Within a few months of marriage, I was transferred from Badamtam Tea Estate to assume the reins at Nurbong Tea Estate – both located in the Darjeeling area. The steep and meandering six km long kutcha road from the Rong Tong turn-off took us nearly a full hour in a four-wheel drive.
On our first arrival at Nurbong, we were welcomed by the manager, Mr. MMS. He promptly produced the handing over papers for me to sign on, shook my hand, and sped off to his posting – all in a matter of 15 minutes!
A new leaf
I suddenly found myself at the helm of a cluster of small, scattered estates, namely, Nurbong, Gitangia, Lower Simring, Upper Simring, Mullootar and Fagootar in the lower region of the Darjeeling hills. I would also find out that there were no internal road connections between each of these little estates. Even more, there was no phone network, no factory, no TV, no cash reserves but we did have a dilapidated Jeep.
The bungalow was a square double storied edifice, that was recently constructed, and hurriedly if I may add. The upper storey was the burra bungalow (manager’s bungalow) equivalent, and the lower storey being the chhota bungalow (assistant manager’s bungalow). Both floors housed two bedrooms each.
The single 41 KV genset was connected to the office, dispensary and the bungalow. It was run for two-hour stretches, twice a day. During this time, water was pumped to a small overhead tank from a source far below the bungalow.
Living off the grid well before it was considered ‘cool’
With no electricity, listening to music or watching TV was not possible. Once the genset shut down in the evenings, one couldn’t even read. The only saving grace was that dinner by candle light became an everyday affair, but then its charm soon wore off.
We kept candles and match boxes handy in each room and let one lantern burn through the night. On clear nights, the moon and stars seemed unnaturally bright, creating sharp silhouettes. The still nights seemed to magnify the sounds of frogs and other insects and from time to time, we had to search the bedroom with a torch to check if any had crept within. It was a lonely, isolated existence and the heat and humidity were quite overbearing.
Crossing a ‘burma bridge’ was not for the faint of heart
In those days, the roads were not motorable and so one had to walk long hours around the garden. It was quite normal to return with a few tiger leeches firmly clinging to one’s legs. To cross over to the other divisions, we had to go down to Shiv Khola at the very bottom of Nurbong.
Since the bridge leading to Lower Simring (as also to Upper Simring, Mullootar and Fagootar) was washed away the previous monsoon, a “burma bridge” had been erected for people to cross over. This was basically two thick wire ropes strung across the chasm, one being six feet directly above the other. The person crossing had to hold on to the upper wire rope firmly and slide across the lower wire rope till the other bank was reached. It was a tad risky when it was windy or raining.
Walking up to Mullootar and back took an entire day. The road beyond Shiv Khola was extremely steep and called maaryo ukalo (killer uphill slope), and climbing it certainly took the stuffing out of man and beast alike. To top it all, there is a very high mica content in the stones found there, and they reflected light and heat, adding further to the fatigue. The workers at Upper Simring and Mullootar were very simple folks with kind hearts, and on seeing the burra sahib and chotta sahib huffing and puffing uphill, they would generously offer lemon water, cold milk and roasted corn.
In between all these hardships, certain incidents would occur that broke the monotony and made for a hearty laugh. On one occasion, a freshly recruited assistant manager, Mr. JS, arrived with his pet monkey, which he kept chained on an extended dog leash. Soon enough, stories were doing the rounds about a monkey who would enter workers’ quarters, eat part of their meals and turn their homes upside down. Mr. JS insisted that his pet was always chained inside his bedroom and that this was the handiwork of some wild monkey.
A chowkidar was therefore deployed to keep an eye on this pet. This investigation drew up extraordinary findings! As soon as Mr. JS left for kaamjari, his pet would unhook his collar and slip out from between the window bars and embark on his excursions. The little scoundrel would then return the same way and innocently await his master’s return, and all after hooking his collar back on!
Onto newer assignments
Green leaf from all divisions was carried up to the office compound on ponies and spread on a platform of woven bamboo. This would then be transported to the factory at Margaret’s Hope, where it would invariably arrive in damaged condition. With time, certain measures were undertaken to make the workings easier and life more comfortable.
The main estate road was lined with boulders since green leaf laden vehicles would suffer frequent break-downs. Trials were conducted for erecting a chute way from Upper Simring to a lower point. This would allow for easier and faster conveyance of harvested green leaf. Two new withering troughs were also constructed at the Nurbong office compound to hold the green leaf until it could be transported to Margaret’s Hope.
Soon a telephone line was stretched till the bungalow, although the connection was erratic. With Diwali being around the corner, we bought new curtains for the bungalow, but I received my transfer orders that very day. I was told to take over Dilaram Tea Estate within the next 48 hours.