Saroj Mehera

June 12 2012
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My experiences in Tea

James Finlay Company Managers at Tocklai 1950

Party at Anwar Minallah's B'Low
Saroj Mehera's Life Story



August 6 2012

We are privileged to have the autobiography of a very successful
Tea man, Saroj K Mehera, for the Koi Hai web site.

He started in the early 1950's as an Assistant Manager, then
moved to Manager  and thence to Kolkuta. Ultimately he was
overall boss of Tata Tea, concluding a career spanning 30 years
plus. His story provides an interesting perspective on the Tea
Industry in India.


                   MY EXPERIENCES IN TEA
                                   SAROJ K MEHERA

I started life in Tea in February 1949, in the employment of James
Finlay & Co., Limited, as an Assistant on Powai Tea Estate in Upper
Assam, armed with a B.Sc (Hons.) degree in Chemistry from Calcutta
University, acquired in 1948. Within days of my arrival, The Assam
Tribune carried a Letter To The Editor, signed by "One Who Knows"
complaining that a non-Assamese had been engaged as Assistant
Manager on a large British-owned tea estate in the Dibrugarh
district. I eventually discovered that the author was the schoolmaster
on the estate who was rabidly parochial. The fact that, apart from
Hindi, I could speak Bengali did not endear me to him, although it
was very useful with the labour, many of whom were settled
migrants or first-generation descendants of migrants, from the
Midnapore area and the tribal regions of West Bengal, also Oriyas
from the Orissa/West Bengal  border areas, all of whom spoke a
bastardised version of Bengali. There was also a large element
of labour on 3-year agreements, sponsored by the Tea Districts
Labour Association (TDLA), from Ranchi (Oraons and Mundas),
Orissa (Sowras and Sambalpuris), Telengana (Telengas) and even
from Bombay (Worlis). In labour parlance, they were known as
"Girmitias" (Girmit being a corruption of Agreement.).


The Manager, Graham Thomson, was a Scotsman from Edinburgh,
a married man, aged 53, who had served in the Royal Flying Corps
(the RAF's predecessor) in World War I, earning a DFC , proudly
displayed in a case in his bungalow drawing-room. There were two
other Assistants, both World War II veterans aged 30 and 29
respectively. The older was an Irishman from Ulster, "Paddy"
McLoughlin, who had been a rear-gunner in the RAF, the younger
a Scot from Glasgow, with an engineering background, Jack
Buchanan, who had served in Burma in the ranks of the British
army. His broad Glasgow accent totally foxed me initially and
his wife, Laura, also Glaswegian, but less broad, would translate
for me! Paddy and his wife, Winnie, a Scot from Aberdeen, took
me under their wing, for which I was most grateful, even though
on the very first evening at their bungalow, some days after
arrival, I got horribly drunk on brandy & soda! Being unable to
pronounce my first name, they decided to call me James!

I learnt that Thomson was called "Burra Sahib" while McLoughlin
and I were each called "Kamjari Sahib" and Buchanan, "Mistry
Sahib", since he was posted in the factory because of his engineering
experience. The labour would also refer to me as "Kala Sahib" and
I never really knew whether this was simply to differentiate me
from my white colleagues or was tinged with sarcasm inspired
by the schoolmaster. I was the sixth Indian to be taken on as
a "covenanted" tea garden assistant by my employers. My five
predecessors, whom, strangely, I did not meet until several years
later, had all served as officers in the Indian armed forces in World
War II and, thus, were older men than I.

I had a  "chung" bungalow to myself and having brought an old
family servant with me. I settled down fairly easily. The bathroom
in the bungalow had a washbasin and flush toilet but no shower or
proper bathtub; in lieu, Thomson had installed, for my use, a huge
wooden coffin-like contraption into which hot water, boiled in and
ferried from the outside kitchen, was filled by a minion called a
"paniwalla". I could have a long soak in it but occasionally had to
remove wooden splinters from
my bottom!

Powai is 4 miles from Digboi on one side and 6 miles from Margherita
on the other. Thomson and Buchanan had their own cars but until
I had a car brought up by river steamer from Calcutta,  McLoughlin
and I would use one of the estate lorries to go to the Digboi Club,
whose members were mainly from The Assam Oil Company, with a
sprinkling of tea planters. My sporting activities at the club consisted
of swimming, at which I was rather good and squash at which I wasn't.
Annual "Meets"
of various clubs in Upper Assam were great occasions
for sporting and social activities.    

