Grassmore Chota Bangla

Venk Shenoi

I was born in Chertala, Travancore, India in November 1939.

Education : Graduate Indian Institute of Technologu 1962 - Further MSc Turbine Technology in Rugby, DMS, MIMechE

Professional Experience     1962 – 65 Dooars Tea Co Nagrakata and grassmore TEs, 1966 – 2005 UK and international Power Industry Project Development & Management, also Independent consultancy on Power Project development and construction. Now Retired

Interests – Bee Keeping, Radio, Antique Fountain pens, Travel

Other Activity – Local Councillor until 2011

Memories of Tea – see attached

Assam – Natural Living Bridge made up by training tree branches. See photo

Grassmore TE photo (1964) – attached, also New Year Day Dance Grassmore TE (1964) Photo attached

Castle Peak Power Station (Hong Kong) Project Team (1983) Photo – attached

**Photos are at the base of this page**

 

 

Another Land, Another Age - My Memories of Tea

 

Nagrakata and Grassmore seem another land, another age. Memories linger and imagination fills the rest. I had spent the evening at Trincas on Park Street celebrating my new posting in Tea with friends and walked to the Grand Hotel on Chowringhee to await the bus taking me to Dum Dum for the 4.00A.M Jamair flight to the Dooars.

 

The flight was on time. The vintage twin engine DC3 Dakota had seen better days and the forward space were filled with supplies and baggage strapped down in nets on their way to Planters of the Dooars. The flight lasted just over two hours and the Pilot was friendly, even inviting me to the flight deck. The morning was just breaking over the Himalayas as the plane approached the Dooars with Kanchenjungha straight ahead and miles and miles of green forest and tea terraces below. We were soon landing on the grass strip of Grassmore TE. A lorry picked me up for the journey to Nagrakata. I was tired and half asleep by the time I reached the Chota Bungla of Nagrakata TE.

 

My first job on starting in September 1962 was to familiarise myself with over a thousand men and women, no mean task, but made easy as the workers were grouped under their hereditary Sirdars that had led them East to the forest lands being cleared and tea planted in the 19th century. There were stories of the Sahbs randomly burying gold Mohurs in the ground prompting the labourers to dig the whole land in case they missed any. Tribal organisation and family groups must have been a boon to early planters both in recruiting and also controlling large numbers of workers brought to the malaria infested jungle. The Bengali Baboos were hard pressed to act as intermediaries between the lone Angrez Sahib and the tribal workers and local officials. Life must have been tough but these early pioneers took it on and succeeded.

 

Over time I managed to link hundreds of names with their faces and to remember which Mangri belonged to which Sirdar. Pay-days helped as names were called out and they came to collect their wages. The only way to learn was to be there when workers were in the Melas and listen to their stories. They liked some Sahbs and did not like others. Those that were sympathetic to their interests were in turn listened to which helped the work to no end. The days were hot and it often rained, you learnt how best to get the most from the men and women who had lived on the Estate for generations and knew the place better than the Sahbs who came and disappeared now and then.

 

The Mela ladies used to call me Chichinga-Sahb, yes, I was lean and lanky like a stork and wore glasses but it was fun and I got on quite well with most. They were a friendly lot and had their own sense of humour. One had to admire young mums strapping their babies on their backs and getting on with the day’s work in the heat whether sickling or plucking in the summer and rainy season or pruning in the autumn. A compliment, smile and joke never went amiss. The occasional hot tea under shade was a welcome break for the workers from the harsh sun.

 

The Burra Sahb intervened if there was trouble but such occasions were few. Stories of disobedient workers being locked up in chuna-gudams or being whipped for insolence belonged to the previous century.

 

The Manager at Nagrakata Mike Crawley was a dour soul, a bachelor who kept himself to himself in his Burra-Bungla and did not speak much or socialise in the Club. The only visitor he had was Col Tibbetts from neighbouring Nya Sailee who was tall and military in his bearing and always accompanied by two huge dogs.

