By AK Gohain
India’s Tryst with Destiny” at the midnight of 14th August, 1947 had one immediate fallout on British-owned tea estates in Assam; disappearance of tubular iron post in front of their office which was one of the ked manifestations of worst form of slavery during British colonial era. That apart, the proverbial sun that “never set in British Empire” remained in its perpendicular axis and continued to blaze down on their empire of tea estates.
The induced slavery created ‘MAl BAAP’ syndrome which reduced the labourer to mere vassal rendering homage to their feudal lord, and incapacitated them to see any fallibility in despotic domince with near absence of benevolence where only settled principle was the rule of thumb.
Freedom of labourer in their normal life was restricted to near strangulation where young boys and girls had to appear in the office for approval of their marriage alliances and for record in Mager’s Marriage Register, although such deposition had no merits for legal admissibility.
One dared not express infelicity to the decision given by the Sahebs who were the sole adjudicators of all disputes among labourers, yet many of their decisions were instances of aberration of prudence.
Labourers had to take permission to keep their near and dear ones, visiting from other estates, at their quarters even for a night and contravention of such stricture met with punitive action which conformed almost to the norms of historical truth of slavery.
Very few provisions of the Plantation Labour Act were implemented which served only as smoke-screen, the rest were languishing in the statute book only for a good number of years following the ectment of the Act. Visits of the enforcement authority were very few and far between, so the magement was blessed with impunity.
But the change of colour in the composition of estate magement team broke the comatose slumber of the concerned authority and their visits started coming in torrents. The reason for their inhibition to visit during earlier period, though seemingly palpable — one was wise to exercise discretion not to think aloud.
The word ‘BABU’ was the suffix to the surmes of all clerical and supervisory employees which very strangely and with complete logical bankruptcy, carried a stigmatized connotation in the social precinct of British-owned tea estates.
A handful of Indians were recruited between 1948 and 1950, and thereafter in mid-Fifties, boys educated in Doon and other similar high-end schools and also a few from princely state of Rajasthan, were taken into the magement. Those boys with orientation of western life-style then prevailing in schools where they studied, were perfect foil to the fabrics of social and club culture of British community.
The tea planting community was a close-knit society, living in a small world exclusively of their own and highly insular, which alieted them from peripheral societies. There were a few exceptions who came out of insularity and were keen to learn the culture and ethos of their neighbours, thus endearing themselves to the local populace.
The sun of British plantation even till late Sixties seemed to have shown no inclition of waning and one had a distinct feel of British Raj within the fenced-in domain of their tea estates.
Then came devaluation of their pound sterling which caused the beginning of exodus of British expatriates, followed by statutory compulsion of diluting foreign equity of their companies which activated the process of change of ownership to Indian corporate houses, resulting in acceleration of the pace of exodus of the tribe, though it took almost three decades. Filly, the tribe of “LOTUS EATERs” ceased to be seen in sight along with their de-facto Sun, which got dissipated in the vortex of oblivion. Consequently the adage (Sun never set…) lost its relevance in the last vestige of the British empire in the tea estates, forsaking only David Farnham with his indigenous establishment at a far corner in the North Bank of Brahmaputra, as a historical entity.
The snippets depicting lack of human touch in running their tea estates and evaluation of their other activities is only fair, as the mind with its one-sided inclition is liable to be blurred, thus making the image of other facets of the people opaque. Moreover, the Devil may also have a claim of his due.
Working together and observation made from close proximity revealed that the British planters’ work ethic, discipline and untiring devotion to duty deserved not only appreciative acknowledgement, but also worthy for others emulate. If one accepts the credence of the observation on work culture which is regularly highlighted in print media, Assamese people in general cannot boast and take pride, due to lacking of such admirable traits.
They never allowed the familiarities of social life to take advantage in their strictly maintained protocol at each level of magement hierarchy and made one level accountable to the one higher, an essential principle of corporate magement.
Though commercial interest was the motivating factor, their enterprising and adventurous passion to open tea estates even at remote and hazardous, nearly iccessible places — was undeniably praiseworthy. A few hundred tea estates that they established is the wealth of a huge asset which people once colonized inherited, the only organised industry in Assam then and USP of Assam now.
The above snippets from the memories of 60 plus years of distant past do not in any way cast aspersions on present tea estate magements. There has been a paradigm change in present-day magement where professiolism is the buzz-word, along with a mindset of compliant approach to social obligations.
Young SM Singh from Punjab joined Doom Dooma Tea Company in April 1955 and was posted in Samdang Tea Estate. Mager Alec Bruce put him in field work. Young Singh had the habit of saying “Well, well” after every sentence he spoke. This vocable intrigued the women labourers as they had never heard it before. So began an intense discussion and after some deliberation, they arrived at a unimous interpretation that the word was a GALI — a swear-word — and decided not to take this new GALl lying down from the new Saheb. So, one morning out came young Singh to the work-site and the vocable came out in its tural rhythm. As decided, the agitated women labourers abandoned their work and marched en-masse to the Mager’s office, complaining about the new Chota Saheb’s GALl. While admitting that they had been accepting the ‘pura’ Saheb’s GALls like “Dam” and “Baladi”, the women insisted they were not going to take this new GALI from the new Saheb. Alec Bruce had a long and exhausting time in explaining what exactly the world ‘Well’ was. The agitated women labourers, though not fully convinced which was writ large on their faces, hesitatingly walked back to work. In due course, the new ‘GALl / swear-word’ also got acceptance like the old ones, and young Singh’s “Vocable Interlude” continued unopposed!
Literalism of English Word:
Young David Watt from Scottish Highland, speaking with a broad accent, joined Associated Tea Company, one of the groups of erstwhile James Warren & Co., in August, 1956 and was posted in Dhoedaam Tea Estate, sharing his living accommodation with an Assamese executive senior to him. Durga Puja in Dhoedaam Tea Estate, like in other tea gardens, was a yearly festival jointly organized by staff members and labourers where it was customary for members of the Magement to make their visits. Accordingly, the senior explained the custom to Watt and they went out together one evening. As they came out of their vehicle near the gate of the Puja pandal, the staff members present came out and received the Sahebs with normal salutation.
Then came Hazarika babu walking faster than his normal pace so as not to miss the opportunity of joining in the social interaction with the Sahebs. In his unpretentious simplicity, he greeted the two with “GOOD NIGHT, Sir”. To David, these were the only words he understood, and he made a quiet gesture to his companion to leave. The senior, realizing the awkward situation, maged to hold back David and both together went inside the pandal and spent time with everyone present.
During the conversation in Assamese, David had a blank look throughout, possibly confused in the cacophonic din of recorded Hindi film songs blaring at high decibel and worse confounded by the blast of other unmusical concoction.
Hazarika babu perhaps had his own logic that if saying “Good Morning” in the mórning could be right, why not “Good Night” when it was night! How could one expect Hazarika babu to know the idiosyncratic abstruse in the literal usage of English words? He simply stuck to the literality of the word. It was night after sunset. So going by his logic, Hazarika babu was right in greeting the Saheb “GOOD NIGHT, Sir”.