On the garden, I would play soccer and hockey with the staff and
labour. Among the latter, the Oraons and Mundas played hockey in
the best traditions of their fellow tribal, Jaipal Singh, who had
represented India in the Olympics and later became an M.P. I was
able to put together an eleven which challenged the superiority of
a similarly constituted team from Pengaree T.E. in the Doom Dooma
area. Both our teams also played regularly in Digboi and Dibrugarh
against various non-tea local sides.

  I discovered that among my duties as the Kamjari Sahib was to act
both as a sort of marriage registrar and a divorce court for the labour!
Alliances and splits were faithfully recorded in a register, along with
details of dowry as well as alimony. To this day I have no idea of the
legality of these proceedings but they seemed to have had the sanction
of custom and usage.

The great earthquake of 15 August 1950 was something I will never
forget. I was reading a book in bed when at about 8-30 p.m, garden
time, there was an enormous jolt and, realising it was an earthquake,
I jumped out of bed and just got to the door. My "chung" bungalow,
because of its construction on iron stilts to withstand earthquakes
by swaying with the ground movement, was shaking alarmingly and
I was physically unable to move. I hung on to the door for dear life,
totally petrified, expecting the roof to come down on my head and
the floor to give way below me. Neither happened and the violent
shaking stopped after four-and-a half minutes (I know because I
looked at my watch). Amazingly nothing whatever broke and the
walls and ceiling seemed undamaged. I rushed downstairs out onto
the little lawn. The Buchanans came over and we sat outside swilling
stiff drinks until Thomson came over, complaining that his lights
had gone out!  There were cries of "Hari Bol" from the labour lines
but the line chowkidars came and reported that there had been no
damage; likewise, the factory chowkidars. After-shocks continued
throughout the night and for several days afterwards, with
diminishing intensity. But further disaster was to come to Assam,
its effects being felt to this day. The earthquake had caused enormous
landslides in the mountainous regions of what is now Arunachal
Pradesh, including one at a gorge in the North Lakhimpur area through
which the river Subansiri flowed, a natural dam being thereby formed.
The dam burst after six days and the resulting flood virtually
destroyed two of the Jokai Company's properties, Bordeobam T.E.
and Pathalipam T.E. Torrential monsoon rains now cascaded down
the heavily scarred mountainsides that had lost much of their
vegetation and the river Brahmaputra was swollen to proportions
never seen before. In the following year, during the monsoon, the
Brahmaputra changed course slightly and started eating into Dibrugarh
town and nearby areas, including some tea estates. I have stood
near the river bank and watched huge chunks of land disappearing
into the raging river before my eyes. Some expert opinion is that the
earthquake had raised the river bed, causing widespread flooding
annually during the monsoon months.

As the juniormost Assistant, it was my job to unload and store rice
for issue to the labour force at a concessional rate as part of its
emoluments. The rice would come to Powai station by goods train
and the railway wagon was then shunted to the estate's siding,
where it had to be unloaded promptly to avoid demurrage charges.
For some demonaic reason, the train almost always came on a
Sunday morning! Fortunately, there was a regular group of labourers,
under its ‘sirdar', and an estate lorry, all readily on call, but it still
meant two to three hours work on a holiday! It was, with great joy,
therefore, that I received the news from Thomson of the impending
arrival of a brand new Assistant and I was delighted to collect him
from Mohanbari airport in September 1950. This was Norman Frew.
On the drive back to Powai, he asked me to show him a banana plant.
Of course, there were hundreds! Bananas, which he loved, were scarce
in war-time Britain and he obviously hoped to now feast on them! 
Within days (if not hours), I gleefully handed over the rice job to Frew.

In 1951, the first lot of Tocklai clones were released and  a highly
sceptical Thomson, due to retire soon, would have nothing to do with
them and instructed me to plant them out as a Clonal Nucleus "Bari".
I was then sent on a week's course to Tocklai, where I listened, with
awe, to the highly knowledgeable scientists who staffed that institution.
It was during that week that a Dooars planter on the course taught me
how to do "The Statesman" crossword, a practice which I have followed
almost daily for over 50 years. Norman Frew also took to crosswords
and we would often jointly work on them. Norman Frew and I have
remained friends since then; alas he passed away in 2009, aged 80.

Another new recruit, while I was at Powai, was "Dhruba" Sengupta
(Senny) and Norman Frew happily handed over the rice chore to him.
  Senny and his motor-car, a Ford Prefect, coupled with his erratic
driving ability, gave his fellow Assistants much opportunity for taking
the mickey out of him! He backed his car into the fence at the Digboi
Club and we told him that the only way to extricate it was to
dismantle his rear bumper, which he did after an hour's toil! When
he complained that his shock-absorbers were defective, we filled
the boot with sandbags, without his knowledge, to have him
later that the car would hardly move! On the bridge over the river
Dehing, at Margherita,  Senny calmly drove over a drunk sleeping it
off, and then reversed over him on hearing his passenger's yell!
Fortunately the car had straddled the man who slept on, totally
oblivious to what had happened! 

