Mehra - Rajan

A Memoir

42 years in Tea and then One day 1st March 2010 – I called it a day.

Born October 1945 at Lahore – then undivided India. We as a family, my mother, my elder sister and a cousin brother (adopted by my mother) had to move to India due to the partition in August 1947. I believe, - we had to stay in a refugee Camp for a night at Delhi as there was a curfew. My father, a graduate from St. Stephen’s College Delhi worked for Imperial Bank of India. A chartered plane was arranged by the bank to fly him out of Pakistan in December 1947. He was promoted as Agent (Branch Manager) at Jammu in 1949.

With my father’s frequent transfers to various cities, I too moved with the family and changed several schools. The longest I studied at one school was at St. Joseph’s Academy – Dehradun for 4 years. Many Planters during my time in Tea, had also studied at that school. After that I joined Bishop Cotton School Simla as a Boarder and I was there for 2 years. These two schools were prestigious schools at that time. Academically, I was exceptionally   good and always stood first in my class. Few of my class teachers commented on my report card as a “Brilliant Student”. I got double promotions also and finished class X at the age of 13 years. After finishing class XII, I wanted to pursue studies to become an Engineer, but I was underage for admission to any Engineering College and under the circumstances I had to join a degree college for a regular degree course.

 I finished college with a B.Sc. degree in 1963 and in the same year I was selected for admission at Birla Institute of Technology at Mesra, Ranchi for a 4 years course of Mechanical Engineering. I passed out from the Engineering College in 1967 with a First Division degree of B.Sc. Mech. Engineering. On finishing college, I wished to study further and go overseas for a Master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering. Meanwhile I was also applying to various companies for a job. I was given a list of a number of companies where to apply by a member of our family

I received a letter from Michigan State University in August 1967, that I have been selected for a M.Sc. Engg. course of 2 years but without a scholarship- the session would start in March 1968. I also received a letter from Vanderbilt University, Tennessee that my case was under consideration and they would advise me in due course. At the same time, I received a letter from Macneill & Barry Ltd. to appear for an interview with them at Calcutta. I did not know that M & B Ltd were going to interview me for a job in their Tea gardens in Assam.

I was interviewed separately by few senior executives. Almost all of them asked me “Mr. Mehra – what do you know about Tea”. I replied “Nothing except for drinking 2 cups of tea per day”. Later I was interviewed by the Directors of the Company in the Board room. I was not asked a single question about my knowledge of Engineering. The Interview was in a very light vein and to me it seemed they were enjoying questioning me on general issues. They asked me “Do You drink, If so, how much? “. I replied “Yes, I do drink but after the party I have always carried all my friends back to the college hostel. They also asked me if I had a girlfriend- to which I replied “Yes several’ One shrewd British Director retorted “How come”? I explained that my father used to get transferred frequently. “Ah, so you are like the sailor who has a girl at every port”. At that time, I was certain that they were not going to select me. Two days later, I was called to meet the Directors again and to my extreme surprise I was told that I was selected for appointment and would receive my appointment letter soon.

 I received a letter from the Company dated 25th October offering me a job as Assistant Manager (Engineering) to be based in Assam. The salary, perks and terms were extremely attractive, in fact unbelievable. My father advised me to join and if I did not like the job I could always leave and go for further studies to Michigan or Vanderbilt Universities.

On 15Th November 1967, I landed at Guwahati airport to go to Salonah Tea Estate for my new job. Little did I know that I would stay in Assam, working for the same company for 43 years. I knew nothing about Tea but learned the ropes fast. My Engineering background did help me in my job in Tea. In the very first year I was posted to 4 Estates in different districts. On the 4th Estate – Thanai Tea Estate, my Manager, Hugh McLeod greeted me saying – “So you are the rolling stone who gathers no moss”.

I joined Tea when most of the expatriates were leaving or were asked to leave due the devaluation of the Rupee.  During a short time, I got to know several Indian as well as British planters. At that time our company had many British & Scottish Planters. I met few during my first 2 years -Edgar Deighton. Dick Street, Hugh Mcleod, Mike Graystone, Sandy Cowe, Ian Leetham, Rod Meadows, John Clayton, Charlie Anderson, Ron Cooper, R. L. Stevenson, Bill Charlier, W. E. (Bill) Dowsing and of course The Superintending Manager- Frank Wilson.  As an active club member and also being good at games and sports, I got to know some British Planters (Boga Sahibs) from other Companies also.

