Air - David & Cynthia

DAVID AIR started the Koi Hai website in 1999, twenty years ago.
Many stories and memories have unfolded in the twenty years  since the web was created. 
A lot of memories have been rekindled and a lot of old friends have been able to get in touch again.
DAVID AIR, the author of web site http.//, has enabled personnel, who served in the tea industry, now scattered across the globe, to keep in touch with one another and narrate those tales of a unique life style they had lead in India.
The lifestyle, from the days of the British pioneers has not totally faded away, in spite of the changes of time. Many traditions and customs prevail and the age old summon, ‘koi hai’, which means "who's there?" can at times still be heard at the remaining Tea Planters Clubs.
David, who qualified as an engineer flew with the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy. One day, the 1st Sea Lord, Mountbatten of Burma, was reviewing the officers, who were all Sub Lieuts [AIR] in the aircraft carrier HMS Theseus, he stopped in front of David and enquired of his name. “Sub Lieut Air Sir”, Lord Mountbatten quipped, “I don’t want your b----- rank I want your name”. When the Squadron Commanding Officer explained that his name was indeed ‘Air’ Mountbatten exclaimed, “Good God” and moved on.
On release from service a family friend in the tea trade, arranged an interview for David with Geo.Williamson in London. The Company recruited him as a mistri sahib and sent him to Assam. It was work from the day he joined Mijicajan, in 1954, with no respite, even when he fell through the factory roof!
The Sterling Companies, after WW II and India’s independence, studied the future of Indian tea before investing in their properties. The scenario appeared encouraging and companies commenced developing their fields and factories. A change over from orthodox manufacture to CTC was made. David was soon an authority on CTC’s and at the same time fitting into plantation life. David mentions the veteran planter Doug Meston, of Borpukhuri, a confirmed bachelor, a great shikari, and a good host, who held on to his guests. Meston had his living room furniture arranged in a manner where the bearers never stepped in front of the guests to refill the glasses. The trained bungalow personnel kept topping the drinks from the back without the visitors’ knowledge. Dinner was always served late and the cook would be summoned and reprimanded for serving cold soup. The soup removed for reheating was an excuse for the host to lead the guests back to the gol kamra for more rounds. Meston served what he hunted; the steaks could be anything from elephant, tiger or python meat!
The Company Air Scheme, under the charge of the Superintendent at Pertabghur, was operated by an eccentric pilot. The pilot, never on good terms with the Superintendent, regularly complained of technical defects of the aircraft. David was asked by the Superintendent to give an opinion on the plane’s air worthiness. This was done and reported that he could find no fault. The plane was then flown back to Majulighur by the pilot with David accompanying him in the passenger seat. Shortly after take off to David’s great embarrassment the planes engine cut out –point made by company pilot deliberate or otherwise.
At Borgang he had encounters with the unnatural and natural. He describes his dinner disappearing in front of his eyes from the tray held by the bearer. Queries revealed of eerie happenings in that residence. Another night the house shook and it was not an earthquake. It was a herd of elephants scratching their backs on the bungalow’s walls. It was at Borgang that his fiancée Christine joined him and they were married on the estate. For their honeymoon the couple drove to Shillong in a Standard Vanguard estate car, which had indicators between the doors that lit up and flipped out to show directions.
The honeymooners had difficulty driving to Shillong as wedding guests had reversed the connections between the horn and signal. Applying the horn had the indicators flipping out and the horn blew relentlessly when the signals were operated. The frustrated groom, in desperation, yanked off the wires to the horn. Christine and David settled down to tea life. The children arrived, the first born a pair of twins, boy and girl. With the second birth, another set of twins, two boys, the Superintendent quipped, “David, you must realise that you are paid to produce teas”!!
At Mijicajan an elephant, adored by the children, became the family pet. The owner, John Batten, who reared the animal from a calf, was posted to Africa for eighteen months. A dilemma was encountered when the pachyderm, prescribed pills for an ailment, refused to swallow them even when the tablets were camouflaged in papayas. The fruits were relished but the elephant spat out the capsules. Finally the medicines were fed rapped in molasses.
Posted to the south bank David served on Sangsua and Gootonga. In between he acted at Boroi and installed the manufacture of CTC teas.
David informs that from his youth he belonged to the church of golf, a game he plays well till today. For his golfing skills he was regularly invited to play with the Bara sahibs, including the veterans Bill Gawthropp and Bath (Ghusal) Brown, Superintendents of Jorehaute Tea Company. David was requested to join a foursome which included a Major General. The Army brass was accompanied by two ADC’s, one carrying a bag of golf balls and the other Ben Hogan’s Book on Golf. Some shots the General played, where the ball hardly moved or flew in the wrong direction, the ADC had to refer to the book and read out the error made!
David talks of the days when he and the other Service Veterans, in dinner jackets displaying their campaign medals, would gather at Digboi for the ‘Trafalgar Day’ dinner.
He fondly recalls his tea days in Assam which he decided to leave in 1962. David joined North British Rubber Company in UK. The children settled down to the changed life style and schooling. Penny, their daughter, for a class essay on pets wrote about the elephant. The teacher summoned Christine and informed that her daughter was 3 | P a g e a bright child but her imagination was running riot. While the other children described their cats and dogs the girl wrote about an elephant as a pet! The teacher was amazed to learn from Christine that they had, had a pet elephant. David in 1970 was asked to join Dunlop and the family moved to the Midlands. Life was pleasant for the Airs when tragedy struck. Christine was diagnosed with cancer in 1976 and passed away in 1980. The older twins had already left the nest but the younger pair was still there. After a few years the younger pair progressed to further education.
David was visiting the USA in 1988 where he met a wonderful lady, Cynthia and they married in 1991. He then retired and moved to live in Florida It took him a little time to adapt to the American way of life.
He still retains a Directorship of Engineering Company in Florida, Gencor, which is deeply involved in supplying Equipment for Road building Cynthia and David live in a beautiful house in Florida where visitors, especially from tea, are made to feel at home. Cynthia, who has never seen a tea garden, has developed an interest for that unique life style from the tea tales which fascinates her. She and David regularly visit UK and have attended the planters’ reunions in Aberdeen and Eastbourne. Cynthia was recovering from a knee operation, when I visited them, but ensured that David showed me around Florida. He drove me to Cape Canaveral in his beautiful Cadillac where I dozed off. Planters and their lie backs!!
The creation of the web site occurred when good friends from the Assam days, Jimmy and Wendy Knight, visited the Airs. Talk, as it always happens with planters, centred on the wonderful days of tea. The Knights suggested that the stories should be preserved and David, having trained himself in computer application, was the right person to do so.
David designed and created the koi-hai web site* which brings so much pleasure to the chaiwallahs scattered across the world. Thank you David.
Ali Zaman Kolkata
*the site averages 1000 hits per month from over 28 countries.