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Thursday, September 19, 2019

The Bungalows, Baga & Sibsoo

Aloke's story takes us to the beautiful Nagrakata area of the Dooars - and this time, we visit the bungalows!
by Aloke Mookerjee

The British owned companies took good care of their properties. The senior staff bungalows were fully furnished, comfortable and spacious, even if some had begun to show signs of quaint antiquity what with the groaning (DC) ‘punkhas’*, the creaking floor boards and sounds of the occasional snake or monitor lizard scrambling its way up, to find a new abode in the dark and musty cavernous space above between the hard-board ceiling and the tin roof. A garden all around, with trees and shrubbery, provided adequate privacy and distance from prying eyes. It all added to the flavour of a strange new land beyond the fringe!

The estate manager’s bungalow, in particular, remained immaculate at all times with the highest care in mind. To the young assistants, this was hallowed ground upon which they could tread only on invitation or calamitous emergency. The ample grounds around the bungalow provided the necessary privacy and calm for the ‘burra saab’, after his long and hectic day at work,. The open space and good ventilation, facilitated by the large windows in every room, allowed fresh air to wash over indoors and cool it down.
Jaldhaka river with Bhutan hills in the background Picture source
In the ‘cook-house’, detached from the bungalow, the ancient cooking range used the company supplied firewood or coal to prepare all meals. If occasion demanded, these massive cast iron contraptions (which, would now be rightfully considered a wasteful and polluting piece of ultra-heavy hardware) could prepare, with ease, a party meal for a hundred or more revelers provided, of-course, the young ‘chota saab’ possessed the required utensils!

We assistant managers were expected to keep our bungalows and premises neat and clean as would befit members of the covenanted senior grade staff. Thus, the four company paid indoor servants (armed with their ‘jharoos’ and ‘jharans’*) worked through the day as did the three ‘malis’ with their lawn mower, garden scissors, pruning knives, hoes and sickles. With floor and furniture polish provided free of cost, the bachelor ‘chota saab’ was left with no excuse for a sloppy residence! The flower and vegetable seeds from Sutton’s of Calcutta and ‘Pocha’s of Poona, distributed to the managerial staff after the monsoon rains, helped in keeping the gardens looking presentable. The estate manager would occasionally invite himself in and wander through with his hawk eyes roving. Poor upkeep was severely frowned upon.

Most bungalow servants were well trained. One could occasionally strike it lucky by ‘catching’ a ‘Mog’/Mugh those renowned Buddhists (originally from Arakan in Myanmar) who, more than century back, wound their way to Calcutta via neighbouring Chittagong and whose unsurpassed culinary skills created wonders even from a young bachelor’s sparse kitchen. The more competent ‘bearers’ (trained by the discerning British memsahibs) were adept at laying the table and serving with style and grace. Immaculately turbaned and liveried, they performed by supervising the entire household work with quiet and unobtrusive efficiency. Furniture remained polished, the floors shining and window panes glistening. A splash of colour was often added by the ‘malis’, trained no doubt by the ‘mem-saabs’ to fill all flower vases decoratively with the seasonal blooms. Adding further to this life of indulgence was a resident ‘dhobi’* and a barber available to take care of the saab’s laundry and haircuts promptly on call!

Located within the premises of each estate was at least one grocery store that catered to the basic household needs of the managerial staff, the junior staff and the workers. Referred to as ‘Kyah Shops’, they were independently owned by small ‘banias’* who had by all accounts arrived decades ago, from their homes states of Bihar, U.P. or Rajasthan to set up shop (literally) under the aegis of the plantation manager. Our requirements of dry stores and other miscellaneous items were met by the Kyah (shop owner) who, for the sake of his own well-being, found it prudent to remain ingratiatingly servile in his relationship with the ‘Burra Saab’ and keep him satiated with lasting good services. This rather feudal tradition rippled across to the assistants and even if not nearly half as ‘pleasing’ as his services to the ‘burra saab’, it was good enough to make the young man’s life in the ‘land of tea’ ever so convenient!

The bachelor chota saab, thus, lived rather well what with his retinue of bungalow servants, the kyah, the dhobi and the barber at beck and call and ever ready to meet his domestic demands.
Martin stove and range coal burner. Picture source
Traditionally, the cooks were responsible for the purchase of fresh food for the ‘saab’. The princely amount of seventeen rupees I handed over, once a week, for vegetables, mutton, chicken and eggs seemed quite adequate for my needs. A jute bag in hand, the cook would trudge to the local ‘gudri bazaar’ every Sunday morning and return in the evening laden with food stuff. Nothing ever fell short during the week. The home-grown vegetables did help in keeping the bazaar bills in control and many sold as ‘exotic’ in the supermarkets of today were quite commonplace in the ‘mali baris’ of the tea bungalows.

