Robin Borthakur

 This page is dedicated to Robin Borthakur -- amaster story teller to read his stories please click below  to go to the story

Footprints in the Bush

Pearson and the Maneater of Majulighur

War Tales from a Frontier

Tea Tales from a Frontier

Baptism of Fire

Mystery of the Missing Tea Leaves 

How Green was my Valley



July 10 2010

Footprints in the Bush

By: Robin Borthakur

Play any tennis?  No, Sir. How about shooting or angling?

Do shoot a duck once in a while, but no big game.

Any particular aversion to alcoholic drinks?  Yes, Sir I mean no, Sir, came the young fellow hesitant reply, knowing that drinking was a taboo in the family and yet not too sure whether admitting it would go against him. All right, all right. When you get back home, buy yourself a tennis kit. You will hear from us within a month.

This was how a typical interview for recruitment of assistant managers in tea companies would go those days. Family background was very important and so was one's personality. Academic achievements were not of much consequence. Arun Baruwa got his appointment letter exactly twenty-eight days after his interview. He recalled how he had bought himself a first-class railway ticket at Tinsukia on his way to the Goombira tea estate in the remote interior of Cachar district. The train arrived at Dullabchera station the next evening. Very few passengers either boarded or alighted from the train. The next morning, he landed up in the dusty and noisy bus station. There he chanced upon a puny, talkative fellow who turned out to be the banker of Goombira estate. It was a seemingly endless journey of seven miles. When he finally arrived at the garden, he was shown into the superintendent's bungalow-cum-office. Three gentlemen, one Indian and two Europeans, interviewed him and told him that he would hear from the Company within a month.

When Baruwa returned to the Goombira after a month, he was allotted a bungalow close to the factory since his initial posting was as the mistry saab or factory assistant. On his first day at work, he was shown around the factory and its functioning. In the evening, when the factory siren declared the close of the day-shift. After tea and a good bath, he sat down in a reclining chair and dozen off. Suddenly at the sound of a gong he woke up with a start. As he was wondering as to what it was, the gong was repeated quite close to his room. But out of sheer lethargy he ignored it. After a while, there was a knock on the door. It was his bearer, an old man. He almost chastised Baruwa and asked him the reason for not going to the dinner table. It was then he had realised that it had been the dinner gong. After dinner, Baruwa returned to his room and lay down. After sometime he heard another knock on the door. It was the bearer again with a glass of milk. He was quite vexed and asked the bearer not to disturb him again.

Hardly had he gone off to sleep, when there was a knock and this time Baruwa lost his temper. He jumped out of bed, opened the door and was about to shout at the bearer. But the cool authoritative voice of the old man stunned him: What do you think you are doing? This is no time to sleep. Get ready quickly and go to the factory before the burra saab arrives. A short while later, the burra saab arrived and went back without saying anything to the young factory assistant.

The wonderful performance of Julie Christie in a number of Hollywood blockbusters may still be fresh in the memory of many. But very few know that this one-time sensation of the film world was born in Upper Assam where her father was a tea planter. Her uncle Stewart Christie was also a tea planter who happened to be Baruwa's burra saab for sometime.

Baruwa, then a greenhorn in tea, was on field duty, learning the application of chemical fertilizer. As urea was not available in those days, the sulphate of ammonia was used for tea bushes. Burra saab Stewart Christie, who was on his usual daily round, suddenly arrived there. Suddenly he turned to Baruwa and asked him, What makes the tea grow?  Barua took time to understand what Christie was getting at. Then he hesitatingly answered, Fertilizers, I presume. Christie looked hard at him and asked him to take a walk down the row of young tea bushes where the SOA had just been applied. When he reached the end of the row, he was asked to turn around and walk along the other side of the row of plants. Now turn around and tell me what you see.   Baruwa turned around and could see nothing special except the footmarks left by his hunter boots. Christie said, Yes, remember it is those footprints which make the tea grow. An assistant manager in the field should be absolutely thorough in his supervision, a senior officer later explained.