I got married in Feb 1973 to a wonderful girl whom I had known from before. As a married couple our first Garden was Salonah. We have two sons both married and quite well settled. The elder son (Mech. Engineer} has done well in his career and with his family has settled down in Toronto. The younger son changed several jobs. He designs computer games. He worked for Microsoft in Redmond (Seattle) for few years but returned to India. He and his family are currently settled in Bangalore

During my first 13 years in tea, I was posted back and forth to mainly two Tea Estates- Thanai and Salonah. The factories at these two Estates were being modernised.  I also did two short stints of 3 months each as field assistance at Heeleakah. My Managers were strict but seemed to be happy with my performance. During these years, I did the usual stint of an Assistant Manager- working in the factory and field with a few Acting assignments. I got on well with my colleagues and my seniors. Both, Shalini and I took active part in Club functions.


In 1980, I received a circular letter from the Head office, signed by our Managing Director, Mr. C.J.N Will (Charles Will) stating that with effect from 1st Jan 1981, R. Mehra will be designated as “Understudy to the Visiting Agent (Manufacture)” and would move to- Hazelbank Estate, which was next to Nudwa Estate. Mr. S. Basu (Kumar Basu) was then our Additional Visiting Agent (Manufacture) based at Nudwa. I learned Tea Tasting from Kumar and worked very hard to achieve the right palette for tasting teas. I was also sent by our company to undergo Tea Tasting training from our two main Tea Brokers- J. Thomas & Co. and Carritt Moran & Co. for a duration of one month each. I must add I was given a VIP treatment by both these Companies and got to know their Directors and other Tea Tasters. Soon hard work paid and after a year I could pick a Tasting Cup and could blindly identify from which of our Estates it came from.

I moved to Nudwa on 1st March 1983 and took over as Manufacturing advisor of the Company from Kumar Basu. While handing over the bungalow to me Kumar said “I have lived 13 years in this bungalow and have lot of memories, Rajan do look after the bungalow. Little did I know that I was going to live in that very Bungalow for the next 27 years.

ACIL then had only 17 Estates. The Rupee Estates of Assam Company went to Williamson Magor, when these two companies demerged as Macneill & Magors. ACIL had 16 factories as Hajua and Khoomtai leaf was manufactured at Khoomtai factory.

I had to taste teas produced in all these factories every week and visit all factories on regular basis. The far-off Estates in Mariani (Kotalgoorie) and in Nowgong (Salonah and Kondoli) I had to visit at least once during the month. It took me some time in settle in this new position. I had to advise Managers as well as Superintending Managers who were very senior to me. Some of them had been my Managers. I, in my own wisdom did well and instead of criticising any shortcoming in the factory machinery or manufacture, I only politely suggested that an improvement could be brought about by little changes in manufacture procedure followed by the factory.

Our company used to send two couples each year to UK for a month. The couples sent to UK were on the basis of seniority. I was pleasantly very surprised to receive a letter from our Calcutta Office that we will be going to UK in August 1985. We were naturally very excited. I was selected to go to UK on basis of my designation which was higher than other senior colleagues of mine.

We travelled to London on 5th August 1985. We were very well looked after by the company particularly by Frank Wilson (London VA) He invited us to visit him at his home in Colchester. He had named his house as Maijan. He took us around to few places. He very kindly offered that we can stay in his house for as long as we want. He was leaving for South American shortly for 2 months. Initially we were apprehensive but Frank Wilson made us feel that he would really be happy. We took his offer,

Frank Wilson, as requested by us had booked a 14-day Cosmos trip touring Europe in a bus for us. We really enjoyed our Cosmos trip. All arrangements made were extremely good, at least for us. We crossed over at Dover and visited Brussels, Cologne, Amsterdam, Venice, Inverness and Paris.

On our return to London, we stayed in an hotel next to Victoria Terminus for few days prior to moving to Colchester. On the third day of our return to London, I got a call from our London office, advising me to visit the office at 10:30 am. as Messrs Will and Wahi wished to discuss some serious issues with me regarding the factories and the quality of our teas

I now believe very much in fate and destiny. That day my life changed- I was the right man, at the right place and at the right time. Messrs Will and Wahi grilled me for an hour, mainly enquiring about Assam company’s strengths and weaknesses in the factories and how to improve the quality of our produce at all Estates. I knew my mind very well and explained to them as I was explaining to laymen. After an hour, Mr. Will asked me if the capital expenditure proposals for the coming year was my doing? It was far too expensive; the company cannot afford to spend so much in one year. I replied that I only assisted our Technical Director- Mr. Ghosh in making out the proposals.