Senny, too, has been an enduring friend. Sadly, he also passed away,
in 2008, aged 83.

Transferred to Kakajan T.E. at the end of 1952, the Manager,  J.A.G.
("Jock") Campbell, put me in charge of the furthest out-garden,
Debrapar, which, at one time, had a separate factory, the remains
of which lay scattered around. Road communications in that area
were ghastly. Debrapar was just off the Dhudor Alli, an unsurfaced
earth road which was all dust in the dry weather and a quagmire
during the rains. I had, by now, taken up tennis and played regularly
at the Mariani and Jorhat clubs, some 10 and 20 miles away respectively.

At the conclusion of another Tocklai course, some of the participants
from the Dooars paid a visit to a well-known brothel, called "Auntie's",
between Jorhat and Mariani and got caught in a late-night police raid
on the establishment. Asked for their names and addresses, false
identities were given, including that of the Director of Tocklai, after
which they were released!

In 1954, at the instance of Campbell, I was initiated into Freemasonry.
In 1955, I proceeded on 6 months overseas leave to which Indian
covenanted Assistants were entitled at that time. Along with a number
of other planters, I set sail from Bombay on the Anchor Line ship,
"Caledonia" for a delightful 21-day voyage to Liverpool. During the
customary call on the Company's head office in Glasgow, I requested
a transfer to the Calcutta office, having become somewhat jaded with
plantation life, and, to my pleasant surprise, I was granted this when
I reported back to Calcutta at the end of my leave. 

Tea Taster & Buyer.

James Finlay & Co., Limited, was a Sterling Company, with its
headquarters and board in Glasgow. All its overseas offices, like
Calcutta, were branches, the head of each being called The Senior.

I was put in the Tea Purchase Department, whose primary functions
were (a) to buy tea at the Calcutta and Cochin auctions for export
and (b) to export market those of the Finlay Group's own estate teas
not earmarked for the Calcutta, Cochin or London auctions; its secondary
function was to report on the estate teas. My boss was B.C. (Bert) Parker
and among fellow Assistants was Dev Mukerji, a very old friend and

I had done a certain amount of rudimentary tea tasting while in the
factory at Powai and, therefore, was familiar with the basics. Bert Parker,
who had a fine palate, despite being a heavy smoker like me, taught
me a great deal. He encouraged his inexperienced Assistants to taste
with him and made the others go it alone. All us Assistants were
allocated different overseas customers to service and, in the course
of time, were sent on tours for first-hand knowledge of our clients'
requirements. At times, these could seem quite different from one
end of the telescope to the other and I learnt how much difference
water could make to liquors, how much or how little leaf appearance
counted, how important leaf size was for a tea packet. I never quite
mastered the subtle nuances of first flush and second flush Darjeelings
that Parker was so good at recognising

I learnt how to read market trends when bidding at the auctions and
how to ensure that our known competitors did not get the better of us
- not always easy since they were doing exactly the same thing!

Buying rivalry was usually friendly but, occasionally, one had
bad-tempered tussles. In those days, the big buyers on the Calcutta
auctions were virtually all British companies - Brooke Bond, Lipton,
Harrisons & Crosfield, Jardine Henderson, Balmer Lawrie, James Finlay,
Lyons - though there were

also some specialist Iranian buyers of tea for their country. A
contemporary in Balmer Lawrie was the late Mumtaz Ahmad and, in
Liptons, there was the late Ranabir Mookerjee. Domestic demand for
tea had not yet overtaken exports in the 1950's and 1960's and was
largely in the loose tea sector,

controlled by a large number of so-called "bazaar buyers". Apart from
their export businesses, Brooke Bond and Lipton sold tea, mainly Dust
grades, in consumer packs in India and were the only major

players in this sector.  Buying for the Soviet Union had not assumed
the mammoth proportions it acquired in the next two decades, which
substantially altered India's tea export profile.

