An old letter unearthed at a Dooars plantation had once stirred the tee man in Chirinjiv Bedi, and unsheathed a side to him he did not know he had – that of a golf course designer.
That was some three decades ago, but as he regales me with stories from his past – of the time when he was young, both with his professional life and miles of tea bushes ahead of him – I realise it is a story he still remembers fondly.
In between his narration – we are at his fourth floor Kolkata office – Bedi is also getting updates on the phone from his managers at the seven tea gardens that his company owns in Assam.
He is, after all, the current Managing Director of Rossell Tea Ltd and his gardens manufacture quality Assam black and CTC.
The story goes back to 1984, when Bedi was 37 years old. He was then the manager of Rydak tea estate in the Dooars, a region in the Darjeeling foothills that has a totally different terroir from Assam.
Bedi was in his allocated bungalow one evening, rummaging through old files dating back to the mid-1950s. “I wanted to know more about the garden I was managing and its history,” he says.
It was then that he came upon the letter in question. And as it turns out, the contents puzzled him a great deal. It also left quite an impression.
“The letter was from the board of directors to an earlier manager, one Dougie McAll, and they were congratulating him on ‘finishing losing finalist to the eventual winner of the All India Amateur Open’,” Bedi recalls.
“I remember the words too. They said they watched him play with pride despite his loss and offered him and his family a special trip to the UK.”
Bedi, a keen golfer himself, says he began pondering over what the letter, written sometime in 1957-58, said.
“I started thinking, this Douglas McAll must have been practising somewhere, he was in the final leg of an all-India tournament… but where did he practise?”
It was a question not without merit. At the time he found the letter, in 1984, he “rarely got a chance to play golf”, as the nearest course was 120 km away at Binaguri, even now a tier-3 town at best.
Another 30 years prior to that, or 60 years before I visited Bedi to hear the story, it is unlikely Binaguri had a big enough population to require a golf course.
Plus, the Rydak tea estate was at a remote location – on the edge of a tiger reserve, with newspapers often delivered once a week; reading back issues was not uncommon.
A trip to Binaguri across a dry riverbed could mean meeting a river in full spate on the journey back during the rains.
“We were cut off by three rain-fed rivers,” Bedi explains.
So, he concluded, there was only place where McAll could have practised daily – at Rydak itself.
What puzzled him was that the plantation had no putting green.
Bedi got in touch with retired workers with one question – where did McAll saab play with a ball and a stick? – using the colloquial term for “sahib”, meaning Englishman.
“They did not understand what a ‘golf club’ was, so I had to say the Hindi word for stick’…laathi,”
Bedi recounts with a laugh, the vision of an Englishman putting with a wooden stick amusing him no end.
Old-timers showed Bedi an area on the edge of the plantation; “it was sandy, with shingles four-five inches deep…effectively not suitable for growing tea due to the nature of the soil”.
If McCall could practise his golf swings, so could he, Bedi thought to himself. And while at it, why not go the whole hog, and plan a golfing green?
“It was a very scenic place… there were streams by the plantation, with the Bhutan hills in front on two sides…a lovely spot for a golf course,” says Bedi, who these days plays the game at the 120-year-old Tollygunge Club in Kolkata.
The land earmarked had a “natural playing surface” too; though the Assam crab grass found in the Dooars dried in the winter, it was just right for playing in the monsoons.
“It (the setting) was a boon for me,” Bedi tells me.
With his idea firmly entrenched in mind, the next step was to hire a professional surveyor to get the lay of the land.
The Dooars gets a lot of rainfall during the monsoons, from June to October. This meant the patch also saw grass growing up to two-three inches in length, “ideal for golfing in the rains”.
The surveyor explained the slopes, the distances, and the soil conditions. In fact, the survey map hung at the entrance of the Rydak estate office for many years, giving the visitor a sketch of the topography of the plantation.
Planning the course proper was Bedi’s job, and he went about it on “gut feel”.
It took him about a year to lay out the greens. Initially, he started out with “the browns” – the patch chosen had no grass. The green top came later, with finely-mowed Assam crab grass being used.
Sand was also “retrieved from the rivers and sieved to the right size” to lay bunkers. A river at the edge of the course meant a miss-hit could result in a lost ball. In fact, Bedi reminisces, “a lot of people lost golf balls”.
“When I moved to Rydak, nobody played golf,” he says. “The whole purpose of the exercise was to create a playing surface where I could encourage colleagues to play.”
And when he asks me to “imagine laying a golf course in the middle of a jungle”, his satisfaction over a job well done is obvious.
Dooars is a “tea-growing country with five golf courses”, though none close enough for Bedi. There were lots of golfers too in the scattered tea gardens.
“In 1986, I decided to hold my own tournament at Rydak,” he says. “We decided to call it the Corner Cup” – the name being a nod to the location of Dooars, and because they “were so cut of”.
His golfing friends decided to support the Corner Cup, and in the first year, 34 golfers turned up when the invitations were sent, some even travelling over a 100 km to spend a day golfing at Rydak’s fledgling course.
In the next three years, it was held twice a year. The Corner Cup was played through the years Bedi, Gulu to his friends, was at Rydak; he was transferred to the company’s Kolkata office in 1993.
“As far as I know, it was played for at least seven-eight years after I left,” he says. “I am grateful to my friends.”
To Gulu Bedi, it was not the “rating” the course received that matters to him. “The appreciation of my effort to create something means more to me,” he says.