The first of her kind…
Blunder was what it was from the word 'go'. Trying to carry out the heist in the home of Janeki Devi was misplaced judgement, as the four dacoits who attempted it found out at their own expense. Going further, first demands a recount of the events.
When the unfortunate outlaws entered the home of the young widow and demanded for the keys of a huge box, they got their wish without so much as a protest from her. They must have thought it would be a swift and clean sweep. After all, who was there apart from the other lady and the small children to stop them? While one got busy in opening the box and taking out the utensils in it, the other three made their way towards the tea factory. Observing an opportune moment, the mother of four shut the lid and sat on it, trapping the man. Her assistant used the ladle to lock in the handle. Having done that, Devi emptied the bullets from the cartridges, replacing them with lentil and started firing. The sound of the gunshots attracted the tea workers, who surrounded the factory. The other three saw themselves hedged in. One, however, managed to escape but not for long. He was arrested after the injury marks on his back – these were sustained from the shots of lentils - gave him away at the market where he was selling biscuits.
Perhaps the outwitted dacoits would have pondered before taking on a lady, who had successfully taken over the management of a tea garden after her husband’s demise, and entered record books as the first woman tea planter in Assam, and by some accounts in India.
Reaching for the skies…
The incident, which was narrated by Janeki Devi’s youngest son, Sreedhar Borthakur, in his write-up in a souvenir, also illustrates her hard struggle in running the Tipam Tea Estate in Digboi while raising her four children. But she proved herself to be the perfect soul mate of her husband, Padmadhar Borthakur, an entrepreneur of reckoning in those days.
Padmadhar Borthakur was the son of Gangadhar Borthakur of Pokamura village in Jorhat from Dimbeswari, the youngest of his five wives. His early schooling was done while staying with Budhindra Nath Bhattacharyaa, who was married to his sister. The latter went on to win renown for writing the ‘Anglo Assamese Dictionary’ in 1932. The young Padmadhar left studies after he was promoted to the fourth standard. He came to Choto Hapjaan (near Doomdooma in Tinsukia district) to live with one of his cousins in 1917 and made himself useful by carrying out various household chores. But, the independent minded youth was always on the lookout for an opportunity to earn. When the manager of the tea garden where his cousin worked asked for a boy to distribute ration among the workers on Saturdays, Padmadhar volunteered to do it and diligently carried out his work. His salary was five rupees, a princely sum in those days.
However, the school dropout had bigger dreams, like owning a tea garden. After a year in Choto Hapjaan, he came to Digboi. He bought a plot of land in Golai for just three annas and built a thatched house on it. The young man began to carry out various works for the oil company. He acted as the sardar and took up the contract of supplying workers. During the early years of oil exploration, refining was done by warming crude oil in a huge iron cauldron. The white sahibs of the oil company engaged Padmadhar, who was fluent in English, to oversee this work. With thick forests in and around Digboi, malaria was rampant and people live in dread of catching it. The workers used to run away after working for a few days. The Assamese sardar always managed to convince them to return to work. He also found out a way to keep himself engaged during his spare moments. He opened a wine shop near the present Digboi Railway Station and ran it after his day’s work in the company.
The foresighted Assamese saw great prospects in the vast stretch of vacant land around the shop. He approached the Assistant Political Officer in Margherita for the myadi patta of hundred acres of land and his request was granted. Sometime later, when the Burma Oil Company wanted the land, Padmadhar Borthakur decided to sell the plot at the advice of a white officer; the native had struck up a close friendship with several sahibs. He was given 440 shares, each of the value of one pound, apart from being appointed as supervisor. The refinery came up on the land.
Soul mate in true sense…
During this period, Borthakur married a relative of Krishna Prasad Baruah of Digboi but she died when their son was seven years. Looking after the child became difficult for the father. That is how Janeki Devi, the daughter of Sonaram Bormedhi, entered his life as his wife. Soon after the second marriage, he bought hundred bighas of land from one Budhuni Majhi. The area was then thickly forested and wild animals like tigers and elephants roamed freely here. The British officers, who had become friends with Padmadhar, used to spend their Sundays in the house on stilts built by him and hunt wild boars and deer. They advised their Assamese friend to buy a double barrel English gun, which the latter bought from one Punu Miya of Tinsukia. Padmadhar Borthakur taught his wife to use the gun.
At the insistence of Janeki Devi, who had cleared a plot of land behind her house, the employee of Burma Oil Company bought ten muns of seeds from Someswar Baruah, who had a garden in Tinsukia. The tea planter also sent a worker from his estate to teach the Borthakurs the process of plantation. The garden that came up eventually became known after the river, Tipam, which flowed through the area.
Padmadhar Borthakur started preparations of opening a tea factory after his friends, Towler and Victor May, encouraged him. He bought machines from Calcutta (now Kolkata) and began drying and sorting of tea leaves. Towler introduced the tea planter to a broker. Janeki Devi, who was an expert in the tasks like rice planting and weaving that every Assamese woman of those days was expected to know, supported him in his endeavours.
Tragedy struck when nine days after the birth of Sreedhar Borthakur in 1929, Padmadhar Borthakur suddenly died, leaving the mother of four with the responsibility of raising their children. Years later, the youngest born gratefully recalled the help Dhiren Dutta, Thanuram Saikia and Badan Hazarika extended to his mother to run the tea estate and factory besides managing the home. Janeki Devi later bought two hundred bighas of land near the garden. She also completed the work started by her husband in tea production. At the behest of Someswar Baruah, Figgis and Company in Calcutta agreed to auction the tea of Tipam Tea Estate. When World War II broke out, the British Army requisitioned the garden but returned it to the original owner when the hostilities had ceased. The woman entrepreneur restored it to its former health.
