With this one I’m back to my Mistry Sahib tenure in Dhoedaam. This one dates to 1986 by which season, having been toiling almost single headedly managing that huge factory for four whole years, I was constantly under immense work pressure. Pressure which heightened the simmering feud I had ongoing with my boss Bahadur Singh. The tension regularly popping up on to the surface, leading to bad blood and an almost daily dose of bickering between the two of us with me, obviously getting the short end of the stick.
The machinery in that mammoth factory was mostly powered by a massive marine (Yes, you read that right – MARINE) prime mover by way of a very complex arrangement of shafts, counter-shafts and pulleys all driven by that one eight cylinder monster of an engine, a QVD8 manufactured by Crossley Engineers of Manchester. Thanks to my friend Denys Shortt’s initiative of clubbing together folk related to tea with the Tea History Collection and Koi-Hai in which a couple of my yarns were reproduced, I received a mail from out of the blue from Alan Lane, a gentleman in the UK who by a very happy coincidence, it turned out was actually involved in the installation of this engine in Dhoedaam in late 1964 and who has shared some wonderful details with me.
Back in the day when these marine engines were first brought in from England and adapted to powering tea factories, instead of the intended purpose of powering sea-going vessels, one can’t even begin to imagine just how difficult the transportation of these massive blocks of metal to land-locked tea estates would have been. When Ronnie Asirwatham, a senior SL planter and I were involved in the Rookwood factory (a yarn which succeeds the present one) we came across some very interesting old sepia photographs of the VERY MUCH SMALLER marine engine being hauled up to Rookwood Estate high up above Kandy in the ’40s. The photograph is of the fully assembled almost tiny engine in one wooden crate being transported on a cart made of solid wood having solid wooden wheels being lugged up the slope by a pair of elephants. In another photograph which has been chewed up by silver fish and is lost forever, on a steeper gradient the elephants are being helped along by possibly 60 or so workers milling around the cart adding their two bits to the efforts of the two mastodons straining at the load.
While that was in Ceylon and was back in the 40s, Alan has shared with me that the installation of the Dhoedaam Crossley in 1964 was an exercise of a very different type with the engine arriving on the estate on many lorries in CKD form with all components (crank base with installed crankshaft, crankcase/cylinder block, pistons and this MASSIVE 8′ diameter flywheel ) being pieced together and assembled in situ. After three months of toil when the last bolt was in place, ahead of this magnificent piece of engineering being test run, it was preceded by the de-rigueur big puja followed by the usual bada khana (read that as binge drinking).
After that meandering ramble on a long detour, now back to my story.
A massive factory translates into huge inflows of the raw material, freshly harvested leaf from the fields. In Assam the natural cycle of the flushing of the bushes builds up in the latter half of the year, peaking around end August with the bushes going mad for all of two months till about mid October which is when they heave a sigh of relief and, much like a person on a treadmill, begin to tone down the pace before folding up for the season by mid December. My yarn dates to mid September of that year when the daily factory intake used to be in the region of 120 THOUSAND Kgs of green leaf, to wade through which the factory would run non-stop 24×7 for those endless days. Under all that pressure and practically sleepless nights our nerves would be frayed and tempers would be not just short but running amok.
During that heavy flushing period while I, as the Mistry Sahib, was expected to be on duty 24 hours a day, the engine driver (Barooah, a dedicated soul) along with two of his assistants, so as to be on hand at all times attending to the heart of the factory, used to abandon their homes and would bed down in the engine room itself while all other support staff were on call round the clock.
My abode, a chang bungalow, separated by a road in between, overlooked the factory compound fencing and was all of 500 meters from the engine room in which the Crossley would be chugging away endlessly. The very heavy and constant thump-thump-thump heartbeat of the engine, having become a part of our lives, was in fact a rather comforting sound, actually helping the kids get a good night’s sleep. Should this monster be turned off for applying some grease or for replacement of any snapped belt, the ensuing silence was definitely eerie and, for me, a heart-stopping period till such time as the engine would be restarted and the bunglow would also begin to vibrate in resonance with that prime mover.