As a consequence of resignations, transfers and fresh recruitment
from the U.K. as well as India  - Rajen Khosla, who developed into
a skilled tea trader in later years, came to us almost straight out of
school - I soon acquired some seniority in the Department and was
sent off on a tour to Sudan, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and Iran which was
a most exciting and educational experience, prior to being posted
to Cochin to take charge of the office there which was part of the
Tea Purchase Department. While in Cochin, I was sent to Bangalore
to help in the selection of a site for a packet tea factory for Tata-Finlay,
a partnership company recently launched. The experience gained in
buying on the Cochin auctions stood me in good stead when I was
transferred back to Calcutta after 15 months, to take charge of the
Tea Purchase Department, everyone senior to me having left. I was
given the power of the Company's signature - "per pro:"- highly
valued at the time, and I was just 34.

Our principal customers in those days - the early 1960's - were
numerous tea packeters, large and small, in the U.K., Eire, West
Germany, Holland, the U.S.A., Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
I never made it to the antipodes, but called regularly on the others.
Today, very few of those individual companies exist, the smaller
fish having been gobbled up by the larger ones, who, in turn,
merged. Our Middle East business had been badly hit earlier by
political events - the Suez "crisis" in 1956; it was to suffer another
blow in 1967, as a consequence of the 6-day war between Israel
and Egypt, when Britain was blamed for supporting Israel. On a
Middle East tour, and a brief visit to Kenya, I was in Sudan when
the war broke out. I managed to get a booking on a B.O.A.C flight
to London but on arrival at Khartoum airport, found that the
incoming aircraft was circling above because of a severe sandstorm,
locally called a "habboub", blanketing the airstrip. Mercifully, it
cleared and I did not have to spend an indefinite enforced sojourn
in Khartoum. From London and a brief visit to Glasgow, I was sent
to Warsaw, Poland and, thence, to Moscow, the heart of the Soviet
Union, to look for business. I soon discovered that Soviet bureaucracy
was far more inefficient than our own Indian version, but outstandingly
prolific in the production of paperwork, whose purpose was unknown
  to anybody; innumerable forms had to be completed, only to be
shoved into an overflowing drawer by the recipient at the airport or
hotel! I was accomodated at the Gostinitsa Ostankino, a cross
between a boarding house and a third-rate hotel.  "Gostinitsa"
apparently meant guesthouse! One had to queue up before a
formidable Russian female, built on the lines of a wrestler, and
collect coupons for everything from a meal to a taxi or a haircut
("two for the sides and one for the back" quipped a bored Englishman
in the queue ahead of me!). Onwards to Teheran and Kabul and
then home, with very little to show for it.

James Finlay's principal business in Calcutta, through the Tea
General Department, was that of Agents for the group's seven tea
companies with estates in Assam, West Bengal, Kerala and Tamil
Nadu, though the South Indian estates had a certain degree of
administrative autonomy under an office in Munnar. Tea General
had its own subsidiaries called Tea Stores and Tea Shipping.
There was a Jute Department, which ran two mills, a Gunny export
department, an Import & Agencies Department, whose main
business then was importing paper products and plywood from
Finland, a Steamer Department which ran the agency for two large
shipping lines, one British, the other Japanese, and the Finance
Department, including Tea Accounts, which held the purse strings.
Until 1966, when devaluation of the Indian Rupee resulted in an
exodus of expatriates, Finlay's  covenanted staff had a large
number of Europeans of all ages (and sizes!) and a lesser number
of Indians. Except for overseas allowances, there was no discrimination
in the office or the estates. S.B. Dutt, Biren Gupta, "Latu" Sircar,
all now dead, were among the Managers. Dev Mukerji, Subir Das,
the late "Mitu" Dasgupta and I, all old childhood friends, were
among the Assistants, who worked hard and played hard. All four
of us got married in Calcutta in the 1950's. We got on well with
our expatriate colleagues and their wives and were hardly bothered
because certain clubs did not admit Indian members. Bachelors,
especially the Europeans, lived together in "chummeries" where
entertainment could be wild.

Life was leisurely at our social level, Firpo's, The 300 Club, Prince's
and Maxim's were going strong, as were establishments like The
Golden Slipper, Isaiah's, Olympia and the newly-opened Mocambo.
Horse-racing attracted some, as punters or owners. Dinner jackets
were the norm for all evening parties, including those on board
ships (very popular these were), except on Sundays when a lounge
suit was worn for the 6 p.m. cinema show at the Metro, Lighthouse
or New Empire, followed by supper.


