This particular yarn being spun around those lovely days in Assam in the ’80s, for this one I’m giving my friends in the south a respite and letting them off the hook.
Regardless of whether he be in North India or down South, the very job required, no, demanded that the Tea planter be a hardy soul. One who was expected to and had to work hard (bloody hard) and who could then also let his hair down, all the way down till it figuratively reached ones toes. If I were to break up that statement into its two parts:
The former bit would read thus: Besides loads of other unimaginable shit, the job entailed bearing up with a boss who always seemed to have a finger deep in where it hurts most, labour with whom one was always walking a thin line which separated unquestioning loyalty from insanity, incessant rain accompanied by overbearing humidity which hung over one like a permanent damp blanket and, as the icing on that lovely cake, leeches sucking enough blood out of one that it was a wonder that we didn’t all die of anaemia.
The latter part of the statement above added up to us being at the very doorstep of the most wonderful outdoor life, a lovely bunch of friends, a great club life and some (at times) rather serious drinking. In that particular department we had quite a few stalwarts, each one a serious candidate for a gold medal should elbow exercises ever be included as a sport in the Olympics.
There being a long snaking queue of contenders for that medal, in our circle of colleagues and friends, the unquestioned star performer was a Mr Ajay Shukla. A good worker, great sportsman and one who could in one single evening end up peering through the neck all the way into the base of an empty bottle which, when the evening started, would have been a bottle with an unbroken sealed lid!!
At the other and somewhat extreme end of the spectrum to the hardy planters were folk who, while they would eventually end up having fancy titles in their respective corporate hierarchy, at the start of their career and in a short time after finding their feet in their jobs in the Calcutta head office, would be sent up to Assam by their respective organisations to learn something about the product which was to become their bread & butter and to get a first hand feel of what ‘tea planting’ actually entailed. These gentlemen were, in corporate tea parlance, somewhat dismissively shrugged off by the rather unexciting title of being called a ‘box wallah’. Why and how these wet behind the ear gentleman, who had been pushed into the deep end for a limited two/three year temporary posting in one of their companies estates, were spoken of as being a “box wallah” has always remained a mystery, a term which not one of us had ever been able to figure out.
Most of the box wallah ilk were of the irritating, corporate nose up in the air snooty variety who, under the mistaken impression that they were a notch above, would simply refuse to make an effort to integrate themselves with the planting community. In a pleasant departure from what was almost the norm, Macneil & Magor decided to send up a gentleman who was actually human and came across as a decent bloke. Smo Dass, who continues to be a friend to this day was at that point of time a fresh recruit with his company. After his induction in their Calcutta office his company had bundled him off to Assam for what effectively was a three year exile. Smo’s temporary Assam posting was on Keyhung Estate which was located in Tingrai district.
The very same district in which, on Balijan a Warren Tea Estate, our star performer Ajay Shukla was an assistant.
The star cast having been introduced and the stage having been set we now move on to the main feature.
All planters clubs in Assam would host an annual club meet over some weekend, when planters from all the other clubs within driving distance (drivable distance having a different connotation to what is generally accepted as being normal for most) would gravitate towards the host club for an evening get together which was one of the many occasion when the planters hair was let down with a seriousness of purpose.
On the cusp of the Doom Dooma Club meet, one evening our two stars, both single men, happened to be sitting next to each other at the bar of the Tingrai Club. Ajay at that point of time was a bachelor. Star number two Smo, whose wife Lily was a working girl in Calcutta, was a grass widower. Not keen to drive to and from the Doom Dooma late at night, Smo asked whether he could hop a ride with Ajay, which request was readily accepted without a moments hesitation.
Come the Saturday evening, Smo all spruced up in his party frock was picked up from his bungalow by eightish and in short time found himself in the Doom Dooma Club. Having entered the Cub together, once in, both went their own ways with Smo leaving his counterpart to his own shenanigans. The tale from here on is a first person account related to me by Smo, so I take that at face value, recounting only what has been shared with me from the horse’s mouth.
Well past two o’clock and wanting to get back to Keyhung, Smo finally managed to pry Ajay away from the bar, sit him behind the wheel and himself hop into the passenger seat. With Ajay’s Ambassador just a mite short of take-of speed, in next to no time Some was deposited at this front door. Having thanked and seen Ajay off, the ‘box wallah’ quickly hopped into his bed and passed out in a trice.
Ajay having this uncanny ability of being able to go to sleep anywhere was known to have, many times in the past on the drive back to his bungalow after his tryst with the bottle, simply parked his car anywhere alongside the road, dropped off to sleep to wake up an hour or so later to carry on driving as though nothing had happened. On this particular occasion the gentleman got as far as the driveway to the Keyhung bungalow before turning off the ignition and heading off into lullaby land. An hour or so later, the bungalow watchman who would probably have just woken up from his beauty sleep, on a round of the bungalow, spotted a car parked on the driveway. Peering in and seeing a sahib slumped over the steering wheel, the guy banged on the window. The thumping having jolted Ajay from his slumber, without a second thought he gunned the engine back to life, turned his car around 180 deg and drove straight back into the Keyhung bungalow porch where he proceeded to, without a break and at full volume, toot his horn!
The incessant blaring having woken him up rather rudely, rushing out to the front door to check on the noise, Smo found a rather determined looking Mr Shukla with his hand hard down on the horn button. To Smo’s shouted out question that what did he want, Ajay’s somewhat bleary response was “I’ve come to drop off Shmooo”. Totally surprised and taken aback on learning that he had dropped off his passenger more than an hour ago, with not another word exchanged and in the blink of an eye the car roared back into life and drove off down the driveway.
Which left the somewhat shaken up ‘box wallah’ with only task, which was to instruct his watchman that “when Sahib drives out, lock the gate and if you see that he has again gone to sleep on the driveway you are NOT to wake him up and under no circumstances to open the gate”!
What Smo has never shared with me is whether he ever again requested Ajay for a lift!!