The times were hard and the widow made every little thing count. The debris, mostly hay strands that had fallen from the roof of the hut she lived in with her three children, swept together in the morning were used to start the fire to make tea. She would send off her only son, Jalaluddin Ahmed, to school and set about doing the day's work.
This is an account of Saharaja Begum that her great granddaughter, advocate Nazrana Rahman, reels off with finesse. After all, her father, Nazimuddin Ahmed, never missed an opportunity to retell it and the slightest hint of complaint was enough to trigger off a narration. He never failed to drum into her the lesson of appreciating what she had.
LESSONS DOWN THE LINE
The example had been set, the impression remained for generations. The frugality born out of these tough times stayed with Alhaj Jalaluddin Ahmed through his life even though he amassed wealth and has become the hallmark for his descendents to emulate. His personal effects included a watch, a walking stick, the prayer mat and a few pairs of clothes, which belied the fact that he was the owner of several tea gardens and large tracts of land. The memory of his simple lifestyle is a constant reminder for Rumena Rahman, owner of Dynasty Hotel, Dynasty Walford, Mahalaxmi and Tejalpatty Tea estates in Tezpur, to remain grounded. The lifestyle imposed on the children did give moments of mortification. Rahman’s niece, Nazrana, relishes telling how her father, who liked to dress well, often told of the embarrassment he suffered as a child due to the indeterminate length of his trousers, which barely reached the shins. The logic was that it would turn into shorts when the boy grew up.
WINNING OVER ODDS
The climb from rags to riches is the stuff for tales. The tea planter was born to Mohammad Janu and Saharaja Begum in 1884 and saw penury close up as a child. The early demise of the head of the family left the young widow to fend for herself and her family. The indomitable lady, who grew up in Jorhat and married the Dibrugarh resident, took the challenges head on and worked hard to become financially secure, a remarkable feat given the times and the status of women then. It helped that her son was equally hardworking and enterprising. She managed the lime making kiln left by her husband and found an able assistant in her son, who gave up studies after completing his high school education from Dibrugarh High School.
The novice picked up the tricks of the trade fast and his entrepreneurial skills flowered. Their business interests expanded to cane. They had bet bari and a cane depot. The mother-son duo bought boats and came to possess around a hundred. The earning from these enterprises turned around their financial situation.
During this period, the region witnessed the growth of tea gardens. The British, who ruled India, had decided to allow natives to take up tea plantation. The young businessman saw rich prospect in it and decided to grow his own tea bushes. Saharaja Begum was game for it. She made him write to the authorities for a grant (land) and was given a plot of land at Diroibaam in Sivasagar. It took them three days ride on a bullock cart to reach the land. They had to face the hostility of the British manager of the neighbouring Dirai tea estate, who seemed hell bent on preventing an Assamese from joining their ranks. He drove away the workers brought to the fledgling garden. The mother paid little heed to the underhand tactics. For her, it was better to have problems than to live in poverty (Jonjal thokai bhaal kongal huwatkoi). The duo worked hard and often beyond sunset. Saharaja Begum would hold up the lamp while her son continued planting tea saplings. Out of their determined effort was born Diroibaam tea estate, which became a full-fledged tea manufacturing estate by 1924.
Nazrana Rahman heard from her father how the manufactured tea used to be transported to Bhojo Railway Station on horse drawn cart and taken to Calcutta (presently Kolkata) before being shipped to London for auction.
A good beginning was made. What followed was better. With single-minded devotion and the aid of his sons, the entrepreneur set about building on his success and in subsequent years acquired Khanikar Tea Estate in Dibrugarh, Seconee Tea Estate in Nowgong, Dhoolie Tea Estate in Jorhat and Timon Tea Estate in Sivasagar. Being one of the earliest indigenous tea planters of Assam, he attended the first convention of Indian tea growers held at Amolapatty Natya Mandir on June 23, 1935, and became a member of the Assam Tea Planters’ Association (ATPA) formed during the historic event. Alhaj Jalaluddin Ahmed, who built houses on the large tracts of land he bought early in his career and let them out on rent later, was chosen as the Chairman of the organization from March 14, 1937 to July 24, 1937. Interestingly, a member each of the next two generations went on to hold the post later. Later in his career, the businessman built houses on the large tracts of land he bought and let them out on rent.
Winning became his habit, even when it came to his pastimes. Rumena Rahman, who was one among his fourteen children, mentioned her father’s interest in horse racing. He frequently participated in the races held in the premises of Berry White Medical School and won them.
SNIPPETS FROM THE PAST
While going from strength to strength in his business enterprises, the astute entrepreneur nurtured them. Therein lay one of the secrets to his success, according to his granddaughter, Shehla Rahman, who is the Secretary of State Election Commission, Assam. She recollects family members talk about an incident dating back to the great earthquake of 1950 that changed the geographical scenario of the town. The tremors kept rocking the region and the frightened workers at the tea factory refused to enter the building to switch off the machines. Crawling on his fours, Alhaj Jalaluddin Ahmed performed the task.
The tea planter sought to teach the lesson of hard work he learnt to his children. Nazimuddin Ahmed told his daughter how he returned home by train after completing his studies from North Point in Darjeeling to be shunted out to Seconee Tea Estate. Even before he had the opportunity to open his trunk and hold-all, the luggage was transferred to a jeep to be taken away with its owner to the workplace assigned by his father, who saw wisdom in putting him to the grind immediately.