Like all British agency houses of the time, Finlay's business carried on
as in the days of the Raj until it was jolted out of its lethargy by
Alister Ian Murison, head of the Jute Department, promoted to "Burra Sahib"
in early 1960. His first target was the antiquated single-entry accounting
system under which 
It was impossible to know until many months
later whether a Department or the Branch itself was running at a profit
or a loss and corrective action was impossible in the latter case. He
then took an axe to the clerical and subordinate staff strength which
he cut from 500 plus to a target of 120 in a few months by a system
of voluntary retirement, probably the first in Calcutta, on terms which
were generous for the time. He decreed each Department's strength
of such staff, with enforced transfers, hacked overtime, mechanised
all accounting and reporting systems; those left over who did not opt
for voluntary retirement were made to sit in chairs outside their
departments, drawing their salaries, until boredom and eventual
greed for the V.R.S. drove them out. Murison was equally ruthless
with both European and Indian covenanted staff, regardless of seniority,
and dragooned almost a dozen into resignation. Having cleaned up
the mess in Calcutta, the board sent Murison to Bangalore in 1964,
to take over a floundering infant Tata-Finlay Limited. In a very short
time, Murison advised his superiors that Tata-Finlay in its current
form could not survive, should be wound up, and re-started. The
advice was unpopular because the "izzat" of both Finlay's and Tata's
was at stake and Murison had to retire. He was proved right because
Tata-Finlay continued limping until 1977 when it was reconstituted.

Readers may well ask why I have gone into such detail about Murison.
The answer is that had it not been for his onslaughts, there would have
been no Finlay's in Calcutta, no Tata-Finlay and no Tata Tea - today's
blue-chip company. Murison was charming until aroused to some fury
when he was rude, abusive and intolerant. Those of us who survived,
bore him with a mixture of fear, despair, stoicism and the belief that
we would outlast him.

During the brief India-China war in 1962, I volunteered for military
service but at age 34, I was acceptable only for the Territorial Army.
Passed as A1 fit, my application was eventually rejected because it
was supported by my university certificate only and no school certificate.
I explained in vain to the authorities that I could not have gone to
university unless I possessed a school certificate, which I had mislaid.
Indian "babuism" prevailed over a national emergency! The war
meantime ended.

Further resignations/retirals resulted in my being appointed head of
the Tea General Department in 1968, marking my entry into the world
of administration.

On the personal front, in the previous 12 years as an "office-wallah",
I had met, wooed and married Minnie (Savita), fathered two sons,
lost the younger, run over at the age of 15 months, but was blessed
with another son the following year.


During the previous five years or so, the Tea General Department had
become a sort of post office, receiving orders from Glasgow and forwarding
them without comment to the estates, whose managers, in turn,
implemented them  without question, for fear of being slapped down
by the V.A. My determination to end this sterile practice and to provide
a strong measure of leadership was bolstered by exhortations from the
Directors in Glasgow for what they described as "original thinking".
Accepting the challenge, I took the bit between my teeth and toured
the estates and called for the same "original thinking" from managers.
I had an ally in the Assistant V.A., Narinder (Nandi) Dass, who had
been my classmate at Doon.  Sadly, he collapsed and died while
playing golf at the Tollygunge Club in
September 1968.

He was replaced by R.N. (Ruby) Deogun, who was the Manufacture
Adviser in Assam and I found he shared my views. Meanwhile, there
was a change of guard at the Visiting 
Director level in Glasgow,
when Hugh Ferguson, a former Director of Tocklai, was appointed. 
The Calcutta V.A. was transferred to Glasgow and Ruby succeeded him.
We went to town on both field and factory practices, some of which
were sacred cows. The Soviet Union's tea buying was gaining
and its preference for Orthodox tea spurred us into buying every rolling
table available, new or old, and discarding rotorvanes, which though
useful in CTC manufacture, only produced a so-called Orthodox tea
which was really neither fish nor fowl. 

In 1969, we had the disastrous 16-day strike at all tea gardens in
West Bengal and I saw the enormity of the mutual distrust between
tea-garden owners and the trade unions, unabated to this day,
witness the 14-day strike, in July 2005. As an aside, an eminent
Jalpaiguri lawyer, the late Rai Bahadur Bipul Banerjee, had insisted,
as a matter of abundant caution, that "garden" should replace "estate"
to avoid coming under the West Bengal Estates Abolition Act 1953,
legislation which was actually aimed at zamindaris established under
the Raj's Permanent Settlement. The strike also brought home to me
the disunity in the Tea Industry, which was exploited by the unions
and the Central and State governments of the day. The 1969 strike
was the result of some garden owners employing "permanent
temporary casual labourers", violating the spirit if not the law behind
the use of casual workers. The settlement involved an all-round
increase in permanent labour forces and a man-for-man replacement
in cases of retiral and death. Needless to say, the unions in Assam
demanded, and got, the same facilities. To this day, therefore, no
V.R.S. scheme can be introduced in North India, unlike South India.

