Chota Kuti Thoughts

The Chota Kuti page has been created so that the writings of Colin Jackson could be shared with all of you--  -

Thank you Colin for taking the time and trouble to inform and amuse us

Colin was born in Tanganyika----served in N.E.India from 1950 until 1962 Assam, Dooars and Cachar. He has since devoted his life to chicken technology and management ---and has had the privilege of visiting 60 countries throughout the world at his employers expense

The following stories are in this section
      Please click on the line for the story to

Assam Earthquake 1950 
Leisure Times
 Labour of Love
 My passage to India
 A Tea Garden

More Chota Kuti Pictures

Thanks to Colin for his memory of the 
Assam Earthquake 

The Assam Earthquake - August 15th 1950

August 15th  1950, the anniversary of India's Independence - I had arrived on Nya Gogra Tea Estate, the most easterly garden in Darrang District Assam, fresh from the UK a few weeks earlier on about 9th June.

I was sharing a bungalow with another assistant named John de Jonghe, we had had our baths and were sitting pyjama clad and dressing-gowned in the sitting room awaiting dinner. At the time I had not really taken note, but all the crickets, jackals etc had gone completely silent, and John was sitting watching a bell. The bell was one with a central striker, and he had loosened the bell so that it was loose and rocking, occasionally hitting the striker and so sounding the bell. I don't know how long he had been watching this, but he obviously knew something which I didn't.

When the earthquake struck, the bungalow was rocking so badly that it was not possible to stand. The axis of the bungalow seemed to be at right angles to the direction from which the tremors were coming, and as the bungalow's central wall tilted away from us we rushed to lean against it as the wall tilted back. As the wall tilted away again we moved as fast as we could towards the doorway onto the verandah, leaning against the wall as it tilted back. As the wall tilted away so we made further rushes until we got down the bungalow steps into the compound.

It was not possible to stand, and crouching/ squatting on the grass we saw the plinth bungalow, all lit up, rocking rather like a boat as it rocks in the wash as a speed boat drives past creating waves which the ground was making.

I don't think that the actual shock lasted for all that long a time, although it seemed an eternity. Shortly after that shock was over a Land Rover drove up with the East Boroi area doctor, Doctor Summers aboard, and he said that as he drove it was as if the steering on the vehicle had gone , and he had stopped to find that he was in an earthquake..

On checking it was found that nobody had suffered any harm beyond the fright, and there was no damage to buildings - offices, bungalows, factory, withering houses, hospital and so on beyond the odd cracks.

Shocks continued through the night reducing in duration and intensity, though minor shocks continued over the next ten days or so. I was intrigued one day to see water slopping about in a ditch although there was no apparent shock, even when I leaned against a shade tree - everything was quite still with not a breath of wind.

What was frightening was the power of the quake, I believe 8 on the Richter scale, the forces so much greater than any man-made explosion of that time.

We were some 40 miles from the epicentre where Kingdon Ward, the plant-hunter was encamped. On Seajulie T.E. in North Lakhimpore, Bill and Marjorie Christie had a terrifying time where the ground opened and the ground rose on one side while it fell away on the other. Bill and Marjorie stood one on each side of the crack passing their baby daughter to the one who was rising, and back as the one sank and the other rose. Ultimately with the `quake over they were all three safe.

Some steamers on the Brahmaputra river were stranded on islands which formed under them, and all river channels had to be re-surveyed.

With regard to the minimal damage experienced, I thought about possible reasons for that, and came to the conclusion, rightly or wrongly that; the water table was high at that time, if you dug a hole you would be into water only 18" below the ground surface, in effect the Assam Valley was floating on water.

After the `quake, when we finally went into dinner, I recall saying that "this was not in my contract", and I was off !

Colin S Jackson 
1 May 2006

Followed by page written October 16th

Earthquake 1950 - page 2

Since writing the above memory, I made reference to a small book

"Thirty Years in Assam"           Extracts from the diary of a Chaplain

author:           Padre Wyld

Publisher           Rev F Wyld

Printed by           Sri GC Ray at Navana Printing Works Private Ltd

47 Ganesh Chunder Avenue, Calcutta-13

Published 1957

1 give below the relevant extracts from this book about the 1950 earthquake

"the 15'h of August 1950, saw perhaps the worst earthquake Assam had experienced since 1897. The epicentre was in the north-east, in the mountains beyond Sadiya. North Lakhimpur suffered terribly and the tea estates of Pathalipam and Boredam were lost. The Manager of Seajuli just got out of his bungalow in time with his family; then standing in the compound the earth opened, and they threw the children to the assistant who was on the other side of the fissure; all were saved.

At the Subansiri rapids it must have been terrifying. The river dried up showing that tons of water were somewhere held up by landslides. Some fishermen thinking to get a fine harvest free of work, collected the fish from the mud flats; they were warned off by the Manager before it was too late - the waters came down in a wall some 12' high, sweeping everything before them.

Most of the buildings in North Lakhimpur were destroyed or damaged, fields sunk many feet below level, portions of road disappeared, and communications for two years were exceedingly difficult. The famous explorer Kingdon Ward to whose work reference has already been made, was caught at the very epicentre far up on the Frontier. The experiences of his wife and himself are recorded in the book, "My Hill So Strong". The lower slopes of the Himalayas presented an amazing sight, all scarred from landslides great and small, but jungle grows so fast in Assam that a few years will serve to heal these wounds. The river was full from side to side of millions of logs, many of which got stranded on the sand flats, providing marvellous windfalls of firewood for the towns. The smell of rotting vegetation remained powerful for at least a week after the event. The steamer services kept valiantly to their task amid great risks and dangers, supplying the needs of thousands when both rail and road communications were badly affected. Contributions liberally flowed in to the Governor's Fund, the Assam Christian Council, the various Dioceses of India, the S.P.G. and so on. With this, immediate needs were met, and for long after many `displaced persons' were eventually settled in new homes and fields."

As I understood it, Kingdon Ward was an explorer 
looking for new plants and varieties of plants.

Colin S Jackson 16 October 2006

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Leisure Times 

November 2002



Tea districts on Assam's North Bank could be well away from towns, and during the rains would often be cut off by road from the next district. The rains swelled the rivers flowing south from the Himalayas to the Brahmaputra and they flowed so fast that cold weather bridges of bamboo and thatch would be swept away. This left only country boats for crossing. So there could be a number of estates with managerial staff cut off by road for some five months of the year. At one such district there was a ghat with a steamer flat (a paddle steamer with engines and paddles removed and fitted out as a floating warehouse) at Gamiri Ghat to hold tea consignments for outward despatch and to receive  incoming tea garden stores. There you could load your car onto a paddle steamer and then unload at another ghat in another district.

Social life consisted of entertaining one another to dinner, but the district mainly revolved around the club which would be based on one of the estates. In all cases, new assistants and managers would attend the club until their names came before the club committee for consideration. In the district in theory it would be possible for someone to be not voted in, but in practice of course this did not happen.
In some areas there were would be a club in the nearest town, which welcomed government officials, local professional people and planters. Names of applicants would be put into a book which was displayed in front of a box with a funnel on top. Members would be asked to vote by putting a ball into the top of a box, a white  ball as a yes, or a black ball as a no. One black ball was enough to turn down your application. There were advantages in being a member of a town club, such as using the club stores; however, someone refused as a member, that is black-balled could still visit the club as a visitor from another club to use the bar only.

Within a club there were certain activities which were available to members as part of the membership. Most clubs catered for tennis, snooker and cards, and some had facilities for polo, or golf, squash, football and rugger, and in some cases a stage for amateur dramatics.

There was one club day each week, when all took part in their selected sport or sports, and one member would provide sandwiches, cakes and tea. After tennis, people would retire to changing rooms to shower and prepare for the evening.

Most planters, while drinking beer usually of a lager type after taking part in sport, would switch to whisky for the rest of the evening. These would be taken as chota or burra pegs (a small or large shot) and the glass would then be topped up with either soda or plain water with ice. I was told that the simple matchbox could be considered to be the universal peg measure - the box on its flat giving the measure for assistants, when turned onto its long edge it became the measure for managers, and when turned onto its short edge, this was the measure for superintendents! Those who so chose would play cards or snooker, or just socialise and talk. Some evenings there would be a film show with a 16 mm projector and feature films flown up from Calcutta.

Topics of conversation at the bar covered a wide range of subjects, usually excluding 'shop', and you could always tell those wishing their lives away. These latter would always be talking about their 'home' leave - the last one if they had recently returned, or once they reached the half-way point between leaves then the subject became what they would be doing on their next leave.