Mr. Will looked at me sternly and in a commanding or demanding tone said.” Rajan, I am taking Mr. Wahi out for Lunch, we will be back in about an hour’s time. In the meantime, both of us would like you to make new proposals for Capital expenditure. The Capital expenditure must be brought down to 2 crores instead of 3 crores. “Do you understand – redo this sheet – you have got an hour to do it. “I was dumbstruck”. I saw both of them getting up and go out of the office.

At that time, I felt very uncomfortable, panic set in, yet something inside me told me, Rajan. this is God’s Gift; you would not ever get a chance like this to prove your worth. With much elevated confidence I finished everything in an hour and revised it also

Around 3:30 pm Mr. Will and Mr. Wahi came in and spent 10 minutes on my new proposal Mr. Will said – “Well done Rajan, I will go through this and discuss further when we all meet for Lunch at my place.” When we met Mr. Will at his home at Ashford, he had a lengthy discussion with me regarding our quality. He also told me that I should make phase wise plans to modernise our factories.

On 6th September, we went to Aberdeen for Tea Planters Reunion dinner by train and checked in at Amatola hotel which was the venue for the Reunion. Reunion dinner was an annual function organised each year on the first Friday of September. The dress code for this occasion was Dinner Jackets for men. The Tea Planters’ Dinner was a unique experience for us both. We were honoured to be on the same table as Mr. & Mrs Will. Some delicious snacks were served and we had the choicest scotch whisky recommended by Mr. Will. We were thrilled to meet many Planters and their wives whom we knew from before. It was rather a late night. We winded it up after a Group photograph was taken. All good things come to an end. The next morning, we left by train to London

On our return, we continued to stay at Mr. Wilson’s house at Colchester. Every morning after breakfast we used to go by train to London to see places in and around London coupled with some shopping. We left for USA on the 13th September. We stayed in USA for 3 weeks during which we visited Washington, Pittsburgh, Niagara Falls and San Francisco.

On return to Nudwa, I got very busy with my work. Life moved very fast. I was actually doing the job of two of my predecessors. Looking after Machinery maintenance, factory expansions, checking manufacture, tasting and reporting on our teas. In short, my office got to be known as Quality Control centre. My meeting with Mr. Will at London did me well. I was given importance in the company affairs. A circular was sent out by Calcutta HO signed by Mr. Wahi (Chairman & MD) stating that henceforth Rajan Mehra will be handling the entire Capital expenditure proposals. I was suitably elevated periodically with better terms and perks.

All foreign buyers when visiting Assam used to stay with us at our bungalow. I would take them to the Estates. Gradually I built a reputation of a good tea taster. Taylors of Harrogate were our main buyers; however, our teas were booked by several other UK buyers. Our second flush Orthodox teas were very much in demand and were booked by German and Middle East buyer and also by Harrods.  Years literally flew past till the end of Eighties and I was suitably promoted.  I was actively involved in social activities of the Dibrugarh & District Planters’ Club. I was Club President for many years. In late eighties onwards we had to face perils of the insurgency. The company engaged a battalion of 20 armed Atpsf (Assam Tea Planters Security Force) personnel for my safety. All bungalows were made very secure and were suitably grilled. Sirens and Inverters were also fitted in all the bungalows.

In 1991, Inchcape Plc decided to wind up their Tea business in India and the company changed hands Within 2 months of this acquisition, I was advised that the Chairman of company would like me to meet him at his Bombay office. As required, I went to Bombay to meet the Chairman Mr. M.N. Mehta.  Mehta group owned some cement factories in Gujarat and also had sugar plantation in Uganda. Mr. Mehta told me to visit Uganda on a special project. The project was put up a tender for rehabilitation of three big Tea factories as required by the Government of Uganda. Things were very bad in Uganda. Aids was spreading fast. Anyway, I did go to Uganda and to Kenya. On return to Calcutta, I made a formal report as required.