In 1971, I became Chairman of the Indian Tea Association (ITA) and,
concurrently, that of the Consultative Committee of Plantation Associations
(CCPA). The latter is an apex body of the various tea associations
in North and South India. I soon discovered that, not only did each
association have its own furrow to plough, but some were not averse
to going behind the scenes to Government and painting themselves
as patriotic as opposed to the "anti-national"  Sterling companies;
this disease afflicted even some members of the ITA. No wonder a
cynical member said to me "divided we stand, united we fall". In
those days, there existed an ITA (London) which was incorrectly
perceived by officialdom as the real power but was exploited by a
trade union which had locked up large quantities of ITA members'
tea in the so-called Public Tea Warehouses. Adding to members'
woes was the Pakistan Government's clampdown on its eastern wing,
leaving many tons of Indian tea stranded on river steamers and their
barges plying between Assam and Calcutta via East Pakistan. Sterling
companies in East Pakistan evacuated their management staff in
the middle of the year, partly by air and partly overland. During
these stirring times, there was a very heavy influx of refugees
from across the border and increased tension between India and
Pakistan, culminating in war and the formation of Bangladesh.

The Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations had
a Tea Committee of which the governments of tea-producing nations
were members. Delegations to its deliberations were led by
bureaucrats but Tea Industry representatives were included in an
advisory capacity. Here, too, some constituents of the CCPA flaunted
their "patriotism" and prevailed upon the Government of India to
include them in the delegations. These meetings were usually held in
Rome, the headquarters of  FAO,
but achieved very little, in their
avowed purpose of increasing world tea consumption, because of
wrangling between countries over individual export abilities. A number
of countries with substantial tea production like China, Japan and
Turkey were unrepresented at the meetings, probably because their
domestic consumption took precedence over exports. In later years,
when I did another stint as ITA Chairman in 1982, the United Nations
Conference on Trade & Development (UNCTAD), conducted the meetings,
in Rome, and small players like Argentina, Ecuador and Nepal attended,
seeking a place in the export sun. Still later, the International Tea
Promotion Association (ITPA) was formed, located in Rotterdam, where
disagreement continued over generic as opposed to uninational promotion.

In 1972, I became the "Burra Sahib" of James Finlay & Co,. Limited,
Calcutta. It sounded very grand but I had no illusions about the future,
which was not propitious for foreign companies, who were periodically
lambasted and threatened by politicians, bureaucrats, and their
businessmen toadies, known as "chamchas" (literally, spoons). Life
was made rather difficult by brazen, extortionist demands for
political funding by these creatures and their principals which
reached their zenith in the infamous Emergency proclaimed in
June 1975. Sadly, few, if any, of us had the courage of the late
Cushrow Irani of "The Statesman" not to be intimidated.

As Chairman of the Tea Research Association (TRA) in 1972 and
1973, I came across the problem that  bedevils that body even
now - non-payment of subscriptions by members. These same
members expected V.A. services from the TRA which, in my
opinion, is not its function.

In order to encourage greater understanding between the Tea
Industry and Government and develop synergy between them
for the national good, the CCPA fostered seminars in New Delhi
in 1974, 1981 and 1984.  At the first one, I arranged for
attendance by some of our garden managers, to the horror of my
bosses in Glasgow who held the antiquated and blinkered view
that planters had no role outside the estate! The 1984 seminar
was attended by several overseas tea buyers and was held
against the backdrop of the revenue authorities' accusations
against tea producers for under-invoicing sales outside the
auction system.

The Foreign Exchange Regulation Act (FERA) 1973 brought about
a sea change in the Tea Industry in that all Sterling companies
had to convert themselves into Rupee companies with a maximum
foreign holding. Tata-Finlay Limited, mentioned earlier, was
still struggling, as a tea-packeter and a producer of instant tea but,
with the assistance of the merchant banking division of a prominent
Indian financial institution, it was reconstituted by taking in the
entire Indian business of James Finlay and its Sterling tea companies.
It was an exciting and very interesting time for me, being heavily
involved in the complicated process, culminating in a large public
issue of shares in 1977. I had to metamorphose from the chief
executive of a branch to the managing director of a major public
limited company, with interests, mainly tea, spread all over India.
The relatively easy life in a British agency house was gone for ever.
My work became less specifically tea-oriented and my fiducial
responsibilities came to the fore. My advancement in the Indian
corporate world received recognition in my election as President of
The Bengal Chamber of Commerce & Industry (BCCI) for 1979-80.

