Tribute to a Tea Baron

BHASWATI KHAUND GOSWAMI relives her childhood memories with tea baron Hemendra Prasad Barooah

It was the late seventies, we had just moved to Naharlagun, the make shift capital of the newly formed Union Territory of Arunachal Pradesh, now a full-fledged state (since 1987). The permanent capital Itanagar had a long way to go. The ruins and remnants of a rich historical past along the ancient “Ita” (brick) fort were being discovered bit by bit. A permanent capital was being planned with experts from all over the country. Moving from the cozy hill town of Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya when my father joined his new assignment had mixed reactions in the family. My mother moved only reluctantly; she loved Shillong, the weather, our beautiful home in the pine tree covered Kench’s Trace locality and her college lecturer’s job. I was quite happy at Pine Mount School too. The younger brother was yet to start formal school so it did not matter to him.

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There was a lot of curiosity about this new destination in the rest of India – the capital of India’s  Land of the Rising Sun, so strategically located. With a lot of unexplored beauty- a tiny valley surrounded by low hills and the picturesque Paching river snaking its way past, the town slowly began to weave its magical charm around us and we quite forgot Shillong.  I joined the Kendriya Vidyalaya , made a new set of friends and my mother got  actively engaged  in social service. Soon began an idyllic childhood- walking to school, cycling with friends, going to the park uphill next door home, exploring the river at the back yard.

As a newly formed capital, the little official town naturally had a steady stream of visitors- dignitaries and state guests. At home as well there would be hordes of guests from all over- some official, some personal. There were no hotels- just a Circuit House which was seldom empty and so was our home! One winter afternoon, school got over early. Walking back home I saw two figures in my mother’s sprawling kitchen garden from the road below. One of them was humming a tune in that rich baritone voice. Wrapped in a red shawl woven by the Nocte tribe and the trademark Nepali cap, I recognized him immediately, he gave me that familiar hug. The other, whom I was meeting for the first time looked a proper gentleman –  in  formal white  trousers, a bright canary yellow T shirt and a stylish hat, he  flashed a  warm smile  at me even as he keenly observed  his companion  picking up ferns and herbs, a cane basket in hand.

That was my first encounter with Hemen Barooah .With him was Dr Bhupen Hazarika a regular visitor, close to my parents. Gathered that Dr Hazarika wanted a typically upper Assam menu for lunch and was all out to give my mother garden fresh ingredients! Needless to say the meal which followed was delicious- an array of greens- steamed and fried fish in hot mustard sauce, a fish tenga and varieties of mashed vegetables in fresh mustard oil. While the singer went about his conversation at the dining table, in between praising the spread, Hemen Barooah would just put in a word occasionally. He had come prepared- colourful candies and a set of colored pens each for my brother and me, wrapped attractively.

Mr Barooah visited us quite a few times after this. Sometimes we accompanied him from the border check post at Banderdewa where visitors coming to Arunachal Pradesh needed to show their inner line permit. A big box of chocolates would invariably come with him along with a bouquet of fresh flowers for home straight from a florist in Calcutta as he flew in from there to Lilabari in Lakhimpur, the nearest air head to Nahurlagun. He once asked me all of a sudden,” Can you tell me the state bird of Arunachal Pradesh?” Much to my chagrin the Great Indian Hornbill was still unknown to me in class five. I remained silent. “That’s ok, you learnt about a new bird. You can share it with your classmates tomorrow” I was determined to be better informed the next time.

One such visit was to donate a substantial amount to the Mahila Imdad Committee, of which my mother was the general secretary. This All India organization was founded by the late Begum Abida Ahmed, the progressive wife of India’s fifth PresidentFakhruddin Ali Ahmed, working for a number of social issues including welfare of women and children. A perfect gentleman, Mr Barooah was large hearted and a philanthropist.

In 1978  Hemen Brooah  stayed for about a week  in  Naharlagun supporting Dr Hazarika   in connection with the production of Arunachal ‘s first full fledged Hindi film Mera Dharam Meri Maa directed by Dr Hazarika and produced by the Arunachal Pradesh Government. During their stay, there were frequent discussions about the details of the project at home (as besides being the Special Secretary to the Lt Governor, my father was also in charge of Information, Public Relations and Culture). While Dr Hazarika would innovate a native Nishi (a local tribe) tune and put Hindi lyrics to it or even narrate a scene, he would often take Barooah’s feedback.  Both would encourage the first time Arunachali actors, have fun with them and gave them small tips of advice as well.

A man of few words but with a great sense of humour, Hemen Barooah would often talk of his near non-existent fan club as compared to his dashing singer friend. Most evenings there would be a small get together at home. Non Assamese neighbours would join in as Dr Hazarika was  much in demand –  he would however seldom entertain people when he was “unwinding”. At times he would even sharply rebuke guests if he was asked to sing! Only when Hemen Barooah made a request on behalf of a guest would he comply, even if it was just a few lines. Could make out this was a different kind of friendship. Both complemented each other. Barooah gave him the frankest feedback on his creations – be it a tune, lyrics or a narration.

Met him after a long time when he attended my marriage in October 1992 and gave me a beautiful silver tableware.  He was truly a legend among the planters in Assam: large-hearted  and sensitive, with a delightful sense of humour. Much ahead of his time, far ahead to even plan and design his final resting place.Rest in peace Uncle Barooah – Assam will miss you. So will most of us….

Bhaswati Khaund Goswami

Bhaswati Khaund Goswami

(Bhaswati Khaund Goswami did her masters in Ancient Indian History from Delhi University in 1991 and works as Communications Officer in the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research(C-NES). She loves writing, focusing mostly on human interest stories and travelogues. Her work, which includes a health outreach programme in the remote Brahmaputra islands, gives her new perspective to the former. Naturally traveling and observing new surroundings are a passion).