I was born in a middle class family in the early thirties. My parents named me Manab. Sylhet, the place of my birth was adistrict headquarters in Assam and is now in Bangladesh. It was my mother’s hometown. My father’s roots were in Nabinagar, avillage in Coomilla district in pre-partitioned Bengal. The names of both these places became quite well known to many in India, during the war of liberation of Bangladesh in 1971.
My father Nripendra, an electrical engineer was employed in Upper Assam in M/s James Warren Tea Company, incorporated in England. He was tall, well built, calm, extremely hardworking and devoted to his profession through out his service spanning over four decades. At least that was the impression we had as children in our formative years. My mother Jyothsna, a beautiful and intelligent lady, showered us with immense maternal affection but dealt with us sternly whenever the occasion arose. From an early age, she indulged in tremendous self-sacrifice, managed the household with limited resources and ensured that we thre ebrothers and a sister had proper education. She decidedly instilledin us a spirit of competitiveness, which propelled all the siblings to do well in later life. All of us were closer to our mother than our father who I felt was rather aloof. On matters concerning our education, choice of profession and other family affairs, it was our mother whom we approached first. Many important decisions were taken by her sometimes having to even convince our father with logical analysis and persuasion. She was equally progressive and ambitious as far as her children’s future was concerned.
I was the first born and premature at birth, dark and thin inbuild compared to many other members of our family who were generally tall, light-skinned and well-built. One possible reasonfor such a state, as I gathered many years later, was my mother’s ill health at my birth. This disparity in my physical attributes was not only a matter of concern to the family as was told to me later but also caused discrimination bordering on humiliation from several quarters in later years. The first memory of the environmentin which we were growing dawned on me sometime in the mid-thirties. That was of lush green tea gardens, as if beautifully woven green carpets spread over miles in wavy patterns matching the undulated lay of the ground, kissing the horizon. To a young boy sitting on the handle bar or the improvised seat on the crossbar of my father’s bicycle, it was the world or the end of the world beyond which nothing existed. The skyline of this spectacular scenic beauty was interspersed with an odd tea factory or the English Sahib’s bungalow at a distance and the shady trees so necessary for the healthy growth of the tea plantation.
Gradually, others appeared on the scene, particularly women workers, with baskets behind their backs, and occasionally a baby tied in front of them. They were all dressed in colourful attire and their nimble fingers plucked budding tea leaves. Mostly, they were migrants from the Santhal tribal belt of Bihar. Slowly as I grew, I became aware of the labour colony tucked in one corner of the garden. The days were fine for all in the colony but all hell would break loose on many evenings after drinking and merry making. The drunken brawls between the male workers sometimes led to a nasty finale for the fellow workers and their families. On the weekly pay days, the appearance of Kabuliwalas (moneylenders from the distant North-West Frontier Province, now in Pakistan) at the entrance of the colony created a very tense ambience. This oftenled to fisticuffs between workers and the moneylenders and sometimes even to murder. The situation was brought undercontrol by the Sahibs on horseback, followed sometimes by the police from the distant town of Jorehaut. The treatment meted out to the so-called miscreants was extremely harsh. The Manager, the English Sahib was the ultimate in dishing out any punishmentas he deemed fit. No one dared question his authority. The police followed what the Sahib dictated. This grim picture of exploitationis still etched deep in my mind.
Even when so young, I could realize that the life for the staffin the gardens was rather secluded, monotonous and totally at the mercy of the white managers. It appeared that the happenings in the distant gardens were beyond the reach of the District Commissioners and the Police Superintendents who were invariably whites. Both the Company managers and the District administrators appeared to be comfortable with this arrangement of detached attachment. The company management was a Raj beyond the Raj. They did not feel the necessity for any interaction between them unless there was a murder at hand. Generally, the relationship between the management and the staff was one of humiliation and degradation. I felt miserable whenever I noticed that the staff had to dismount from their cycles, bend and bow their heads when the white managers passed by in their cars kicking up clouds of dust. The staff colony we lived in had about a dozen brick-lined corrugated asbestos roofed quarters almost in the pattern of row housing. These quarters were an exact replica of one another. But for a small number plate displayed at the entrance, it was difficult to locate your own house. About thirty yards away, running in parallel to the frontage of the colony was a meter gauge railway line linking Jorehaut town to Mariani railway junction, which in turn provided connectivity to Guwahati in the west and Tinsukia in the east. The track was so near that sometime sat night, we felt as if the train was running over our chest. But most of us in the colony got accustomed to the scheduled movement of the trains. Some were so used to the rhythm that they had disturbed sleep if the midnight train was late. This railway-line, later on played an important part in our childhood on morethan one occasion.