Morarji Desai's government brought in a ceiling of Rs.5,000/- per
month in salaries for whole-time directors of public limited
companies. There were three of us on the Tata-Finlay board in
1979 who were affected and we had the choice of accepting a
cut or resigning. Quite rightly, the board did not wish to follow
the practice of several companies which compensated their
people by dubious means and, since the ceiling only applied to
working directors, it was suggested that we should step down and,
simultaneously, be designated President and Vice-Presidents
respectively. While this necessarily involved diminution of our
powers, it safeguarded our incomes, particularly at a time when
we had heavy expenses to meet on our children's upbringing. 

Overseas and domestic business travel continued, a new feature
(for me) being attending the annual U.S. Tea Convention which
was held in October/November at exotic sites like Sea Island in
Georgia, San Diego in California, West Palm Beach in Florida, et al.
This function was mainly a jollification for the U.S. tea trade, a
minor player in the beverage industry of a largely coffee-drinking
country, with soft drinks, aerated and otherwise, following not too
far behind. In fact, one of the annual presentations, at the
business sessions, was the report by A.C. Nielsen & Co on
consumer trends in U.S. beverage consumption which showed
an increasing preference for soft drinks by the young, something
which has taken place in India a couple of decades later.

In 1983, there was another watershed in my life in Tea. Glasgow
decided to pull out of Tata-Finlay and, thereby, quit India, partly
because of vexation and frustration with bureaucratic delays over
remittances and partly because of its then  Chairman's dislike of
Indira Gandhi. This was a blessing in disguise because Glasgow
mentally had not reconciled itself to being shareholders, albeit
the majority, rather than the masters, and tended to oppose major
expenditure; charitably, perhaps this was only evidence of the
reputed Scottish thrift. The company became Tata Tea Limited
and went from strength to strength, buoyed by a general upsurge
in the Tea Industry's fortunes in 1983 and 1984.

Under the James Finlay rules, retirement age for covenanted
(or management) staff was 55 or 34 years' service, whichever was
earlier, and 58 for uncovenanted staff, some of whom had been
promoted. Tata rules, which covered the old Tata-Finlay employees,
had a retirement age of 60. A compromise formula was devised
to cover these anomalies, under which the board had discretion
to extend service beyond 55 up to a maximum of 58 or 60. Mine
was accordingly extended by two years and I retired in 1985 a few
weeks after I turned 57. 


  june 28 2012
Darjeeling Visit

  Saroj Mehera tells us that a bunch of us men, all born in 1928, together with our
wives, would make an annual trip to various places in India. These included
Assam, Munnar in the High Ranges of Kerala and Darjeeling.

These pictures of our Darjeeling visit in 2004, when we hired a steam-engine
train for the journey from Siliguri to Darjeeling. The run took 12 hours, which
included a derailment of one of the coaches - put back within 15 minutes by
workmen in a lorry accompanying the train. In my younger days, the run of
51 miles took the mail train 6 hours.

Below are some photographs of the participants enjoying the
Darjeeling Train experience









 July 1 2012
 James Finlay Company managers at Tocklai

 a 1950 photograph of James Finlay Managers at Tocklai,
the tea experimental station, Cinnamara, Jorhat.

Standing(L to R):- B.C. Hill (Hathikuli), J. MacGillivray (Lattakoojan),
G.N. Thomson (Powai), T.F.T.M. Williams (Visiting Agent), 
Walter Leitch (Kakajan), A.M. Allison (Teok), J.J. Ruddiman (Sagmootea),
A. Johnston (Majuli), J.A.G. Campbell (Nahortoli).

Seated (L to R):- J.M. Tullie (Kolony), A. Rougerelle (Diffloo),
J. Clarke (Namroop),  Arnold Bryning (Lamabari),
K.B. Starnes (Tea Purchase Dept., James Finlay, Calcutta),
P.M. Glover (Tocklai Experimental Station)

June 30 2012

Party at Anwar Minallah's bungalow

Balijan North T E 1951


 Standing: Rajat Roy Choudhury, (AOC),D C Borkatoky (Eastern Assam), SKM (Powai),
Victor Casabon (Samdang) "Phero" Aagrwal (Tinsukia) , Sharma (Tinsukia) 
"Senny" Sengupta (Powai), XYZ, R.K.Barua (kanjikhoah), Stan Allan (Samdang

Sesated: Bansi Lal Dhar, (Burma-Shell) Manas Kumar ("Jhintoo") Chaudhuri (Nalani),
Asad Ahmed (Aquil's son) Aquil Ahmed (Monkhooshi)

Seated Sofa: XYZ, Anwar Minallah (Balijan North)Veena Dhar,  "Thunu" Baruah, XYZ

Note XYZ = not Known

June 12 2012

Saroj Mehera.

