Healey’s healing touch wins her honour in home country

Joan Healey who was decorated with ‘Member of the Order of British Empire’ by the British Queen recently, spent many years for workers’ welfare in Assam’s tea gardens. Tea veteran Robin Borthakur eulogises the sublime deeds of this noble lady


King Farouk I, the last king of Egypt, whose government was overthrown and he was forced to abdicate by the Free Officers led by General Muhammed Neguib and Gamal Abdul Nasser in 1952, famously said that ultimately there would be only five kings in the world – King of Spades, King of Clubs, King of Hearts, King of Diamonds and – the King of England.


Now after elapse of 60 long years, from the recent enormity of the pageant and the degree of ebullience which marked the celebration of the Diamond Jubilee of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II by the British people made it appear that Farouk’s words were indeed oracular.


Be that as it may, this jollification was reminiscent of another occasion a couple of years ago when the Queen on the occasion of her birthday, decorated a British lady called Joan Healey with an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) in recognition of her “long term service with the Citizens Advice Bureau and hence to the whole community of Ross and Cromarty and the wider community of the Highlands of Scotland.”


This little piece of information, however, may fail to engage the attention of our good readers for one that there was no novelty in the investiture which was rather routine and for the other that they are not familiar with the person so honoured. But perhaps a large section of people associated with the tea industry in Assam found reason to cheer because the lady concerned had spent many years in the tea gardens of Assam while her husband Tim Healey had been a tea planter. Many of the older tea workers swear by her for what she did for the indigent garden workers and the ingenuous rustics in the neighbouring villages which still linger as a happy memory in their mind. True, that her pioneering work for rural uplift in Assam did not get due recognition while she was here; but she continued with her good work in her own country devoid of any self- interest and her commendable work has since been rewarded.


The 340 word citation that came with her MBE refers to her work as under:

“For more than 26 years now she has offered her time, knowledge and services to the Citizens Advice Bureau, first in Caithness and thereafter in Ross and Cromarty. She currently volunteers from the Dingwall office where during her time as a generalist adviser she has helped empower thousands of individuals, making a real difference to their lives.”


Understandably, the plight of the tea garden and ex-tea garden workers and the tribal villagers in the remote interior of Assam those days was not comparable to the Highlanders of Scotland and their level of education also was much lower; nor did the Healeys have enough resources at their disposal. So they could not do anything dramatic to change their lives altogether. But Joan Healey’s pioneering works for those disadvantaged and forlorn communities brought tremendous relief to them and made their lives much easier.


The tea estate where her husband worked was located in the remote foothills of Bhutan and with its picturesque surroundings was a veritable paradise on earth. But behind this quaint setting were concealed many woes and agonies of the poor villagers comprising mostly landless tillers, minor craftsmen and daily wage earners. Their problems were manifold the most serious of these being that they did not have a source of wholesome drinking water. Particularly during the winter months, their only source of water, the mountain brooks meandering through their villages would go dry and the womenfolk had to walk miles with their earthen pitchers to fetch water. Their predicament moved Joan and in consultation with her husband a few ring wells were dug at convenient places which were deep enough to retain enough water throughout the year. This solved one of their major problems.


Again, during the monsoon a smart shower in the hills would create an unpredictable situation. Within matter of minutes the runnels would be on full spate and all low lying areas would be submerged with people being completely marooned at times for days together. Since none of these rivulets was bridged, the villagers could not move out anywhere to buy their provisions and used to be in dire distress. Once again they approached Joan. The problem looked colossal; but she realized that they were not looking for a Humber Bridge or a Severn Bridge. Just a few planks thrown across the streams at strategic points secured by a few branches of trees from the nearby jungle did the trick and the villagers were completely overwhelmed by this gesture. Joan would often visit the villages in the neighbourhood trying to do whatever she could to help the people. A comforting word to the sick or others in distress did not cost her any money. But people appreciated her good intention. As the great Punjabi Sufi poet Bulley Shah says – “…..rob unanu mildan nita jina diyan sachiyan” – Only he attains God whose intentions are honest.


On retirement from tea, although the Healeys left for the U.K., Joan’s heart remained in Assam perhaps with the poor and the needy that she had worked for. Her daughter Lesley, herself a fine lady, has married an Assamese tea planter Mahmood Sultan and they are now settled at Tezpur. Their daughter in her turn, is married to a Wing Commander of the Indian Air Force. Hence the family’s assimilation with the people of this land is complete.


Although Joan Healey did commendable service to the poverty-stricken people in a forlorn part of Assam, the outside world did not have an inkling about it and she also never expected anything in return of her service. Like the Sufis, she is a person not attached to her action nor does she expect a reward. There is an anecdote relating to a Sufi and an ascetic Sufyan al-Thauri from “The way of the Sufi” by Idries Shah.


“One night Sufyan dreamt he met a Sufi who claimed to have been rewarded for his charitable actions.’I was even given a reward for picking up a piece of orange-peel and preventing someone from slipping on it.’


‘How fortunate you were, ‘said Sufyan to the Sufi, ‘not to have been punished on all the occasions you gained personal pleasure from performing a charitable act.’


Robin Borthakur

Robin Borthakur

The author is a former Secretary of the Assam Branch Indian Tea Association (ABITA) and former Additional Chairman of Bharatiya Cha Parishad. He is a writer and columnist and writes on subjects of varied interests, including tea-related matters