On return after a club evening, the cook would have prepared a cold meal which the night watchman or chowkidar would serve if he was still awake. A favourite was aloo chops which consisted of minced meat cooked in a potato casing then served cold. It was said that cooks were able to stamp these out so to speak, pressing them under their armpits which were ideally shaped for that purpose!

I was a member of the easternmost club in the Dooars for a short time. Jainti Club had the smallest membership of all the Dooars Clubs, but during the war when whisky rations were allocated on based on the pre-war consumption, this club had the highest allocation of all, and enjoyed lots of visitors.
I recall one evening as I was having a drink in Tezpur Club with a particular friend, that an assistant with quite a large American car set off homeward bound. He had had several drinks where his speech was somewhat slurred, and as he left he called out his farewells to everyone. Some moments later we heard the roar of the engine as his car was started and then moved, but suddenly the engine sound cut out leaving quiet and peace. The owner of the car walked back into the club muttering that he couldn't find his ignition keys, and he persisted in this despite our asking if he couldn't find his keys how had he started his car.


When visiting the Club in Tezpur, I was able to visit the local motor factor for spares needed for my car 1948 Ford Prefect from time to time. Besides holding the franchise for Fords, the factor also held the local franchise for Hindusthan cars, and it was on one such visit that he asked why on earth I didn't do myself a favour and buy a new Hindusthan Landmaster (the model before the Ambassador). On asking the prices of such cars I was told that the list price was Rupees sixteen thousand five hundred, but for me sixteen thousand. I laughed saying that I could not afford such a price, even when reduced, and drove off to the club. The factor's shop faced onto a small square tank with a road on all sides, and on the next weekend I drove around the square to his shop and called out asking the price that week. I was beckoned to come into his office where I was plied with Cokes and cigarettes and we discussed many things including cars. Finally I was told that week's special price to me would be fifteen thousand. Each week I stopped by, and each week the price came down. When the price reached ten thousand, I then pleaded poverty and offered nine thousand, we closed on nine and a half thousand.

Having bought the car I then had the problem of registering it. I could not insure the car until I had a registration number, and the car could not be registered until it had insurance cover. Finally the office told me the next registration number, I nipped down the road and took out seven days' insurance and that certificate of insurance then got the car registered.
I had attended a party with a friend, and we then moved on to visit the C.O. of the  local Indian Army unit. When we left in my narrow Ford Prefect car I was already feeling sleepy, but managed to keep awake and drop off my friend. I continued the journey managing to keep awake - just. I turned off the main road, across a bridge and up the hill to the factory compound where the road turned right and then passed through the tea and along an embankment bending left to the next section of tea. I woke up driving along the side of the embankment, and found that it was impossible to get back onto the road due to the slope. The car finally tipped over into a ditch, roof down and the car fitted the ditch so well that it was not possible to open any of the doors. Luckily I found one of the floor boards loose and climbed out, setting off to walk back to my bungalow. The next morning my car had been recovered from the ditch, oil and petrol topped up, and I drove off in clouds of blue smoke.

Another time in my Landmaster car, I was returning from the club when I had either burnt out valve, or a bad spark plug. The car was okay on the flat, but as soon as I had crossed that bridge the car lost power on the slope. I backed down to rush the hill, but that didn't work. So as the alternative route was miles out, I turned the car around and then reversed up the hill, turning around at the top to complete the journey on the level.
Where clubs had amateur dramatics, I would take part. In the first play 'Dear Charles' I played the part of a teenage boy. In 'Castle in the Air' a Civil Servant in the Coal Board, then the part of the husband in a play called 'Odd Man In', a play with a cast of only three, and 'Fools Rush In'. An extra rewarding part was that having performed in our local club, the first play was taken to and performed in the oil town of Digboi at the head of the Assam Valley, and to the Club in Shillong, the then State capital of Assam. We also took 'Odd Man In' down to Calcutta (I was on my way on leave after this, and had someone come up to me while in the Taj Hotel in Bombay to say how much they had enjoyed the performance).

In my last club I played rugger for the Dooars area, attending practice in different clubs on Sundays during the rains when the ground was soft! On different occasions we would use different modes of transport, sometimes driving up to a river through the jungle, then crossing in a boat to be collected on the other side and driven to the club, where we played a game before changing for the evening. One night in particular, on return to the river we climbed into the boat, only to be told by the boatmen that there had been rain in the hills and the increased flow of the river meant that they could only take half of us at a time. An argument broke out as to who should get out and wait for the second crossing. I remember saying that as I was the most senior, then I would not be getting out. Finally three of our group stepped out of the boat, over the side over which they had climbed in, but they had not noticed that the boat had turned while they were talking and so stepped straight into water right up to their chests. A rude and sobering shock but nobody was harmed.

Another time because of the weather we had decided to travel by train. The journey was only some forty miles, but took over an hour due to a not so-permanent permanent way. By the time of our return that night I had acquired a bottle of brandy, which three planters and two gurkha soldiers demolished before we reached Mal Junction.

At the same time as playing rugger, I also played soccer with the club team in order to keep fit. I still have the silver tankard given to members of the winning team in the area football cup competition.

At another club there was a range where we carried out target shooting with .22 rifles. Competitions were held once a month and I have the odd silver spoon so won. I developed quite a skill in shooting cigarette tins (cigarettes then came in round tins each of fifty) when hurled into the air, people would aim and fire to hit the tin - the secret was to wait until the tin reached its highest point, and then aim and fire before it started to fall back.

I have another spoon won at the Mal Flower Show in western Dooars. There was a regular flower show with planters and towns people bringing flowers, fruit and vegetables. I do not remember what items I had entered from the bungalow garden, but I won the class for beetroot. The mali was over the moon, and I pressed money into his hands just before he disappeared down the bazar to celebrate.

While on the subject of malis - one day a friend returned to his bungalow at midday to find a pick-up truck from the Excise Deparment parked and a whole lot of Excisemen routing around in his vegetable patch. This was during the rains, and he duly sailed in saying that they would be welcome to return in September to prepare the garden for sowing seeds. The Chief Excise Officer looked somewhat sourly at my friend and then inclined his head to the right. My friend turned his head and then saw his mali sitting there manacled. He then looked more closely to see what the excise men were up to, and realised that they were uprooting and gathering a certain plant for burning - Indian Hemp! He was lucky that the excise people were satisfied with the mali.  

In some areas there were units of the Indian Army Frontier Rifles, with whom we may good friends. Invitations to attend the annual raising day celebration were always enjoyable. One Assam Rifles regiment, made up then mainly of Gurkha soldiers held its Raising Day in the Cold Weather. They had sent out jawans (soldiers) armed with service rifles (I think) to hunt and bring back deer. These would be turning on spits over vast fires, and everyone would be seated, glass in hand enjoying the warmth while the meal was cooking. Mess orderlies circulated keeping glasses topped-up, and the question was Gin or Rum. Having made ones choice, the glass would be filled with the chosen drink almost to the rim, and then topped with a splash of orange squash.

I do not know who had instilled into me during my youth the thought "drink what you will, but never drink to the stage where you are not in control of yourself"! There was an engineer unit commanded by a major of Engineers, which was celebrating its Raising Day, also in the Cold Weather. The drive to get there was quite long as the unit was located in the foothills. For the celebrations the unit, and all sections platoons etc were sacrificing animals of different sizes, this being followed by dances put on by young Gurkha jawans dressed as girls. Before adjourning to the major's bungalow for lunch, he suggested that we circulate and visit some of the N.C.O.'s tea stalls, which we did. While talking with a havildar or sergeant and drinking a cup of tea, he asked whether I would like a glass of dharu (a Nepalese spirit distilled from rice beer). I agreed and tried a glass, and I then vaguely remember walking to the major's bungalow. This must have been at somewhere around 1 p.m., but I remember nothing until I woke up in my car on my own and some 40 miles away at 8 p.m. at a ferry site on the way back to an earlier district. This gap was of particular worry to me, as on coming around I noticed that my trousers were inside out. It alarmed me that I had lost control of myself, and it quite put me off alcohol for a full 48 hours.  

During the cold weather the P.W.D. (Public Works Department) would put up bamboo and thatch cold weather bridges and we could then drive out and visit other districts and clubs. The P.W.D. in maintaining shingle and mud roads would keep very cautiously to their budget. With the approach of the end of the financial year at the end of March, finding spare cash in the coffers, they would go mad flinging up earth and building up the roads. You could say that was great, but shortly after this the small rains arrived and the roads turned to quagmires.

At the same time estates in each district would get together and make up the roads and bridges to some place up the river, private and with a nice beach where we could go and picnic. At one such place there was quite a run of rapids with quiet pools at top and bottom. Most accepted the challenge to shoot the rapids sitting in car or lorry inner tubes. One such time I saw a cobra swim the river.