This page is dedicated to the recent travels of Saroj Mehera
who has kindly shared his visits to Powai and Kakajan which
will interest old chaiwallahs and friends



After graduating from university, in 1948, with a B.Sc (Hons) degree in Chemistry, I was at a total loss as to what I should do next. My parents had died the year before and there really was nobody to guide a callow youth of 20, who, meantime, had fallen deeply in love with a young lady. She responded with equal ardour and there was an informal plighting of troth but with a proviso that, after marriage, we should live in a rural rather than urban environment. Tea planting seemed the answer and, while on a holiday in Darjeeling, I met K.I.M. Fegan, manager of Dooteriah T.E., who suggested I approach his employers, James Finlay & Co., Limited, a Glasgow-based company with branches in India. This I did and met with success in a covenanted appointment as Assistant at Powai T.E. in Upper Assam w.e.f. 1st February 1949. To cut a long story short, the romance fizzled out, ostensibly because of the Hindu caste system - she was a Brahmin, I wasn't, and she was not prepared to defy her parents and marry me. "La donna e mobile", goes the aria!  We met again, some years later, in 1956, after I had been transferred from Assam to Calcutta. To her credit, having wed a fellow Brahmin in an arranged marriage,  she introduced me to Minnie (her real name is Savita), who has been my wife for nearly 56 years. Tea proved to be a rewarding career, covering tea planting, tea tasting and trading, and general management.  I became the head of Finlay's Calcutta branch in 1972 and, in 1976/77, piloted conversion of the Company's Indian operations into Tata-Finlay Limited, where I was named Managing Director and, in 1979, President. In 1983, the Company became Tata Tea Limited and I remained President until retiral in 1985.

Although, during the course of my working life, I had been to Assam several times, a spirit of nostalgia got hold of me at the age of 84 and I yearned to visit the two tea estates I had served on, Powai from 1949 to end-1952 and Kakajan thereafter till July 1955, when I went on six months' overseas leave, which was one's entitlement in those days. Tata's had hived off the Assam and Dooars tea estates to Amalgamated Plantations Private Limited (APPL), in which they held a 76% share. The chairman of this company, Saeed Kidwai, a former colleague, arranged a seven-day itinerary for me, which proved intensely heart-warming. Although there was nobody at either estate who had been there in my time, I received a royal reception from all members of the staff, including the traditional Assamese presentations and my hosts went overboard with individual gifts for my wife and I. I was delighted to see the estates were in immaculate condition (Including the tea I had planted in the 1950's !) I was invited to taste various estates' teas, both orthodox and CTC, and was presented with packets, aggregating something like 25 kg nett! Excess baggage on the return flight was inevitable but I now have enough tea to last me at least a year, even after giving away some to relatives and friends!  The managers of Powai and Kakajan and their wives each held dinner parties for me, to which they had invited their opposite numbers from other APPL estates in their region. At Kellyden, where I stayed on my last night in Assam, the manager invited the managers of Sagmootea, Nonoi and the Kellyden packing centre (Tata Global Beverages). The main roads in Assam have greatly improved, except in the outskirts of Gauhati. Dibrugarh airport (Mohanbari) is a far cry from the shack of the 1950's and Gauhati airport is vast and up-to-date. Alas, Tinsukia is still a shanty town, even larger than it was. Because of political extremists, every estate and its manager has armed guards and I was provided with two throughout my trip.

as an addenda Saroj writes:

What I omitted to mention in the article on my recent visit to Assam is the emergence of substantial small holdings of tea, ranging from kitchen-gardens to mini-estates, all well cultivated. The produce is sold to bought-leaf factories specifically set up for the purpose, as well as to neighbouring tea estates. Where these holdings are adjacent to established estates, the latter's leaf gets plucked at night and later sold to its owner!


The trip photographs.

In the tea I planted at Powai in 1950


Below is Manager Powai Sanjay Singh and I


 Assamese gifts being presented at Powai


 Speaking Assamese at Powai


 Speaking Assamese at Powai


 At Lekhapani - Stillwell Road


 Manager Powai and I at Margherita Club, Namdang golf course


 At Singpho House.

The Singpho tribe, on the India /Burma border introduced local tea to the Brits


At Debrapar (Kakajan/Bhelaguri outgarden )

with Manager Kakajan, Sanjeev Verma and Manager Bhelaguri Mr Pradhan


 The next.two photos are:

At Jorhat Gymkhana Club where some of my wild youth was spent



 At Kakajan Burra Bungalow with my moustachioed armed guard