Planting per sé is all about the outdoors. Tea plantations, wherever in the world they be, generally being located in areas which are more remote than most other plantation crops, are even more so about being out on a limb. Which is what Assam was all about, the wide open spaces – the great boondocks!
For anyone who is not a member of the planting community, a visit to a tea plantation is as far as one goes to be convinced that they’ve reached the great outdoors. On the other hand, for us who were planters or to put it in correct perspective at least for SOME of us, there was this hankering, almost like an irresistible itch which came on at regular intervals to head out further afield into the even more wild and wide open spaces.
Being in the Doom Dooma district we were as far north east one could get in Assam since going further east (while I believe this has changed now with a new bridge spanning the Lohit) meant that one would literally end up driving directly into the mighty Brahmaputra. Conversely if one managed to get across the river, which was possible only if one got to the other side using the series of ferries which linked Assam to Arunachal, that breathtaking crossing opened up what was literally a whole new world to the intrepid traveller. Which amazing world we were able to explore only after the clutch of us who were always wanting to explore further, upgraded our vehicles from the old stodgy Mahindra jeeps to the Gypsy, a compact and very agile little 4-wheel drive would get us over any obstacle. Those forays when we would drive deep into Arunachal being a yarn in itself, I’ll leave those for another day and for now confine this yarn by stopping on the Assam side of the river without actually driving across.
Ron Sircar, another one of my ‘very senior to me’ close friend, an even more of an outdoorsman than I was/am, had knocked together an absolutely wonderful almost seaworthy contraption on his estate (Balijan North). This contrivance literally reaffirmed the generally accepted view that the planters brain was fertile and ingenious. Ron’s nautical engineering marvel started with twelve 200 litre old oil barrels. The top and bottom plates of each were seam-welded very carefully so that each one of the barrels were 100% leak proof and airtight. These 12 buoyant drums were clamped together in two rows of six each. The front end of each of the two series of six was a seventh barrel which had been cut and shaped into a pointed cone similar to the prow of a ship. On these two pontoons, placed eight feet apart, was a platform made of thick marine plywood. This platform became the base for a hut like structure assembled piecemeal using lightweight steel conduit piping bolted on to the plywood and topped off with a thick tarpaulin. In short, a no-nonsense floating hutment. The added beauty of the whole thingamajig being that it could be assembled and taken apart in a matter of half an hour. All that was required to knock together or to disassemble this creative work of engineering being many pairs of strong hands, each armed with a spanner and a screwdriver. Remember the Meccano sets of old!?
The stern of the raft, equipped with a rudder of sorts, was propelled with a ‘mighty’ 5 HP petrol driven boat propeller which Ron had acquired from somewhere.
It was this beauty which actually opened up a whole new world for us!
At least a couple of times during the year when we had an extended holiday (usually the new year break and the one during Bihu) on the estates, three families would head to what could be termed a ‘lands end’ of Assam, the Lohit river which is one of the main tributaries of the Brahmaputra. Our launch pad was the Lohit at the point where the icy cold waters of the snow melt storm down from the high mountains of Arunachal to surge into the Assam Valley at Alubari Ghat. We’d reach the ghat in a convey of jeeps accompanied by a lorry loaded up with the disassembled pontoon raft and a clutch of workers to help us unload and assemble the contraption. The regular gang of adventurers were three families. Ron & Marion with their two girls (Rokono & Anita), Jeetu & Kirti with their two boys (Vijai & Jai) and Kitty & I with our two progenies (Madhav & Muskan). There were a couple of trips when we also had one or two other curious (what the f*** are you guys up to?) friends join the bandwagon.
Once knocked together and with the raft loaded up with us 12 or more souls, dry provisions for three days, sleeping bags, plenty of beer and rum, a kerosene stove and other odds and ends, the workers would give the raft a push to get us afloat after which we were on our own. The gang of workers along with our vehicles and the lorry having been instructed to meet us three days later way downstream on the river at the Dibrugarh ghat. 72 hours of utter bliss during which we would not encounter even a single soul.
Aqua-gypsies is what we became for those three surreal days.
The tiny propeller engine, totally ill-equipped to handle this ungainly and heavy load, made going upstream an impossibility. And so with the engine struggling while bravely put-putting along we would get sucked in by the current of the river, using the engine, the rudder and long bamboo poles to gently steer ourselves midstream after which we would get carried along by the fast flowing waters of the river.