It was in the cold weather that the inter-club tennis, golf and other competitions would be played off. My first club was the one which traditionally held the New Year party, for which the club would be decorated out on some theme. One year while the club was being rebuilt, a temporary thatched barn was added to the old building, the edges of a tarpaulin were buried to provide a dance floor, a country cart was pushed into one corner of the barn with its rear facing the dance floor and with hoops and a tarpaulin it looked like a cowboy wagon. Everyone was invited to attend a square dance evening. We would work up cabaret acts in order to entertain our guests - one time a fashion show with young assistants as the models dressed in all sorts of peculiar clothes. One such was a very tall planter dressed in a Chinese sort of coat reaching almost to the ground where the outfit hid more than it revealed and was entitled 'From here to Maternity', one planter putting on a jacket of gold to do the commentary which was worked up by all of us.      

At one tennis do, we retired to have a lie-back at somebody's bungalow. After a reasonable rest but while still feeling dozy, a servant came in bearing a tray with tea. He was told to put the tray down, which he did and left the room. After a few minutes we looked for the tea, looking on table tops, chairs and all the obvious places like the dressing table. Finally after looking high, we looked low and there was the tray, the Koya servant had put the tray on the floor under a bed.

Each year between long leaves to England (or Scotland) there would be two weeks 'local' leave in India. I went a couple of times to Puri on the Bay of Bengal in Orissa. The journey meant flying down to Calcutta and then taking the overnight train from Howrah Station to Puri. The train arrived in Puri at about 6 a.m. when everything was still beautifully cool, it was then a short ride in a cycle-rickshaw to the hotel. This was the B.N.R. Hotel (Bengal Nagpur Railway) which was a long single-storied building facing onto the road, and across the road was the beach and the sea. I checked in and settled into my room which had high ceilings, and then attended breakfast. I then took another rickshaw into the centre of town where there was the vast temple of Jaganath. From the temple there was quite a wide road leading to a smaller temple, and on this road stood a wooden carriage or 'car' with fixed wheels. This was the 'Jaganath Car', and apparently once a year the god would be loaded onto the car which was then pushed by devotees down the road to the other temple where he would remain while the temple was undergoing its spring clean. Now the car was heavy even when unladen, and any steering had to be done by leaning on the car to effect a change of direction and there were of course no brakes. Hence the expression of being run over by the Jaganath Car in recognition of various devotees who slipped and fell in the path of the car.

To bathe in the sea, after changing in the hotel room you grabbed a towel and sauntered out, crossing the road and down to the sea. There were quite strong breakers though the distance between forming and breaking was not too great. Surfboards consisting of three boards held together by two wooden bars across top and bottom were available to hire along with an attendant to look after one. The beach rules did not allow of independent action. So grasping the board you fought out diving through the waves then turning to catch a wave back in. Most invigorating and appetite building.
Lunches and dinners were a treat as there was plenty of fish to grace the menu, although on expatriate there moaned that the hotel should be named Pomfret Hotel in recognition of the one fish which featured on the menu most days. Something which was really delicious were the prawn curries served at different meals. The Rajpramukh of Parrakhud was also staying there. Now Puri was a dry area where no alcohol was available, and he was reputed to send his driver and car some thirty miles each day to bring back sustenance.

There was a possibility of an excursion which I took advantage of, and this entailed in being driven to the State Capital of Bhubaneswar and visiting a museum before continuing to Konarak. At this last-named place on the sea shore there was the abandoned Temple of the Sun or Black Pagoda. The last naming was given by sea captains who used the distinctive temples as landmarks. There was another temple which was predominately white while this one was of dark stone.
The main block of the temple was laid out as though it was a carriage with wheels carved on two sides, and a line of horses stretching away on one other side as though they were towing the carriage. But the whole of the building was covered in carvings which portrayed couples in the nude practising all the possible positions according to the 'Kama Sutra' with a few extra thrown in. Local legend suggested that at a time when the population was low, perhaps due to epidemic, the carvings were made to encourage people to get to it and re-populate the area. I believe they have succeeded all to well.

Returning to Puri I was then better able to understand the notice board which was extolling Orissa and tourism, the last line of which admonished the reader to 'visit Orissa, the land of Hoary Antiquity'.

Leaves in Assam nearer to 'home' would be taken in Shillong in the Khasi and Jainti Hills at some 4,000 feet above sea level. At that time the choices of accommodation were the Shillong Club and the Pinewood Hotel. Between these two buildings there was a public park with an area of water called Ward Lake with a Chinese style bridge over. In the Lake itself there were a lot of large fish, presumably carp.

Shillong itself had a cinema, a race course, a 9-hole golf course almost on the side of a hill, a highly reputed Hospital established by a Welsh Mission, a swimming pool and bar with its own cascade called Crinoline Falls, and there were plenty of places to visit on excursions. There was Elephant Falls; a visit to Cherrapunji which at that time held the record for the world's highest rainfall and nearby were waterfalls which dropped over the edge of the escarpment down to the plains way below. Shillong was also a garrison town where the Assam Regiment was based in an area called Happy Valley.

There were odd words in the local language, Khasi which were very similar to English words but of a completely different meaning. The Khasi word for hot was shit, and in my mind's eye I can just see a Sergeant yelling at his squad saying 'I suppose you think yourselves shit-hot'. Another such word was the Khasi word for clever - bastud, and again the sergeant shouting 'you think yourselves clever bastards'.

An ex-planter Captain Hunt married to a Khasi girl was established in one village in a tribal area and hence not subject to Federal Law and taxes. He maintained a bar with drinks produced by himself. There were gin, rum, whisky and so on, which could also be purchased and taken away for consumption at leisure. For that purpose people would arrive with well cleaned out kerosine tins which would be filled according to choice and then soldered closed. My own choice of container was stoneware acid jars. In filling the containers the difference in elevation of the filling zone against Shillong had to be remembered and space left for the contents to expand once they reached Shillong. One person returned to his car in Shillong to find that with the jar filled right to its top, the liquor had expanded, cracking the jar and filling the car with whisky which by then remained only as fumes.     

In the Dooars we were not too far from Darjeeling and Kalimpong. The drives up to both these places were quite spectacular as the roads climbed steeply, in one section of the road to Kalimpong there was a fairly tight spiral in the road in order to gain height. In Kalimpong were hotels, Dr Graham's Homes organised and run for children born of temporary relationships between Europeans and Indians, a Catholic Institution run by Swiss brothers where they made cheeses which were to be seen covering rack upon rack as they matured. 

In Kalimpong it was possible to buy and drink tumba which made by part filling a special wooden beaker with a lid which had a hole to allow the insertion of a wooden 'straw' with slits at the non-drinking end. A seed much like millet was put into this beaker and hot water was poured over. This brew was then drunk through the straw, and more hot water could be added. The drink was mildly intoxicating.

The road up to Darjeeling was quite exciting as it climbed from the plains to over 7,000 feet and back a little to Darjeeling in some 45 miles. The road ran close to the railway most of the way up. There was the odd section where the train ran back up the hill over a 'Z' in order to gain height and then away again. Nearer Darjeeling the track completed a spiral where the locomotive would be crossing a bridge with the tail of the train under that same bridge. The road ran up through Tindharia (the railway workshops town) crossing and re-crossing the railway, there were no gates and of course the trains had priority. It was possible to race the train in an endeavour to overtake, when suddenly the track and train would cross the road cutting off any incautious driver. What helped keep the adrenaline going was that often the trains and road would be shrouded in mist or low-lying cloud.
In Darjeeling I always stayed at the Planters Club, although there were hotels - the Everest and Windermere. Next door to the Planters Club was the Darjeeling Nursing Home where my eldest son was born. Just down the road was a milk and steak house called Keventers. Keventers ran farms raising pigs and so on, where you could buy the produce to take back, or eat juicy steaks on the premises. Something noticeable in Darjeeling was the Cinema music which pounded out seemingly all day.

As a bachelor a friend and I used to drive up to Darjeeling at weekends to stay at the Club and play billiards all evening and the next morning. Whatever the time of year, the coolness due to the elevation meant that fires were needed every evening. We played billiards all evening, having a Club Sandwich with bacon and Egg in them. We would have lunch at the club before setting off back on the Sunday. Sometimes my friend's car would lose its brakes, this was due to the thinner air at altitude, the heat of the day with the heat from braking causing the brake fluid to vaporise for a short time. On this road up-going traffic had priority which seemed a little crazy as it is easier to stop a car climbing rather than one descending.