 

 

 

Ex-pat managers and Assistants had six months home leave every three years but some returned early either because they missed their tea life or found themselves out of place in the fast changing world outside. It must have been hard for many retiring after decades in Tea living a privileged life surrounded by servants thrust out in the cold.

 

The manager at Grassmore Grafton Tully was an old timer having joined the firm in the 1930s. He was described in earlier times as “a typical old time planter — a lover of outdoor life, a strict disciplinarian and stickler for time. In the 1950s and 60s he became a loner but had his moments. He suffered from a bad back and had time off when his lone Assistant had to carry on. He had learned tea the hard way having come to India where his brother worked for Gillanders Arbuthnot.

 

Mark Tully (born 1935 in Calcutta and nephew of Grafton Tully) the BBC’s Correspondent in India for many years called him a “jabardust planter”. He was also an excellent sportsman and tennis was his forte. He remained a bachelor.”

 

British society was as hierarchical as that of the caste-ridden Indians. Mark Tully describes the hierarchies that prevailed in one of his articles:

 

 “European society in the Calcutta of those days was divided by a strict class system, not dissimilar to the (Indian) caste system. Members of the ICS, the Indian Civil Service, were considered the Brahmins (the elite caste), while the members of the Indian army were regarded as the Rajputs (the warrior caste).

 

As a businessman, my father was a Vaisya (trading caste), dismissed by the snooty ICS and army as a mere "boxwallah".

 

Tea Managers living in the wilderness of Assam or Dooars surrounded by natives were still lower down the rung. Burra Saabs however were kings of their Gardens and had Power of Attorney. Their Mems ruled Club life and the young Assistant had to be extra nice to be noticed. You met on Club nights, for Black and Red Label Whiskies or Indian beer which was good and the occasional film, or theatrical play put on by the Nagrakata Players. Saturday afternoons were for Tennis. You slept the Sundays off after the busy week and late Saturday at the Club for an early start on Monday.

 

You were expected to be social and cheerful whilst being mindful of the prevailing hierarchy.  It was also a time to let go, noise levels increased as the night advanced and more pegs were downed.

 

Talking about the tough jobs one tackled in the Melas hacking a slithering snake in the bush with your sickle or facing off a threatening leopard cornered by the advancing front of women plucking leaf filled time. There was always Club-gossip. Weekdays during the busy summer you got up at 4.00A.M to dash out to the workers already busy sickling or cleaning up the Melas before returning at 7.00 for breakfast.

 

You did not know what you will encounter on surprise visits to the factory at 2.00A.M when the Chowkidar woke you up with a cup of tea. Going down the estate path from the Nagrakata Chota Bangla on a pedal bike presented a thrill a minute. The ride of over a mile in total darkness with a dim torch in one hand was thrilling no doubt particularly when a startled group of leopards or the slithering body of a long snake loomed in front. The natural reaction when faced with danger was to pedal even faster hoping you were able to brake at the bottom where there was a bridge and sight of the labour lines and factory buildings across the Jhora. Rainy nights posed special problems with the track now slippery. Occasionally there were signs of elephant movement and dung heaps and also animal and bird sound but one just kept pedalling in the dark towards the bridge.

 

Grassmore where I was posted next had a bad reputation within the Dooars Tea Co –difficult workers and a previous manager reported to have flogged factory plant and machinery before departing on retirement.

 

Grafton Tully took me up occasionally in his Auster single engined plane for a round over neighbouring Bhutan and Jalpaiguri district. I often wondered whether the plane was air worthy particularly as we faced the high mountains ahead and climbed sharply to avoid collision. It must have cost him a bomb to maintain and fuel the infrequent flights although parking was free in its shed at the air strip. I enjoyed the joy rides though.

 

There were a lot of vacancies in the Melas; infilling and looking after growing bushes was interesting. New Clones were being introduced from Toklai and there was a nursery next to the Chota Bangla. It was fascinating to watch plants grow from seed and clonal cuttings. Later on I visited a research station in Kerala which was trying out vegetative propagation of tea plants through cell culture. How things have changed.

