THE TEA GARDEN LIFE

Roderick Chalmers

Cutlacherra Pagla Khanna

During the Christmas holidays when we were all together in Cutlacherra, the weather was fine; the temperatures were not too hot, not too cold, but just right.

It was then that we arranged “impromptu” picnics. They always took a great deal of preparation and planning.

First of all we had to choose a suitable location. Then we had to decide what food would be taken. The mode of transport to the chosen location was very important.

We did not have to wait for a bright and sunny day. During the winter months, every day was going to be bright and sunny. We just had to choose a specific day.

On the appointed day, two bearers would go ahead to make arrangements for our comfort. Workers were employed to take a table and chairs to a clearing at the edge of the forest which had been cleared of all twigs and overhanging branches. etc.  The earth was flattened and the table laid out with a tablecloth and napkins.

Someone carried the gramophone and a few records to the venue, usually nursed on the back of the lorry.

A primus stove was an essential bit of equipment as all food had to be reheated.

The food was not anything different from our everyday meals, plates and cutlery and drinking glasses and water all had to be taken.

My mother, grandmother and sisters were usually taken by car to as near as possible to the picnic site. The food was transported in the dekchis, in the boot of the car and my brothers and I would ride our bicycles to the spot. Table and chairs and morahs and all the heavier stuff was taken on the back of a plantation lorry.

My father would always break off from his work on the plantation (Kamjari) and join us. He would arrive riding on his horse with the syce (groom) running along behind.

We would play some music on the gramophone and sit around chatting and laughing and joking. Because it was the jungle, nothing different then, we had to ensure that there were not any nasty creepy crawlies about. We messed about under the trees and all the while the bearers were busy reheating and preparing the food. The ayahs were kept busy looking after the very young ones, they were my sister Sheila and my youngest brother Alfy (this may come as a shock to some who knew him as a team captain in school, or even as a grown up).

When all was ready we were called to have our meal in the jungle (Pagla khanna).

Then things started to wind down, all the plates etc were given a cursory wash in a stream. All pure unpolluted water was used then the dishes were transported back to the bungalow.

The primus stove was used to boil water and make tea and cake was cut for us.

After all the playing around we had to wash our hands in the cool waters of the stream, before we could be given cake to eat. All the other food was eaten with a spoon and fork.( I still use a spoon and fork to eat my Indian meals, my children all use a knife and fork to eat curry and rice. I ‘educated’ my wife Molly, to use a spoon for curry and rice. )

As it was getting towards evening, my mother, grandmother and sisters and the Ayahs would all get in the car to return to the bungalow. My father would make a short visit to the tea gangs before he returned home and all the paraphernalia for a Pagla khanna would be returned to the bungalow.

We boys would ride our bicycles around a bit and then pedal home.

We would all be tired but happy because it had been such an enjoyable day.  These days were memorable because they were so infrequent but also because they were a family affair. Best of all, my Mum was alive then.

Sometimes, only sometimes, we invited other planters and their families to join us.

The servants always referred to our picnics as Pagla khanna and could not see why we had to go to the jungle when we were perfectly comfortable eating at home.

In time we always referred to our picnics as Pagla khannas and never as picnics. (Sahib log Pagla ho gya)

Concert Parties in the 1940s

I wonder if anyone remembers the concert parties that used to come around the tea gardens.

They used to perform their plays over three nights, in the natch ghor.  In the absence of electricity, Petromax lights and Tilley lamps would be borrowed from all and sundry . The shopkeepers in the bazar were usually a good source. The lights needed to be pumped up frequently.

Very extravagant garish costumes were worn. The plays invariably involved a king. You knew that he was a king because he walked around with a crown on his head. Then there was the baddie with a large black moustache, there was always a man called senapati. Beards were much in evidence.

The orchestra consisted of a man with a loud trumpet, an harmonium and some drums.

The audience waited with bated breath for the king to challenge the baddie to a duel with the immortal words, ‘Dhoroe austroe thumi hamar songae judhoe koroe.’ A big cheer would go up from the audience. (Sorry, my spelling of Bengali words into English script is not up to scratch, but you get the drift).

The play ended with the king the victor and the baddie lying dead. Very hammy acting was always appreciated.

Our bara babu, in one of his patriotic moods decided that he would put on a play with a sahib as the baddie. He demonstrated how one should fire a pistol ‘dhai dhai’ with each dhai the left leg was raised up behind him.

He suggested that I play the sahib and dress up. Then he thought about it and decided that I didn’t need to dress up, but I should wear a sola toppee.

My dad soon put a stop to such nonsense.

Cutlacherra Dogs

Over the years we had many dogs as pets in Cutlacherra. Some died of illness. Others were taken by tigers. A puppy was taken from our front veranda just as it hopped over the door frame. There was a scream and it was gone.  We used to keep the door open during the evening for the cool breeze.

The night chowkidars slept on the verandas at night.  It was decided at one time that Ghurkha night watchmen would be a good idea. But that didn’t last.

Then there were the Lushais. Sena made himself out to be fearless so he and a colleague were employed to keep us safe at night. Sena asked my father for a torchlight so he lent him the very long beam hunting torch that took six batteries. During the night my father went out on to the verandas and found Sena and colleague sound asleep. So he picked up the torch and went back to bed.

Next morning I heard Sena explaining ‘Bahut shorom ko baat hay’.

The dogs also gave us a lot of heartache. One of my uncles working in the Assam Oil Company in Digboi had these beautiful black and white Cocker Spaniels. He brought them down to Cutlacherra for us.  Tojo was the male (probably named after The Japanese General) and the docile lovable female named Peggy.

They had two puppies, one was snatched from the veranda and after a great deal of thought and much imagination we named the other one Rex.

The jamadar Romesh was in charge of looking after the dogs. He fed and watered them and took them down to the river for a bath with Shirley’s dog soap. All the good stuff.

(IF YOU ARE SQUEAMISH PLEASE DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER)

Tojo was bitten by a mad dog and started showing signs of hydrophobia. When Romesh took them down to the river for a bath, then Tojo bit him on the wrist.

Ideally, the dogs would have been shot, but my father had no cartridges. The only option was to bash its brains out. Just before it was killed Tojo bit Peggy on the mouth and it immediately started swelling up.  So Peggy and Rex had to be disposed of in the same way. Peggy made no struggle but went meekly to her death.

For days the bungalow was very quiet and my father was traumatised for days, with the thought of what he had had to do.

Romesh was sent to the civil hospital in Hailakandi for serum and our doctor babu gave him fifteen consecutive injections in the stomach. The rest of us, including the servants were given seven consecutive injections, in our arms as a precaution.

Maybe that is why I am a bit pagalled.

***

Roderick Chalmers

Roderick Chalmers

Roderick Chalmers owned  Cutlacherra Tea Estates in the 1930s and 40s. He’s retired now and lives in London.
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Filed under First Person, Non-fiction

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