The Road Ahead

Tea veteran Robin Borthakur recounts the experiences of a young assistant manager’s stint in a tea estate in Assam

Apart from the heat of the brilliant September sun, the journey along the sylvan countryside was quite enjoyable. The road, metalled in most part, but somewhat narrow for a highway, snaked through a monsoon forest and entered a semi-urban locality dotted with quaint little white-washed cottages. The frontages adorned with pleasingly small flower gardens and coltish tiny tots playing within the compounds, the place exuded an old world charm which mollified his weary soul.

He stretched his cramped legs, produced a kerchief from his trouser pocket and mopped the perspiration in his face. Then with a piece of frayed cloth that he had found in the glove compartment, he dusted the windscreen of the vehicle to remove the fine film of dust that had obliterated his vision. As he looked out on the road, he could see a gang of toiling workers engaged in the process of macadamising the road with tar and broken shingles. The sight mentally took him back to the days of the Industrial Revolution in his country where John L. McAdam introduced this method of road building in the early part of the 19th century and thereby immortalised his name.

The monotony of the drive and the raucous clatter of the tumbledown jeep was beginning to induce him to a stupor. But a sudden jerk of the jalopy broke his cat-nap and he could hear an unfamiliar cacophony of voices on the road. As he looked out, he was regaled with the view of jazzily attired cock-a -hoop clusters of people of all descriptions, mainly youth and children, along the roadside, all agog to join some festival. Some of them even merrily waved at him which was a sight for his sore eyes and also assuaged his fatigue although he could not make out as to where the crowds were going, and there was no way of knowing since he did not have adequate knowledge of the local lingo to strike up a conversation with the only other occupant of the jeep – the driver, a stubby fellow with matted hair and cheeks covered with at least a week-old stubbles.

After a while, the jeep took a left turn and went on to a dirt track. What he could make out from the mumbling of the driver was that they would soon be reaching their destination, Bukhial tea estate, where he was going to take up an assignment as an assistant manager. He already had a disconcerted feeling about working in a completely unfamiliar surrounding amongst total strangers and although he did not want to admit to himself, he even had a nagging fear that since he did not have any idea as to what his job would be, he might not find himself equal to the expectations of his bosses. However, he soon abandoned those thoughts and concentrated on the road in front of him.

As they drove ahead, he noticed similar groups of people that he had seen on his way earlier flaunting gaudy clothes and children singing and dancing, going along the road now passing through emerald tea plantations. Shortly afterwards, their vehicle stopped near what looked like an office, from where a man emerged and came running to the vehicle.

“Good morning, Sir. This is Sopella, Out Division of Bukhial tea estate. The main division is just a short distance away from here. You like to take a little rest here?”

“No, thank you. I must meet Mr Bell, the manager who may be expecting me. But can you tell me where these people are going?” he asked pointing to the ebullient crowd on the road.

“Oh, these are mostly people from our garden and also some local villagers all going to Bukhial to attend the garden Durga Puja -worship of Goddess Durga, you know.”

Although he could not fully understand as to what it was, he could make out that it must be some local festival.

Soon the vehicle drove into the premises of Bukhial main division and pulled up in front of the manager’s office. He got off the jeep and was received by an office staff who took him to a young assistant manager. “I am John Clayton, the new assistant,” he introduced himself.

“Welcome, John,” he offered his hand and shook Clayton’s hand warmly. “I am Jake – Jake Porter, the field assistant. I presume they will put you in the factory. Make yourself comfortable. Let me find out if the old man would like to see you now.”

As he looked around at the maps, charts and graphs on the walls, Porter returned and told him that the manager would like to see him right away.

“Watch out, John, he’s a tough guy. A strict disciplinarian, stickler for time and a little unpredictable, you know what I mean?” said Porter with a wink.