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Labour of Love     October 2002


The work force of a tea plantation was made up originally of workers recruited usually as a family unit in their own 'country', a region where population was high and work opportunity low. A company called Begg Dunlop had established recruiting stations in such areas, and would carry out the necessary vetting of likely recruits. In some cases, with agreement from the management, workers would write to their friends (rather send messages through the letter writer in the bazar) telling them to come, or go back to their country to recruit family and friends.

A family perhaps of young husband and wife with children would arrive on the plantation along with other 'recruits' on a three year contract. They would be allocated housing
in one of the 'lines' according to their tribal origins and then checked again by medical staff for health and fitness. They would be interviewed, issued with the necessary tools for work and then allocated to a work squad. Each line had a panchayat consisting of five elders of that tribe who acted as a management committee looking after that line. The children would also be checked for health and well-being, and when their
parents went to work then they would either attend one of the estate's schools or if too young then accompany their mother to work where informal creches would be established. Workers would be allocated a plot of land on which to grow some of their paddy (rice) requirements.

On arrival the family would often speak only their own tribal language, and they then had to learn Hindi, the language spoken throughout all tea plantations, although there would be some different words in different areas. All people working on an estate from the management down had to learn and speak this same language.

Should a worker become sick, then there was an estate hospital complete with doctor, a dispenser or 'compounder' to make up medicines, and a hospital with nurses for those needing further care. A visiting dentist would come once a month to attend workers and children.

At the end of the contract workers would be repatriated to their countries. Before departure they would come to the office and hand over a mass of coin which they had saved during their stay on the estate. This money would be counted and a receipt given to the worker, and they would set off homewards. A list of names together with amounts collected would be sent urgently to the recruiting station, and on arrival there then the money would be paid out.

However this continuing change of an estate's work force was stopped when the Government of the day decided that workers should remain where they were. This meant of course that it was no longer necessary to train up one third of the work force each year, but a population surplus to an estate's needs grew up in areas where in effect they were 'foreigners', and they would be in competition with local people for jobs outside the plantations.

A lot of television programmes have made out that tea plantation workers were very badly treated and exploited, from the medical, housing and physical aspects. However this did not happen on estates which I knew. Labour had to be treated with all humanity, as it is easy to understand that: unhealthy workers cost an estate even if just from loss of their work a worker housed in poor housing would not be a fit management of perhaps 2 to 3 persons would be extremely vulnerable should they mistreat a workforce of some 1,500 workers (half of them men) plus as many or more dependents.

Within the lines, there would be inter-family fights from time to time, and these would be brought to the office usually for the assistant manager to resolve. I recall one case over which I had to adjudicate fairly soon after learning enough Hindi. The dispute was between two families, neighbours in the same lines, and they turned up each with a crowd of supporters. I got both groups to sit down, separate from each other, and asked them to nominate one spokesman each. Then within earshot of everyone the first aggrieved family spokesman was asked to tell his tale of events - anybody trying to intervene being told to hold their peace. Then the spokesman for the other family was asked to tell his tale. The terrible thing was that at the end of this you had heard two tales which seemed to have nothing in common. Then it was necessary to put questions in turn to each family from which gradually a 'picture' began to form. This allowed more direct questioning to really add form to the 'picture', and once this had been achieved then a stop was called. Then they were told what the true course of events was considered to be together with a judgement and decision as to punishment of the guilty parties. This could be where the guilty family had to produce a sum of money as a 'bond' of good behaviour, this bond to be held by the line panchayat or committee for a given period.

There was a genuine recognition of children reaching certain stages in their lives. One such was when a family - husband, wife, children and relatives came onto the office verandah asking for a day's leave to have a party. On asking the reason for the celebration, they pushed forward their young daughter who looked both coy and fulfilled as they announced that the party was to be in celebration of their daughter's first menses, 'she is a woman now!'

Another assistant had some items of clothing and other belongings stolen, and he traced these to his personal bearer. Having recovered the items in question, the culprit was made to wear the scarves, watch and other items while the whole workforce passed at the weekly 'pay parade'.
After my first leave I returned to another estate as second garden assistant; on an estate with a manager, two garden assistants and a factory assistant. One day shortly after my arrival, there was a number of male workers sitting at the road side rather than working plucking. This was some one and a half hours before weighment and the end of the day's work. I said that they should return to work which they ultimately did, only to refuse to come out of work when the factory gong sounded to announce the end of work for the day. The rest of the workers also refused to come out, and finally I cycled off to see the manager and report the problem. He took with him the senior assistant, saying that I should remain at the factory for weighment. While I wished to accompany them, this was refused. After a while the manager and assistant returned followed by the workers. I could tell that I was in trouble as the men workers hung back looking hopeful, while the women surrounded me trying to hit me with their umbrellas. I knew instinctively that any serious reaction would provide the men with the excuse to let loose, and I managed to keep my cool. At last the women gave up and all were weighed up. It transpired that the manager had told the work force that I was only young and did not know what I was doing; and the manager told me to just ride my bicycle around,
which I did for six months until he went on leave.

The acting manager backed me, and now in charge of both garden divisions I tightened up the standard of work and discipline. The Company Superintendent visiting with his Deputy Manager commented that he had thought his estate was clean. From this I learned that a subordinate must be able to rely on the support of his superior at all times, support which I had always had on my first estate and which I would extend to my own assistant in due time. Okay, afterwards one could expect any appropriate dressing-down, but support was essential.

One day at the midday weighment at the factory, one woman was found to have dropped only part of her leaf in the withering house and was in the process of starting the afternoon with her basket already part full of leaf. I pondered what to do, and finally emptied the leaf from her basket onto the concrete floor behind the assistant weighing up. She was then stood in the basket behind the leaf while her fellow workers were weighed up. At the end she was told to take the leaf into the withering loft and not do it again. That afternoon I saw her hiding in a ditch and was told with a laugh that it was the woman who was taking back her leaf to weigh in a second time.
Another time a mystery presented itself when each morning human faeces were found deposited at the top of the steps to the manager's office. The chowkidar or watchman had not seen anyone do this, perhaps because he was sleeping as most chowkidars did. However after a shake up, a few days later the culprit was caught. As punishment the woman responsible for this act was paid day's wage to sit with a fan keeping the flies away.

The same office was surrounded by a wire fence fixed to angle iron posts with gateways in. These posts were suffering severe corrosion because of the local dogs' habit of peeing against them. As a cure-all, the fence was connected to the estate's 110 volt DC electric supply and switched on. It only took a couple of dogs for the rest to get the message and that problem was short-circuited. They received a shock but there was no permanent harm done to the dogs.

The assistant responsible for checking the rain gauge, recording rainfall and temperatures one day during the dry season recorded rain in the gauge. He measured this and made the entry into the weather book, not realising until later that someone on the way back from a club night must have nipped over the fence and peed into the rain gauge.

Tea Plantation Standing orders had been agreed between the Government, Tea Plantations and the Trades Unions. Should a worker break any of the agreed breaches of discipline in these orders, then it was necessary to issue the worker with a Charge Sheet, to be followed by what was to all intents a Court of Enquiry recording all the questions and answers. At the end a judgement had to be made and then a Warning Notice had to be made out and given to the guilty worker. But he knew that he could be sacked only if was found guilty of a second misdemeanour within six months of his warning notice, and in any case it was not possible to also sack his wife. At one stage all estates had received a notice adding a further misdemeanour to Standing orders, but this was different as instant dismissal and exile could be carried out if a worker was found guilty of 'moral turpitude'.
On the out division of one estate there was a water carrier or pani-wallah who was employed to brew and carry tea to refresh the workers. He was a member of the sweeper class and the trades union secretary. While the Government had in theory abolished the caste system, this in fact persisted especially amongst the older people. I had reason to speak to the pani-wallah at length as it had come to my notice that he was entering into a relationship with a girl from a different and higher caste from his own. I said to him that this could lead to problems, to which he replied that the government had abolished caste. I agreed that indeed they had, but alas a lot of the older generation took a different view and this could lead to trouble both in his relationship and should it break up. I made a point that I only spoke in front of the clerk in charge of garden work, but noticed that the other clerk was in the background, and I knew that he had leanings towards the trades unions. Having spoken about this I knew that I could do nothing except warn him of possible consequences. Just before I was due to go on leave to the U.K. I learned that he had abandoned his 'wife' and run off with another girl from yet another caste.

The wronged girl's family had to pay out for a feast for other caste members so that she could regain her caste. I made out a charge sheet against the man for 'moral turpitude' but then had to go on leave, leaving this charge sheet and my notes to await the return of the sinner.

