Unforgettable trip to Loobacherra
Pradip Kumar Dutta
Loobacherra is one of the oldest tea gardens within the present Bangladesh territories. The first tea garden put up as a business venture in this land was Malnicherra(near present day Sylhet city) in the year 1849. Commercial production started there in 1857. Malnicherra is the first commercial tea garden established by the British colonisers in the Indian subcontinent. Success of Malnicherra prompted both the British and local businessmen to go for this new avenue of earning. Full support of the colonial government was readily available. The authorities figured that otherwise useless hilly area could bustle with economic activity. Easy land lease terms and support of the government to import almost bonded labourers from far flung areas like Orissa,Andhra,Chattishgarh,Jharkhand,etc. made tea production a viable and profitable concern. Many companies and individual business ventures sprang up in a short time. Tea gardens started being set up in the Surma valley and Brahmaputra(Barak) valley of Assam. Some gardens came up in Chittagong and Tripura areas too. Daejeeling,Dooars and Nilgiris followed suit. Panchagarh area tea gardens,adjacent to Dooars are relatively new ventures in Bangladesh. W W Hunter's almanac, namely "A Statistical Account of Assam",published in 1879 states that Loobacherra Tea garden was established in 1874 by Steel Mcintosh& Company. That makes it one of the oldest gardens in Bangladesh as well as the Indian subcontinent. Later on,it was acquired by Octavious Steel Ltd,a British sister concern of Duncan brothers. Octavious Steel was a tea giant in those days and their business in Bangladesh has been taken over by Duncan Brothers later. Duncan Brothers is still a big name in Bangladesh tea.Besides tea,they have interest in several other segments of Bangladesh business. From Octavious,the Loobacherra tea estate came to the fold of a Scottish family. Lets elaborate how.
We are embarking on the story of a Scottish family that was involved in different wars during different generations. Mr Donald Ferguson fought for the crown in the first World War. His son,James Arthur Ferguson fought in the second world war and ended up fighting in the Burma front. After the war,he settled for a quiet life close to where he fought and decided to make a career in the growing Tea industry. His daughter June Ferguson followed the path shown by her father and became the first lady tea planter in the subcontinent. The family got so involved and obsessed with the trade and the sombre life in the gardens that James Arthur Ferguson spent the total savings from him army pensions to purchase Loobacherra tea garden from Octavious and his daughter started running the estate. There in the gardens she spent the rest of her life together with her family, the assorted garden workers and the deshowali attendants who worked for the family in their bungalow. Her love for the place was abundant. Her mortal remains stayed back here and she was buried in the small graveyard close to the owner's bungalow on the same hilltop.Her father,James Arther Ferguson also lie buried at the same place.She had eight children,equal number of boys and girls. Of them,one daughter has expired and the rest are still in action. Her able son James Leo Ferguson is the present backbone of the family. He is known as Leo Ferguson Nanka. One might wonder,wherefrom Nanka has become part of the name of a Scotish origin gentleman. Wasn’t Ferguson good enough as a Scotish surname? Well,while he was an infant,the deshowali nanny and attendants who looked after Leo from his cradle days fondly called him Nanka.In their language it means a loving infant/child. Mr Nanka fought for the Liberation of Bangladesh as a Freedom Fighter. He played his role in liberating his Mother's adopted land from the exploitation of the Pakistani authorities. This proud FF continued with the legacy of his forefathers. They proved themselves to be family of warriors. Loobacherra garden,being a part of Bangladesh under the occupation army of Pakistan in 1971,was attacked by the Muktibahini. The Pakistani forces on the border posts(very close to the owner's bungalow and factories) were attacked by the FFs of sector 4 and were routed. The factory building and other establishments suffered heavy damage. June Ferguson was in charge of the garden at that time. Despite suffering such losses,she realised the situation and encouraged her young son Leo Ferguson Nanka to join the Freedom Fighters of Sector 4 under the command of Major General Chitta Ranjan Dutta. Gen Dutta was a Major of Pak army who defected and joined the Liberation Army to free his Motherland. Proud FF Leo Nanka was the only Scottish who fought in the fronts during Bangladesh Liberation War. Many of his garden workers like from many other gardens were also in the ranks of Muktibahini. After the victorious James Leo Ferguson returned to Loobacherra after the defeat and unconditional surrender of the Pak army at Dhaka, June Ferguson immediately went into action to rebuild the property under Bangladesh government plans of restoring the tea gardens of the country from the destruction they suffered during the war. Meantime James Leo Feguson,a victorious proud freedom fighter slowly got involved in politics of the newly emerged country. Their family was the wealthiest family of the region and was highly respected by the local people. Because of his Muktibahini background James Leo Nanka was in high esteem of the local population. Sitting in the majestic thatched bungalow he combined learning the art of running a tea garden,education and local politics. The blending turned out to be exceptional. Gradually he saw himself in the driving seat of local politics and became the Chaiman of Lakhsmiprasad Union of Kanaighat. He held that public office for long seventeen years. Simultaneously he started helping his Mom with running the idyllic Loobacherra Tea Estate and finally took the full responsibility of the property after his mother's demise in 1983. He is widely known as Nanka Saheb in Kanaigjat,Sylhet and the Tea circle of Bangladesh. His other siblings also grew up in the historical bungalow which is standing there since 1876. For sure,you will not find a second example of such a huge structure maintained and looking like a 200 year old picturesque structure with all modern facilities. It has to go through minor touch ups almost every year. The very look of the bungalow is gracious and magnificent.
