Following my first night at Langteng bungalow at Salonah Tea Estate, I was put on duty at the garden factory. I met the factory in-charge, Mr Ken Demos, an ex-marine engineer. He tried to explain to me all about factory machinery and tea manufacturing process. But I was least interested as at the back of my mind, I did not intend to stay on in tea.
I had applied for the MS engineering course in several US universities and I had the merit to secure a scholarship. Indications were that I would be considered either by Vanderbilt or perhaps another university in Michigan.
At the end of the first day, I was informed by Mr Edgar Deighton, the superintending manager, that he was going to Bhooteachang Tea Estate on his routine monthly visit two days later. I was told that I would be accompanying him. Mr Deighton asked me to pack a small bag of clothes that would be sufficient for a month. Furthermore, I was instructed to go over to his bungalow the next day after dinner and spend the night there as he planned to leave early.
Early morning travel to Bhooteachang
The plan was followed through and we left as was earlier decided. We also had Mrs Mary Deighton, and their eight year old son Edgar Junior, in tow. Bhooteachang was in Assam’s Mangaldai district, which in those days would have been a five-six hour drive from where we were.
The manager there was Mr R.P.T. Street, popularly called Dick Street. There were two bachelor assistant managers on the property too. One was Mahesh Mohla, an ex-army man, and Parvez Sorabhji. It was decided that I was to share the bungalow with Mahesh. I had been sounded off that when sharing a bungalow, protocol demanded sharing food expenses.
The Deightons had to cut their visit short. News had come in that factory workers at Salonah had assaulted Ken Demos over unsettled grievances. I was told I would be posted to Salonah’s factory on my return and that I should learn the ropes from Mahesh during my stay at Bhooteachang. Mahesh was then factory assistant.
The bungalow I was to share with Mahesh was a kutcha one; the roof was made of bamboos and thatch. The walls were ekra with light cement plaster and the floor was mud plastered. After unpacking, I did a quick check to see whether my bed was comfortable enough to sleep. I then freshened up while a cup of tea and a couple of indifferently made sandwiches awaited me. Only a few minutes later, the bearer came in and announced, “Saheb has called you.”
The scene which followed was straight out of a Bollywood movie
Mahesh lay sprawled on a sofa with a drink in one hand and a baton in the other. The side table had a few odd snacks and there was a bottle of Hercules rum on the centre table. A warm fire in the fireplace lent a soft glow to the entire scene.
Mahesh asked me to help myself to a drink and join him. He then called out to his elderly chowkidar and asked him to sit down on the floor in front of him. With the baton in his hand, he addressed him, “Somra, make me a drink. And tell this saheb here how many men I’ve killed in the army.”
Somra stuttered and said, “Saheb, six.”
Mahesh hit him on the shoulder with his baton and said “How many times have I told you it is seven?” He continued, “Okay pour another drink — a large one. Now tell me again, how many men did I kill?”
Somra replied, “Saheb seven.”
The chowkidar received another whack.
“I’d told you eight. What is wrong with you Somra? Are you drunk?”
This scene was repeated again and again with the count of men killed by Mahesh going up each time till the bottle of rum was finished. Only then did we retire for the night.
A daily routine soon set in
The next morning, I was shown around the factory and was told to make daily notes in a log book which required me to be very attentive and observant. The tea manufacturing season was almost coming to an end and some machines were being dismantled for annual maintenance. Being an engineer, I spent more time with the mechanics and electricians asking them several questions. This became a daily routine. Dick Street would visit the factory each morning for a quick check and throw questions my way to check on my progress.
The evenings were an exact replica of the first — Mahesh, the bottle of rum, Somra and the constant confusion regarding the number of men Mahesh had killed! Dinner was served in the drawing room itself, next to the fireplace. Once the bottle of rum was finished, Mahesh would pack up for the night while I would write long letters to my girlfriends.
A week went by and I asked Mahesh what my share of the expenses was. His response conveyed a great deal of annoyance. He thundered, “Never repeat that ever. You are my guest and I like you. You will pay nothing.”
Over the course of my stay, I got to know Mahesh better as we spent significant time together. I realised he was friendly and large hearted but was somewhat short tempered. He would often be rude and angry at work.
One vivid memory I still recall is that of Bhooteachang’s nocturnal’s visitors. A herd of elephants would visit the garden quite often, go on a rampage and leave a trail of destruction. Mahesh would, at times, implore me to accompany him on elephant shooting jaunts. But going out at night to be among elephants was something I definitely did not enjoy. Moreover, I was apprehensive of stepping on a snake.
Club nights on Saturdays
Saturdays were the most looked forward to day of the week. This was when we would visit the Mangaldai Polo Club. It was quite an experience.
Planters and their wives enjoyed themselves with merry making galore. The bar was always crowded with everyone ordering large drinks – whisky, rum and brandy. The crowd was a mixed lot – young and old, married and bachelors, Indians and expatriates.
I remember the first time I visited the club. I had gone with Mahesh who was already a bit high by the time we reached there. As soon as we reached, Mahesh parked himself at the bar and started downing large shots of rum. I was cautious and drank very slowly, wanting to soak in the atmosphere. My first club night at a planter’s club was very different compared to the other clubs I’d visited with my father.
On one particular evening, I was jolted out of my reverie by a sudden outburst of shouting. To my surprise, I found Mahesh had grabbed a British planter by his collar and was dragging him out. He threatened him saying he would teach him some manners and while speaking kept punching the poor man. The crowd pulled them apart but it was Dick Street who managed to diffuse the situation and admonished Mahesh. This was definitely the first of many firsts.
Time to go back to Salonah
Three weeks later, Dick Street called me to his office and asked me to pack up as we were to leave for Salonah the following day. A cocktail party had been organised in honour of Mr. Bannerman, the company director who was visiting from London. I was to resume duties at Salonah.
Dick looked straight into my eyes and said, “Mehra I hope you enjoyed your stay here and learned something.”
“Yes Sir.” I replied.
The first month of my stay in the tea estates had certainly made an impact on me. I decided I could make a career of it, after all.