On return 7 months later to collect my belongings and before proceeding to my next posting I learned that the party had not returned to the estate, but instead was languishing in jail at government expense. Apparently after our talk, he had taken the girl into the nearest town and then married her in a civil wedding (in effect saying "yah" to me). And of course, when he ran off with the other girl he was then arrested and tried for committing bigamy. I never succeeded in charging anyone with 'moral turpitude'.
On one estate where we had both permanent workers living on the plantation, we also had casual workers from local villages or bustee worker. The bustee worker in question was also a very busty young lady who was reputed to have gone through seven relationships. She was quite a feast for sore eyes on rainy days, and she had her eyes on the husband of one of the permanent workers. The wife did not approve of this, and one morning on her way to work, the bustee girl was caught by the wronged wife and her friends. She then suffered having green chilies rubbed into her nostrils and five other orifices before being released. I learnt that she spent the rest of the day sitting in a river which passed through the estate. This must have been quite an experience as the river at that place had just emerged from the Himalayas and consisted mainly of water from snow melt. I really missed her presence when it rained.
One assistant had a dog which kept on frightening workers' children and workers too, and despite warnings to him he would control the dog and then gradually ease off again. This behaviour reflected the opinion of the dog's owner where he considered the workers to be ignorant people, and of course the workers could sense this. One day at the end of the work day the work force refused come out of work and weigh up. This brought back memories, but backing the assistant saying that he was only carrying out orders, ultimately they came out and weighed up.

However, after weighment a group of twenty or so men gathered under a tree opposite the office. I told the assistant to remain in his office, sent a message to my deputy manager to send my other assistant with a lorry to the nearest bungalow warning the 'riot police' on the way there, and for himself to join us at the office. The men remained under the tree and I sent over the chowkidar saying that if they had anything to say I was in the office ready to hear any complaints. They replied that I should go to them, to which I replied that they seemed to be the ones with a problem. This carried on until about 8 pm, at which time the heavens opened and it poured with rain. The men dispersed having passed some two and a half hours there.

I told the cause of the problem to return to his bungalow and wait there, the deputy and other assistant to send the lorry back to the garage and themselves proceed to my bungalow and break out the beer. I took my LandRover and drove down to the bazar and Police Station, where I thanked the Inspector for having stood the riot police ready, but fortunately they would no longer be required. At this stage the local Trades Union Secretary broke in saying that they wished to lodge a complaint against my assistant. I then returned to see my assistant and give him the what for what for, before then taking  him to join the others in a beer session. That was the end of that affair.
Sex or lack of opportunity was always a problem, as although there would be a large number of healthy young ladies in the labour force and the families of clerical staff, these had to considered taboo, and usually estates were in remote parts., All workers had to be treated fairly and equally, and in cases of dispute people whom I tended to favour would come off worse that somebody whom I didn't particularly like. Workers required fair and even-handed justice.

In another district there was the tale of a certain young local lady, obviously full of initiative who took it upon herself to make herself available to the bachelors by visiting them in turn in their bungalows. Now during the Great War there had been a well-known German Commerce Raider, and after the girl's round of visits, her tour was talked about as 'the cruise of the Emden' in recognition of the trail of disaster or rather cases of Venereal Disease left behind.
One day, a sex-starved bachelor was approached by his cook who discreetly advised that a certain young lady was agreeable to making herself available. Now the young lady in question was the nursemaid or ayah to the engineer assistant's children, and therefore not a member of the work force. Interest was confirmed and an evening arranged which was duly consummated. Soon after a posting took the bachelor away to another estate some 15 miles or so away, and not long after that the Bearer of the manager of the first estate presented himself advising that he had married the fore mentioned young lady and that she was pregnant. The bearer departed with a cash prize for the expected child. It was some few months later that the same Bearer presented himself again reporting that his wife now had a bouncing baby born just the other day. A quick count showed that the child would have had to have been born at seven months, so in relief the Bearer departed with a gift of cash for the child. It was only some months later that the perfidy of the Bearer and ayah was revealed when it was discovered that the trick had been worked on the whole managerial and clerical staff of that estate.

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 June 2002

My Passage to India

I was born in Tanganyika in East Africa, and although brought to Britain at about 9 months of age, tales of Africa and of India from parents uncles and aunts together with photographs of these places fired my imagination where i wanted to work in the "Empire". This was no run down music hall  or cinema, but what we the British had built and ran throughout the world.

My initial ambition was to join one of the colonial police forces in Africa - Gold Coast, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika, to name a few. The police idea probably stemmed from the fact that one uncle, Uncle Jack had served in the police in India reaching the rank of Superintendent, and that one great grandfather and his brother had both reached the rank of Head Constable in the police.

However fate was against me . Although there was still an empire to be policed at the beginning of the 1950's, I failed the medical due to short-sightedness in days when there were a minima height and eyesight requirements. Feeling lost, I happened to meet an old school friend, who told me that his tea-planter father was on leave from Darjeeling in India. I duly met and talked with the father and then applied to different companies.

Being rewarded with success, I duly gave up my job, made purchases which were limited to the extent that virtually everything was still rationed from food through, clothing (and even furniture). Then I set off on a trail visiting uncles and aunts, and my paternal grandparents (my other grandparents had already passed away) to arrive at Liverpool Docks on a day to embark on M.V. Cilicia of the Anchor line for the voyage to Bombay and India.

Once shown to my cabin and having arranged my things , I met my cabin mate who was also travelling out to join the same company. His name was Chris Fahey and he had been in India serving in the army during the war. I then set off around the ship to find out where everything was - the purser's office, dining room, bars, washing rooms and so on. The ship was so steady moored to the dockside that I even started to look for the billiard room. Fortunately I realised that it would not be practical to play billiards in a storm or even a bit of a swell, and so abandoned this search.

The time came to sail, streamers linked the ship to the shore, and the loudspeakers system played nostalgic tunes such as "we'll meet again, don't know.......'etc and the ship was nudged out and away to sea. Soon we were engaged in boat drill finding out lifeboat stations, booking table seating for meals and generally finding out what it was all about

I learnt that although I had bought a dinner suit, these were not worn the first night (nor the last night) so at the appropriate time went with  my cabin mate to dinner dressed in lounge suits. This meal was a revelation as while in England food was in short supply and rationed, here there were full five course meals, and you could have as much as you wanted. In short, we ate well.

During the days there were deck games to be played such as shuffleboard, deck tennis with rope quoits, deck golf, a swimming pool and of course -- the bar.  Each evening there were different entertainments -- 'housey', quizzes, dances ( a Fancy Dress dance too), 'horse racing' and cinema where a screen was rigged against the after mast (at each change of reel there was ample time to recharge glasses).   On later voyages there would be cinema shows for children in the afternoons, and I used to borrow a couple so that I could watch the cartoons.
The ship sailed south, crossing the Bay of Biscay which to everyone's relief was calm, then down the coast of Portugal and round into the Mediterranean Sea past Gibraltar.  Days were getting warmer and we saw lots of sun.  There was a laundry service, but it was easier on the pocket to do one's own washing.  The washing room had racks to spread and dry your clothes after washing, but in practice this was a sure fire way of losing your clothes, so the answer was to take the clothes back to your own cabin and spread them on the painted steel walls.  Clothes dried perfectly and if correctly spread on the wall required no ironing when dry and peeled off.

Passage To India




The first port of visit was Port Said in Egypt at the head of the Suez Canal.  While awaiting the convoy to form, a 'gilli-gilli' man came aboard who gave a magic show making chicks appear and throwing a passenger's watch overboard, but all came well.  We went ashore, crossing a 'pontoon' joining the ship to shore, and visited various shops including 'Simon Artz' which was a large general shop selling virtually everything (no rationing).  It was understood that as long as there was a passenger liner in port, then Simon Artz remained open.  A visit was also made to see the statue of de Lesseps, the French engineer who dug the canal.
Back on board and we set sail down the Canal.  There was a speed limit to avoid washing the banks away, and all traffic was in one direction to lakes in the middle of the Canal where ships anchored to allow the convoy from the south to pass.  Alongside the canal ran a small canal known as the Sweet Water Canal which the water certainly did not look.  Then out into the Red Sea, next stop Aden.

At Aden the ship moored to a buoy, and passengers boarded launches to go ashore.  From Steamer Point right through to the Crescent Hotel ( a colonial style hotel) and the Rock Hotel ( a modern hotel) there were lots of small shops selling portable radios, cameras and other goods at reasonable prices, though of course you had to bargain.  A taxi ride would then take you to Crater Town where there was an even wider range of shops.  The town was literally in a volcanic crater, and cars drove through a cutting in the crater wall.

Sailing again, this time for Karachi in then newly independent Pakistan, and here we visited the town and shops.