Mr Nanka's sisters got married and brothers did not take much interest in running the garden. The next generation was still in their childhood when James Leo had to go to England for family reasons. As he had reasons to stay in England for long,he decided to rent his garden out to a reputed business group. The arrangement looked fine initially. It went on for more than ten years when Mr Nanka had enough reasons to revoke the lease agreement. He felt that he was not being treated fairly. It was not easy to get the Estate back. He had to enter into legal battle with the lease holder. Given his family aristocracy,popularity and acquaintances, his mighty rival could not overcome his strength of genuine documents. The family got back their property and is running it now without any hindrance. Though the litigation is still not over, Mr Nanka,assisted by his well groomed and educated nephews are now in full control again.
When I came to know about this garden,a desire immediately crept into my heart that I will visit it whenever the first chance appears. Three main reasons prompted me. The Scottish family, the thatched bungalow and possibly the first hanging bridge which one has to cross to enter the estate. It was put up in 1925 even before the British Assam government could build the Keane bridge over Surma in Sylhet city and the one over Umngot river in Dawki.
Recently we made up a plan to accomplish my dream project. Myself,my spouse Dr Anjana,our family friend Niresh Chandra Das(a retired high ranking banker) and his wife Papiya teamed up with Dr Rama Bijoy Sarkar,the presemt Chairman of Sylhet Education Board to embark on the journey. The Secretary of BISE Sylhet also joined us. Through a high ranking executive of his office,Dr Sarkar contacted the Loobacherra garden owners and they readily gave their kind consent.Though it is not a traditional commercial tourist spot,it has enough to attract any seasoned tourist.Away from the hustle and bustle of modern day to day life,its a piece of heaven lying between hillocks and valleys. The Khasia-Jaintia hills of Indian Meghalays are just at a stones throw distance bordering the garden. Cute and short Luva river originates in those hills,crosses the border into Bangladesh territory, passes by the Luvachhora(as pronounced by locals) tea gardens and empties itself into river Surma at a 45 minute engine boat journey away from the Loobacherra garden ghat. In rainy season and some time after the rains Luva is navigable and the easiest way to reach the gardens is this waterway route. Since its dry season now,we had to negotiate a very rugged unpaved under construction road way to reach the garden area and a couple of kilometers stretch inside the estate which of course can not be called a smooth drive.
Mr Nanka is presently on holidays with his wife and children in London. He was ably substituted by his nephew Mr Yusuf Osman,a smart and accomplished young man running the show. Mr Yusuf welcomed our entourage,showed us around the bungalow,strolled with us in the garden and orchard surrounding the bungalow,took us to the family graveyard which is a part of history and satisfied our countless queries.From the front yard we could see the hills of Meghalaya clearly and the beautiful Luva stream with scanty dry season flow of clear water flowing at a distance. They maintain several dogs of different breed who guard the garden territories. Mr Nanka still maintains an elephant in the garden. There are a few horses as well. Mr Yusuf entertained us with delicious and plentiful snacks,fruits and tea of course. He showed us precious family photographs and antiquities treasured in the bungalow. It w had been an enriching experience.
Last but not the least,I should mention here that while entering the garden,we came in sight of the hanging steel wire rope suspension bridge still standing in tact and giving service since 1925. Our cars could pass this almost century old bridge cautiously but without any problem.
Our experience of this short trip to such an exquisitely preserved beautiful place with old day charm and with a scenic background will be cherished for long by all my co travellers.
While bidding us farewell,Mr Yusuf invited us to visit them again.We thanked him profusely and parted for the day.