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July 2001

Pearson & the Maneater of Majuligarh

by Robin Borthakur

Almost half-a-century ago, a BOAC Comet jet airliner crashed for the first time, killing all the passengers and crew aboard. The tragic news made headlines in all major newspapers of the world and created an unprecedented sensation. People expressed grave doubt about the safety of air travel. The news created quite a bit of stir in tea circles of Assam as well. Because, the entire Pearson family perished in the crash while on their way home on furlough.

Pearson was the manager of the Majuligarh tea estate in the present day Sonitpur district. He was a good planter and generally quite popular with his colleagues. But he was reputed to be cheeseparing and even his staff would take the mickey out of him behind his back.

In the late Fifties, the tea gardens had vast areas covered with jungle which was the home of a variety of wild animals. Tigers were a common phenomenon in the tea gardens on the North Bank, like Paneery, Mijikajan and Majuligarh. But generally, these big cats did not harm to human beings. They would prey on wild animals or those staying into the jungle. Only on very rare occasions, would they steal domestic animals from the villages or labour lines in the tea gardens. But if by chance a tiger got the taste of human blood, it would turn into a man-eater and would wreak generally when a tiger grew old or got injured and his movements became restricted that it would start looking for easy prey and turn a into man-eater.

Once when a Pearson was the manager of the Majuligarh Tea Estate, a man-eater suddenly unleashed a reign of terror in the garden. Apart from killing a large number of domestic animals, the tiger started showing its preference for human blood. Quite a few men, women and children from the garden and the neighbouring bustees got killed and the garden wore a deserted look even during the day-time. Work virtually came to a standstill. Nobody would venture out of his house after dusk and even during daylight hours, movement of men and women in the garden roads became a rare sight. Electricity being generated from the garden was confined to the factory and the bungalows of the managerial staff and the garden would turn into a ghastly place in the evenings.

The workers, if at all they came out for work, would come in large groups armed with staves, spears, bows and arrows and would stand in their pahis almost shoulder-to-shoulder.

After quickly and carelessly plucking some green leaves just to earn their wages, they would run at the earliest opportunity, sometimes even abandoning their baskets and topas. There were reports of workers being lifted by the ferocious beast on their way home.

Naturally, work in the garden suffered greatly. The local management was pressurized by both the company head office and the workers to do something quickly. Pearson's friends and well-wishers advised him to declare a reward for killing the man-eater since that appeared to be the only solution. At last, Pearson was forced to declare a reward. But the amount he declared was so measly that nobody came forward to risk their lives.

Pearson had a personal bearer called Johan and he was very fond of this fellow. Johan knew every little detail about his burra saab and was the man Friday of his master. He virtually worshipped his master and Pearson was also quite partial towards him. One evening, on his way to his quarters, adjacent to the manager's bungalow compound, Johan disappeared without a trace. Initially, Pearson did not pay any heed, thinking perhaps he had fought with his wife and had gone to stay with a friend. But when Johan's wife came running to him the next day and started howling about a trail of blood leading into the nearby jungle near their house, Pearson realized the gravity of the situation. Much against his will, he increased the amount of the reward to Rs 1,000 and gave it wide publicity.

Douglas Meston was then the manager of Borpookri Tea Estate which was not very far from Majuligarh. He was a fine marksman and had already earned a reputation of being a good hunter by shooting several ferocious man-eaters. When Meston heard about this man-eater and the reward, he decided to try his luck. After all, one thousand chips was a tidy sum those days!

Armed with his favourite Winchester fully loaded and packing his hunting kit, Meston set out on his mission to Majuligarh. With his years of experience and expertise in shooting man-eaters, he did not have much difficulty in tracking down his quarry and shooting it with one single bullet.