Every restart of the prime mover was a ceremony in itself and conducted with much fanfare by Barooah lording over the proceedings. First the gigantic flywheel would be turned on its axis using a massive crow-bar till such time as two holes on the flywheel would come into alignment to a pre-determined position which was marked on the body. That done, Barooah would wave both his arms most dramatically, shooing everyone away from the monster before opening the stop-cock for the burst of compressed air to rush into the chamber for the pistons to, one by one, pick up momentum, huffing and puffing till the beat fell into a comforting and regular rhythm.
It was a dawn on a day towards the end of September of that year, when I had leaf stacked up in my withering troughs to more than twice the capacity of the troughs. The factory, as is the norm in Assam, having started at midnight, I had walked across to my bungalow to grab a quick bite and a shower when the engine suddenly fell silent. Within 15 minutes I had Barooah’s helper run across to break the news to me that the prime mover had broken down. Mid-meal, dropping whatever it was that was just about to find its way into my mouth, I sprinted back to the engine room following Mr Helper to find Barooah almost in tears blurting out that in his opinion the unthinkable had happened and that the main bearing of the crank shaft had seized. If there was any bigger disaster that could befall at just that time, it escaped all of us. With my head-fitter (Niranjan Singh) also having rushed in, leaving the two of them to start doing whatever was necessary to get us operational again, I hopped on to my bike to ride across to the bosses office to let him know that disaster had struck. The most helpful advice from him, after I had broken the news was “it’s your baby so whatever be the problem, you sort it out”! Seething with anger I rushed back to the engine room to find Barooah and Niranjan already busy putting their full weight behind the heavy spanner, loosening the massive bolts which held the engine together.
That was the start of three days with five of us (Barooah, his two assistants, Niranjan and I) stepping out of the engine room only when either of us needed to use the loo. Sustenance being in the form of an endless flow of tea and biscuits from the factory tasting room and food being sent in for all five from my bungalow. In those three day, the head of the engine was stripped open, the thick bi-metal bearing which had been the cause of the break-down being taken off the crank, being ground back to required dimensions with a scrapper and emery paper and then the whole thingamajig being carefully re-assembled, one component at a time.
In all those three days there was no let up in the endless flow of tractors bringing in baskets overflowing with leaf which, since the troughs were already piled up way beyond capacity, was being dumped along the walkways between the troughs and eventually all over the landing platform where the tractors were usually unloaded. With green leaf piled up in massive heaps and generating heat, a lot of it was fast turning red and oxidising with the rancid smell of rotting leaf building up.
Almost 72 hours from the time when the monster had stopped breathing, with all five of us literally soaked in grease and oil and with our hearts in our mouths, we were waved back by Barooah who went through his start-up ceremony of releasing the compressed air into the chamber. I know it was not my imagination that each one us in the engine room were drawing in our respective breaths in consonance with the huffing and puffing of the prime mover. As soon as the engine took on a regular beat, the clutch was released to set the drive belts and the shaft moving so that in next to no time Dhoedaam factory reverted to being a hive of activity.
Thanking my companions of three endless days and sending each one of them home to grab some sleep I hopped on to my bike to ride across to Bahadur’s bungalow. Being told by the watchman that ‘burra sahib was still not up’ I insisted that he be woken up. Looking somewhat dishevelled and coming out on to his verandah and likely noticing that I was plastered head to toe in gooey black grease, without waiting for a question to be asked I rather curtly advised my boss that I had the factory back on track, tossed the bunch of factory keys up to him, and told him that he was unlikely to see me for the next 24 hours at least because I was heading off home to have a hot shower, followed by a hot meal after which I was going to hit my bed and stay in it for as long as I could. Which is exactly what I did!
In hindsight what at that time what was a very loud “F***s”, is now a lovely memory. Yup! It most certainly was the night(s) to remember!!