Crossing a stormy Brahmaputra
I had moved out from our family tea garden near Gohpur to Guwahati to focus on our new project there in 1981 but continued looking after the production and development of our tea properties. This required monthly visits to check on the works on new tea planting and general development of the garden and factory.
At times my eldest brother also came to assess for himself as we believed that we had to improve our gardens both in crop and quality and the financial inputs and requirements had to be carefully planned and utilised. We had come on one such joint visit early in April of 1983 for this purpose. As we were also doing the livestock project in Guwahati with the induction of broilers and layers and were planning to start ducks also for egg production, we decided to cross the river at Tezpur to Silghat on our return journey to check on the duck breeding farm at Kaliabor.
Generally, the ferry crossings are good fun as the river itself has plenty to see and enjoy at a leisurely pace. When crossing upstream the trip will take almost double the time taken for downstream and in winter times, with water becoming shallow with the dry season, the boats could get stuck on the hidden sandbanks and then a lot of pushing and shoving with long strong bamboo poles is needed to free the vessel again. I remember when I must have been hardly five to six years old, the roads were not that well maintained we had to use the steamers of the erstwhile RSN Company to travel to Gomeri Ghat about two nights’ journey away from Guwahati. Those were grand old days of travel, breakfast on the sundecks and then the senior men and some memsahibs also drank gin and tonic before lunch which my father and his friends also joined in while we had to play in the small wooden cabins. The steamers ran on coal and some also had diesel engines turning the huge wheels on the side forcing the ships to move. I will never forget the sights on the banks, the fishermen on their boats with their catches and especially the man with the huge bamboo pole in the front lower deck of the boat checking the depth of the river and repeating in a sing song voice “ek baam mile na” that is, one bamboo depth is clear. The captain relied on him for navigating clear of the shallow portions; no fancy GPS or radar system, just the good old manpower and his ingenuity.
So I never worried or felt any fear of the river though of course during the monsoons or in bad weather the boats never plied and it was all about simply having to wait for the weather to change. Travel was no mad rush to meet a deadline. Hence that fateful morning in Tezpur we loaded our vehicle, an Ambassador car with our faithful driver Gopal and my personal helper Swapan, my elder brother and me. The ferry was a big one having two sections for loading vehicles and the bridge and double passenger decks in the centre with the captain right on top having a clear view. The other section was for bigger vehicles like trucks and tractors etc. The boat started with the sound of the siren and soon we were in deep waters, going downstream before we had to turn upstream for our journey to Silghat. The hills on our right had hidden the ominous clouds of a northwester brewing and it was too late when the storm suddenly came upon us with the gusts of winds making the waves come up. We soon saw the crew don their storm attire of yellow raincoats and they were running around telling the passengers to hold on tight to their seats.
One person came to the vehicles and told us to get down and indicated a small room on the deck advising us to get inside and hold on to the iron posts and riveted chairs; they also asked the drivers to sit in the driver’s seat and keep the hand brake on and also press down on the brakes. There was no surety that the wooden blocks placed in both the front and rear wheels would hold. I quickly glanced to my side where there was a Station Wagon Jeep belonging to the Catholic Diocese of Tezpur with a priest sitting in the rear seat frantically reading what appeared to me to be the Bible! His driver was also in the front driving seat with the brakes held down. By this time the boat was lurching up and down and a lot of water was falling all over us. I ran towards the small room but before I could reach it a big wave of water crashed down on me and I managed to grab hold of a wooden log which, by some providence, was there. In the meantime there was a huge wailing and cries from the passengers rising above the din of the water and winds. I somehow managed to get to the small room and got inside where there were some others also including my brother and poor Swapan who had not left his side despite being frightened out of his wits. Then one crew member passed by and told us to hang on tightly as the boat was going to turn towards upstream and this was the crucial manoeuvre which could decide our fate. I felt the groan of the engines vibrating as the vessel slowly turned and managed to withstand the immense pressure of the pounding waves. Now the storm was on our stern and not on our sides i.e., port or starboard so the boat could be handled properly in a straight line. The intensity of the winds were also receding but the rocking motion made quite a few passengers retch and thankfully the waters washed the refuse clean.
After some time the danger had passed and Bordoisila, the wild winds of Assam was on her way spent and now carefree reminding us of the great vagaries of nature and how lucky we were to survive. Meanwhile, we crossed below the Kaliabhomura Bridge which was only being constructed then, and saw the welcome jetty at Silghat. The deck was again full of laughter and all were talking about the great skill of the captain and his crew. Everyone was wet but no one cared now that we had survived the crossing and when the captain climbed down the stairs from his steering cabin on top everyone clapped and patted his back. I remember this short statured youngish man, almost embarrassed at the attention he was getting pass, before us smiling and taking the adulation silently as he knew the close shave that we all had.
At Silghat there was a very old inspection bungalow where I had spent many nights to catch the ferry at times; we got there to clean up and wore fresh clothes to go and see the duck farm. Imagine our utter dismay when the much feted farm we had come to see risking our lives turned out to be very dilapidated and run down. The duck houses for rearing were all empty except for one house where there were two drakes and one female duck only for breeding. The expensive hatchery equipment was all lying unused and the dozen odd workers there were very surprised as to why we had come and felt relieved that we were not government officials on inspection. It was sad to see such wastage but this made our resolve to make our new venture a success much more as livestock farming was poised to grow. Later that year, we introduced a new duck breed called Cherry Valley under franchise from our principals which turned out to be quite a success especially for meat purpose. That stormy river crossing will always remain in my mind when we witnessed the fury of nature and the forces of wind and water making our passage over the Brahmaputra a race for life or death.