John Dawkins was born and raised in Assam. It was in 1937 that Aubert and Mrs Dawkins welcomed John at Dufflating Tea Estate in Assam’s Jorhat district. In current speak, John was a third generation expat because even his father—Aubert Dawkins—was born in Lucknow, India. Aubert served an initial stint in the army and later joined tea. He was manager at Dufflating for 30 years. John Dawkins also joined tea and was posted in Borengajuli Tea Estate.
Jill Dawkins, meanwhile, grew up in Australia. She first visited India in 1960, while travelling from England to Sydney, via Bombay. Jill met her then future husband—John Dawkins—in Europe. At the time, he was on leave and was preparing for his homeward journey to Assam. Jill would accompany him from Tilbury, UK to Bombay. It was during this journey that the sparks first flew for John and Jill!
Jill continued onward to Sydney after a brief stopover at Bombay. However, she would return in only six months and get married to John in Tezpur, Assam. Interestingly, her beau had to seek prior permission from his employer. This was ruled as per Williamson Magor & Co.’s policies — the company that owned Borengajuli Tea Estate. Only then could the couple exchange wedding wows!
The wedding took place at the Anglican Church of Tezpur in November, 1961. Growing up as she did in Australia, Jill did not find tea life very easy to immerse into. The bawarchi, who would cook for John during his bachelor days, did not take too kindly of the new bride — especially one who spoke so little Hindi. Besides, there was hardly anything for the memsahib to do, what with a retinue of domestic help at hand.
Communication channels were rudimentary at best
Borengajuli was situated along the Brahmaputra’s north bank. In those days, there was no bridge connecting either bank. Ferries did ply along certain ghats and the Saraighat Bridge—the first bridge to span the Brahmaputra—would only be inaugurated in 1962. Modes of communication were limited and roads were few. Jill recounts how she had to be moved to Calcutta six weeks before her daughter was born at Woodlands hospital. She recalls it was when the monsoons were raging and the river was swollen.
Speaking of monsoons, Jill mentioned how attending club meetings were a mandatory affair in those days. However, travelling to the club from Borengajuli, during monsoons, was a task in itself. The drive to the Mangaldai Polo Club entailed fording a river, and then changing into a fresh set of clothes on the other bank. This was because, inevitably, the occupants of the car would be drenched. The drive was equally harrowing during winters, thanks to the talcum powder like dust that would be kicked up along the dirt trail. What further exacerbated the problem was the protocol of having to tail a senior planter’s vehicle. Despite maintaining fair distance, it was regular to have dust settle into every pore.
Jill recalls how she fretted about not being able to cope with the burra memsahibs and that she didn’t know how to play bridge. The ‘Daily’ Telegraph was usually a month old and a source of great cheer for the entire family. The dakwallah was, thus, a most welcome visitor during those days.
A lifelong association with India
Rummaging through letters John sent his parents some 75 years ago, Jill recounted anecdotes that John would share with her, of his childhood. He would tell her of how he was taken good care of by his ayah; that it was customary for him to meet them usually only at night.
John was sent to St. Paul’s School in Darjeeling when he turned five. Unfortunately, he was unable to visit Jorhat for six years, owing to the onset of the Second World War. This was an extremely challenging phase in his life, especially for an intensely homesick child like John. With no alternative, John spent several vacations with other children in holiday camps or at relatives’ homes.
The black and white—and yet vibrant—photographs of John’s birthday parties tell stories of the Dawkins’ times in Dufflating. The children were dressed elegantly and food was served on the lawns. Executives from all nearby gardens would be invited to these parties. Come to think of it, these were rather grand affairs.
The Sino-Indian conflict and the Dawkins’ departure
The Dawkins left India in 1962 following the Chinese aggression. John later joined the pyrethrum project in Papua New Guinea. Unfortunately, he was killed in a road mishap there in 1973. Following this incident, Jill and their three children, moved to Australia. They continue to live there.
Although much has changed over the decades, the bond that the Dawkins shared with India—and particularly with Assam—remain strong. In fact, one grandchild in the family is named Sarah India. Jill has since made 12 trips to the plains she holds so dear. Her joy knew no bounds when she recently saw pictures of Dufflating’s burra bungalow, where her husband’s family lived for three decades. Jill is hoping to visit Dufflating yet again to revive her memories.
Jill Dawkins with her granddaughter Sarah India
This article is based on the many conversations that the author has had with Jill Dawkins.