Respecting the wish of her husband, the lady entrepreneur donated a plot of land where the Digboi cremation ground and Christian burial ground now stand. Padmadhar Borthakur in his lifetime transferred the ownership of a piece of land, 32 bighas, to a fakir known as Dodhiram Bura. He also gave away a house, which is known as Padma Kutir, to a priest at Triveni Sangam.
Carrying on the banner…
After the death of Janeki Devi in 1971, her eldest son, Bidyadhar Borthakur, started managing the garden. He was a well-known elephant catcher and tamer; he was even given the elephant controlling license. The service of the hunter was often sought to gun down elephants that had gone mast. Since he was more preoccupied with hunting and the timber business he started, it fell on Sreedhar Borthakur to manage the garden. Of the other two brothers, Sashidhar Borthakur was working in IOC, while Prof. Minadhar Borthakur, who has survived his siblings and presently leads a retired life in Guwahati, taught Geography in Gauhati University.
The youngest son of Padmadhar Borthakur and Janeki Devi inherited a huge amount of debt and the Herculean task of bringing the garden on its feet. Through sheer hard work, he did manage to achieve what was demanded and more. The former student of Senairaam Higher Secondary School in Tinsukia had dabbled in various businesses like opening a rice mill at Kalugaon in Sivasagar after leaving his studies in Prince of Wales halfway. His exit had come after he fought with the Principal for not giving him and his friends the credit for a machine they had innovated. Sreedhar Borthakur would have been a movie star if Natasuryaa Phani Sarma and Bishnu Rabha had their way. A good actor, he acted in plays like Bagh, Anarkali, Kiyo and Jotugriha, which were staged at Digboi India Club. After a performance in Baan Theatre in Tezpur, he received an invitation to act in an Assamese film from the two doyens of Assamese culture, who were very impressed by his acting skills. But Janeki Devi threw the spanner in it as she did not want her son to become a film actor.
Destiny had other things in store for ‘daaiti,’ as he was popularly addressed; like reviving the family business. In order to pay off the debts that had accumulated from years of neglect, Sreedhar Borthakur decided to expand his plantations. A keen angler, he once traversed almost 22 kilometers to go fishing at Populajaan village in Pengeri. It was during this outing that he came upon a huge stretch of land. After inquiring about certain details from a local, the tea planter zeroed in on the spot to take up tea plantation. He marked out the area and started clearing the undergrowth and tea plantation began on it. Some locals showed their opposition by uprooting the saplings at night. But, the tea estate, named Janekipur after his mother, eventually took shape and flourished. The struggle and hard work is fresh in the mind of Makhan Dey, who drove a jeep for Sreedhar Borthakur. He talked about how the vehicle would break down at times and had to be pulled with ropes. Once, the tyre of the jeep ran over the hand of its owner when he was trying to push it out of a mud pool. The entrepreneur won over the hearts of the people after he helped them in treating an eye problem that afflicted many in the area. After taking charge of the family enterprise, he improved on the factory, which was till then producing orthodox tea. It began CTC tea production. In 1992, the decision was taken to dissolve the partnership company and turned into a private limited company. Since then, the gardens are being run under the name of Padmadhar Tea Company Private Limited. Sreedhar Borthakur developed heart ailments and underwent surgery in 1998. Yet, he was not ready to retire. He set up the Satyapur division of the company on a plot of 72 bighas after coming home from the hospital.
Talking about his father, Apurba Borthakur, who runs the gardens at present, narrated how deft his parent was with machineries. He repaired the machines of his factory. Once when an army vehicle broke down near Tipam Tea Estate, mechanics failed to repair it. The tea planter took a peek into the engine and had it running soon. The army officer gifted him a khukri in gratitude. Premadhar Das, who has been with the tea company for more than 30 years, mentions how the garden owner showed no hesitation in picking up the broom to sweep the factory when the need arose. He also talks about the time when Borthakur gave him a loan to build his house three years after joining as a clerk after the latter saw its ramshackle condition.
The awe is obvious as Apurba Borthakur, the youngest of Sreedhar’s three children, talks about his father’s level of endurance. Once when Sreedhar went fishing at Guijaan opposite to Dibru Saikhowa National Park in Tinsukia, the fish hook got unstuck from a fish he was trying to reel in and embedded itself in the eyelid. When all efforts to extract it failed, he rode his bike, a Rajdoot, from Tinsukia to Digboi, a distance of 30 kilometers. His family members rushed him to Dibrugarh. Incidentally, the bike had earned the tea planter the name of bhotbhoti babu. The short-tempered businessman lived life on his own terms and once gave short shrift to the two ULFA cadres who had come demanding aid reportedly for flood victims. Even an administrative official got the taste of his temper. When the officer tried to flash his position, the businessman called him a mere government servant.
Borthakur was very involved with the Navajyoti Cultural and Religious Centre. His association with the organization started in 1973 after a visit to the Durga Puja it organizes annually on Hospital Tilla in Digboi. In the absence of a proper marquee, the organizers had flung the leaves of banana over some bamboos. With the efforts of several persons and the businessman, Navajyoti managed to get a permanent hall to observe the festival.
Sreedhar Borthakur married Nilima Khound, the daughter of Shiva Prasad Khound of Janji, Sivasagar. They became parents of three children, Monideepa, Manash and Apurba. The dapper gentleman, who always told his children to be always on the offensive during negotiations died on August 4, 2011. Nilima Borthakur presently lives with Apurba Borthakur. Monideepa is an advocate, practicing in Gauhati High Court.
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.