Chris and Pam Gathorne with daughter Nicola

Chris & Pam Gathorne (daughter Nicola) 1960

   Proud Parents Chris and Pam Gathorne with baby Nicola at Namdang Tea Estate 1960

                       Nicola’s Memories of her early years in Assam.                                   

The Tea Gardens

Wherever I went as a child I was surrounded by endless expanses of the green tea bushes that made up all the Tea Estates. The only exception was of course if you were travelling through a town, village or by the river for a picnic but they were never far away.

I do remember the smell of fresh leaves on a tea bush that was totally different to that of the dried tea in the factory during and after the various processes. It then took on a more bitter smoky aroma that would waft out in dry dust plumes from the platforms that they were being dried on.

Of course the lines of women with their baskets perfectly poised on their backs plucking the tips of the young shoots and, to my disbelief, only wearing chapals (don’t know correct spelling) or even barefoot despite the abundance of snakes of which I was petrified. In fact my father more than once used to come home and tell us of some poor woman that had died after being bitten by a snake as she had been plucking tea.

The first Tea Estate I lived in was Namdang which on reflection was the prettiest as its tea bushes seem to rise and fall with the undulating landscape, as it wasn’t as flat as the other tea gardens. The Manager’s bungalow was perched on top of a small hill, the entrance was via a road with tea bushes to the left and tall trees to the right that had monkeys chattering frantically as you approached, which often happened when I was walking with Renu Ayah who was pushing my brother in a pram.

As I was quite young, 5 yrs, I never went beyond the boundaries of the bungalow on my own and also never really saw the factory at Namdang.

The other memory I have is of a snake charmer coming up to the house one day and sitting on the drive trying to persuade my mother to employ him for one of her parties as entertainment. Unsurprisingly it didn’t go down well and I was hugely relieved as the sight of the cobras rearing up out of his sack made me recoil with fear behind Renu Ayah’s sari.

I then moved to Bogapani Tea Estate when I was five and remained there until we left Assam. I have more details that come to mind as I was older. On the approach into the estate there was Dr Debb’s house on the right which was not far from the hospital that served the estate. On the left side, in between the tea, there was a small area of bamboo jungle and then further on a big football pitch which also served as a communal open air cinema for the labourers and villagers and we could often hear the music of the Bollywood films reverberating down the road to our bungalow.

Bogapani was flat in comparison with Namdang. It was then surrounded on one side by thick jungle and had a history of wild elephants that caused a great deal of damage to crops and also killed some of the local villagers. As a result my father had to ask the services of an expert to shoot one particular rogue elephant, which was shot and I remember going to see the dead elephant which had quite an audience of villagers that were very pleased of the outcome. You could hear the commotion from our bungalow which is why I wanted to go and see for myself, and I suppose I wasn’t horrified as I could feel the villagers’ pain and suffering that they had endured. My father, also as another deterrent, employed labourers to dig out a “hathi” proof ditch which had to be deep enough to prevent the elephants being able to climb from the jungle side to the estate and villagers’ housing areas. This proved a huge success and my father was heavily applauded by many for thinking up such an idea, after all it protected their livelihoods in all manner of ways.

The distance from the Manager’s Bungalow to the factory took about 10 minutes or so to cycle which I often did and would pop into the office and plant myself on my father’s lap if he was there or walk around the factory with him until I got bored and then cycle back home. The smells of the tea factory and the humming of the machines are so imprinted in my mind that I can still vividly remember them today.

The other predominant tea gardens that I visited were Margherita, particularly because my godmother Maureen Furst was in the “burra bungalow” that had a palatial feel with its white columns that supported the house, with verandah above and below, and overlooked the Dehing river, and the fact that we often went as children to Margherita Club to play tennis, film nights or flower shows. Club life was very prominent to the social lives of tea planters and their families, so it wasn’t unusual to visit two or three times a week whether it was for a tennis match, swimming galas (usually at Digboi Club), playing billiards, using the library and of course gathering at the bar for a Coca Cola or in the case of adults a beer or a gin and tonic.