Once the news of the killing of the man-eater reached the labour lines, the workers and their families were jubilant and even the villagers around the garden were on cloud nine. Pearson himself heaved a sigh of relief when he cast his eyes on the lifeless carcass of the tiger. And yet, when Meston claimed his reward, Pearson refused to pay. He took the plea that there was no evidence that the tiger killed was the same man-eater which had terrorized his garden!

Meston got terribly angry. But nevertheless, he kept his cool. He arranged to have the tummy of the dead animal opened in full view of the inquisitive by standers, including Pearson, and out came undigested parts of the human anatomy like fingers and toes with silver rings intact.

Everybody recognized the rings worn by Johan and no one was in doubt anymore about the fate of the faithful lackey of Pearson who had disappeared a couple of days ago.

Pearson was at last left with no option apart from parting with the money promised and Meston was richer by a thousand pieces of silver

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         By Robin Borthakur

But what about the likes of William Singh?" ejaculated Wazir Khan, a warhorse in tea who has become sort of legend in his lifetime. He indignantly pointed and accusing finger at this writer, "You seem to have completely ignored the brave acts of many in tea during that period of crisis."

The context was the Chinese aggression of 1962 which happened to be the theme of this column last fortnight. I had to admit that there was a lapse on my part. But I explained that the intention of the piece was to throw light on the sacrifices of our valorous soldiers who, despite being handicapped by lack of resources, fought with hardihood unparalleled in the recent history of wars; to remember cannon fodder like Jaswant Singh who, despite grievous injuries had plugged away single handedly for quite long with his light machine gun (LMG) spitting out fury at a whole army of advancing Chinese till at last he ran out of ammunition and the enemy took a pot-shot at him. Jaswantgarh in Arunachal Pradesh still stands as a grim reminder of treachery of our neighbours and bravery of our heroes. 

It was also intended to recall the untold misery suffered by the civilian population, including those in the tea industry of Assam. As the foreign nationals were being repatriated from Assam in the unexpected turn of events, many of them refused to meekly desert their place of work and to fly to a safe haven, leaving their staff and the labour behind. One such person was Peter Armstead, manager of Teen Ali tea estate near Naharkatia in Upper Assam. Communication network having virtually broken down in the face of the skirmishes on the Sin-Indian border, with the situation having turned to a full scale aggression, word-of-mouth was the main vehicle of news, which traveled fast but got distorted on the way - making confusion worse confounded.

The expatriate planters were mostly leaving with their families, handling over charge of their gardens to their Indian assistants or to the members of the staff. For the Naharkatia and Moran planters, chartered flights were arranged from the airstrip at Doomur Dullung tea estate. P.N. "Bugs" Bhagwati, an assistant at Tinkong tea estate, recalls that he got 16 bunches of keys from the managers of various gardens left in his charge. His own manager, who was in charge of the repatriation, told Bugs to go and inform Armstead that he should also come to the airstrip. But when he heard this, Armstead was outraged. He said that he would never leave his workers and the staff behind and go away. If at all, he would love die with them.

Our assurance to highlight the above incidents seemingly satisfied Wazir Khan. He is a handsome person and despite his age, is a romantic at heart. I, therefore, requested him for a romantic story of his own life. Khan smiled sheepishly and recited from Daag:  

"Dohrayee jaa sakegi na ab


Kuch who kahin sey bhool gaye

kuch kahin sey hum

(The tales of love cannot be repeated now, 

she has somehow forgotten a part of it, 

'so have I another part)."    The sky was clear again.  