The headquarters of the Tea Company was across the railway line and its tea gardens were in far flung areas of Eastern Upper Assam. My father would mostly be away on tours to these remote gardens, often for a considerable period. At a time like this, my mother would be most unhappy, as the burden of running the household would fall entirely on her. More so, as she was constantly worried about the education of my younger brother, Arun and myself as others were yet to arrive. She was sure of one aspect of education in the family. If I as the eldest of the siblings did well then others would definitely follow suit. If not, she was almost obsessed with the idea that some thing might go wrong. I was tobe an example to the younger ones, a sort of pole star. These riousness of this responsibility was dinned into me at every opportunity. I must unhesitatingly acknowledge that her continuous drive and determination ultimately bore fruit, though at a considerable pressure on my fragile frame.
There was no schooling facility whatsoever available for children of my age in the neighbourhood except for the whites in their exclusive Gymkhana Club. So my initiation to schooling began at home under the care of my mother. She was finally able to persuade my father and a few neighbours to start a school in the garden itself, which could provide us with formal education. After sometime, a primary school in some form did materialize in one of the staff quarters with a hired teacher from Jorehaut. My classhad two students, one girl and myself. I had great satisfaction instanding first for the first two years. More so because, the other had the stigma of being last in the class, forgetting that she in fact stood second. Yet my mother was most dissatisfied with this makeshift arrangement, in spite of herself imparting additional coaching at home. Ultimately, it was decided that I would be sent to Nabinagar, the home of our grandparents where adequate schooling facilities did exist.
One day during one such long time gap, when the supervisor was enjoying a cup of tea in our place and the gang men were taking it easy relaxing on the wayside, four of us boys took charge of the trolley and started following their drill which we someticulously had observed for quite sometime. After initialdifficulty, though one or two of us could not balance and fell off the track, we did master the drill rather easily, may be because of our agile bodies and determination. The trolley picked up speed. We took turns in continuing with the drill and started enjoying the ride. As luck would have it, while approaching an unmannedlevel crossing, we realized that we did not know how to make use of the brake. The speed of the trolley could not be controlled and our magic vehicle dashed against a cyclist, damaging his cycle and injuring him. We panicked as we were also thrown all over. The trolley ultimately stopped owing to the impact of the collision. But this was not the end of our trouble. The supervisor and his gang men were totally taken by surprise at this misadventure. I do not recollect how they reached the level crossing so soon. They cursed us, picked up the cyclist, the damaged cycle or whatever was left of it on the trolley and disappeared in haste. Initially, wewere baffled by the supervisor’s action leaving the site in such a great haste. But slowly we fathomed that he must have realized the gravity of his guilt in neglecting his duty. Because, in those days ofthe Raj, for such a lapse, he and his gang would have to pay a very heavy price, which might even be an unceremonious dismissal from service. Obviously, he had to have a cover up plan placed inposition at the earliest. My father got to know of the whole episode in the evening and for the first time or probably the last, I received a grand thrashing. My mother ignored me for a few days. The supervisor never returned for tea ever again.
I noticed that there were signs of definite changes in the garden. More trains were shuttling up and down at any odd hour. There were movements of troops, whites, blacks and Indians. The whites were reserved; Indians indifferent and the blacks were very jovial and always smiling and singing. The soldiers threw lots of chocolates and tinned stuff from the train. There was a scramble amongst workers and their children to pick these up. Our parents prohibited us from picking up any of the stuff, as this was not dignified, though we were often tempted to do so. A major part ofthe tea estate was handed over to the military and a field hospital designed in local specifications was under construction. There were whispers of a war brewing right at our door. It was rumoured that the management of the company was secretly building small airstrips in remote tea gardens for easy exit at first for their families and later for themselves as and when the situation demanded.