‘Rolling in cash’ may have described his financial well-being best but the tea planter believed in using it judiciously. His granddaughter, Rukshana Rahman Khan, learnt it as a child. The practicing advocate has a laugh narrating a childhood misadventure. She remembers her grandfather giving her, his children and grandchildren in the family the responsibility to count out coins and stack them according to their denominations while he apparently dozed off. Trying to take advantage of his somnolence, they always looked for the opportunity to snitch a coin or two and making a dash with it. Unsuccessfully, more often than not. Khan mentions the one occasion when her cousins asked her to pocket a few coins. Believing her grandfather had gone off to sleep, she tried to make her escape but found the crook of his walking stick pulling her back. He sat her down to explain the worth of money. The image of a loving, but never indulgent, grandfather has stayed.
SHARING THE LARGESSE
The pennies may have trickled when it came to spending on personal comforts but they poured where philanthropy was concerned. The Tuberculosis hospital, which is part of Assam Medical College and Hospital, bears his name. In a small booklet, The Road to Immortality, the general secretary of Congress Seva Samaj, TK Bhattacharya, writes about how Alhaj Jalaluddin Ahmed volunteered to construct the hospital at an approximate cost of Rs 2,27,000 after an appeal made by BR Medhi, the then Chief Minister of Assam. He calls it the largest single donation in India. The edifice became the succour for thousands from the surrounding districts, including those in the hills, afflicted by the disease and who needed isolation as well as separate treatment.
The charitable work of Alhaj Jalaluddin Ahmed included donation of land for the Muslim burial ground and Idgah at Amolapatty. He was the founder of Dibrugarh Madrassa, which was set up to educate children from impoverished families. The entrepreneur constructed the beautiful mosque at Panchali, where he resided, to provide space for the residents of the congested neighbourhood to offer prayers. A devout Muslim, he went for Haj pilgrimage to Mecca sometime in 1951 and earned the sobriquet of Alhaj. He had the distinction of being invited by King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia to a dinner there.
The businessman was active in civic affairs and made substantial contribution towards the development of Dibrugarh as the Chairperson of Dibrugarh Municipal Board. He held the post from 1944 to 1947. The towering personality died on December 9, 1968.
GEN-NEXT TAKE ON THE MANTLE
Three of his sons, Alhaj Mohammad Azizur Rahman, Anwaruddin Ahmed and Bakhtiyar Ahmed inherited the Khanikar TE and bought Dekhari TE, Koliabor TE, Dubba TE and Halkiramukh TE. The three brothers, Ziauddin Ahmed, Nazimuddin Ahmed and Samiruddin Ahmed managed the other tea gardens left by their father.
Alhaj Md Azizur Rahman, who did his schooling in Dibrugarh and graduation from Aligarh Muslim University, trod the path of his father and became the Chairman of Dibrugarh Municipal Board in the early sixties and of ATPA from July 22, 1962 to June 22, 1972. When his son, Shaukat Mdr Rahman, became the Chairman of ATPA in the late nineties of the last century, he kept up the tradition set by his grandfather and father.
Alhaj Md Azizur Rahman inherited not only his parent’s business acumen, but also his uprightness. Advocate Rukshana Rahman Khan remembers the dressing down she was given by her father after she accepted a tin of cheese from a person who had come to meet him when he was the municipality Chairperson. The youngster had given little thought while keeping the gift, having no inkling of the opprobrium the act would invite. She also considers her father forward-thinking for his generation, giving his four daughters good education and the freedom to pursue their professions. The eldest, Late Dr Niloofer Rahman Saikia, was a lecturer in Physics at Dibrugarh Polytechnic while the youngest of the sisters, Lubna Rahman Huq, was posted in Germany as the Director of Tea Board and presently stays in New Delhi. Then there is Rukshana Rahman Khan and Shehla Rahman. They have three brothers, Shaukat Mdr Rahman, Tariq Mdr Rahman and Sajid Mdr Rahman, who are in the tea business.
Apart from being a tea planter, Rahman was also socially and politically active. He was the founder President of the Lions’ Club of Dibrugarh, the principal organizer of the All India Music Conference held in Dibrugarh in the late fifties and nominated as director of Assam Gas Company and Assam Industrial Development and Fertichem Limited at different times. He was a member of the Tea Board and Railway Board. A member of Congress, he hosted political stalwarts of the time, like Debakanta Baruah and Mainul Haque Choudhury, at his home. Following his father’s example as a philanthropist, he started construction of an orphanage but died before completing it. He also devoted his attention towards developing the madrassa established by Alhaj Jalaluddin Ahmed. In a tribute to him, his close friend Naren Choudhury mentions that despite being a strict disciplinarian and prone to quick bouts of temper, he was a man with generous heart. Rukshana Rahman Khan takes pride that her father was the man who established the park, the first of its kind in the town, near the Dibrugarh dyke. It was popularly known as Phool bagan and has been renamed, Lakshminath Bezbarua Udyan.
The grand and great-grand children of Alhaj Jalaluddin Ahmed are making strides in their respective profession and trying to live up to high standards set by him.
The Sentinel has been covering the lives of affluent and renowned families of Upper Assam for a number of editions. If anybody wishes to share their information about such families in other parts of the State and Northeast, kindly send your articles to firstname.lastname@example.org.