Prefaced with an advance apology to Mac.
Have taken some literary licence.
Absolutely no offence meant!
In 1983, I had been transferred from Dhoedaam to Rajah Ali Estate, located not very far from the OIL establishment township of Duliajan. My posting to Rajah Ali was as the Mistry Sahib, which was what we Factory Assistants were colloquially known as.
For us lowly Assistants, other than the fact that the Burra Sahib would at regular intervals shake one up with some “earth shattering” issue (the definition of earth shattering in the ‘burra sahib’ book being dramatically at variance with the common understanding of that term) or the other, those were blissfully peaceful days. What made it all the more peaceful was also the fact that till that time Upper Assam had not even been exposed to the ‘idiot box’ which by then, in the big cities, was a must have possession. In our simple planters lives our understanding of an ‘idiot box’ was a dramatically different one.
The only idiot boxes we knew of were those, likely fabricated with what could only have been good quality hard timber, firmly lodged between the ears of at least a couple of the venerated gentlemen who were part of our planting community. To keep pace with the industry which has been maturing technologically, the profile of the planter too appears to have undergone a sea change. The need to modernize having led, most unfortunately I would add, to their ilk having gone into extinction. Back in the day thick numbskulls were a fairly common subspecies found in the planting industry. While all members of that fraternity were one-of-a-kind unique specimens, the beauty lay in the fact that each one of those gentleman was a wonderful human being who enjoyed life to the fullest and who, once he took a hand in friendship, would be true and loyal and could be depended upon to stand by one through thick and thin
An idiot box being the central character in this tale is the reason for the preceding rather long detour having been necessary.
In late ’83 the powers that be ended up shattering our serene existence, disrupting our peaceful lives by taking what was considered to be a giant leap towards progress. This development was by them plonking the first TV repeater tower across the Lohit river in Arunachal Pradesh. That one step in the march towards betterment literally grabbed us by the collar and shook us all up nice and proper. Similar to the scenario played out across all planting districts in Upper Assam, in our particular case the Tingrai Club which was the very epicenter of our simple lives, became the first victim of the development leading to an immediate erosion of the ‘club culture’ which literally was part and parcel of our lives. The upshot being that our club evenings during which the premises would always be chock a block full and pulsating with activity and the occasional brawl, ended up with only a couple of die-hards perched on their bar stools having an animated conversation with the bar man. The bulk of Managers and Assistants having simply disappeared from the scene, each one of them in their bungalows glued in front of their respective idiot boxes.
The excitement for the ‘missing from the club’ lot stemmed from those ladies and gentlemen staying put in their respective bungalows watching zillions of ‘snow flakes’ darting this way and that across the TV screen. On the infrequent blue moon when the avid TV buffs did choose to venture out for some human contact, the first question which would be asked by buff # 1 off buff # 2 as soon as they stepped into the club was the all important ‘how was your reception today?’ Not that there was much that those folk were getting to watch which would excite anyone with even an ounce of grey matter. In the absence of that vital bodily organ, the only articulate response to this all important query would be a ‘wow’ followed by a detailed technical discourse of which knob or cable they had fiddled with on that particular day. There was the odd day when the response would be a much more expansive, ‘today the reception I got was in colour’. Which in layman terms translated into the fact that instead of staring google-eyed at the usual black & white blizzard on the screen, the snowflakes on that particular day would have been viewed in all the colours of the rainbow. What one could call a VIBGYOR moment.
Major excitement which kept that particular segment of the planting community of Upper Assam agog for the better part of a year!
A year down the road, on our return journey from Delhi after our annual leave, we were going to be driving back to Assam in our newly acquired second hand Ambassador car. The passenger manifest being a very tiny one (our 4 year old Madhav, Kitty and I) with the three of us comfortably seated on the long front seat of that rather spacious vehicle, we had the whole seat at the back unused. Having been informed about the major earth shattering development in entertainment in Assam, my sister had very kindly gifted us with a 21″ Niki-Tasha colour TV set. While the screen of the unit measured diagonally across was all of 21″, since the wooden cabinet in which the TV was housed was almost the size of a rather large refrigerator, we required the whole of the back seat of the car to accommodate our new acquisition. And so, with the three of us duly hemmed into front seat with our prized acquisition as the only other ‘passenger’ occupying the entire rear seat, we happily set off from Delhi for the five day drive back to the estate. A rather eventful trip which is a yarn I am keeping aside for now since I’d like to spin that one another day.