An understanding with the bearers and cooks, established over time, ensured that any additional expense incurred towards lunch or dinner parties hosted by the bachelor ‘chota saab’ would need to be met from the amount that had already been allotted for the week and the ‘saab’ was not to be pressed for extra funds. To the young bachelor this seemed a fair deal for it balanced evenly with the times he ate out. While the cook and bearer appeared gloomily downcast with this arrangement they were in-fact not worried at all and went glibly about their daily chores while surreptitiously fleecing the unsuspecting ‘saab’ of his food stuff and even filching a bit from his precious stock of alcohol if ever left carelessly unlocked in the drinks cabinet! Unaware of the loss he was incurring, life seemed just about perfect to the uninitiated and unsuspecting young Assistant Manager in the lush land of tea!
Electrolux kerosene operated fridge. Picture source Pinterest
The ‘luxury’ of uninterrupted power supply still lay languishing in the wish list. Thankfully, the company provided refrigerators that worked on kerosene oil independent of electric power. With due care, these ‘fridges’ performed reasonably well. A tip to occasionally turn the ‘Baraf-Peti’ upside down and leave it standing on its head, for a while, did actually (to our amazement) perk up its performance! Foodstuff remained eatable and ice and cold water available through the day.

Air-conditioners were conspicuous by their absence but the deep verandas and rooms with their high ceilings and large windows allowed cross ventilation and remained pleasantly cool most times. It did, however, turn uncomfortably hot and humid in May when, following the occasional pre-monsoon showers, the sun beat down fiercely through clear skies heating up the corrugated iron roof and the rooms below. The roofing sheets expanded in the heat of the day and in the evenings, when it cooled down, they would begin to contract with loud clanging sounds that continued intermittently for hours into the night. While somewhat disconcerting to the new comer, we soon learnt to live with it in those still and starry nights.

Despite the isolation, thefts and break-ins were unheard of. Windows were devoid of iron grills and most doors could have been kicked open with the least resistance. The few strands of barbed wire fencing encircling the bungalow compound were erected essentially to keep stray goats and cattle out. Although quite satisfactory for its intended job, they remained woefully inadequate in restraining the odd panther from a surprise visit by leaping over with easy feline grace. The hope of a tasty morsel in the form of an unsuspecting pet dog, left carelessly loose in the compound after dark, was no doubt the motivating factor for these crafty carnivores. We would ensure our dogs were locked safely inside after sundown or face the consequences of a possible loss in the most brutal manner.

In the wide, open spaces of the plantations, silence descended quickly after sundown. The hush of the evenings amplified a medley of strange nocturnal sounds from far and near. In the dim bungalow lights, the rhythmic groan of a slow turning DC ‘punkha’ and the clanging of the roofing sheets mingled with the full-throated honking of bull frogs seemingly in a cacophonous competition with the piercing shrill of cicadas camouflaged in amongst the tall leafy trees all around. In the still of the deep night air, the distant sound of tribal drums, no doubt emanating from the hands of an inebriated worker in a faraway labour line would often waft in, sometimes accompanied by the eerie hoots of an owl or the riotous howls of jackals in a delirious chorus, loud enough to wake me up from my slumber. At other times, the despairing squawks of a hapless frog locked firmly in the jaws of a cobra or the distinctive ‘sawing’ of a panther would create enough excitement for the ‘bearer’ or ‘chowkidar’ to rush in and warn me of the presence of a ‘naag saap’* or a ‘chota bagh’* in close vicinity. But most times, with the servants out of sight and ear shot, a sense of allure and enigma shimmered in that solitary ‘splendour’, reminiscent of the ‘mystic orient’ in a Somerset Maugham tale.

My desire for the off-beat seemed to have been fulfilled with life here seemingly so much more exciting than my earlier drab city existence.

Rum Runner Baga Munda
Alcohol, of-course, was not included in our food list. We purchased this ‘vital sustenance’ ourselves, either from the club or ‘Dey Stores’. With a bottle of standard Scotch Whisky costing all of Rs.50.00, it was often necessary for the reckless young and perennially hard-up Assistant Manager to look for something that would not burn more holes in his pocket. Indian whiskies were quite undrinkable and thus ruled out. And so, it was rum that eventually came to the young man’s rescue. A bottle of the India made ‘XXX Rosa Rum’ cost around Rs.15.00. It was not bad and became the popular tipple till we heard of one that was distilled in Kingdom of Bhutan and available for Rs.7.00 across the border. Despite being variously described as a ‘varnish remover’ or ‘gut rot’ (remarks we promptly dismissed), the riveting price of the Bhutan distilled rum became the overriding factor with ‘quality’ relegated to the back burner! We went about figuring a way to acquire this questionable liquor for regular use.

And soon, a way did indeed open up. It appeared, one fine day, in the unexpected form of Baga Munda. Baga was a ‘Duffadar’* in-charge of a gang of a few male workers deployed for odd jobs round the estate. He was a small man with an impish smile and willing ways but otherwise of a rather non-descriptive personality. We learnt, one day, through the estate ‘grapevine’ that our small Baga had big connections with the rum sellers of a village called Sibsoo in the Kingdom of Bhutan, not very far from our plantation. Following this newly acquired knowledge of Baga’s ‘high worth’, his importance soared and services much sought after by the ‘thirsty’ Assistant Managers of Nagrakata!

