John Wilkinson

This page is dedicated to the writings and memories of John Wilkinson.


24th February, 2018

1. Photo of the Aenekhall staff when Oliver Carutters left.

 The last photo of Oliver Carruthers taken with the Aenekhall staff before he left.


dedication to Oliver Caruthers from Aenakhal staff as

This heartfel dedication was presented to Oliver Carruthers by the staff of Aenakhal Tea Estate on his departure.

The image is hard to read so John has thoughtfully transcribed the contents for us word for word as seen belwo:

On the Occasion of Departure of O. Carruthers Esqr.
Dear Sir,
    Most humbly and respectfully we beg to approach you with this humble token of our sincere love, respect and deep sense of gratitude on the eve nof your departure from our midst.
    Change is the order of the world, but we the mortal human beings forget this and shape our surroundings in a dreamy golden light mingled with happiness and sorrows, with friends and relatives, masters and subordinates. The eternal order comes down one day conveying the Will of mercy less truth of our destined surrender to circumstances and we look back with broken heart and tearful eyes at the new environment that beacons us.
    Sir, you will be away from us, the very thought is painful, but we are to accept this as the good-will of Almighty, and we believe that "What he does, does for the best".
    Your foiesightedness, strict principle and unbending toilsome stepping towards duty is an impressed to our mind that have brought us to a new light and devotion to duty.
    A sweet fountain of love and affection was hidden at the bottom of your heart, under your straight-forward and uncommon personality, the flow of which was sponteneus to us when we had been in distress.
    The existence of Indian Club is a vivid example of your kind and sympathetic heart.
    Dear sir, our good wishes will be with for you wherever you may be an we pray for your happy and prosperous life.
                    Fare - Ye - Well
Aenakhall T.E.
March 1961
Yours ever lovingly.
Dipak Art Press, Hailakandi





28 November 2017 

Journey to tea

When I was 15, I was expelled from school and set up my own horticultural business in the UK, selling through Covent Garden. I was once at a school friend's house, and his father who was a Tea Planter, told wonderful stories of life in India. There and then I decided that was my future. I obtained a list of tea companies from the Stock Exchange and wrote to all 50-odd of them. I had just turned 17. Most didn't reply or said I was too young, but one or two were perhaps impressed by my refusal to accept "no" and my continued lobbying. I gave advice to one or two gentlemen in Leadenhall Street, and one person asked me to research something called Gobberellic Acid. This was a new substance that encouraged early growth and fruiting. It was thought that it might be used on tea after pruning to get an earlier first flush, which could be of some value. I persuaded Kew Gardens to allow me to apply some on a tea bush there, without much success. (Many years later I tried it on coffee in Papua New Guinea, where it made the outer fruit cherry ripen and change colour, but did not advance the formation of the beans inside).

Anyhow, one day this old gentleman from MacLeod Russel asked me to come to London. One of their Managers from Jardine Henderson was in town and wanted to talk to me. I invested 5 pounds and took the train to town. The McLeod Russel manager's office was dark, lined with oak paneling and lit with dim lights. During the course of our conversation the question of my age was raised. It was explained once again to me that no-one younger than 21 was employed. During the social chitchat, I was asked if I played Rugby. As a matter of fact I loathed highly disciplined games, preferring lone sports like hunting, but I had played rugby when forced to at school. So I said "Yes, I did play". I was asked in what position, and I said "Hooker". The Jardines manager said to the McLeod Russel manager, "Look, we need a hooker in our side, I think you had better take this fellow on". I had just turned 19.

And that was it. Next I was swept up in a storm of preparation, which included steamer tickets on P&O's SS Chusan from Southampton to Bombay via the Suez. My father took me back to London to buy essential stuff, including a trunk from Gieves that was airtight for storing cold weather woollies in the mildewy rainy season. I had a beautiful old side-lock shotgun, and a four-bore punt gun for wildfowl, but my father insisted that I get a utilitarian single barreled under-lever Greener 12 bore, and 500 rounds of mixed shot sizes from spherical ball to birdshot from ICI, all of which was shipped on board in safekeeping.