Sailing that night for Bombay, the last leg, we ran into the first rough weather of the journey.  This was the approach to the Indian sub-continent of the South East monsoon.  The ship was sailing almost due south with the monsoon blowing from the SE. The ship was really rolling and pitching, and to move about, it was necessary to hold onto rails.  Here I learned that I was not liable to sea-sickness, rather I found an increased appetite which I was able to indulge in a virtually empty dining room.

On arrival at Bombay (Mumbai), immigration officers came aboard together with representatives of different travel companies.  Here we learned that we had reservations for the Calcutta Mail train leaving Victoria Terminus the next evening at about 6 p.m., and we were booked overnight into a small hotel lodging house on Marine Drive.  That evening we hit town finishing up in a quite magnificent air-conditioned cinema.  The weather was stormy with the approach of the monsoon.  The next day we looked around town getting to the railway station in good time with bottles of soda water in buckets of ice

The compartment was a twin berth, where during the day the upper berth was folded up and the lower berth used as a seat.  At night the upper berth was folded down and both beds made up.  In the windows there were three sashes --- one with fine netting to keep the mosquitoes out, one with glass, and the final with bars, and there was a small bathroom with toilet, stainless steel wash basin and shower.

One station which the train passed through soon after leaving Bombay on its journey to Calcutta via Nagpur was named Deolali.  During the war the army maintained a transit camp near this station, and when troops were due to be posted back to Britain or further east they were sent here to await the arrival of the next troopship.  Now nobody knew how many places there were available until the next troopship arrived in Bombay, and there was therefore a certain lottery as to which ship you got onto and when you left.  This was known as 'doolaly tap'.
Waiters, who were dressed in white uniforms with cummerbund and turban came around the train in one station taking orders for the next meal.  Once the train had left, the orders were telegraphed up the line so that the meals were ready at the next station when the train pulled in.  Meals were quickly served and the train pulled out, and it was at the next stop that the trays and payments were collected, the trays to be used for the next westbound train.  At each station there were stalls selling books, fruit, and so on.

Thirty six hours after leaving Bombay the train was pulling into Calcutta Howrah Station at 6 a.m.  Here we were met by company cars and taken to the Grand Hotel on Chowringhee.  After a bath, the water having quite a high iron content looked quite red even before you got into the bath, and then breakfast; the cars then returned to take us to the company offices.

Here we learnt where we were being posted to, and details of the onwards flights.  I was booked to fly to Tezpur on the north bank of the Brahmaputra river in Assam, to proceed from there to Nya Gogra Tea Estates, wherever that was in some five days time.  In the meantime I was advised to buy and take two sets of curlery, crockery and so on, a mackintosh because of the heavy rains to be expected (in practice it was too hot to wear, like moving around in your very own Turkish Bath!).
The day arrived and I engaged a taxi to take me and my plates out to Dum Dum Airport, and checked in with Bharat Airways (Bharat being an old Hindi word for India).  When the flight was called, we walked out and boarded a Dakota aircraft, and off we went.  Something quite reassuring about this aircraft was that the wings always seemed to be flexing up and down as though it was doing its best to fly despite the two fans.  The plane landed at Agartala in the State of Tripura, and then took off to fly over the Khasi and Jainti Hills height some 5,000 feet to then drop towards Tezpur.  However with the monsoon starting, it was not possible to find Tezpur and we returned to Calcutta and the Grand Hotel.  The next day back to Dum Dum and this time Tezpur was found.

Tezpur airport was a war-time airfield, and on the base of a now demolished barrack-room floor some three feet above ground level was a senior looking man with a group of other men around him.  I immediately thought that this was some welcoming party, only to be disabused by a young man, Bob Forbes who introduced himself as being there to meet and collect me.  The senior man was the Superintendent of the company that I had joined, and the other people were senior managers of the same company seeing him off on the flight's return to Calcutta.
We left the airfield driving to my new friend's bungalow on Addabarie Tea Estate, not too far from the airfield.  Here I was introduced to a small Indian who had been sent down from Nya Gogra to meet and journey back with me.  He had no English and I had no Hindi.  We were to go the next day to the steamer flat on the Brahmaputra River to await the steamer.  A steamer flat was an old steamer with its cabins and dining room intact on the upper level with cook and staff, and the lower part with engines removed acting as a warehouse for goods for onward dispatch by the next steamer.  As the river changed in levels and course with the seasons, so the 'flat' was moved up and down the river bank.

In the meantime, there was a club evening to be attended that evening, and it was late the next afternoon when my guide and I were deposited at the steamer flat.  The following day there was no sigh of my steamer which I leaned was delayed due to the rains causing the river to rise and of course increase the rate of flow.  During the day a side paddle steamer kept coming in, unloading vehicles and people who passed through the lower deck of the flat before the steamer loaded and sailed as ferry to Nowgong on the opposite bank of the river some miles away.  I was intrigued to note that some three years after independence of India, the steamer still sported a Royal Mail Steamer burgee, which in hindsight would be correct as it was to be a year or two before India declared herself as a Republic.  Through the steamer staff I learned that there was doubt as to when my steamer would arrive, and my guide disappeared towards Tezpur.  On his return I was told through an interpreter that it was possible to take a bus if I was in agreement to this mode of transport.

The following morning after breakfast, we journeyed into Tezpur and boarded a bus.  This was a Ford lorry chassis complete with V8 engine and a wooden body mounted thereon which was most colourfully painted with scenes and picture of flowers.  We set off, myself in the one first class seat next to the driver, with a row of second class seats behind with little knee room, and behind that the third or ordinary class.  Luggage went onto racks on the roof and were sheeted over.  We travelled as far as a major river flowing south from the Himalayas down to the Brahmaputra.  Here all passengers got down and the bus then lurched down a sandy bank onto a sandy track over part of the river bed and then onto a 'ferry', we walked behind and then stood on the ferry deck.  The ferry was actually two wooden country boats some thirty foot long which were decked across the beams to allow the carriage of two cars or a bus together with foot passengers.  There were ramps at each end of the deck which were lowered for the vehicles to drive up onto the deck.  There was a small deck between the two boats lower than the deck on which a Ford V8 engine stood and drove a propeller.  This was not powerful enough to drive across the river, to the technique was to motor up the river in the comparatively still waters by the bank, and to then angle the bows slightly towards the other bank and motor like hell.  The ferry would be carried downstream backwards, but was at the same time angling across the torrent of the main stream until the ferry reached the still water at the other bank.  Here the ferry motored to the landing spot, and we followed the bus until it reached the top of the bank and then continued our journey.

We drove on, passing through paddy fields which were now a bright indescribable green from the young paddy or rice plants recently transplanted into the still flooded fields. We also passed by and through tea plantations with its fantastic green from the new growth.  Away to the north the foothills of the Himalayas could be seen.  We arrived at another river, and this time there was no chance of the bus crossing due to the volume of water racing down.  We embarked on boats which were poled upstream and then angled to cross the current, disembarking and walking to join another bus parked and waiting for us.

The bus drove on until we had travelled a total of some 90 miles from Tezpur when we reached Gohpur and we left the bus.  Here there was a rectangular pond or tank, on the banks of which there were houses, a Post Office and Police Station.  Here my trunk and cases were stacked at the road side, and my guide signed that I should stay there while he went to fetch transport.  He had just set off when a tractor was heard which appeared from a side road.  It was a David Brown red tractor, and the sweaty looking individual wearing short-sleeved shirt, shorts and a khaki pith helmet was the acting manager under whom I was to serve for some five months before the permanent manager returned from leave.  Coincidentally, the acting manager had taken the tractor to visit an out division of the estate which was not accessible by car.  The guide rushed back, and after discussion, he was left guarding my luggage while I climbed onto the back of the tractor.  We continued for about 100 yards up the road to a large sign on which NYA GOGRA T.E. HALEM TEA CO. was painted together with an arrow pointing to the left.  We turned up this road and after about one mile reached the edge of the tea, driving through the tea and then up to the manager's bungalow where I met the wife and young daughter.  I was entertained to lunch before being taken over to the assistant's bungalow which I was to share with another assistant until he went on leave in some seven months time.