On arrival in Rajah Ali the new asset, after having been ‘Oohed & Aahed’ over by the bungalow staff, was duly placed in one secure corner of our bedroom. To breathe life into the system, the very next morning the factory head fitter, Naranjan Singh a down to earth and practical Sikh gentleman who managed to keep the factory operating sans any hitch with sheer ingenuity and common sense, was tasked with the installation of the TV antenna in the bungalow backyard. Ever tried to lift up and raise a 20′ length of lead piping from the horizontal to the vertical position with only the bottom couple of feet of the piping to hold on to? Tough job would be an understatement. Now visualize that same length of pipe being leveraged up from one extreme end with the opposite far end weighed down by a rather unwieldy and heavy structure. It being highly unlikely that any of the readers would have had that pleasure, I can tell you from first hand experience that it’s far from being the most pleasant of tasks.
The installation took on the air of a rather complex military operation. Accompanied by a barrage of screaming and shouting of instructions by all and sundry, on quite a few of the futile attempts, the pipe regardless of the many pairs of strong hands working at it, would be raised to about a 45 deg angle before landing back on the lawn accompanied by a rather unhealthy thud leading to all the members of the platoon taking all sorts of necessary evasive action. During the operation, on at least three occasions while returning to terra firma, the antenna ended up with a couple of prongs getting knocked off from the cluster while the ones which somehow remained attached to the main body simply continued to become more and more misshapen. After each descent of the contraption, having dutifully collected all the bits and pieces together, since we had no gas welding equipment on the estate Mr Singh would hop on to his scooter and head off to Duliajan, the closest ‘town’ to Rajah Ali, with all the sheared off members welded back on. Following each repair expedition, with extra bits and pieces of aluminium welded here there and everywhere holding the cluster together, the antenna would return looking more and more deformed. Regardless and putting each failed attempt behind us, with yet another couple of pairs of hands joining in the ‘fun’ followed be loud and relieved whoops and shouts of achievement, we finally managed to get the pipe to a vertical 90 deg. Success! The antenna finally installed atop one full twenty feet length of a one inch diameter lead pipe, lording over the Rajah Ali Mistry Sahib’s bungalow.
The antenna having been duly plugged into our Niki Tasha, surrounded by the whole gang of artisans and workers who had been instrumental in getting the antenna up having been invited in to the bedroom to view the outcome of their joint efforts, when the idiot box was switched on you could have knocked all of us down with a feather because what we got on our screen was an almost crystal clear picture in full blown Technicolor. Not in any way akin to the signs of an impending blizzard which others in the district had been ‘enjoying’ all those months, but an honest to goodness actual TV picture. Much excitement all around followed by tea and samosas for all the members of the platoon of achievers!
In course of time word got around that someone in the Tingrai planting district had achieved the impossible – a TV which ACTUALLY ‘worked’! Which accomplishment, not that this required any prompting, led to an acceleration in what was in those days the ONLY ‘non club night’ evening social practice in all planting communities, of simply dropping into each others bungalows, sitting around with a drink in our hands and discussing issues related to (doesn’t take an Einstein to guess this) TEA. The upshot was that we now had a steady stream of friends, colleagues and many ‘new friends’ dropping in to Rajah Ali to spend the evening with us, with the added excitement of all of us watching ‘Chitrahar’ on our fully operational Niki Tasha, which back in the day used to be just about one of the only two ‘watchable’ shows which Doordarshan magnanimously beamed out to the hungry for ANY entertainment Indian public. All thanks to N.Singh’s efforts having managed to get that misshapen antenna atop a twenty foot pipe!
About a fortnight into all this excitement Mac (Mr R.S.Makoll, the Executive Director of Warrens) decided to grace us with a factory visit. The hour long formal visit went along totally predictable lines – that nothing at all was up to the required standard in the factory. Which observation and the attendant berating, since for the powers that be nothing was ever really up to the mark in any factory and so was universally accepted as being the usual fallout of any visit to any factory, was taken in our stride by each one of the Mistry Sahib’s manning the 13 Warren Tea factories. The ‘formal fault finding mission’ over, as we stepped out of the factory into the tasting room, Mac in a magically transformed almost soft tone, while also changing gears from English to Punjabi (which he was wont to do when in the mood or whenever he wanted to touch on anything personal) very casually remarks that he has heard through the Tingrai circle grapevine that we’re actually being able to view programmes on a functional set and that would it be possible for us to walk across to our bungalow to check it out. Which we obviously did.
