Growing up in the tea plantations in the mid 90’s was definitely a time when the tea industry was on more firm footing. The times were stable and so was the active social life. This latter aspect was somewhat an anomaly, considering tea plantations were usually located in far flung areas. But despite there often being no telephones, there were always means to get the message across.
The winter months in the gardens were abuzz with activity. This was when the socialising and partying commenced in earnest, possibly aided by the fact that this was also the lean season for tea. There was a festive spirit in the air, and December was particularly busy, what with preparations for Christmas parties and New Year’s Eve.
Jainti was utopic
Well, my reminiscences will attempt to take you to a remote area of North Bengal. We were based at an estate called Jainti – a picturesque garden located at the foothills of Bhutan. The Buxa Tiger Reserve bordered the estate on two sides and there were also two rivers meandering through the garden.
The epicentre of social life was the Kartick Club; its members being the executives of Kartick, Rydak and Jainti tea estates. The onset of winters was marked by a night picnic – an event that saw the congregation partying around huge bonfires on the banks of the Rydak river. In later years, I found out about a white supremacist group called the Ku Klux Klan who seemed to congregate in a very similar manner, albeit with abstract costumes and incoherent chanting thrown in.
As the waters on the Rydak receded each winter, a fair-weather bridge would be built over the river allowing for easy access to the Sankos, Kumargram and Newlands estates. This bridge allowed a shorter drive to the Jainti-Sankos Club which would host the Children’s Party. About a week later, the New Year’s do would be held at the tiny Kartick Club where the Jainti-Sankos members would be in attendance.
The hill top bungalow
The months of January and February would continue with picnics in earnest. For our family in particular, we’d pack our lunch almost every Sunday and head off to the nearest scenic spot which was just beyond the periphery of the estate. There would also be a pot luck dinner or two organised by the usually bachelor assistant who’d live on the estate’s hill top bungalow.
Now, one resident of this hilltop bungalow made for a most hilarious incident 21 years ago – in January 2000. It so happened that Mr X, the senior assistant manager, had grown weary of the hill top bungalow’s occupant—a Mr B—repeatedly complain about ghost sightings. This was possibly because no other occupant had reported any such paranormal experiences and the ranting must sure have continued for far too long.
In a previous posting, Mr B had built around himself a bit of a gangster aura. He’d apparently threatened his then manager, saying he’d liberally spray him with bullets. Given his Assamese lineage, he probably wanted to display his covert connection with some banned outfit. And so Mr B, it was felt, was a man with a reputation; only he was now being tormented by a ghost who obviously he was not being able to scare away with a gun.
The plot is hatched with fellow conspirators
A dinner get-together had been organised by my parents at our bungalow. It was a small affair with only the executives of Jainti in attendance. Mr X came well ahead of the others and shared a most sinister plot that he’d hatched. He had a most unpleasant surprise in store for Mr B. Simply put, he wanted to give form to this alleged ghost by trying to impersonate one himself.
To this effect, Mr X managed to lay his hands on a big clay mask from yet another bungalow. The other integral part to his eerie costume was a particularly dark blanket that he’d borrowed from his bungalow chowkidar. Wrapped in this blanket while holding this mask in front of his face, he planned to dance onto the desolate road leading up to the hill top bungalow just when Mr B would be driving up on his return from our place.
A seamless execution of this plan required that Mr B be held onto while Mr X, and his henchman, quickly drove over and hid themselves somewhere along the desolate road. And this was why he’d arrived early for the party so that he could apprise his fellow conspirators.
The conspirators follow through on the plan
The evening was otherwise nothing out of the ordinary. Mr B soon came along with his wife and everyone had a good chat over drinks and snacks. Dinner followed not too long after and this was when the plot began to unfold.
Mr X made a serious face and said he’d have to make an early exit. Mr B also made a polite request to take leave but both parents asked the couple to hang on for a tad longer.
“Let’s sit outside in the verandah and chat,” Dad said.
I was definitely most excited and after what was about 15 or 20 minutes, Mr B politely sought permission once again to head out. There were no phones to confirm if Mr X was in position but it was assumed he probably was by this time. And so, Dad nodded his approval and the customary thank you and good night wishes later, Mr B sped away in the direction of his bungalow.
It was only when Dad came home for breakfast the following morning did we hear about the events that unfolded later that night.
Apparently, Mr X made sure his vehicle was well hidden and he found a vantage point from where he would quickly dance and cross the road in front of Mr B’s vehicle. He made sure there was solid earth on the other side because the road was a narrow dirt track.
As he saw the lights approaching, Mr X began the execution. At the sight of the ‘apparition’ cross the road, Mr B reportedly floored his car, putting pedal to the metal, while honking and screaming sowkidar, sowkidar! Now, you’re probably wondering why sowkidar with an ‘s’ and not the usual chowkidar. Well, this was because our man was a thorough bred Assamese; the ‘ch’ pronunciation is not quite part of the lingo.
It never fails to amuse
Fortunately, no one sustained any injury and sowkidar probably tucked a shell shocked Mr B into bed. On the following morning though, it did not take him long to realise it was a prank and who the prankster was. What was even more fortunate was the fact that Mr X wasn’t threatened with a volley of bullets.
In the years since, Mr X remains a close family friend and one of my parents’ strongest well-wishers. Every couple of years or so, and usually after a few drinks, this story is recounted with as much zeal by Mr X as when he first shared his sinister plot on that cold winter evening in January 2000. The incident never fails to elicit rapturous laughter from all within earshot, each time it is narrated.