I don't really know what I had expected to find, maybe I thought we would be using tea chests as chairs and tables, but the bungalow was adequately furnished.  The bungalow was built on a brick plinth with fairly deep verandah round to shade the walls from direct sunlight.  The roof was of corrugated iron with thatch laid over, the thatch acting as a layer of insulation of of course reducing the hammering to be otherwise expected from heavy rainfall.  Ceilings were fairly high with overhead fans. The ceilings were hessian cloth  mounted and battened onto frames and then whitewashed over which gave a good rigid surface.  Electric wiring to fans and lights were mounted on wooden boards cut for the purpose, looking to all intents and purposes like railway tracks.
The rooms in the bungalow comprised - a dining room accessed from the verandah with another door to a small room for washing up with access to the outside; entering the main bungalow you came into a sitting room with a fairly top heavy fireplace; this led in turn into a dressing room and then the main bedroom with bathroom off; the second bedroom was reached either through the main bedroom or along the verandah. To the rear of the bungalow there was a cookhouse with cooking range and water supply, to one side there was a pen for keeping chickens alive until needed for dinner - a good buy would produce eggs until called for duty; and behind the cookhouse was a house in which the cook and his family lived. The whole stood in a compound in one corner of which stood a bamboo and thatched garage in which the car lived invariably parked in the manner of a fire engine with it's nose facing out. The hedge all round was of hibiscus and looked a rare sight when in flower. In order to keep the bungalow functioning  there was a number of servants - cook, bearer who served at table and kept the bungalow and clothes, a hot water carrier who besides washing the crocks also carried the hot water in to fill the baths, a sweeper to sweep up floors, a nightwatchman who invariably slept the nights away, and a mali or gardener

My passage to India was complete

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A Tea Garden

May 2002  
While the above title may conjure up visions of a blistering summer with a countryside oasis with umbrellas serving cream teas, a tea plantation was often called a garden, presumably because of the back-breaking work to keep it tidy!  

Tea originated in China, and legend has it that a certain Emperor stopped during his travels in the shade of a tea tree (Camellia Sinensis) with a bowl of water by his side. He snoozed off, and while he was resting a leaf or two fell off the tree into the water. On waking up, the Emperor drank his water noticing the refreshing flavour, which he discovered to have come from the tealeaf. At any rate, the cultivation and production of tea began. In due course the traders came to China to discover Tea, which they then began to purchase for the markets of Britain and Europe.

Those who settled to trade initially in Portuguese Macao took up the habit of drinking tea, which proved to be most healthy as water was boiled and thereby purified to a degree. Now, the trade all took place through what used to be Canton (Kwangshao today) and traders would be permitted in during two parts of the year which continues today with the Kwangshao Trade Fair.  At that time, the Emperor considered that China had all it needed and would not trade, instead shipments of tea had to be paid for in silver bullion. And of course it is from the monopoly in tea held by China that the phrase ‘not for all the tea in China' came. Once the tea clippers were loaded then it was a race to reach England first with their cargoes. So faster and faster clippers were designed and built.

Now the traders saw all this silver bullion disappearing into China with no opportunity to trade. They thought about what could be traded in quantity in exchange for tea, and noticing a habit to smoke opium pipes and go onto a high, the cultivation and production of opium was set in hand. One of the best area was reputed to be around Patna, which was recognised to produce the highest quality opium. With this product, ships sailed into Calcutta where they loaded with balls of Opium for China. On arrival these were then traded for tea. The Chinese Emperor did not want this trade to continue and this led to the Opium Wars from which various concessions were wrested from the Chinese including the lease of Hong Kong.

The colonial secretaries and so on had pondered the possibility of acquiring tea seed to ship discreetly to India, to start tea planting in India. Boxes of seeds were duly obtained and shipped to India. These were then sent up into Assam where pioneer tea estates were established. One of the first plantations was set up by a Captain Bruce, and for a time I was stationed on this original plantations called Bindukuri near Tezpur. There was the original bungalow built mainly in wood up on stilts in which I lived for a while - though there had been several improvements since those early days. (The production of rubber had been a monopoly of the Portuguese in Brazil, and this was broken when  seed was acquired and shipped to what is now Malaysia).

With settlement in the Assam Valley which up until then had been mainly jungle, exploration discovered tea trees native to Assam and these were also used as seed sources for planting different tea strains.  

In general a tea plantation of my time had a total acreage of 900 acres and upwards under tea with a similar area for roads, bridges, housing, factories, garages and spare land for tea nurseries etc.

Most estates had their factories for the processing of fresh green leaf into black tea located at one edge of the estate, and the office and stores  (godown)  would be  sited close by. Dispensaries, hospitals, schools would be also in this main ‘administrative' area. Housing for clerical staff would be fairly close to the factory and offices, while that for workers and their families would be in ' lines' around the perimeter of the tea areas. Bungalows for managerial staff would usually be sited within the tea areas.  

The clerical and factory supervisors were generally from the people indigenous to that area, while workers had originally been recruited from impoverished rural areas in other parts of India.  At first workers would come on a three year contract, so every year one third of the work force would be repatriated to their 'country/; but government then decided that labour should remain on  their  estates  so  leading  to  growth  of  non-indigenous populations in the tea areas where it was not possible for the estates to employ the ever expanding populations - nor could the region.

The labour force consisted of people from different tribes, with different religions and languages, and they would be housed in ' lines' according to their group identity.  Work squads would be made up of men, women according to their tribe and would be allocated work so that the distance from homes to places of work was as short as possible. Children once they reached 16 years of age were checked by medical staff for health and fitness before starting work in a children's squad where they were given lighter work. There was a further squad of 'pensioners' who were given very light work to keep them 'off the streets'!  

During the plucking season the women's squads would be engaged in plucking leaf, maintaining level plucking tables throughout, and at times of heavy flushes or growth then the children and men's squads would also be brought in. While the tea was growing, so too would the weeds, and normally the men's and children's squads would be engaged in hoeing throughout the tea. The cleaner the tea was kept of weeds then the tea had less competition for soil nutrients, and of course it was easier for the workers to pick the tea.

According to the tea area and growth pattern, so an estate would maintain a plucking programme. The desirable growth of leaf from when last plucked was ‘2 leaves and a bud'. That is that since last plucked level, new growth of two new leaves and the ‘bud' (next unopened leaf) had been attained, this usually took seven days. So on the same day each week, the aim was to pluck the same sections of tea.  Sometimes growth had exceeded the two leaves and a bud,  and then workers would pluck and keep that growth, breaking back the extra growth and dropping this to the ground. 

Weighment and collection of leaf for the factory would be twice a day in normal times, but three times at times of heavy flushes. Depending on the distance from the factory, leaf would be weighed up at the factory or out on the plantation loading leaf loosely into square baskets then stacked into special trailers and then towed to the factory. At the end of the day, all workers were 'weighed-up' at the factory.  At each weighment the leaf picked would be checked at random to establish that the correct growth of leaf had been picked, and that the leaf had not been packed down. Leaf packed down would turn red and begin to ' ferment'  and was useless for manufacture.

Plucking commenced each year in the small rains or chota barsat  when the plucking table would be established. Measures were cut and made for each section of tea and handed to the pluckers. This was then placed on the most recent pruning height and growth above the top of that measure would be broken off and leveled for each bush. In general a plucking height of about 2' 6" would be maintained.

With the growing season tea would be treated with the application of artificial  fertilisers,  and  in  order  to  increase  the utilisation of these an initial small level of application would be followed later when growth increased with heat and rain.

Originally tea bushes were planted out on a 4'' 6" triangular grid with shade trees every 45' triangular. The trees selected were usually of the albizzia family and were planted to provide some shade and to also fix nitrogen into the soil as some benefit for the tea plant. On one estate in order to smarten the place up and improve morale in the work force, the shade trees in their correct positions were whitewashed from 6' down to the ground. The unpainted trees were then uprooted and carried away leaving very smart lines of trees.

Later tea was planted in hedges 5' apart with 2' 6" between plants in the rows.

Hoeing carried out during the growing season was done with one of two types of hoe. The normal hoe was like a ‘D' with a shorter straight edge in proportion to its curved edge (a D on its straight edge but with its base edges squeezed in), and the other cheel hoe had a longer straight edge in relation to the curved edge (a D on its flat edge). The  cheel  hoe would be used when weeds were fairly light, and the other when there was vigorous growth to tackle. In general the hoe was used to cut weeds working from the stem of each bush, piling the ''spoil'   in alternate rows (in the case of the tea being on a slope, then the lines of debris would follow the contour of the ground to act as a filter to prevent mass erosion of the hillside).  At the time of the next round of hoeing then the line of debris was moved into the next row and so on.

Some estates had a problem with a creeper called mikania  which would grow all over the bushes smothering the tea and of course blocking the movements of pluckers. Workers would be employed to remove this, being paid according to the weight of creepers removed, and it was always necessary to check that workers had not succumbed to the temptation to put in a boulder or two to boost their wage packet - unfortunately the roots remained. Quite by accident one year I found the perfect way to eradicate this nuisance - work had got so far ahead that the women were being employed in using fork hoes breaking the soil and cleaning around the tea bushes; little patches of the green creeper were noted and forked out, end of problem until carrying out the same task the next year!

