Thursday, January 21, 2010
I always knew Bagan Babu was very old, but he just didn't look his age. If you met him anywhere in the garden, he'd be on his motorcycle. He'd pull off his cap and greet you with a big and happy smile. His face looked creased with smiling, not with age. Everyone in Moraghat remembers him that way - smiling and happy.
He died on Christmas day, 2009, aged 92.
People who live to a ripe old age pray that they remain active and in full possession of their wits. I wonder how many people visualize themselves working full time after the age of 75 or so. Not too many, I’ll bet. Our Bagan Babu worked at his post until the end of his life. This was remarkable, considering a bagan babu, or garden clerk, works out in the field and not at a desk.
Krishna Das Sinha was born on Janamastami, the day of Lord Krishna's birth. His parents lived in Cachar, and their roots were in the neighbouring state of Manipur. His son and daughter say they don't know the exact date or month of his birth in the Gregorian calendar.
At 17, Krishna was a good footballer. One day, when he was playing in a football match at Bhubandhar Tea Garden, the Burra Sahib spotted him and asked who he was. The Burra Babu of the garden told him the young man was his nephew. 'Get that boy', said the Burra Sahib, and that's how Bagan Babu started his life in tea.
Bhubandhar was a MacNeill and Barrie garden. In 1965, the Manager, Mr. J.G. Mortimer, was transferred out to one of the company's Dooars properties, Moraghat Tea Estate. He brought his Bagan Babu with him.
Bagan Babu moved into the quarters where he lived for the rest of his life.
Mr. Mortimer was the last British Burra Sahib of this garden. Bagan Babu stayed on to serve under 14 more managers between 1967 and the present time. MacNeill and Barrie sold the garden to HMP group in 1971, and they sold it to the present holders, Binaguri Tea Company, in 1990.
Bagan Babu's wife died in 1990 after a long illness. The couple had nine children. His second son Kanti started working in the garden as a babu himself, and Bagan Babu retired within a year of that. He didn't stay at home after retirement, but took up an assignment at Moiradanga. This was one of the new small holdings that was coming up near Falakata, a town around 30 kilometres south of Moraghat. He planted tea there, and organised the local population along plantation lines, appointing sardars and baidars among people who had never heard these terms before.
Tragedy struck in 1994 when Kanti was killed in a motorcycle accident. There was no one here in the family to take employment in his stead. So Bagan Babu was recalled, and he came back to work. When we moved to Moraghat in 1996, we heard the entire story.
A couple of days before Christmas, Bagan Babu complained of congestion and chest pain. He stayed home - a rare occurrence. In all his years of service, he'd reported sick only a few times. My husband went to see him, and found him working on his leaf chits. On Christmas Eve, Bagan Babu went to Birpara Hospital. He didn't need any help to get into the ambulance. The doctors at Birpara examined him and advised him to go to Siliguri for more tests. He would need a pacemaker, they said.
The following afternoon, Shankar driver picked him up in the ambulance to take him to Siliguri. It was cold and cloudy when they set off. Bagan Babu's breathing was a little laboured, and Shankar said he could hear him from the driver's seat. Shankar called Bagan Babu's old colleague on his cell phone - Kaji Babu, who'd been the second Bagan Babu until he left this garden two years ago. Kaji Babu caught up with the ambulance on his motorbike and greeted his old friend.
Bagan Babu could not speak. He saluted Kaji silently. The end came somewhere near Gairkata Tea Estate, not too far away from home. Shankar said they had been moving very slowly, stopping once or twice to feed him a little water, when suddenly, they couldn't hear the sound of his breathing.
Kaji Babu was inconsolable. 'He was like a father to me, ' he said. 'But he did "Salaam" to me before he died.'