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Recollections of A Memsahib from Down Under

Gaurav Borthakur | January 14, 2021
Recollections of A Memsahib from Down Under

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.


Gaurav Borthakur

Gaurav currently works for the Assam government as District Project Officer for NRC at the office of the Deputy Commissioner, Jorhat. While working in various government flagship programmes like Swacch Bharat Mission, Dhan Jan Yajona and CM’s Gyanjyoti scheme, Gaurav built an association with the local tea industry. He holds keen interest in researching and documenting the tea industry in Assam.

 

Gaurav has a master’s degree in mass communication and journalism from Tezpur University. An occasional writer, as also a tea and heritage buff, he is associated with the Gauhati Cine Club, the Guwahati International Film Festival and Dixh – a Jorhat based socio cultural organisation. He is a cycling enthusiast and is a member of the Jorhat Cycling Community.

 

Gaurav took the lead in conducting a tea and heritage tourism cycle rally in Jorhat in 2018. The vision was to promote tea tourism and to commemorate Maniram Dewan’s martyrdom.

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Jill Dawkins
Jill Dawkins
3 years ago

So pleased so much of the wonderful history of the tea industry in Assam has been preserved for the future

Caroline Reid
Caroline Reid
Reply to  Jill Dawkins
3 years ago

Hello Jill, your story sounds so much like the stories my Mum told me. My parents, Hamish and Shena Pirie lived in Koomsong and Borudoubie (spelling will be wrong I am sure) and your words brought back lots of memories. Thank you

Jill Dawkins
Jill Dawkins
Reply to  Caroline Reid
3 years ago

We knew your Dad really well -he was one of my husbands closet friends and was not married then He was at our wedding and I have photos of him there.These memories are all so precious Caroline .All good wishes to you

marc.vs
marc.vs
Reply to  Jill Dawkins
3 months ago

Hi Jill, I’m trying to get a little background information on Hamish Pirie. Do you know if he served in the forces during WW2? I have a pair of camouflaged trousers with a sewn-in name tag that were given to me by a family who managed a tea plantation in Assam

Venk
Venk
3 years ago

Fascinating. I was in the Dooars 1962 -65

Joyshri Lobo
Joyshri Lobo
3 years ago

Having been a tea memsahib in the Dooars, I’ve enjoyed each article and comment. Thanks!

Pronab Kumar Baruah
Pronab Kumar Baruah
8 months ago

Nice read.As my elder brother was a tea executive ,I had close assiciation with the industry and built up some beautiful friendships with tea people.Enjoyed some of the loveliest times of my life in the gardens my brother seved in!

marc.vs
marc.vs
3 months ago

Hi Jill, I’m trying to get a little background information on Hamish Pirie. Do you know if he served in the forces during WW2? I have a pair of camouflaged trousers with a sewn-in name tag that were given to me by a family who managed a tee plantation in Assam

Last edited 3 months ago by marc.vs
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