It took 2 weeks to get to Bombay. The Company's attitude was that your employment conditions reflected the company's status, so we were always looked after very well indeed. As well as a cabin on C deck, I had an entertainment and living allowance that was more than adequate to meet the many social challenges on board. I can say that our group of young men unfortunately behaved in a manner that provided the crew with many challenges, that included painting a slogan on the mast, launching a lifeboat and almost getting left behind in Aden. All in good fun, of course. In Suez on a quick shore visit, a rubber planter from Malaysia and I found ourselves being inveigled through a tiny locked doorway into a belly-dancing club where we were told to buy a bottle of "scotch" or not be allowed to leave.

On each of the steamer voyages thereafter, I managed to fall in love and get engaged. There were always many interesting girls, from Australians returning to ski, and traveling via Bombay to Sydney, to a pair of Chinese twins. I did get engaged at one time to a girl called Valerie Battersby, the daughter of a Vice-Admiral in Hong Kong. Then there was a lovely girl who was travelling with her sister to Australia and back. Her sister was friends with a young man named Frank Worthington, who later became the front page model for the submarine service. Carline, her sister, invited me on leave to her flat in the very posh area near Marble Arch. One evening there was great excitement because the Beatles had released their latest album and one of them (I can't remember which one) turned up and handed out copies of the LP.

So, getting back to my first arrival in Bombay. Before disembarking, the Agent came on board and gave me a strict briefing. He said my baggage, including the gun and ammunition, would be found on aisle number so-and-so, and I was to go and see the Customs officer at his desk there to clear my goods, and no-one else. After getting my passport stamped I was to move immediately out of the shed, where a vehicle would collect my goods and I would be transported to my hotel. I entered the Customs shed, found the officer, and noticed my passport sitting on his desk with a wad of rupees inside it.  There was no conversation. The rupees vanished, my passport was stamped and I was on my way to the hotel without any idea where my baggage was.

From there the next day I was on a train, in a marvelous sleeper, en route to Calcutta. As the "baby" of the company, the well-oiled machine of the Memsahibs organisation took me over. The VA's wife took me to the tailors at the bottom of Park Street, where I was measured up, thence to a shop to buy Bata rubber-soled canvas shoes and kamjari boots, thence to New Market for other things. I went to the Great Eastern Stores at the top of Park Street, where the Memsahibs organisation (a bit like the Australian Country Womens’ Association, I think) would buy things unobtainable up-country for the staff, from shaving cream to fresh king prawns, to be sent up on the elderly Dakotas. 

I had a huge list of essential clothing that I had to have obtained for me. I still have that booklet, and am amazed at its all-comprehensive complexity. I also have the hard-back book of the rules and regulations of Jardines. As part of my induction I went to the Jardines office at 4 Clive Row Calcutta, for a formal briefing. Among many other things, I was told that I could not marry until I had completed 3 years of service, and then too only to someone approved by the company. It was however stressed that the company was aware of the needs of young men and encouraged unofficial local liasons, as long as they were kept discretely unseen and never ever formalised or one could face dismissal.

Then it was off on a streamer up the Brahmaputra to Tezpur, and from there by road to my first plantation, Aenakhal, and my first Burra Sahib, Oliver Carruthers. Company policy was that new recruits were placed in out-gardens and were expected to prove themselves. The field staff was forbidden to converse in English, only Hindi, so as a new recruit you either learnt the language and survived, or failed and left. Every year there was performance bar, which amongst other things included a report on your knowledge of both local languages, spoken and written, and local customs. As a result, I learned to speak Hindi, Bengali, Nepali, some of the local labour tribal languages like Mundari, and I could write a little Bengali as well. A little old man would come every afternoon and spend an hour or so teaching me.

It was generally accepted by the Company that you were not really doing anything of a seriously managerial nature for the first two years as it was a period for you to learn.