Wazir Khan's William Singh was, however, not a Sikh gentleman as one may presume. He was actually Maj. Patrick Hay Williamson MC, and the last in the bloodline of a pionerr in tea and founder of Williamson Magor & Company, George Williamson. Pat Williamson was the Calcutta based director of the company. He served the British Indian Army during the War in the Sikh Regiment and, consequently came to be known as William Singh. Pat Williamson was a bachelor, but that did not stand in the way of his having a Miss World of the Sixties as his guest in his yacht Merry Dancer for two days. In November 1962, when most of their company gardens were deserted by managerial personnel, Pat Williamson flew in to Pertapghur tea estate in a private aircraft from Calcutta with all the money for payment to the staff and the labour. R.R.L. Pennel, the superintendent of Bishnauth Tea Company, who was also the Chairman of Assam Branch Indian Tea Association in 1960-61, had also stayed back in the garden both of them moved from garden to garden distributing the money.  

Ivan Surita, elder brother of the well-known cricket commentator Peasron Surita, was also in the army during World War II. He was a close friend of Pat Williamson. In course of the War, during the famous Cassino Campaign in Italy, Surita's regimentalso had participated. As the battle was at its peak, a machine gun bullet hit Surita in his stomach and although it narrowly missing his spine, busted his stomach open. Everything that he had eaten for lunch came out. He was, however, fortunate that prompt treatment saved his life. He was also decorated with Military Cross (MC) for his bravery.During the Sixties, Ivan Surita was the commissioner of North Bengal. Following the 1962 debacle, the Centre and all state governments took various measures to tackle emergencies. Training courses in rifle shooting, civil defence and first aid, etc. were introduced in the schools, colleges, offices and institutions, including tea gardens. The state administration regularly monitored these activities. Ivan Surita, in his capacity as commissioner, North Bengal, sent out letters, among others, to the tea garden managers to comply with the government orders and to report various civil defence and other training undertaken in the tea gardens. Donald Mackenzie was then the manager of Bagracote tea estate in the Dooars. He had an impressive physique - tall and hefty, and was generally called "Big Mac". In response to the Commissioner's circular, he made out a compliance report giving the details of the civil defence and other measures undertaken in his garden to enable his staff and workers to facepossible threats from across the border. At the end of the report he gingerly added,  "And as a measure of abundant precaution, the Chinese variety of tea has also  been uprooted!"  

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December 31st 2001


By : Robin Borthakur

The Chinese aggression of 1962 was a nightmarish experience for the people in the north bank of the Brahmaputra and it was a particularly hellish time for the people of Tezpur, a sleepy little town those days. Following the escape of the Dalai Lama from Tibet into India through Tezpur, the Chinese army suddenly invaded India in total betrayal of the friendship with this country.

After having overrun the present day Kameng district in Arunachal Pradesh, they marched downhill towards Tezpur. The Indian army was caught napping and hundreds of dauntless, but totally unprepared and ill-equipped soldiers foughtwith unmatched gallantry and laid down their lives for the sake of the country. It was in memory of the heroic warriors that poet Pradeep wrote his memorable Ei mere watan ke logon, zara aakh mein bhar lo paani, so beautifully sung by melody queen Lata Mangeshkar, which brought tears to the eyes of the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. To commemorate their exemplary courage and supreme sacrifice, the Indian army built a grand memorial at Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh.

As the news of the fall of Bomdila and the advance of the Chinese forces reached Tezpur there was utter chaos and confusion in the middle of which the town was ordered to be evacuated. Crores of rupees worth of currency notes were burnt and sackfuls of coins were dumped into the lakes. Vital installations like the electric supply station were on the verge of being blown up and Tezpur turned into a ghost town as the residents young and old, women and children, abandoned their homes and were forced to take shelter on the banks of the Brahmaputra under the open sky. Assam was virtually taken for lost which prompted Nehru to utter those oft-quoted and more frequently misquoted words, "My heart goes out with the people of Assam".  

Most tea planters those days were either English or Scottish. The foreigners were ordered to repatriate in the wake of the Chinese aggression. Consequently the European planters on the north bank handed over the properties of their Indian assistants or the clerical staff, gave away or shot dead their pet animals, stuffed their belongings into one or two suitcases and left the gardens with their families and boarded chartered flights for Calcutta. There was widespread panic among the staff and the workers, too. It was during those days that the legendary trade union leader of Assam, Mahendra Nath Sarma, along with a handful of his companions moved from the garden to garden on the north bank providing moral support to the staff and the workers.