Half a day downstream from Alubari Ghat the Lohit disgorges itself into the main Brahmaputra, which is when we’d find ourselves in what could pass off as an ocean. 360 deg around us and as far as the eye could see, there was nothing but water. In places the river would have spread out so much that with no land in sight, we’d suddenly hit a sand bank and with the water being so shallow that one could walk alongside the pontoon till suddenly and without warning the sand bank would give way to a steep drop into deep water. While I don’t have a photograph to prove this, I have actually stood in the middle of this mighty river, with no land in sight, taking a pee! Yup! Many a time I’ve done my little bit towards raising the level of the river.
Despite us keeping a very careful lookout ahead, it was inevitable that suddenly and without any warning we’d plough into a sandbank or some other obstacle. Whenever this happened, the propeller which was locked into position on to the drive shaft with a small brass pin, would become free with the pin shearing off. Which meant that one of us men would be required to brave the icy cold water, having to jump in to lift up the engine for the necessary repair job. While the pin was being replaced and hammered into position, the raft would be continuing merrily on its way, being carried along by the current with the repairman hanging on to the side, to be pulled up only after the job was completed.
While we used to carry some cooked food for day one, we sustained ourselves on the next two days cooking our food on our little kerosene stove which was a feat in itself since one had to keep moving the pan around, trying to catch the elusive flame of the stove which, fanned by the strong wind, would be dancing all over the place. More often than not, yours truly would be the designated ‘bawarchi’.
By dusk we would steer and drag the pontoon on to the riverbank, collect loads of driftwood to build up a roaring fire, down a couple of rums and wolf down some food before all of us, exhausted by the tiring day, would creep into our sleeping bags on the raft and be dead to the world not much after the sun had set to be up and about well before sunrise with the kids already having a rollicking time on the sand. And what did we ‘grown up kids’ do? We men would clamber up onto the highest sandbank (some of which were a good thirty feet above the level of the river) and buck naked come sliding down to splash into the icy cold water, ignoring the fact that in the process we would have sandpapered our behinds and other nether parts of the anatomy.
The water flow in the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra is known to have a temperament of its own. Besides being prone to flash floods, there were other times when the level of the water would suddenly dip. Which distinctive character of the river gives me the opening I need to recount a one of a kind experience on one of our forays down the river.
At the end of day one, as usual, we had brought the raft to the riverbank, hammering in stakes into the sand to tether it to the side. Viewed from the top, our sleeping arrangements one could just as well be peering down into the inside of an open sardine can. In our respective sleeping bags, snug as bugs in a rug, the women and girls would be laid out in a row on one side with their feet facing inward while the men would be similarly lined up on the other side. On this particular occasion, the females were with their heads towards the river, the men with their feet in that direction. With the water lapping the sides of the riverbank and our five star accommodation gently bobbing on the water, before one could say Jack Robinson we were all dead to the world with whomsoever lay awake longer than the others cribbing the next morning about the mighty snores which were guaranteed to keep any wild animals at bay.
Probably around 3 O’clock I woke up with a jolt because my sleeping bag appeared to be sliding down towards the water at a rather acute angle so that I had to hold on to the planking behind my head to arrest my slide. With no snores disturbing the peace, it was eerily silent, unnatural and VERY strange, I looked around to find all the men and boys in the same posture as me, holding on to something or the other to keep themselves from sliding. While every one was awake, it was also obvious that each one of us was pretending to be asleep. Understandable since just the thought of hopping out of one’s sleeping bag and into that freezing cold being not quite the most appealing of prospects. And then this interesting exchange in what they assumed to be hushed tones which no one else could hear. Kitty to Marion “my hair is all wet”. Marion to Kitty “shut up and go back to sleep, you had too much to drink!”
The enormity of the situation having been voiced, in a flash all the men and boys were galvanised into action. Stepping out of our snug abode we found that in the few hours since we’d gone to sleep, the water level had gone down drastically leaving the pontoon raft literally clinging on to the sand at an alarmingly steep angle with only the lower side in the water. No option other than for all the males to strip down to their shorts and jump in to pull and tug to get the raft afloat and back on to the water. An hour later, now all wide awake, with the physical effort having whetted our appetites and with the sky in the east beginning to lighten, an early breakfast on the sand and back to ‘row, row your boat gently down the stream………’.
Day three, we would get to the jetty at Dibrugarh ghat with our team waiting to disassemble and do the needful.
To complete the ditty ‘……….verily, verily, verily life WAS but a dream!’. It well and truly was just that!