After few months we heard that the Chairman of Assam Company is Mr. K. K. Jajodia. In the months that followed there were several changes in the Calcutta Head office. Subsequent to Jim Thomas leaving the company-Mr. S.N. Srivastava and Mr. MPS Sidhu handled the affairs of the company. There was also a big change in the company policies.

I was kept busy with the modernisation of the factories. Socially, I was quite active.  Overseas buyers and Calcutta Head Office Executives used to visit often and normally they stayed at our bungalow. We used to arrange get togethers for them to meet few senior executives of our nearby estates.

In 1991, some senior planters of major tea companies got together in an effort to revive cricket which was earlier a popular game during the winter months. The chief deterrent was who would foot the bill of catering/ prizes. I offered to approach Assam Company but nothing came through. In 1993 Mr. Mohan Pal Sidhu the then Director of Assam Company agreed to sponsor the tournament. Assam Company inter Company Cricket Tournament began in 1993/94. All companies- Tata Tea, Rossell Industries, Warren Tea, DoomDooma India, Andrew Yule, Moran Tea, Assam Frontier, Williamson Magor were invited by me to participate. All companies agreed to participate and wrote to me “It is heartening to know that Assam Company has taken the initiative to revive Cricket”. Goodricke & Jardines also joined in 1995/96.

In 1995, I got an idea to introduce Ladies cricket tournament also. Assam Company readily agreed and “The inter Company Ladies Cricket Tournament” was launched. This tournament was a one-day affair. I had a great response from all companies, some companies even requested for participation of 2 teams from their company. Being a one-day affair, this tournament became more popular than the men’s tournament.

The ladies cricket tournament reached its pinnacle on 7th March 1999 when ninety- two pretty ladies, bare of any cosmetics and finery, in tracksuits & tea shirts collected at DDPC cricket ground to compete for the coveted trophy.

A big change came in when Mr. MPS Sidhu left the company. I was promoted and was designated as Senior Vice President – Manufacture. However, several consultants were unnecessarily engaged mainly for field and also a few for manufacture, we did have few difficult years. The company had borrowed large sums of money and had invested in several other projects. This led to a severe cash crunch for running the Tea Estates

When I joined Tea, the retirement date was on attainment of the age of 55 years but later we were told that extension may be given for maximum 3 years. I decided to take my retirement at the age of 55.  I retired from the company on 30th Oct 2000.

It was a good decision for me. All my dues were settled in time. However, the Company persuaded me to stay on as a consultant, the consultancy fee and the perks were very attractive. I accepted this offer and was then designated as Senior Consultant – Manufacture & Quality Assurance. The company had not thought of training someone to take over from me. Moreover both, the local as well as overseas buyers had lot of faith in me.

Time was flying past; It never stops for anyone. By 2000 most of my vintage colleagues had either retired or left. With time changes occur and one needs to adjust to frequent changes. Both of us did. 

I was very occupied with my work.  Shalini though involved with various club cultural and sporting activities, had plenty of free time.  Children and ladies enjoyed singing and dancing and there were frequent evenings when star performers of DDPC were on the stage. The club used to take out a newsletter. Shalini with some of the younger ladies decided to start a club magazine giving all the members a chance to showcase their writing skills. 

Thus, the in-house magazine “The Camellia” was launched in December 2001. Its journey then onwards is a story in itself. From a club magazine it became a Planters inter-club Magazine covering all tea districts. Never before in the history of Tea plantation a magazine reached such far and wide corners crossing Brahmaputra to the clubs on North bank, Dooars and Cachar.  There was a place for everyone on its pages, from working to retired tea planter Sahibs, Memsahibs and their “baby & baba log”.  It became possible due to the arrival of the internet on Tea gardens.  It reached far and beyond.  Many Overseas retired planters wrote very interesting articles. I was the Chief Coordinator for the magazine and used my influence to get some donations from various suppliers for a page of their advertisement.  

In February 2006, the company send me to UK and Europe for a month to meet all our foreign buyers.  I accompanied by our Marketing General Manager visited several buyers in UK as well as Europe. We visited Taylors of Harrogate at Yorkshire, visited TLE (Thomas Llyod & Ewart), our regular brokers for many years. We also visited Harrods and took their chief buyer Mr. Rahman out for Lunch. Then we went to Netherlands where we visited Elink Schuurman at Rotterdam, Thiele & Freeze at Bremen. Other buyers we visited were Bunting, Kloth & Kohnken, J. Fr. Schiebler, Westphal Tee, Hamann / Wollenhaupt and Bunting. On return back to UK we visited Twinnings at Andover, Ahmed Tea at Southampton.