My first job was to shoot a rabid dog in someone's house and avoid getting bitten. Next, a tiger had killed 7 cows, and Caruthers told me to go and sort it out. My first job was to sit in a “machan” which was an office chair tied to four “bhulka” bamboo posts to wait for a tiger that had killed 8 cattle the previous night. It was a moonlit night, and after a while I became aware of another presence. I turned around and looked over my shoulder and saw the tiger sitting on a slope almost on my level  staring straight at me. I felt as though he could reach out and grab me. I couldn't turn around to get a shot and I think I was incapable of doing so even if I could.  I shook without stopping until dawn and then I was very, very reluctant to get down.


More wildlife encounters

Another plantation I did go to briefly was Kopati, managed by a chap whose name I cannot remember. Pretty sure it was a Mr. Dey or De (Bengali), slightly built with glasses. He was a tough gentleman, no nonsense, but a fantastic guy, with a very pretty wife. The place was fairly remote, and he had a lot of trouble with the local Assamese villagers. To fix them up, he dug huge (15 foot) deep trenches or nullahs all round the borders of the plantation and the paddy fields where they were encroaching. The net result was that the encroachers’ paddy fields all dried up. One disadvantage was that sometimes we would be doing a "patrol" along the huge nullahs, and one day we came round a corner to find a large rhino coming for us, which caused great panic as we rapidly tried to find a way out of the Nullah, with the rhino hot on our heels!

Oliver Caruthers was a great shikari and every weekend we would all be roped in, with a heap of labour and village beaters, for a game drive and shoot. The only private weapon I had in those  days was a single shot lever action Greener 12-bore, which I used for larger game and birds. My fear on the weekend shoots was that a tiger would emerge and I kept changing my single cartridge from bird-shot to solid ball, At the end of the day we would have a massive curry-bhat and copious beers and pink gins, then go to sleep, waking up in the evening to do it all over again, before falling asleep and being at roll-call the next morning at dawn. 

Once there was a family of man-eaters, two adults and 2 half grown cubs, operating around the estate. I was standing on a Teela with some labour picking tea, and saw an old man cutting grass along the roadside, near some thick jungle. Suddenly a tiger jumped out, killed the old man and leapt back in to the jungle dragging him.

Carruthers mounted an operation to get the tiger. He decided to crawl into the tunnel in the jungle thorns, with his rifle, then the Doctor with a heap of strychnine and in the rear, me with my shotgun. I was terrified, but the Doctor was about to pass out and I had to keep prodding him to make him move. I don't know who was more frightened, him or me. Soon we heard sounds of crunching and growling and realised there were two animals eating the grass-cutter. They moved away as we advanced, the doctor did his job and we moved out back. 

Changing the subject, would you by any chance know what happened to Rattan Das Gupta, manager of another plantation, cant remember which, but it was past Chuapara/Mechpara, we had to cross a river to get there. Sometimes at the Club if it rained, Bhupi Singh and I had to make a dash to get over the river before it flooded and blocked our way back, in which case we sometimes used the company elephant to cross over.

Bhupi and I both had Lambretta scooters. Sadly, as time went by they started falling to bits until we had only one working, so we both went to the club on the one scooter. The passenger had to continually watch over his shoulder for a leopard that lived in some rocks half way over the river bed, that disliked the engine noise and would frequently chase us along the road. 

Rum smuggling

I was on Ratan Das Gupta's plantation, (forgotten the name). Anyhow, it was on the border with Bhutan and the Indian Government had started to make the road up. Just over the border from India, Bhutan had several huge breweries or distilleries that used to churn out dreadfully potent Orange Liquor. On paydays, our labour would get blind drunk and fall over on the track back to India. On the way the road makers would pick up our drunk labour, put them in jail, then press-gang them into working free on their road. They also produced a very decent brand of rum, much appreciated by all of us. The Orange liquor we used for entertaining guests we didn't like. Once someone passed out face down into a bowl of soup I had liberally laced with orange liquor, and nearly drowned. Can't remember who it was.