The situation was only marginally better on the south bank gardens. The Nowgong Circle gardens, just across the river from Tezpur, also experienced a panic situation. Every evening the planters would assemble in the Misa Planters' Club and discuss their course of action. Their only source of information was the news over the radio. Everyday someone would go to Nowgong, while another would go to Silghat to gather information from people crossing over from Tezpur by ferry. Lack of adequate information made the situation even worse. But then, a small squadron of the Indian Air Force moved into Misa and took over the Club building and there was no meeting place left for the planters. It was the last straw on the camel's back. They all decided to leave the gardens and to move to Calcutta.

Readers of this column would remember Bob Grierson, manager of Salonah Tea Estate, then owned by Macneil and Barry and Tapan Barua, who had joined him recently as an assistant. His father had bought Barua a Fiat 1100 car. One evening Grierson came to Barua's bungalow and asked whether they could go to Guwahati by his car. Barry agreed and it was decided to leave early the next morning.

Mrs Grierson, who had a fracture and had one of her arms in a sling, hurriedly packed their stuff in a single suitcase and husband and wife along with their pet German Spitz got into Barua's car. They met some other planters and their families at Jagiroad where they had stopped for tea and when they all reached Jorabat, they got a message that they should go straight to Guwahati airport where the Joint Steamer Company had made all arrangements for them to move to Calcutta. At the airport they found everything  organized by Harry Beattie of the Joint Steamer Company who was in charge of planters' repatriation. Frequent chartered flights had been arranged to cope with the emergency. Women and children were to be evacuated first. As they were boarding the flights, many children were seen refusing to go leaving the father behind.

Readers of this column would remember Bob Grierson, manager of Salonah Tea Estate, then owned by Macneil and Barry and Tapan Barua, who had joined him recently as an assistant. His father had bought Barua a Fiat 1100

However, the operation went off smoothly and eventually everybody could go. 

Harry Beattie, who was in charge of the operation, was made an MBE by the Queen of England by way of commendation for his exemplary services

Tapan Barua immediately returned to the garden. The company had earlier made a contingency plan that in case there was any possibility of the property falling into the hands of the aggressors, the factory would be blown up. Fortunately, however, there was no such eventuality

On his return to the garden Barua found that there were only three other planters in the neighbouring gardens - Bijay (Bhaiti) Bhuyan, Harish Medhi and Arun Baruwa. Since it was cold weather and plucking season in the gardens was over there was not much work for them. So for the next few days all four of them moved around the neighbouring villages reassuring people that there was no reason for them to panic. This greatly helped the villagers to muster courage and to go about their daily business.

The Misa Planters' Club having been taken over by the air force, the four friends shifted the club bar to Amluckie Tea Estate where they would spend the evenings analyzing all the stories they heard from the passengers crossing over from Tezpur and whatever they heard over the radio.

Meanwhile, the Chinese army which had continued its advance and had reached the foothills of the erstwhile NEFA, precariously close to Tezpur town, suddenly stopped the advance march, declared a unilateral ceasefire and went back. On receipt of the information regarding the ceasefire, the expatriate planters and  their families who were preparing to fly back to their respective homes, changed their programmes and returned to Assam. Within just three days Bob Grierson and his compatriots were also back in the garden. And, thereafter, it was business as usual.

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By: Robin Borthakur

It was a sultry morning in June, 1961. the Jam Air Dakota softly touched down at the grassy airstrip of Misa Planters' Club. Jam Air, successor airline of Sky Players, was originally owned by an Armenian called Popovitch. The successor company was started by the Jam Saheb of Jamnagar and J.B. Muff, an American World War II veteran, who flew Douglas DC3 aircrafts on supply sorties during the war from Dinjan in Upper Assam to China across the "hump".  