“Don’t worry, Jake, I shall take care of myself. Thanks all the same for your advice.” He slowly got up, plodded his way to the manager’s chamber, knocked at the door and walked in. Bell, the manager, was giant of a man. He was standing facing a window with his brawny body framed against it. As Clayton walked in, he turned around and looked at him. Clayton himself was not puny, but standing in front of Bell, he felt himself like David standing in front of Goliath.

Clayton had already heard about Bell. He was a bruiser and pugilist in his early days and now – a hard task master. He came to Bukhial tea estate when the garden had gone into deep water. With both price and production having gone down over successive years, things had come to such a pass that the Company decided to sell the property. It was at that stage that Bell came into the scene and offered that he could try to rescue and restore the property if the company could take a chance and give him a couple of years. The Company agreed. Bell also accepted the challenge. He took over as the manager and immediately tightened the administration. All wasteful expenditures were stopped and urgent steps were taken both in the field and the factory to improve quality of production. Stress was laid on labour welfare activities since he was aware of the value of human resource. Absenteeism and habitual late attendances were stopped and under the leadership of the manager workers also worked hard and in a matter of months a turnaround was visible in the garden. There was no further looking back.

The Company was very pleased with Bell and gave him a free hand to work in his own way. The workers and the members of the staff who had become apprehensive of the future of the garden, were also now happy.

Clayton was awe-struck by the formidable appearance of Bell and he politely introduced himself. Bell tentatively nodded his head and looked at him for a long moment before he offered his huge hand which held Clayton’s hand in a momentary grip which gave the neophyte a fairly good idea of the person he was going to work under. He asked the youngster to take a seat and had a brief discussion regarding the area of his responsibility and told him what precisely was expected of him. He then asked the greenhorn to report for duty at six the next morning punctually and dismissed the meeting.

Jake Porter then took Clayton for a round of the factory, showed him his bungalow, left some instructions with the servants and sent him some lunch from his bungalow. And John Clayton’s life in tea was set in motion.

After lunch, Clayton had a good look of his bungalow. It was old but spacious and comfortable. Some furniture needed to be repaired and the bedroom and the drawing room badly needed a coat of paint. But he thought that all that could wait for a while till he could show some positive results of his work.

Dot at six the next morning he was in the office reporting to the manager. As predicted by Jake Porter the previous day, Clayton was sent to the factory and he was asked to learn everything about the factory from the Head Tea House Clerk Bora and Sujan Singh, the fitter. Clayton was trained as an engineer and he took hardly any time to pick up everything about a tea factory. From day one, he started his work in the right earnest and he decided that he would not give any opportunity to anyone to find fault with his work. He learnt so much within a short time that everybody started admiring his ability. Even Bell admired his dedication and innovative skill. Bell would often discus s various problems – technical and non-technical, with Clayton and would generally go by his advice.

One day he suggested to the manager that since there was no way the management could control various activities in the factory sitting at one place, he had an idea to develop a device. After listening to the details, Bell gave his consent provided the cost was low. Clayton assured him that the cost would be virtually nothing. On receipt of consent of his manager, Clayton started working without any loss of time. He installed a board in the office with lights of different colours. He kept on working in a corner of the factory for days together and finally the device was ready

One fine morning a small ceremony was organized and the manager was invited to switch it on. He explained to the manager that different colour lights would indicate functions of different machinery and by looking at the lights it would be possible to control their functioning.

“But who will keep watch on the lights and will tell concerned persons?” asked Bell.

“Oh, that’s not a problem. I have already trained this man – Somra and he has understood everything.”

“No, no,” Bell shook his head in utter dismay, “these people don’t understand all these things.” Turning to Somra Bell asked,“Dekho, is hara rang ka light ka kya matlab hai ?

“Ki jaani!” (no idea) “Woh Laal rang ka jo hai ?”

“Ki jaani!”

Somra repeated with a blank face.

“You see, this is what I said. Only thing that they understand is “Daagi” the markings by chalk or paint or whatever.”

Clayton was finally forced to abandon the device and had to go back to the good old “Daagi”.

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