakata branch of the TRA was then known) located within the ‘AG Division’ of Bhogotpore Tea Estate. ‘AG’ stood for ‘Alston’s Grant’ – Alston being the pioneer who planted tea here in about 400 acres of virgin land granted to him by the British rulers towards the end of the nineteenth century. Grants such as this allowed tea to develop and flourish across the Assam valley and the Dooars, Darjeeling and Terai regions of North Bengal.

Sukhani Jhora
Left of this road opposite the AG Division, a mountain stream from the Bhutan hills had over many centuries cut deep into the ground of red earth and boulders to form a steep and narrow ravine now covered by tall trees and dense vegetation. I would soon learn that this stream, locally known as ‘Sukhani Jhora’, was an important source of water for Nagrakata Tea Estate. Recalling his early planting days, Keith Turner, a senior manager of the Dooars Tea Company related once to me how, in the past, the blood curdling roars of Royal Bengal Tigers would often be heard here. Now, only leopards, jackals and the odd wild pig could be spotted from time to time. The great striped cats had retreated – away from the ever encroaching and marauding humans. The Sukhanbari Division (name derived from the Sukhani Jhora) of Nagrakata Tea Estate could be seen across the ravine through gaps between the trees and foliage.

The Post Office and The Dakwallas
The tiny Nagrakata Post Office now passed by on our right. This was the venue where the ‘Dakwallas’ of all the plantations within the precincts of Nagrakata congregated daily with their leather bags filled with letters and parcels. The humble bicycle was the sole means of transport for this sturdy breed. They would pedal long distances, over undulating and often steeply inclined roads to post and collect the outstation mail for the estate and exchange all local correspondence between plantations. The collected mail would, without fail, reach the plantation offices during lunch break of every working day and placed on the Manager’s table in a neat pile, ready and waiting for his post lunch arrival. When facilities for instant mail were still beyond imagination and the realms of reality, our pedal pushing communication system worked unfailingly day after day through rain, hail or shine.

The Telephone Exchange
The small one roomed Nagrakata Telephone Exchange also appeared in the vicinity of the Post Office. It connected the tea estate offices, the club, the Central Hospital, the Manager’s bungalows, Chhawachharia, the Catholic Mission, the police post and other miscellaneous subscribers of the non-planting community. Assistant Managers were excluded from this ‘exalted’ (but, in reality, a rather dubious) facility. For their personal communications when a phone call became necessary, the Assistants would rely either on the office telephone or after hours, if urgency demanded, remain obliged to the Manager for the use of the ‘Burra Bungalow’ instrument. Cranking a small handle attached to the heavy Bakelite magneto instrument for access to the operator of the dated exchange was, more often than not, an exercise fraught with frustration and futility. Yet life continued smoothly enough without the seamless connectivity that we are now so accustomed to.

Dey Stores
Dey Stores came up next on this road to Nagrakata Tea Estate. The tiny shop stocked provisions required for the household. In all my years in Nagrakata, I never did meet the owner, Mr Dey, although I was told he did indeed exist! Instead, the diminutive Mrs. Dey, with her head invariably covered with one end of her limp cotton sari, would always be available to meet the customers’ needs. In the small dark room, lit up by one hurricane lantern, she stocked all that was needed for the home from ‘Brasso’ and ‘Silvo’ polishes to ‘Brylcream’, toothbrushes and toothpastes, bread, butter, salt and sugar, cooking oils, ketchups, squashes, cordials and tinned foods. ‘Mansion’ and ‘Red Cardinal’ Polishes for furniture and floors were provided by the company free of cost (as were ‘Flit’ and a flit gun to keep the ubiquitous mosquitoes at bay).

White Label, White Horse and VAT 69 whiskies, Carews Gin and XXX Rosa Rum were, at times, enticingly displayed on the shelf. Mrs. Dey also stocked Three Castles, Players No.3, Players Navy Cut and Gold Flake brands in the popular cylindrical canisters of 50 cigarettes. A canister with a matchbox atop held firmly in one hand (when not inside the ample pocket of our fashionably floppy shorts or trousers) came to be the standard portrait of the well-heeled planter. Credit was always available and so this tiny lantern lit shack with its rusty tin roof and earthen floor became the pillar of support to our ‘high’ living!