Powai Tea Estate we visited frequently as we knew the Wellers, their father Sam was manager and they were the only house in the area that had its own swimming pool so that had a strong appeal. At one of the Weller children’s birthdays we all had a ride on two hathis from the factory back to the bungalow, we even named the two elephants “tuts” and “hairy” for obvious reasons. Looking back it seems so bizarre and decadent to have these at a children’s party but it all felt completely natural to us as children and we had faith in the mahouts that of course accompanied us, one child in front and two older ones at the back.

Pengari was another Estate that comes to mind, mainly for private tuition from Mrs Ann Gardiner who was a school teacher by profession and she used to teach myself, my brother and the three Weller children all ranging from 4 to 10 yrs old. Pengari was situated beyond a big area of wild jungle which you had to drive through in order to get there and one day as we turned a bend on the dusty track, there was a huge elephant crossing the road from one side of the jungle to another. The car skidded to a halt which startled the elephant enough to look in our direction; by then all five of us children were screaming at Nundu (the Weller’s driver), “Jao! Jaldi karo! Hathi!” Nundu was known to have a nervous disposition and to say he was startled would be an understatement. After realising the seriousness of the situation he put the Ambassador into reverse and we swerved off in a somewhat awkward jerky sideways cloud of dust. Poor Nundu was still shaking with fear when he safely delivered us back and had to explain why we never made it to Pengari for our school lessons.

There were many other tea gardens but I can’t remember all of their names, probably because they were only visited once in a while like Dirok and Doomdooma. Digboi, even though it was predominantly Oil based and not tea, was also a popular point of call as it had two swimming pools that often had swimming galas and was opposite the club which again had many theatre night productions, film nights and where Father Christmas would arrive to hand out presents to all the children. There were the “Digboi Oil lot” that our parents and ourselves knew and would socialise with and invite to our homes as they were more than happy to share their club and its activities with us.

These memories are just an inkling of tea garden life as I remember and as it is over 45 years ago since I left and at the age of 60 my recollections may be somewhat blurred around the edges. I will continue my other section stories in their appropriate headings.

Modes of Transport:

The most frequently used was the car as like all other tea planters we all had our own personal driver who would be on call more or less 24 hours a day give or take the odd day or evening off.

Our driver was Habil who I became very fond of over the years. We had a jeep that was the more favoured choice of my father, probably as it was more practical to drive around the Tea Estate, whereas Habil would be more at home and probably quite proud to drive my father’s American Plymouth which my father had bought for himself though am not sure how this came about in Assam! Habil would dutifully drive my mother and us children whether it was a trip to the durzi, to a friend’s house or to the club always in a cautious slow manner with his head held high and a habit of sucking through his teeth. I did make a few trips on my own with Habil who I would try and chat to in my limited Hindi, and as he could not speak any English our conversations were at times rather disjointed causing some confusion on both parts, though there was always laughter and the shaking of the head. One of these trips I asked him to stop at a paan stall as I wanted to try some “paan tanbul“ to which he vigorously shook his head with “nahi chota-memsahib” your mother would not approve and I will be in big trouble “bahut goosa”. I put it to him that if he could have paan why couldn’t I ? However he was most insistent and I didn’t argue the point as I knew that I didn’t want him to be scolded by my mother who had quite a temper and I certainly didn’t want Habil to be subjected to that.

All the drivers would often be seen in groups behind clubs or houses taking tea or food chatting to each other no doubt gossiping about the families they were driving around, in fact they all seemed nervous or “cautious” when behind the wheel though now I can see that it was a big responsibility to make sure we were delivered safely to our destinations avoiding cows, wandering dogs, elephants, people, and not to mention noisy children in the back seat making extra demands on them.

Rickshaws were prevalent in most places though more in towns and villages and I only ever rode in one at one of my birthday parties where several were employed to give us children rides around a small section outside the bungalow and back. I suppose because we all had drivers it was never an option though I do remember when in Kolkata (Calcutta then) during transit to Assam we would travel in a rickshaw to the market near the hotel to buy goods and that was great fun amongst the chaos of noise and traffic.