Once the tea leaves were handed over to the factory, these were spread out to be ‘withered''.  This allowed free circulation of air through and around the leaf. This action removed surface moisture and some of the leaf's internal moisture, leaving the leaf limp like ' shammy'  leather which could be rolled between your hands without the leaf breaking.

Leaf was then ‘rolled' in Rollers which usually consisted of a fixed upright cylinder with a cap into which leaf was loaded and a rotating dished ' table'  with fixed ridges and a central opening 'door'.  The table rotated twisting the leaf again and again so breaking the internal cells and liberating the natural juices. On completion of the rolling cycle leaf would be perhaps put through a type of worm press and then passed over a ' bouncing' motion table to break up any lumps and then moved to the ‘fermentation' room. On some estates the tea would be passed between two rollers with machined knife edges rotating inwards but at different speeds - this process was known as C.T.C. (cut. tear. curl.)  as distinct from the first which was known as ' orthodox'  manufacture.

The rolled leaf would be spread out on concrete floors or slabs in the fermenting house which was kept cool by humidification of the air. The length of fermentation was timed from when the leaf went into the rollers until when a smell of ‘crushed apples' came up and this time would vary from day to day, and hour to hour depending mainly upon the heat of the day and the relative humidity, in basis upon the availability of free oxygen in the air. The secret was to lift the fermenting leaf 5 minutes before the smell of ' crushed'  apples reached it peak and began to wane and get it to the dryers so that the leaf reached the stage in the dryer when the heat ‘froze' the fermentation at that optimum moment of ‘flavour'.  The drying machine was a rectangular metal box into the base of which hot air was passed at one end at 210 degrees Fahrenheit and exhausted out of the top at 140 degrees F. Rows of trays on endless links carried the tea leaf along the top of the machine, dropping to the next row and returning along the machine before dropping to a further two layers of trays before dropping out under where the leaf was loaded.

Tea was then spread on sheets to allow the tea to cool.

The next day leaf would be sorted over machines with mesh of different sizes into different grades - such as F.O.P. Flowery Orange Pekoe/ B.P.S. Broken Pekoe Shushong/ .F.O.P. Broken Flowery Orange Pekoe and so on according to size of leaf and the amount of tip. Tip was the ‘bud' of two leaves and a bud and was mainly ‘hair'. This hair stained by the tea juices during rolling and when dried came out a golden colour and according to the number of tips you could have from Orange Pekoe through Flowery Orange Pekoe to Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe. On some estates the bulk of sorting would be done using what was called a 'Java' Tunnel. This consisted of a long narrow tunnel. Tea would be raised and dropped into the top of the tunnel at one end, a fan turning at the other end of the tunnel sucked air through the tunnel. Tea leaf would be carried on this air current falling gradually according to its size and weight until it fell to the floor. Partitions would be put in place according to the grading - the advantage of this system meant that leaf would not suffer the polishing from the movement of sorting trays under them. We operated homemade Java Tunnel and Dust Extraction Plant.  

Graded teas would then be weighed and bulked into bins devoted to each grade. Once there was enough of one grade to make up a consignment, then first thing in the morning that grade of tea would be pasted through the dryers before that day's manufacture reached the dryers, weighed into tea chests and then closed ready for shipment to Calcutta and then on to destinations throughout the world.

With the end of the ' rains' during September, we would not expect any further rainfall until the start of the next chota barsaty  although there would always be a shower of rain during the week between Christmas Day and New Year's Day. The rains were over, and growth started to slow.

The plucking of tea continued through until the beginning of December, but the cold weather work was begun. Pruning would start first with sections needing drastic cut-backs or what were termed as medium prunes. Followed by other sections of not quite so heavy yielding sections until all tea had been pruned. The knives used had a flat blade curling at the end, and for a medium prune tree saws would be used. Keeping a tea plant as a bush was completely unnatural as left to itself a tea tree would grow to some 40' in height.

As pruning approached completion the complete defoliation of tea plants was carried out, this to remove possible hosts to red spider which would breed and develop on any leaves in the heavy dust conditions brought about by the lack of rain. And as the rains approached so forking of ground might be carried out to help conserve ground moisture.

With the cold weather nurseries were prepared for growing young tea plants for the re-planting of tea and filling in gaps where plants had died. Seed would be received and then spread in layers in pits full of damp sand, and each day seeds would be checked to see if they had 'split' and were therefore ready for planting - the split uppermost. The tea plant is a member of the camellia family, has a small white flower and produces seeds which are about the size of a ‘marble' with several such in one case. The seed bari or garden from which the seed came would grow the tea plant as a tree, with spaces in between to maximise the possible seed bearing surface of each tree.

In addition cuttings were grown for planting. There were a number of special ‘clones' which had been selected at the Indian Tea Association Research Station at Tocklai on the south bank of the Brahmaputra River in Assam. Further in each estate there would be searches from time to time for suitable ‘mother' bushes to develop as clones. Selection would be on the basis of hairiness of leaves (for quality), a good frame and good yield. Cuttings would be taken and the plants obtained tested for disease resistance, yield, and by manufacturing small batches of leaf (miniature manufacture) test the quality of tea produced.  

The ‘mother' plants would be allowed to grow for 6 months and cuttings would be taken twice a year, once in October and then in April.  

The tea plant or tree would in nature last for more than 100 years, but the plant's productivity declines significantly from about 50 years of age, and therefore many estates had adopted a re-planting cycle of 45 to 50 years. During the cold weather the next area for re-planting would be up-rooted using a bulldozer towing a cable. Slings would be looped around the tea bush trunk and hooked onto the cable as it passed, un-hooking as the bush came clear and so on. All the small branches would be lopped off, and the stems and roots cut up for firewood for workers. Tea is quite a hard wood. Once uprooted, the area would be ploughed and levelled before staking out and then rows of a green crop (such as crotalaria anagaroides) would be sowed between each row to provide shade when planting took place the next year, and also fix nitrogen into the soil. Rows were usually planned so that these followed the contour.

Planting would be carried out at the same time as above into last year's area. Yearling plants from seed and cuttings would be lifted with a good clod of earth covering the roots, and a hole dug to receive the plant. In order to reduce the risk of sun scorch, I would have a man mark the north facing leaves of all plants with a whitewash mark, and I would expect all plants to be planted with these leaves facing north. Once planted, the block would be watered by overhead irrigation, and again the next day and then left to it.

There were two schools of thought on planting, one was to plant into a drought (the dry season) and the other was to plant out of a drought (as the rains arrived). Personal choice favoured the first option, as plants planted into the rainy season had too much water from the rain and a long dry period could cause a lot of deaths.

Once the manufacturing season was over, then the entire factory, engines, machinery and line shafting would be stripped down, repaired, re-bushed as required ready for the next season.

When first I went to tea planting, all housing for workers was constructed from bamboo with cane wall panels and thatch over. While these sound crude, in fact they could be most comfortable and much cooler to live in than brick or block constructed houses with tiled roofs. Most estates grew their own bamboos and thatch, some had the correct clay for making bricks and tiles, and others would mass produce concrete blocks.

With the start of the cold weather, labour would be allocated for cutting and bundling the thatch, others would be put on cutting cane and bamboos.  These last were grown of two different varieties - one sturdy and fairly thick with a short distance between nodes which were used as posts, and the other thinner with a greater distance between nodes which would be split and used for making wall panels with cane and used whole and split for roofs and binding thatch.

A new house would be marked out on the ground and posts dug into the ground, earth would be brought and rammed to provide a level 'plinth', panels of cane with split bamboo would be tied to the posts, roof bamboos placed and then thatched over. The new house occupier would move in (this in the cool season) and using a plaster made up of earth with straw and cattle dung they would plaster the outer walls inside and out, and also plaster the floor and the plinth.

Most of the housing work entailed repairing and making good existing houses. Replacing wall panels, repairing or re-thatching as needed, and once these were replaced by brick and tile houses then of course the amount of repairs needed would be reduced. For these brick houses the estate carpenters would make all the necessary doors, windows, frames and shutters.

One manager of a nearby estate had his bungalow go up in flames, but most of the furniture and clothes had been carried out onto the lawn.  While awaiting the materials to construct a new bungalow, a larger than usual bamboo and thatch ' bungalow' was built and plastered according to the above, electricity and plumbing put in, all whitewashed and the family lived in this until their new bungalow was built and ready for occupation. As commented on above, the temporary housing was in fact cooler to live in than a concrete version.

Roads and bridges were maintained throughout the year, the rains brought levels of rainfall depending on the area from 60" in Cachar to 200" in the Western Dooars near Mal. Heavy rain could wash out sections of road which were usually of broken brick or stone, indeed one night, there had been no rainfall between 6 am and 10.30 pm, but by 6 am overnight a total rainfall of 18" was measured in the rain gauge.

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