The alluring ‘icing on the cake’ of high living, however, appeared from beyond the confines of Dey Stores and across the boundaries of the Dooars. The Great Eastern Stores of Chowringhee Road, a prominent retailer of quality food products in Calcutta was ever ready to meet our requirement of food items not available ‘up-country’. Upon receiving our written order, this ‘venerable’ store would promptly prepare the food parcel and hand it over to Jamair to be flown up to us for collection.

To our delight, the insulated ice-boxes containing such delectables as fresh ham, bacon, sausages, pork chops, and sometimes a tender undercut (eye fillets) would always arrive in perfect condition to be relished till the next consignment! The convenience of credit cards did not come to mind as none were in existence. A planter’s credit worthiness was, however, never in question and he rarely needed a wallet in his pocket (not quite the ‘Royalty’ style but imperious enough!). A mere signed slip of paper listing the purchases was all that was required by the shop owner. This facility was available at virtually every store starting from the smallest estate kyah shops to bigger ones in the ‘one horse’ towns across the Dooars and even extending to some of the large established stores of Calcutta. It made our shopping sprees perhaps a trifle too convenient.

St. Capitanio
Soon after Dey Stores, in a sparsely populated locality known as ‘Champaguri’, a large drab grey concrete edifice appeared, on the right of the road, contrasting strangely with the lush greenery all around. I was told that this was St. Capitanio, an Italian Roman Catholic Mission established more than forty years before my arrival. The Italian mission head, Father Artico is to be credited for the decades of his dedicated service since its inception at a time when very few would have ventured into this remote and inhospitable region. The catholic workers from the nearby plantations congregated here every Sunday for their morning mass. Christmas was celebrated with great fanfare and enthusiasm – the highlight, of-course being the Midnight Mass, which the catholic plantation workers attended from far and near.

The Raintree
And finally, forming another prominent landmark on this road, the wondrous spectre of a huge green and lustrous Raintree loomed up before us immediately after the Catholic mission. Massive, with ample spreading boughs, it stood in glory deeply rooted as a silent sentinel of the road and territory around it. The road forked here. One that continued straight, climbing gently up past Nya Sylee and Hope Tea Estates and thence downhill onto Jiti plantation with the Kingdom of Bhutan beyond. The other fork turned sharply to the left in front of the raintree and rolled quickly down to Sukhani Jhora. Thereafter, over a small one-way wooden bridge across the stony mountain stream, the road continued and climbed steeply uphill to the gates of Nagrakata Tea Estate. And so, it was that, in a mere few hours, I found myself catapulted far from the familiar bustling metropolis of Calcutta, to begin a new life in the wonderous Dooars, somewhere ‘beyond the fringe’!

Click here to link to images of Nagrakata on Facebook 

A raintree somewhere on the Birpara-Falakata road, Dooars, 2008
Editor's Note: 
Nadi/Nuddy - river
Meetha Pani - soft drink
Gol Kamra - drawing room 
Kyah -  a trader running a small shop with basic supplies in the tea garden
Meet the writer:
Aloke Mookerjee
 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 -

Is this your first visit here? Welcome to Indian Chai Stories! 

You will meet many storytellers here at Indian Chai Stories, and they are almost all from the world of tea gardens: planters, memsaabs, baby and baba log. Each of our contributors has a really good story to tell - don't lose any time before you start reading them!

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, or 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! 


Thursday, November 1, 2018

David and Goliath

by Bernard VanCuylenberg
My Dad had the knack of giving life to a good story, and whenever my brother, sister and I came home for the holidays from boarding school, he would regale us with these stories round the dinner table. On dark nights in a lonely estate bungalow we sat riveted to our seats "living" the adventures ! My Mum would terminate proceedings when it became too late and sleep was forgotten ! I first heard the Bracegirdle story when I was fourteen years old and I remember the way my Dad related it, Bracegirdle almost came to life ! Many years later "The Sunday Observer" in its special features section printed the story, which I read more than once. However this time, I accept full responsibility, and apologize for any errors. After 64 years, the memory tends to play tricks - and I am writing this drawing on my memory bank ! But the essence of the story is factual and occurred as stated.

Madulkelle tea country: pic from Wildcard Travels blog copyright Anne Schreiber Thomas
During the colonial period of the late 1930's, a tea plantation in the Madulkelle district Relugas Estate, was the place where what appeared to be a simple act of insubordination by an Assistant Superintendent, was to have far reaching consequences and wider ramifications not only for the company concerned, but for the colonial government of the time and a left leaning socialist political party called the "Lanka Sama Samaja Party", (The Lanka Socialist Party) popularly known as the LSSP. The "David" in this case was a young assistant superintendent named Mark Bracegirdle and the "Goliath" was the government of the day - at first glance an uneven match.