Anyhow, back to the Rum…

One afternoon, Ratan Das Gupta told me to get into his car, and we drove up to get some. He said to me, most importantly, make sure you sit firmly on top of the rear seat, because under it was hidden a lot of containers of rum. Well, the road had progressed somewhat since our last visit, and the Indian Army had set up a check-post a little way up. They stopped the car and said "who is this white man? You know it is forbidden for foreigners". With perfect aplomb, Ratan Das Gupta replied "He is my son by my first European wife", and after a bit of banter they waved us on, with me holding onto the rum under the seat.

Another place that others might remember was the Cherry Brandy and rum made at a little pub in Shillong. I recall those appreciative of such brews would take up 20 litre drums to fill up there. Can't remember the name of the expat who ran the place. It used to be quite famous. One of the customs there was to flick wet paper darts onto the pub ceiling.

Bhutan Adventure

I used to go into Bhutan a lot. Sometimes I went to Phontsholing (wrong spelling ??) to play cards with the royal family members, but the prince was assassinated. Can't remember all the details.

Mostly I went hunting. We would sit up a tree above a salt lick all night, sometimes tied on to stop falling out if we slept. Lots of shikar stories.

The plantation had an elephant (sometimes used to pull vehicle out of the river in the rains). One person (no names) used to take the elephant out at night, then tie a hurricane lamp on the edge of the river, so that when he came out of the jungle later, he would see the lamp and find his way back. So we would follow him, and once he had gone into the jungle, we would move the hurricane lamp so later he would get lost, and be late for roll call in the morning.

Once there was a great drama. The elephant vanished. Now, the practice was, that the mahout would let the elephant out in the jungle on the other side of the river, with leg ropes, and let it graze, to be collected later. As far as I can remember, it seemed the mahout was mixed up with some villagers who persuaded him to let them use the elephant to hunt and kill a pig in the Bhutan Forest Reserve. They got into an argument with the Bhutanese Forest Guard who got shot in the process. The first thing we heard was the elephant was missing, until we got word that it was in the cattle pound in Phontsholing, and would we bring the mahout and come and get it. So I went up and the Chief Officer there delayed departure with a bottle of genuine Scotch, which we properly addressed before returning, with promises that the elephant was on its way with the mahout. That was not quite the case. It seems the Bhutanese just wanted the mahout for his part in the shooting of their guard, and returned the elephant but minus the mahout. We did enjoy the Scotch, though.

There followed some tension along the border which did not really affect us. except for me. I used to send out my servant to buy eggs, with a little wire cage lined with straw to carry them in, from the Bhutan market. One day he came back in great disgrace, saying "Sahib, only broken eggs" The border guards tried to stop him, and all the eggs broke as he ran and jumped from boulder to boulder.

Household management

Talking about eggs, I was at the Luckynugger bungalow at Aenakhall. This bungalow had two wings, one short, one long, built on a concrete pad. It was as hot as hell. So hot, in fact that I could and often did, cook eggs on the highly polished (and thoroughly cleaned) cement veranda. I was in the short side, and the Senior Assistant and his wife were in the long wing. This was Nick and Pronoti Mukerjee, fantastic couple, my first field mentors. Well, Nick mentored me in the field and Pronoti inducted me into the arts of curry making.

I learnt that the chief utensil in the kitchen was the "Masala Pisniko Patar" (probably wrong spelling/pronunciation again) the spices grinding stone. Some households have very much used old stones. Then there was the management of the household, but more particularly the cook's job to buy the right spices at the market. Everything bought in the market had to be inspected and priced. I think it was understood that the cook would get a small percentage of the marketing. For a meal preparation, the cook would present a tray of spices to the Memsahib who would dictate how much of what was to be cooked and in what way. Wonderful.

However, in my learners household things did not go too smoothly, and it took me many a month if not years to properly grasp the intricacies of running households. My most memorable cook and self appointed head of the household was a Muslim called Haroosh Ali. A wonderful character, without much idea of fine cooking. When discussing the evening meal, he would say "Istew", I would say "No, Curry", he would say "Istew", and I would get stew. I put up with him because he saved my life twice. Once there was a cobra curled up under my bed, which he spotted; on another occasion, he found a banded krait in the room and despatched it.

