A 3 hour flight lands me at Guwahati from where begins a long drive to Jorhat and further on to the innards of rural Assam. I drive past golden paddy fields lit by the golden rays of a setting sun. The fields are manned by peasants hard at work during the harvest season, with gamchas tied on their head as their sole protection against the harsh sun. With unerring regularity, I spot rectangular naamghars – their typical design being a small Sanctum Santorum, a large prayer hall for satsangs and fancy entrance gates guarded by all manners of dwaarpalikas such as Garuda, a Ganesha-like figure with crocodiles at his side, horse heads, shivlings with giant trishuls, swarms of snakes, fierce lions, etc. Once in a while, I cross a mosque with its tiny courtyard decorated with colourful buntings. Hard to miss is the visible presence of the political masters that control us – BJP banners, hoardings of Tarun Gogoi and the interestingly named “Rockybul Hussain” (once a minister of tourism). Soothing to the eyes after the harsh sun are the dark green forests that line the Kaziranga National Park, offering a chance sighting of a big rhino in the wetlands adjacent to the highway. I take well-deserved breaks eating at roadside hotels and remember the constancy of dal-bhaat-sabzi and the unforgettable memories of ordering CCBC (us mere mortals would call it crispy chilli baby corn!).
The landscape is breath-taking. Endless hillocks covered by lush green tea gardens with interesting names – Amguri. Haathikuli, Seconee, Sagmootea… And the ceaseless economic activity that is typical to see around tea estates. Makes me nostalgic and takes me back to my school days when my daily bus journey to school would take me through kilometres of tea gardens or chai bagans as we would call them, nurseries for protecting young tea saplings, the planter’s bungalow, the rows of tea workers cottages which I would visit to meet my school friends. I regret not having appreciated all this natural beauty – I was too young to know that soon I would be seeking and paying for holidays which take me to such idyllic scenes.
While my destination was Majuli, the long journey necessitated an over-nighter at Jorhat, a large town. Instead of staying at one of the many town hotels, we chose to stay in an old heritage bungalow on the outskirts of Jorhat. Thengal Manor, home to the Khongiya Barooahs of Upper Assam. What a weighty name!
The patriarch of the family, Bisturam Barooah, was one of the first few native Indian tea planters. He worked with and learnt the nuances of the business from Williamson and Magor, the tea experts and soon started trading in tea and eventually planted tea as well. At a time when the industry was completely a monopoly of the British who didn’t take kindly to natives competing with them, this was no mean feat. Around the same time, the first native planter and also supposedly the first person to have brought the Assam Tea species to the notice of the British, Maniram Dutta Baruah, was hanged for treason during the sepoy mutiny days since he refused to sell out his plantations to the British. Clearly, difficult times to have lived through though the Khongiya Barooahs seem to have aligned themselves well with the British gaining the title of Rai Bahadur as well as invites straight from the Viceral Lodge in Simla for events.
As the independence movement gained force, new challenges emerged for the Assamese – the dangers of being submerged in the cause of a Greater Bengal and as a result, losing their independent identity. Many Assamese even fought against the Congress on this matter. To support the Assamese cause, Siva Prasad Barooah started the first Assamese newspaper, Dainik Batori, from this very bungalow and provided a voice to the Assamese freedom fighters. Clearly, this bungalow had a lot of history unfolding on its premises.
As I walked around looking at the many sepia toned photos of various family members, strolled in the green lawns and paid a silent visit to the whitewashed memorials to the dead members of the family, I am happy to have discovered that there were successful Assamese entrepreneurs as well who had stood the onslaught of the Marwaris who soon overtook all of the East.