When summoned, Baga would arrive promptly to collect our order and the required cash. He would return next day with the booty well concealed in a burlap bag. For his competent ‘rum-running’ services, Baga earned his due ‘bakshish’ of fifty paise per bottle and we acquired our rum rations. A happy ending indeed for all concerned!

Apart from providing our regular tipple, Sibsoo was also known for its fair held once every year sometime in the cold weather. This tiny hamlet could be reached through ‘Hilla’, a plantation located immediately north of Nagrakata estate. From the upper part of Hilla, an unimaginably ill maintained dirt road, strewn with large rocks, stones and pebbles, wound steeply down to the banks of river Jaldhaka across which was the Kingdom of Bhutan and Sibsoo. From the river bank, the only way to this hamlet was to wade across the gushing icy cold, waist high waters of the stony Jaldhaka. And wade in we would, shoes and socks in hand!

Myriad lanterns twinkled on the bank across the river where tents, awnings and canopies had been erected to display and sell metal wares, handloom fabrics, wooden artefacts and so on. There were gymnasts, liquor vendors, con men, and prostitutes, all vying for a gullible customer amongst the milling crowds. Grimy prisoners with matted hair, ‘considerately’ released from their confinement in the prison cells of Bhutan for those few days, would be seen wandering and begging with their head and hands sticking out from the holes of heavy wooden stocks that they had been locked into. The clock seemed to have turned back to a strange time warped setting of the medieval days.

Years have gone by, yet Sibsoo remains vivid in my mind for its unique sounds and sights, its colourful ambience throbbing with energy and vitality.

This was surely an experience I could never have dreamed of in my earlier mundane city life.

*Editor's note:
punkha - in this case, ceiling fan 
jharoo - broom
jharan - duster, mop
dhobi - washerman
bania - merchant
naag saap - cobra
bagh - leopard
duffadar - supervisor

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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. There are over 120 stories of tea life here, all written by people who have lived in tea gardens. 
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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.'  Here is the link to all posts by Aloke - Stories by Aloke Mookerjee

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  1. The rum from Bhutan like charminar cigs took a wee while to get used to but on an assistants pay were good value

  2. Great times Aloke. I often wondered - Rum is made from fermenting molasses from sugar factories - Bhutan does not produce sugar cane and otherwise not known as a sugar producer - so how does Bhutan produce Rum? Are you sure what Bagha Munda bought in Bhutan was Rum? Too late now after all these years, lucky it was not wood alcohol.

  3. Gowri
    Good to get this story
    Yes I've got a blog to share
    I was a tea planter in Assam and I know aloke mukerjee well

  4. Excellent read as always, Aloke. A wedge of time quite unknown to us, therefore almost prehistoric to contemporary planters and their ilk.... certainly heritage information both worthy and imperative to preserve.
    Great that senior planters like yourself are sharing your tales and observations with the rest of the tribe. Hats off to all of you....and to Gowri for leaving no 'stone' unturned (this word will always remain a double entendre after Rajesh's historic inventory!) while putting this endeavour together.

    1. Prehistoric is right Roma. The first 'plantings' I did as an assistant manager are now over 50 years old. Even I shudder when I think about it.

  5. What a lovely read! Took me back down memory lane! Thanks Aloke for such a well written piece!!

  6. WOW! Aloke, you Chota Saabs were more Burra than our Company Dorais. I don't think even the GM in a South Indian company had 6 bungalow servants, 3 gardeners, a Dhobi and a barber. That is something else. In South India the standard was a cook and a chokra in the house and occasionally a casual worker who would be detailed from the Muster for garden work. The Manager had 3 bungalow servants. Those stoves you mentioned were wonderful things. Apart from cooking, they warmed the kitchen and were a delight to sit near on a cold winter (or monsoon) evening. Lovely story as always. Thoroughly enjoyable. Many thanks for writing.

  7. Nice read Aloke. 'Chhota Bagh' brought back memories of the bagh that tried to take our Lab away one evening - only to flee at the sound of a stick against an aluminium table top in the botolkhana!

    1. My pup of 5 months was taken away by a leopard. There were 3 of them lurking around in our estate those days.

  8. Delightful story. Brought back memories of the CC&FC football team visit to Nagrakata in the 70's.

    I was staying with Thalu Gupta at Grassmore.

    We were hosted in style by Aloke and the others and it is wonderful to read these anecdotes after so many decades.

    1. Those matches were the highlight of lives - meeting up with city the city sophisticates and exposing our bucolic fervour!!!

  9. Very nastslgic reading your piece. My father was in Tea and I grew up in the Dooars and schooling in Kurseong in the 50s to the early 80s. So I can relate. Thanks. -Amitava De

    1. Where were you in the Dooars? Your father's name?

  10. Really enjoyed reading this specially as I grew up as a 'tea child' in Hilla T.E. Brought back a lot of memories of picnics on the banks of Jaldhaka and the lights of Sibsoo seen from our bungalow.

  11. Really enjoyed reading this specially as I grew up as a 'tea child' in Hilla T.E. Brought back a lot of memories of picnics on the banks of Jaldhaka and the lights of Sibsoo seen from our bungalow.


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