It having been a complete and very pleasant surprise to us as to how and why WE should be getting signals in the manner no one else in the district was being blessed with, I simply had no answer to Mac’s probing on the reasons for the ‘achievement’. While the ignorance was scoffed at (“you should know” or words to that effect) and having checked out the system from every possible angle followed by special attention being given to the antenna installation (though likely not having noticed the ‘first-aid’ job on the cluster) he was obviously well satisfied that the grapevine communication was a fact. Since the E.D.’s thus far blizzard-prone box was obviously so much more superior to our lowly and run of the mill Niki-Tasha, Macs obvious conclusion was that the answer to getting any TV to function without the accompanying snow storm could be only one – the installation of the antenna. Being informed that it was the Rajah Ali Head Fitter, Naranjan Singh, who had been solely responsible for getting the antenna up on that pipe in my bungalow, led to me being ‘requested’ to despatch that gentleman along with all his tools, accessories and jugalis (helpers) to Deohall at the earliest possible so that he could work his magic on the Executive Director’s bungalow entertainment system.
Next morning the Kamjari (task) assigned to N.Singh was that he head off to Deohall along with his team members to do his bit. This was on a Monday. Come Thursday, by which time my CTC rollers were crying to be replaced and a whole lot of other factory maintenance jobs needed to be attended to, there were still see no signs of the gentleman. The line chowkidar (the watchman responsible for ensuring that the factory personnel reported to duty on time) being asked why the Head Fitter was AWOL, told me that as had been happening every day since Monday, Singh saab had headed off to Deohall in the estate jeep with his gang of jugalis in tow. Livid at the fact that one day’s work was being stretched into four and possibly more, I promptly hopped on to my bike and made a beeline for Deohall. Having got the watchman there to go find and get hold of him, ‘Singh saab’ emerged from behind the E.D.’s bungalow with the most beatific ear to ear grin and looking pleased as punch. Giving him not even a chance to get a word in edgeways, I simply waded into the hapless soul taking him to task for him having been missing all these days. Naranjan’s calm response was that instead of me blowing my top, would I like to come to the rear of the bungalow to understand why that was so.
Walking across to the garden in the rear of Mac’s bungalow and setting eyes on Singh’s four day handiwork literally left my jaw hanging. Rising well above the height of the roof of the chang bungalow, what stood in front of me was a progeny which the parent in Paris would have been proud of, a scaled down replica of the grand Eiffel Tower. This particular one standing tall, rising a goodish twenty five feet up from ground level. Attached to the top of our very own mini Eiffel Tower was an additional twenty foot lead pipe with the TV antenna perched on the top. Closer inspection showed that the pipe coming rising up from the top of Le Eiffel Tower instead of being welded, was actually housed in a large ball bearing casing. Another length of pipe welded to the lower end of the one rising skyward, was hanging down in the middle of the pylon like structure. This lower extension pipe ended up about four feet above ground level in a box like contraption with the bottom end in another ball bearing casing. At a convenient height above the casing the pipe had two prongs welded on to either side to form a handle.
The whole thing-a-ma-jig looked very much like the periscope arrangement in the conning tower of a submarine which one had seen in movies,. An ingenious bit of engineering if ever there was one, which enabled one to hold on to the prongs and rotate the antenna 360 Deg to try and catch transmission airwaves from whichever direction they happened to find their way into the Deohall bungalow backyard.
Finally finding my voice I had only one question for Naranjan Singh – “WHY?”
His response, which says it all and one which I simply adore, is an all time classic that has stayed with me all these years. “Makoll Sahib said that if that factory assistant can have an antenna twenty feet up, mine has to be at least twice that height!”
This was the ultimate and way beyond prosaic hierarchy. With my thinking cap on I have given it my best shot but, try as I might, I just cannot find a word which describes this as well as the one I have coined – HIGHERarchy!
The post script to L’affaire á la Eiffel , regardless of the ‘periscope’ being rotated every which way in whatever direction, was that the only thing Mac and Dinda (the lovely Mrs Makoll) ever got to sit down and watch on their large screen ED bungalow TV set, in addition to the standard ‘Upper Assam Blizzard’ were some rather interesting stripes. Albeit once in a while in full blown colour!