The Superintendent of this particular estate Mr.H.D.Thomas was badly in need of an assistant, and he petitioned the company accordingly. As was the modus operandum of the day, a young Englishman Mark Bracegirdle was recruited from overseas and after he arrived in Ceylon and spent two days at the Agency House, where the director of tea inducted him into what a planter's duties entailed. He was then sent to another estate for a stint of 'creeping'. When he had completed his creeping to the satisfaction of the superintendent of that estate and the company, he finally arrived to take up duties at Relugas estate in Madulkelle to the relief of the superintendent.

Remember his name well. It is a name that figured prominently not only in the tea industry of that period, but also in political, business and government circles. Mark Bracegirdle did not come from England, though he was English in origin. He came from Australia. His mother and he emigrated to Australia from England in 1925 and when he grew up he trained as a farmer. He also joined the Australian Young Communist League -- as history will show, his political leanings were to have a dramatic impact on his life in Ceylon. Settling in well, Bracegirdle went to work with vim, vigour and a hearty dose of enthusiasm. He got his hands dirty often as he did not believe in giving instructions and supervising. He would prune,weed, move stones in new clearings, lop trees, and sometimes pluck to the amusement of the women pluckers, and physically was hyper active ! He was particularly sympathetic to complaints by the labourers, especially if such complaints were about their line rooms whenever repairs were needed. He was always accessible, and before long became the idol or pin up boy of the entire labour force ! He even visited the line rooms of the labour and shared their meals with them.

Mr.Thomas was aghast ! This was something unheard of in the days when the English Planters ruled their estates like some petty fiefdom and "never the twain would meet", with apologies to Mark Twain. Meanwhile, he kept an eagle eye on Bracegirdle's progress and concluded that although he was an exemplary worker and a cut above the rest as far as Assistant Superintendents were concerned, his attitude and behaviour to the established norms of the social structure were out of character. He had no idea of the mini revolution looming on the horizon which would rock this estate to its very roots !!

One day on his field rounds, the Superintendent was amused to see Bracegirdle standing on a rock in a distant field. He appeared to be preaching a sermon, or giving a speech to a group of labourers. The men and women were gathered around, listening intently to every word. To him it looked like a politician making a speech to a group of voters. Intrigued, he approached the scene to ascertain what was happening, thinking that his able Assistant was instructing the labourers on certain tasks to be carried out. What he heard horrified him ! He was shocked to hear Bracegirdle telling the labourers - in fluent Tamil - that they should submit a petition to the Company through the Superintendent drawing attention to their sub standard living conditions.Their line rooms, he told them, were not fit for animals; and prisoners in jails had better living conditions. They were exploited to the maximum and deserved to live in dignity. The labourers had never heard anybody, let alone a white man who was their boss, speak to them about their sub standard living conditions and telling them they deserved better !

To them, this was a revelation and in their superstitious beliefs Bracegirdle appeared to be a sort of "Sami Dorai"...a 'Dorai' who was Godlike ! It transpired that Bracegirdle's political leanings were of a shade dark red, and as already mentioned, in Australia he had been a member of the Communist Party ! Marxist, Socialist, Leftist call it what you was all in his genes. He was a hot blooded activist whose bete-noire was the working and living conditions of the poor and downtrodden on the plantations. This estate to him was a fertile breeding ground  which fanned his revolutionary fervour.

Agitated and alarmed, Mr.Thomas returned to his bungalow and compiled a detailed report of what he had seen and heard, for official purposes. He then summoned Bracegirdle to his office and behind closed doors let him have both volleys verbally, drawing reference to the conditions of his employment . Holding nothing back he said he took a very dim view of this type of behaviour, and warned him that any repetition would mean instant dismissal. But despite all the tough talk he had the sinking feeling that the problem he now encountered would snowball into unimaginable proportions.....And he was correct. His words had exactly the opposite effect on the young firebrand. Although he continued working, his political ardour was inflamed further and in order of priority, his devotion to duty was superseded by his political convictions. 

Subsequently, he was caught again "preaching" to the labour force, and this time merited instant dismissal. Mr.Thomas meanwhile forwarded a comprehensive report to the Company citing the reasons for the dismissal of Bracegirdle. The director who read the report realized that he was holding a political hot potato in his hands. In the context of the times, any "revolutionary" talk against the establishment and ruling class specially by a 'White' worker was sacrilegious ! He took the matter up with the Chairman of the Company who in turn notified the authorities and they in their wisdom decided that Bracegirdle should be deported. By now the subject was the talking point in political and business circles, and the press had a field day.

