Upon graduating as a mechanical engineer, I applied to all British sounding companies for a job. Soon enough, I received a letter for an interview from Macneill & Barry, Calcutta. I had no clue about this company but my father insisted that I appear for the interview; if nothing else, at least I would gain some experience and confidence for interviews to follow.
On arriving in Calcutta at the M & B Head office, I learnt they were interviewing youngsters for a job in the tea gardens of Assam. I was not interested in this profile, but while talking to the others who had come for the interview, I learnt that not only was the pay handsome with several perks, but they also offered very good sports facilities on the tea estates.
The interview wasn’t as serious
Somewhat reluctantly, I went ahead and faced the series of interviews – first with senior executives and after having cleared that round, with the directors two days later. One thing stood out; everyone at the head office was immaculately dressed – very pucca pucca British style. They wore smart expensive suits and ties, and almost all of them were wearing cuff links.
The questions asked were very basic, general and lighthearted, which made me feel at ease.
I was asked what I knew about tea. “Nothing,” I said. “But I love drinking it.”
“How many girlfriends do you have and where?” the interviewer asked.
“Oh, I have several girlfriends, but in various towns,” I replied.
One director commented, “So you are like a sailor who has a girl at every port!”
I was asked if I drink and smoke and if so, how much? “Yes,” I answered. “Enough for a feel-good feeling.”
The ensuing questions were made up of an assortment like what games I played? Was I fond of gambling? If the company gave me money to gamble and I won a lot of money, what would I do? My reply was, “I will have a wonderful time.” To which I was asked, “What do you mean by a wonderful time?” And so it went.
To my surprise, I was selected and asked to join Salonah Tea Estate in Assam. I decided to take up the offer since the pay was too good for a fresh out-of-college engineer. Back in 1967, Rs. 1175 was a significant amount. Plus, there were several perks – free accommodation in a big bungalow with four servants, free electricity and water. Even more, I had the choice to leave if I did not like the job.
Preparation for a life in tea
I was told that “someone” would receive me at Guwahati airport and that I would be reporting to Mr. Dao Singh, the Manager at Salonah. I was also informed that the dress code in the tea plantations for kaamjari (daily work) were shorts and that I should buy myself a pair of hunter boots too. I spent the next few days buying the prescribed shorts and boots, and also splurged on a pair of fairly expensive cuff links. After all, now that I was working for a British firm, I had to look the part I thought.
During the flight to Guwahati, I tried to relax but the fear of the unknown made me a little unsure. Every now and then, a few doubts kept cropping up. What would life in tea be like? Did I make the correct decision?
I’d heard that tea gardens were often in the middle of nowhere, and to make matters worse, no one even in my large extended family had ever been to Assam – let alone have worked in tea. Some friends cautioned me, saying “wahan ladkian jadoo kar deti hein,” – meaning, “the girls there cast spells.”
An awkward first meeting
On 15 November 1967, a 22 year old “fresh” graduate, wearing a blue pin striped suit, landed at Guwahati airport. I was carrying a brand new Sony transistor – the latest model – which was a gift from my father. The blue suit had been tailored by the best tailor in Kanpur and masterji had made the coat with two side slits on the rear, instead of the usual single slit along the middle. The suit fitted well and I thought I looked rather dapper.
When I landed in Guwahati, I looked around, but could not spot any one dressed in a suit or a tie. Twenty impatient minutes later, I spotted a person wearing a white T-shirt, beige shorts and white canvas shoes worn without socks. He leisurely walked up and gruffly inquired, “Are you Mehra?”
He introduced himself, and we shook hands. I was, however, agitated that a pucca British company had sent a man so poorly dressed to receive me. Worse still, this person had no idea what punctuality meant and so I did not even bother to gather the gentleman’s name.
There was authority in his tone and I was taken aback. Without uttering a word, I stuffed my bulky luggage in the trunk of his white Ambassador car and settled into the passenger seat while he drove.
Of mistaken identities
As the gentleman drove out of the airport parking, I took out my packet of “555” cigarettes purchased at the Calcutta airport and lit one in grand style using the fancy lighter I had recently bought. Even before the first good soothing puff was inhaled, my new acquaintance quipped, “Mehra, let me put you in the picture. Mr. Dowsing, the Manager of Salonah has gone to the UK on leave and I am the acting manager currently.”