Flights of Jam Air and Assam Travels used to land in the Misa airstrip on alternate days carrying provisions, including cold stores for tea planters from the famous Great Eastern Stores in Calcutta. As a matter of fact, except for minor groceries and fresh vegetables, everything of daily use including Firpo's cakes and Dehra Doon basmati used to arrive by these flights.

Soon after the flight landed, a young, passenger climbed down the boarding ramp and stepped on the grass. He was feeling somewhat giddy because of the rather long flight from Calcutta in a non-pressurized aircraft. But as soon as he was out in the open he was greeted by a gust of refreshing breeze. He had come straight out of his interview in Calcutta to join Salonah tea estate as covenanted staff. He was still wondering if he had taken the right decision by giving up the cushy government job, which was equivalent to the rank of the present-day block development officer (BDO), and entering the unfamiliar world of tea.  

He vaguely looked up and down the airstrip,half-expecting someone from the garden to receive him. Just then he saw a young Englishman in shorts, half sleeve shirt and hunter boots coming towards him.

"I am Hay, Alex Hay, factory assistant, Salonah," said the young Briton cheerfully,  offering him his hand. "I presume you are the new assistant for Saonah?"  

"Yes, indeed I am," said the young man greatly relieved. "My name is Tapan Barua."

Following the brief introduction, Barua retrieved his baggage from the airline staff and accompanied Hay to the garden in the jeep he had brought. He was taken straight to garden manager Robert Grierson whose imposing personality made an immediate impact on Barua. Hay had already told him that Grierson was the undisputed monarch of the entire area, feared and respected by all. He was better known by his nickname Lion in the tea circle.

Apart from his six-feet-four-inches frame and handsome features, his deep baritone would inspire awe among his assistants, staff and the labourers. "Are you an engineer?" asked Grierson, casting a piercing look at Barua. "No Sir, I am not. I was doing an administrative job with the government."

"Have you seen a tea garden before?"

"Yes I have, but only from outside."

"God save the Queen!" interjected the old man, "I had asked for an experienced  engineer for the factory and they have sent this greenhorn!" The snide remark was not lost on Barua.

"Anyway, you will work in the factory. Hay will explain everything to you," with an impatient wave of his hand, the meeting was dismissed. Barua's life in tea began.

The first few days in the garden he took to acquaint himself with his duties in the factory.  Besides, he also learnt the various customs or dastoors prevalent in the garden. Grierson,  a very hard and sincere worker himself, was a tough taskmaster. It was almost impossible to keep pace with him. He would put on his shoes at five in the morning, go out for work and take off the shoes only in the evening after returning from work. He was also a sports enthusiast and Tapan Barua being a good sportsman, was among his favourites. Although his initial reception on his arrival at the garden was somewhat chagrined, Barua soon discovered that Grierson was in fact, a very nice and sympathetic person with a rough exterior. After working hours, he was quite friendly with his assistants.In Misa Planters' Club, of which he was president, he encouraged them to participate in sports and even wouldn't mind a light-hearted banter. But while at work, he was a strict disciplinarian. As manager of the garden, he was almost omniscient and omnipresent for  nothing that happened in the garden ever escaped his notice. His method of maintaining discipline was simple but very effective.  

There was once rampant theft of tea from the factory and the management did not have a clue as to how the tea was being pilfered.  

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By: Robin Borthakur

Almost all tea factories in the Sixties used coal for drying tea. While manufacturing the stokers put coal into the dryers and kept a watch on the temperature. They had the easiest access to made-tea at the dryer-mouth. But nobody was able to spot any of them pinching tea.  

