Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Mrs. Dobson : A Tea Garden Story

She had yellow eyes, black hair and very dark skin. She always wore white and was much taller than the other tribal women; almost five feet five inches. She carried a stout bamboo stick at all times. Everyone said she was mad. She looked terrifying. We all knew her as ‘Mrs. Dobson’. No one knew what her real name was. One Mr. Dobson had been the ‘Burra Saab’ of the tea garden many years ago. He had presumably found the yellow-eyed woman irresistible. He’d gone back to England around the time when all the British sahibs left tea for good.

Mrs. Dobson lived in a little ‘kutcha’ house. Her house stood all alone. No one in the garden wanted to live anywhere near her. She left home every single day at around four-thirty in the evening and walked all the way to the office, tap-tapping her stick on the road, smiling fixedly and with bright eyes. Others on the road gave her a wide berth. She knew she frightened people, and she was proud of it.

A tea garden office is a busy place in the evening. The work is centred outdoors during the major part of the day, and the focus shifts to the factory and office in the evening. Burra Saab and his Chhota Saabs also make themselves available to the workers to listen to their problems and complaints.
Mrs. Dobson would head straight for Burra Saab’s office and call out in clear tones, ‘Pyaare Lal!’ Burra Saab’s name was not Pyare Lal. She called him that because it was a term of endearment, meaning, ‘Loved One’. Since she’d been the beloved of one Burra Saab in the past, she gave herself the right to address all his successors in equally intimate terms.
The Burra Saab was a tough man, but he liked to stay away from heckling women if he could. And this one was no ordinary woman. She was completely unpredictable, and quite menacing. No garden worker would ever tangle with her; no one would step forward to take her away. One of the Chhotta Saabs would quickly intervene and tell Mrs. Dobson to talk to him instead. She’d start off in loving terms with him as well. ‘My dear brother-in-law,’ she’d say, with her mad smile, ‘Make my son a man, wont you?’ The youngest Chhota Saab once sniggered at this, deliberately choosing to misunderstand her request for her son to be given a full adult wage. She turned on him to ask, ‘Oh, you laugh, do you? Had my Pyaara Dobson been here you would never have dared to insult me!’ The youngster shut up at once.

Mrs. Dobson was always made out to be a bit of a joke when they told stories about her, but everyone admitted it was scary to be in her presence. There was one Chhotta Saab she never could frighten, though. The fiery Mohan Saab would shout at her and send her back home everyday. She’d go, muttering, ‘This Pyare Mohan! Ever since he came here, I am made to look like a dog!’

Mrs. Dobson did not work in the garden, but she had a house to live in, and she received her quota of rations, tea and firewood, bamboo or thatch whenever she needed them. This benevolence was nothing unusual in those days. Mrs. Dobson, for all her madness and wild mutterings, managed to keep house for herself and her son who was what is called a ‘laata’ – not too intelligent. They pulled along, somehow.
It was said that a Postal Order from the U.K. arrived every Christmas in her name. Mrs.Dobson was handed over the money at the office meticulously every year.

One evening, she tap-tapped her way into the bamboo plantation and surprised Burra Saab and the Visiting Agent or ‘Company Saab’ from Calcutta who were out on an inspection.
Her face lit up when she saw the two men, while they shrank from her. ‘Pyare Lall!’ she exclaimed, ‘and my dear Company Saab brother-in-law!’ She went forward eagerly, but unfortunately for her, Mohan Saab was in attendance. He ran forward and jumped in her path, and Burra Saab and the Company Saab moved on quickly, continuing with their tour while poor Mrs. Dobson, her scene quite ruined, was yelled at, in tones louder than her own, and actually threatened with a sound thrashing. She made a quick about turn and hurried away, cursing ‘Pyare Mohan’ under her breath.

One year at Holi the Burra Saab, Chhota Saabs and all their families had gathered at Beech Bungalow, the Senior Assistant’s place. There was much laughter, and lots of beer, pakoras and tuneless singing. Suddenly everyone heard that loud familiar voice and looked up to see Mrs. Dobson’s face leering at them from over the boundary hedge. This was awful. She’d never turned up at any of the living quarters, ever. She knew the merry making would stop as soon as she started her performance. ‘All yours, Mohan!’ said the Senior Assistant under his breath, but Mohan Saab was already off, running at full speed towards the menacing woman. Everyone was quiet, waiting to see what would happen. The Holi revelry had had a good effect on Mohan Saab. He was in top form. He reached Mrs. Dobson in no time and roared wordlessly at her. The silence grew intense around his listeners while he shouted at Mrs. Dobson to clear off. Mrs. Dobson dropped her plans to disrupt the festivities. She turned around and started hurrying away, while Mohan Saab continued to shout threats at the top of his voice. The tension was over, and everyone on the verandah laughed and laughed – and not only at the defeated would-be party pooper. They were going to rib their colleague and have him re-enact this performance time and again!

Another time, she followed two of the young Chhota Memsaabs who were out on their evening walk. They heard her stick tapping behind them and quickened their pace. She was a very strong woman, and outpaced them in no time. ‘Mohan’s Radha and Rukmini!’ she jeered, turning and looking into their faces. Mohan was another name for Lord Krishna, and Radha and Rukmini were his two wives. The Chhota Memsaabs were really embarrassed, since neither of them was the wife of Mohan Saab. ‘When my beloved Dobson was here, I too would rush to the bungalow as eagerly as you do!’ she continued. The girls confined their walks to their bungalow compounds for many days. Mrs. Dobson’s evening walks, however, went on as scheduled for many years.

Mrs. Dobson died some years ago. I don’t know if the man who once loved her and sent her money at Christmas was informed of her death.

8 comments:

Karthik Narayan said...

hehe cute one. reminds me of my physics teacher in school - I never knew her real name. we used to call her babloo :)

Karthik Narayan said...

thanks for taking a peek at my SRK quiz - fiendish eh? lol - its only fair that you attempt answering it, and be patient until sunday - cos thats when i post the answers :)

RAJI MUTHUKRISHNAN said...

Lovely portrait, Gardenia. I do feel sorry for the poor woman.
The Mohan who roared at her is impressive too - anyone we know?

Kamini said...

What a delightful and unusual story, Gowri. And three cheers for Pyaare Mohan Sahib!
Kamini

Anonymous said...

You know, Chote Saab Mohan reminds me of someone I know, but havent met for a while!
Ambika

Karthik Narayan said...

btw a third attempt at the same post! dobson... is more or less likd dodgson - which was lewis caroll's real name. and he had this stammer.. do-do...

Never mind - no significance/ relevance to your post. just plain boasting :)

Abraham Tharakan said...

Good story, well written. Mrs. Dobson comes through so vividly.

Many European planters had their fun and left the women back to misery. I met one chap with a pucca British name, blue eyes and blond hair. Those were all that his father gave him. He couldn't even speak English. He and his mother lived in utter poverty.

There were exceptions, like the 'Burra Saab' in your post. I know two cases. One provided well for all his local children. Another formally married the girl who bore him a child and took her back home with him.

Happy Kitten said...

Wow! a wonderful narration!