He continued, “Perhaps you did not get my name. I am Barua, Tapan Barua, and I don’t like anyone smoking in my car.” The newly lit, barely smoked cigarette was promptly thrown out and I sheepishly replied, “Yes Sir – no Sir, I mean, I am sorry Sir, I rarely smoke Sir.”
As I withdrew into the far edge of my seat, all kinds of thoughts started racing through my mind. “Acting manager? Dressed like that? And whatever happened to the Manager, Mr. Dao Singh?”
After a while, I mustered courage and asked very politely, “Sir, I was told that Mr. Dao Singh is the Manager at Salonah – a sardarji.” Mr. Barua replied dryly, “You’ve got it wrong – the name is Dowsing. Bill Dowsing, and he is from the UK.”
From the airport, Tapan Barua – whom I got to know and admire in the days to follow – drove to his parents’ house where I met his parents and his beautiful and charming wife, Mamoni Barua. Compared to Tapan’s gruff manner, Mrs. Barua’s smile was so welcoming that it felt as if I’d known her for years. Tapan then told me that the drive to Salonah would take around four hours but before that, we were going to watch a cricket match.
The cricket match
Off we went to the Guwahati stadium where the cricket match was going on. As we entered, several people stood up to shake Tapan’s hand. We were led to a reserved area in the pavilion and I soon realized that Tapan was quite a VIP. We had barely started watching the game when a wicket fell. Suddenly, five to six people came hurriedly towards Tapan and insisted he pad up. He tried resisting, but eventually, they managed to convince him.
As soon as the next wicket fell, I watched the unfolding scene with utter disbelief. Tapan Barua, my acting manager, was all dressed up in cricketing attire, complete with even cricket shoes. He exited the pavilion and walked up to the pitch to bat.
The applause was thunderous. Obviously, Tapan was the local hero. And could he ever bat! He hit the ball all over with several hits to the boundary, and in no time, he’d scored a glorious fifty. Cricket was the game I loved most and here was this acting manager of mine, who first borrowed clothes – even boots – and played swashbuckling cricket. My hero was instantly created. “Yes,” I thought, “If I have to work with a cricketer, tea life will sure be good.”
“By the way, how long are you planning to stay here?”
Once the match was over, Tapan came back wearing his own clothes and said, “Let’s go to Salonah.” It was dark by the time we reached our destination and I was looking forward to a hot water bath. Just then, Tapan announced that first, we would meet the superintending manager and only then go to Tapan’s bungalow, where I would spend the night.
As we drove through the gates of the well-lit bungalow, Tapan casually pointed out to the tennis court and the huge swimming pool in the compound. Superintending Manager Edgar Deighton was a big, tall man – more than double my size. Introductions were made and he remarked, “So you are the laddie, the mechanical engineer, who does not know anything about tea. By the way,” he added in jest, “How long are you planning to stay here?”
We then drove on a lonely, dark and bumpy road to reach our final destination for the night – Tapan’s bungalow. His bungalow looked more like a long railway platform and unlike the earlier bungalow, there was no sign of life and nor were there any lights. All I could see were lots of trees and a faint outline of hills not too far away. I thought, “Have I arrived at the end of the world?”
And thus began my journey in tea
Before going to bed, Tapan told me that we would be leaving for the office at 6:00 am. 6:00 am? I wasn’t sure if I’d heard him right. But a nod from him confirmed it.
I woke up early next morning and following a very cold tub-bath – my first ever – I wore my new kamjari outfit. At exactly 5:50 am, I went to the drawing room and greeted my acting manager with a crisp “good morning Sir” in the best schoolboy manner, with hands clasped behind my back.
As we stepped out of the bungalow, I was greeted by my first view of a tea garden – a carpet of green as far as the eye could see. There were rows upon rows of lush green tea bushes, and lots of tall trees in between. The air was clean, cool and fresh, and I could see the hills. They seemed very near and very green.
Tapan pointed towards the tall green trees and said, “Those are shade trees, also known as albizzia chinensis. Then, from a nearby tea bush, he plucked some leaves and handed them over to me. I got to hold my first ‘two leaf and a bud’. I knew then, that my journey in tea had begun.
This was more than 50 years ago but as I relive those memories today, it all seems like I had landed in Guwahati just the other day.