There was a train line that ran past Bogapani to Margherita and beyond mainly taking coal and the hundreds of passengers that you could see full to the brim and hanging precariously on the doors or sitting on top. We never went on a train but it never ceased to amaze me the ease and courageous manner of the passengers that seemed to be risking their lives every time they jumped on the train.

River trips, normally picnics, were a weekly event and occasionally we used to go camping which was always a thrill. On our weekly picnics we would all pile into the jeep full to the brim with dogs, drinks and the tiered “tiffin” containers that had rice, dhal and curry or “dhal bhat” as we called it, that the “babawarchi” had prepared. There was always a sense of excitement in the back of the jeep, often singing songs as we bumped along dusty tracks to the riverbank. Our camping trips usually involved a boat trip of simple dugouts that the fishermen used, that were long and narrow, and unless you were sitting still would precariously wobble from side to side. There would be simple matting and a rattan chair for Sahib and Memsahib, us children had to sit on the floor, which was often wet and smelt of fish.

There is a story though it’s vague in my mind as I was only about 4 yrs old but my parents often told me about “that special river trip”. Apparently I was rather fractious and fidgety as after half an hour of sitting in the boat with not much to see in my eyes, my father told me if I sat still maybe round the next corner I just might see a tiger. I didn’t have much faith in this idea but did as I was told and as we gently cornered a bend in the river the boatman crouched down from his upright position and whispered “Sahib! Baagh!! Dekho!” There it was, a big tiger!

British Friends

It seems odd to divide the British from our “Indian” friends as to me they were all inclusive in our lives. In hindsight our Indian friends were not always with us when we went on picnics by the river, or only a few select were, and I don’t know why they regarded the river an out of bounds area to socialise.

I would say that the ratio was 50/50 evenly between British and Indians.

The closest friends that I remember were the Wellers who lived at Powai Tea Estate, the Gardiners who were at Pengari Tea Estate, and Simon Penney. There were many others that we socialised with like the Humphries from Digboi, the Ormonds, the Balls, The Bevens, and Uncle Peewee as he was always known had a rapport with us children and seemed to have a permanent supply of lollipops to hand out! The Fursts, Professor and his wife Maureen who was my godmother, were based in Margherita; we wouldn’t see them much probably due to the fact they were some twenty years older than most of our parents and their daughters were much older than us; in fact I acted as a proxy godmother to the first child of Denise Merry (nee Furst) when I was about 10 at Margherita church.

I do remember that Auntie Maureen was extremely elegant and lived at what seemed a somewhat fitting palatial house with two Pekingese dogs that I didn’t like at all as they greeted you with endless yapping and had to be pulled away for fear of a child being bitten which I would assume may have happened as we were always wary of them! Her parties were renowned for the food and the huge numbers of people that were invited that would spill out onto her immaculate lawns. There were certainly more Indian ladies that were present than at our parents parties and I would marvel at all the beautiful colours of their sarees and their bangles twinkling in the sunlight.

Our other close friends had a more relaxed attitude when we all got together whether it was at our bungalows or by the river for a picnic. A typical scene would involve the men standing at a bar, which every bungalow had, usually playing liar dice accompanied with lots of beer and whisky; music played loudly which would then lead to dancing once the wives would have shed their inhibitions after a few gin and tonics. The children would have spent their time swimming in a pool most of the day or running around the gardens exploring, climbing trees, making camps etc. until we would be called to eat with our parents, but always under the watchful eye of our ayahs.

Sam and Rosemary Weller were like chalk and cheese, Sam had a very loud laugh that would boom into the far distance which seemed to match his sturdy build; in fact he was a very good squash player and would regularly thrash his opponents. Rosemary was much more reserved than the rest of the wives, very polite (I never heard her swear) and gracious, appearance was of utmost importance and was quite strict with her children (Veronica, Penelope and Charles). I remember once Penelope (my best friend) saying I was so lucky as my mother let me choose a modern outfit for the durzi to make whilst she had to wear the old fashioned party dresses that were a bit dated at the age of 12. All that said, Rosemary fell in with everyone and certainly took part albeit the most sober and would quietly smile the next day to reveal the night before’s events to all!