 

Grassmore being on the forest edge and close to several water courses was regular haunt of wild animals on their foraging rounds. Leopards frequently mauled cattle out grazing particularly at night and left half-eaten carcasses. Goats and small animals were also taken on occasion from the Lines. A previous Assistant on hearing about a tiger loose in the Mela went to his bungalow to fetch his gun and was looking for the beast when he was attacked from the rear. Luckily he lived to tell the tale but was hospitalised and spent months recovering.

 

Apart from the occasional leopard or tiger getting its cow or goat from the lines a chap came running one day to report a large snake eating his goat. Rushing to the Lines near the Jhora I was struck by the length and girth of the python with half a nannie goat stuck in its mouth. The poor beast was paralysed and had no chance of escape with the heavy goat half way in and crowds of the locals wondering how best to deal with the situation. There was no immediate threat and solutions were near at hand. Both the python and its prey were dispatched speedily and feasted upon by the Line-dwellers.

 

Plant and machinery at some of the Dooars Tea Co Estates fell into the category of Victorian antiquity. One device called the Hydram was installed in a jhora and shot up plugs of water up to a tank as the water flowed through and the valve shut periodically. The resulting thumping boom could be heard for miles around particularly at night. 

 

Grassmore had shell boilers and steam engines not unlike those on railway locomotives to drive the factory belt train which was unique as the rest of the factories around had Crossley two stroke horizontal diesel engines some from the early part of the century. Much of the other factory machinery such as leaf cutters, rollers, driers, etc., went back to the late 19th century. The engines and machinery despite their age appeared to run well but required regular maintenance.

 

The old engines and machinery had cast iron components which required care in stripping and cleaning. I was horrified when an inlet manifold on the Crossley engine of early 20th century vintage cracked whilst being pulled out from the main body for service. Getting a spare part from the UK was out of question.

 

The Crossley Engineer (Late Earnie Lees) was summoned and the broken parts removed with care and sent off to a foundry in Calcutta. Thanks to the Indian Jugad or make-do mind-set the foundry managed to join the broken pieces of the casting back and the inlet manifold was bolted back successfully and the engine recommissioned.

 

 

 

Tea workers become ingenuous if given a chance and more often than not their efforts succeed. Diesel engines were started using compressed air in bottles pumped up when an engine was started to be used for starting again when needed. A pump set used to pump water from a jhora did not start at first try and the air bottle became empty. Nagrakata faced water shortage. The pump man came running for help.

 

Luckily a long rope was requisitioned and lo and behold the Store Baboo had just the right length. Thirty workers were sent for from where they were pruning and within an hour all assembled near the diesel engine. The engines all had large flywheels and also belt pulleys to drive pumps or other machinery, so it was a question of winding the rope on the belt pulley and thirty odd workers doing a fast rope-pull down into the Jhora which in the event started the engine, relief all round. It remained to fill the air bottles before slipping the belt over the pump pulley and get water flowing again.  

 

On a return visit in 2003 when Mr Chaturvedi the then manager of Nya Sailee kindly put me up in his bungalow and took me around the estates and also the Club I noted many things have changed. Tea factories were all electrified and all the old diesels and boilers together with the long trains of belt drives had disappeared, all machinery now were fitted with electric motors. Overhead conveyors were being used to transport leaf to the factory loft for wilting and also around the factory through the different operations.

 

Tea processing also appears to have changed with CTC machines replacing the old cutting and rolling machines. Vestiges remain though of the old times; many old factory buildings and bungalows remain and one has to look carefully to see the changes.

 

I am sure Tea Estates continue to present challenges to the new generation of managers and workers. It was a hell of a life in 1962 and an experience and memories I would have been poorer without.

 

Venk Shenoi

 

 

1981 Castle Peak Team

tea Dance

Konarak Charriot Wheel

Cherapunji Bridge