That day, Tapan Barua was standing outside the Salonah factory gate spying on the workers going back home after their shifts, some carrying empty aluminum cans like the ones used by the milkmen, in which they carried tea liquor for drinking during duty hours. The empty cans, loosely hanging in their hands, were swinging and making a clatter.  Suddenly, the burra saab appeared from nowhere, swooped on one of the stokers, snatched away his can and slapped him hard across his face. He then emptied the can in the presence of everybody and inside was about a kilogram of freshly made tea. He pulled up Barua for allowing such theft in front of his eyes.  

Barua who was quite flabbergasted wondered how this could be detected. He later learnt that the manager, Robert Grierson, had a pair of binoculars with which watched everything-unseen by others. That day, he had noticed that while the empty cans of the workers were swinging backward and forward, the can carried by one of the workers was not swinging. Obviously, it contained something and what could it be but fresh tea from the factory! This Holmsain act of Grierson elevated him in Barua's esteem.Saturday was generally the club evening in all the planters' clubs. Misa Planters' Club was no exception. Attendance in the club was compulsory and that, too, in formal lounge suit in winter and collar and tie in summer. After about a week of his joining Salonah, Barua went to attend the club. Since he did not have his own vehicle, he got a lift from Alex Hay.  Barua was a teetotaller while his companion was a hard drinker. Sunday was a working day for the factory and they would have to start the factory at six in the morning. But Hay continued drinking till the small hours of the morning and since Barua had to take a lift with him, he had no alternative but to keep company with orange squash. Finally, they left the club at two and Barua had his full meal and went to bed. Consequently he could not get up on time.  

When he reached th factory gate, he was late by ten minutes and all the factory workers were waiting or were made to wait. Grierson, who was stickler for time, was sitting right across the gate. Barua confessed what had actually happened the previous night and the manager gave him a good dressing down. He asked Barua if he realised how much the company had lost in terms of production and wages for so many workers for the period of delay. Barua was very upset, went into his office and wrote a letter of resignation.

Meanwhile, Hay arrived at the factory and received a mouthful from the old man. Grierson then came to the factory office and asked Barua what he was writing. He took the piece of paper from the young man and when he saw that it was a resignation letter; he thought for a while and said placidly, "Well, if you want to resign, I can't stop you. I can accept your resignation right away. It doesn't even have to go to the company.  "But I suggest you take your time to think. You are just a week old with the company and you don't even know the industry functions. You see, I came here 36 years ago as a 19-year-old boy all the way from England, my home, 10,000 miles away. After a long sea voyage, I took a train from Calcutta and after several trans-shipments finally reached by a narrow gauge train the small and obscure railway station of Salonah.  "I was a total stranger in an alien land with absolutely no knowledge of the languages or culture. There was no one at the station to receive me. I managed to find my way to the garden. On my arrival, the manager did not even bother to ask me about my strenuous journey but threw a bunch of keys at me and told me to start work in the factory.  "You on the other hand, are a local man, your home being just a hundred miles away. You came by an aeroplane and someone received you on your arrival. Any way, don't take a hasty decision. There are a few Indian assistants around in the neighbouring gardens including one in Salonah itself. Talk to them before you finally decide". And Grierson was gone. Barua felt ashamed of himself. He tore off his resignation letter and threw it into the trash bin.  

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September 2001


By: Robin Borthakur

The guest column in the September 11 edition of northeast - "Sacrificial Lamb" by Abhik Gupta - was indeed thought-provoking. It is a fact that vast stretches of forest  land in the Barak Valley were once leased out to tea gardens, but the process of opening new gardens stopped many years ago, while indiscriminate denudation of forest areas continued unabated over the years, throwing bio-diversity to the winds.

The tea gardens at least partly preserve forests and add to the greenery in the form of tea bushes, shade trees and fuel plantations, but illegal feeling by the timber mafiosi, with the connivance of those responsible for protection of forests, is a said commentary on our system.

