Category Archives: First Person

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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FINDING OUR LIVES

Monalisa Changkija

© Divya Adusumilli

© Divya Adusumilli

I have never managed to see the movie The Help right from the beginning. Every time, I switch on the television just to take a small break or gainfully utilize my time while I’m eating, folding washed and dried clothes, doing up the cupboard, etc., or to catch up on the news, I get around to watching The Help midway. So I know how the movie ends but not how it begins. And nothing can be more frustrating than not knowing why the movies ended thus. So, beginnings are important — there are no endings without beginnings — but without know the beginnings, the endings provide only an incomplete knowledge.

Today, the tribe of women writers in the Northeast is increasing at the speed of light and it must really make you wonder why, considering that women were grudgingly allowed to acquire education so much later than men in this region. Come on, we all have Grandmothers who were/are so much more intelligent, smarter and shrewder than our Grandfathers but because girls had to stay home and learn how to be “good” wives, Mothers and home-makers, girls of our Grandmothers, even our Mothers’, generations were prevented from acquiring formal education unlike our grandfathers and fathers. But things haven’t really changed because even a cursory look at school enrolment, the drop-out rates and even the literacy rate of girls/women vis-à-vis boys/men, girls still remain excluded from education for reasons that can best be explained as patriarchal. Some explain this sorry situation as “economic” factors but that is looking at the mirror, which is covered by thick, ineffaceable layers of grime — and this thick, ineffaceable layers of grime is patriarchy — a very prominent and unmistakable characteristic of the Northeast.

True, the Northeast has one of the highest literacy rates in the country today and our girls are so much more ahead of our boys academically and educationally. This didn’t happen because girls in the region had equal opportunities and a level playing field. This happened because girls here didn’t have equal opportunities and a level playing field. We had to struggle and strive a hundred times more than our brothers to be where we are, and then to overtake them. Of course, it greatly helped that we were blessed with the intelligence, the will, wisdom and the strength to win in any unequal race. What also greatly helped is our realization that if we didn’t acquire education and made something of ourselves, we would spend the rest of our days “making” homes, only to be insecure and imprisoned within them.

So we had, and still have, our stories to tell — to motivate and inspire our daughters — about the few options we had in life — the few options our daughters and their daughters will also have, unless they too tell their stories thereby motivate and inspire society and state to accept and include women and girls as full-fledged human beings, as persons with independent minds and aspiring hearts, in the community of humankind.

This I believe is the reason why women writers in the Northeast struggle and strive to record, to document and to be heard. This is why I write. And I must say we have made quite a dent in our otherwise obtuse society and states, which continue to believe that we have nothing to say and we have no stories apart from the stories wherein only our men play the lead role. Ah, but even as the victims, we know that we are the lead role players in all stories of the human society.

But we don’t always write about our victimhood. We also write about our triumphs, our joys, amusements, foibles, idiosyncrasies, eccentricities, weaknesses, pettiness, shortcomings and of course, our loves, our lusts and hates. We have discovered that writing provides us the platform to be totally human without being malicious and to laugh at ourselves. Then again, we don’t always write about ourselves, we also write about numerous issues that are not necessarily gender-centric. I write editorials six days a week on all issues under the sun, I devote only one editorial to women and gender issues in a week. My poetry isn’t all about women and gender issues, or my short stories — I have to seriously consider publishing them one of these days.

So yes, all women writers in the Northeast are not obsessed with only one issue. We have an increasing number of Northeast women writers writing tomes on history, literature, economics, environment, ethnicity, identity — the list is inexhaustible. Therefore, it is not surprising that not all Northeast women writers like to be bracketed as Feminists because not all are. All of us also don’t write only about the Northeast. Our writings also comprise of well-researched commentaries on issues that are universal. So yes, women writers of the Northeast, wherever we live, have successfully broken free of, and from, the walls of geographical, cultural and communal parochialism.

Women writers of the Northeast have entered the world of universalism hence today we are more well-known than our male writers. This naturally also underscores the superiority of the quality of our writings. But ultimately what really matters is that a writer, male or female, must have something to say and make the world listen to it. So yes, coming back to The Help, I couldn’t help but empathize and identify with the “Helps”. In so many ways, Northeast women writers are the “Helps”. In so many ways, we have also imbibed the lesson: “You is kind, You is Smart and You is Important”, (this is what a Black Help teaches her young White ward), which has also helped us to find our lives.

So, at the end of the movie, the two main Black Helps encourage the young White girl to go to New York and take up her job in a publishing house thus “Go find your life, Miss Skeeter”.

You know, women writers of the Northeast are finding our lives by writing and now it is our turn to tell our young ones, no less our societies and communities, to “go find our lives”. This alone would make our endeavours in the realm of writing worthwhile.

***

Tiamerenla Monalisa Changkija

Tiamerenla Monalisa Changkija

Tiamerenla Monalisa Changkija is a poet and writer, born in Jorhat, Assam. She studied at Patkai Christian College, Chumukedima and did her BA and MA in Political Science from Delhi University. She is the editor and proprietor of the Nagaland Page, an English daily. Her books include Weapons of Words on Pages of Pain (1993).

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