Meanwhile, Bracegirdle had left the estate and joined the " Lanka Sama Samaja Party " (The Ceylon Socialist Party) in December 1936. Until the deportation order was finalised, the police could not touch him since he had committed no crime.The hierarchy of the Party welcomed him with open arms. This White man was a comrade after their own hearts. On one occasion he was introduced to a large crowd by a young Doctor N.M.Perera and Bracegirdle whipped the crowd to a frenzy, thrilling them with his oratory skills. The key figures in the LSSP at the time were Doctor Colvin R.De Silva, Leslie Goonewardena, Philip Gunawardena and if memory serves me correctly Edmund Samarakoddy, to mention a few. Later on in life some of these politicians became leading luminaries in Sri Lanka's politics and held ministerial positions in various governments. As time passed, Bracegirdle became a drawcard whenever the LSSP held a meeting - in the language of the present era, he enjoyed rock star status ! He was the main attraction while the other speakers were the 'supporting act'!!

His speeches were noted by the undercover police and the authorities, as the British planters, were furious that their prestige was being torn to shreds by a fellow white man. He took to the stage with all guns blazing and worked the large crowds to a fever pitch,lambasting the government, colonial rule, and highlighted numerous instances where capitalism was exploiting the working class. Although originally he intended training to be a tea planter which is why he went to Ceylon, colonialism was not his cup of tea !!! The press in the meantime had a field day and turned Bracegirdle into a "Robin Hood" type of hero ! But his life in the spotlight soon came to an end. 

The Governor Sir Richard Stubbs served a deportation order on him for the 22nd April 1937, and with this order came a deadline. He had to leave the country in 48 hours ! But the LSSP had other ideas. Like some scene from a spy thriller, they snatched Bracegirdle before the long arm of the law could reach him  and through a network of safe houses ensured that he was always one step ahead of the police. The best detectives and undercover operators were used to track him down, but he remained elusive and evasive !!  

However, all things in life are fleeting and his dream run came to an end. During a visit to the home of the secretary of the LSSP in Hulftsdorf which was closely watched by plain clothes police officers, he was arrested and ended up in court. Who said that miracles don't happen ? The three supreme court judges who heard the case made a ruling that he could not be deported for exercising his right to free speech ! Bracegirdle was a free man!!

This story did not end with our hero riding into the sunset on a winning streak. Instead he sailed away quietly to England one day in 1937, and was given a fond farewell by stalwarts of the LSSP Dr.N.M.Perera, Mrs.Selina Perera and Vernon Gunasekera, the secretary of the party. In England he led a busy life teaching, dabbled in archaeology, and was actively involved with the British Museum. Although he was no longer in Ceylon, his aura and mystique impacted the working class and his name was a shining light in socialist and Marxist circles. They honoured him as an activist who had the courage of his convictions, dared to challenge the colonial establishment   --  and almost won ! He died on the 22nd June 1999.

The planters, politicians, and all parties connected with the Bracegirdle story have long vanished into the mists of history. But in the copies of The Ceylon Daily News and other newspapers of the time which printed the story of the young rebel,his escapades which earned him heroic status among the working class still live on in their pages.

Editor's Note:
Creeper - a 'creeper' is a trainee; 'creeping' is training
Dorai - Tamil word for 'Sahib' / boss

Meet the writer: Bernard VanCuylenberg

My late Dad was a tea planter...hence memories of the tea plantations are precious to me. My memories of childhood, growing up in the salubrious climate of the tea country are very dear to me, because my brother, sister and I had parents who were angels.

Prior to migrating to Australia my working background was in the field of tourism and hospitality.

In Australia I worked for seventeen years as an Administrative Officer in the Victoria Police Department, and retired in 1999. I played lead and rhythm guitarin two bands ( in Sri Lanka, and in Australia). I loved the Sitar and always hoped I could learn it one day. Ravi Shankar was my idol.

Is this your first visit here? Welcome to Indian Chai Stories! 

If you've ever visited a tea garden or lived in one, or if you have a good friend who did, you would have heard some absolutely improbable stories! You will meet many storytellers here at Indian Chai Stories, and they are almost all from the world of tea gardens: planters, memsaabs, baby and baba log. Each of our contributors has a really good story to tell - don't lose any time before you start reading them!

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, or 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!