Four months after my joining the Indian Tea Association as an assistant labour adviser, I was sent as locum to the Surma Valley Branch of the Indian Tea Association (SVBITA) in Silchar for six weeks. Several such short postings to Cachar followed over the next few years, and I struck a rapport with quite a few Cachar based planters. During one such stint, I was sitting in my office one morning when I suddenly saw the tall and wiry figure of P.V. Wallerstein, manager of Coombergram tea estate and a past chairman of the SVBITA, almost framed against the door of my office chamber. He had a white shirt on with a pair of khaki shorts loosely hanging on his frail body. His fair hair was disheveled, the blue eyes were full of anxiety and his otherwise ruddy cheeks looked pallid with concern. Peter was otherwise a regular visitor to my office and would be there in Silchar every day. When I once asked him how he could afford to leave the garden and come to town everyday, he smiled indulgently and said that as long as his staff and workers knew that he was in the district, the garden would continue to run smoothly, and so it did.

But that day, he looked different, and I asked him what the matter was. He took time to settle down on a chair and breathe normally. Then he told me how valuable timber was being removed from the forests and smuggled out of the district right in front of the authorities. He insisted that we must do something to prevent this. He called me to the Happy Valley Club the next day, and sitting on the verandah of the club, we could see rows of timber-laden trucks moving along the highway.  

The following day, we prepared a representation and both Peter and I met the divisional forest officer (DFO). We explained to him how the timber mafiosi was denuding the state's resources and causing irreparable damage to the environment. The DFO did us the favour of going through our representation. But he pleaded helplessness, saying those forests were located near the border with Mizoram and were the preserve of Mizo insurgents (Mizoram was a troubled area those days). When we asked why the people who were transporting logs in trucks could not be punished, there was no response, and we returned disappointed.  

Several tea gardens, particularly in Upper Assam, are known to have prevented illegal feeling and transportation of timber through garden roads. Here is a story of a tea garden manager stopping vehicles carrying timber (whether felled legally or illegally is not known) through a garden road. This is, however, in a totally different context. It was sometime in the late fifties or early sixties of the last century. This garden, located by the side of the national highway in Upper Assam, was adjacent to a forest reserve and contractors used to take their timber-laden trucks through a private road passing by the manager's bungalow. The rattling sound of the ramshackle trucks and screeching of brakes often disturbed the burra saab's siesta. One day, the manager (let's call him George Osborne) ordered his chowkidar to close the garden gate and stop any lorry passing by his bungalow at siesta time. The chowkidar complied with the order and closed the gate before the next lorry passed by. When Osborne got up and sat down on the verandah, the lorrywallahs came running to him and profusely apologized and requested that the truck be allowed to cross the gate. They promised that they would never ply their trucks during his siesta time. However, the burra saab refused to listen and asked them to get lost.

In the evening, as Osborne was having his tea after returning from the garden, the lorrywallahs showed up again, this time with a couple  of bottles wrapped in old newspapers. They again started pleading  with him. Osborne, after some initial hesitation, looked at the bottles wrapped in newspapers from the corner of his eyes and relented. He warned them not to do it again in future and ordered the chowkidar to open the gate for the truck to go. It was a winter evening. Osborne asked the bearer to light a fire in the fireplace. He then had his bath, sat down comfortable near the fireplace and asked for a glass and some soda. His face lit up with anticipation as he asked the bearer to open a bottle, which he had expected to be good Scotch whisky. The bearer unwrapped the newspaper and lo and behold, there was bottle of tomato ketchup! The bearer then unwrapped the other bottle, too, and the contents turned out to be no different.  

The lorrywallahs had apparently gone to the nearest township, which was not much of a place those days, and asked the owner of the biggest store selling fancy goods what was generally popular with the saablog. Unlike today, there were no wine shops in the small townships those days, and the shopkeeper could think of only the tomato ketchup, which was mostly used by the tea planters. Hence, they bought a couple of bottles as gifts to please the manager and get their vehicle released!     

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Below we have an interesting story by Robin Borthakur which was shown in the Camellia magazine and we thank Ali Zaman for copying it for us all to enjoy  


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