Daos, spears and khurpis

 After I left Jardines, just for the hell of it, I decided to walk up into Nagaland. Going in was no problem I simply looked very official and walked past. Along the way I almost walked into an elephant (and took a photo of it) then carried on up the road for quite a long time, then up a hill, then suddenly up popped a Sikh army guy with a bren gun. He took me further up the hill which I then realised was an army post with emplacements with bamboo spikes up the hill. The officer in charge lived in a bunker, to which I was taken and interrogated. He said, what are you doing here? and I replied, I am looking for artifacts (I was really looking to try and get hold of a Naga headhunting Dao). Aha! he said you are looking for facts, so you are a spy. Anyhow, after a while everyone calmed down, and the officer, quite a nice chap, said well, we have to get you out of here, there is a war going on, but there is no transport going down so you stay here temporarily. 

It seemed there was a big problem with a Naga village on the opposite hill, and they were taking pot-shots at each other. The Army would go across and destroy the village, then the Nagas would rebuild it again. At the bottom of the hill was the only source of water for both sides, so water collection became quite hazardous. One night, the Army guys shot a deer there, but when they got down to collect it, the Nagas had taken all the good bits and left just the entrails.

In the meantime, the Army officer had his own personal problems. He was a young man but his hair was going white in places. He was obsessed with the possibility that this might affect his marriage prospects. One evening as we were playing cards in his bunker, he said, OK, I am going to send a truck down, you will have to go under escort, but can you please buy some hair dye for me and send it back up. I agreed readily. And Oh, he said, we have arranged something for you.

What he had arranged was for me to get hold of a spear. He had captured a very elderly Naga who had a spear. It had been agreed that if I was able to hit a designated target, I could get the spear. Not sure what happened to the Naga. Anyhow, I threw the spear, hit the target, and was then promptly farewelled onto the army truck, and thence to, I guess, Mokokchung? And oh yes, I did buy hair dye and sent it up.

I carried the spear around with me in India and it is standing against the wall in my room here in front of me as we speak. In those days there were no terrorists, and I could lay the spear down in the aisles on planes when traveling locally.

Once in New Delhi, Bhupi Singh and I were in a hotel, and coincidentally the Maharishi was staying there. Bhupi and I had a few beers and went onto the veranda, and decided to have a competition to see how far we could throw the spear. Unfortunately, I underestimated my throwing skills, and the spear went straight through the Maharishi's tent set up on the lawn below, Fortunately there was no-one there at the time. Spearing the Maharishi would not have gone down well!

As well as other bits and bobs, I have my Night Watchman's spear. He gave this to me when I left to protect myself in I got into trouble. If only he had known the future.....I also had a hand-made kukri. It was made out of a land-rover sporing and finished by the local Munshi, who presented it to me when I was leaving. The labour insisted I wear it for my last days there, tied around my waist, and clanging against the sides of the scooter.

Labour trouble

There was a majority Nepalese labour force, who were led by their head man, the Munshi. There was a lot of labour trouble. One of the biggest disputes was over the nirrik or work tasks for things like cheeling or hoeing the young tea lines clean. It didn't matter how much the nirrik was, they said it couldn't be done and went on strike with threats of violence. One day (remember I was very young, very fit and pretty stupid at the time), I got up at dawn, stripped off my shirt, grabbed a hoe, went to the field and completed the task in one area myself, with an increasing number of labour watching all this happen. 

There was no more dispute over the cheeling task after that. The next problem was demonstrations. The labour would walk all night round the factory and the bungalows, chanting and shouting threats, in an effort to keep us awake and wear us down. One night word came that the Ker Bari (thatch bari) was on fire and I was wanted to check this out. When I got there, I could see what was quite a small deliberately lit fire along the edges, and the labour were shouting at me to help them put it out. I could smell something fishy and kept on my side of the steep nullah separating the road and tea from the Ker Bari. As soon as the lit fires died down I went back. The next morning I was told that there had been a plot to lure me over to the Ker Bari and kill me. It took a while, but slowly I broke the power of the old Munshi who was behind it all, and actually had an affair with his daughter, not out of choice, hence the change of attitude and the presentation as I left.