Tales from tea gardens

Pradeep Gooptu

Tea and coffee estates conjure up images of beautifully tended, lush green landscapes with picture-perfect cottages tucked away in an undulating terrain. Despite all the scenic beauty it was quite tough on the estate managers who had to live in remote locations, far away from the society and comforts of a city.

Naturally, for the planters, cars were absolutely the lifeline, their only link to civilization, companionship and the pleasures of urban life. Every garden had multiple cars as essential part of the estate. It is not surprising that tea gardens even today are often the source of long forgotten vintage cars and engines.

Watered by great rivers like the Brahmaputra, the Mahananda and the Teesta, gardens in these locations were sought after because of good linkages to cities like Calcutta by rail, air and road. But they had to traverse great distances to reach terminal points. Planters required cars even to reach the nearest post office and stay in touch with head offices through letters and mails. This was more difficult than it sounds today. A tea-garden manager, Edward Davis, reported that he often encountered elephants on the Dooars roads, in a letter to the editor. Another – who drove a car with a canvas top – was worried about leopards which frequented the area. The more popular cars here were light, simple and small ones because roads were rather narrow for bigger ones and service back up was poor. Cars from Ford – be it the humble Prefect or the V8 – were in great demand for their driveability, reliability and simplicity. Ford and other car companies advertised regularly about service camps at locations like Siliguri, Shillong and Guwahati and this also boosted the car sales. Nonetheless, it appears Ford sold best and retained the market share.

Most Ford cars came from the company’s England factory which built its compact cars. Other British cars like Austin and Morris were reportedly not so easy to drive on the winding and narrow roads but did equally good, thanks to sales and service back up.

The picture on the left shows a Ford Prefect – a popular side valve, 800cc (8hp) model – at a garden. The one on the right shows a petrol pump advertisement for a sales outlet in the countryside, with a rather odd mix of foreign and Indian figures! Other American car giants like General Motors and Chrysler did not have the compact models needed to combat Ford in sales. There was some competition from European makers making excellent small cars like Citroen and Renault. Brand conscious senior managers bought cars like Riley and even an odd Jaguar.

Personal adventures
A tea garden manager was the mai-baap (father and mother) of the thousands of labourers and their families working under him; he had to often hold courts to settle disputes, impose fines, discipline drunkards, etc..

This had a dangerous side – if there was a problem, the managers had to tackle it. Renowned author, George Orwell, wrote a famous short story about how he had to kill an elephant because he was the mai-baap and was expected to put down the wild animal though he hated doing it.

A newspaper report from Dooars talked about a tiger which had reportedly killed men in the area;  the planter was expected to kill it. But finding the tiger was not easy, till a local source reported that the tiger used to scratch and sharpen its claws at one tea estate gate. The poor manager then was forced to shoot the animal and carry it around in his car to prove what a great mai-baap he was! The pictures show the dead tiger and  some other small games.

At times, when English bosses or important guests from Calcutta came visiting, elaborate hunting parties had to be arranged, using beaters, trucks, and other vehicles. The burra sahib was expected to go back with a trophy and also got the biggest car to go hunting!

The top boss had to go for the big kill like tiger, elephant or bison, while junior managers had to be satisfied shooting only lesser game like deer. Many animals were killed and the massacres that followed such shikars were horrific.

Except for the  few months of monsoon, cars were essential to run the garden. The huge plantations – running into thousands of hectares – were managed with cars which gradually replaced horses. After 1945, cars themselves were replaced by jeeps, first American Willys and then by the Indian ones. But that is another story meant for another day.

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