Later In 2006 Sally Holmes and Keith Writer from Taylors of Harrogate visited us. Sally Holmes had just become the Managing Director of TOH. Sally was the first lady MD of TOH. They stayed at our Bungalow for 3 days. I showed Sally around 2 or 3 of our Estates.  Special programmes were arranged by us at Maijan and at Greenwood. Keith had been a regular visitor each year. Sally was very impressed by Shalini’s Flower arrangements. Shalini took time to show her traditional sarees and traditional Jewellery, particularly from Rajasthan. When they were leaving our bungalow for their return journey to UK, Sally asked Shalini if Shalini had been to Taylors of Harrogate. When Shalini said “No”, Sally said “well you two will be there soon as my guests”. Sally approached our company about her wish that we should visit TOH next month. She insisted all expenses will be paid by TOH and we two will be her personal guests.

In October 2006, the company sent us to UK for a holiday and to visit Taylors of Harrogate as insisted by Sally Holmes. Two senior managers accompanied us. These two managers were first taken to Netherlands to visit the buyers of our teas, while we on our own went to Luxemburg, Brussels and Antwerp to stay with our friends. On our return to Uk we went to Taylors of Harrogate. We stayed there for 3 days and were given a VIP treatment. Later Sally arranged for us to visit York and other nearby places. Then we two all by ourselves went on a tour to Europe. We visited Nice, Eze Village, Monaco and Rome. In short this was a wonderful holiday.

Towards end of 2009, we thought that it was high time we settled down. We had purchased a decent house in Jaipur in 2005. In January 2010 I wrote to the company requesting to be released by end February. The company was keen that I should stay on for at least one more year, which I did not agree to. Feb 28th 2010 was my last working day. I had requested the company if we could stay till end of March to enable us to pack our personal stuff, which the company had agreed.

The month of March 2010 was exceptionally busy for us. We got farewell parties from many of our friends. We had to decline some invitations also. The company had also arranged for an elaborate farewell party for us. Later our Club DDPC had a formal farewell for us where all club members were present. Some senior planters of other companies were also invited by the club committee. We left Assam on 27th March as the company had arranged for a farewell lunch for us at the residence of Senior MD Mr. A.K. Jajodia. Few important dignitaries were invited. We landed in Jaipur on 31st March after being in Assam for 42 years.

It took us couple of years to setup our home. By 2013, we were nicely settled in retirement at Jaipur. Around early May 2013, I got a phone call from Mr. Bhuwalka who had purchased Salonah Tea Estate from ACL. He invited me to visit Salonah. He said he would like me to be a consultant for manufacture and quality control at his factory. I visited Salonah where Mr. Bhuwalka discussed my terms and conditions and finalised with me my fee for consultancy.   I had to visit from Jaipur each month for 2/3 days. He wanted me to redo the factory completely and convert the factory into a designer factory with full automation. The Consultancy fee was attractive and I took up the assignment.

A month later Mr. A. K. Jajodia Sr. MD of Assam Company also offered me to be manufacturing consultant for Assam Company. On my visit to ACL estates, I found a noticeable decline in manufacturing standard and in the Quality of Tea produced.  Originally, I declined as the terms and conditions offered to me for this assignment, were not suitable. I had to visit and advise factories each month for 10 days, each month for one year. Later in July after a discussion at ACIL Calcutta HO, I finalised the Consultancy fee and other terms. Though the combined consultancy fee from these two companies was quite attractive but visiting every month for almost 2 weeks was very tiring.

Salonah factory modernisation was almost complete by March 2014. It was matter of pride for me to convert Salonah factory into almost a fully automatic designer factory. My contract with ACIL was up to end May 2014. It was then when I decided to hang up my “tea” boots.

To sum up a span of 43 years in Tea on few pages is not really my cup of tea. There is much more left unsaid than said.  Now when I look back, I see a 22 years old young man arriving at Salonah and then I see a 69 years old seasoned and matured planter leaving Salonah. I find a vast treasure of learning I can dig in now, as well as a vast legacy I left behind. It was a fulfilling life in all aspects, a life fully lived on my terms and as I wished. I chose to be different specialising in Tea Manufacture and tea tasting and succeeded in leaving my mark as Quality Tea Maker.