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Resurgence of Hope Jeff TikariDuring the 50s and 60s, Jamair did sterling service transporting people and goods to the many remote grass airstrips that dotted North Bengal: a lifeline for the many tea plantations that lay well beyond the reach of rail lines. Plantation companies of the area put together resources to support and maintain these strips where the versatile Dakotas landed. Bringing factory engine parts, cement, office useables, and other essential goods so vital for the running of the plantations. The arrival of the Dakotas spread especial cheer as they carried bread, butter, cheese, bacon, ham, and cakes from Calcutta for managers and their families living in those isolated regions.
My destination was the verdant foothills of the Himalayas in the heart of tea plantations in north-eastern India, two thousand miles from Calcutta.
I landed at Grassmore (Dooars) in a Jamair, twin prop, World War -2 vintage Dakota early on the morning of the thirteenth day of March (that too a Friday!) in the year 1959. The flight had originated from a hanger at Dum Dum Airport (Calcutta) at three in the morning (it was pitch dark!). I was attired in a brown three-piece suit (a lot of us arrived wearing suits) having boarded the flight straight after a farewell party. I was guided through the doors of the DC -3 (Dakota) and seated in a makeshift strapped-down seat behind a load of cargo that shifted ominously with every bump in spite of being tied down with a heavy net.
In Calcutta I was congratulated roundly by friends for having landed a plum job as a tea planter in a British company that paid the princely sum of Rs 650 per month as basic pay – a large sum it was considered as starting pay for a youngster: I was in my twenty-first year, fresh out of college.
Tota driver, driving a rattley old Ford truck that belched more smoke than a steam locomotive, met me at Grassmore airfield. He kept me waiting an eternity whilst he collected 'cold stores' for the senior staff – I later learnt what an important lifeline those 'cold stores' from Calcutta were for us.
I waited in the shade cast by the awning of the building that served as the Terminus: a crudely plastered brick shed, whitewashed and roofed with corrugated iron sheets. I could see a tea plantation across a narrow macadam road: tea bushes trimmed flat formed a green carpet that stretched away into the distance rolling with the undulating terrain – a four feet high barbed wire fence separated it from the airstrip. A batch of women were picking green tea leaves and putting handfuls into conical baskets they carried slung on their backs. Children – bare feet and some bare every thing, lined the fence staring at the 'Iron Bird' that was disgorging hessian-covered packages of all sizes. Through the trees, I could see the mighty Himalayas – hazy, blue, and serene in the distance.
Tota emerged, button-less shirt flapping around his khaki shorts, and headed for the truck. We travelled on a dirt road that skirted a tea garden (Grassmore Tea Estate, I learned later) and headed towards the mountains stirring up clouds of dust and belching smoke that blanketed the fresh smell of lush green tea fields.
We drove over an iron grid built across the road (a cattle trap) the rattle crossing it sounded like a locomotive going over a bridge - we had now entered Bhogotpore Tea Estate of Dooars Tea Company. A company that belonged to the King William House Group of Companies, registered in London and managed by Gillanders Arbuthnot & Co. Ltd. of Calcutta.
On our way to the main office, we passed ‘labour lines’ where dogs ran out barking and chasing after the truck; past a football field at the edge of which stood the plantation school: a whitewashed large shed-like structure; and then two tall factory chimneys came into view exuding wispy grey smoke.
We had arrived at the Bhogotpore tea factory and offices, my destination. Tota stopped here and I alighted brushing dust off my new suit. Bhogotpore factory was large and spread out with many open outbuildings (chungs) to house the green leaf from the fields. A chain link fence towered eight feet around the factory and offices.
Daya Sehgal (senior Assistant Manager) 'tall, dark and handsome' wore an open necked shirt and shorts. He grinned widely when he saw me alight in a suit from the smoke belching truck (It was only later that I learned what an incongruous sight I had cut in a suit). He shook my hand in welcome and turned to Tota:
"Take the Chota Sahib to the AG Division bungalow," he then addressed me, "I'll pick you up in an hour, when you have settled in… and put on shorts and a half-sleeved shirt… save the suit for Hogmanay," he said with a twinkle in his eye.
Any thoughts I had of a swanky first-impression evaporated rapidly.
I had schooled in Darjeeling – the winter hill station capital of the erstwhile British Raj and the prime ‘quality tea’ area of India - and so did not make any stupid comments about the tea fields as I believe many new comers did. However, the leafy canopied shade trees towering over the tea bushes looked magnificent in their whitewashed stockings (tree trunks were white washed from the ground to a height of four feet to keep soil borne weevils at bay) – there were no shade trees on the steeply sloping high altitude Darjeeling plantations, but I held my tongue.