Chai Stories: An Arrival Through Errors

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In our new series called Chai Stories, courtesy a unique blog on life in tea plantations, Shalini Mehra writes about visitors trying to reach her home in the remote tea gardens of Assam and the comedy of errors that inevitably happened before their arrival.

Almost at a sprint and out of breath we reached the platform only to see the fading lights of the last bogie of the train. ‘Not again’, I told myself.

Luckily, we were not boarding.

We had arrived at Tinsukia station well in time to receive my parents, aunt, brothers and sisters, most of them on their first trip to Assam. Though they were booked to Dibrugarh, we had planned to receive them at Tinsukia so as to save them an extra hour on the train. But it was too late now. Once back on the highway we sped up to keep pace with the train. This was well before the days of insulated AC compartments and we hoped someone from the family would peep out of the train window and spot us. Our four-year-old son Vicky, unable to contain his excitement, was literally hanging out of the car window in anticipation of some fun; while our good old Ambassador rattled ahead trying to catch up with the train which had now gathered speed.

It is very interesting to see how closely parallel the train track and national highway run for a distance of almost 48 kilometers from Tinsukia to Dibrugarh, so much so that at certain points one can easily shake hands with the passengers on the train. But on this evening the sky was overcast with dark clouds, resulting in poor visibility. We had raced up and then slowed down, covering the length of the moving train, to sight a familiar face; but most of the shutters were closed. Disappointed and reconciled to a long drive to Dibrugarh, we carried on.

My mind was racing back in time to the day, a month back, when I had received a letter confirming my family’s travel plans – but the much awaited telegram had never arrived. Apprehensions grew whether they were on the train or not. Had they changed their minds?

The year was 1977 and we were posted at Oaklands – a little Eden on the banks of the Brahmaputra. The out garden was tucked away in a corner, a place where telephones were hardly ever functional, roads rarely motorable. Despite the unpredictable communications, we had confirmed the arrival time from the railway inquiry through a friend. However, taking no chances, we had arrived at Tinsukia well in time, only to be told that the train was two hours late. Taking advantage of the time, we proceeded to have a cup of tea in town with a friend. The hostess had barely poured tea in the cups when the hoot of an engine sounded and our friend, living in close vicinity of the station for years, exclaimed with surety, “I think that’s your train.”

Leaving our cups untouched we hurried towards the station but by the time we meandered through the traffic and parked, considerable time had elapsed. We had missed the train, and this was not the first time – but that is another story. It is a fact that till air travel improved and the broad gauge was installed, no one – I repeat no one – from outside Assam reached us on a personal visit without a hitch.

To continue, as if in response to little Vicky’s prayers, as we crossed Dikom Station (no halt) I saw my sister looking out from her compartment window and at the same moment she spotted us. One by one more shutters were rolled up and beaming faces of my younger siblings grinned at us. What excitement ensued! We were all waving, laughing and singing a la Rajesh Khanna from the Bollywood blockbuster Aradhana. This continued Dikom onwards till the rail track and the road parted as we neared Dibrugarh. By the time we reached the platform the train was chugging in and screeching to a halt. Well, all’s well that ends well. A ‘miss’ at Tinsukia earlier had resulted in great fun. All of us still treasure the memory of that journey with nostalgia and affection.

Another incident took place much earlier in 1973, the year we got married and I came to Salonah in Nowgong district. A clerk from my father-in-law’s office was visiting Assam and was carrying a parcel of mangoes. The exotic king of fruits was a rare commodity in Assam then. His journey brought him very close to his destination but not close enough. At the railway inquiry office in Guwahati he showed our postal address and was thrilled to see the name of Salona station on the rail chart. Salona was a small railway station, very close to Salonah tea garden, where one local passenger and one goods train would arrive every day.

Secure with this information he boarded the only train to his destination. The Metro-city man, expecting a cemented platform with regular information announcements, porters to carry luggage and auto-rickshaws in waiting, was in for the shock of his life. He found that he was the only passenger who had got down at Salona. There was no platform and just a small shack for an office. A single beam of light emerging from it barely penetrated the darkness that had descended very early. Dragging his own suitcase and the mango parcel he somehow walked up to the cabin to find a solution for his colossal problem – where was Salonah tea garden and how could he reach it? But no words answered him. Only a finger pointed towards one direction.

He dragged himself a little further ahead and saw a man on a bicycle carrying a cane basket piled with dozens of raw bananas. On inquiry he was once again given a direction but no manual help to carry his luggage. With a pounding heart he waited, wondering what to do next. Moments dragged on; his imagination playing tricks on him started to cast shadows of prowling wild life in the darkness and a shiver crept through his body.

After what seemed ages but was only a few minutes, he saw another man – and as luck would have it, it was a Salonah garden labourer. On hearing the familiar name ‘Rajan Mehra’ he immediately paid his customary obeisance, ‘Salaam sahib,’ and offered to carry the parcel and guide him to our bungalow. Thus arrived on our doorstep our first visitor from Delhi, very shaky and stressed out indeed but with the mango parcel intact. Years later I came to know that he would regale the entire office staff with his exaggerated version of the story in which the imaginary prowling animal became a real one!


Note: The photograph of the train in the featured image above was taken by Gowri Mohanakrishnan on the line between Tinsukia Jn and Dibrugarh in 2018. The image of mangoes is courtesy Pixabay.

This story was first published on Indian Chai Stories. You can read Gowri’s recollection of her tea plantation life here 


 

About Author

Shalini Mehra

Shalini calls herself a 'Jack of all Trades and Master of None' very modestly, but she made the most of the four decades she spent living with her husband in the tea gardens. She started the first ever Tea Planters’ Interclub magazine ‘The Camellia’, ‘for the planters, by the planters, of the planters’ in Assam, and continued to edit and run it successfully until she followed her husband into retirement some years ago. Shalini remains active in her new community and tutoring a few underprivileged children is her new project!