Snippet Out of my Scrapbook

In this subtle piece, tea veteran Robin Borthakur writes about the lighter aspects of a tea garden club life

Taking a momentary break in the seemingly endless chain of his sermons, my self-appointed benefactor ensconched himself comfortably in the sofa, picked up a handful of snacks which he stuffed into his mouth and started munching with apparent relish. Then holding the glass with the ritziness of an inner-town socialite, he sipped the gimlet and savoured it with his eyes shut.

I, a young green-horn, had a hard day’s work handling one of my first labour strikes in a Panitola Circle garden. It was a hot day and I got completely exhausted of all the hassle that I had to go through with an irrate mob for several hours, naturally without any food or drink. But I was looking forward to watching an extra-ordinary movie that was to be screened that evening in Dibrugarh & District Planters’ Club.

But my visitor, who had dropped in unannounced, did not show any sign of leaving. As seconds rolled into minutes and minutes into an hour, I gradually grew impatient. I stole a glance at my watch and, my god, it was already late and I would hate to miss even a part of the 1939 classic ~ “Gone With the Wind” ~ based on Margaret Mitchell’s monumental epic, billed as the ‘greatest love story of our time’. Clark Gable as Rhett Butler and Vivian Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara indeed had brought the respective characters alive against an authentic background portrayed in the film. I had already seen the movie once, but it touched my heart so much ~ I wanted to see it again and again.

At last, out of desperation, I offered my visitor a ridiculous excuse, which I was sure, he would not believe. But I didn’t care. I almost pushed him into his car and then I drove off to the Club. I headed straight for the movie hall. But I was somewhat perplexed to see the hall was half-empty although it was well past the scheduled time for the movie. On the contrary, I could hear a cacophony of noises inside the lounge bar and saw people spilling out on to the verandah talking excitedly to one another.

There was Bukie Ghaffar puffing hard at his pipe and was listening intently to Ajay Yadav and a few others. The main door framed the tall figure of E. D. “Nick” Nicholson, who also looked equally excited. Even Hugh Hammond one of the most pleasant and placid persons that I had ever come across, did not look his usual self. The younger lot looked even more overwrought.

A crowd had thronged near the club notice board scanning a list that had been posted there, but I failed to get closer to the board to see what the notice was about. The scene inside closely resembled the Tower of Babel – everybody talking excitedly to the other resulting in a medley of discordant sounds and it was impossible to fathom as to what it was all about. After some efforts, all that I could latch on to was that it had something to do with non-payment of club bills, by some members.

Non-payment of club bills could always be a very sensitive matter in the tea clubs and more so in a prestigious club like the Dibrugarh & District Planters’ Club. I remembered the story of Jim Mitchel of Phulbari T. E. who embarrassed his manager Michael Rome, who also happened to be the President of Thakurbari Club, by taking his drinking a little too far so much so that his club bills swelled far beyond his capacity to pay and Mitchel’s name was posted in the notice board. A somewhat chagrined Rome had to rescue Mitchel by allowing him to draw his “language allowance” on his having learnt some Assamese, to pay his club bill with.

I suddenly saw Sajjad “Panna” Ali, who was the Bar Member of the Club, sitting quietly on a bar-stool in a corner allowing himself to be targeted for verbal attack by several members. Panna is usually a reticent person notwithstanding his ready wit and an excellent sense of humour. But once things went beyond his tolerance limit, he snapped out of his silence, asked them to dry up and left the place.

I followed Panna and asked him what the matter was.

“People don’t bother to settle their Club bills despite repeated reminders. How do I run the bar? I don’t have a boot-legger in the list of my friends! And now that the accumulated dues from members totalled to 24 thousand, I had no option other than putting the names of the defaulters up in the notice board.”

Now, I could see what had happened. I fully supported Panna and told him so.

The notice yielded desired results. Within a week’s time the entire outstanding was recovered and in the next Club Committee Meeting, Panna got a rousing ovation from the Committee members for his ‘extra-ordinary ability’ to realize such a heavy sum in such a short time!

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