The Gardiners were great fun and would be at the centre of most gatherings. David was very approachable to children and frequently showed us card tricks or would bribe us children to play pranks usually on another parent and then would retreat sniggering with delight. These pranks could be simple things like adding a teaspoon of salt to a drink, hiding Sam Weller’s liar dice cup, putting mud into someone’s shoe etc. I can’t remember them all, just that David had a wicked sense of humour!

Ann had no inhibitions whatsoever, she spoke her mind often in a loud tone and even as a child I could sense the likes of Rosemary Weller cringing with embarrassment when Ann would cross the line with something considered a bit risqué. There is a story my parents told me later in life that at a party (adults only), the host decided that they should play the children's game of “The Queen of Sheba wants”. The game started with requests like “The Queen of Sheba wants....a dahlia“, “a coaster”, “a topi” etc. until the host thought of “a ladies pair of knickers” which he smugly thought most would be too embarrassed to go rummaging through the hosts drawers for and even if they did could prove challenging especially as by now they were all quite tipsy. The piece de resistance moment then came when Ann stood up in full view of everyone, pulled down her OWN knickers, held them high and promptly announced “will these do?!” I think it’s suffice to say, that story paints a picture of Ann’s character, she was unpredictably hilarious to both adults and children and am sure the height of local gossip.

Simon Penney was known to us as “Uncle Simon” and despite being a bachelor was very much part of our lives. I know he was a “bachelor” though really this was a cover for him being gay (homosexual) which of course back then was illegal and not openly spoken about, in fact it all made sense later on in life when my parents told me the fact. He had a slightly aloof air about him, it was just part of his character; this didn’t mean he was reserved as he was at every party dancing with all the wives and made an effort to come to our birthday parties and our Christmas Day lunches. Simon would feel quite at ease playing with children; donning on a child’s hat and running off creating several of us to chase him until he gave in. We knew our limits as he would eventually say something like “ok I need a rest after all that, go and find Ayah, or your mummy”. Uncle Simon was exactly like having our own uncle and we always jumped up and down with excitement of his arrival.

Indian friends

I say “Indian” but many were really Anglo Indian though this didn’t mean anything to me, they were part of our lives and I certainly wouldn’t have put them in a category. I thought the women were far more beautiful and exotic in their coloured sarees and I couldn’t understand why our mothers didn’t wear them, this took my mother by surprise when I asked her one day, she replied “that’s what they wear darling, and in any case they wouldn’t like it if we copied them”. I think I only once saw a British lady wear a sari and am sure it was at a fancy dress party.

Uncle Tunoo (all bachelors were called “uncle”) was generally quite shy but he would burst into fits of giggles and hold his nose at the same time. He was very good looking and my parents and others would often tease him for not having a girlfriend; they would try and match him up with a girl but to everyone’s frustration it never was successful. He also was for the most, teetotal, which was practically unheard of then. However once or twice a year, I would assume at some big party, Tunoo would get so drunk that he would be ill for the next few days and take to his bed vowing that he was never going to drink again. My parents found this highly amusing and would remind him that he shouldn’t drink whisky like it was Coca-Cola suggesting that he drank at speed. Needless to say, Tunoo never learnt by his mistakes and inevitably would go on to repeat his drinking sprees.

The Dutts were based at Margherita and had two children, Chumchum and Kishmish, who came to all our birthday parties. Chumchum was a couple of years older than me and Kishmish was much younger. I’m afraid I can’t really remember much about the parents, Naloo and Shipra, but I know they were very much part of club life. The Dutts, particularly the parents, were more reserved than the other adults, they had high expectations and I think this also had an effect on the children’s behaviour. When we played with Chumchum and Kishmish there was always an air of caution whether they would get into trouble, so often we would feel confused that they wouldn’t join our antics. However Chumchum was a bright child and often suggested ideas that we hadn’t thought of, she stood her ground and we all had a mutual respect for her and would be applauded for it much to her delight.

