Following being handed over the reins of Limbuguri and with the responsibility of the factory having been passed on to a new assistant who had been transferred there from another estate, an extended daily drive for inspection of specific areas of that large 980 hectare was de regeuir.  Driven by a yearning to get a firm grip on ‘my’ property as quickly as possible and to prove my worth to Mrigen who had reposed such faith in one who was of a relatively young age, heading out well before the crack of dawn, I took it upon myself to visit every single remote and tucked away corners of the estate.

Dotted around the periphery of the estate were several Assamese bastis, many of which I’d have to traverse through to get from one of the estate fields to the other.  Along the way, wherever I’d see a couple of the village folk lounging around, I’d stop to have a chat with them before driving on. In one of these casual conversations, one of the villagers asked me whether I’d met the ‘Boga Sahib’ (literally ‘White Boss’) who lived in one of the bastis.  I most certainly had not.  In fact, had never heard anything of this nature.  Intrigued I started asking around whether anyone on the estate knew of any such person and finally learnt that there indeed was an elderly white man who yonks before had been a manager on this very estate, had married one of the estate labour girls and had, on his retirement, built himself a house in one of the bastis where he currently lived.

It was my senior friend Ron (the lynchpin of our Brahmaputra forays) who came up with the answer to the mystery of the ‘Boga Sahib in the basti’.  Told me that he was aware that a Jimmy Stuart, better known as Stu, on his retirement from Warrens way back in the past, had decided to not return to the UK and had settled down in a basti close to Limbuguri which was his last billet pre-retirement.  Having been handed over this straw to clutch on to, I dug deeper and was finally pointed in the direction of the basti where the ‘Boga Sahib’ lived.

A couple of days later, being in the vicinity of the basti Stu was supposed to be a resident of, I drove to the house of the ‘Gaon Burra’ (village elder/chieftain) who after insisting I have a cup of tea with him, walked me across to what was the only brick & mortar (only partial I may add) building in the basti, knocked on the door before walking off leaving me standing in the veranda.  From behind the closed door, I could hear some shuffling sounds followed by the rattling of a chain before the door opened to reveal an elderly and stooping, bald headed white man confronting me with a quizzical and surprised look on his deeply wrinkled face.

Regardless of my having been expecting to see a ‘Boga Sahib’ I had to literally restrain myself from blurting out the only words which at that precise point popped up in my head “Dr Livingstone I presume”?

Clipboard03Having explained to him who I was, the gentleman pulled up two rickety chairs on to the veranda.  The moment we were both seated, his first utterance of “You’re the first English speaking person from outside the basti, come to see me in almost ten years” were followed by a barrage of short staccato sentences with words literally falling over themselves, almost as though yearning be heard.  What I was witness to was a catharsis of pent-up emotions, almost like a pan of milk which had been simmering for ages (in his case – years) and was now on the boil and frothing over.

What I learnt about Stu in that very first meeting was that his father had been an engineer employed in the railways and that he, Stu, had been born in Jabalpur and when five years of age, had been sent back to England for his education.  On completion of his schooling and wanting to get back to India, he immediately joined the then James Warren & Co and was posted to Upper Assam.  During his tenure of 38 years, he had been to England once every three years on furlough and had, on the second leave got married.  His wife who had never left the shores of England ahead of tying the knot being unacclimatised to the heat and humidity of Assam had quickly concluded that this was not the life for her and, a short and stormy three years later, headed back to England to be never heard from again.

On reaching the age of 57 Stu hung up his boots and returned to England where he had no family nor any friends, stayed there for all of four months before, in his words “feeling like a fish out of water” decided to head back to Upper Assam, the only place he had ever known as home.  With no desire to be alone and lonely for the remaining years of his life, having bought a small plot of land in the basti abutting the estate he had last served on and building himself a rudimentary thatch house, started living with the lady who for many years had been the maid in his bungalow, whom he finally married.  His return from his futile visit to England was all of 21 years to the day that I met him.  All this was shared to me within an hour of my having shaken hands with the gentlemen.

Having to get back to my routine, while he was most reluctant to see me go, I finally managed to pry myself away from him.  But with a promise that I would visit him again as soon as I possibly could.

Following that first meeting, having been hit hard by the sheer loneliness of the gentleman and having sensed his desperation for contact with a person he could relate to, I made it a point to drop in on Stu at least once a week.  Every time I came away from his place, with his loneliness getting through to me, it was always with a sense of sadness.  A gloomy feeling which I’d unburden myself of by sharing it with Kitty.  Almost a year after my first meeting with him Kitty asked me whether I’d like to invite the gentleman over to the bungalow some evening for a meal.  An excellent suggestion which I acted upon the next time I dropped in to meet Stu.

Overwhelmed by his profuse thanks for the invitation, that evening I sent the driver across to pick up the gentlemen and fetch him to the bungalow.  The Stu who walked in was not the dishevelled Stu I had been meeting in the basti.  All spruced up and wearing a tie, “I haven’t worn one in 20 years” he said.  His exuberance was so palpable that no child with a new toy could have been more excited.  Ahead of sitting down for dinner, the perfect gentleman thoroughly enjoyed his two small drinks of rum and water.  Our bawarchi (cook) have prepared a roast chicken, one could actually sense Stu’s excitement from simply handling a knife and fork.  The evening over, he left us overwhelmed with his profuse thank you’ s and repeated handshakes.

Following that first dinner meet, we made it a point to have him home at least once a month.  Every single time he was driven into the bungalow, it was always this elderly gentleman bubbling over with excitement and happiness like a small child.

And then three years later 1990, which is when I resigned from my planting job to relocate to Dubai.  I’ll never forget the day that I broke the news to Stu.  That he was totally distraught would be an understatement.  It was as though some great tragedy had befallen him.  His words still ring in my ears “You were my last link to what USED to be my world.”

A couple of days before we were to leave Limbuguri, I received a somewhat formalClipboard06 handwritten note from Stu that he would like to meet us one last time and that could I please send my vehicle to pick him up.  That evening he arrived holding a small, gift-wrapped shoe box which he handed over to Kitty insisting that she open it in his presence.  In the box were a couple of Wedgewood quarter plates, a few of them somewhat chipped.  “These” he said “Are all that I have left from the set I had brought back from England when I first came to Assam.  I want you to have these as a reminder of the kindness you have shown towards this old man.”

And then he did what for him was probably the unthinkable, he came across and hugged me, walked across to kiss Kitty on both cheeks and then quickly departed before we could see the tears streaming his cheeks.