The Rufus family who I think were on Dirok Tea Estate had great parties whether it was an adults or a children’s birthday. Austin was a jovial kind of guy who would insist at playing music at full volume enticing everyone to dance, I remember a favourite of his was a sure fired winner to get adults and children going and that was “Lily the Pink”. Muriel, his wife was a beauty to look at, all the wives were envious of her looks and she seemed to float elegantly around the room making sure we were all happy. Lesley, their daughter, was three or four years younger than me and I remember that she was definitely a “daddy’s girl”. She had a similar character to her father as she was very mischievous and when she didn’t get her way would go to her father and plead with him dragging him by the hand. I can’t remember her brother’s name but he was a toddler so wasn’t so inclusive in our company. I’m vaguely aware that Austin and Muriel had some sadness in their lives whether it was several miscarriages or something else I’m not exactly sure but I know they had a lot of sympathy and admiration from our parents. Austin and Muriel loved a party and at one particular party my own parents, probably worse for wear, had pushed aside all the glasses off a table and proceeded to both dance on top much to everyone’s amusement. Apparently the table lived to tell the tale, in fact Austin and Muriel still remember this story and I believe still have that very table to this day!


Our first Ayah at Namdang was Boghi probably up I was until five years old, she would alternate with another Ayah called Renu, I’m assuming due to  days off or the fact that Boghi was quite a bit older than Renu. Boghi was probably in her fifties, she wore a nose ring and her face had a screwed up expression. She would wear colourful sarees and of course like all the ayahs wore several multicoloured bangles. Boghi was the strictest of ayahs and certainly didn’t hesitate to tell me off and even smack me at times. I think because of the latter, though I’m sure I deserved it, my mother after several disagreements of her skills gave her the sack. For all her faults she did have a sense of humour and in doubt thought it would triumph over most things which inevitably it didn’t.

Renu had a lot more responsibility after Boghi left and I quite welcomed the idea as she was much gentler in her methods of persuasion when scolding me. Renu was beautiful and had an elegance and ease when dealing with myself and my brother, often swaying with him in her arms and trying to include me at the same time; she was very protective of us and always on the lookout for any dangers like snakes for example when we were in the garden. She would often sing lullabies in Hindi and I recall only too well “nini baba nini, makkhan roti cheenni, sub makkhan hoa gia, chota baba soja” in fact I’ve made it a point of singing this when both my children were young and find myself now singing it to my grandchild, and I feel in a way it’s a form of acknowledgement to Renu. I also remember, probably when we were being potty trained, how she would sit us on a potty and encourage us to “susu” then clap her hands with praise when we completed the process.

Annie ayah came to us later when I was five or six years old and we moved to Bogapani; her duties were more practical towards myself as she concentrated more on my brother who was still a babe in arms and obviously needed more attention. Annie was much older - in her forties, quite thin and had a distinctive gap between her teeth. I was still asking for Renu and found it hard to accept that Renu had gone to look after another child and I had to get used to the idea of someone else. My feelings soon changed as Annie would be a source of comfort when I couldn’t sleep at night whether it was a nightmare or I was too hot; she would offer words of comfort and had this incredible method of cooling me down which was to trace her fingers over my back gently that created goose bumps and it always worked. Annie tried to show me how to put on a sari after several times of asking her as I was fascinated at how many pleats there were and how a sari came about from the endless folds of fabric. As a result I did have more of an idea and would attempt it many times though I did go back to her for guidance when I got frustrated and couldn’t remember.

The role of the ayahs held huge responsibility and kudos as it was regarded an honour to have a position to look after the Sahib’s and Memsahib’s children. I for one, and I’m sure many other children, have strong attachments that never leave you for their devotion and patience. My first memory of my childhood, other than the arrival of my brother, was the feeling of a sari and the chinking of bangles that offered feelings of contentment and unconditional love, I would say that the ayah was very much my substitute mother and as a result has had a huge impact on me and I hold their memories very dear to this day.

Nicola Lunn (nee Gathorne), East Sussex.